Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from A Camp (shimmering, bittersweet pop from Cardigans' front woman w/ a different band)

"Love Has Left the Room" - A Camp
     At once expansive and intimate, "Love Has Left the Room" shimmers with the large yet delicate pop energy of something from the '60s that didn't rock, with Cardigans front woman Nina Persson here playing the part of Lesley Gore, maybe, or even Vicki Carr. We get the orchestral flourishes, the lyrical and melodic melodrama, and the engaging pattern of verse-tension and chorus-release that gave that sort of music its radio-friendly kick.
     As with "Airplane Blues" (above), this song likewise has one particular moment that makes the whole thing come together, for me: it's the elongated "you" in the chorus, in the line "I'll let go if you just tell me"--a note that pretty much epitomizes the bittersweet interpersonal stalemate the song describes. The "you" is offered just one whole step down from the "I" but in a separate, disconsolate harmonic context; even the way the note is held, a half breath more than seems seemly, speaks as well as the words do about the pangs associated with a relationship that disintegrates without closure.
     Persson launched A Camp way back in 1997, to be a sort of experimental side project from her regular work fronting the Cardigans, but at this point the Cardigans are on hold and A Camp has had the more recent success--its self-titled 2001 debut won four Grammys in Sweden. "Love Has Left the Room" is from the trio's second album, Colonia, which was released last month on Nettwerk Records. MP3 via

Free and legal MP3 from the Decks (early Beatles meet surf rock in a 21st-century garage)

"What You Said" - the Decks
     Both in title and vibe, this song recalls pre-Rubber Soul Beatles, augmented by a garage-y edge, an abiding love of surf music, and (a bonus) boy-girl singing.
     I love the assertive but shuffly drumbeat, I love the old-fashioned guitar melody line (so rarely do guitarists want to give us this sort of thing any more), I love the surf guitar that kind of just sneaks in when the moment's right, I love how blasé and sloppy the vocals can get without ever quite losing their way, and most of all I love the song's casual but trusty momentum, which helps over the course of four minutes turn a simple but effective chorus into something just this side of extraordinary. We surely have a contender here for the song of the nascent summer, as this will go nicely blaring off a front porch accompanied by a frosty beverage.
     A two-boy, two-girl foursome from Detroit, the Decks have been together since 2003, but have just now released their debut CD--Breath and Bone, which came out this week on Cass Records, a small Detroit-based label. That's where you'll find "What You Said."

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Blue Roses (brisk acoustic/electronic blend from a young British singer/songwriter)

"I Am Leaving" - Blue Roses
     So-called folktronica often seeks to blend the acoustic and the electronic, but typically in a moody, glitchy ambiance; what Laura Groves introduces us to with "I Am Leaving"--Blue Roses is the name the multi-instrumentalist Groves uses for recording--is an acoustic/electronic blend that is at once bright and dreamy, the brisk folky guitar almost but not quite overwhelmed by a glistening synth that sounds like what a harpsichord might sound like if it could sustain. Soon we hear her harmonizing wordlessly, swoopingly, with herself; the (beguiling) effect is Kate Bush doing an imitation of the Roches, if you'll excuse the old-school references. When she first begins to sing actual words (at 0:40), her unadorned singing voice seems almost too...I don't know, too something: too raw, too high, too present and unfiltered. But give it a little time, and when the harmonies return, wow, check out some of those intervals--I can't even begin to guess what notes she's putting together at 0:59, on the second syllable of "silent." My goodness.
     I'll tell you exactly where it all began to make sense to me: at 1:12, when the swooping, wordless harmonies come back once more, and the melody makes that gratifying descent through an octave (first as she sings "Oh give me a clue somehow"). She repeats it, then resolves it with one extra melody line, then we go back into the verse--and we never hear this section again. But its existence haunts the song, renders it deeper and more complex. Everything sounds different from here on in, and not only because of the shift in instrumentation.
     "I Am Leaving" is from the debut, eponymous Blue Roses album, which was released in April in the U.K. and is scheduled for a July release on Beggars Banquet Records in the U.S. MP3 via the Beggars Group web site.

