Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from Denison Witmer (appealing singer/songwriter pop with a '70s flair)

"Life Before Aesthetics" - Denison Witmer
     Fleet-footed and amiable singer/songwriter pop with a dreamy '70s patina. It's a mellow toe-tapper--half Jackson Browne, half Sufjan Stevens--but it manages to vibrate with something extra that, to me, separates it from the kind of song that may come to mind when you think "mellow toe-tapper." And what, precisely, is that something extra? Well. Let's see. Hmm. He says "modern furniture" in the first line, but that's probably not it.
     Okay, here's one thing: check out how the verse has two interrelated but distinct melodies. You can hear the first one beginning at 0:14, the second one at 0:29. The first part is a downward-trending melody, the second part leans upward, with two effects. First, Witmer gets to show us his impressive vocal range; singing sweetly and easily, he takes us from a low D to a high G without breaking a sweat. Second, this straightforward song now feels much more interesting and substantive. Witmer doesn't provide us with a 16-measure melody--a rare animal indeed in the indie rock world--but he does offer two back-to-back, repeated eight-measure melodies, which is a deft way of adding complexity without overtaxing either the listener or the songwriter. And then the chorus delivers simplicity itself: a slower-moving resolving melody that consists primarily of two notes, describing harmony's most basic interval, the third. The instrumental accompaniment maintains the faster rhythm of the verse, with the added texture of an organ playing a new countermelody. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the song would not have succeeded as well as it does without that organ.
     Denison Witmer, based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, has been recording since 1995. "Life Before Aesthetics" is a song from his new CD, Carry the Weight, his eighth full-length studio album, released earlier this month by the Militia Group. MP3 courtesy of Insound.

Free and legal MP3 from My Brightest Diamond (charismatic cover of a famously covered oldie)

"Tainted Love" - My Brightest Diamond
     Yes, it's that song. Fingertips doesn't traffic in covers very often--hardly ever, actually--but that's not because I have anything against someone singing someone else's song. It's just hard, I think, in the end, to take the focus off the mere act of covering--hard, that is, to turn the new version into truly its own performance. The original is always the unspoken third person in the room between the performer and the listener. If the new version is a respectful homage, well, there it obviously is; if the cover, on the other hand, is an extreme re-working of the original, the distance between the two versions draws its own kind of attention to itself.
     This problem is most easily overcome when the performer doing the covering has so much of his or her own magnetism that the song becomes merely another vehicle for it. Two-time Fingertips veteran Shara Worden, a musical force of nature recording as the entity My Brightest Diamond, qualifies without hesitation. Worden restores the drive of the Gloria Jones original, but instead of an early-'60s R&B stomp, she runs with a swirly, neo-disco ambiance that somehow manages to feel, also, pre-disco/retro--disco, perhaps, as imagined by the Jetsons, full at once of accidentally too-organic sounds (the drums sound very real) and early space-age bleeps and "futuristic" tones. Vocally, Worden is at her semi-operatic finest, singing with a husky, quavery restraint that makes it sound like she's holding back even when she's letting loose.
     This new "Tainted Love" comes from the CD Guilt By Association Vol. 2, set for release on Engine Room Recordings in February, although it's already available digitally via iTunes. You can check out a stream of the whole thing on the Engine Room web site. The CD is the second in a series which features cover versions of big pop hits, of the top 40 variety, by indie artists. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3 from the Layaways (polished garage rock with impeccable multiple guitars)

