Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto (part two)

Yesterday I posted the first half of this essay, which is the latest Fingertips Commentary on the main site (where it comes complete with a few footnotes). We pick up here where we left off, literally: I'm repeating the last paragraph, for context.

* * *

So: let every album have one free and legal MP3. Other songs must be purchased; the album, if desired, must be purchased as well. If this were the industry standard, if every album had one free and legal MP3, the industry would be in better shape, and the path for future growth clearer.

Here are five reasons why:

1) Free and legal MP3s do not equal lost revenue.

Let's begin by shredding once and for all the fantasy that every free and legal MP3 downloaded equals money the record companies aren't receiving. That's a patently false, self-serving assumption.

To begin with, when you offer a free and legal MP3, you invite many many experimenters, people who grab it because it's free but would never have bought it if it weren't free--who often would have no idea it even existed if it weren't free. There's no lost revenue in that at all. This would be like saying it was lost revenue every time someone heard a song on the radio but didn't go out and buy it.

Okay, and then what? Well, they listen and decide if they like it. If they don't, then these people would not have bought the song anyway. Again: this is not lost revenue.

If the downloader likes the song, then we get to the all-important fork in the road: he or she can then buy another song from the album (or maybe even the whole thing), or still not buy anything further. In the first case, you've created revenue, so, okay, phew. But then there's that troubling second case to deal with, and this is probably one that has the labels fretting: "You mean they downloaded the song for free, they liked it, and they still aren't giving us any money?"

Well, yeah, maybe. But it is shortsighted to see this as simply lost revenue. What you generate here instead are two important things: customer goodwill (hey! they keep giving me a free song! and they're sometimes really good!) and technologically effective promotion. Look: this "free song" will pop up in the listener's iPod, will make it onto playlists, will generate awareness of the artist in question. Over time, there's still significant sales potential, especially in this day of fostering community between artists and listeners. Record companies must begin to understand the promotional value of this exposure, which leads us to point number two:

2) Free and legal MP3s are the single most valuable way to promote artists to music fans in a post-radio age.

Let's return to the plight of our magnanimous Nonesuch friend (see yesterday's post). So, yay, he protected every single song on a worthwhile but off-the-beaten-path album. I have to wonder: are copies of the Sam Phillips album therefore flying off the shelf? Do people think, "Well, crap, since I can't have any free songs I better buy the whole album?" Not in 2009 they don't think this.

The easiest and most effective way to promote an album, especially an album that is not in any case destined for million-seller (or even 100,000-seller) status, is by making a free and legal MP3 readily available. Give people a song to have, to listen to in the context of their preferred music-listening environment. Let it spread around the internet, friend to friend, blog to blog.

I find it ironic that record labels that are squeamish about letting loose free and legal MP3s had no problem for decades handing out free physical copies of their records to radio stations. Oh, well, one might say, that's an entirely different thing. There were huge audiences at stake. Giving a free record to a big-city radio station could result in millions of dollars of sales.

True enough, at the very top end of the music market, commercially speaking. But these same record labels also had no trouble shipping copies of many albums destined for obscurity (where's the return on that?), and no trouble shipping albums to some pretty tiny radio stations, including all those college stations with audiences that number in the dozens at any given time.

Truth be told, radio has pretty much disintegrated for the majority of recording artists. Hardly anyone gets on the radio. (Sam Phillips certainly doesn't get on the radio, outside of a coterie of "adult alternative" stations.) And it doesn't matter because nowadays, people's computers and people's iPods are, effectively, their radios. That's where they listen to music, both old and new. And the only way record companies can get on these "stations" is--how?

You got it: by giving people a free and legal MP3 to download and play--to, essentially, "program" on their own personal station. Because, yes, in order to listen on computers or MP3 players most easily and comfortably you have to give people the song, not expect them to sit there trapped in their browser listening to a stream, or trapped on a particular web site where music is free if you watch the ads, and not sitting in front of a screen watching a video. (Am I the only one left who realizes that a video is not a song? Just curious.)

And guess what? Delivering a free and legal MP3 to all of them costs a lot less than printing CDs and shipping them out for free to hundreds of radio stations around the country. Never mind lost revenue, what about all the expense involved with that entrenched promotional technique for all those years? To the extent that it "paid off" when a handful of records hit the big-time, fine--that was then. For the music industry to move forward in the 21st century, it has to relinquish that pray-for-a-blockbuster mentality, and the marketing techniques that went along with it.

Give people one song, make it easy to download and use anywhere they want. That's how you get your records played on these individual "radio stations." They usually have just one listener each, but there are millions of them across the country.

3) One free and legal MP3 per album makes for easier and less confrontational policing.

