Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from the Winter Sounds (energetic rocker with a Cure-like flair)

"Trophy Wife" - the Winter Sounds
     An intent, energetic rocker with an underlying Cure-ishness at its core, from its ringing, two-part guitar melody and mobile bass line to its yelpy-voiced front man, Patrick Keenan, who edges pleasantly towards the almost hysterical in his upper register. I'm mentally searching rock history for this voice's precedent and I can't find anything notable that goes further back than Robert Smith, truly the godfather of the almost-hysterical yelpers who've come along since 1979. I like how you can hear Keenan gulp for air in the middle of the chorus (e.g. 1:22); there's a guy who's singing first, asking questions later.
     For all its relentless flow, "Trophy Wife" is nicely put together. First, there's the long introduction. Most long introductions just sort of tread water, and kind of bother me; this one sets the mood and contains actual melodic development. Much better. Second, note how the briskness and melodic movement of the verse is counterbalanced by the chorus, the first part of which is sung largely on just one note, and the second part of which is sung at half the pace of the rest of the song. Also, check out how the beginning of the second verse has a different melody than the beginning of the first verse. I like when that happens. And then there's that strangely captivating bridge with interweaving falsetto vocals (2:39). Didn't see that one coming.
     The Winter Sounds are a quartet that split their time between Athens, Georgia and Chicago. "Trophy Wife" is a song from the band's second album, Church of the Haunted South, due out next week on Nashville-based Theory 8 Records.

Free and legal MP3 from Sara Lov (solo effort from sweet-voiced Devics singer)

"Animals" - Sara Lov (with Alex Brown Church)
     Sweet-voiced Sara Lov has been on Fingertips twice previously with her duo, Devics, most recently in 2006 for the beautiful, torchy "Come Up." Minus partner Dustin O'Halloran's evocative keyboards, Lov sings here over a simple acoustic guitar lick and allows her voice the hint of a Jenny Lewis-like twang. But if the verse sets us up for a light bit of alt-country, the chorus moves us in a somewhat different direction. The sudden presence of Alex Brown Church (front man for the band Sea Wolf) as co-lead vocalist definitely changes the aural palette, as his warm baritone has not a bit of country about it.
     An important, albeit subtler, shift in the chorus comes via the melody line. While the verse works within a limited, sing-song-y framework (simple, repeated, two-measure phrases) that actually hides musical complexities that do exist, the melody in the chorus opens up into a nicely developed eight-measure line. This serves to relieve a claustrophobia that we didn't quite know we were feeling until the relief arrived. Then comes an interesting sort of tag line after the chorus, sung jointly, that works to transition us comfortably back to the verse, only what's this? The second verse is altered and all but nonexistent, the tag line then leads us into rather than out of the chorus, Church and Lov singing together again. And everything leads to the final line of the song, which is exactly the same as the first line. Well done.
     You'll find "Animals" on the album Seasoned Eyes Were Beaming, released rather too quietly in March by Nettwerk Records. MP3 via the free and legal music site RCRD LBL. Note that the link above is not direct, but you'll see what to do when you click it.

Free and legal MP3 from Deluka (appealing electro-dance-rock; great summer song)

"Cascade" - Deluka
     Appealing electro-dance-rock with a sweeping ambiance and a more difficult-than-it-first-seems-to-pin-down sound. As much as one may initially want to hear this as harmless retro-y fun, one problem is that it's unclear exactly what era/genre this song is most reflective of, as it seems to gather everything from new wave and post-punk to disco and electro and then some under its sonic umbrella. Which maybe has the net effect of not seeming quite so retro after all. Certainly there's something in not only the sharp production but in the sheer urgent musical delight here that lends "Cascade" a sparkling currency--you've heard it before, except maybe not exactly. More to the point, you're likely to keep hearing this in your head moving forward. And surely this goes immediately to the top of the list of definitive summer songs for the summer of '09, at least here in Fingertips land. At least for now. The summer is yet young.
     Named after Laura San Giacomo's character in the movie Pretty Woman, Deluka is from Birmingham (UK) but has taken up in Brooklyn after being signed by the Brooklyn-based VEL Records. "Cascade" is the band's first recorded song. A digital EP will be released this summer, with a full-length CD expected in the fall. MP3 via VEL.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Little Tybee (sprightly indie rock w/ violin and an offbeat hook)

