Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Surfer Blood (instantly engaging, unusually constructed)

"Floating Vibes" - Surfer Blood
     "Floating Vibes" has that deep guitar thing going right away, which I always find gratifying. And which always makes me wonder why rock'n'roll has so consistently (and, to my ears, stupidly) glorified the sound of a wailing guitar played so high up on the neck that there's no room left for the guitarist's fingers. I'll take the robust, thoughtful tremor of the lowest register over screechy wails any day. And check out the countervailing seventh notes that begin appearing at 0:20, floating with offhand precision above the darker sound, the quasi-dissonance of that interval perking the ear up in a most welcome and curious way. This song is pretty great before singer John Paul Pitts--known merely as JP--opens his mouth.
     And it gets better. The basic guitar refrain of the introduction becomes the verse melody, with the seventh-note question marks now removed, giving the melody a newly grounded sense of certainty. The harmonies that accompany the melody the second time through (1:00) are subtle and ingenious--the harmony voice is pretty much singing one note--and solidify the melodic construction so firmly that the song never returns to it. It turns out that for all its easy-going tunefulness, "Floating Vibes" is subversive with respect to form: there is no standard chorus and no verse that repeats throughout the song. Rather, there are three different verse melodies, separated by instrumental breaks. The first is the one rooted in the introduction, the second is introduced at an instrumental break at 1:16, and the third (2:35) is a kind of mash-up of the first two. The final instrumental section moves onto yet another melody and features a violin, as unexpected as it is effective.
     Surfer Blood is a quintet of non-surfers from West Palm Beach. "Floating Vibes" is the lead track from Astro Coast, the band's debut, slated for released in January on Brooklyn-based Kanine Records. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3 from Audra Mae (big-voiced singer/songwriter sings with restraint and writes with skill)

"The River" - Audra Mae
     With clear roots in country and folk, two very structured genres, "The River" hooks the ear with a series of surprising melodic and harmonic shifts. We hear this first at 0:15, when Mae follows the opening two traditional-sounding lines with a third ("The river's gonna wash my sins away") that runs unexpectedly up through a diminished chord. How did we get here? Suddenly the music is unresolved, and remains so until one more surprising shift, at 0:26, on the words "make me forget." Resolution comes on the succeeding phrase, "my sorrow." That's some nifty songwriting--uncomplicated but subtly startling--and Mae uses it all to set up her bittersweet chorus. It begins with one more musical shift: that heartbreaking half-step she takes in the phrase "I can't swim" (1:02), which starts the major-key chorus with a minor-key twist. Even the lyrics provide a subtle shock here, aurally--when she gets to the phrase "even if I could," the lack of rhyme isn't what the ear expects. But she has slyly shifted the rhyme scheme, which the listener catches onto as the chorus continues. More niftiness.
     And maybe niftiest of all is how everything is delivered by a young, big-voiced singer who seems anachronistically delighted to use her vocal substance in service of small musical moments. No "American Idol"-ish histrionics for this big voice. One example: listen to how differently she sings the word "I" the first two times she says it: first, the opening word of the song ("I done a bad thing, it's okay"; 0:05) and second, the beginning of the second line, four seconds later ("I'm going down to the river today"). The first "I" is fast, easy, almost evasive; the second "I," made resonant with the contracted "m," feels deep, mighty, and mournful as it encompasses an extra half-beat in the singing. Words don't do it justice so now I'll be quiet.
     "The River" is the lead track from Audra Mae's debut EP, Haunt, released last week on SideOneDummy Records. The Oklahoma-born Mae is now based in L.A. and, speaking of big voices, happens to be Judy Garland's grand niece.

Free and legal MP3 from Bear in Heaven (indie rock from Brooklyn, at once driven and spacey)

"Lovesick Teenagers" - Bear in Heaven
     Can a song be spacey and determined at the same time? "Lovesick Teenagers" seems to manage this unusual effect. Determination is heard through the relentless pulse of the snare-free beat along with front man Jon Philpot's purposeful tenor, which sounds like someone with a wavery voice trying not to waver. And the melody itself seems also to possess an endearing sort of tenaciousness in the way it keeps leaping up a fourth on every syllable it seeks to emphasize.
     But the spaciness too comes in various guises. Echoey, rocket-like synthesizers, sure. You'll hear those right away. But it's also there in the synth's ongoing throb, which moves at twice the pace of the drumbeat, and lends a sci-fi-cartoon-iness to the proceedings. The chorus, when it arrives, arrives in a wash of psychedelic effects--soaring synths, fuzzed-up vocals, glitchy accents--even though, if you listen, you'll see that the driving drumbeat persists underneath it all. And look how the song's final moment pretty much encapsulates the underlying aural paradox, being at once the epitome of driving determination--a "sting," as we used to call it in radio (meaning a sharp, abrupt ending)--and moony vagueness, since the sting echoes afterwards with the faintest of synthetic wind sounds.
     Bear in Heaven is a quartet of Southerners who landed in Brooklyn and have been recording since 2003. "Lovesick Teenagers" is a song from Beast Rest Forth Mouth, the band's third album, released this month on Hometapes Records.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Holopaw (pensive, inscrutable indie rock that rewards repeat listens)