"Keep It To Yourself" - the Layaways
     Hey, all three songs this week are between 3:16 and 3:20 long. That's an old-fashioned radio-friendly length for three songs you're unlikely to hear on the radio. Last up, a nifty bit of polished garage rock, if such a concept isn't an oxymoron. Launching off a sonorous, rubbery guitar line that, melodically, echoes the hook from the Kinks' "David Watts," "Keep It To Yourself" has the big-drums/big-chords bash and concise melodicism of some Nuggets-era--um--nugget, with a welcome helping of shoegaze drone. The song itself is pithy and unadorned, but the presentation is cool, full-bodied, and impeccably controlled--not a note or sound is out of place.
     Taking nothing away from David Harrell's understated, slightly processed vocals, I think his guitars are the stars here, presenting alternately as zipped-up-tight rhythm, circular synth-like lead lines, and droney dissonance. When the three sounds combine in the second half of the song, we definitely arrive in one of those "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" places. It can't be easy to make something this basically simple sound so fulfilling; it if were, everyone would do it.
nbsp;    You'll find "Keep It To Yourself" on The Space Between, the band's third full-length, which was self-released earlier this month by the Chicago-based trio. The album is for sale; you can also download all the songs as free MP3s on the band's web site. Long-time Fingertips visitors may remember the Layaways as one of the bands featured on the late, great Fingertips compilation CD, Fingertips: Unwebbed. The rest of you, you should've been there.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from School of Seven Bells (resplendent Björk/Cocteau/shoegaze amalgam, with pop sheen)

"Connjur" - School of Seven Bells
     Buzzy and resplendent, "Connjur" is almost magically appealing, combining an earthy, decisive, Björk-y sort of electronica with airy, Cocteau Twins-like layers and harmonies and a touch of shoegaze swirl. Listen to the continual give-and-take between the yawning chasms of sound (distorting guitars?) at the bottom of the mix and the perky beat, with those sprightly vocals up on top--I love how that all works together somehow. I suspect that the way the melody is sung resolutely off the beat adds further to the music's unearthly pull.
     Unable to determine with any clarity what this song is about lyrically, I still feel a strong sense of its seriousness and its playfulness, and this is what moves me most of all. Rare is the work of art--whether music, poetry, prose, painting, sculpture, whatever--that combines the mystical and the fun, the deeply serious and the lighthearted. These guys seem to be after that sort of thing, and more power to them, says me.
     School of Seven Bells is a Brooklyn-based trio composed of Ben Curtis, formerly of Secret Machines, and twins Alejandra and Claudia Dehaza, who both used to be in the band On!Air!Library!. They make their sound with two guitars and a bunch of electronics. "Connjur" (a great song title for the Google age) can be found on the group's debut CD, Alpinisms, released at the end of October on the Ghostly International label. The album title comes from the 20th-century French writer René Daumal, himself a playful mystic. To Daumal, a student of Gurdjieff, "alpinism" was the art of climbing mountains ("in such a way as to face the greatest risks with the greatest prudence"), but mountains to Daumal were at once physical and metaphysical entities. His novel, Mount Analogue, is subtitled: "A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing," and is about an expedition organized to seek and then climb a mountain that is, at the outset, asserted to be imaginary. That kind of story.

Free and legal MP3 from Marykate O'Neil (Clever songstress covers Schlesinger/Sobule tune, and cops a great riff)

"Happy" - Marykate O'Neil
     Get three musical smartasses together and watch out--you can be in for a treat of a potentially overbearing kind, a too-clever-by-half sort of thing. Not so this time, however, as O'Neil covers a song co-written by Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne) and Jill Sobule, and immediately undercuts any pretension by adroitly copping a riff from the largely forgotten, intently strange Australian band Flash and the Pan and using it as the foundation for the entire song. (And boy this made me wish I were still doing the podcasts so I could play you a snippet, but what the heck--I've edited the intro to the song she's using, "Walking in the Rain," so you can hear it, here.)
      "All I wanna be is happy," goes the lyrical refrain, as the narrator seeks to simplify matters by not trying so hard to be perfect or original or, even, thoughtful; and the music agrees, saying, hey, we'll use someone else's cool riff if we need to. Not to mention a title to a song already well-known to rock'n'roll history. (O'Neil seems to like doing that; she was previously featured on Fingertips for her song "Stay.") Keith Richards needed a love to make him happy; O'Neil here wearily accepts the world as it is, rather than try any longer to improve on it ("I used to get wisdom from being alone/Now I just leave the TV on"). Yet one more off-the-wall musical reference comes into play as the lyrics, in the second half, make reference to "It's a Small World After All" and then begin on the spot to re-write it. Tellingly, the narrator's new version of it isn't all that different from the original.
     "Happy" is from O'Neil's new EP, mkULTRA, which is at once a reference to this disc as a bonus Marykate offering and the name of an infamous CIA project in the '50s and '60s involving mind-control experiments, which used a variety of potentially dangerous drugs on unsuspecting participants. The EP was released last month, and is an appetizer for O'Neil's third full-length CD, Underground, slated for a February release. MP3 via O'Neil's web site.