For starters, if there is automatically going to be one free and legal MP3 from every album, right away you'll have fewer bloggers posting illegally distributed tracks. I'm guessing many will be happy to stick with the legal one, particularly if approached reasonably; right now, for far too many albums, and for pretty much every major-label album, they don't even have this choice.

Second, when labels set about policing things online, they can use an approach which is kinder and gentler and thus much more likely to move future music-sharing behavior in a more legally-oriented direction. "The track you have been sharing is not legally available for free online distribution," the email can state. "However, were you aware that the song 'Free and Legal,' from the same album, is in fact available for free online distribution? Here's the link."

Or whatever. The point is, with one sanctioned free and legal song from every album, the record industry will finally be closer to being on the same page as 21st-century music fans. Record labels will effectively be entering their world rather than creating phony and pointless and old-fashioned barricades.

This strikes me as a more important issue than anyone seems to bother to realize. Thanks in large part to its well-known campaign to sue people who were illegally downloading their songs, the major record companies spent the better part of the current decade in open conflict with their own customers and potential customers. As a believer from the outset in free and legal MP3s, I obviously have no sympathy for those who have chosen to download a lot of music illegally, but I also have no patience for record companies who choose only to see that behavior as reprehensible rather than try to understand the context and work to find a middle ground.

After all, the record companies, from the outset, could have combatted illegal downloading with this idea: "Hey! Do legal free downloading instead!" But they chose instead to see this as a war and to see their customers and potential customers as enemies. Not real smart in the long run.

I would also, by the way, have no sympathy with bloggers who, in a world in which there is a free and legal MP3 available from each album, would continue to post songs that are not freely and legally distributed. Bloggers are perfectly entitled to tell the world what songs they like; they are not entitled to decide on their own what songs to make available for public consumption. This is a freedom that many presumed to take from the outset, but this freedom continues to have no basis in fairness or legality.

4) If you have to give away one good song this means you must, in theory, put out albums with more than one good song on them.

Needless to say, this would be another excellent outreach strategy for a bedraggled industry.

Although I can offer no direct evidence of this theory, I am pretty sure that there exists in the music industry an additional resistance to free and legal MP3s that has to do with the suspicion that if a music listener gets one good song for free, they won't buy the rest of the album. (After all, why else would Mr. Nonesuch be so resistant to releasing one Sam Phillips song?) To the extent that this is true, I'd say that music listeners have been well-trained over the years by their experience with albums that have only one good song on them in the first place.

As long as giving away one good free and legal MP3 from an album is the equivalent of giving away the store, as it were--because it is in fact the only good song--then, yes, this is a legitimate concern. There is one pretty straightforward solution to this, however: make sure the albums you're releasing are actually good. The days of fooling people into buying a whole album based on hearing one good song really have to be over if the Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto is to be effective. Surely we don't need so many albums anyway, as fewer people appear to be interested in buying them in the first place.

Note that this does not mean there will be no more albums. Can we finally agree to put an end to this black-and-white, all-or-nothing, sound-bite-oriented world view? If albums are going through a less-popular phase this hardly warrants the idea that no one wants to record them or listen to them henceforth and forevermore.

5) The music industry herein has a newborn opportunity to affirm the value of what it is selling.

Okay, so stick with me here, because I know that lots of people still think that handing out free digital music undermines the idea that music has value. To begin with, songs have become mere files, and files are eminently and endlessly copyable and distributable; add to that free distribution and where's the value? Where's the possibility that people will pay for it?

And the record companies themselves have gotten so spun around and bamboozled by the fledgling century's digital realities that here they are, after years of complaining that giving away free music compromises the idea that music has value, lining up to experiment with the idea of giving unlimited access to music on streaming sites via a minor or bundled fee--something, ideally, that the end user won't even notice or realize he or she is paying.

Talk about devaluing music! Treating music as a utility, like electricity or water, inherently devalues the artistry and effort of any individual artist, the subjective worth of any given song. But the industry seriously considers this idea now because, well, it's desperate, like an addict whose supply has pretty much run out. It'll try anything to get its mojo back.

Returning to the spirit of the Inaugural Address, I'd like to suggest that the industry seek not the pipedream fix but seek instead the true opportunity in this long-standing crisis brought on by digital distribution. What that opportunity may be is nothing less than the full embrace of what it has to offer us.

I mean, think of it: here are companies selling one of humankind's most profound creations: song! Often grouped into album! And for decades upon decades now, these same companies have largely sought to treat their products as just that--mere products. (Or, in true industry parlance, the singular: "product.") But these aren't screwdrivers and frozen pizzas that are being sold. This is music. The word itself has magic in it. When something is music to your ears, it's wonderful, delightful, perfect. When you have to face the music, you're dealing with something significant, serious, not to be ignored.