"Glass Brigade" - Little Tybee
     A brand-new Atlanta-based trio, Little Tybee (named after a small nature preserve off the shore of Savannah) plays a sprightly, light-footed sort of indie rock that combines organic and electronic sounds with offhanded flair. The unexpected center of the song, musically, is Ryan Gregory's violin. We first hear it at 0:10, playing a distinctive grouping of twelve notes, launched by a pair of oddly accented triplets that end up as the song's guiding hook when singer Brock Scott gets hold of it. He's got a friendly tenor, with a bit of texture to it, so we're happy to hand it over to him. And listen to how Gregory, in the background, while Scott sings that off-kilter motif (first at 0:23), now plucks instead of bows his strings.
     Note also that it's the violinist who takes the song's primary instrumental solo (1:15), which offers an embellished pizzicato version of the recurring theme, and also leads the jaunty instrumental coda. And perhaps the ultimate tribute to the violin here is that Scott sings rather like a violin in the wordless chorus section, doing a playful bit of vocal "bowing" and "plucking" himself, which is accentuated by the fact that he sings notes but not words, some of them precisely aligned with the notes the violin plays simultaneously.
     "Glass Brigade" is a song from the band's debut release, a seven-song EP called I Wonder Which House The Fish Will Live In, which will be self-released next month, and features hand-printed and cut and individually put together CD covers, just so you know.

Free and legal MP3 from A. A. Bondy (rootsy, atmospheric singer/songwriter fare)

"When the Devil's Loose" - A. A. Bondy
     Thick with atmosphere and aching with the majesty of something timeless and true, "When the Devil's Loose" has me at hello, as it were. I love those guitars, at once fuzzy and bell-like, and the casual authority they immediately establish. The song, which refers at the outset to a river, itself flows with a river-like depth and grandeur, its potent melody sung with a rough-edged nonchalance at once sultry and defiant. I like how the guitars sometimes float off into a bit of dissonance, adding to the impression that some deep sort of force of nature was involved in the creation of this song.
     Bondy is an Alabama-born singer/songwriter now based in upstate New York. He fronted a loud, Nirvana-like band in the late '90s and early '00s called Verbena, then using the first name Scott. His solo debut, American Hearts (2008), presented him in a folk-like, early-Dylan-ish setting, backed largely by acoustic guitar and the occasional harmonica. And yet the one or two songs featuring a bit more of a band sounded to me like the stronger cuts--in particular, "Lovers' Waltz," which "When the Devil's Loose" resembles somewhat. To me, therefore, the news that his forthcoming album finds him more often playing with a band is promising. I look forward to hearing more of it.
     This song is the title track to that second solo album, which is due out in September on Fat Possum Records. MP3 via Fat Possum.

Free and legal MP3 from the Argument (mysteriously appealing organic electronica)

"Goodbye" - The Argument
     A mysteriously appealing and almost mystically engaging piece of organic electronica. With a brisk, manufactured beat and circular melody, "Goodbye" unfolds in a lyrical haze, the song's narrator offering a series of deadpan observations in a voice at once wavery and steadfast. Through a precise combination of concrete imagery and vague scenarios, the words themselves beckon to the unconscious, leaving the conscious mind lost in the song's upward-climbing, downward-resolving tune.
     A hint of how this works comes in the second verse: "And lights will start to fade/A car goes by and a window breaks/And scatters thoughts across the floor/They're keeping me awake/They're keeping me awake." The window breaks, causing thoughts to scatter across the floor: the line between the external and the internal is blurred to the point of nonrationality. Note also the blurred aural line between acoustic and electric, and how the song, churning along with a homemade sort of charm, overlays clear musical resolution with lyrical elusiveness. And while I don't usually connect to songs with long, noodly outros, the spacey but poignant last 80 seconds or so seems perfectly designed to help a listener integrate what he or she has just absorbed.
     The Argument is a duo from Sweden, about which not much information is available; their names are Marcus and Niklas and that's about all I can tell you. "Goodbye" is from their new self-released CD, Everything Depends, their second effort. The MP3 link above is not direct; you'll have to click the words "Download Track" once you get to the page. The entire album is in fact available as a free and legal download, and is worth checking out.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from T. Nile (Canadian singer/songwriter with a rich voice and a flair for storytelling)

