Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from the Raveonettes (busy neo-retro Danish duo, back with another cool song)

"Black/White" - the Raveonettes
     The Raveonettes, the fuzzy, atmospheric, neo-retro duo from Denmark, have an enviable knack for making cool songs, and making it seem easy, except of course it's not, otherwise everyone would be making cool songs. (Which they're not, when last I checked.) The whole, as usual for these guys, exceeds the sum of the parts, which, initially, are straightforward: a nimble, repeating bass line, fuzzed-up beats, deadpan vocals, and a distant guitar melody that has surely been lifted from some garage-rock nugget from the 1960s, or should have been. The first juxtaposition of that guitar against that contemporary beat (at 0:36) is what, I think, propels this song into full coolness--and then, all the better, the second time, when the beat itself retreats into the blurry distance, along with the guitar (1:18).
     So we're slinking along like that, the imperturbable Sharin Foo cooing the noir-ish lyrics (that's her on the bass as well), introducing each guitar break with a detached "yeah yeah yeah," but check out the feedback that lingers after the second break (1:31), and note the barely discernible presence of another guitar, scratching at the edge of the sound for the third verse, waiting for something. That something turns out to be the Raveonettes' signature electronic noise, which rushes into the song at 1:56, complete with an old-fashioned powering-up effect, and, with that extra guitar in the background, fleshes out the recurring guitar line with a very gratifying burst of well-textured racket.
     In the end, not a moment in this perfect-pop-length song is misplaced, and maybe that is truly the root of its mysterious appeal, as the duo generates complexity via uncanny control of relatively simple specifics. "Black/White" can be found on the band's digital-only EP Beauty Dies, which was released last week on Vice Records, the third of four EPs scheduled out in 2008.

Free and legal MP3 from Portugal. The Man (well-built, rewarding, forward- and backward-looking rock)

"And I" - Portugal. The Man
     Wasilla, Alaska's favorite sons (we'll keep the daughters out of it) return to Fingertips with another indelible shot of at once forward- and backward-looking 21st-century rock. "And I" sways to a 3/4 beat, walking a splendid line between humility and swagger, with the air of some easy-flowing '70s arena staple, and yet, also, with something firmer, newer, and more hand-crafted in its bones.
     As might be inferred by the curious (and curiously punctuated) name, Portugal. The Man is one inscrutable quartet; like many of today's introspective indie-rockers, they seem happy enough knowing what they're doing without much caring whether the rest of us do or not. (Their not-very-clear Wikipedia entry is a good example of this; the reader is left not even knowing what the band's name actually is, or why.) This inscrutability might be aggravating if the music weren't so effortlessly well-built and rewarding. "And I" unfolds by adding musical elements you might not realize are necessary precisely when they are, from the intro's psychedelic organ line to the vaguely gospelly, falsetto backing vocals (first chiming in at 1:14 and 1:28, but keep your ears on them the rest of the way), to the Led Zep-pish blast of squonky guitar at 2:00, to what surely sounds like a cello at 3:49. By the end of this one, as guitars slash and churn against those insistent "ooo-ooo-ooo"s in a windswept landscape that is either triumphant or post-apocalyptic (can't tell), we have surely been through some kind of epic. Just don't ask me what any of it was about.
     "And I" is from the CD Censored Colors, which came out last month on the band's own label, Apprpoaching AIRballoons, in conjunction with the Albany, N.Y.-based indie label Equal Vision Records. MP3 via Equal Vision.

Free and legal MP3 from the New Monarchs (electronica duo, but also loud guitars)

"Surprises" - the New Monarchs
     Tune in right away here, so you don't miss the ear-catching intro, with its striking juxtaposition of literally offbeat synthesizer lines and wordless, chant-like vocals. That's quite a way to start a song, and the good news is that this Minneapolis-based electronica duo has yet more up its sleeve, including, of all things, kick-ass guitars.
     I don't often warm up to electronica precisely because I'm just not an unadulterated beep-and-boop-and-beat fan. (And there's nothing wrong with those who are, mind you. I just don't tend to hear the music in it.) But "Surprises" had me sitting up after that introduction, and kept me interested with the minimalist approach the song initially takes with its electronics, the clicky beat and buzzy synthesizer almost melding together, clutter-free, in a sort of secondary introduction. The melody, when the singing starts, proceeds at a much slower pace than the beats, giving Sean Hogan ample chance to show off his scuffed-up tenor, and leads, seamlessly, into a reprise of the chant-like melody of the introduction (starting at 1:06). The song at this point acquires an almost hymn-like force, before sliding into a circular, hypnotic middle section featuring repetitive keyboard lines and keening, breathy vocals.
     And what of the aforementioned guitars? Perhaps these are the surprises of the title. Keep listening, you can't miss them. Hogan kind of fades behind the blaring screen of sound for a while, but don't lose track of him, as his unwavering tone is one of the song's few continual characteristics. "Surprises" is a song from the band's debut CD, Blueprints, which comes out this week on Soup Bowl Records, also based in Minneapolis. MP3 via Soup Bowl.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What the Fingertips Top 10 looks like now