I know that many many musicians have been waiting, without hope or encouragement, for record companies to understand the inherently special nature of their offerings, waiting for the suits and the bean counters to take into account the personal, aesthetic, subjective, and artistic aspects of their so-called products, not just in terms of projecting sales but in terms of how they do business from the ground up.

And now: here's their chance. Not by forcing value upon us (e.g. suing from an aggrieved position) but by proactively asserting that their products do indeed have value. Invaluable value.

And they can do this, paradoxically, by first offering us a gift. Never mind the promotional merit (which, as discussed, is real and significant)--how about simply seeing the mandatory free and legal MP3 each album must offer, according to the Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto, as just that?: a gift. The record companies and artists will give this gift to music fans, now, because the technology has long since arrived to make it possible, because it's a valiant way to break into our fragmented, overconnected lives, because they so value what they produce that they want, first, to share it with us.

Because: when they hand out a yummy free sample of something earthy and organic at Whole Foods, do you think, "Well, gee, this must be worthless if they're willing to give it away?" Or, "Hey, this must be pretty good or they wouldn't be giving out tastes?"

The music industry has completely blown it so far, but here at the outset of what clearly is a brand new day I'm thinking maybe it's not too late. And we, the music fans, can assume our responsibility in the matter as well. We can receive this gift with newfound appreciation. And with our appreciation we can likewise offer our hard-earned dollars when we hear something that moves us, that lifts our spirits, that assures us that it was created out of hope and inspiration and artistry.

And yeah I know not every piece of music is created in this manner. And I know this whole issue is complicated by convoluted circumstances and thorny issues. But I have a dream. And now I have a Manifesto. Change, as we have seen, may begin with just such things.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto (part one)

A new Fingertips Commentary piece has been posted on the main site. It's called "Got to Do What You Should," is subtitled "A Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto," and comes with the tagline: "Why the mainstream music industry must learn to stop worrying and love the free and legal MP3."

I'll post the essay here in two parts, one today, one tomorrow. The essay is the same here as on the main site, except there are a handful of footnotes accompanying the piece on the Fingertips site, which flesh out the subject at hand.

* * *

Careful followers of Fingertips may have noticed a blip in the normally smooth weekly presentation of free and legal MP3s in December, when a song I featured, Sam Phillips' charming and deep "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us," was pulled down by the record label before the end of the first week of being spotlighted here.

The record company, Nonesuch, a part of Warner Brothers, delivered an email apology to affected bloggers via Toolshed, the music promotion company with which it was working. Toolshed, you should know, is a digital-savvy company widely known for promoting musicians via the use of, typically, one free and legal MP3. In an effort to sound both contrite and magnanimous, Nonesuch took the blame upon itself, exonerating bloggers of any legal wrongdoing. The problem, said the Nonesuch executive, was that he never realized Toolshed was going to put MP3s online versus streams.

Okay, so he didn't know that a company that pretty much always uses free and legal MP3s to promote its clients was going to use a free and legal MP3 to promote Sam Phillips. Fair enough. But his supposedly generous gesture, absolving bloggers of criminal activity, was irritating for those of us (myself, and at least one other) who only seek to post free and legal MP3s in the first place. It's our stated policy. We do not want to post MP3s that are not free and legal.

Meaning that if a free and not-legal MP3 somehow slips through the cracks, guess what? It's a mistake. The only way it happens--as with the Phillips song--is when the MP3 is presented as free and legal. There was no way for anyone to know it wasn't until, oops!, the very record company who released it decides it didn't really mean to.

I am so happy to know that Nonesuch will see to it that the law will spare me punishment for something that was an unavoidable mistake.

Beyond merely irritating me, this incident illustrates yet again how baffled the major record companies remain when it comes to downloads. The Nonesuch executive could not bring himself to utter the name "MP3" in his explanatory letter; what he said was, "I did not realize these tracks were not streaming." It's like okay, if I don't mention MP3s, they don't exist. To the big boys, there is no difference between free and legal and free and not-legal. The big problem to them is "free." Free does not compute.

This is a common attitude at the upper echelons of the music industry. We all know that they hate illegally posted MP3s, but the truth is they hate legally posted MP3s also, when they're free. Which is why, by and large, the bigger record companies never post them. (Or, when they do--hello, Nonesuch!--it's probably a mistake.)

I'm not surprised about this, of course. When all is said and done, the big labels continue to do what big labels have always done best: burrow their heads deep in the sand when faced with changes to the status quo. Having been dragged against their will into a world in which music exists digitally, without a physical product that needs to be manufactured, they continue to try to make this new world function like the old one.