"Cabin Song" - T. Nile
     With its yawning steel guitar and soft snare beat, "Cabin Song" on the one hand says "country" from the get go. And yet the Vancouver-based Tamara Nile, who prefers using just her initial, does not affect a country-music accent, which is something, I'm suddenly realizing as I've been listening to this, that appeals to me. The conjunction of country music sounds with non-country singing has the effect of liberating country from its typically parochial musical constraints. I'm sure there's a place for twangy, cowboy-hatted music but if that sound doesn't call to you, you end up dissociated from certain musical elements that in and of themselves may actually be pretty cool. Combined with Nile's rich, athletic voice and sharp storytelling skills, the steel guitar's ghostly wail is worth hearing as an aural experience, not just as something that says "I am listening to country music."
     Nile was brought up in--yes--a cabin on Galiano Island, between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, by musician parents, but the song may not otherwise be autobiographical. It doesn't seem to talk about how she began busking on sidewalks with her multi-instrumentalist father in far-off places like New Orleans and San Diego at the age of six, for instance.
     "Cabin Song" is the title track to her brand new EP, self-released last week. Her first full-length CD, At My Table, came out in 2006; her second is due next year.

Free and legal MP3 from Dirty Projectors (Bjork meets Prince via Capt. Beefheart)

"Stillness Is The Move" - Dirty Projectors
     Not every pop song gets its lyrics by combining bits of dialogue from an enchanting foreign-language movie classic with phrases from an Excel spreadsheet of pop clichés, but the free-flowing, high-minded collective known as Dirty Projectors is hardly your everyday pop band.
      An experimental group masterminded by Dave Longstreth, a music major from Yale, Dirty Projectors has been releasing mind-bending, genre-defying music for the better part of the decade. "Stillness Is The Move" is one of the more accessible songs in the band's catalog--think Björk meets Prince--and it's still pretty prickly (think Captain Beefheart), its fat groove semi-dismantled by the fidgety melody, complex harmonies, stuttering rhythms, needly guitar lines, and eventual encroachment by a classical string section. Amber Coffman sings acrobatically and precisely, but be sure to tune as well into the meandering, often thrilling countermelodies offered in the background by Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle. I recommend hitting the replay button at least six or seven times, after which you won't need me to tell you to keep going. It gains mysterious traction from repeat listens.
     "Stillness Is The Move" is from Bitte Orca, the band's fifth full-length studio album, released this month by Domino Records. MP3 via Spin; thanks to Jonk Music for the head's up.

Free and legal MP3 from Alibi Tom (slightly skewed power pop from Sweden)

"Sometimes I'm Afraid" - Alibi Tom
     In today's global, fragmented, hyperactive indie-rock marketplace, one can never know whether a band with a good song is fated to flame out or make a solid career of it. The internet's relentless focus on the next new thing feeds on the flame-outs, but in so doing ignores the genuine gratification to be had from being witness to the ongoing flowering of an appealing musical sensibility.
     Which is all sort of a needlessly complicated way of saying hey, Gothenburg's Alibi Tom is back with an excellent new MP3. (And Alibi Tom itself is an outgrowth of Out of Clouds, also previously featured.) With bright guitar lines and personable vocals, "Sometimes I'm Afraid" hooks me most of all with a chorus that delivers a full power-pop wallop even as it cagily withholds a lot at the same time--listen to how the band retreats under the melody, which ends up being supported largely by a rapid-fire bass line and a lot of cymbals. That's the kind of backing you might hear at the end of a lyrical line, not sustained through an entire chorus; the juxtaposition of that nervous sound with a great melodic hook is oddly irresistible to me, and relates to the song's broader and equally appealing juxtaposition of cheerful vibe and pensive lyrics.
     "Sometimes I'm Afraid" is an altered, "radio edit" version of a song that originally appeared on Scrapbook, the band's 2008 debut, on the British label Leon. (The band's previous TWF pick, "Fire," is from the same album.) MP3 via the band's web site.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Portugal. The Man (friendly and powerful, with a '70s groove)