Free and legal MP3 from Hooray For Earth (driving, inventive, fuzzy-edged indie rock)

"Take Care" - Hooray For Earth
     With a dense one-two beat, a tumble of words that sound concrete but don't tell us much of anything, and no introduction whatsoever, "Take Care" foists itself upon the listener without warning, and takes a while to make musical sense.
     But the chorus'll hook you in, I think. The song is still driving fuzzily along, but a grand, anthemic melody rises up in the midst of the chugging fuzz, like the sun breaking through on a stormy day. Or, at least, it stopping raining a bit. Almost perversely, the chorus happens the first time without any lyrics (starting at 0:36), a wash of shimmering noise serving as the tune; you have to wait for it to come back again to get the full effect (at 1:29). With words, the clarity and (dare I suggest) beauty of the melody is revealed, if a bit coyly--those extended pauses between lyrical lines keep everything a bit off-balance, even in the midst of the grandness, while Noel Heroux sings, among other things, "This is not the song/That I want to sing," then offers the titular phrase as almost an afterthought, providing modulation to the bridge more than anything else. But, talk about grand: get a load of that prog-rock-y instrumental break which starts at 2:18, complete with what sounds like a choir of heavenly voices in the distance. From here, "Take Care" takes off on pure inventive energy, revisiting the chorus with a variety of accompaniment schemes, acquiring an almost majestic momentum as we are led at long last back to the "When I take care" lyric, which now, repeated, sounds like a triumphant realization.
     Hooray For Earth is a quartet with three of four members based in Boston, one in NYC. The roots of the band go back some ten years, when bassist Chris Principe and singer/guitarist Heroux were in a high school group together. Hooray For Earth's current formation was finalized in 2004. The band issued a self-released debut CD in 2006 without any national distribution; with some updating and remixing, the album was re-issued this fall, digitally, on Dopamine Records; the physical CD will be released in January.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from Chester French (the Zombies meet Fountains of Wayne at the disco)

"She Loves Everybody" - Chester French
     Up-to-date pop pastiche-ism from a Harvard-educated, L.A.-based twosome, underscored by an affable, Fountains of Wayne-like mixture of irony, pathos, and craft. "Well she craves affection/So I use protection" could be a line straight from the Adam and Chris songbook, while the music offers up an intriguing, FoW-like blend of the '60s, '80s, and '00s, and maybe a few other decades besides.
     From the start, this one's a mutt: seven seconds of string quartet tension mashes into a disco-y echo of "Time of the Season," with sleigh bells and surf guitar. The verses strip down to a beat-driven duo-friendly groove; a melodramatic piano appears, out of the blue, to usher us into a two-part chorus that is half laptop, half pounding '80s album rock, with lyrics simultaneously goofy and meaningful. An offbeat instrumental interlude then brings us back to the original groove. In the middle of the musical parade, note the unintentional (by the narrator) intentional (by the songwriter) irony of the central, seemingly breezy lyrical conceit: "And I know she loves me/She loves everybody."
     "She Loves Everybody" is the title track to the duo's debut EP, released digitally this week, and on CD next week, on Star Trak/Interscope. The song first made a splash last summer when it was featured on the HBO series Entourage. The band takes its name from the sculptor Daniel Chester French, who designed the statue of John Harvard in Harvard Yard, as well as the Lincoln statue in the Lincoln Memorial.

