Monday, February 23, 2009

Five free and legal MP3s but no reviews this week

Fingertips is taking a late winter vacation. There will be no "This Week's Finds" this week. The home office will be shut down through February 28. "This Week's Finds" will return on Monday March 2 (or, okay, maybe Tuesday March 3).

For those who would like some new music, albeit without the usual commentary, here are links to five songs I've been listening closely in recent days (or, in some cases, weeks). Any one of these may yet end up featured with a review, but you can take a listen in advance and see how they strike you:

* "My Maudlin Career" - Camera Obscura
* "Better at the End of the Day" - Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles
* "The Ancient Common Sense of Things" - Bishop Allen
* "Everything All at Once" - the Rest
* "The Sun and the Earth" - Middle Distance Runner

Note that three of these bands--Camera Obscura, Bishop Allen, and Middle Distance Runner--have been previously featured on Fingertips. You can look them up via the Master Artist List. Bishop Allen has appeared twice previously, in fact (note to self: put these guys in the Select Artist Guide already).

And consider taking the time you're saving this week by not having to read three lengthy MP3 reviews and using it to become a fan of Fingertips on Facebook or, perchance, a follower of Fingertips on Twitter. It's easy and, apparently, fun.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from the Asteroids Galaxy Tour (neo-R&B stomp from Denmark)

"The Sun Ain't Shining No More" - The Asteroids Galaxy Tour
     Every now and again the stars align and a song with all the makings of a pop sensation sneaks its way into Fingertips. Be not afraid; it is, rather, a cause for celebration when something this brash and delightful likewise reveals itself to be a worthy three and a half minutes of your time.
      A bracing amalgam of sounds past and present, "The Sun Ain't Shining No More" sparkles with energy and know-how--a '60s-like R&B stomp with a bright, contemporary haircut, held together with a bashy beat, laid-back but super-groovy guitar licks, and the garage-edged baby-doll voice of Mette Lindberg. Moderately paced but full of movement, the song manages to create a deep groove without breaking a sweat. Auxilliary sounds--strings, chimes--are used prominently but succinctly. And this is one groove that tends lovingly (and unusually) to its melody, the pliability of which is enhanced by Lindberg's curious and expressive voice.
     TAGT was founded by Lars Iversen in Copenhagen in 2007, although Iversen says he had the sound for the band in his head before it even existed. While Iversen and Lindberg are the core of the group, which has expanded to six players for live shows, they consider themselves neither a duo nor a band but a collective which will continue to shift as the music and the interconnections unfold over time. "The Sun Ain't Shining No More" was originally heard on the band's Around the Bend EP (the title track to that became part of an iPod commercial), and will likewise appear on the forthcoming debut CD, Fruit, to be released in April on Small Giants Records.

Free and legal MP3 from Iran (at once lilting and noisy; features Kyp Malone of TVotR)

"Buddy" - Iran
     Talk about retro--this one swings with a '50s vibe, complete with doo-wop style backing vocals, a nostalgic bass line, and a simple piano vamp. At the same time, there is something unsettling in the air here. Aaron Aites' plainspoken, unstylized voice is not, to begin with, what one expects in a musical environment typically peopled by smooth crooners. Even less expected are the guitarists Aites brings along with him, one of whom is Kyp Malone, who is better known as part of TV on the Radio.
     At first we get a slashing chord or two, and a bit of reverb. Thirty seconds in, a new guitar sound enters and grows in strength--a buzzing, high-pitched line playing a slow series of extended, vibrating notes. No doubt there are two guitars doing this but the net effect is one voice, which grows increasingly louder and more insistent as the song unfolds. (The band, a trio, features two guitarists--Malone and Aaron Romanello--and Aites, a multi-instrumentalist.) The instrumental break (1:15) highlights the song's developing juxtaposition: easy-going, old-fashioned sway meets tense guitar noise. The edgy, extended notes continue and intensify, and notice how the "oo-oo" backing vocals open out into something weirder and more diffuse along the way, becoming part of the background wash. By 2:20, Aites himself is getting louder, if only to be heard; at 2:30, the atmosphere explodes with wailing guitars and unidentifiable noise that reaches a peak ten or so seconds later and then, with disconcerting ease, withdraws, leaving the easy-going vibe intact. The screechy guitars, however, have the last word, taking longest of all to fade away.
     Iran, the band, is not by the way named for the country, but for a character in the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the book which gave birth to the movie Blade Runner). The song "Buddy" was originally released on an EP late last year, and appears on the band's new CD, Dissolver, released last week on Narnack Records.