"People Say" - Portugal. The Man
     The best thing to emerge from Wasilla, Alaska that I can think of, Portugal. The Man is a band with an enviable capacity to produce rock music that seems to come to us from some timeless, nameless place--music that sounds at once familiar and freshly-minted, sharp but easy-going, inscrutable but friendly as can be.
     One of the keys to this song's success, to my ears, is its matching up of a laid-back groove with steady, sinuous chordal movement. As the melody unfolds against a setting that pays homage to early '70s soul music, the underlying chords are changing pretty much every two beats, both in the verse and the chorus. The ear is continually engaged, and a sense of urgency conveyed, even as the underlying pace and vibe stays relatively relaxed.
     "People Say" is the lead track off the band's latest album, The Satanic Satanist, scheduled for release next month on Equal Vision Records. Portugal. The Man was previously featured on Fingertips in October '08 and August '07, and as has been noted are a bit of a self-assured mystery, from their name to their impenetrable intentions. A quartet currently featuring five people in their band photos, they have been based in Portland for some unspecified amount of time. MP3 via Spinner. (Be forewarned that this one ends so abruptly it sounds like an editing mistake; could be on the album the song leads straight into the next track in an impossible-to-edit sort of way.)

Free and legal MP3 from Wye Oak (soft/loud, pretty/harsh indie rock)

"Take It In" - Wye Oak
     Fleetwood Mac meets Yo La Tengo as Wye Oak vocalist Jenn Wasner channels her inner Christine McVie against a recurring explosion of clanging noise in a song that sounds like a debate between someone who's whispering and someone who's shouting.
     In contrast to the previous song, "Take It In" hovers within a strikingly limited range of chords. What I think gives this one its appeal is the bittersweet beauty of the verse's quiet melody, which centers on two symmetrical lines, one ascending and one descending. And the power of it comes from Wasner's dreamy delivery--she sings with minimal backing--and how she lingers subtly but deliciously behind the pulsing beat in just the right places. The harsh, clangy sections in between the verses render Wasner's return each time all the more elusively enticing.
     The Baltimore-based duo Wye Oak is also a TWF returnee; their song "Warning" was reviewed in January '08. You'll find "Take It In" on the band's second album, The Knot, which will be released next month on Merge Records.

Free and legal MP3 from I and I (thoughtful, upbeat electronic music)

"The Bottom" - I and I
     One of the downsides to a lot of electronic music, to my ears, is how inescapably aware it makes me that everything I'm listening to is being generated by, essentially, black boxes and computer screens. This awareness often lends a sort of aural claustrophobia to the music, not to mention a disspiriting sort of physical blandness. From the time of the earliest musical instruments straight through to the rock'n'roll era, one common element of playing music was the bodily movement required to send sound waves into the air. Generated without commensurate physicality, electronic music has a lot to make up for, as far as I'm concerned.
     Adam Sarmiento, the multi-instrumentalist behind I and I, manages somehow to do just this. There are three key elements at work. First is how carefully he chooses his synthesizer sounds, which vary not only in tone but in texture--there's one that sounds like a crunchy guitar, one that sounds like the desert wind, one that sounds like a funky bass guitar, and a few others I can't begin to describe. Because of how distinct they are they work together to describe something very much like three-dimensional space. Second is how carefully he uses them--at any point during the song, you can always hear quite clearly what sounds are in play. Lastly is the playful quality of his rubbery, somewhat adenoidal tenor, which many compare to David Byrne but to me is more rightfully likened to similar but subtly different Adrian Belew, and which definitely humanizes the robotic setting.
     "The Bottom" is from the second I and I album, White Noise/Black Music, which was released last month via Alchemist Records and Believe Digital France. MP3 via the I and I web site.

Monday, June 08, 2009

June Q&A: Haley Bonar

The latest Fingertips Q&A is online, featuring St. Paul-based singer/songwriter Haley Bonar, who answers five quick questions about the future of music. With a dreamy smile on her face.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Carbon Leaf (appealing, well-crafted rock from veteran band)

