Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from the Blue Eyed Blacks (fuzzed up power pop)

The Fingertips Home Office remains in semi-shutdown mode this week, but here are three new picks with somewhat abbreviated reviews. The next batch of MP3s, to be posted on or around Tuesday, September 2, will ramble a bit more, in the usual fashion.

"The Wrong Thing" - Blue Eyed Blacks
     A sprightly piece of neatly crafted power pop, fuzzed up by some 21st-century effects. Front man Jason Moon Wilkins has an amiably droopy sort of voice and a keen knack for hooks. The way he breaks the chorus up by repeating the word "always"? Ending one musical phrase with the word, then beginning the next musical phrase with the same word? Love that.
     The Blue Eyed Blacks are a trio from Nashville not shy about utilizing the talents of their peers on the always active local music scene; Justin Townes Earle and Garrison Starr are among the many guests who sat in on the band's debut album, Black Eyed Soul, which is due for release in October on Chicken Ranch Records.

Free and legal MP3 from Ghostkeeper (stompy, old-fashioned, and a little strange)

"Three More Springs" - Ghostkeeper
     Stompy, greasy, old-fashioned, and a little bit strange. Ghostkeeper is a band from the remote reaches of northern Alberta; leader Shane Ghostkeeper (apparently his real name) is a self-taught musician who grew up listening to Hank Williams, CCR, the Stones, Robert Johnson, and maybe not that much else. With Ghostkeeper co-founder Sarah Houle (a self-taught drummer), he has figured out how to channel his influences together and emerge with something that is no mere nostalgia trip. "My whole idea is just to explore how I can contribute to the evolution of old-time intentions," he has been quoted as saying.
     "Three More Springs" is from the band's debut CD, Children of the Great Northern Muskeg, released last month on the Calgary-based label Saved By Radio.

Free and legal MP3 from Kuroma (lilting, '70s-inspired psychedelic folk)

"Alexander Martin" - Kuroma
     A little bit Led Zep, a little bit Ray Davies, fed through a breezy, psychedelic filter (don't miss the freak-out instrumental break at 2:09). Kuroma is the performing name of Athens, Ga.-based Hank Sullivant, who was the Whigs' original bass player; he has also played extensively with MGMT. Do listen closely for the bass itself: Sullivant plays his instrument here more subtly and melodically than is typical in a rock setting.
      "Alexander Martin" is from Kuroma's first recording, an EP entitled Paris, which has yet to be formally released.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fingertips takes the week off

Lots of you appear to be doing the same. See you next week.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from Peppertree (French Canadian indie rock, with character and atmosphere)

"Days Black Purple Nights" - Peppertree
     If the Montreal-based quartet Peppertree lacks to date the internet buzz of some of their French Canadian peers, it's not for lack of talent or great songs. "La Cage Appât," featured on Fingertips in 2006, was a number-one song on the Fingertips Top 10 that year; "Days Black Purple Nights" is another idiosyncratic winner--less overtly dramatic, perhaps, than its predecessor, but with a beautiful sense of development and atmosphere.
     The song starts with some sly misdirection. After a short, dreamy guitar line, we're introduced to an insistent organ, alternating between one major and one minor chord, which hammers the song's pulse into our heads. After 15 seconds of that, a lower-register guitar melody, staccato and ascending, glides in and takes over. This will prove to be the musical core of the song. Fifteen seconds later, the organ, without fanfare, disappears, having done its job. When singer Patrick Poirier enters, one minute into the song, the character of the piece has been altered. In an aching tenor that calls Thom Yorke to mind, Poirier sings over a musical clearing of sorts, acoustic guitar and crisp percussion now pushing us along, with the authority lent to it by the non-presence of the pounding organ. And here we feel the full effect of the minor chord the organ had earlier introduced us to: listen at 1:14 or so and experience the sense of loss induced by the march into the minor key. And then: pay attention to how Poirier is joined by singer Marianne Charland, who enters the song subtly--first harmonizing at the end of the un-chorus-like chorus (1:38) and then, more prominently, singing along with the wordless melody that the guitar had played in the intro. After that, she's fully on board, singing prominent harmony lines and, sometimes, countermelodies. I think the 30 seconds in the middle of the song, from 2:00 to 2:30, with Charland most audible, nails everything together here.
     "Days Black Purple Nights" is one of four songs on Peppertree's new EP, A Green Flash From the Sun. All four are available on the band's site as free and legal MP3s.