Free and legal MP3 from Ann Vriend (Kate Bush meets Nanci Griffith, in Canada)

"St. Paul" - Ann Vriend
     Lastly this week I have another song that's been out in the world for a while, but unlike the previous two, this one has received next to no online attention to date. I pretty much stumbled upon it during my first run-through of the new SXSW MP3s. Serendipity rules.
     A singer/songwriter from Edmonton, Vriend has a voice that sounds a bit like Kate Bush doing a Nanci Griffith imitation (or maybe it's Nanci Griffith doing a Kate Bush imitation; I can never figure out which way to go with that sort of comparison). "St. Paul" is a smooth strummer with a timeless core; once the song kicks into gear, after a minute or so, it sounds like something that must have always been around, something rock solid, stratospheric, and maybe even a little Dylanic (the organ that comes to the fore two-thirds of the way through contributes nicely to that last impression). This is one of those fortunate songs in which the chorus emerges as increasingly deep and revelatory, both musically and lyrically, each time it recurs. In it, she sings, "What if I dare to risk it all/Be free wherever I found myself," and the words on the screen can't begin to convey the richness of the aural experience, the way the unexpected melodic upturn at "wherever" and upgraded resolution at "myself" together spring the song into a grand new dimension, while both conveying and deepening the stated yearning (which is, truth be told, one of the deepest human yearnings of them all).
     "St. Paul" is from the album When We Were Spies, Vriend's third, which came out back in March 2008. Yet to create any stir in the blogosphere, she will be performing next month down at SXSW, which may help; the MP3 is via the SXSW web site.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Faunts (sweet, glum, soaring neo-shoegaze from Edmonton)

"It Hurts Me All the Time" - Faunts
     Breezy and melancholy is a seductive musical combination, trickier to master than it may at first seem. The big problem when aiming for both pretty and glum at the same time is avoiding glib pastiche; in this day and age when knob-twiddlers rule the world, it's easy enough to combine disparate moods and sounds and harder than ever to make it sound a convincing whole.
     "It Hurts Me All the Time" blows right past any difficulties from the get-go: first comes that extended intro mixing sprightly synths and low-level dissonance, and then (eventually) the decisive opening lines: "You could never love me/The sky is black above me," sung with pitch-perfect doleful-sweetness by Tim Batke (one of three Batke brothers in this five-man band). Scored or sung the wrong way, lyrics like that might set off the twee alarm, but not only is Batke's voice burnished with a subtle throatiness one might not expect from a soaring pop tenor, get a load too of that clanging guitar noise going on as a backdrop to the bubbling synthesizers accompanying him--a visceral signal of the song's mixed message. And then there's also the smooth, repeated synthesizer theme that's more or less an instrumental hook for the song--a pretty line aired with an eerie, organic fragility; a line which, as well, carries with it a distinct echo of Joy Division's famously melancholy "Love Will Tear Us Apart," which further undermines the sweetness.
     "It Hurts Me All the Time" is a song from the CD Feel.Love.Thinking.Of., the Edmonton band's second album (not counting last year's remix album), to be released next week on Friendly Fire Recordings. MP3 via Friendly Fire.