It's been such a long time since I've blogged about the Fingertips Top 10 that the entire chart, but for the number one song, is new (newcomers since the last blog update are marked with an asterisk). Check it out:

1. "Albert" - Ed Laurie
2. "Some Are Lakes" - Land of Talk*
3. "Me and Armini" - Emiliana Torrini*
4. "A Little Tradition" - Novillero*
5. "The Crook of My Good Arm" - Pale Young Gentlemen*
6. "Rosa" - Samuel Markus*
7. "Un Día" - Juana Molina*
8. "Morning Tide" - the Little Ones*
9. "HYPNTZ" - Dan Black*
10. "New Song" - Your 33 Black Angels*

"Rosa" and "New Song" are brand new this week. "Albert," which entered at #1, has remained there. Juana Molina's hypnotic "Un Día" is probably one of the more unusual Top 10 songs I've listed over the years, lacking anything like an obvious hook, although Dan Black's unexpectedly poignant cover of a song by the Notorious B.I.G. is also an oddity, perhaps, in the Fingertips universe.

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, October 21, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from Cut Off Your Hands (Spector-like power pop with New Ordery vibe)

"Happy As Can Be" - Cut Off Your Hands
     Put Phil Spector, the Beatles, and New Order in a blender and out comes "Happy As Can Be." (Well, it works in my blender.) There's the spacious, bashy wall of sound, the "Please Please Me" melody, and the deadpan yet also semi-melodramatic club vibe. Oh, and maybe throw Split Enz in the blender too, since these guys are from New Zealand and lead singer Nick Johnston has a bit of a Tim Finn-ish yelp going on there, especially in the chorus. (Yeah, okay, it's a big blender.)
     I'm fascinated, as I always tend to be, by the 'wall of sound' sound--the overall effect is conspicuous but when you try to pick it apart, the specifics kind of scurry away. What is it that's making the sound, anyway? A big, rumbling drum and a distinct echo is part of it; clangy but indistinct guitar sound is part of it, as is a choral-like backing noise, coming from either voices or instruments or both. Mixing a bell in with the beat--always a good touch, for some reason. Whatever's doing it, Cut Off Your Hands is here to deliver it to us; on the quartet's MySpace page, next to "Influences" is one name: Phil Spector.
     "Happy As Can Be" is the title track to the band's new EP, their third, scheduled for a digital release on Frenchkiss Records this week. Their full-length debut is expected out in early 2009.

Free and legal MP3 from Midwest Dilemma (bittersweet 'docurock' waltz, with 23-piece folk orchestra)

"The Great Depression" - Midwest Dilemma
     A brisk, bittersweet country waltz, "The Great Depression" tells a vague but insistent story of deprivation and resolve, via a 23-piece folk orchestra. Front man and songwriter Justin Lamoureux, from Omaha, sings with a refreshing, scuffed-up solidity--no wispy, chamber pop tenor he--but at the same time leaves plenty of room for the contraption-like menagerie of guitars and winds and strings and percussion that is Midwest Dilemma, as they pump and sway (and, occasionally, squeak) along with him. I picture Lamoureux singing from smack in the middle of it all, sometimes needing to stand on tiptoes to be noticed.
     The album on which you'll find "The Great Depression" is called Timelines & Tragedies, and was self-released in May. It apparently tells stories of Lamoureux's family history, spanning some 400 years (this song is not a current political statement, just to be clear). The indie scene of the '00s has definitively given birth to this sort of docurock--idiosyncratic, often incomprehensible takes on personal and cultural history. Neutral Milk Hotel may have spawned the trend 10 years ago, with the strange but seminal In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. You need a good melody to carry this kind of thing off; a compelling arrangement is another plus. "The Great Depression" scores on both counts. The harmonies provided by Elizabeth Webb enhance the power of the song's resilient tune, and as for the arrangement, pay particular attention to how oceanic the earnest, acoustic churn of the ensemble becomes during the song's closing half-minute. Some songs do not need to be fully understood to be gotten.

