Monday, December 29, 2008

Fingertips Favorites: Top Free and Legal MP3s of 2008

In place of the usual three-song "This Week's Finds," I am this week unveiling the list of Fingertips Favorites for 2008--my favorite free and legal MP3s of the year. Actually, there are two lists--a top 10, and then another 10. They're kind of in order but it's also kind of pointless to try to put them in order. All are really good songs. Maybe you missed some of these along the way, so here's a chance to listen and download once again. (The MP3 is linked via the song title; the "more" link next to each song will take you to the original TWF review.)

If you'd like to listen to these songs in a player, or learn a little more about these lists, visit the official Fingertips Favorites page.

Happy new year one and all. See you in '09.


"Albert" - Ed Laurie  [more]
"Beyond the Door" - 13ghosts  [more]
"Me and Armini" - Emiliana Torrini [more]
"Cherry Tulips" - Headlights  [more]
"I Lost the Monkey" - The Wedding Present  [more]
"The Crook of My Good Arm" - Pale Young Gentlemen  [more]
"Some Are Lakes" - Land of Talk  [more]
"Neal Cassady" - The Weather Underground  [more]
"Cat Swallow" - The Royal Bangs  [more]
"Scandinavian Warfare" - Champagne Riot  [more]

Honorary Top 10: "My Mistakes Were Made For You" - The Last Shadow Puppets (no longer available) [more]


"Animé Eyes" - The Awkward Stage  [more]
"HYPNTZ" - Dan Black  [more]
"A Little Tradition" - Novillero  [more]
"Connjur" - School of Seven Bells  [more]
"Torn Foam Blue Couch" - Grand Archives  [more]
"Yer Motion" - Reeve Oliver  [more]
"Sure Enough" - Andrea Desveaux  [more]
"Rosa" - Samuel Marcus  [more]
"Right Away" - Pattern Is Movement  [more]
"Un Día" - Juana Molina  [more]

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from Surf City (melodic, infectious neo-surf rock and then some)

"Headin' Inside" - Surf City
     Fingertips doesn't much traffic in genres and here's a great example of why: if asked, I would not claim surf rock as a particular favorite, or garage rock, or anything that sounds lo-fi or DIY-ish. "Headin' Inside" is pretty much a blend of all three, and this--go figure--I pretty much love. So, look: it's not about the genre, people. It's about the music. If "melodic, spirited, intelligent pop" were a genre, then maybe I'd sign up as a fan.
     Meantime, "Headin' Inside": this one announces "pay attention!" to me in three distinct places. First: after that itchy, half surf-rock/half jangle-rock intro keeps you engaged but on hold, wondering where it's all going, we get, at 0:26, the unforeseen entrance of some sort of flute- or pipe-like instrument playing the melodic refrain; the musical juxtaposition is brilliant in a way words cannot describe. Second: when lead singer Davin Stoddard shouts "one, two, three, four!" for the second time, at 1:04, it leads into a wordless vocal section rather than straight back into a verse; even better, the "oh-oh-ohs" here are sung at half-speed to the verse's melody, and partially syncopated off the beat as well. That's just plain great. But again, I can't really describe why. Third: the chorus, when Stoddard sings, "I'm headin' inside/Yeah I'm headin' outside for a while." Which is it? How can it be both? Am I hearing things? Answers are besides the point when a song has this much infectious momentum. Fourth: when the lyric "What's the matter now?" is repeated (1:32). No other lyrical line is repeated like that, as far as I can tell. Need I bother to add that this moment too is indescribably delightful?
     Surf City is a quartet from Auckland that used to be called Kill Surf City (after a Jesus and Mary Chain song) but found that a band in the U.K. had beaten them to the name. "Headin' Inside" is the lead track from the group's self-titled debut EP, released last month on the German label, Morr Music, which is typically an electronica label (see last week's review of B. Fleischmann, below). But maybe they don't let genre get in their way, either.

