Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from Chris Flew (Glaswegian Americana with a gentle, killer melody)

"R + J" - Chris Flew
     Does the world need another song about Romeo and Juliet? I wouldn't have thought so. (Chris Flew himself probably didn't think so; note the sly non-reference of the title.) And yet when a songwriter hits melodic pay dirt like Flew does with this stripped-down beauty, well, what the heck, one more musical Romeo and Juliet reference can't hurt.
     So maybe I'm a sucker for a simple melody but tell me this one doesn't reach deep inside you also. And it comes at us right at the beginning: "I tried to understand as I touched your hand/What went wrong today?" A couple of ascending lines, describing a third interval, then the descending line that heads one further note down (to the word "wrong"), setting up the four-interval upward leap (from "wrong" to "today"). Simple, but awesome--it tugs at the heart, and sticks in the head. Building upon that rock-solid start, "R + J" proceeds from there with grace and inevitability. While the acoustic guitar strum remains at its core, Flew adds an evocative violin (probably better called a fiddle in this environment) and a distant lap steel guitar. No percussion used, or required. The lyrics may veer occasionally towards the obvious but Flew means well, and that affecting melody keeps returning and reaffirming the song's strength.
     Chris Flew is a Glaswegian singer/songwriter--that is, from Glasgow, Scotland, but don't you like the word Glaswegian? More cities should have singular words for their residents, I say. "R + J" is from Flew's most recent CD Kingston Bridge, self-released in 2006 and scheduled for a re-release this winter. Flew is currently working on a new CD. MP3 via Flew's web site.

Free and legal MP3 from Fulton Lights (scratchy, moody, beat-driven acousto-electronica)

"Sideways Glances and Coded Speech" - Fulton Lights
     Andrew Spencer Goldman, the mastermind behind Fulton Lights, is back with another of his scratchy, moody, loose-limbed, beat-driven compositions. With the feel of something half-programmed and half-improvised, "Sideways Glances and Coded Speech" churns along with eerie personality; for all the echoey electronic noise that acts as the container here, the song is constructed just as notably from organic sounds, including acoustic guitar, upright bass (!), and what sounds to me like actual percussion in actual three-dimensional space. This beguiling sort of acousto-electronica fosters an unearthly vibe, which is neatly augmented by the presence of Goldman's ghostly tenor, singing barely comprehensible but vaguely ominous phrases, floating along on top.
     "Sideways Glances and Coded Speech" is a song from the second Fulton Lights CD, The Way We Ride, which was released earlier this month as a joint venture between Catbird Records and Goldman's own Android Eats Records. The album is available for free download in its entirety via Catbird, although a pay-what-you-will payment is suggested. MP3 via Catbird.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from Pale Young Gentlemen (focused, theatrical indie pop, with strings and vigor)

"The Crook of My Good Arm" - Pale Young Gentlemen
     I love the musical and lyrical drama that Pale Young Gentlemen manage to pack into not even three minutes here. We first hear only a cello, playing a jerky line with what sounds like a mysterious rhythm until we understand that it's actually just accelerating into the right tempo for the song. Kinda fun. A crisp acoustic guitar joins in, and a violin (or maybe a viola? or both?). By the time front man Mike Reisenauer sings those not-your-typical-indie-fare opening lines--"You start to worry 'bout your health/As you reach a certain age"--this song has achieved liftoff (aided by a drum that enters with exquisite timing).
      And it's really only just starting; the rest of the way, "The Crook of My Good Arm" all but explodes with melodic vigor and instrumental dexterity: the strings play rascally melodies and rhythms, a cowbell clangs at precisely the right moments, and Reisenauer, his voice vaguely processed, handles the theatrical rhyme scheme (check out the spiffy A-B-C-C-B pattern in the verse, leading into the titular phrase) with the casual authority of someone who's more interested in telling a story than simply singing. Sounding nothing like rock bands that are typically associated with the word, I'd say that Pale Young Gentlemen (a seven-person outfit that includes by the way three women) possess great swagger. This isn't "Wail on the electric guitar and scream bloody murder" swagger or "Dig my blues riff and my street cred" swagger or even "Be awed by my laptop skills" swagger--it's "We know exactly what we're doing and don't really sound like anyone else" swagger. The best kind, in other words.
     The Gents were previously featured on Fingertips in Nov. 2007. "The Crook of My Good Arm" is a song from the band's second CD, Black Forest (Tra La La), which will be released next month on the Madison, Wis.-based label Science of Sound. MP3 via the band.

