Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Morningbell (spoke-sung verses, body-shaking rhythms, appealing vibe)

"Marching Off To War" - Morningbell
     Equal parts character and commitment, "Marching Off To War" props itself on top of some seriously good-natured drumming and never looks back. The verses--all two of them--involve some smiley, spoke-sung lyrics that serve as gatekeepers to the body-shaking rhythmic attack of the chorus, in which singer/guitarist Travis Atria wails the repeated line "Marching off to war" in full Perry Farrell mode. Is there a disconnect here between the jolly sounds and the somber words? I'm guessing that's the point. Note the way the chorus ends with a line that comes across as a throwaway--"I don't care what you say anymore"--but may indeed be the fulcrum of the song.
     Because that's exactly what happens when human beings are rallied to act against their own better natures: they must be jollied up to the point where they don't want to know there's another way to look at the situation. Don't bother me, I'm marching off to war. My head's full of happy nonsense. Whatever the latest war is. (The war against health care reform will do.) "I don't care what you think anymore," is how the line goes later in the song.
     Named after the Radiohead song (and why not; Radiohead too made a one-word name for themselves from another band's two-word song title), Morningbell is a quartet from Gainesville. Travis's brother Eric plays bass (and, Radiohead-ishly, theremin), and Eric's wife Stacie plays keys. (The exhilarating drummer, not related, is named Chris Hillman, of all things.) The band was previously featured here in May 2007. "Marching Off To War" will be found on their fourth and forthcoming album, Sincerely, Severely, slated for release on the band's own non-profit label, Orange Records, in December.

Free and legal MP3 from Spider (quiet, simmering music from Fingertips returnee)

"Petal Song" - Spider
     This may not sound at first like a song that's going to kick out with a minute-long Pink Floydian guitar solo, but how often, actually, are things exactly what they seem? (cf. "Things are not as they seem. Nor are they otherwise," as per the Buddha.)
     "Petal Song" may well begin quietly but there's something simmering from the outset--most notably Jane Herships (aka Spider) herself. Some vocalists with quavering voices sing like it's all they can do to make an audible sound, the quavering in this case being a sign of near exhaustion. The quaver in Herships' voice, by contrast, has the feeling of someone holding back something mighty. She shakes from the effort of keeping contained. In that context, the electric outburst at the end is maybe even inevitable. Before you get there, however, be sure to sink into the subtly gorgeous melodies Herships has crafted along the way--in both the matter-of-fact verse and the swaying chorus--and the engaging, shifting ways she sings them.
     "The Petal Song" is from Things We Liked To Hold, Spider's new, self-released CD. MP3 via, where you can listen to the whole thing, and also download four other free and legal MP3s. Spider by the way was previously featured on Fingertips in 2006, and was also one of the stars of the late, lamented Fingertips: Unwebbed CD.

Free and legal MP3 from Sea Wolf (agile, subtly orchestrated indie rock, propelled by nouns)

"Wicked Blood" - Sea Wolf
     A dreamy wash of tingly synthesizers leads us into an agile, subtly orchestrated tune with a mixed-down piano vamp (itself intriguing; mostly when someone is pounding a piano, it's just about all you can hear) and a hint of portentousness. When Alex Brown Church starts singing (and hm, we have two solo performers this week who record using an animal name), that sense of something impending, even prophetic, in the air is further accentuated both by his slightly husky but resonant baritone--it is a voice ready to pronounce something--and by the elusive stream of words he sings. The words resist a narrative throughline but are full of concrete images: veils and curls and mountains and chandeliers and waterfalls and such. Ever since Dylan went electric, this has been a surefire way to sow intrigue and anticipation in a pop song: give us lots of good nouns. We don't know how that ember got in those rafters, or where the rafters even are, but we emotionally respond to the threat.
     Church first gained indie notice as a member of the LA band Irving, which formed back in 1998. As he began writing songs that didn't seem like Irving songs, he started performing on his own, as Sea Wolf, in 2003. (So you know, Irving has spawned at least one other side project--Afternoons, who were featured here last year; Irving itself is on hiatus at this point.) "Wicked Blood" is the lead track off White Water, White Bloom, the second Sea Wolf album, which came out last week on Dangerbird Records. MP3 via the good folks at Better Propaganda.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Basia Bulat (charming shot of rustic exuberance)