Free and legal MP3 from Elizabeth Willis (classically trained singer/songwriter, with substance and tunefulness)

"In Your Eyes" - Elizabeth Willis
     When a song starts with this much immediate authority, I wonder why all songs don't do this. Isn't it simple?: a forceful beat, some piano vamping with nice chords changes, and a bit of tempestuous violin (and/or viola) playing. Nothing to it. Well, okay, maybe there's a bit of something to it--especially the violin and/or viola playing. Turns out Willis is a former child prodigy in both violin and piano. Classically (and relentlessly) trained from the age of four. Maybe this isn't so simple after all.
     Pay attention to how, right away, there's more action during the third and fourth beats of the four-beat measures than you'll hear during the first two. That lends an appealing off-kilterness to the standard 4/4 beat, and foreshadows the underlying structure of the song, in which the main melodies in both the verse and the chorus begin between the second and third beats. I haven't done any formal surveys but I would say this is relatively unusual; if a pop song's melody does not start directly on the first beat, it will usually start either between the first and second or on the second. The way the song keeps driving forward, with the melody lagging behind but forging on, lends an ineffable sort of poignancy and persistence to the sound of it. The melody also does interesting things like utilize semitones--half intervals between notes--in a sophisticated way, which I don't think I can get more specific about it, but it has to do with the first melody that goes with the words "It was in your eyes." And on top of everything, do not miss her fierce string playing and oh yeah, her voice--a dusky alto with a hint of vibrato--is pretty cool too.
     "In Your Eyes" is a song from her self-titled debut CD, released in September, digitally, on Little Blackbird Records.

Free and legal MP3 from Juliette Commagère (lush and layered, both bashy and beautiful)

"Overcome" - Juliette Commagère
     Lush, layered, and unapologetically dramatic, "Overcome" almost viscerally illustrates its theme with music that is simultaneously in your face and in the clouds. A cascade of simple descending melodies and unrestrained harmonies, "Overcome" aims for both unmitigated beauty and bashy insistence, in the process making lack of subtlety its own kind of asset--after all, a song all about being overcome is not one for nuance practice. The fact that its recurring six-note instrumental refrain mirrors the chorus of "Born in the U.S.A." is likely a coincidence but I kind of enjoy how she's imported that pummeling tune into a neo-Enya-like setting.
     You know, I keep listening to this, which, circularly, seems to increase my desire to keep listening to it. And yet increased exposure seems to be decreasing my capacity to say anything particularly perceptive about it. I think this one aims at some entirely different part of the brain.
     Commagère is the singer and keytar (yes, keytar) player for the band Hello Stranger. "Overcome" is from her first solo album, entitled Queens Die Proudly, which was released in October on the L.A-based Aeronaut Records.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Wild One" - Those Darlins (Appalachian authenticity, with attitude)

"Wild One" - Those Darlins
     Take the Appalachian back-porch music of the Carter family and paste a Lily Allen-style 21st-century 20-something's attitude on top of it and here we are. This is not complicated stuff, but it's utterly charming, somehow. To begin with, there's something wonderful in the air when you're hearing three women, employing a hillbilly melody, accompanied by retro-sounding rhythm and lead guitars (plus, a ukulele in the mix), singing words like this: "If you can't handle crazy/Go ahead and leave/If you don't want a wild one/Quit hangin' round with me." It's hard enough to combine the contemporary and the traditional in a way that respects both; it's particularly hard to do so and come up with something fun. (Usually you end up with "earnest" in such instances.) (Not that there's anything wrong with earnest, but fun is, well, more fun.)
     Based in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Those Darlins are three women who go by the names Nikki Darlin, Jessi Darlin, and Kelley Darlin, which also tells me that their historical respect extends likewise, and unexpectedly, onto the streets of downtown Manhattan in the mid-1970s, where a quartet of unrelated, black-leather-clad young men adopted the same last name and went on quite a tear themselves. (And what the heck: CBGB did, after all, stand for Country, Bluegrass, and Blues; I kid you not.) Maybe it's their sense of history, or maybe it's their sense of humor, or maybe it's just their plain old sense, but I'm getting a deeper and stronger vibe out of this trio than I get from most of the other brassy 20-somethings who've flung themselves onto the scene over the last year or two. Showing an awareness of a wide world beyond the tips of their own noses (or the touch screens of their iPhones) is way more enticing than being snarky and fashionable. At least it is here.
     "Wild One" is the title track to the group's first release, a three-song EP, which came out this fall on Oh Wow Dang Records, which I'm pretty sure is the band's own label (information is scanty), but if not, with a name like that, it should be. Thanks to the mighty Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Free and legal MP3 from the Walkmen (subtly intense midtempo rocker with year-end vibe)