But everything changes when music is available digitally. Major record company desire notwithstanding, there has not been and there never will be a slick and handy transition from everyone buying physical copies of songs and albums to everyone buying digital copies of songs and albums. The appearance of free digital music has gotten in the middle of all this and has rendered the industry's simplistic ideal an impossibility. The public will never buy everything it used to buy. The question for the music industry is whether it wants to work with this reality or continue to fight it.

I contend that if the industry keeps fighting it, more and more potential revenue (and customers) will be lost. If, on the other hand, the industry finally starts to accept digital reality, which includes the reality of a certain amount of freely distributed music, the record companies might learn how to stop worrying and love the free and legal MP3.

For it is in fact the free and legal MP3 that might yet save the music industry.

So far, of course, the major record companies are nowhere near understanding this. They--along with a surprising number of smaller record companies--cling against all reason and evidence to the belief that "protecting" every single song on an album is somehow the road to increased sales, and they rally around any scheme that seeks to circumvent the reality of downloading altogether. Look no further than the current hyping of unlimited streaming services to see the lengths to which the music industry continues to want to fool itself.

And yet the actual answer to a workable future for record labels and musicians alike is staring everyone in the face. What needs to be done is not complicated. Lord knows I never thought I'd be quoting Ronald Reagan, but what we have here is pretty much a "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," moment. Only in this case it's more like "Mr. Gorbachev, put a gate in the wall." Because I'm not saying everything has to be free. That's silly and unrealistic. I'm just saying one song has to be free. One song from every album and EP.

So that's it--that's my Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto. It's got one immutable principle: Every album or EP released by anyone, anywhere, should have one easy-to-access free and legal MP3 available. Moving forward, this should be the industry standard.

Note that it doesn't have to be two or three or four free and legal MP3s. Just one free and legally distributed song per album, across the board. And note that I mean one easily accessible free and legal MP3, not a file you can access only after surrendering your email address, or a file so buried beneath Flash-based web tricks that you can't figure out where the download has gone. One accessible link to a free and legal MP3, for every album released.

If this sounds like what is already going on--well, believe me, it's not. Yes, in the particular corner of the independent music world in which Fingertips largely hangs out, many albums automatically come with a free and legal MP3 or two. But you may be surprised how often this is not the case; Nonesuch Records is hardly the only culprit. Plus, there's often a built-in dead end, as bands who get popular often disappear from free-and-legal-MP3-land. The Decemberists, for example, were Fingertips heroes in the site's early years. But then they signed to Capitol Records and that was pretty much the end of the free and legal MP3s. Foolish strategy but it happens all the time.

Equally foolish, alas, is the strategy of over-compensating, of putting everything out there as free and legal MP3s. I appreciate the goodwill involved, but it actually doesn't help anyone. It's kind of a child-like response to the mean and crazy world, an immature coping mechanism: "Okay, if people want to take my stuff anyway, I'll just let them have it, and hope that money will just magically appear because I'm being so nice and giving."

Enough of that. Like President Obama (wow, huh?) just said, it's time to put away childish things. The situation here demands level-headedness; it requires everyone to release the greedy pipedream of blockbuster sales so that we might all see a middle ground in which musicians can earn a living, record companies can thrive (but modestly, not extravagantly), and the music finds its rightful homes in people's hearts (and iPods, or bookshelves, or wherever people most like to keep it).

So: let every album have one free and legal MP3. Other songs must be purchased; the album, if desired, must be purchased as well. If this were the industry standard, if every album had one free and legal MP3, the industry would be in better shape, and the path for future growth clearer.

For five reasons why this is true, come back tomorrow, or continue at the main Fingertips site.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Little Joy (delightful, islandy world pop with a wondrous melody)

"No One's Better Sake" - Little Joy
     A delight from beginning to end, "No One's Better Sake" rolls along with a shuffling, organ-infused island beat and a casual sensibility that belies how beautifully this little song is put together. What we have here is that rare pop composition that is constructed around a full 16-measure melody--listen and you'll see how the entire verse is an unfolding melody (from 0:18 all the way to 0:54), even as the song's gentle, world-pop sway implies a simpler melodic framework. The chorus does its magic in eight measures, as the organ comes back to the fore and the song's lone, exquisitely placed minor chord just melts the heart there at around 1:04. (At least, it feels like the only minor chord; I could be wrong about that.)
     Singer/guitarist Rodrigo Amarante has an endearing, laid-back vocal style that gives the lyrics the quality of a developing conversation; he often sings as if he's just then deciding what to say. At the same time, Amarante's
processed vocals call to mind the Strokes distinctive vocal sound, which may be no accident: the trio Little Joy is a side project for the Strokes' drummer, Fabrizio Moretti (the third member is singer and multi-instrumentalist Binki Shapiro). Amarante, it should be noted, is far more well-known in his home country, Brazil, than Moretti is in the U.S.; he gained fame as a member and eventual leader of the Brazilian band Los Hermanos, which is currently on hiatus.
     "No One's Better Sake" is a song from Little Joy's self-titled debut album, which was released in November on Rough Trade Records, to not a whole lot of fanfare. The band took its name from their favorite bar in Echo Park, the section of LA where they lived while recording the album. MP3 once again via the Beggars Group web site, which has had a great run of offerings lately.