Free and legal MP3 from +/- (Plus/Minus) (intimate electronica meets ringing rhythm guitars)

"Snowblind" - +/-<
     This one starts as intimate electronica, the twitchy percussion blipping with a startling three-dimensionality, while a tranquil keyboard offers muted chords and James Baluyut sings a soft series of interrupted phrases so casually he may as well be talking. It's 50 seconds before we hear a guitar, and what it gives us at first is a careful, reverberant line that joins in with the calm itchiness thus far unfolding.
     Calm itchiness is not going to hold, of course. At 1:48, as the lyrics tell us that there is "no way to draw the poison out," the guitar breaks from its noodly mode and offers a ringing rhythm with the most wonderful chords--chords that sound at once central and off-center, urgent and restrained, obvious and oblique. This goes on for half a minute; it's interesting, come to think of it, that the guitar solo is all rhythm rather than lead. Interesting too that without an obvious chorus, the solo comes as a surprise, and not just for its volume and texture. We haven't been prepared for it by the song's structure. When Baluyut returns, he's singing in a higher register, still the same sort of interrupted phrases, and then here's the moment I, somehow, love most of all: at 3:36, when he leaps to falsetto and holds the word "you" through a downward series of notes (in classical music, they'd call that a melisma), twice. By now the flurry of guitar and full-fledged drumming is all but blizzard-like, creating an aural version of the title's state (which, lyrically, is metaphorical, not actual).
     "Snowblind" is from the new +/- (say "Plus/Minus") album, Xs On Your Eyes. This is the Brooklyn-based trio's fourth, and it's due out this week on Absolutely Kosher Records. MP3 via Absolutely Kosher.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Fingertips CD Review: The Mighty Ship, by Angela Desveaux

The Mighty Ship
Angela Desveaux

Thrill Jockey Records

Angela Desveaux has crafted as strong and appealing a singer/songwriter album as I've heard in quite a while. Like fellow Canadian Kathleen Edwards, Desveaux traffics in territory pioneered by Lucinda Williams--alt-country indie pop, or some such thing--and possesses, as Edwards does, both the vocal character and the songwriting chops to turn music ever in danger of veering into corn into a continually unfolding and pleasurable experience.

This is an album worthy of being an album, quite clearly constructed with an ear on the flow of the entire work. From the start, Desveaux throws us for a loop by opening the CD with the pensive, bittersweet "Other Side"--not the typical ear-candy-like opening track, and it shows me that she trusts her ability to engage our ear with atmosphere and strength of melodic purpose. Not that ear candy is Desveaux's style, at all; the follow-up track, the TWF-featured "Sure Enough," is upbeat and catchy, but sliced with subtle melancholy, while track three, "Hide From You," a fuzzy-riffed rocker, at the same time displays a thoughtful, Beatlesque flair.

Even when she slows things down to a crawl, as in "Joining Another," Desveaux keeps my interest through unwavering tunefulness and some classy instrumental work. The album hits full Lucinda mode with the tough, achey "Shape You," then follows it with perhaps the album's most ambitious composition, "Red Alert," a taut shuffle with evocative strings and a Jonatha Brooke-like sense of melodic indignation. "For Design," the album's tough-skinned closer, sends me to the repeat button, ready to run through these 10 well-wrought songs all over again.  [buy via the Fingertips Store]

(See more Fingertips CD reviews on the Album Bin page of the main Fingertips site.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from Samuel Markus (quasi-psychedelic neo-folk rock?)

"Rosa" - Samuel Markus
    A full-bodied helping of quasi-psychedelic neo-folk rock, or some such thing, "Rosa" treads an alluring line between the contemporary and the classic, mixing a Derek & the Dominoes-like guitar-band drive with crispier beats and 21st-century production effects.
     Holding it all together--because I have to admit, that description doesn't sound all that alluring as I read it back to myself!--is 22-year-old Samuel Markus, whose voice contains something of Grant Lee Phillips' deep melodrama, but with a lighter touch and self-effacing tone. The song is pretty much built around a cascade of two-syllable almost-rhymes that repeat at the end of each lyrical line; Marcus wins the day with his earnest yet quizzical delivery, all but reveling in the mismatches that tumble out (e.g. "Casanova" and "composer" and "for ya") in service of his ramshackle, bittersweet-sounding story.
     Markus co-founded the N.Y.C.-based band the Rosewood Thieves (featured on Fingertips in Aug. '06) before splitting to do his own thing out in California. "Rosa" can be found on New Dawn, a CD recorded with an ensemble he calls the Only Ones (no relation to the British new wave band of the same name, which has apparently been playing together again recently). New Dawn was released at the end of September by Yatra Media.