Free and legal MP3 from Slaraffenland (woodwindy, obliquely cheerful experimental pop)

"I'm a Machine" - Slaraffenland
     Ambling along with an idiosyncratic blend of drums, electronics, and orchestral instruments, "I'm a Machine" eschews the verse-chorus-verse handhold for a noodly sort of soothing reiteration. Not your typical pop song, to be sure, but as merry and involving as any pop song worth its salt should be.
      The intro sets pastoral woodwind motifs against a rattling, appliance-like sort of groaning and churning, while men chant vaguely in the background. This lasts for more than 80 seconds and, truly, somehow, I could've kept listening to just that--they manage a singular blend here of the free-form and the cheerful. This, I realize in a flash, is what has been missing from so many dreary efforts by contemporary classical composers to combat romantic melodicism: cheerfulness. The cheerfulness is oblique to be sure, but it's here, swirled somewhere into the song's circular structure, layered sound, orchestral motifs, yelpy vocals, and the overall sense of its being a sort of deconstructed folk song.
     "I'm a Machine" does perhaps have just as much to do with not-pop music as pop music. I think this cross-fertilization is good for all involved, and from this Copenhagen-based quintet's point of view, no accident, as they clearly have their collective eye on both musical and cultural history. Slaraffenland is the Danish name for a mythical land of idleness and luxury that was well-known in many countries throughout the Middle Ages (in England, it was called the land of Cockaigne). Slaraffenland was also the subject, and name, of a popular ballet by 20th-century Danish composer Knudåge Riisager. Everything is connected, especially on the internet. "I'm a Machine" is a song from the band's Sunshine EP, released last month on Hometapes.

Free and legal MP3 from the Heavy (great-sounding neo-R&B, British style)

"Set Me Free" - the Heavy
     Forceful, graceful neo-R&B from a British five-piece, as simple and classic-sounding as the background scratches imply--this is, indeed, the kind of song that listeners of a certain age might remember as being accompanied by the sound of a needle dragging its spiral path through well-worn vinyl.
     With this straight-ahead tale of love gone awry, front man Kelvin Swaby conjures any number of storied lead singers that have preceded him in similar musical landscapes, from Marvin Gaye to Mick Jagger to Prince, and does a nice job holding his own. This is one of those magical songs that succeeds for inscrutable reasons--there's no obvious hook to point to, no bells and whistles (cowbell, yes, however); the melody is at best serviceable, the beat is familiar, likewise the subject matter. And yet, from the subtly tempestuous stomp of the introduction, "Set Me Free" soars, unrelentingly. Maybe it has something to do with the underlying restraint at work here: Swaby keeps his cool, his evocative falsetto staying more whispery than shrill; the guitars guiding the beat are acoustic, not electric; even the background singers linger largely around the edges, sometimes sounding as if they're singing in the next room. This one will sound great in just about any imaginable playlist.
     "Set Me Free" is the title track from a digital EP the band released last month on Counter/+1 Records. MP3 via Spin.

Friday, November 07, 2008

New contest--win a Dar Williams prize pack

The latest Fingertips Contest is giving away a Dar Williams "prize pack"--a CD of her new album, Promised Land, a DVD of her concert film Live at Bearsville Theater, and a poster of the Promised Land album art. Check the main Fingertips site for more details, including a Dar Williams widget and links to an MP3 and a video.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Fingertips Q&A: Mike Reisenauer of Pale Young Gentlemen

The latest edition of the Fingertips Q&A features a pithy chat with Mike Reisenauer, lead singer and pianist for the excellent Madison, Wis.-based ensemble Pale Young Gentlemen. Mike answered the five questions directly, without a lot of throat-clearing--you'll get some good insights, and it won't take you long to read.

The Gents have been twice featured on Fingertips--in September '08, and in November '07. The band's new album, Black Forest (tra la la), was released in October on the Madison label Science of Sound.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Fingertips is on Facebook

Become a fan, if you're so inclined.

Free and legal MP3 from Fred (jaunty, endearing Irish band)