Free and legal MP3 from Jessie Kilguss (singer/songwriter combines spacious sound with clarity of expression)

"Americana" - Jessie Kilguss
     What I like right away here is the clarity in Kilguss's voice. The overall mood--upbeat, spacious, minor-key, with a piano pulse--has a familiar, Sarah McLachlan-like sheen to it (and nothing, it should be noted, remotely Americana, the genre, about it). But Kilguss does not milk the drama with any extra vocal ache or wooshiness. This makes an immediate difference, to me. Music of this general sort does not usually come with a restrained singer. (Maybe her previous career as an actress keeps her from having to get all melodramatic vocally.) Kilguss has a pretty tone--prettiness is the first thing to go when histrionics set in--and she doesn't even lose it in her upper register, which is where many pop sopranos get all airy and blowy. At the same time, she doesn't have one of those "hey listen to my pretty voice" kind of voices either. Restraint, again, is the key.
     The other principal thing I like about "Americana" is the left turn the song takes at the chorus. First we get a brief hit of string-like synthesizers, as the piano either disappears or is overwhelmed, and the word "Americana" sung anthemically, but then, hey--check out that unexpected chord shift (1:08) as she sings the word a second time over accompaniment that lags engagingly behind the beat. One more unforeseen chord awaits us at 1:20, and by now it's apparent that this elusive-sounding chorus is driven by neither melody nor lyrics but by a surging, almost orchestral musical flow. The lyrics alone on paper do not begin to suggest the music, which is not a disconnect but a testament to the songwriter's musical imagination.
     You'll find "Americana" on Nocturnal Drifter, Kilguss's second album, which she self-released earlier this month.

Free and legal MP3 from Evening Magazine (a big ensemble that knows also when to stay quiet)

"Apple Eye" - Evening Magazine
     Marrying an old-fashioned "sound of Philadelphia" sweep to 21st-century electronics and indie-rock flavorings, Evening Magazine makes music that shouldn't probably work but in this case does, however idiosyncratically. A nine-piece collective from (yes) Philadelphia, the band is led by guitarist/vocalist David Disbrow (formerly of the band BC Camplight) and engineer Kevin Francis (who plays synths too), and features a trumpeter, trombonist, flutist, and harpist, among others. For all the colorful instrumentation, the band doesn't feel the need to fill in all the aural blanks. As a singer, Disbrow has a somewhat fragile presence, and the music gives him space to establish this presence; in fact, he usually isn't singing on top of much more here than an acoustic guitar and a drumbeat. The arrangement is reminiscent of classical music, which is more willing than rock to explore dynamics via having instruments just stop playing for a while. Rock musicians, if they're holding an instrument, they want to play it pretty much constantly.
     What makes it all work for me is nothing more complicated than a pleasing melodic interval. Actually, a relationship of intervals. After the relaxed, horn-driven intro, the melody in the verse, itchier, finds Disbrow singing a rapid-fire series of tones. Staying on the first note for six or seven iterations, he slips down just a half-step for four syllables and then up five steps of the scale for the last three. Disbrow sounds particularly fragile at the top of the leap--so much so that the note, while actually the tonic of the scale, the home base, sounds unresolved, just a bit off, adding to the muted urgency of the ambiance fostered by that half-step-down, big-leap-up combination.
     "Apple Eye" is the lead track off the band's debut EP, The Ride Across Lake Constance, released this month on Ohso Records, which appears to be the band's own imprint. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Monday, January 26, 2009

New Commentary online

At long last, the Fingertips Commentary has reemerged. The topic is nothing less than the free and legal MP3 itself, something so obvious to write about that I haven't, previously, written about it. I will post the whole essay here on the blog in two parts, beginning Wednesday. For the eager, curious, or bored, you can see the whole thing now on the main Fingertips site.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Elvis Perkins in Dearland (cryptic, powerful, uniquely instrumented dirge)