Free and legal MP3 from Stina Stjern (wonderful, scuffed-up rock from a singer/songwriter who has knitted her own record covers)

"The Horizon" - Stina Stjern
     Straightforward rock'n'roll with a scuffed-up edge, assured vocals, and a subtly powerful melody. The guitar work here is especially wonderful, all rough and crunchy and bendy, with a dissonant flair and offhanded discipline. There's a rumbly guitar at the bottom of the mix that gives the song a beat-up gravitas, and there's a rhythm guitar pretty much playing lead (I tend to like that, now that I think about it), and there's probably a regular rhythm guitar in there too but by and large everything coheres so agreeably that my mind resists further efforts to pick it apart. I'm just enjoying the vibe, a lot. Stjern herself says she's "a sucker for good melodies and edgy white trash rock music (whatever that is)," so there's as good a description as any. And be sure to pay attention to that great coda (3:06): a full minute of churning, squeaking guitars, held together briefly by a circular lead guitar line before disintegrating into a squonky puddle.
     Born in Norway and now based in Copenhagen, Stina Stjern has one of those natural voices that gives the illusion that she's speaking more than singing; there's something in her full-bodied tone that brings to mind another wonderful Scandinavian singer/songwriter, Ebba Forsberg, but yikes that's an analogy that's going to mean nothing to almost everyone. Well, look her up someday. And then here's something that reminds me of nobody at all: Stjern has hand-knit (as in yarn and needles) covers for the 7-inch vinyl version of the single; she's made a video of many of the covers, accompanied by the song. MP3 via Stjern's web site.

Free and legal MP3 from the Antlers (twinkly and hypnotic, with gathering force and a soft piano)

"Two" - the Antlers
     For a tune that pretty much loops over and over, "Two" has an uncanny--and almost unbearable--amount of grit, substance, and heartache. The song is part of a tightly-themed album called Hospice, which is clearly based on a tragedy in front man Peter Silberman's life, a tragedy which is only amplified by his free-flowing but unpitying lyrics, his dry, falsetto-like tenor, and the music's tinkly, buzzing, hypnotic momentum. For all its gathering, contraption-like force, "Two" retains a hand-hewn quality that adds to the pathos; and just listen to those pensive piano chords that appear intermittently (first at 1:53), commanding attention despite--or maybe because of--their quiet matter-of-factness. They're kind of heartbreaking in their own way.
     And I'm not normally a lyrics-focused kind of guy but this song demands a reading, so check it out when you have a chance. "Two," by the way, is subtitled "Or, I Would Have Saved Her If I Could."
     The Antlers' first release, in 2007, was a solo project for the Brooklyn-based Silberman; the band has since evolved into a trio, with more players joining in for the album. "Two" has been circulating around the blogosphere since last fall; Hospice is set for self-release next month. MP3 via the band's site.

Friday, February 06, 2009

February's Q&A now online, featuring Dave Derby from Gramercy Arms

The Fingertips Q&A was launched in August with the express intent of allowing actual, working musicians the chance to talk about the state of the music industry in the digital age. This is not intended as a comprehensive discussion; each time I ask five (relatively) simple questions, all having something to do with making sense of what popular music in the 21st century is about. Easy!

This month we welcome aboard Dave Derby, of the band Gramercy Arms, whose song "Automatic" was featured on "This Week's Finds" in December. The band released its self-titled debut album in November, which featured a number of indie rock semi-celebrities, including Matthew Caws from Nada Surf Joan Wasser of Joan As Police Woman. You may know Derby better as the front man of the Dambuilders, a Boston-based band that gained a footing on alternative rock radio in the '90s. (In the photo, Derby is second from the left.)

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Marissa Nadler (beautiful, mysterious, atmospheric toe-tapper)

"River of Dirt" - Marissa Nadler
     A master of atmosphere, Marissa Nadler can maintain her delicate, otherworldly vibe even when she adds percussion and electric guitar to her spidery sound, and even when the music chugs along at a toe-tapping pace. A lot of the aura has to do with that spooky voice of hers, encased in reverb, and the words that voice is singing--weird words, full of romance, escape, and sorrow (the titular metaphor appears to be referring to death itself). The echoey, keening lap steel that hovers in the background heightens the familiar strangeness of it all.
     Nadler may be adding band-like instrumentation to her sound, but it's hardly a standard sort of rock band she's got going here. Listen, first, to the drumming, which moves forward with an idiosyncratic blending of rims and toms, and a most judicious use of cymbals--what you hear in the intro from about :06 onward is what propels the entire song; it's a subtly peculiar sound, seeming at once mechanical and homespun. Then check out the aforementioned lap steel guitar, which howls and sings with uncanny luminosity, mixing in and around an electric guitar and also Nadler's own backing vocal tracks, often stressing notes that set it apart from the melody and harmony and yet join everything mysteriously together. Beautiful, compelling music we have here.
     Fingertips regulars may recall Nadler from the oddly gorgeous 2007 song "Diamond Heart," which ended that year among the top 10 favorite free and legal MP3s here. "River of Dirt" is from her forthcoming (and fourth) CD, Little Hells, which is slated for release next month on Kemado Records. MP3 via Kemado.