Free and legal MP3 from the Bittersweets (well-crafted alt-country, with great vocals)

"Wreck" - the Bittersweets
     Hannah Prater has a voice made to sing the words, "Why'd ya go and wreck this all?": firm but with a little crack to it, at once bright and dusky, hurt and resilient and maybe a little existentially exasperated too. Why'd ya go and wreck this all? She's sad, and disappointed, and pissed off, and her rich tone nicely captures the overlay of emotions independent, even, of what she's saying. Over the Rhine fans should pay particular note; Prater sings with something of Karin Bergquist's idiosyncratic verve, and "Wreck," come to think of it, does have the vibe and polish of one of OTR's smooth, capable rockers.
     And make no mistake: smooth and well-crafted it is, from the gratifying melodies of the verse and the release of the chorus to the precisely played instrumental parts laid down by guitarist and keyboard player Chris Meyers (the group's main songwriter) and drummer Steve Bowman (who has played with Counting Crows, among others). Interesting how the "indie" umbrella by 2008 gathers in everything from buzzy, jarring lo-fi to well-produced, radio-ready numbers such as the Bittersweets play. The irony, as music aficionados know, is that the internet all but overflows with radio-ready songs that few if any terrestrial radio stations are in fact ready to play. Blame deregulation in this case too; and I only wish that were a joke.
     "Wreck" is from the Nashville-based trio's second CD, Goodnight San Francisco, which was released this month on Compass Records. MP3 vis Compass.

Free and legal MP3 from Juana Molina (churning, hypnotic, expansive, ecstatic)

"Un Día" - Juana Molina
     I suggest giving yourself some time and space to take this one in. Being in an altered state might help, although this song, if you open yourself to it, might help you achieve one.
     A long-time Fingertips favorite, Molina returns with a crazy, churning, ecstatic daze of a song. The Argentinian former sitcom star has, as a musician, pioneered an alluring if evasive sort of folktronica, with lots of loops and repetition (check out the Album Bin review of her last album, Son, for a sense of what she's been up to). "Un Día" is some of that, but also something else entirely. Despite how rigorously plotted out and worked over this sort of song construction probably is, Molina here sounds almost nuttily spontaneous and expansive, both musically and vocally. Ecstatic, yes: there seems something nearly spiritual in the air as Molina all but chants--her voice sounds freer, more unrestrained than in the past--against a marvelously textured and continually varying undercurrent of voice, electronics, horns, sounds, and percussion. As usual, for English-speaking listeners, the language adds another element of incomprehensibility, but she appears to be aiming in that direction in any case; one of the lyrics here, translated, reads: "One day I will sing the songs with no lyrics and everyone can imagine for themselves if it's about love, disappointment, banalities or about Plato."
     "Un Día" is the title track from Molina's forthcoming album, her fifth, due out next month on Domino Records. Can't wait to hear the whole thing. MP3 via Stereogum.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from the Rosebuds (ominous groove, easy-going melody, boy-girl vocals)

"Life Like" - the Rosebuds
     The Rosebuds, a Raleigh-based duo, are an elusive band, rather willfully avoiding a defining sound over the course of three CDs released between 2003 and 2007 (they were a trio until last year). As such, I've managed neither to get a strong grip on them musically nor to latch onto one particular song to feature. Until now.
     With an insistent, somewhat ominous groove and easy-going melody, "Life Like" has plenty to recommend it. Such as, for instance, that very juxtaposition: ominous groove and easy-going melody. When pop music succeeds, it often does so through this type of aural paradox, the combining of contradictory elements into a cohesive whole. (A pop song by definition doesn't have a lot of time to work with, so if it's shooting for depth, it has to work with layers within the time frame.) You may not know why a song is sticking, why it's affecting you, and many times it's because of this sort of maneuver. With the Rosebuds, the vocal pairing of Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp is a sort of mirror of the effect: two very different vocal vibes, blending, alternating, and weaving in and around each other. Their work as dual lead vocalists has in fact been the one consistent element to the band's music and it works glowingly well here; I love how Crisp keeps herself at a distance in the verses, harmonizing around the edges, but injects herself into the center of the mix in the chorus.
     "Life Like" is the title track to the Rosebuds' fourth CD, which is scheduled for release next month on Merge Records. MP3 via Merge.

