Monday, March 31, 2008

This week from Fingertips: free and legal downloads from the M's, Laura Cantrell, and Annuals

"Big Sound" - the M's
     Giddily nostalgic and busily eclectic, "Big Sound" shakes and squeals to a tinny '00s cavalcade of buzzy electronics, stomping piano, and echoey vocals, with a perky but disheveled horn section and some radio frequency sounds thrown in because, well, it's a big sound. Neo-glam-garage-pop with an R&B chaser, or some such thing.
     Most impressive of all is how this Chicago-based quartet mine rock history with such panache. With "Big Sound," the M's manage, almost uniquely, to evoke the Beatles, the Kinks, and the Stones pretty much at the same time, but with a magnetism that is independent of influence. This is one of those songs in which the chorus offers not too much more than a minor variation, melodically, of what we've already heard in the verse--and yet how compelling I find it, snaky guitar lines working with the pounding piano and nutty horns (listen to how the whole thing comes to a humorous halt for a moment at about 1:42) to drive us, with a sense of barely controlled chaos, towards, ultimately, well...complete chaos: the final minute of the song is a dreamy denouement of echoing feedback and tweedling guitars and electronics that feels oddly right and satisfying after the frenetic bustle of the previous three and a half minutes.
     The M's sound to me like the real deal. They've been around since 2000, recording since '03. "Big Sound" is an advance track off Real Close Ones, the band's third full-length CD, due out on Polyvinyl Records in June. MP3 courtesy of Pitchfork.

"Love Vigilantes" - Laura Cantrell
     Nashville-born, NYC-based Laura Cantrell (pronounced CAN-trill) is a 21st-century anomaly--a country singer who falls neither into the syrupy, commercialized "country music" camp nor into the allegedly hipper and up-to-date-er "" camp. She seeks to sing something pure and folk-based that manages to sound at once very traditional and very present in the here and now. Her influences are clear to anyone who has tuned in to her acclaimed radio show, "Radio Thrift Shop," a fixture on WFMU since 2000. There, she offers music from a wide range of often obscure artists (Pee Wee Crayton? Gitfiddle Jim?) from the '30s, '40s, and '50s, mixing down-home old-style jazz with western swing and plain old country--you are warned in advance that the songs are "often scratchy, swingy and stringy." (RTS disappeared for a while in the '05-'06 time frame; it has since returned in a biweekly, online-only format.)
      Neither scratchy, swingy, nor stringy, "Love Vigilantes" is a plaintive, beautifully arranged reworking of a New Order song that was once upon a time a staple on "modern rock" radio. Cantrell sings with a straightforward tone, golden and nourishing, with a tincture of twang and ache, but without a trace of emoting. In direct contrast to commercially-motivated music, producers of which appear to believe that the straightest way to emotion is a combination of histrionic singing and overripe arrangements, Cantrell presents with true heart, and demonstrates the power of disciplined playing. Listen to the piano during the first 10 seconds--single notes, given their space--for an example. The fiddle, meanwhile, plays with such artful restraint, low washes coloring the mandolin, that you may not realize it's there until it steps out for a sad, pensive solo at around 1:50.
     First appearing on the soundtrack for the Iraq War documentary Body of War last year, "Love Vigilantes" is one of the nine songs on Cantrell's new, digital-only CD, Trains and Boats and Planes. The songs are themed loosely around travel--perhaps natural enough for a woman who has been on hiatus from music for three years, taking care of her first child. Staying home with a baby is one of the surest ways to launch daydreams about seeing the world. Six of the songs are covers; three are new versions of previously released Cantrell songs. The album will be available digitally next month via Diesel Only Records.