"In the New Year" - the Walkmen
     So with the musical pickings slimming down with year's end, I'm starting a new Fingertips tradition: revisiting the "Almost Bin" in December, to see what songs might be wanting and needing another chance. The Almost Bin, you see, is the file into which I deposit all songs I've considered seriously for a "This Week's Finds" slot, but end up not featuring for who knows what reason. These things just sort of are. But this is such a non-science, there could well be a song or two in there that, if reconsidered, might sound, now, like a "This Week's Finds" entry for sure.
     "In the New Year" was always really really close to getting the nod. Maybe in the back of my head I just figured it would be a better song to hear in December. There's something idiosyncratic at work here, to be sure--the song lopes along in a sort of undefinable tempo; something seems coiled up, but the intensity leaks out in aspects other than speed. A lot of the vehemence is worked out through singer Hamilton Leithauser's unrestrained capacity in his upper register--he's not screaming or shreiking, but he is surely letting loose, expressing his torn-up feelings indirectly, via roiling combination of glad tidings ("It's going to be a good year") and troubled hints ("It's all over anyhow"). Without a fully graspable structure--the song doesn't seem to have verses or chorus as much as drum-free sections, filled with ringing guitars, and drumming sections, the latter dominated by that chiming organ riff--very new yearsy it is, somehow, yes?--which cycles through again and again, generating a driving surge of appeal as the song unfolds in its potent but unhurried way.
     The Walkmen are a NYC-based quintet that has been together since 2000. "In the New Year" is a song from the group's You and Me CD, their fifth full-length album, which was released on Gigantic Records in August. They were previously featured on Fingertips in July 2004.

Free and legal MP3 from B. Fleischmann (Yuletide electronica with a provocative story)

"24.12." - B. Fleischmann
     And here's another not-quite-typical holiday song. You won't hear a lot of out-and-out electronica on Fingertips, not because I have anything against the sound per se, but because by and large I find the genre lacking in what I will, with apologies to S. Colbert, call "songiness." We get a lot of beat and texture and neato sounds but often each track emerges like something sliced out of the electronica-o-matic machine, without an individually compelling sense of structure, arc, or storyline.
     While "24.12." has its quirks--there is no chorus, either musically or lyrically, and nothing really resembling a hook--I still feel that Austrian Bernhard Fleischmann has delivered a fully realized song here, and then some. Unusually for electronica, this one is rooted in the lyrics, so don't miss them: it's a holiday story song of an unusual nature. The male voice--not Fleischmann's, but a guest vocalist who goes by the name Sweet William Van Ghost--sings only the song's prelude, setting up the situation and the character who then steps forward to sing the rest of the song. I won't give away the premise, but I will note that Marilies Jagsch, the woman who sings in the song's second half, is not who she appears to be, character-wise. And it may well be that twist that gives this strange song its depth.
     In the middle of the nuanced electronica ambiance, the one central, recurring motif you will hear is the most musically unsubtle thing imaginable: a descending C scale, played note by note on the guitar. And yet by kind of hiding in plain sight there, it lends the subtle air of holiday song to the tale, as that descending line, in other contexts, carries the distinct flavor of Yuletide about it. (It's a tricky thing, using the unsubtle subtly.) "24.12." is a song from Fleischmann's latest album, Angst is Not a Weltanschauung!, released in November on the German Morr Music label. Weltanschauung, by the way, is one of those wonderful, not entirely translatable German compound words; the overall title means something to the effect of "Fear is not a worldview." Which is itself a great message for a not-quite-typical holiday greeting card, I'd say.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from Lukestar (distinctive Europop from Oslo)