Free and legal MP3 from Okkervil River (great American indie rockers sing, elliptically, about being American indie rockers, over speedy Motown beat)

"Lost Coastlines" - Okkervil River
     One of America's best and most consistent indie bands of the '00s, Okkervil River is on a tear, seemingly incapable of releasing anything but rousing, rigorously engaging rock'n'roll. On the heels of last year's well-regarded CD, The Stage Names, the Austin-based quintet returns with The Stand Ins, which is in fact pretty much the second half of last year's album--not only is the subject matter revisited, but the album covers cleverly connect to one another.
     And so, once again, front man and songwriter Will Sheff is singing about an indie rocker's life on the road, and once again he sidesteps the pitfalls of self-involvement through his engagingly evasive lyrics and his uncanny way with melody and presentation. Snappy and chorus-free, "Lost Coastlines" is built on top of an accelerated Motown groove (think "You Can't Hurry Love"), over which Sheff sings with a rubbery, David Byrne-like quizzicality. At the same time, there's a sense of poignancy in the air, having a lot to do with the interludes sung by Jonatahan Meiburg (at 0:41 and 2:09). Meiburg was in Okkervil River until this past spring, when he left to devote himself full-time to his other band, Shearwater (the parting was amicable). When Meiburg enters, the itchy guitar disappears, leaving his croony baritone to float against bass, percussion, and strings, injecting a dream-like vibe into the chuggy ambiance.
     The Stand Ins was released last week on Jagjaguwar Records. MP3 via Jagjaguwar.

Free and legal MP3 from Emiliana Torrini (Icelandic style-shifter with dub-inflected pop)

"Me and Armini" - Emiliana Torrini
     Iceland's Emiliana Torrini is a musical vagabond of sorts, having wandered over the years through a wide range of sonic settings. Trained in opera as a teenager, Torrini's international debut CD, 1999's Love in the Time of Science, introduced her as a trip-hop diva, with excursions into electronica and synthesizer pop, while her next release, Fisherman's Woman (2005), was all intimate and folk-jazz guitary. In between she gained a bit of fame for singing "Gollum's Song," the end theme for Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, a predictably windswept and string-strewn affair. Her new CD shows off any number of additional styles, as clearly suggested by the dub-inflected title track.
     Despite the reggae beat, "Me and Armini" is appealing, to me, precisely because it's not really a reggae song at all. I'm no purist; I have no issues when musicians borrow sounds and vibes from wherever they find inspiration. In the end, if the song works in the moment as a listening experience, regardless of how it satisfies expectations and musical "rules," then all is well. On "Me and Armini," all is very well indeed. In and around the slinky rhythm and electro-dub effects, Torrini has crafted a cool and affecting song, propelled by a sneaky melody that owes more to plain old rock'n'roll than its sly trappings may lead you to believe. The way the music and the lyrics in the chorus break in different places (the musical line keeps stopping after the phrase "that I'm") is a particular point of pleasure here.
     "Me and Armini" is the title track to an album released last week on Rough Trade Records. MP3 courtesy of the Beggars Group.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from Novillero (Canadian rock with a Britpop flair)

"A Little Tradition" - Novillero
     Smart and sharp, with a Britpop flair, complete with horn charts and marvelous lyrics. And I'm calling the lyrics marvelous based almost entirely on their sound, not their content (although from what I can understand, the content is impressive too). Not many bands work hard enough to get their words so crisply aligned with the music but these five guys from Winnipeg have an enviable knack for songcraft. Check out how precisely everything fits when Rod Slaughter sings "What's wrong with a little tradition?": it's so comfortable it puts a smile on your face--or on my face, at any rate. (And phew, after last week's Mean People's convention in St. Paul, I can use all the smiles I can access.)
     Musically, the song takes a revved-up Motown beat and applies an early Elvis Costello-like sense of effortless melody and knowing restraint. Check out how the chorus gives us that bouncy up and down melody at the outset (0:41-0:45), retreats as if to set up another pass at the same melody (0:46-0:49), and then exactly when it "should" repeat (0:50) it doesn't. This is the kind of thing that draws no attention to itself but adds depth and class to what you're listening to.
     "A Little Tradition" is the title track to Novillero's third full-length CD, which comes out this week on Mint Records. Novillero was previously featured on Fingertips in June '05 for the truly wonderful song "Aptitude."