"Running" - Fred
     This song is not about running for political office, but it should be; I think we'd be in great shape if candidates went about their business with this exact sort of wacky, good-natured, earnest, interconnected joie de vivre. (Listen to that goofy-wonderful violin in the intro for an immediate sense of what this is going to be about. The violin plays with the trumpet and sounds like it's trying to be a trumpet; the sound they manage to make together has a lot to do with the song's success.)
     Needless to say, joie de vivre has not generally been a characteristic of American political campaigns, which have instead over time been all but vanquished by nastiness and amorality. And yet it makes no sense. Why have we for so many years trusted people to work in our legislatures and run our states and our country who behave like playground bullies when they're out there seeking our votes? (And oops I'm not really talking about the music, am I.) But: is this the year that something...changes? All I know is that finally, someone--in fact, That One--had the courage and vision to try a different approach on a vast, unprecedented scale, running on positive energy and a belief in our actual name: the United States. If you didn't personally prefer him or vote for him, I don't understand it (seriously: have you listened to him, really and truly?), but that's okay too. On this side of things, we criticize based on facts, and we don't demonize the opponent, or his or her followers. And we will see soon enough if there is, in fact, any hope left in--and for--our country.
     In the meantime, Fred: an exuberant quintet from Cork City, Ireland with a knack for bouncy music--jaunty melody, great "oo-oo's" in the background, horn charts, endearing vocalist--and impish album titles. There was Can't Stop, I'm Being Timed in 2002; We Make Music So You Don't Have To, in 2005; and now, Go God Go, which came out on Sparks Music earlier in the year in Ireland, and will be released here in February '09. This is where you'll find "Running." (Note that Go God Go was released digitally last month, for those who can't wait and don't need plastic and liner notes in their lives.)

Free and legal MP3 from Future Clouds and Radar (solid, inscrutable, wistful; R. Pollard meets M. Penn)

"The Epcot View" - Future Clouds and Radar
     Last year, Robert Harrison, ex- of the Beatlesque Texas band Cotton Mather, unleashed Future Clouds and Radar on an unsuspecting world--a sprawling, double-CD debut widely praised by critics for its overflowing, multifaceted psychedelic pop. Personally, I'm not sure I heard anything on that album as cogent and immediately appealing as "The Epcot View," which sounds like the work of someone not trying quite so hard to be overflowing and multifacted anymore.
     With its thoughtful mien and sweet, inviting melody, "The Epcot View" sounds a bit like "Eve of Destruction" as written by Michael Penn, with Robert Pollard making revisions. The song is not without its oddball flourishes--I like the abrupt jazz-rock break at 2:24, and the sci-fi guitar effects that follow--and the lyrics remain as inscrutable as any self-respecting Guided By Voices song, but there's something so solid and reliable at work here that I am thoroughly charmed. Plus, the idea of an "Epcot view" has an immediate connotation that gives me a narrative handhold, even if I'm still puzzling through the rest of the thickly-written lyrics.
     This time around, Future Clouds and Radar is being billed as a four-person band; last year, the group was presented as a loose ensemble masterminded by Harrison. The band's second release, Peoria, is out this week on its own Star Apple Kingdom label.

Free and legal MP3 from Champagne Riot (soaring power pop with neo-'80s sheen)

"Scandinavian Warfare" - Champagne Riot
     "A lot of bands these days seem to be either scared of or not good enough at writing good songs," says Caspar (yes, just Caspar), the somewhat mysterious Berlin-based Dane who records as Champagne Riot. He finds this particularly ironic given that today's production techniques allow songs to sound better than ever. Caspar himself, on the other hand, aims to write really good songs without in fact fussing too much over equipment and such. He apparently does what he does with little more than a Roland MC-307 groovebox (which is a DJ tool) and a couple of old guitars. "My focus is very much on creating simple and melodic music, and getting the most out of the primitive equipment I have at hand."
     Not that "Scandinavian Warfare" sounds primitive by any means; this is one smooth piece of power pop, with a grand neo-'80s sheen (sweeping, orchestral synth lines; robotic dance beats). True to his intention, Caspar delivers glorious melody in three places: verse, chorus, and the recurring synthesizer riff. It's nothing complicated; he works nicely with two basic types of alternations--an alternation between major and minor chords, and an alternation between a faster (verses) and a slower (chorus) melody. And I think the man is selling his equipment short a bit--he's obviously got a decent microphone up his sleeve somewhere, as the pleasing timbre of his impressively elastic voice (often double-tracked) comes through with warmth and clarity.
     "Scandinavian Warfare" is a track from Champagne Riot's debut EP Paris and I, which was released last week on Shelflife Records. MP3 via Shelflife. Thanks to Chris from Music of the Moment for the lead. And don't forget to vote, even if you have to wait in line.