"White Shade" - Lukestar
     Be aware, to begin with, that this is a man singing. I will quickly admit that I do not usually warm to a male voice that sounds this much like a female voice, but this has only to do with the fact that in my experience, singers with unusual voices tend to over-rely on the basic aural gimmick and therefore under-deliver on the song. Hell, I could listen to a male voice that sounds like a female hyena if the song is good enough.
     In "White Shade," lead man Truls Heggero, of the Oslo-based quartet Lukestar, has a worthy piece of material to work with, featuring first and foremost that European pop band tendency to sneak up a bit on the hook, and to manage in general to make a three-minute song seem expansive and interesting. The song has three distinctive sections: the upbeat verse, with Heggero's voice in such a high range that he can make that five-interval downward leap and still sound like a soprano on the lower note; the meandering bridge, which arrives unexpectedly after a forceful instrumental interlude, and has the air of some hidden section of a lost prog-rock classic (but much shorter!), complete with organ flourishes; and then, wow, a swift and appealing chorus, with an assured, wide-ranging melody that brings Heggero so much further down in his range that a-ha, it's clearly a man singing after all. The song goes through the three sections again but with an alteration at the end of the verse, just to see if you're paying attention (around 1:42); when the chorus comes back it seems both more appealing and shorter than ever--wait! sing that again! you want to say. Good news--he does, and then, without fuss, the song is over.
     "White Shade" is a song from Lake Toba, Lukestar's second CD, which came out in Norway early this year, and was released in the U.S. last month on Flameshovel Records. Lake Toba, I feel compelled to inform you, is the largest volcanic lake in the world (it's on the Indonesian island of Sumatra); an enormous eruption there 75,000 years ago changed the Earth's climate and apparently wiped out a lot of the human population on earth at the time. Just to keep things in perspective.

Free and legal MP3 from Modern Skirts (upbeat pop with a lounge-like gloss)

"Soft Pedals" - Modern Skirts
     Cushy and upbeat with a lounge-like gloss and an incomprehensible flow of lyrics ("Give me a knife and a merry-go-round"?), "Soft Pedals" is all smoothness and unruffled cool, combining crisp acoustic guitar rhythms, bell-like synth lines, chirpy electronics, and occasional bursts of layered harmonies. I'm not going to tell you what it's all about because I have no idea, although I am picking up a vague scent of soft-core porn that floats around the pretty much impervious storyline. Let me know if that's my imagination or not.
     And let the record show that Modern Skirts, the Athens, Ga.-based foursome that has sculpted this mysteriously agreeable groove of a song, is not in any way a lounge band; they specialize, rather, in being eclectic, in a Fountains of Wayne kind of way. Had a different song from their album, All Of Us In Our Night, been chosen as the free and legal MP3, you'd be getting a completely different impression of the band right now. Singer Jay Gulley has a languid baritone that works in a variety of settings, although I do in particular like the breathy nonchalance he brings to the job here, along with the backing layers of vocals he provides for himself. I am particularly mystified about how he gets away with that "You got on top/I got on top" part (e.g. 2:05), flagrantly emphasizing the wrong syllable in the background harmonies, and yet making it sound so smooth and unflappable that you don't even notice (except that I went ahead and pointed it out to you). He manages to make it sounder righter than the right way would've sounded. Now that's smooth.
     All Of Us In Our Night, the band's second CD, will be self-released next month.

Free and legal MP3 from Sam Phillips (old-timey sound, bewitching voice, brilliant songwriting)

"Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us" - Sam Phillips
     Sorry, gang, but in an unprecedented development here on Fingertips, a song I linked to that was originally identified without question as a free and legal MP3 turns out not to have been a free and legal MP3. The record label (we're dealing of course with a big record label) was shocked--shocked--to find out that the company they hired to help market the album, a company well known for using free and legal MP3s with every artist they promote, was in fact planning to use an MP3 and not just a stream. So down it goes. And a Keith O.-style "worst person in the world" award goes out this week to Nonesuch Records and their lovely parent, Warner Brothers. Pleasure to do business with you.