Free and legal MP3 from the Flying Tourbillon Orchestra (steady, graceful, dark indie pop, but not chamber pop)

"In a Dream" - The Flying Tourbillon Orchestra
     Steady, gracefully dark indie pop from Los Angeles. The verses march, almost claustrophobically, to a carefully articulated pulse; the chorus, without that much different a melody, offers a flowing, minor-key release, as clear-voiced Kellie Noftle joins buzzy-voiced front man Hunter Costeau in a bittersweet, Nancy and Lee sort of way. Don't miss the modulation at 2:41; the change in key, a relatively pedestrian effect, feels at that point like a mini-revelation.
     While there's nothing overtly orchestral about FTO's sound in this song--this isn't chamber pop--there is an almost sculptural attention to sonic detail here that I find appealing. While it's not uncommon to hear a trio that sounds like a bigger ensemble, this is one of the few times I've heard a sextet sound like a smaller band, thanks to the group's joint refusal to overplay their instruments. I'm liking for example the controlled use of a xylophone (or glockenspiel?), its chimey accents plinging in and out of the listener's awareness. I also like that choral-like synthesizer, emerging first at 1:36 and coming into its own in the last third of the song, which works unexpectedly well with both of the guitars the band uses.
     A "flying tourbillon," by the way, is a type of tourbillon ("tour-bee-yon"), which is a mechanism inside a watch, and apparently a mechanism that was very challenging to produce, especially in the days of hand-made watches. Tourbillon watches remain prized by collectors, according to my web sources. "In a Dream" is a song from FTO's debut EP, Escapements, which was self-released this summer. An escapement, by the way, is also a mechanism in a watch, of which the tourbillon is a part. Now you know.

Free and legal MP3 from Matt Mays & El Torpedo (unquirky, appealing rock; Neil meets the Boss, deftly)

"Tall Trees" - Matt Mays & El Torpedo
     Driving, slashing Neil Youngish guitars leap into action here, but listen, at the same time, to the thoughtful melody and, best of all, to the off-the-beat octave harmonies that wrap up the verse with the repeated refrain "Tall trees hanging over the road." I love the combination of heaviness and lightness that we get as a result, all the more delightful coming from a group called Matt Mays & El Torpedo. The deftness on display is--dare I say--charming.
     Here in the midst of an indie-rock dominated decade, "Tall Trees" sounds like little of what we're used to finding and sharing in the music blogosphere. This isn't quirky, except maybe to the extent that not being quirky is its own sort of quirk by 2008. I'm hearing Bruce Springsteen in and around this ingratiating song--not in an obvious homage (a la Neon Bible) but in the succinct, road-friendly songwriting and, especially, in Mays' ability to sound at once weary and inspired in that gruff, everyman way of his. And hm maybe on repeated listen there is a bit of a direct homage going on; check out the early bridge (1:12 to 1:26) and see if you don't pick up a taste of something from one of the Boss's first three or four albums ("She's the One," maybe?). I like this.
     Matt Mays & El Torpedo is, as luck would have it, another quintet from Canada--Halifax this time. "Tall Trees" is a song from Terminal Romance, the group's second CD, which was released on Sonic Records in July. Mays himself two releases as a solo artist as well.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

New contest - win Angela Desveaux's excellent new CD

Fingertips is giving away three copies of the excellent new Angela Desveaux CD, The Mighty Ship. See the contest page on the main Fingertips site for details.

Born in Quebec and raised on Cape Breton Island (Nova Scotia), the Montreal-based Desveaux is another in a seemingly endless series of talented Canadian musicians that have graced the rock scene over the decades. She has been featured twice so far on Fingertips, most recently for the song "Sure Enough," which, sure enough, comes from the CD you can now win.

Released this month on Thrill Jockey Records, The Mighty Ship is an assured and well-crafted album; Desveaux sings with a voice at once strong and delicate, and writes with an admirable attention to detail, both melodic and lyrical. For lack of a better label, you might group the CD in the alt-country genre, but only in the same way you might put Lucinda Williams or Kathleen Edwards in that same place. Whatever the tag, this is really good stuff. And remember that giveaways on Fingertips work differently than in other places online. I don't give away things that I don't think are worthwhile; I'm not here to be part of a mindless promotional campaign.

Further details here.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Fingertips Q&A: Dirk Darmstaedter

There's a new Q&A available on the main Fingertips site, this time featuring an email conversation with Dirk Darmstaedter.