Free and legal MP3 from the Happy Hollows (ingratiating, noisy, whimsical song-as-journey)

"Lieutenant" - the Happy Hollows
     I am no fan of indie music that veers too sharply into the DIY camp, as my ears will forever be jarred by sloppiness, however disguised by claims of authenticity or shred guitar prowess. When I first heard "Lieutenant," I was attracted by its left-turn hooks but wary of its seeming disjointedness. For a five-minute song, this one unspools in an unnerving number of directions; it's hard to get a handle on too quickly, and I was not initially convinced that there was any larger sense of purpose keeping the song from simply flying apart. (I am by and large unswayed by shredding.) And yet I surely did like lead singer Sarah Negahdari's trilly, pixie-like (or Pixies-like?) sense of drama, the trio's Belly-esque blend of heaviness and lightness, and the sly, quasi-martial swing of the song's stickiest hook (first heard at 1:10).
     I'm still not completely sure which side of the line between sophistication and random craziness that "Lieutenant" lands on, but the moment, probably, that won me over was this: the minute and a half in the middle of the song that features the most jumpy, unglued material climaxes, at around 4:00, with all three band members singing together and then just sort of shouting with jump-in-the-pool abandon. Weeeeeee. It cemented the song-as-journey concept, and I liked where it led: into a coda with a new, unexpectedly soothing melody. Well, okay, it gets wacky again for the last five seconds. They can't help themselves.
     "Lieutenant" is the lead track off the L.A.-based band's second EP, Imaginary, which will be released by the band next week.

Free and legal MP3 from Geoff Ereth (smartly paced orchestral folk)

"Surefooted" - Geoff Ereth
     Deftly arranged and smartly paced, "Surefooted" packs a goodly number of instruments into a brisk three and a half minutes, but the sound remains clean and uncluttered. There's piano and guitar and drums, there's a string quartet, a trombone, an interesting keyboard or two, maybe a woodwind of one sort or another--"orchestral folk" is what Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist Geoff Ereth calls it. But unlike much of what comes under the "chamber pop" umbrella, "Surefooted" leaves enough white space in and around its arrangement to feel fresh and easy rather than baroque and belabored.
     The key, I think, is the strength of the song itself. I love instrumental variety in rock'n'roll as much as anyone, but too often the aural curlicues are covering up melodic staleness--underneath the ornamentation, there's no there there, to use that old Gertrude Stein nugget. With "Surefooted," there's plenty of there, as both the verse and chorus feature strong melodies, put forward with gentle assurance by the smooth-voiced Ereth (and note the arresting way he offers harmonies on the middle lines of each verse but not the first and last). Symbolic, perhaps, of the song's full but unadorned feel is the instrumental break at around 2:10--rather than any orchestral swell, we are stripped down to just the strings, playing with punch and punctuation (and pizzicato), which creates room for an uncomplicated but evocative piano line that wanders briefly through at 2:20. (The string quartet that plays with Ereth on his record is Osso, which is the same group that has performed with both Sufjan Stevens and My Brightest Diamond.)
     Drunk With Translation was released digitally via iTunes last month, and will be out on CD in January; it is self-released, under the Deerly Records imprint.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Comments now available

As at least a temporary experiment, the Fingertips blog will now accept comments. Comments are moderated, so play nicely--diversity of opinion is welcome, but civility is required.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Fingertips Q&A: Brad Armstrong of 13ghosts

The Fingertips Q&A for October is now online and it's a good one. Brad Armstrong sat down at his computer and typed out some articulate and thought-provoking answers to five questions about the future of the music industry.

Armstrong is one of the two guys who both sing lead and write songs in the Birmingham, Ala.-based band 13ghosts, a band that has twice been featured on Fingertips over the past few years.

"I think I'd live in a magical world," he writes, in response to how things would be if he were in charge of how the music industry operated, "where you had to buy a blank download tape and put it in your analog download machine, and you had to listen to the whole thing while you were downloading it, and the only way you could get the link is if your friend told you about it and then sat with you while you downloaded it, otherwise it wouldn't exist."

Check out the entire interview on the main site.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Clash Contest Continues

Win a copy of the new Live at Shea Stadium CD; deadline for entry is October 17. See original post for a video teaser, or go straight to the Contests page on the main Fingertips site for all the details.