Free and legal MP3 from the Love Language (distorted, retro-y indie pop at once harsh and cute)

"Lalita" - the Love Language
     Crashing, distorted pop that manages the neat trick of being harsh and cute at the same time. There's that rough-edged sound and the lo-fi vocals on the one hand, that cheery tambourine and lovable, horn-like, garage-rock guitar riff on the other. Yup, pretty cute. And the thing even swings, in an effortless, '60s-ish sort of way.
     A key to its success, to me, is how relaxed a piece of work this is. It owes something, sure, to rock'n'roll of various bygone eras, but there's nothing slavish going on here, nothing emitting that straitjacketed vibe of someone trying too hard to make it sound like one particular thing or another. Meanwhile, the song is all "go away but come here": as ramshackle as the tune is, and muddy as the mix gets, the chorus cycles back each time, with its simple, sing-along melody, and wins your heart.
     The Love Language is a band from Raleigh that seems to have trouble deciding how many people are in it--while acknowledged as a sort of one-man operation, emerging from the imagination and talents of one Stuart McLamb, the Love Language is identified online variously as a five-piece band and a seven-piece band, even as both of these write-ups are accompanied by a picture of--yes--six people. You'll find "Lalita" on the band's self-titled debut CD, released in February on Bladen County Records. MP3 via Bladen County. Thanks to again to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Free and legal MP3 from Sweet Billy Pilgrim (early Genesis meets late Radiohead)

"Truth Only Smiles" - Sweet Billy Pilgrim
     This London-based trio has a knack for integrating different generations of progressive rock sounds, more than a little because lead singer Tim Elsenburg happens to evoke both Peter Gabriel and Thom Yorke, somehow; to think of this song as early Genesis as reimagined by later Radiohead isn't too far off if you want a quick handhold.
     In any case, what begins as an odd, lurching, bizarrely-sung ditty expands, after a leisurely 45 seconds, into a thing of almost startling beauty. But it's a distinctly postmodern beauty that we're talking about, which has as much to do with the prickly parts as the pretty ones. On the one hand, that which is blatantly gorgeous--the melody in the chorus--is partially withheld from us via unresolved melody lines and accompaniment that works against the lushness of the music. On the other hand, that which initially seemed challenging is slowly revealed as beautiful in its own right: check out the way the verse is presented at 1:54 versus how we first heard it at 0:00 and you may see what I mean.
     "Truth Only Smiles" is from the CD Twice Born Men, which was released in March on David Sylvian's Samadhisound label. MP3 via the band. Many thanks to visitor Hans for the tip.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Sally Shapiro (the latest from Sweden's neo-italo-disco chanteuse)

"Miracle" - Sally Shapiro
     Sweden's reclusive neo-italo-disco chanteuse (and/or duo) returns with another glistening wash of beat-driven melodrama, complete with whispery spoken French and electronic thunderstorms. Once again, it's the airy vocals--half golden warm, half icy cold; summer and winter combined--and blasé melodicism that give this song its particular charisma. For all its scrupulous construction and electronic core, there's something serene, even lackadaisical about the vibe, and yet not for a moment does the piece lose its sweeping, club-like theatricality. The melodies themselves are good examples of this dynamic tension, sounding at once borderline schmaltzy and emotionally penetrating.
     For newcomers, note that the name Sally Shapiro is used here to refer to both the duo behind the music--producer/writer/arranger Johan Agebjörn and an unidentified female singer--and to the singer herself, whose identity is kept secret, in the interest of maintaining her privacy. (She avoids both live performances and face to face interviews.)
     "Miracle" is the first available song from the album My Guilty Pleasure, slated for a fall release on Paper Bag Records. MP3 via Paper Bag.

Free and legal MP3 from New Ruins (evocative and hypnotic, acoustic and droney)

"Symptoms" - New Ruins
     Evocative, echoey, and hypnotic, "Symptoms" unwinds to an irresistible 7/4 beat that manages to move with clock-like precision and yet also with that irregular seven-count glitch. The odd but resolute beat, kept largely by an acoustic guitar lick (and only intermittently by any percussion at all), works as a central focal point, a reliable ground on top of which muddier elements--the reverbed vocals, the indistinct background drone--can operate without entirely deconstructing the song. "Symptoms" feels at once dainty and rough-edged, traditional and experimental; the way the strings (cello and violin, it seems) bow plaintive melodies over and around a loose mash of softly clanging, echoing guitars (in particular beginning at 1:48), with a drumbeat that rarely rises about the sound of a heartbeat, kind of sums up the idiosyncratic amalgam the band appears to be seeking.
     Once a duo, New Ruins, from Illinois, has expanded to quintet for their second CD, entitled We Make Our Own Bad Luck, which was released at the end of April on Parasol Records. MP3 via Parasol.

