Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Latest update to the Fingertips Top 10

Time to check back in with the Fingertips Top 10, that shape-shifting, ear-bending list of pure free and legal MP3 goodness. Since the last post here on June 4, the chart has changed quite a bit, and now aligns as follows (songs that have been added since early June are marked with an asterisk):

1. "Albert" - Ed Laurie*
2. "I Lost the Monkey" - the Wedding Present*
3. "Animé Eyes" - the Awkward Stage
4. "My Mistakes Were Made For You" - the Last Shadow Puppets*
5. "Spirit of '95" - Murdocks*
6. "Say Yes" - Afternoons*
7. "Yer Motion" - Reeve Oliver
8. "Boarded Doors" - the Morning Benders
9. "Black Lungs" - the New Frontiers
10. "Was I On Your Mind" - Jessie Baylin*

Ed Laurie's haunting song "Albert" came to the chart this week, just as the previous number-one song, "Right Away" by Pattern is Movement, had reached its three-month anniversary and had to be retired. It's not often that a song enters at number one, but timing, as they say, is everything. Songs can shift around a bit as the weeks go by, depending upon three things: which songs have to leave, which new songs arrive, and how songs grow on me over time. "I Lost the Monkey" is a good example of a song that just keeps sounding better and better to me; it might have moved up from number four to number one this week had not the compelling Mr. Laurie appeared.

For those relatively new to Fingertips, note that the Top 10 list is my way of putting a little bit of extra attention on ten particularly wonderful songs at any given time. It's important to remember, however, that Fingertips only features carefully filtered music to begin with, so you can't go wrong with any of the MP3s featured here.

Songs remain in the Top 10 for a maximum of three months, before they are retired to the Retired Top 10 Songs page, of all places.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from Ed Laurie (Leonard Cohen meets Jacques Brel, with Spanish guitar)

"Albert" - Ed Laurie

     Wow. Warm and wondrous neo-folk from a young British singer/songwriter. Listen to the stirring tension in the verse--the song is quiet, but with a restless heartbeat--and then how it resolves in that gorgeous chorus with its shy, unexpected melody. Oh my. For me, this is goosebump material, and I don't say that lightly, or very often.
     Although he is basically a guy with a guitar, Laurie does not sound like a typical singer/songwriter, both because of his husky baritone, with its air of bygone days about it, and because the guitar he plays is nylon-stringed, like a flamenco guitar, which he plays with a gentle but urgent flow, full of intimations of far-away times and cultures. He plays, also, with an ear for his accompaniment, which is a quiet and knowing mix of acoustic instruments, including a clarinet, which in particular feels both unexpected and ideal.
     Laurie claims influences from a variety of musical traditions--born in London, he has extended family in Eastern Europe, Germany, Spain, and Brazil, and grew up listening to classical music. His press material offers comparisons to the likes of Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, and Jacques Brel, which sounds about right to me. "Albert" is from Laurie's debut EP, Meanwhile in the Park, which was previously released on iTunes only and is slated for a full U.S. release on Dangerbird Records in October. Laurie is currently working on his first full-length album, to be called Small Boat Big Sea.

Free and legal MP3 from Shannon McArdle (hypnotic, Phair-esque post-divorce pain)

"Poison My Cup" - Shannon McArdle
     Creating a world of hurt and yearning out of a repetitive two-chord riff isn't probably the easiest thing to do, but Shannon McArdle appears to have a lot of hurt to spare."Poison My Cup" not only succeeds, but when it ends, I'm not ready. The evocative vocals, sounding like a prettier-voiced Liz Phair ('90s version); the strong yet insouciant bass line; the oddly uncelebratory tambourine; the steady, intermittently forceful drumbeat--together they create a brisk, hypnotic dirge of a song, complete with mournful wailing at just the right moments. I could listen to this just about all day.
     The backstory of the hurt: McArdle joined the band the Mendoza Line in 2000, and married bandmate Timothy Bracy in 2005. Both the band and the couple both broke up within the last year; the mini-album 30 Year Low, released last August, was a searing document of the divorce.
     "Poison My Cup" suggests that McArdle is still processing the painful events of the past year or so, as does the title of the album on which you'll find the song--Summer of the Whore, which is scheduled for release next month on Bar/None Records. MP3 via Bar/None.