"Lake of Silver Bells" - Carbon Leaf
     It might be time for yet another Fingertips mini-lecture on why music doesn't have to be "new" or "groundbreaking" to be good. Or, it might not be. Lectures get tiresome, mini or otherwise. Although, I must say, not nearly as tiresome as listening to indie rock snobs dis perfectly good music as "formulaic" just because they don't like it. For god's sake, you don't have to like everything. But you also don't have to insist that all the music you don't like is therefore "bad," and that the most obvious way music is "bad" is if it doesn't somehow do something "new." Folk music has lasted for centuries with its impact unabated, and none of that ever sounded "new" or "groundbreaking."
     Rats. That was a mini-lecture, wasn't it? Time to get to Carbon Leaf, and the really appealing (but, nope, not groundbreaking) "Lake of Silver Bells." Something of a novella at a time when most indie pop songs are short stories at best, the song is driven by a shimmering, U2-inspired guitar line (first kicking in around 0:51) but really takes hold thanks to its two complementary hooks: the first being that recurring moment in the second half of the verse when smoky-voiced singer Barry Privett soars to falsetto; the second being the chorus, which is not heard until 1:48, and is well worth the wait: swooping and indelibly melodic, with an intriguing air of Celtic rock about it (anyone remember the band Horslips? anyone at all?), and ringing with such muscular movement that it feels less like a chorus than a song within a song. This gets better and better as you listen again and again.
     So yes, give me "deep" over "new" any day, and this kind of structural and textural depth is largely beyond the reach of musicians who are still getting to know each other. The Richmond, Virgina-based Carbon Leaf, on the other hand, has been around since 1992. Imagine that. "Lake of Silver Bells" is from the band's seventh studio album Nothing Rhymes With Woman, released in mid-May on Vanguard Records.

Free and legal MP3 from Bonfire Madigan (string-based punk rock, with heart)

"Lady Saves the Dragon (From the Evil Prince)" - Bonfire Madigan
     I don't think I've ever been tempted before to feature a song simply because of its title but this one was hard to resist. Fortunately the song backed me up here: a strange but hearty slice of punk-cello-rock with a great pulse, an uncorked singer, and the ability to create loose-cannon drama out of not a lot of actual noise. There are no electric instruments here--just a cello, a contrabass, and drums. And then at the center, cellist Madigan Shive's unruly, Björk-ish yowl. (I don't by the way think that those electronic punctuation marks heard at 2:45 and 2:52 are vocal shrieks but then again you never know.)
      Even as I continue to find it hard to get my arms completely around this, I remain amazed each time I listen by how quickly time passes here; the song is just about four minutes but feels much more fleeting, even as the deep sounds of those big-bodied stringed things ground this odd composition in something rich and compelling. Something is happening here but I don't know what it is.
     Bonfire Madigan is the name of the four-person ensemble founded in 1998 by Shive, who comes by her freewheeling sound rightfully--she grew up in an extremely alternative household, was called Running Pony until she was six years old, and was thereafter given an expanding variety of names until, at 14, she chose one of them, Madigan, for keeps. This song is the semi-title track from Bonfire Madigan's Lady Saves EP, released in May by Shive's own MoonPuss Records. A full-length album is expected before the end of the year.

Free and legal MP3 from Reed KD (like S&G w/ B. Folds on lead)

"Winding Roads" - Reed KD
     Imagine Ben Folds singing lead for Simon & Garfunkel and you'll have a fast idea of what "Winding Roads" sounds like. The melancholy guitar-picking and sweet vocalizing is definitely a throwback and/or homage to S&G in their heyday, but I also love that the tenor voice here feels rounded and confident (i.e. Foldsian) rather than wispy and introverted. Given how many 21st-century singer/songwriters seem birthed straight from the forehead of Elliott Smith, I for one am delighted to hear a guy who sounds like he could belt out a pop song if he wanted to, but doesn't want to.
     Another delight here is the exquisite and involving melody. Paul Simon's melodic gift was crucial to the S&G vibe, and so to go after that vibe without a serious melody is a big mistake, to my ears. (When you pull out the acoustic guitar things can go downhill quickly without a melody to hang onto.) Reed KD (and no, I have no idea what to make of his name; is KD his last name? is Reed KD a two-part first name?) engages us by offering a complex melody within a song distilled to utmost simplicity: both the verse and the chorus are each an eight-measure melody; we hear each one twice, with some lovely guitar work in between. That's it, and that's all it needs to be.
     "Winding Roads" is from Reed KD's self-released new album In Case the Comet Comes, due out next week. The singer/songwriter is based in Santa Cruz.