"Shampoo" - Elvis Perkins in Dearland
     What may seem like a throwaway, the twiddly gathering of odd-ish creaks and whistles we hear in this song's opening 25 seconds or so, is in retrospect an intriguing hint of the powerful agglomeration of sound that Perkins and his idiosyncratically-named band pump out as this one ramps up. Among the instruments the group plays are upright bass, saxophone, pump organ, harmonica, harmonium, trombone, banjo, and clarinet. (This is not your father's rock band.) I advise turning up the volume so as best to hear the deep and mighty sonic breaths that propel this cryptic dirge forward. Perkins sings with an offhanded, cumulatively heart-rending ache; a startling phrase or two comes to the surface ("Black is the color of a strangled rainbow," for one); but the song's meaning lies more in the convincing churn of the the musical and lyrical momentum than in precise denotation. (In other words: I don't know what he's actually saying.)
     Perkins was featured on Fingertips around the time of his 2007 solo debut CD; check out that review for the executive summary of his sad backstory. He's been playing, with long-time friends, as Elvis Perkins in Dearland at least since then. The band's self-titled debut CD is due out on XL Recordings in March. MP3 via the Beggars Group web site.

Free and legal MP3 from Hollowblue (brisk, noir-ish, and dadaesque)

"First Avenue" - Hollowblue
     First come the blurred piano chords and crazed cello bleats. Next we hear the speaking voice of hard-bitten, semi-anarchic American novelist Dan Fante delivering the hard-bitten, semi-anarchic lyrics that he wrote for this song by the Italian band Hollowblue (however that collaboration came about). The words make sense yet the sentences don't ("Drag your laundry down First Avenue"? "Spend some time with your drugstore mind"?), but with his voiceover-announcer-from-hell intonation, he sells it to you anyway. "I've got a pair of socks I like better than you"--well, okay, sure, if you say so, Dan. (And he does, twice.)
      Turns out the jittery, slippery, loopy opening section is over before you can quite absorb it; at 0:27, the band fully takes over, the lyrics now reintroduced over a brisk, noir-ish Continental beat, sung in heavily accented English by the engaging front man Gianluca Maria Sorace. While Sorace's breezy earnestness and reedy tenor brings Fante's nutty non-narrative to a more grounded and inclusive place, in my mind it's cellist Ellie Young who provides the heart of this likable dadaesque melodrama. First we heard those wild, horn-like blurts accompanying Fante. She returns at 0:48 with strong, gypsy-ish bowing and then uses a muscular 25-second solo in the center of the song (1:40) to make a strong argument for the cello as a rock instrument, and it's less maybe about the solo itself than how great the song sounds when Sorace returns in full force afterward.
     "First Avenue" is the lead track from Hollowblue's CD Stars Are Crashing (In My Backyard), which was released in Europe last year on Midfinger Records, an Italian label. MP3 via the band's site.

Free and legal MP3 from Mazes (lovely lo-fi-ish Americana with a hint of gospel about it)

"I Have Laid in the Darkness of Doubt" - Mazes
     For better or worse, we live in expansive musical times. Back in the 20th century, which some of you may remember, a band would work hard (or, maybe, not so hard) at being successful, and usually not succeed. That much hasn't changed. Sometimes, when a band was very successful, one of the members might form an offshoot, a so-called "side project," for a variety of reasons, but the starting point was that the original band had gained some traction, was relatively well-known. A side project would often arise, in fact, as a way of giving less involved members of an established band a chance to be leader. Today, side projects sprout like dandelions in the indie music meadow. Bands with little or no widespread recognition routinely spawn side projects, sometimes more than one.
     I am not judging this, just pointing out the change. People seem genuinely to have more music coming out of them than hours in the day, and obviously more ways than ever to record and distribute it. And if there had been some small-minded, last-century-oriented part of my brain that did want to judge this phenomenon, it has been silenced once and for all by Mazes, a side project of the worthy but not very well-known Chicago band the 1900s (previously featured on Fingertips in 2007, by the way). Edward Anderson and Caroline Donovan from that band have joined up with Charles D'Autremont to form the trio Mazes, and the result here is a gorgeous bit of sturdy, sort-of-lo-fi Americana tinged unexpectedly with gospelly overtones. "I Have Laid in the Darkness of Doubt" floats along with a backwoods sort of poise, picked and strummed and percussed on top of what surely sounds like a chorus of crickets, in no hurry to go anywhere, without even a chorus to distract us. Every time I listen I'm surprised how quickly it's over.
     This is one of 11 songs on Mazes' self-titled debut CD, scheduled for a March release on Parasol Records. MP3 via the Parasol site.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

January Q&A now online, featuring Shane Nelken of The Awkward Stage

The latest installment of the Fingertips Q&A is now online, this one featuring Shane Nelken, front man for The Awkward Stage. While previous Q&As have prompted some thoughtful ramblings on the state of the music industry, Nelken will have none of that. He doesn't ramble; he goes straight for the punchline. Once I convinced myself he wasn't making fun of my questions, I realized how funny his answers were. Although he probably was making fun of my questions. Check it out for yourself on the main site. And that's the MegaSaurAss himself, second from the left in the picture.