Free and legal MP3 from the Very Most (breezy, summery indie pop)

"Good Fight Fighting" - the Very Most
     This breezy slice of summery indie pop might've glided by my ears without quite sticking were it not for the subtle but significant fork in the road the song takes during its final third: at 1:47, the music modulates, the melody turns inside out, and the lead vocal is hijacked by the female backup vocalist, Rachel Jensen. Rachel is the sister of Jeremy Jensen, the Very Most's front man, and she used to be in the band herself before she left Boise. The Very Most is based in Boise, a fact the band itself finds a bit unlikely, so imagine how the rest of us feel. (Rachel moved to the decidedly more indie-rock-like town of Portland, Oregon, where she now can be found in the band the Parenthetical Girls.)
     But I digress. The point is that Rachel, taking over at 1:47, not only holds her own, but converts the entire song into a winner, especially in retrospect. Try it for yourself: once you see where the song ends up, you'll enjoy the opening half all the more. (Don't miss the way Rachel's melody veers from the previous melody of the verse, and be sure to note the whistling that accompanies her: that's the original melody.) All this is to take nothing whatever away from the three regulars in the band (who create just the right jingly ambiance), and most of all Jeremy Jensen, who is a delightful singer in his own right, spending time here demonstrating how much alike Brian Wilson and Stuart Murdoch (Belle and Sebastian) sound after all. And it is J. Jensen's inventive pop sensibility that presides over the whole, increasingly wonderful concoction: on top of all the nicely conceived production touches (the album claims to feature some 33 different instruments/sound sources), it was Jeremy, I assume, who knew enough to have Rachel step in exactly when and how she did in the first place.
     "Good Fight Fighting" is a song off the band's second CD, Congratulations Forever, which was self-released in April. MP3 courtesy of the band.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Last chance to enter Strummer contest

There's still a little time left to enter the Joe Strummer contest--deadline for entry is this Thursday, July 24. Three winners will each get two related prizes: a copy of the movie The Future Is Unwritten on DVD, and a copy of the movie's soundtrack on CD. The Future Is Unwritten is a documentary about the life of the late, lamented Joe Strummer, released on DVD earlier this month.

Free and legal MP3 from Liz Durrett (engaging, inscrutable, vaguely Fleetwood Macky)

"Wild as Them" - Liz Durrett
     Liz Durrett returns to Fingertips with an immediately engaging, slightly off-kilter piece of gently chugging pop, like some lost Fleetwood Mac hit funneled through the Twilight Zone. The lyrics are elusive and strange--"I look for your bones in the woods" is surely one of the more arresting opening lines of recent days (although she may be saying "words"; and it's still odd). The music is comforting melodically--rolling along without a chorus, featuring a blues-like repetition of each opening refrain--but a touch unhinged instrumentally: guitars squeak, horns gather in increasing multitudes, and some other sounds I can't quite put my finger on fill in along the way.
     Accentuating the F-Mac-ishness is the way Durrett's mellow alto brings Christine McVie to mind, although somewhat imprecisely. McVie sings with a smoky clarity that Durrett avoids; her voice, although doubletracked, is mixed down a bit. We know she's singing but the words often elude recognition, adding to the tune's inscrutable aura.
     "Wild as Them" is a song from Durrett's forthcoming CD, Outside the Gates. The Athens, Ga.-based singer/songwriter has enlisted a spirited crew of fellow Athenians to help out on the record, including members of Olivia Tremor Control, Tin Cup Prophette, and Elf Power, along with Vic Chestnutt, who happens to be Durrett's uncle. Eric Bachmann (Crooked Fingers, Archers of Loaf) produced and arranged the album, scheduled for release in September on Warm Electronic Recordings (based in Athens too, of course).

Free and legal MP3 from Shugo Tokumaru (Japanese indie pop with nostalgic flair)

"Parachute" - Shugo Tokumaru
     Acrobatic, lighthearted Japanese indie pop with, somehow, the breezy flair of a European art film from the '60s. I don't think any of this is in English except for the title word, which comes across, rather charmingly, as "pra-shoo." And by saying "Japanese indie pop" I really only mean that Tokumaru is from Japan--the music itself exists in a wonderful sort of trans-cultural, trans-spatial limbo that mixes influences and ambiances in that web-fed, 21st-century way that ends up sounding as new as it does familiar, and as familiar as it does new.
     While exhibiting an almost Leo Kottke-like dexterity with the acoustic guitar, Tokumaru possesses a decidedly un-Kottke-like voice: it's an airy, wide-ranging tenor that is nicely suited to the breezy, nostalgic melody. (For those who don't know, Leo Kottke is a guitar virtuoso who once, famously, described his singing voice as "geese farts on a foggy day." Born in Athens, Georgia.) The tinkly, persistent xylophone adds to the vigorous yet delicate landscape.
     "Parachute" is the opening track on Tokumaru's Exit CD, which was released in Japan last year, and is slated for a U.S. release in September on Almost Gold Records. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3 from Francis and the Lights (minimalist, postmodern funk, with mysterious depth)