"Sore" - Annuals
     The relative youngsters from the North Carolina-based band Annuals (no "the") are back with another dramatic aural landscape disguised as a pop song. As with "Brother," from 2006, "Sore" starts gently, almost pastorally, but doesn't stay there. The wondrous thing is that the louder, churning sections are nothing if not more gorgeous than the quiet sections. Also, this time, the song is not simply split into the "quiet first half" and the "loud second half"; the dynamics on "Sore" are more complex, and the end result is, I think, even more rewarding.
     The beginning is certainly pretty, but subtly disquieting, as the time signature is hard to pin down, and rendered trickier when the drummer kicks in with a gentle, brushed swing rhythm at 0:32 that somehow fits on top of the existing structure even as it doesn't seem as if it should. The subsequent two changes are cumulatively magnificent: at 1:14, when the music remains gentle but the new rhythm is now fully embraced; and then at 1:35, when the band erupts and lets loose. But not for too long, as a string-dominated instrumental section brings us back to a not-quite-as-quiet quiet section. The second time through, the verse is altered by some twitchy percussion, and leads more quickly back to the full-volume swing--alterations that keep our interest without causing us to lose our bearings entirely. Also, don't miss the modulation at 3:30: it's a simple trick but sounds so inevitable that when I go back to listen to the first half, I keep being surprised it's not there also.
     "Sore" is one of three Annuals songs on a new split EP the band has done with a group called Sunfold--a group which is, as it turns out, composed of the same six people who are in Annuals. In Sunfold, however, Annuals frontman Adam Baker steps aside and lead guitarist Kenny Florence does the writing and singing. The two Sunfold songs on the EP are apparently a bit more guitar-oriented than standard Annuals fare. The EP, called Wet Zoo, is out this week on Canvasback Music. The MP3 is yet another from Pitchfork. If you can overlook a certain amount of snooty (not to mention snotty) writing, Pitchfork has turned into a grand source for exclusive free and legal MP3s over the past couple of years.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Free and legal downloads from Cloud Cult, Shelley Short, and Morning State

(as featured on This Week's Finds, Mar. 23-29)

"When Water Comes to Life" - Cloud Cult
     Offbeat, earnest, eventually anthemic chamber pop from one of indie rock's quirkiest outfits, the Minneapolis-based Cloud Cult. Assembled in the middle of the '90s to support singer/songwriter Craig Minowa's ambitious songs, Cloud Cult solidified into a band through the end of the decade and began, with the new century, to record regularly--the new CD, entitled Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes), is the band's seventh of the '00s.
     Launching off a gypsy-ish violin riff, "When Water Comes to Life" begins orchestrally, a variety of strings leading the way, both bowed and plucked. Even the drums, when they appear, sound like percussion in an orchestra more than someone banging on a drum kit. Minowa doesn't start singing until about a minute and a half in, and when he does, he repeats a simple, four-line verse over and over, as the music swells and transforms underneath him. The lyrics, meanwhile, are biblical and vaguely apocalyptic (visiting angels, the swirl of death and life, etc.). When the drums become rock'n'roll drums for good, at 2:36, the piece receives a powerful kick, heightened no doubt by the cumulative effect of the repetition and the ongoing musical and lyrical drama.
     Cloud Cult was a pioneer in the still-developing "green band" trend, working at a commendably high level of environmental awareness across everything they do (although they do not tend to sing about it). Despite early offers of record contracts with established labels, Minowa kept the band independent largely because no record company could guarantee the level of environmental friendliness, manufacturing-wise, that Minowa's own Earthlogy Records could deliver (i.e. packaging from 100 percent postconsumer recycled, plus nontoxic shrink-wrap; oh, and for everything 1,000 CDs sold, Earthology plants 10 trees). In performance the band apparently offers quite the experience; two of the seven members are listed as "visual artists"--they paint onstage during concerts. Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes) is due out next month on Earthology, in association with the Rebel Group. MP3 via Pitchfork.

"Swimming" - Shelley Short
     Chicago's Shelley Short seems singularly able to combine an idiosyncratic approach to acoustic guitar-based songwriting with a warm, welcome, easy-to-listen-to vibe. This ain't no freak folk, in other words. But Short's music does have its subtler oddities, including dissonant chords, unexpected sounds, and offbeat arrangements.
     Listen, for example, to the minimal accompaniment utilized in the verse--a series of deliberate, three-note patterns, based on the simple ascensions we hear in the introduction but continually blurred by unexpected harmonics. Throughout the song, when she sings the verses, the accompaniment sticks to these three-note patterns, without any other rhythm or flourish--a simple, unostentatious, but actually very strange way to go about things.
     When we get to the chorus, the 1-2-3 rhythm of the three-note pattern is reflected now in the acoustic guitar strum, and the melody slows down to one syllable per triplet. And so without (I don't think) changing the time signature, or the instrumentation in any major way, the chorus sounds like a whole different musical place than the verse did. Again, it's subtle, but distinctive. And get a load of that burbly guitar sound she uses in the second verse, to add to the song's watery setting. Very cool, but if you don't listen carefully you might not notice.
     And hey I guess I've got an unintentional watery theme going so far, as "Swimming" comes from the CD Water For The Day, due out next month on Hush Records. MP3 via Hush. (For those who might have missed it, check out too Short's first appearance on Fingertips, back in February 2006.)

"Oh Yeah" - Morning State
     End of watery theme, for those keeping score at home. Also, end of quirky theme, as "Oh Yeah" is about as straightforward as its title. Note that this does not mean it is uninteresting or lacking charm. Being unorthodox is not the only way to catch the ear.
     This one works, for me, for its tight sense of pace and atmosphere, and for the unaccountably powerful chorus hook, which succeeds in large part via restraint. The verse--with its needly guitar line and steady bashing drum--feels itchy, and creates the sense that it's leading somewhere large and explosive. We get the setup--that single drumbeat at 0:26--and then...we get the bass player, who come to think of it was missing in action till now. He gives the song a satisfying, Split-Enz-y bottom, but nothing otherwise busts out. Russell Ledford sings in succinct, mournful phrases; no yowling for him. And follow the guitars, if you will. They too remain reined in during the chorus, but begin to burst at the seams as they lead into and then accompany the second verse. No one should be surprised when they get to make some noise a bit later on, but even that retains an air of forbearance--after all, how bad-ass a guitar solo can you inject into a two-minute, forty-second song?
     Morning State is a quartet from Georgia, based in Atlanta but also considered local in Athens. "Oh Yeah" is a song from the band's debut CD, You Know People I Know People. It's the band's first CD, but, oddly enough, it's the second version of the album. To make what is probably a long and painful story short and unemotional, Morning State spent four months on the album previously, and were four songs into the mixing process, when the record label they were signed with went belly up. The producer offered the band a deal but they couldn't afford it; it was cheaper for them to go to Athens and record the entire album all over again. Which is what they did. The CD will be self-released in May.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Free and legal MP3s from Grand Archives, Brooke Waggoner, and A Brief Smile

(as featured on This Week's Finds, Mar. 16-22)

"Torn Blue Foam Couch" - Grand Archives
     This is one of those sweeping, evocative, thoroughly impressive songs that everyone more or less has to like--until, of course, everyone does like it, at which point there will be those who decide they don't like it because too many people like it. You know the drill.
     Lovely melodies are front and center in "Torn Blue Foam Couch"; they feel like bygone melodies, from another time and place, wafting through the window almost Twilight Zone-ishly--you're sure you recognize them, but something seems a little off. There are some unusual instrument choices--the harp sound in the intro (might actually be a ukulele) isn't something you hear every day, and that rubbery drum that kicks in at around 0:48 is not typically heard in a standard drum kit. But something else seems subtly awry as the song develops and after any number of listens I finally figured it out: this baby has a bizarre structure: it's all verse for the first two-plus minutes, and then all chorus the rest of the way. The switchover happens at about 2:16, and you can really feel the shift in your gut at that point--it's like you didn't realize quite how much the tension was building until it finally released.
     Lyrically the song escapes me--no matter how many times I listen, a combination of Mat Brooke's pretty yet often unintelligible voice and some defiantly inscrutable lyrics continue to stymie. "Hey darling don't you look fine/The dull look in your eyes/You're terrified": fascinating, but--huh? Brooke formed the Seattle-based Grand Archives in 2006, after leaving Band of Horses following their first CD for Sub Pop Records. Previously, he was in a band that has seemed retrospectively influential--the purposefully misspelled outfit Carissa's Wierd, which also featured Jenn Ghetto and Sera Cahoone, and whose odd, neo-folk-rock sound presaged the likes of the Decemberists and Johanna Newsom. "Torn Blue Foam Couch" is from Grand Archives' sort of self-titled debut CD, The Grand Archives, which was released last month, also on Sub Pop. MP3 via Sub Pop.

"Hush If You Must" - Brooke Waggoner
     Brooke Waggoner may be the only singer/songwriter in Nashville who cites Chopin as an influence, never mind both Chopin and ELO. So she is not a typical Nashville musician; she's from Louisiana but she's not a typical Louisiana musician either. She seems, indeed, to have her eye on music that extends beyond any one regional palette--or any one genre's palette, for that matter. "Hush If You Must," while starting as a breezy piano ditty (the intro recalls "Daydream Believer" to these ears), quickly hangs a fuller-fledged, string-laden sound upon that original, recurring refrain. There are tempo changes and mood shifts throughout, centered on the basic dichotomy of the musically restrained vocal sections, featuring Waggoner's double-tracked yet cozy voice, and the swifter, louder instrumental sections--which include one unexpected, tempo-shifting break, at 1:38, all honky-tonk and handclaps.
     Waggoner has a college degree in music composition and orchestration, and is personally responsible for the string arrangements that play a central role here. But even when a soaring string display grabs your attention, I suggest keeping an ear on the piano. Waggoner has a sure touch at the keyboard--her playing has palpable personality, and not just during the honky-tonk interlude. I feel as if I can see her determined, playful, satisfied face as she nimbly hammers out her sure-fingered lines. Listen in particular to the extended piano solo she takes starting at 2:52--it's not complicated, but it's vibrant and personal in a way that more overtly virtuosic playing often isn't.
     Waggoner is 23, and has one EP to her name so far--Fresh Pair of Eyes, which was self-released last year. "Hush If You Must" is the lead track from the EP, and is available as an MP3 via SXSW, where Waggoner performed last week.

"Big Sky" - A Brief Smile
     An exquisitely ambivalent song, musically speaking, "Big Sky" rings with unresolved chords, elegant dissonance, ringing harmonics, and finely-tuned noise--all hung on the unassuming frame of a sturdy little pop song. Succinct melodies, verse-bridge-chorus, you can even sing along. This is a marvelous accomplishment.
     The chorus is a particular wonder; I can't recall another song featuring such a blatantly unresolved musical setting in the chorus--normally the place where the song's tension is released via melodies that come home to solid, grounded chords. None of that goes on here. The melodies lay out against a wash of chords that don't match; the ends of lines leave us hanging musically until the very end, and even there, rather than a typical resolution we get an unexpected downward leap of six intervals--the aural equivalent of taking a last downward step on a staircase you thought you were already at the bottom of. You arrive surprised, unexpectedly reacquainted with gravity.
     A Brief Smile is a five-piece band from NY and I'm just now stumbling upon them, and listening to this song, and liking it, and lookee here, it came out in September, and the band itself has been around long enough that they have "big fans" out there who apparently hang on their every note. Such is the unconquerable breadth and depth of the contemporary rock'n'roll scene. I will never get my arms entirely around it and neither will you or anyone else. The best we can do is work together to fill in one another's missing pieces. "Big Sky" is a song off the band's CD Now We All Have Horns, released on Wrecking Ball Music. MP3 via the band's site.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Free and legal MP3s from Fingertips, SXSW edition

(as featured on This Week's Finds, Mar. 9-15)

"The Caribbean" - the Chocolate Horse
     I find this very distinctive blend of homeliness and sophistication completely enjoyable. The Chocolate Horse are five guys from Cincinnati who give the impression of playing whatever instruments they feel like playing, in whatever style they happen to start playing. If "The Caribbean" has an island sound to it, we're talking about a peculiar island---one that maybe grows both palm trees and cacti, on which cowboys on horses saunter down the beach in suede bathing trunks and everyone else is on vacation, but prefers to stay inside reading and listening to the radio, which only broadcast bands from Omaha pretending to be from Cuba.
     Or something like that. Over and above the rhythm's lazy sway and the eccentric interplay of trumpet, upright bass, and (dobro?) guitar, "The Caribbean" succeeds on the strength of Jason Snell's oddly appealing voice. Half whispering, half growling, Snell sings with a historical sort of command, his voice echoing with the authority of some long-lost '70s crooner, augmented with a ghostly falsetto and an indie rocker's penchant for straying (winsomely) off pitch. A French horn and a saw are additional recruits in the Chocolate Horse's instrument arsenal, although I'm not sure I'm hearing the latter in this song, and I may be imagining the occasional appearance here of the former.
     "The Caribbean" is a song from the band's debut CD, released last year and recorded when they were still officially a trio. Like every other band in the world, and every other music lover (truly, I'm sure no one is left around this week to read this except maybe you), the Chocolate Horse will be in Austin for SXSW. The MP3 is available via the vast SXSW MP3 collection.

"God Told Me To" - Paul Kelly
     An old-fashioned folk-rocker with a new tale to tell: here, one of Australia's most well-known living pop music bards sings, first person, as a terrorist, justifying his actions in our post-9/11 world. The canny, world-weary Kelly knows exactly how much his sociopath's words sound like something an American president might likewise say (in our post-9/11 world): "The wicked need chastisement, you know it's either them or us"; "God told me to/I answer not to them or you"; etc.
     Kelly is often talked about as the Ray Davies/Bruce Springsteen (imagine them mushed together) of Australia, but he hasn't been too successfully exported to the U.S. over the years. The closest he got to a certain sort of left-of-center recognition here came with his 1988 album Under the Sun, thanks to the appeal to "modern rock" radio stations of the song "Dumb Things" (in truth, a wonderful song, which still sounds great).
That album was recorded with a band called the Messengers (originally the Coloured Girls, changed for American export).
     A classic single's length (3:42), with an incisive guitar line and a haunting chorus, "God Told Me To" is nonetheless (obviously) as far from single material as could be in this country. So I'm not picturing a belated breakthrough for the estimable Mr. Kelly just yet. The artfully stark video could under the right circumstances get some YouTube love but then again it's been around since the summer and has been seen only 8,000 times, mostly (I'm guessing) by Australians. But hey, the man's playing at SXSW (see? everyone!), which is a mighty accomplishment for a 50-something musician. Stolen Apples, the 2007 CD on which you'll find this song, has not been released in the U.S., but maybe the SXSW appearance is a harbinger of a domestic release? In the meantime, the MP3 is available via SXSW.

"Rooks" - Shearwater
     Shearwater is not only playing at SXSW this week but is based in Austin. The theme is complete. This song, however, is brand new, the semi-title track to an album called Rook, scheduled for release in June. On it, Shearwater continues both its penchant for lovely-ominous music and its avian fixation--the name Shearwater, you might recall [?], comes from a type of bird that flies close to the surface of the water; recall, too, that band leader Jonathan Meiburg has himself been an ornithological graduate student. While you're at it, you may as well be reminded that Meiburg is a member both of Shearwater and a little band you may have heard of called Okkervil River. (OR's front man, Will Sheff, is likewise in both bands, which is kind of cool.)
     Meiburg sings with great, almost old-fashioned sweetness and his melodies are so gentle that it's easy to lose sight of the fact that "Rooks" is without question a tense, briskly-moving composition, marked by siren-like instrumental flourishes and cryptic but assuredly dark lyrics. When he lets rip the word "paralyzed" with uncharacteristic pungency (at 1:42; almost the exact halfway point), it's as if we've been all but slapped awake only to fall instantly back into a new dream: the ensuing trumpet solo, underscored by distant, determined (bird-call-y?) "wo-oh-oh-ohs," places us into a newly formed musical landscape. The dream, teetering on the borderline between interesting and nightmarish, continues.
     Rook will mark Shearwater's debut on Matador Records; its last few CDs were released by Misra Records. MP3 via Matador.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Great new free and legal MP3s from Fingertips

(as featured on This Week's Finds, Mar. 2-8)

"Power to Change" - the Black & White Years
     Perhaps there has always been a fine line in music between the idiosyncratic and the gimmicky, but I'm guessing never more so than here in the 21st century--an age in which worldwide musical genres are a mouse-click away, and a multi-million-dollar recording studio is no longer required to manipulate sound. And so, these days, bands can rather too easily seem the contrived result of combining, oh, say, South African music with an Upper West Side sensibility. For instance. Idiosyncrasy or gimmick?
     The only way to tell, as far as I can see, is to do exactly what the music critics (and bloggers) almost never do: just listen, and stop thinking (and talking) so much. Take "Power to Change," which bops and rolls to a ska-inflected, electronic-infected beat, guided by a split-personality vocalist who mashes glam-rock theatrics with jamband-style acrobatics. Whether this sounds in words like something I would enjoy is irrelevant; whether the music itself violates some or another "rule" about this genre or that one, also irrelevant. Relevant alone is the incisive, assured movement of the song, its engagingly crunchy vibe, its wistful good humor, and oh so cagey production.
     For probably most of that we have producer Jerry Harrison to thank. Stripped-down-simple only does so much for me, usually; I definitely do not mind detecting the presence of an honest-to-goodness producer. Among many spiffy touches, I love the echoey electronics with which he layers Scott Butler's vocals (particularly beginning at 1:44), and am tickled by the instrumental breaks Harrison (I assume) inserted into the song--check out the offbeat keyboard-like guitar (or guitar-like keyboard?) at 1:37, and the squonky guitar solo at 3:14. Harrison--a former Talking Head and Modern Lover--heard the Black & White Years at last year's SXSW festival (the band is itself from Austin, in fact) and shortly thereafter whisked them off to produce their album in his Bay Area studio. That self-titled CD has just been released on Brando Records, a tiny Texas label. That's where you'll find "Power to Change," while the
MP3 is via SXSW; the band, not surprisingly, is returning to the festival this month. No longer in need of a producer.

"Drops in the River" - Fleet Foxes
     "Drops in the River" is characterized by an aural depth of space not often heard in a rock'n'roll setting. Listen quickly and you might say, "Okay, sure, reverb, and a tenor--it's Band of Horses, it's My Morning Jacket." But do yourself and the music a favor and attend more carefully. If so, you might hear how the Seattle-based quintet Fleet Foxes transforms reverb from a production strategy to a three-dimensional experience--via vocal harmony, percussion, and eccentric instrumentation, the band creates a vast, stone-vaulted sort of space in which one might picture monks, choirs, and thick white dripping candles.
     Then again, on the band's own MySpace page, they conclude, after attempting to describe their sound, "Not much of a rock band."
     The unusual accompaniment arrives right away: check out those Eastern-sounding stringed things we hear before anything else; they also arise intermittently throughout, as if from some ancient cranny. When the singing starts, it comes in multiple layers of vocal harmony--an unusual touch at the beginning of a pop song. From its soft and deliberate start, "Drops in the River" eventually offers up an impressive dynamic range, taking us on adventures in tempo and volume and instrumental involvement during its engaging four-plus minutes, sometimes turning on a dime in interesting and effective ways--for instance, the downshift from that clanging guitar that starts at around 2:00 into the subdued percussive section that begins at 2:18. And listen, in fact, to that clangy guitar and how it sounds like something one might in fact play in a large, dark, maybe a little damp cathedral. Along with some Eastern-sounding stringed things no doubt. "Drops in the River" is a song from the band's Sun Giant EP, due out on Sub Pop in April. MP3 courtesy of Paper Thin Walls.

"One, Two, Three!" - I Make This Sound
     Happy music from a band with a happy-sounding name. But it's interesting-happy, not sappy-happy. Listen, first of all, to how the band takes the song's basic three-beat measure and distorts it, via a jumpy piano refrain, hopping between the beats, to sound as if it must be some altogether new and different time signature. But, no, you can use the song's title to count the beats: one, two, three, one, two, three. Lead singer Jonathan Price has a warm, pleasing (dare I say happy?) voice, and the way the female backing vocalists offer staccato punctuation between verses is another cheerful touch.
     But there's a "dark" section too, and how many peppy pop songs bother to do that? See how the time signature shifts to 4/4 at around 1:30 and then into, maybe, actually, some new and different time signature after all, because I can't parse the section from 1:40 to 1:56 in any standard way. Then there's a nicely resolving 4/4 section at 1:57 before we return, at 2:11, to the cheerful rhythm of the opening verse, complete with those perky background singers singing a countervailing melody.
     I Make This Sound is from Los Angeles and there are seven people in the band, so my goodness, they'd better be pretty happy or they would probably be really miserable. There's a lot of potential for drama there. "One, Two, Three!" is a song from their second EP, entitled Staring at Yourself, which was released in February. MP3 via the band's site.