Free and legal MP3 from Smothered In Hugs (modern power pop with throwback elements)

"Blank Test" - Smothered In Hugs
     So listen to that opening melody (beginning at 0:15), remove the primal drumbeat, and think about what this sounds like: it's not merely based on the standard I-IV-V chord progression, but it's rooted in an early-rock setting of that progression--three successive ascending notes, each a whole interval apart, each accompanied, in order, by one of those I-IV-V chords. The verse of the hugely popular and evocative song "All I Have To Do Is Dream" uses this exact pattern, in a swaying, Everly Brothers soundscape, but this was hardly the only example. Enough other doo-wop era songs grounded themselves in this simple structure for it to carry forever an ineffable air of bygone times about it.
     Which is what, to me, helps make "Blank Test" so satisfying, somehow: it manages to conjure the past while presenting the melody in not one but two contemporary frames--the opening, percussive section and then the sped-up version (first heard at 1:23), after the song's prominent tempo change. Interestingly, it was this second, faster version that first sounded most nostalgic, maybe because there was kind of a double-nostalgia at work, this speedier section likewise echoing the late '70s via the Ramones and Blondie, bands which also mined '50s and early '60s melodies and chord progressions for use in their faster and harder-rocking compositions.
     Smothered In Hugs (named after a Guided By Voices song) is a quintet from the picturesque and music-laced island of Prince Edward, way out there in the Atlantic Time Zone. "Blank Test" is the lead track on the album The Healing Power of Injury, set for release next month on Collagen Rock Records, a local collective that Smothered in Hugs has established with three other bands from the Maritimes.

Free and legal MP3 from Alela Diane (sharply-written, sung with poise, presence, and melisma, plus plaintive fiddle)

"White as Diamonds" - Alela Diane
     Alela Diane (born Alela Diane Menig) is associated with the so-called "psych folk" and/or "New Weird America" movements, but as with the previously featured Marissa Nadler, similarly associated, there is nothing freakish or discomfitingly idiosyncratic about this young California-raised, Oregon-based singer/songwriter. On the contrary, "White as Diamonds" strikes me as solid as a genuine folk song, with the added benefit of a great--if offbeat--hook. This hook isn't part of the chorus (there is in fact no chorus), it's not even a particular turn of phrase or melody; instead, it's her ongoing use of what is officially called melisma, which is when a singer uses several notes to sing one syllable of a lyric.
     Rooted in ancient, sacred music, utilized in classical music, and rendered histrionic by most American Idol contestants, melisma can be not only aurally engaging but emotionally powerful in the hands of the right singer. Diane nails it so well that, as noted, the melismatic recurrence is, really, the song's great hook. Listening to her singing "white as diamonds" (0:16) or "I was sifting through the piles" (0:51) (melismas on "sifting" and "piles") or "a tangled thread" (1:01) (check out that upward flutter as she stretched the second syllable of "tangled" out, briefly but indelibly), something inside me opens to her, completely. The song has both a homespun feel, accentuated by the plaintive fiddle accompaniment, and a solemn rhythmic throughline, almost like an old Civil War song, but--in part because of the repeated melisma--is buoyed by a curious sense of the unexpected, which comes to the fore during the bridge (2:04), when the song's beat is overtly disrupted by a shift in the drumming.
     "White as Diamonds" will be found on Diane's To Be Still CD, coming out on Rough Trade in February. MP3 courtesy of the Beggars Group web site.

Free and legal MP3 from the Traditionist (guitar, harmonica, drone, and more; deceptively complex and affecting)

"I Know My Ocean" - the Traditionist
     Guitar, bass, small drum kit, a harmonica flourish or two, an amiably insistent melody, a one-line chorus--turns out you don't need that much to make an effective and affecting song. Well, okay, there's also a banjo. Slide guitar too. And that droning sound beneath the mix pretty much the entire time. And those great lyrics, blending a stream-of-consciousness feeling with some startlingly focused observations.
      What Joey Barro, in fact, has put together, hiding behind a name that looks like a word but isn't, is a deceptively complex song hiding out as an easy-going one. Building upon sonic territory pioneered of course by Bob Dylan (guitar, harmonica, wordy lyrics crammed into tight musical spaces) and more recently explored by fellow Southern Californian Peter Case (whom he resembles vocally, somewhat, in a good way), Barro, working with friend and producer Tim Bluhm, has constructed a wide-open delight of a song, all forward-moving flow and evocative texture--it's one of those songs that goes by in something of a blur, and yet every time your ear specifically tunes in, there's something interesting going on.
     Barro is based in Huntington Beach, California, and is better known around those parts as front man for the band the Antiques. His new album actually started life as an Antiques CD, but became something different over the course of an extended recording schedule. Season to Season will be out on Better Looking Records in March; "I Know My Ocean" is the last track, and a really nice last track it is. MP3 via the Better Looking site.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Casador (shuffly, echoey, minor-key lament)