"Night Watchman" - Francis and the Lights
     They've done it again: Brooklyn's Francis and the Lights have woven enigmatic magic with the barest threads of their minimalist, postmodern funk. The melody is slower this time, but the beat remains the same, sustained by fidgety electronics, fat bass lines, and wonderfully controlled drumming. For this new single, front man Francis Farewell Starlite leaves behind the Prince-like falsetto in favor of his throaty, emotive lower register, once again singing a song that eschews a sense of recognizable structure. Just when you think you're getting your arms around what's going on, the thing ends, on a dime. After many listens, I find that I still can't explain exactly what's happening here. This strikes me as an appealing thing.
     By the way, if you don't tend to listen to the weekly picks here as a mini mixtape, one after the other, I suggest trying it this week. It's a spiffy set.
     Known for their stirring live performances, Francis and the Lights keep an intriguingly low web profile, although now at least we are offered up a straightforward picture of (I'm assuming) Francis himself. "Night Watchman" is available on the band's site, and will be on a CD entitled A Modern Promise, to be released at some unspecified time in the, perhaps, near future. The record label, Normative, appears to be the band's own imprint, and as such has an equally minimalist web site. MP3 via the band.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Strummer Contest still active

The Fingertips Contest remains open for entry. Three winners this time will each get two related prizes: a copy of the movie The Future Is Unwritten on DVD, and a copy of the movie's soundtrack on CD. The Future Is Unwritten is a documentary about the life of the late, lamented Joe Strummer, released last week on DVD. Deadline is Thursday, July 24; contest details here.

Free and legal MP3 from Ancient Free Gardeners (distinctive, meandering yet meticulous rock from Australia)

"Innards Out" - Ancient Free Gardeners
     I'm attracted to the meandering feeling of this song--the way it starts as if already in the middle (note: no introduction), and unfolds in an off-kilter way--because underneath I sense a meticulous purpose and drive. Vague and precise is a compelling juxtaposition. Because of the mysterious lyrical phrases, the desultory guitar lines, the stops and starts, and the oddball chords, I'm picking up something of a Steely Dan-ish vibe, by way of the Blue Nile; nothing, in any case, seems to be happening by accident. And when the song finally delivers us to an unabashed--if still eccentric--chorus, I feel as if some sort of salvation is at hand. And yet listen to how the song pulls away from an uncomplicated resolution: when front man James Milsom sings the words "the spider and the fly," by rights the word "fly" would come accompanied with a clear, satisfying, resolving chord. No such luck, however--we are taken to the brink and then everything scoots out the side door: Milsom dismembers the last line "We are both of these, you and I," dragging out the word "are," then offering the last two phrases as a kind of quizzical afterthought.
     And when the song is over, it ends. This is entirely refreshing.
     Ancient Free Gardeners are a quartet from Melbourne that has only been up and running since 2006. They released their debut EP last year and have put out two singles since; "Innards Out" is the latest, released in May. A full-length CD is expected later this year. All their songs, by the way, are available as free and legal downloads on their web site, including this one.

Free and legal MP3 from Haley Bonar (insistent, bittersweet, textured singer/songwriter pop)

"Big Star" - Haley Bonar
     Rock'n'roll history is littered with singers dreaming of hitting the big time. That fame is in fact a double-edged sword is not something people usually apprehend until after they've been there (and then it's kind of too late). Here, however, is a song that captures, in anticipation, the bittersweet repercussions of "big stardom," both lyrically and--more memorably, to me--musically. My ears are struck throughout by an insistent sense of yearning, thanks to the major-minor chord shifts, the terrific and evocative instrumentation, and something achy and knowing in Bonar's clear, sad-eyed voice.
     Pay attention to what's going on in the background throughout the song. Electric and acoustic guitars, backing vocals, and Bonar's mellotron are woven together with a complex and rather dazzling deftness, and yet remain subtle enough that often you have to think to hear them. The ridiculously experienced Tchad Blake (Elvis Costello, Pearl Jam, Peter Gabriel, Crowded House, et al) is credited at the mixing board here, and no doubt he had something to do with the mysterious yet vivid texture that transforms this from a simple singer/songwriter tune into something deeper and richer.
     Born in South Dakota, Bonar is based in Minneapolis. "Big Star" is the title track to her third CD, which was released in May on Afternoon Records. MP3 via the Afternoon web site.