Free and legal MP3 from Angela Desveaux (Kathleen Edwards meets Jane Siberry?)

"Sure Enough" - Angela Desveaux
     Am I imagining it or does Angela Desveaux here sound like a delightful and rather precise mix between two of my all-time favorite Canadian singer/songwriters, Jane Siberry and Kathleen Edwards? (Yes, Desveaux is Canadian too; it's Canada week, it seems.) I suppose there's a chance my mind is being deceived by its own deep-seated personal preferences, but hey, I'm not arguing with it. This is irresistible stuff, to my ears.
     The music is bright and clear, the tempo upbeat, but Desveaux has something beautifully bittersweet lodged in her vocal tone, which is probably what conjures Siberry here (though Jane fans should be sure too to check out how Desveaux sings the bridge, in a speak-sing-y sort of way, from 2:46 to 3:00). And while we're talking about choruses, listen for those wonderful, down-shifting chords at the outset of the chorus, which accompany each return to the same melodic note (on the first syllable of "even," on "though," and on "know"). Note too the bittersweet metaphysics at play in the lyrics: "Even though I know I'm not sure where I'm going/But I'm going/I'm sure enough to know/It'll stay this way forever/Stay this way for everyone." The title itself in this context is nothing short of a life philosophy: no one can be sure; we can only be sure enough.
     Desveaux was born in Montreal, grew up in the Maritimes, later returning to Montreal, which remains her home base. "Sure Enough" is a song from her second album, The Mighty Ship, slated for a September release on Thrill Jockey Records. (Note that the new album was recorded by Dave Draves, who co-produced Kathleen Edwards' brilliant debut, Failer, with Edwards herself.) MP3 via Thrill Jockey.

Free and legal MP3 from the Weeks (young Southerners with classic chops)

"Buttons" - The Weeks
     This one teeters on an unexpected edge--between swagger and vulnerability--and pulls it off for no fathomable reason. I mean, the Weeks are five guys from Mississippi with an average age of 18; they have no particular business sounding so sure of themselves (without being obnoxious), never mind writing such a well-crafted song, never mind having figured out how to channel the best energy of straight-ahead classic rock'n'roll while sounding like neither a nostalgia trip nor a snore.
     Maybe the key to this song's power lies in how well the chorus works both soft and loud. The first time we hear it (1:22), it comes after a lengthy instrumental crescendo, featuring 20 straight seconds of rat-a-tat drumming, building and building towards...an apparently quiet chorus, with singer Cyle Barnes using the cracked and drowsy side of his vocal style. The chorus is then repeated, much the same way, although now the surging drumbeat returns, and then we get yet two more repetitions, at full volume--Barnes now singing an octave higher and with a barely stifled scream in his delivery. The melody and the words somehow match both moods. And what a melody it is--there's something deep and classic and surprising in it, like a power pop sheep in bar-band wolf's clothing. Barnes attacks it with gusto and pathos each time, those final words--"Take a look at what we had"--sounding more and more heartbreaking as the song unfolds.
     "Buttons" is from the band's debut CD Comeback Cadillac, released in July on the Jackson, Miss.-based label Esperanza Plantation.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from Boxer the Horse (amiable Canadian indie rock, with harmonica)

"Jackson Leftfield" - Boxer the Horse
     Jaunty, nicely textured indie pop from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, of all (beautiful) places. Harmonica, acoustic guitar, synthesizer, and an intermittent electric guitar intermingle with uncanny merriment, while singer/guitarist Jeremy Gaudet exudes an amiable sort of lazy energy, sounding something like Ray Davies fronting a jam band (minus the jamming). This is music that makes you smile, as well as tap your toe.
     The harmonica brings you into the song and immediately makes me wonder: what happened to harmonicas? Outside of an earnest neo-folksinger or two, I don't think I've heard much of this handy little instrument in the 21st century. I always like when it breaks out of its blues-based box. Here I'm reminded of the late great British band the Housemartins, who not only featured a harmonica now and again but even had a song lyric reference ("Played his harmonica 'til his lips were sore," from the song "I Smell Winter").
     "Jackson Leftfield" can be found on Boxer the Horse's debut EP, The Late Show, which was released by the band this spring.