Free and legal MP3 from Jolie Holland (rolling, deep-hearted music, enhanced by Ribot guitar)

"Palmyra" - Jolie Holland
     I love the timeless, deep-hearted quality of the music here, as well as Holland's fetchingly textured voice. Starting simply, with the acoustic guitar up front, the song picks up depth and punch when the drums and electric guitar kick in in full force, after about a minute. The electric guitarist is the masterly Marc Ribot, who plays with great invention and yet, somehow, without drawing any attention to himself. I suggest going back and listening to the song one time with the specific intention of focusing only on Ribot's playing--not just his solo at around 1:55 but from beginning to end (and yes he actually is playing from almost the beginning, even as the acoustic guitar seems onstage alone). Although a wonderful experimental guitarist on his own, I find him particularly effective in this sort of ensemble work, in the context of a traditional-sounding song.
     Beyond Ribot, one concrete element that adds to "Palmyra"'s mysterious appeal, to my ears, is how Holland shifts the melody in the verse on and then off the first beat of the measure. You can hear this clearly at the beginning: the first two lines (beginning with "Only a few..." and "My little heart...") are sung starting on the first beat of the measure; the next lines (starting with "You could tell...") are sung beginning around the third beat of the measure, which creates more space between lines as well. The feel of the song settles into something deeper and yearnier, somehow, in the shift. And yet she does not do this the second time the verse comes around, which is the first time we hear it in the fuller band mode--she shifts the shift, as it were. It returns for the third verse. I have no idea precisely why but I do believe this sort of subliminal complexity enriches the listening experience. In other words: good song.
     "Palmyra" can be found on Holland's new CD, The Living and the Dead, due out this week on Anti Records. MP3 via Spinner. Jolie Holland was previously featured on Fingertips in April 2006.

Free and legal MP3 from Your 33 Black Angels (concise, likable, hard-edged pop)

"New Song" - Your 33 Black Angels
     Concise and good-natured while also flashing a bit of hard-edged sloppiness that makes it all the more likable. "New Song" is not only so concise it can't be bothered with a title, it's so concise that it pretty much uses the same central melody in both the verse and the chorus. It works musically because...well, who knows, actually. These things remain mysterious. No doubt it has something to do with how the rhythm speeds up in the chorus, and also--not to be underestimated--the rumbly, lower-register harmonies brought to singer Benji Kast's slightly roughed-up tenor. But maybe the real trick is the fact that the melody remains unresolved in the verse. The verse kind of climaxes on the word "try" (listen at 0:19 or 0:32, for example), and that note, my friends, is unresolved. And it says right there in The Idiot Guide's to Music Theory that "you don't want to end your melody with unresolved tension." (I kid you not; Google it.)
     Well, you may not want to end the melody that way for good, but it's pretty great when it sounds like you are ending it unresolved and then you wait all the way until the end of the chorus (which starts with the same melody) to arrive at resolution. I am fairly certain that the five guys in Your 33 Black Angels have not read The Idiot Guide's to Music Theory.
     "New Song" comes from the Brooklyn-based band's self-released second CD, Tales of My Pop-Rock Love Life, which is due out next week.

Free and legal MP3 from Gustav & the Seasick Sailors (jazz-tinged indie rock from Sweden)

"Homesick" - Gustav & the Seasick Sailors
     Gustav & the Seasick Sailors return to Fingertips, after an almost three-year absence, with another piano-based, jazz-tinged composition. The drumming is soft and skittery, the chords open and Bruce Hornsby-esque, the melody brisk and wistful. The point at which this song settled into my psyche is right in the middle, the stretch from 1:20 to 1:28, when the melody picks up velocity and the chords progress with muted beauty, peaking at the lyrics "All the things we were/All the things we're not." The understated female harmony vocal here is beautiful, all the more so for sounding so casual and easy to overlook if you're not paying attention.
     "Homesick" is a song from Brilliant Hands, the third Gustav & the Seasick Sailors CD. Lead by Gustav Haggren, a singer/songwriter from Helsingborg, Sweden, the Seasick Sailors are labeled a "collective" by the band's press material, which accounts for my inability to pinpoint, for instance, how many Seasick Sailors there happen to be. There seem to be five or six at the moment. And I don't want to dwell on it but it's interesting to know that Haggren was born without a right hand, and wears a special device that allows him to hold a pick and therefore play guitar.
     The song "Nightlife" by GATSS was featured here in November 2005; it was also a #1 song on the Fingertips Top 10, for those keeping score at home.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

New contest - win a copy of The Clash: Live at Shea Stadium

Fingertips is giving away three copies of the about to be released CD, The Clash: Live at Shea Stadium. See the contest page on the main Fingertips site for details.

Here's a video preview of the CD:

Further details here.