Free and legal MP3 from Dead Heart Bloom (indie rockers who love their Bowie and Mott)

"Our Last Martyr" - Dead Heart Bloom
     Brisk, friendly, and slightly quirky, "Our Last Martyr" rocks with an unapologetic reverence for classic rock of the early-to-mid-'70s British variety (think Lennon, think Bowie, think Hunter). Front man Boris Skalsky sings, alternately, with an intimate, oddly-accented purr (the verse) and a rousing Ziggy-ish flair (the chorus). Note how the verse is sung with the rhythm section only--just bass and percussion providing an itchy aural skeleton for Skalsky's distinctive baritone. For that sing-along chorus, the full band kicks in, driven by the ear-catching interplay between a crisp acoustic rhythm guitar front and center and a soaring synth line up on top. The second half of the song is something of a jam session, as guitarist Paul Wood stretches out a bit on electric lead before we're swept away by a chorus of almost hypnotic "oo-oo-oo" vocals from Skalsky, who can hit the high notes too.
     The core of NYC-based Dead Heart Bloom is singer/multi-instrumentalist Skalsky and guitarist Wood; other musicians play when the band performs lives. "Our Last Martyr" is one of five songs on the new Fall In EP, one of a series of EPs scheduled for release this year on the band's KEI Records label. The band has previously put out two full-length CDs. All songs are available on the band's web site as free and legal MP3s. Dead Heart Bloom was previously featured on Fingertips in Feb. '06, and also on the Fingertips: Unwebbed CD, when the band was still more of a solo project for Skalsky.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from Still Corners (chimey, dreamy, well-constructed goodness)

"History of Love" - Still Corners
     Swaying, reverb-laced, and nostalgic in a Julee Cruise/David Lynch sort of way, "History of Love" swirls with a big, chimey dreaminess enhanced by strings (both plucked and bowed) and a soaring organ that all but launches this one into some old-fashioned, Jetsons-like version of outer space.
     So, dream pop, yes. But while indie bands aiming in this direction too frequently slide into a murky mush of echo--droning guitars and mixed-down vocals working together to diminish the sense that we are in fact listening to a song--the unsigned British duo Still Corners will have none of that. They get the idea that being atmospheric does not require muddiness. I like how they continually ground their reverberant vibe in concrete sonic reality, whether it's those plucky strings, the nicely articulated bass, the cymbally drum work, or vocalist Olivia's breathy, echoey, but distinctly colored singing. Note, too, the care and idiosyncrasy displayed by the song itself--in particular, how we get that crazy-swirly blast of dreamy yearning, without lyrics, in place of an actual chorus.
     London-based Still Corners have so far released one evocatively designed six-song EP, entitled Remember Pepper?. That's where you'll find "History of Love." MP3 via and the band.

Free and legal MP3 from Murdocks (edgy power pop)

"Spirit of '95" - Murdocks
     Sunny power pop crossed with something trickier and edgier. I hesitate, however, to use the "punk pop" (or is it "pop punk"?) label, because to me that implies something (sorry to say) dumber and less nuanced that this little two-minute gem. Not that many punk pop bands write in 3/4 time, to begin with. This is no waltz, however--these guys have figured out how to make three-beated measures sound assertive and symmetrical. Punchy verses with an ascending tail alternate with an almost lilting chorus...and that's more or less the song. The lyrics basically stop less than halfway through; the song has such intriguing momentum one barely notices.
     A lot of "Spirit of '95"'s edginess is delivered via singer/guitarist Franklin Morris's no holds barred singing--he sounds perpetually on the verge of screaming, and yet comes across as warm and musical at the same time. Some of that feeling is generated specifically from the chorus, with its attractive, downward-trending, octave-spanning melody. I like by the way how he then uses a guitar break to give us a nice variation of the same line. That'll really get it stuck in your head.
     Murdocks are a trio from Austin that have been playing since 2003, although no longer with their original drummer or bass player. "Spirit of '95" is from the band's Roar! EP, which was released in April on Surprise Truck Entertainment.