Free and legal MP3 from Jar-e (unabashed old-fashioned soul with an indie slant)

"3 Leaf" - Jar-e
     With a genuine groove, the likes of which we don't often hear in the indie rock world, "3 Leaf" slithers its way into my brain and then kind of just stays there. This song does not have hooks as much as moments: the big-voiced way Jar-e (real name: Jon Reid) sings at the outset of the verse; the sudden--perfect--appearance of horn charts in the chorus; the casual build-up to the song's central metaphor (a "three-leaf clover"; not good luck, in other words).
     Embodying an unabashed, old-fashioned sound (heck, it's even got a saxophone solo), "3 Leaf" is something of an anomaly--a big-hearted blast from the past, seeking to be nothing if not accessible, that nonetheless has the spunky, independently-produced spirit of the '00s. Take those horns, for instance: while bringing to mind the horns you might hear on a soul record from the '60s, they're actually kind of edgy and intricate--they don't offer punch as much as ongoing counterpoint.
     You'll find "3 Leaf" on Jar-e's second album, Chicas Malas, which was released in February on Exotic Recordings, based in the decidedly unexotic town of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Reid grew up in Norfolk, Virginia and is currently based in Asheville, NC. Thanks to the hard-working Largehearted Boy for the head's up.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Fingertips Q&A: Jill Sobule

Every month, the Fingertips Q&A sends five questions about the state of music in the digital age to one actual, working musician. I've gotten to where I'd much rather find out what someone who's out there trying to earn a living wage in the music industry thinks about all this stuff than read the bloviations of one more blogger or technology expert.

This month I'm delighted to get some perspective from singer/songwriter Jill Sobule. Although she started recording albums long before anyone was even dreaming of a digital music scene (her first record came out in 1990), Sobule emerged this year at the cutting edge of music industry innovation when she released an album, California Years, that was funded entirely through fan donations. Aiming for $75,000, she ended up with $89,000. The very music industry honchos who would traditionally ignore an artist as witty and idiosyncratic as Sobule might now learn a thing or two from her.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from the Sweet Serenades (happy/sad indie pop from Sweden)

"Die Young" - the Sweet Serenades
     Despite the bright guitar line, winsome beat, perky synthesizer, and, even, bongos(!), this melodic toe-tapper is poignant through and through. (Sad lyrics to happy music is a perpetually satisfying pop music trick.) The band's Martin Nordvall here trades vocals with guest Karolina Komstedt from Club 8, and the story is a wistful, disconnected one: smitten, he sings how he loves to linger in the morning and watch her breathe; she, forty seconds later, "not looking for love," sings, "In the morning/You stay a little too long." Ouch.
     One of my favorite moments happens early, as the song is still setting itself up: when Nordvall sings "I haven't been myself lately" (0:35), the words "been myself" form a sort of triplet, the second two syllables each coming ahead of the beat while--this is the cool thing--underneath, one of the guitars slashes three evocative chords precisely in rhythm with all three parts of the syncopated phrase. Okay, subtle, but it's the kind of thing that to me signals a song of merit and purpose. I like too how one of Komstedt's two heavy introductory sighs--before you actually hear her begin singing--come right ahead of that lyrical line.
     Based in Stockholm, the Sweet Serenades are Nordvall and lead guitarist partner Mathias Näslund, who have apparently been inseparable since finding one another wearing the same then-hip Soviet CCCP hat and riding similar bikes as teens in 1991. "Die Young" is from the band's full-length debut, Balcony Cigarettes, released last month on Leon Records.

Free and legal MP3 from Deer Tick (gruff but lovable quasi-Americana)

"Easy" - Deer Tick
     For a band with roots in Rhode Island, this one has something of the big, lonesome prairie about it, provided that you put a garage somewhere in the middle of that prairie and plugged a guitar or two into it. We'll need a drum kit too. And a carton of cigarettes.
     After the spaghetti western surf rock of the rumbly introduction, the immediate thing that will impress you (or, not) about "Easy" is the roughened--well, okay, strangled--tone of front man John Joseph McCauley III. Perhaps an acquired taste, or perhaps something you won't want to hear for more than three or four minutes at a time, but I urge you to ride this one out because the thing that ultimately gives this song its power is, I think, the juxtaposition of McCauley's sore-throated rasp and the urgent poise of its simple, well-crafted music. Listen to how the galloping verses leave you aching for resolution and how well the rock-solid chorus delivers it: an uncomplicated melody perched upon a flowing guitar line, everything shot through with the deep-seated authenticity of folk music, along with a shot of un-self-conscious '70s southern rock.
     Deer Tick began in 2004 as pretty much just McCauley, supported by a variety of side musicians. The band became a duo in '07, and has evolved since then to a full-fledged quartet, now based in Brooklyn, like everybody else. "Easy" is the lead track off Deer Tick's second album, Born on Flag Day, which will be released next month on Partisan Records, also based in Brooklyn. MP3 via Partisan.