     Another rich slice of idiosyncratic marvelousness from Sam Phillips, "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us" uses the real-life 20th-century gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (one of the first to make a career singing secular music) as a jumping-off point for an evocative song about love and loss and the latent power of the self, particularly when challenged. One of Sister Rosetta's bigger hits was the song "Strange Things Happening Everyday"; Phillips begins her song with the line "Strange things are happening everyday" (and ah! that somewhat odd and bewitching voice of hers!) and takes us from there on a strange journey herself. The jaunty melody sounds like something from the '30s, a bygone aura enhanced by the use of a Stroh violin (as played by Eric Gorfain), an early 20th-century contraption that has strings and a bow but uses a metal horn rather than a wooden body to amplify its oddly clarinet-ish sound.
     It was on her 2001 album Fan Dance and then, more thoroughly, on 2004's A Boot and a Shoe that Phillips first explored this old-fashioned musical landscape, although never succumbing to mere nostalgia. That's really what has made the music so compelling, I think: she takes sounds from the '20s and '30s and gives them currency and vigor through the quality of the musicianship, the allure of her smoky-buzzy voice, and the casual brilliance of her songwriting. Listen to the ease with which "Sister Rosetta"'s melody uses so many different notes in the scale, but listen too to how focused and down-to-earth her language is. "Though the sound of hope has left me again/I hear music up above:" fourteen words for just seventeen syllables, and all three two-syllable words have only five letters; and see how she yet hints at the ineffable core of life itself.
     "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us" was first recorded by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant on their 2007 CD Raising Sand; it's sort of like Phillips covers her own song, since her version came second, showing up on Don't Do Anything, which she released earlier this year on Nonesuch Records. A big shout-out goes to the fine folks at Toolshed for getting this one out there as a free and legal MP3.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

British composer/arranger/pianist/vocalist Mark Northfield the subject of December's Fingertips Q&A

The latest installment of the Fingertips Q&A is now online, this one featuring British composer/arranger/pianist and sometime vocalist Mark Northfield. Northfield's haunting song "Zero" (he did in fact sing on it) was featured on Fingertips back in July, and I must say the gent has more going for him than one spiffy song. His startlingly thoughtful responses to five questions about the current and future state of the music industry are well worth checking out if you're interested in such things, or might be someday. Read the Q&A here, and find out more about Mark Northfield on his web site. The cat has no web site, to the best of my knowledge.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from Amanda Palmer (Dresden Dolls' singer goes solo, produced by Ben Folds)

"Astronaut" - Amanda Palmer
     The smoky alto is back, likewise the melodramatic delivery and foreboding lyrics, but Amanda Palmer arrives this time without the Dresden Dolls, the self-proclaimed "Brechtian punk cabaret" duo of which she is half. The Dolls have a compelling sound, to be sure, but perhaps it was time to see what Palmer could do when freed of the band's intriguing but restricted soundscape--an idea that so delighted Dresden Dolls' fan Ben Folds that he actively sought the job of being Palmer's producer for her solo debut.
     And so the Foldsian piano pounding (by Palmer) that opens this, the album's lead track, seems no accident, but neither does the Palmerian left turn the song takes after 20 seconds of it--with the strings still echoing off the soundboard, we dive into 40 seconds of brooding quiet, which announces that Palmer has not left her bravado in her "punk cabaret" kit bag. We lean in, we wonder exactly what she's talking about ("Is it enough to have some love/Small enough to slip inside a book"), we get closer still and then bam, we get whacked on the head a second time, when the volume and beat return, at 1:02. "I am still not getting what I want," she sings, a thematically charged line in Palmer's oeuvre if ever there was one, as the song leaps back to life and soon picks up an unexpectedly welcoming bounce. When Palmer belts, her voice has this commanding way of sounding off-key and on the right note at the same time. She is in fact a very precise singer and writer; whether or not I get their meaning, her words are a rhythmic pleasure, scanning with a finesse not typically found in indie rock. And she even effects a musical climax based largely on the metric foot she employs, in the bridge that starts at 2:53, which sticks with a rat-a-tat trochaic meter (ONE-two, ONE-two, ONE-two etc.) until we are pretty much beaten into submission. It's both an impressive display of lyrical discipline and a way of adding a driving anguish to the song below the level of consciousness.
     The CD Who Killed Amanda Palmer was released earlier this fall on Roadrunner Records. Note that the song link above is not a direct link, but will take you to the page where you can download the MP3. Palmer offers the 128k MP3 for free, and allows you to name your price for a variety of other file formats (including AAC, Ogg Vorbis, and Apple Loseless). Note too that Palmer offers up six tracks from the new album in this same way; check them out here.