Darmstaedter is a Hamburg, Germany-based singer/songwriter who spent his formative years in Teaneck, New Jersey. He hit it big in Europe with his band The Jeremy Days in the late '80s; they remained together through 1995. Since then, Darmstaedter has released a variety of albums as a solo artist. He also co-founded Tapete Records, a record label notable for its good taste, in 2002. "We Are Waves," a song from Dirk's Our Favorite City CD, was featured on Fingertips in June 2007.

The Fingertips Q&A is a recurring feature; each month, a real, working, album-making musician will answer a few direct questions about the current state of music in the 21st century, and where things may be going.

The Fingertips Q&A debuted last month with singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from Land of Talk

"Some Are Lakes" - Land of Talk
     Elizabeth Powell is a mighty guitar player, a compelling singer, and the front woman for a Montreal-based band that appears destined for big things.
     Last year's Applause Cheer Boo Hiss EP was a spunky, spiky debut; "Some Are Lakes," the title track to the band's forthcoming full-length CD, sounds a bit smoother on the surface than did the songs on the EP, but Land of Talk's appealing sense of roughness and urgency remains, now channeled into the workings of the song itself. Instead of lo-fi atmospherics--basically, loud/soft and fast/slow changes--"Some Are Lakes," with its wistful air and a muted drive, offers a subtler sort of twitchiness in the form of open-chorded melodies, a dissonant, cymbal-heavy chorus, and the buzzy undercurrent of Powell's gravelly guitar playing. And Powell sings here without vocal processing this time, allowing us to hear more than ever the heart and soul in her powerful voice.
     Some Are Lakes will be released next month on Saddle Creek Records. MP3 via Saddle Creek.

Free and legal MP3 from the Little Ones

"Morning Tide" - The Little Ones
     There's lightweight-breezy and there's substantive-breezy, and the Little Ones, a quintet plying power pop from Los Angeles, have nailed the wonderful but difficult job of being substantive-breezy. That's really what great power pop is about: music that sails and soars but is nevertheless grounded in something deep and true and serious.
     So, how to tell the difference between the lightweight and the substantive, when the music is in both cases so breezy and easy and catchy? I look to the craft of it for clues. When there's more than one hook, that's a good sign ("Morning Tide" has three, to my ears). When there the song is instrumentally interesting--when, that is, the instrumental parts are themselves worth listening to--that's another good sign. (The Little Ones, it should be known, like to use a Mellotron, which is potentially a bonus.) Lyrics that aren't totally vapid: yet another sign (unintelligible lyrics are fine, by the way). Best of all, I discern substance in the unexpected twist or turn--when the song goes somewhere you might not have expected but, once it's there, it's perfect. In "Morning Tide," that moment for me comes halfway through the chorus, when the melody jumps up and shifts rhythms--the "It's something to think about" part (1:49). Where did that come from? Wonderful stuff.
     "Morning Tide" is the title track to the band's second CD, which was released in the U.K. in July, and is scheduled for an October release in the U.S. on Chop Shop Records. Like Land of Talk, the Little Ones are also Fingertips returnees.

Free and legal MP3 from Chris Letcher

"Milk" - Chris Letcher
     "Milk" is an immediately engaging rocker with stronger ties to something resembling late classic rock--Peter Gabriel comes to mind, or early Michael Penn--than what we are used to hearing in our indie-rock-centric new century. Consider it a good thing. On the one hand, wholesale rejection of the past is a tiresome (not to mention lazy) artistic premise. On the other hand, diversity sustains us. And I'm talking honest diversity, not lip-service diversity, not photo-op diversity, and not (for heaven's sake) diversity minus substance and qualification (any resemblance to a certain unexpected political announcement from the past week is entirely intentional).
     But I digress. Chris Letcher--hey, yet another Fingertips veteran; three for three this week, for the first time--is a South African-born, London-based singer/songwriter whose experience, likewise, as a film composer no doubt informs his capacity to construct dramatic and unusual soundscapes, even in the context of a three-minute pop song. Through the judicious use of strings, percussion, and Letcher's signature harmonium, "Milk" maintains an orchestral feeling even as it moves with a brisk, rock-like clarity which highlights the melody's succinct tension. This version of "Milk" is a so-called "radio edit" of a song that appeared on Letcher's Deep Frieze CD; it appears on his Harmonium EP, which was released earlier this summer on Sheer Sound/2 Feet label.