Free and legal MP3 from Gabriel Kahane (rich, tuneful NYC art pop)

"North Adams" - Gabriel Kahane
     In another, better world, sort of like ours but also sort of not, pop songs would frequently sound like this: musical, playful, smart, tuneful, and interesting from beginning to end. Gabriel Kahane is one of a coterie of composer/performers out there--typically (in the U.S.) in New York City--blurring the lines between art and commerce, "high" and "low" art, rock and classical and jazz. He writes, he sings, he orchestrates; he performs with indie rockers and conservatory graduates and opera singers. The music defies facile labeling, but remains personable and easy to listen to, even as it is far richer musically than the unfettered marketplace ever spits up to us on its own.
     Take this snazzy, blazingly intelligent song. There are horns, there are strings, there's piano, there are vocals, tumbling together in continually unexpected ways. It's a road song at heart, and the music has a back-road velocity to it. Early, the strings veer towards traditional chamber music; later, they deconstruct almost bebop-ishly. The horns, meanwhile, start with a hint of baroque but finish with a Latin flair. There are unusual meter shifts to keep our ears open but then also a great hook of a highway-cruising 4/4 chorus. Come to think of it, this is also music that puts a smile on your face, as great music often can for mysterious reasons.
     Known in certain hipster circles for an eight-movement cycle of art songs he wrote using classified ads from Craigslist, verbatim, as lyrics (you can stream them on his home page), Kahane will be releasing his self-titled debut CD in September on his own Wasted Storefront label. MP3 via the artist.

Free and legal MP3 from Dan Black (transmogrified rap, with melody and heart)

"HYPNTZ" - Dan Black
     I know next to nothing about rap and hip-hop; I listen to bits and pieces occasionally but I just don't fathom what's going on--music without melody rarely resonates with me; when compounded by cockeyed wordplay about personally distasteful things, I pretty much check out. So needless to say I had not known of the song "Hypnotize," by the Notorious B.I.G., but it's a rap landmark--a posthumous #1 hit for Biggie, himself an industry legend at this point. He was killed in a drive-by shooting 15 days before the album containing "Hypnotize" (Life After Death) was released. The album is often considered one of the greatest rap albums of all time.
     "HYPNTZ" is a re-conception of Biggie's "Hypnotize" by a Paris-based Londoner named Dan Black and it mesmerizes me. I have no business liking this--beyond its rap foundation, it steals a relatively bland beat from a top-40 song (Rhianna's "Umbrella") and blends in samples from the soundtrack to the movie Starman (quick shout-out to fellow Karen Allen fans). I routinely run the other way from mash-ups and remixes and all that slice-and-dice stuff. And yet to my ears this thing is some weird kind of brilliant. The simple melody Black creates for those harsh, bombastic lyrics, combined with the pathos of the soundtrack sounds and the stark, repetitive beat, generates poignancy and power. A harsh slice of street braggadoccio transmogrifies into a plaintive plea of some kind. Who'd've thought.
     Not much is out there about Black at this point, but his people are working the PR channels, so he's not some entirely unaffiliated knob-twiddler. The storyline from the press release--only semi-believable--is that he had not intended for anyone to hear this. He is busy, we are told, putting together an album of original material. Because so much of "HYPNTZ" is in fact original, however much constructed of existing parts, I'm inclined to think he's got something worth hearing in the works.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Fingertips Q&A: Jonatha Brooke

Just letting you know about a new feature on the main web site: the Fingertips Q&A.

For all the online discussion in recent years about the so-called "future of music," it occurs to me that we rarely if ever hear a lot about what musicians themselves have to say. And I mean work-a-day musicians who are out there seeking a living wage in the middle of the indie jungle. Fingertips would like to correct this problem, via a short, recurring Q&A feature. Here, each time, a real, working, album-making musician will answer five direct questions about the current state of music in the 21st century, and where things may be going.

The first Q&A subject: singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke.