Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Free, legal MP3 from Jessie Baylin (smartly put together singer/songwriter pop)

"Was I On Your Mind" - Jessie Baylin
     "Was I On Your Mind" has the hallmarks of a great pop hit--hooks, craft, canny performance--and yet is unlikely to be anything of the sort here in 2008, just because who the hell knows anymore. The music market is as unhinged as the oil market. History teaches us, however, that craziness is always an aberration in the long run. There is no reason to assume that a song as crisp, well put together, and engagingly sung as this one won't again find favor with the general public, but, alas, it'll probably be too late for Ms. Baylin.
     Fingertips, of course, exists in a sort of alternative universe in which what matters is the song, the spirit, the intelligence, the ineffable spark of human-to-human connection. So as far as I'm concerned this song is already a hit--an incisive example of how it's really really okay to apply polish and know-how to songwriting, at least when such things avoid cliché and are grounded in a voice, both lyrically and musically, that's feels real, solid, true. With her dusky alto and nimble delivery, the New Jersey-born, L.A.-based Baylin sounds to me, fetchingly, like Shawn Colvin doing a Sam Phillips impression; to the insistently upward, yearning melody of the chorus, she adds a textured presence that pretty much melts me. I like too how even in the context of this smartly produced number, little quirks can be found, including how the end note she hits repeatedly on the word "wrong" strikes the ear as unresolved, and how she breaks the songwriter "rule" of making the title the most repeated phrase in the song (which in this case would be "Tell Me I'm Wrong").
     You'll find this one on Baylin's new CD, Firesight, released this week on Verve Forecast. Produced by Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney), this is the 24-year-old's second album; the first, You, was an iTunes-only self-release.

Free, legal MP3 from Afternoons (orchestral, neo-hippie vibe meets solid songwriting)

"Say Yes" - Afternoons
     This one carries the wacky, group-sing, neo-hippie vibe of the Polyphonic Spree but with the added benefit of really solid songwriting.
     "Say Yes" unfolds with a jaunty, trumpet-led rhythm augmented by a loopy backing vocal that brings the Star Trek theme song to mind. In the indie world, lots of songs pretty much end there--quirky, big-ensemble intro, and that's all we get. To its credit, "Say Yes" develops resoundingly beyond its minute-long intro, presenting us next with a verse featuring a non-repeating melody that stretches out for more than 40 seconds, incorporating 18 measures of music. That's all but unheard of in a rock band, but then again, Afternoons are an idiosyncratic rock band at best, being a seven-piece ensemble that includes two drummers, a trumpet player, and a classically trained opera singer. Three of the seven players were in the L.A.-based band Irving, which has been put aside now that that band's side projects have apparently overshadowed the main act (another Irving offshoot is Sea Wolf).
     The chorus, by the way, is nicely thought out too, and an apt counterpart to the extended verse: simply the words "say yes," architected into the bouncy trumpet refrain of the introduction. For something this big-hearted and loose-limbed, "Say Yes" is a pretty tight composition. It will eventually appear on Afternoons' debut CD, which is recorded but seems to lack, thus far, a release date. The band has been selling EPs at shows in L.A. but that's about it so far. MP3 courtesy of Irving's web site. Thanks to Filter for the tip.

Free, legal MP3 from William F. Gibbs (dreamy yet incisive piano ballad)

"Operate" - William F. Gibbs
     He's got a name like a character actor or a middle school principal, but he's got the dreamy voice of a romantic troubadour, a guy who's seen enough to abandon his dreams but hangs onto them anyway.
     A steady, unhurried piano ballad with an immediately engaging melody, "Operate" comes alive via a combination of Gibbs' singing (don't miss the phased harmonies at 1:47) and some lovely, understated guitar work. From the outset, an acoustic guitar plays in tandem with the piano, but often just at the edges of awareness; sometimes you can hear fingers moving along strings more prominently than the actual notes, which adds to an interesting sort of tension the song sustains between movement and languidness. Best of all are the dreamy slide guitar licks that get a little showcase from 1:06 through 1:32, returning in only the most whispery way through the rest of the song.
     "Operate" is a track from My Fellow Sophisticates, Gibbs' debut CD, released earlier this month on Old Man Records.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Free and legal MP3 from Joe Pug (Dylanesque youngster with heady lyrics and a big heart)

"Hymn #101" - Joe Pug
     Had the Bob Dylan haunting the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961 and 1962 augmented his sociopolitical preoccupation with a wide-eyed spiritual awareness, he might have composed a spare, literate neo-folk marvel such as "Hymn #101." Carefully written and plainly presented (just guitar and voice, thank you), "Hymn #101" glows with humanity and intellect, its simple Dylanesque melody hosting any number of unexpected observations and descriptions, delivered with a voice that channels not only the great one from Hibbing but multiple generations of "next Dylans" as well, from John Prine to Steve Earle to Josh Ritter and then some.
     While a potent cultural critique is layered into the song's semi-mysterious lyrics, what moves me the most here are the moments when Pug reveals a metaphysical depth not often encountered on the indie scene. The conclusion he works up to is all but breathtaking: "Will you recognize my face/When God's awful grace/Strips me of my jacket and my vest/And reveals all the treasure in my chest."
     "Hymn #101" can be found on Joe Pug's debut EP, Nation of Heat, self-released in May; MP3 via his web site. And by the way, can this be his real name? Joe Pug? His biographical information is so scanty that I suspect he's intent on another Dylanesque maneuver: romantic obfuscation of his past.

Free and legal MP3 from Windsor For The Derby (brisk, soothing indie post-rock)

"Hold On" - Windsor For The Derby
     "Hold On" indeed: this song begins with an extended introduction, featuring a rhythm both brisk and soothing. Listen closely and for all the apparent movement you really can't discern a whole lot of obvious activity: there's a guitar strumming without quite wanting to call too much attention to itself, there's a fuzzy organ that seems to dissipate as soon as you hear it, there's a bass that appears to be playing only one note the whole time, and all one minute and six seconds of the intro features an alternation between just two chords, separated by a simple half-step.
     Then the vocals start, rather wispy and mixed down in that Yo La Tengo, resolutely-indie sort of way. But pay attention at 1:20--we finally hear a third chord. It's a great moment but it flows quickly by, and is itself easy to miss except that the song shifts and deepens at this point. Though exactly towards what end we still don't know. (Remember: hold on.) The melody leads us through a few more chords rather quickly (considering the context), the verse repeats, and then, at long last, two full minutes in, the chorus arrives, complete with--of all things--soaring, Brian Wilson-inspired backing harmonies. Nothing about this song signaled that it was going there. It's a startling juxtaposition, and well worth the long and subtle buildup.
     Led by Dan Matz and Jason McNeeley, Windsor For The Derby has gone through a number of personnel changes since the group's formation in Austin in the mid-'90s. The band is now a quintet; Matz and McNeeley, recently relocated to Philadelphia, are the only the remaining original members. "Hold On" is a song from the CD How We lost, the band's eighth, released last month on Secretly Canadian records. MP3 via the Secretly Canadian web site.

Free and legal MP3 from Ndidi Onukwulu (jazzy, brass-infused blues, with a world music chaser)

"SK Final" - Ndidi Onukwulu
     Happy-sounding blues, with horn charts, "SK Final" hides its musical inventiveness beneath a brassy, old-fashioned vibe. Onukwulu is a British Columbia native born to Nigerian parents, and in her songs seeks to combine blues, jazz, and African music. Check out, for instance, how the song starts: those reverberant drum beats are not directly blues-based, but evoke another continent's rhythms. When Onukwulu starts singing, she's accompanied further by an acoustic rhythm guitar, softly marking the beat as she sings off of it, while an electric guitar soon begins to supply gentle flourishes that, again, bring a world-music flair to the musical landscape.
     In the end, however, "SK Final" is dominated by pretty much two things: Onukwulu's vibrant alto, with its fleeting vibrato, and those snappy horns, which kick in right before the chorus. While providing traditional horn-chart-y punctuation to the lyrics, the horns also offer a mellower sort of instrumental aside (1:07, for example; even better, 1:39) that to my ears gives them a sneaky and enticing spirit, even when finishing the song off in full rave-up mode, as Onukwulu assures us, with frisky defiance, that she's not going to cry over you again. Like I said, happy blues.
     "SK Final" is the lead track on Onukwulu's second CD, The Contradictor, released this week on the Vancouver-based label Jericho Beach Music.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Fingertips Contest: Control DVD giveaway

There's a new Fingertips Contest online: the prize this time is a copy of the movie Control on DVD. Control is the acclaimed biopic of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis. Deadline for entry is June 18; click here for details.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

New free and legal download from the Stills (majestic and affecting rock from Canada)

"Being Here" - the Stills
     There's a mystery to the majesty of good pop music. Seemingly lacking both surface-level complexity and a weighty philosophical foundation, pop music has always been dismissed by "serious" musicians and critics as insubstantial at best, culturally harmful at worst. What pop's most supercilious critics don't understand, however, is that just because pop isn't "high art" (whatever that really is) doesn't mean it can't, in the right hands (underline that part), be an artistically valid mode of creative expression. Pop music cannot be dismissed simply because it does not measure up to the standards of so-called "serious music" (whether classical or avant-garde); that would be like criticizing a cat for not being a dog.
     And so can an apparently simple composition like "Being Here"--even the title communicates the ultimate in unadorned declarations--deliver something ineffably beautiful and moving in a swift three and a half minutes. You've heard these chords before, and the plain descending melody, centered around four adjacent notes. You've heard the guitars, you've heard the large, anthemic vibe. Whatever this song has can't and won't be "explained" by its constituent parts. There's something in the sound, in the presentation, and maybe in singer Tim Fletcher's big-hearted voice (a voice that brings to mind the late, lamented Stuart Adamson, of the Scottish band Big Country), that rivets the ear, that makes me, in any case, stop, listen, and feel truly--if mysteriously--affected.
     "Being Here" is a song off the Stills' third album, Oceans Will Rise, which will be released on the Arts & Crafts label in August. This is the Montreal quintet's third appearance on Fingertips (check the Master Artist List for details). Thanks to Jonk Music for the lead. MP3 courtesy of the Canadian music magazine Exclaim.

The Last Town Chorus MP3 (idiosyncratic, dreamy lap steel pop)

"Loud and Clear" - the Last Town Chorus
     And this, oddly enough, is the second song called "Loud and Clear" now featured on Fingertips (the first being this one, from the duo Pink and Noseworthy), for those keeping score at home. This "Loud and Clear" is particularly well-named, because Megan Hickey, who plays lap steel guitar and sings, has a sweet, clear-toned voice and a round, indelible sound, as she plays her instrument using effect pedals not typically employed, creating both dreamy textures and memorable lead lines in the process. This is not your Grand Ole Opry lap steel. Hickey has an instinctive feel for just how much to glide and bend her notes, avoiding country cliches while invigorating the song with inventive shapes and sounds.
     Although originally a duo, the Last Town Chorus has since 2004 been the Brooklyn-based Hickey playing with a changing ensemble of musicians. "Loud and Clear" is a single from an as-yet untitled CD, to be released at some as-yet unspecified date by Hacktone Records. (Warning: the Hacktone web site is a Flash-based nightmare; enter at your own risk. You're far better off checking out Hickey's "travelogue," a regularly updated blog featuring pictures and thoughts from her life on the road, posted via cell phone.) MP3 via Hacktone.

New MP3 from the Wedding Present (great guitars, via Albini and veteran Brit band)

"I Lost the Monkey" - the Wedding Present
     From its gentle, even poignant opening, "I Lost the Monkey" blossoms into a loud-but-controlled midtempo construction of prepossessing precision, with consistently impressive guitar work and a brilliant chorus.
     Just listen to those guitars--whether it's the semi-dissonance of the second "intro" (the extended instrumental after the quiet opening verse, starting at 0:34) or the melodicism that emerges in the middle of the chorus, and then more prominently in the second verse (starting around 1:57), the guitars are used here with unusual care and sensitivity. This is not just a couple of guys strumming to fill in empty space. And then there's that terrific chorus, which is rendered all the more affecting by lead man David Gedge's restrained, almost whispered vocals, which make no effort to rise above the guitars, but somehow create a quiet clearing in the middle of the noise in which they can nonetheless be heard.
     A veteran band from Leeds, the Wedding Present has been through a number of lineup changes since its formation back in 1985; by now, the only constant through the years has been Gedge, now 48. (Note that in 1992, the Wedding Present released a new single on the first Monday of every month--a very internet music scene-like thing to do, well before the birth of the internet music scene.) For their new album, El Rey, the band has brought studio whiz Steve Albini back to the controls (Albini previously engineered CDs for the band in 1989 and 1991; he does not want to be called a producer, by the way). I've no idea what the rest of the album sounds like, but this one soars.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Update to the Fingertips Top 10

Time for an update about the Fingertips Top 10, which has changed significantly since the last Top 10 post in April. Here's what the list looks like as of June 4; newcomers since April are marked with an asterisk:

1. "Cat Swallow" - the Royal Bangs
2. "Right Away" - Pattern is Movement*
3. "Animé Eyes" - the Awkward Stage*
4. "Torn Blue Foam Couch" - the Grand Archives
5. "To Be Gone" - Anna Ternheim
6. "Yer Motion" - Reeve Oliver*
7. "Boarded Doors" - the Morning Benders*
8. "Big Sound" - the M's
9. "Black Lungs" - the New Frontiers*
10. "Fire" - Alibi Tom*

"Cat Swallow" is not new to the list but is new to the number-one slot, replacing "Beyond the Door" by 13ghosts, which held the spot for the previous two months. The Top 10 list is my way of putting a little bit of extra attention on ten particularly wonderful songs at any given time, but remember 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, logically enough. (Note that the music player on the blog cannot find the Alibi Tom MP3 because of a technological quirk, but the song still can be downloaded if you click on it.)

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

MP3s from the Last Shadow Puppets, the New Frontiers, and the Morning Benders--free and legal, from Fingertips

"My Mistakes Were Made For You" - the Last Shadow Puppets
     If the Decemberists were to write a James Bond theme song, they might come up with something like "My Mistakes Were Made For You." Echoingly atmospheric, with melodramatic strings, an ominous surf guitar, and melancholy horn charts, "My Mistakes Were Made For You" has at the same time a pleasantly wordy feel, which strikes me as an unexpected twist for a song with this sort of spy-movie vibe. (Songs from James Bond movies are, rather, renowned for the relentless fatuousness of their lyrics.)
     Another amiable difference here is Alex Turner's simmering vocal delivery; more well known as the front man of the Arctic Monkeys, Turner here turns from the more frenetic, ejective singing style he uses with his "other" band to a softer, almost soulful sort of approach. Turner does not lose his accent (apparently a Sheffield accent) while singing; while American me is accustomed to hearing an accent like this in a hard-rocking setting (a cliche perhaps but that's mostly what we hear of it here), I can't say I've been treated to it in quite this context before. I find it rather charming.
     The Last Shadow Puppets is a collaboration between Turner and his friend Miles Kane, who's also in a band called the Rascals. "My Mistakes Were Made For You" is from the duo's debut release, The Age of the Understatement, which came out last month on Domino Records.

"Black Lungs" - the New Frontiers
     Here's a prime example of an oft-repeated Fingertips theme: music does not have to be new to be great. A band need not blaze trails to be worthy. I think we'd have more consistently good music being played out there, in fact, if bands weren't so often trying too hard to be different.
     A quintet from Dallas, the New Frontiers do not try to be different; they try to be good. With "Black Lungs," they succeed, for reasons that are a bit difficult to pinpoint, since this appealing, well-crafted song seems to be trying not to stand out; it sounds like something we've all loved for a long time and kind of take for granted by now. But let's see: that crying, arcing guitar line that launches the song is one terrific thing; singer Nathan Pettijohn is another, with his tender-rugged voice and his refusal to leap into falsetto, even when the song threatens to go there; and then there's the chorus, which delivers a great back-door hook--which happens right around the words "back door," in fact. The hook delights me, because it sounds like we'd already heard the hook (the leap up at 0:56, around the words "everything's fine"), and then, in the second part of the chorus ("don't you kick me out the back door"), the melody slyly returns to the eighth-note pattern used in the first part of the verse and that just nails everything together. There's something old-timey and classic at work here. Close your eyes and breathe it in.
     The New Frontiers were previously known as Stellamaris, and recorded one CD in 2005 under that name. "Black Lungs" is the opening track on Mending, their first CD as the New Frontiers, which was released in April on the Militia Group.

"Boarded Doors" - the Morning Benders
     The Morning Benders return with their elusively familiar brand of sturdy yet off-kilter pop. "Boarded Doors" shuffles between a cartoony menace (that prickly guitar, that schemingly descending melody line) and a yearny sort of wistfulness, to great effect. Chris Chu sings so casually he may as well be talking, but the more I listen, the more impressed I am with his tone and tunefulness. The entire band tends to sneak up on me like that--they sound like they're just sort of rehearsing, but underneath the informal surface lies a tight little song and a lot of expertise.
     I'm fascinated by the concise, unresolved chorus, which gives us a quick shot of something that sounds like a backward guitar and perfectly placed "oo-oo" backing vocals and then vanishes before one quite realizes hey, that was the chorus. If, in fact, a song could have a verse and a bridge and no chorus (which I think is impossible by definition) then the Morning Benders have managed to write it.
     An amiable quartet from Berkeley, California (they claim to have met while all working on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at Disneyland), the Morning Benders released their first full-length CD last month, called Talking Through Tin Cans, on +1 Records. MP3 courtesy of Spinner.