Free and legal MP3 from Mark Northfield (alt-classical 'pop' from British pianist/composer)

"Zero" - Mark Northfield
     And now for something completely different. Mark Northfield is a British pianist, composer, arranger, and sometime singer who has here taken his classical training and focused it on the production of something almost but not quite resembling a pop song. Beginning quietly, with voice and piano, "Zero" adds guitar, strings, and, eventually, a choir-like array of backing vocals; the piece evolves gently but determinedly towards two climaxes, the first string-driven, contained, and unresolved (roughly 3:08 through 3:25), the second louder, more fervent, and choral (beginning around 5:06).
     Pay attention throughout to the string arrangements, which are expressive but never pushy; the song is half over before he puts the strings center stage, and some of the nicest work comes after their "solo," when the violins, with restraint, offer high fills between lyrical phrases.
     "Zero" is a song from the CD Ascendant, which Northfield released on his own Substantive Recordings label earlier this year. On eight of the songs, Northfield doesn't sing himself, employing an assortment of guest vocalists, but on "Zero," it's him. An important aspect of the CD is that the nine songs are presented in an uninterrupted flow--as Northfield notes on his web site, the album is "designed to be heard (in a shuffle-free world) from start to finish, with introductions to each track lifting re-arranged fragments from elsewhere on the album to create a more or less continuous soundtrack." And yet Northfield is of course not unaware of how most people listen to their music in the 21st century; he is kind enough to offer seven of the songs in so-called "chopped" mode on his web site, including "Zero." Thanks to Owen Duff, himself a Fingertips-featured artist, for the head's up.

Monday, July 07, 2008

New Fingertips Contest: win the Joe Strummer documentary, plus soundtrack

There's a new Fingertips Contest, now online, with two related prizes: a copy of the movie The Future Is Unwritten on DVD, and a copy of the movie's soundtrack on CD. The Future Is Unwritten is a documentary about the life of the late, lamented Joe Strummer, due out on DVD this week. Contest details here.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Tough and crunchy free and legal MP3 from Amy Ray (Indigo Girl, gone solo, kicks ass)

"Blame is a Killer" - Amy Ray
     Tough, tight, crunchy rock'n'roll from Indigo Girl Amy Ray, who for the third time now trots out her kick-ass side on a solo record. Nothing complicated to report on, just a fast, slashing guitar attack counterbalanced by some nice chords and background harmonies in the chorus.
     That said, listen to how concise a sound Ray is working with here--the song rocks hard, but there's no sloppiness, no stray sounds, no wailing or echoing guitars, no extraneous drum bashing, no casually interacting instruments; "Blame is a Killer" drives forward with the compressed vitality of a Strokes song, leading me to half expect to hear Ray's voice processed through some sort of filter or distortion. Maybe that's why the fully sung and harmonized chorus feels especially refreshing after the clipped vocal phrases utilized in the verses.
     "Blame is a Killer" is a track from Didn't It Feel Kinder, Ray's third album as a solo artist, which will be released in August on Daemon Records, a not-for-profit record label founded by Ray back in 1990.

Laura Marling has a free and legal MP3 (18-year-old British singer/songwriter, with depth)

"I'm a Fly" - Laura Marling
     Here's one young British import who a) doesn't sing with an affected "street" accent, b) understands the utility of two names, and c) is interested in more than regaling us with tales of her dysfunctional love life, thank goodness.
     Everything about this short, precise song is warm and appealing, from its harp-like, folk-infused ukelele work through its subtly effective instrumentation and Marling's clear and compelling voice, both musically and lyrically. Listen in particular to how her backing vocals (it sounds sometimes like multi-tracked humming) are used almost as part of the rhythm section, adding a wonderful, organic sort of texture to a song that accomplishes the unusual trick of sounding traditional and post-modern at the same time.
     All of 18 years old at this point, Marling released her debut album, Alas, I Cannot Swim, to much acclaim in the U.K. in February. Astralwerks will be releasing the CD in the U.S. in August. "I'm a Fly" is a newer song, not from the CD; it can be found as a b-side on an EP released in the U.K. in June. MP3 via

Free and legal MP3 from Paper Rival (Shins-ish folk rock, w/ fiddle)

"Cassandra" - Paper Rival
     The mournful fiddle melody and the crisp tom-tom beat, playing through alternating major and minor chords: what we have here is one smart and engaging introduction--and (better luck!), a song that lives up to its intro's promise.
     A mysterious reimagination of the cursed prophet of doom, "Cassandra" chugs along with a bittersweet, Shins-like sort of vibrancy, its leisurely melody lines unfolding against an unobtrusive but carefully constructed percussive backdrop. The fiddle is central to the vibe, its disconsolate strain standing in for the prophet's voice, in a tone reminiscent of the gypsy violin Scarlet Rivera brought, memorably, to Bob Dylan's Desire album back in the day.
     Paper Rival is a quintet from Nashville that did business as Keating until discovering that another band had the rights to the name; they chose their new name as a good-natured nose-thumbing to the gang that got to the Keating name first. "Cassandra" can be found on the band's debut full-length CD, Dialog, released in early June on Photo Finish Records. MP3 via Insound.