Free and legal MP3 from Blue Horns (thorny guitars, yelpy vocals, loose/tight sound)

"Shotgun Wedding" - Blue Horns
     With its thorny guitars and yelpy vocals, "Shotgun Wedding" brings the early work of the late great New Zealand band Split Enz rather immediately to mind, but that's only because I'm old and remember them. It's probably an accident. (They didn't really do the thorny guitar thing, anyway. Thorny keyboards, thorny strings, maybe. Yelpy vocals, definitely.) Perhaps less of an accident is the way the band's clearly voiced dual guitar sound recalls another '70s band, Television, although this is jumpier and poppier than what Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd were doing. These guys are like Television's kid brother, just wanting to have a bit of actual fun. (Television was cool and great but not much fun.)
     "Shotgun Wedding"'s charm, to me, has to do with its commanding spirit of loose tightness (or is it tight looseness?)--an aural sense and sensibility that characterizes a lot of great rock'n'roll through the years. You want it to sound spontaneous and alive, but you also want everything just so. There's nothing muddy or muddled here; the two guitars play cleverly together, and you can always hear what each one is doing if you stop to listen. The song rollicks to a spiky, shuffly beat, singer Brian Park (he also plays one of the guitars) unleashes his warbly falsetto with exquisite precision (check out the note he hits at 0:52, which pretty much sold me on the song), the guitars take a break from their prickly, tick-tock dueting to give us a little "Heat Wave"-y swing (1:19), and the whole thing wraps in 2:40.
     Blue Horns is a quartet from Portland, Oregon. "Shotgun Wedding" is the lead track on the band's self-titled debut album, which was self-released at the end of last year.

Free and legal MP3 from Neko Case (spellbinding voice, upbeat but subtle song)

"People Got a Lotta Nerve" - Neko Case
     The mighty Neko Case is back with a soon-to-be-released album and an initial song that took a while to sneak up on me, as it were. To be sure, her voice is as spellbinding as ever, with that rich lower register, that clarion upper register. And this one does have an immediate, breezy-jangly appeal. I just wasn't sure about the song itself. I kept hearing the chorus, with its simple-sounding, repetitive core, and was too distracted to listen to what was actually going on.
     The words were the first to penetrate. Over what may sound like a throwaway melodic line, she sings "I'm a man-man-man, man-man-maneater/But still you're suprised-prised-prised when I eat you." It turns out this is a bouncy, casual, humorous-seeming way of nailing a painful and complicated interpersonal tendency among us humans that would take me a full paragraph to explicate (I don't have the room; I'll leave it to you to ponder.) And then, the music: the way the second series of repetitions, on "surprised," lag at half-rate, and behind the beat, helps deliver the complex, wistful payoff far better than the words alone would. Eventually, too, I noticed she has two different melodies for the two verses, which feels curious and elusive. You keep needing to go back and listen again. Don't miss, also, that rueful seven-note run on the guitar before the second verse starts (beginning at 0:56), a C-sharp scale that comes up one note short, leaving us on the most unresolved C note possible (in this difficult scale it's considered a B-sharp, to be precise). She uses this same pattern for the song's cryptic coda, as she sings: "It will end again in bullets fired," which strikes me as an allusion to Chekhov's famous theatrical principle.
     So there's a little more here than meets the eye. And, "People Got a Lotta Nerve" comes with a nifty promotional gimmick to boot. For every blog that posts this song, Case and her record label, Anti, will donate $5 to the Best Friends Animal Society. Today is in fact the last day the promotion is in effect, so I'm in under the wire. Phew. The new CD, Middle Cyclone, is due out in early March. (There's a nice video on the making of the album, worth watching, here.) MP3 via Spinner.