"Gold Rush" - Basia Bulat
     Eager youth and venerable tradition is a compelling combination, and a perpetual argument against sourpusses who rise with foolish predictability, in every generation, to proclaim that good music ended at some lamented moment in the receding past. Good music never stops arriving; good listening frequently grinds to a halt, however.
     "Gold Rush" is a particularly charming amalgam of the old and the new. The old registers in the exuberant, rustic vibe embodied by a stringed managerie that includes fiddles and Bulat's signature autoharp; the new is all in the song's energy: in Bulat's freewheeling vocals, in the galloping percussion, and maybe best of all in her innate sense of drama. This young Canadian knows just when to pull back and when to let loose--listen to how well, for instance, the song's rollicking momentum is set up by the opening section, with its deliberate series of staccato fiddle chords; check out, also, how she clears space for those out-of-the-blue but abruptly perfect harmony vocals in the bridge (1:42). And she wraps up this spirited rollercoaster ride in a nifty three and a half minutes.
     "Gold Rush" is the first song made available from Bulat's upcoming Heart Of My Own, her second album, scheduled for release in January on Rough Trade/Beggars. MP3 via the Beggars Group.

Free and legal MP3 from Land of Talk (powerful return of Fingertips fave)

"May You Never" - Land of Talk
     Another song with an introduction that's sparser and slower than the song it introduces, "May You Never" starts with spacey/chimey sounds, a semi-pentatonic piano riff, and some ultra echoey vocals from smudgy-voiced Lizzie Powell over a doleful kettle drum. It sounds all indie-mystical, but at 0:51 the beat kicks in, and the guitar grabs the piano's motif so effectively that you see you've been set up all along. The song is sharp and powerful, and driven by Powell's mysterious way with a melodic refrain.
     This is Land of Talk's third time on Fingertips, and it is apparently impossible for me to talk about them without mentioning Powell's crazy-delicious guitar playing, so here I am again, telling you not only to tune in for the short but sizzling solo (at 2:00) but to keep your ears on what she's up to in and around the rest of the song, including how she starts the coda with a literal bang (3:30) and ends it (if you listen carefully) with an echo of the song's very first notes.
     "May You Never" will be one of four tracks on the band's forthcoming Fun and Laughter EP, slated to arrive next month via Saddle Creek. The band is meager with bio info, so I'm not sure how many people are playing with Powell at this point; the bigger news in any case is that she appears to be fully recovered from vocal cord surgery in January that sidelined her just when the band was geared up to promote their last CD. MP3 courtesy of Saddle Creek.

Free and legal MP3 from Buffalo Killers (indie rock w/ classic rock aura)

"Huma Bird" - Buffalo Killers
     Any 21st-century indie band that can this successfully channel their inner Joe Walsh is a friend of mine. Not that I'm a particular Joe Walsh fan; it's more the principal of the thing. This is not a sound I expect to come out of my MP3 player in the year 2009. It's a simple, grounded sound, a midtempo loper with a light acoustic rhythm at the front of the mix, sometimes messing playfully with the beat, with a heavy bass line underneath and a resonant electric guitar that interjects kind of whenever you've forgotten there's an electric guitar hanging around.
     And then there's no avoiding that voice. This Cincinnati trio features brothers Andrew and Zachary Gabbard on lead guitar and bass, respectively, and both sing, so I'm not sure who is who here, but whoever is offering up that achy, upward-straining, and yet decidedly masculine tenor is paying uncanny homage to James Gang-era Walsh. But this is no lifeless imitation; "Huma Bird," while completely relaxed, manages to soar with confidence and verve. Only fitting, as a huma bird, by the way, is a mythological creature, from a Sufi fable, which was said to live stratospherically high above the earth and never in its life touch the ground or even a tree. The bird laid its egg from so high up that the baby could grow inside, peck its way out, and manage to learn to use its wings just before the egg smashed to the ground. Some might find a metaphor in this. (Weird side note, not necessarily metaphorical: the song starts fading, for no apparent reason, 50 seconds before its official ending, and leaves us with a good 12 seconds of complete silence.)
     "Huma Bird" is a new song, not yet on an album. The band's last CD was Let It Ride, which came out in July 2008 on Alive Records. MP3 via the band's site. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Wildbirds & Peacedrums (quirky but affecting vocal-percussion performance)