Free and legal MP3 from Gramercy Arms (short, crisp, and anthemic)

"Automatic" - Gramercy Arms
     Crisp and crunchy speak-singing verses alternate with a short, anthemic chorus with one word--"automatic"--sung in the background, while "It's automatic" is spoken/sung in the foreground. Very very simple, but oddly compelling. How can some songs be annoyingly simple and other songs be compellingly simple? Let's try to figure it out.
     "Automatic" is short, to begin with (2:21). This is good either way--if a song is simply simple, there's no reason to belabor the point; if the song is not as simple as it seems, working quickly will increase the complexity (less time spent repeating anything). "Automatic" has no introduction, which is generally good in a simple song, as introductions often tread water anyway. The speak-singing style used here by front man (and ex-Dambuilder) Dave Derby adds subtle complexity, since it registers as talking but he is in fact hitting specific notes. The first verse is eight measures, then we get the partially sung chorus, also eight measures, but it's interestingly inside out, with the background singers singing first, before the lead singer speak/sings. Plus, the singing section is sing-along wonderful, like a tiny piece of power pop packed into another song altogether (note too that the word "automatic" turns out to be the completion of the last lyrical line in the verse; more hidden complexity). The second verse is six measures, a change that cannily jars the listener ever so slightly. Two more things nail this down for me: the instrumental break (starting at 0:54), which concisely fleshes out the two-chord riff of the verse in a sharp, yet multilayered way; and then, best of all, the bridge (1:19), eight measures of fuzzed-up melodic sweetness, capped by a burst of harmony that sounds like the Move just as they were turning into ELO, for you old-timers out there. Or Cheap Trick, for you not-quite-as-old-timers.
     So this one, yeah, it works for me. "Automatic" is a song from the debut Gramercy Arms CD (and they don't fool around; the whole thing is only 30 minutes long); it's self-titled and was released on Cheap Lullaby Records in mid-November. Among the indie rock semi-celebrities helping on on the album were Matthew Caws from Nada Surf, Joan Wasser of Joan As Police Woman (who sings back-up on this song), and members of the Pernice Brothers and Guided By Voices, among others. And comedienne Sarah Silverman too, who apparently sings in addition to kvetches.

Free and legal MP3 from Matt Pond PA (beautifully written, guitar-driven indie pop)

"Our Braided Lives" - Matt Pond PA
     It's been a long time since we've heard from Matt Pond and company here on Fingertips; his band, purveyors of thoughtful, string-supported pop, was one of the site's early stars (an original listee on the Select Artist Guide, even); they were also one of the first 21st-century indie bands to find themselves playing for a mainstream TV audience, via placement on The O.C.. The band was actually formed back in the 20th century (1998), in Philadelphia; they have operated from Brooklyn since 2003, and have undergone a variety of lineup changes over the years.
     "Our Braided Lives" is vintage MPPA--sweet but firm, wistful but forward-moving, with a deep-seated melodicism and nicely intertwining guitars. The two main melodies on display--one from the verse, one from the chorus--balance each other brilliantly: the melody in the verse feels like a thoughtful journey, hinging upon an unresolved moment (the line ending at 0:46, for the first example of it); the chorus melody, more focused, is one of those glorious, slightly melancholy descending lines, neatly balanced by a warm, ascending guitar. And check out this masterly bit of songwriting: both the verse and the chorus conclude with the same line, both melodically and lyrically, which surely contributes to the this solid sense of arrival the song evokes.
     "Our Braided Lives" comes from the band's new free EP, which is being called, plainly enough, The Freeep (go here for the download; check out, while you're there, Pond's musings on the EP's title, among other things). The EP was self-released last week.