"The Puritans" - Casador
     From Argentina by way of Italy comes a young man named Alessandro Raina, doing musical business as Casador. And moody-but-beautiful musical business it is--a shuffly, echoey, minor-key lament, with a crispness and sense of purpose not often found in independently produced debut EPs. And yes, "The Puritans" manages to be both echoey and crisp at the same time, which is not an ordinary accomplishment; indie rockers in the '00s have tended to slop reverb on songs like whitewash on an old barn wall, boosting appearance without needing to clean anything up underneath. Raina instead uses an octave-lower harmony line to enhance his vocals in the verse, and maybe those lower vocals are touched up with a slight reverb, or maybe it's that chiming, reverberant bass at the bottom, but the end result is a rich, spacious vocal sound without tramping mud all over the rest of the mix.
     One sign of the sonic clarity is how naturally the song can drift back and forth between louder/faster and softer/slower without creating any aural jolt. The introduction offers a sonorous interplay between acoustic guitar and the aforementioned bass; they are joined first by the vocals, and then, kicking the volume and tempo up a notch, the drums. Keyboards arrive at the chorus (0:54), adding another notch to the song's insistence, but right after that, at 1:34, we are taken back down to the quiet music of the introduction, which, with the addition of a few remarkably well-placed notes on a piano, feels almost thrillingly introspective at this exact moment.
     "The Puritans" is the title track of Casador's two-song debut EP, which is apparently based on the ancient tale of the sword of Damocles. Both songs are available on the Casador blog; a third song will be yours if you order the physical CD version of the EP.

Free and legal MP3 from Trentalange (noir-ish, upbeat lounge music, with twiddling synths)

"Fever" - Trentalange
     More minor-key moodiness, but quite the different aura this time; with twiddling synths, a noir-ish surf guitar line, and an ominous dance beat, "Fever" sounds like the soundtrack to a spy movie starring the Bee Gees, with Annie Lennox singing lead. Okay not exactly, but that'll get your mind working in the right direction.
     Trentalange is Barbara Trentalange, former lead singer for the Seattle-based quintet Spyglass, and last heard around these parts in August 2006, when her first solo CD was released. Beyond the immediately successful mood established here, "Fever" works particularly well because the chorus delivers a payoff on the verse's setup. Although nothing wildly different is happening in the chorus--the general mood and tempo remain the same--two particular attributes win me over. First, the vocals open up. While Trentalange sings with a smoky (and doubletracked, and maybe phased?) restraint in the verse, she gives herself more emotive freedom in the chorus, singing without obvious effects, and layering on the harmonies with just the right amount of drama (be sure to check out those Lennox-like howls she hides in the background). The other winning point in the chorus: the unresolved melody line at the end. And okay I'm kind of a sucker for unresolved melody lines, but even more so when they come in an unexpected context such as this upbeat, loungey rave-up (the song in fact seems to be taking place on a dance floor). That we are then led into a particularly noodly synthesizer line makes it sound like she's winking at us, telling us that things after all aren't exactly what they seem.
     "Fever" is the lead track on the forthcoming Trentalange album, Awakening, Level One, scheduled for release next month on Coco Tauro Records, which appears to be her own label.

Free and legal MP3 from Joker's Daughter (pastoral folk pop, via the Twilight Zone)

"Worm's Head" - Joker's Daughter
     If Gnarls Barkley can refer to themselves as the "odd couple" (as per their 2008 album), then what to make of this pairing of Helena Costas, a London-born singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist of Greek Cypriot extraction, and Danger Mouse (himself half of Gnarls Barkley)? A really really odd couple?
     And what to make of this odd-couply music, part pastoral airiness, part Twilight Zoney strangeness? There are uncanny lyrics--"The horses turn into cows/And sheep lie on the edge of the road"--and an off-kilter heaviness to a beat that kind of wants to be lilting but isn't, really. There are warm acoustic instruments and wayward keyboards and electronic effects that sound like a combination of a theremin and an old-fashioned radio dial trying to tune in a station. Through it all, Costas--a classically trained violinist, among other things--sings with an unperturbed, slightly breathy sweetness, almost as if no one has told her exactly what she's singing about. Not that I have any idea either. And how short this is! Just when you're ready to sink into the mystery of it all, it's over. Rendering it all the more mysterious, I suppose.
     "Worm's Head" came out as a digital single in November, a 7-inch vinyl record in December, and will be on the debut Joker's Daughter album, The Last Laugh, when it comes out in February, on Team Love Records. MP3 via Team Love.