"My Heart" - Wildbirds & Peacedrums
     For a voice and percussion duo, Mariam Wallentin and Andreas Werliin create music with great texture and charm. It's still pretty idiosyncratic--okay, very idiosyncratic--but you don't listen to "My Heart" and think, "Geez, where are all the real instruments?" because Werliin does a beautiful, canny job finding not just beats but notes and motifs in a variety of things that are struck with a stick or a mallet. Wallentin in fact sounds like she's being accompanied by a small, quizzical orchestra, not just a drummer.
     The song's many and varied structural and compositional and artistic quirks may well be why a listener's ear is distracted from the basic instrumental peculiarity at the core of the duo's sound. There's the stop-start-y melody (I dare you to sing along for very long); the shifting rhythmic foundation (the same melody happens over drastically different percussive backgrounds at different points in the song); the art-song-meets-pop-song sense of development (note for example that odd, extended interstitial moment--beginning at 0:49--of being neither in verse nor chorus); and, payoff, the unexpected but brilliant choral finish.
     "My Heart" is a song from The Snake, the band's second album, which came out in Sweden in 2008 and was released earlier this year in the UK on the Leaf Label, and finally also in the US last month by the Control Group. MP3 via NME.

Free and legal MP3 from Los Campesinos! (large-scale, dynamic indie rock w/ drama & sensitivity)

"The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future" - Los Campesinos!
     Like the rare actor who can pull off comedy and drama with equal aplomb (I'm looking at you, Meryl Streep), the Cardiff septet Los Campesinos! herein announce that they are capable of steering their large-scale, unfettered, exclamation-pointed sound in the direction of serious fare just as knowingly as they have engaged in good-natured mayhem (see "You! Me! Dancing!," This Week's Finds, February 2007).
     In both cases they utilize the full dynamic range of music--soft to loud, uncluttered to cluttered, solo vocals and gang singing--and an inventive sense of drama and production. This time around the band produces an almost industrial racket in service of the somber, subtly seafaring mood, and yet it's also somewhere within that noisier-than-you-realize ambiance (check out that odd, squawking sound that punctuates the rhythm at the outset of the second verse, for instance) that something redemptive emerges. Sad, but redemptive. Maybe. The lyrics seem to have to do with the singer trying to make sense of a troubled woman he probably loves. The song isn't fun but it's powerful, and all but demands repeated listens for full effect.
     "The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future" is a song from the band's forthcoming CD, We Are Beautiful, We Are Damned, set for an October release on Witchita Recordings.

Free and legal MP3 from Secondstar (meditative, wistful, harmony-laced)

"Tied to the Mast" - Secondstar
     Meditative, wistful, harmony-laced, and lacking any introduction whatsoever, "Tied to the Mast" (sea theme continues, inadvertently) envelops us instantly in its welcoming vocal layers. While reminiscent, clearly, of the sorts of harmonizing that Fleet Foxes abruptly brought back to rock'n'roll last year, what you'll hear here has a smaller-scale and less architected feeling. Liam Carey, the Brooklyn-based driving force behind Secondstar, uses an accumulation of fragile vocal tracks to create something decidedly unfragile, anchoring it all on a simple acoustic rhythm guitar and some oceanic percussion, nicely evocative of the "ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea," to quote a landmark poem that comes to mind as I'm listening to this. The guitar, by the way, may be uncomplicated but the chords are so hospitable, the sound so warm and plush that I am newly reminded that complication isn't everything.
     "Tied to the Mast" is one of five songs on Secondstar's Teeth EP, self-released this summer. A follow-up EP is due some time this fall, says Carey. Note that the link is via Bandcamp, and is not direct. Follow instructions from the link above and you'll have the MP3 in no time.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

New Fingertips Contest: win three new Radiohead expanded CDs

So I'm not a huge fan of expanded CDs, repackaged stuff designed, it seems, all to often, simply to get you to spend more money on something you've already spent money on.

Then again, this is Radiohead. So on the one hand we should be even more suspicious of the record company's motives (this is their former record company, after all), but on the other hand, all the new material is going to be decidedly worth having. We're starting with three superb albums--Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail to the Thief (don't believe the doubters on this one; it's mighty good)--and now each of them gets an extra disc of live recordings and other so-called "rarities," and if you win here then it's not going to cost you anything. A no brainer, right?

To find out how to enter, go to the Contests page on the main Fingertips site. Deadline for entry is Friday September 25.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Orenda Fink (evocative and folk-ish, w/ mandolin & more)

"High Ground" - Orenda Fink
     Orenda Fink returns, not long after her technologically experimental O+S project, with a solo record that grounds her firmly back in a world of acoustic instruments and evocative songwriting. "High Ground," with its minor key orientation, purposeful picking (both mandolin and banjo, from the sound of it), and group vocals, unfolds with the offhand seriousness of a back-country folk song. The title, and the central metaphor therein, implies both threat and survival; Fink's lovely, careful singing voice, is, by song's end, all but swallowed by the vocal wave around her, but she keeps singing, and doesn't raise her voice. And we still hear her, all the more so because we have to try.
     "High Ground" is a track from Fink's forthcoming album, Ask the Night, to be released next month on Saddle Creek Records. And the ever-active, prolific Fink has also been playing with Maria Taylor as Azure Ray again this summer; the word is that a new Azure Ray album is in the works for next year.

Free and legal MP3 from Pugwash (Beatlesque and XTC-like catchiness, signed by A. Partridge's label)

"Apples" - Pugwash
     Here on 9/9/09, with big marketing news regarding both the Beatles and Apple Computer in the air, how can I resist a Beatlesque/XTC-like piece of pop entitled "Apples"? Resistance, clearly, is futile. I love in fact how the XTC-isms and Beatle-isms here are so consistently interdependent as to be inextricable. Because let me interrupt here to note that XTC remains, to this day, the great, largely unacknowledged link between the Fab Four and the entire alternative/indie rock explosion of the last two-plus decades; they were the one band that took what the Beatles did and alchemized it into something truly their own. I'll go as far as to suggest that they gave us a hint of what the Beatles themselves might have come to sound like had they stayed together a bit longer.
      And so: that cheery little ascending motif at the end of the first two verse lines (first heard at 0:12)? Nicely, intertwiningly related to both great British bands. Likewise the effortless weaving of guitar effects, string-like effects, and vocal effects in such a sharp and focused pop song. Note too how Irishman Thomas Walsh tends towards a Lennon-ish timbre but phrases his words in quite the Andy Partridge-like manner. (And isn't Pugwash itself a sort of XTC-ish word?) The coda-like touches near the end--this song has a definite ending, it doesn't just stop--is further evidence, if required, of both seminal influences.
     And now it turns out that Pugwash--which pretty much is Walsh, plus some friends and guests who help him out when he records--has been signed to Partridge's own Ape Records, which is why we're hearing "Apples" now, although originally released in 2002. Ape is first releasing a compilation of the best songs from the band's four existing albums. "Apples" is the lead track on that album, entitled Giddy, which will be out later this month.

Friday, September 04, 2009

September Q&A: Andrew Spencer Goldman, of Fulton Lights

Every month, the Fingertips Q&A sends five questions about the state of music in the digital age to one actual, working musician. Way too much time and space is taken up online by pundits, writers, and other sorts of talking (writing) heads who think they know where the music industry is headed. I'd much rather hear the thoughts and feelings of the people creating and performing the actual music.

This month, Andrew Spencer Goldman, who is the mastermind and driving force behind the Brooklyn-based Fulton Lights, answers the five questions. Fulton Lights has been featured twice to date on Fingertips, in February 2007 and September 2008. Fulton Lights has a brand new EP entitled Healing Waters, which you can listen to and find out more about on the Fulton Lights Facebook page.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Fitter Happier

For those keeping score at home, note some changes to the main Fingertips site. In the interest of trimming things down, many features have been eliminated.

Moving forward, Fingertips will concentrate exclusively on This Week's Finds, the Top 10 list, the Q&A, and the Commentary essays. Assorted directories oriented towards sourcing free and legal MP3s have been taken out.

The Fingertips Twitter feed remains--you can see it to the right here, or go directly to Twitter. This has turned into a valuable, ongoing source of links related to free and legal MP3s and the general future of the music industry.

Free and legal MP3 from Vandaveer (old-timey acoustic shuffle w/ sharp vocal performances)

"Turpentine" - Vandaveer
     An almost hypnotic, quiet-but-intense number that seems perfect for a late afternoon on a late summer day. Featuring pretty much all acoustic instruments and shuffling along on the frame of a gentle, forward-moving keyboard riff, "Turpentine" has an old-timey flair but a sharp present-day vibe. (And it fades in; you don't hear many songs fade in.)
     The singing performances bring this one to particular life, both the craggy, soulful lead effort by Mark Charles Heidinger and the beautifully attuned, vibrato-laced harmonies offered by Heidinger's sister, Rose Guerin. Heidinger sounds as if he's singing on your old vinyl turntable, Guerin as if she never opens her eyes while making unconsciously portentous arm gestures. Towards the beginning of the song, she picks and chooses where to inject her fierce accompaniment; when she at long last stays on stage with him for one last verse in this chorus-free song, redemption feels close at hand.
     "Turpentine" can be found on Divide and Conquer, Vandaveer's second album, released last week on Supply & Demand Records. Vandaveer is the name the Washington, D.C.-based Heidinger uses for performance; it's a family name that he found on the back of a watch passed down to him on his father's side.

Free and legal MP3 from the Hush Now (subtly contagious neo-power pop)

"Hoping and Waiting" - the Hush Now
     After a church-like organ intro, "Hoping and Waiting" turns upbeat and unexpectedly contagious. I had to live with it a while for the catchiness to sink in, however; it's not a completely obvious hook. But after listening to it on and off for a few weeks, I noticed that it was beginning to pop unbidden into my head. This is almost always a sign of a song that I am liking more than I initially realize I'm liking it.
     The part that kept popping into my head: that particular place in the chorus where the melody takes a leap up on the word "heart" (first heard around 1:19). Talk about uplifting--just hearing that word sung with that upward leap settles something in my soul. And then the immediate follow-up, the word "anticipating" sung (on the second syllable) with that same up-leap. Brilliant. As for the operatic tenor interlude (2:42), it shouldn't really work, but it does, precisely when (and because) the tenor ramps up into a classical frenzy concurrently with singer Noel Kelly repeating the lines "Did you feel? Did you feel? Did you feel?" Also brilliant. And then suddenly a trumpet that had been lurking in the background materializes front and center, adding the feeling of an offbeat fanfare to the closing measures. I like it.
     The Hush Now is a quartet from Boston. "Hoping and Waiting" will appear on their second album, Constellations, due out as a self-release in October. (If you're interested, the band started giving its self-titled debut album away for free online earlier this year; you can still grab it here.)

Free and legal MP3 from Rollercoaster Project (robotic electro-goth with a heart of pure pop)

"Hoods Up" - Rollercoaster Project
     Churning, robotic electro-goth, with a heart of pure pop. I'm oddly entranced by the buried, electronic vocals, which hint only intermittently, only ever so slightly, at their human origin; it's kind of like "Kid A" funneled through a lush carnival of soaring synth pop, on a bed of electronic nails. The wistful, almost heartbreaking melody of the chorus is icing on the electro-cake. Note how the electronic artifice fades into nature noises for the last minute of the track. It's not a half hour of crickets (see Neko Case) but it's pretty eco-ambient, and kind of a spooky coda to all the previous machinations.
     And all of this, clearly, we should know by 2009, is the result of one guy fiddling with computers in a shed. The one guy this time is a Brit named Johnny White, who otherwise teaches guitar to elementary school students. White has apparently thought a lot about how our recording devices impact our memories, pondering questions such as "Has technology made us nostalgic voyeurs of our own existence?," according to the press material. "Hoods Up" is a song from the second Rollercoaster Project album, Revenge, scheduled for release later this month on Absolutely Kosher Records. MP3 via Absolutely Kosher.