"The Art Teacher and the Little Stallion" - Holopaw
     Airily idiosyncratic, not to mention lyrically inscrutable, "The Art Teacher and the Little Stallion" required repeated listens for me to really hear it. Songs with vocal (rather than purely instrumental) introductions are a bit hard to get one's pop-oriented mind around, to begin with. And when Holopaw's John Orth is the one doing the vocalizing, maybe it's even harder. He's actually got an engaging, feathery sort of voice, but when it's the very first thing one hears--without the grounding of obvious melody or structure--it seems a challenge, to me.
     But here's something to listen for early on: the two notes he sings on the word "breath," at 0:12 (which are E-flat and D-flat, if my keyboard widget is to be trusted). These are soon revealed as the two notes the rest of the song consistently turns on, the two notes which, magnet-like, attract and re-attract the melody--for instance, at the end of the recurring lyric "Couldn't we just get lost?" The musical phrase described by these notes is unresolved, but listen to how the violin follows (e.g. 0:56) with a countermelody that does then resolves it, and with folk-like poignancy. Keep your ear on the violin all the way through; I think the yearning ballast it provides is what lends the song, at least after a number of listens, its quirky majesty.
     From Gainesville, Florida, Holopaw was previously featured on Fingertips in August 2005, but are rather a whole different band now: three of its original five members moved north after that second album, replaced slowly but surely by four Gainesville-based others. "The Art Teacher and the Little Stallion" is the first song on the band's Oh, Glory. Oh, Wilderness. album, due out next month on Bakery Outlet Records.

Free and legal MP3 from Slideshow Freak (swinging glam-ish bedroom rock w/ a dominant chorus)

"Something More" - Slideshow Freak
     This song, on the other hand, had me at hello, pretty much. A simple arpeggio, some electro-tinkling, some smooth keyboard vamping, then, boom--"Something More" begins right in its sweet spot, with its full-out, neo-glam-rock chorus. Somehow that's really all it needs. Yes, there are verses in between and surely they kind of have to be there--a song can't be all chorus, can it?--but you'll be hard-pressed afterwards to remember exactly what they sounded like. I'm thinking you'll be equally hard-pressed to dislodge the chorus from your head, not least for the way its swinging, backbeat-driven melody offers up pronouncements as big and dauntless as its sound: "It takes a better man than me/To save a broken heart"; "I spend my life on my back/But never see the stars"; et al.
     Slideshow Freak is another one of those "not a band, just a guy" acts made possible by 21st-century technology, musical know-how, and a lot of time on one's hands. The guy this time is one Jamie Wright, who was born and raised in the UK but appears to be living in Florida now. "Something More" is the lead track to the debut Slideshow Freak EP, We Should Swing, which was released in July on Filthy Little Angels Records. Thanks to the typically excellent Low Slung Podcast for the head's up. MP3 via Filthy Little Angels. Note that you can download all six songs from the EP on the FLA site.

Free and legal MP3 from Headlights (breezy, memorable pop a la NRBQ)

"Get Going" - Headlights
     Consciously or not, "Get Going" offers up delightful echoes of a band few may remember, and fewer probably listen to anymore, NRBQ. During their late '70s comeback years, in and around their goofier bar-band numbers, NRBQ let loose a bunch of simultaneously breezy and memorable pop songs a whole lot like this one in tone, vibe, and spirit. The airy charm of Tristan Wraight's tenor further recalls the unexpectedness sweetness infusing gems like "Ridin' In My Car," "I Want You Bad," and "Me and the Boys." Even the title sounds like something the 'Q might have recorded.
     But "Get Going" should likewise please the ear of the NRB-clueless. (Sorry; didn't mean that as an insult, just couldn't resist coining that phrase.) Listen to the way the melody in the verses keeps being drawn up: the lyrical lines each ending with an upward third interval, the middle of the line often pivoting on an upward fifth. Pop melodies much more typically lead in a general downward direction, the way water naturally heads towards lower ground. There's something invigorating, if subtly off-kilter, in going against the norm in this way. The other thing I'm enjoying here is the guitar work, which engagingly interweaves an acoustic rhythm, an old-fashioned electric lead, and something unexpectedly drone-like. The way Erin Fein--normally the band's lead vocalist--appears through a kind of underwater filter during the short bridge (1:36) is another whimsical highlight of this brief but emphatic song.
     "Get Going" is from Wildlife, the Champaign-based quartet's fourth album, released on Polyvinyl Records earlier this month. The band was previously featured on Fingertips for the wonderful song "Cherry Tulips" in January 2008 . MP3 via Polyvinyl. Another song from Wildlife, "Secrets," is available as a free and legal download via Amazon.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Old Canes (drum-fueled folk rock w/ vibrant, informal energy)

"Little Bird Courage" - Old Canes
     It's unusual for a song that feels like some kind of folk rock to have this much percussive appeal, but "Little Bird Courage" is all about the drumming from the get-go--we pretty much don't even hear anything else until almost 20 seconds in. And this is in fact how Old Canes front man and master mind Chris Crisci envisions his songs--he records the drum tracks first, and builds the songs up from there.
     Everything ends up feeling rhythmic and propulsive as a result. With its vibrant but informal energy, spurred by relentlessly strummed acoustic guitars and accentuated by Crisci's mixed-down vocals, "Little Bird Courage" has the vibe of a happier incarnation of Neutral Milk Hotel, an impression accentuated by the homely chorus of trumpets that appears halfway through, just when the whole thing seemed to be grinding to a halt. While it's hard to pick up a lot of the lyrics, I get the impression of something transcendent and triumphant here; the title alone speaks volumes.
     Chris Crisci is perhaps better known as a member of the Appleseed Cast, the Lawrence, Kansas-based band usually identified as being a "post-rock" pioneer; Old Canes has been a side project of his dating back to 2004. "Little Bird Courage" is from Feral Harmonic, the second Old Canes album, slated for release next week by Saddle Creek Records.

Free and legal MP3 from Rainbow Arabia (stylish, engaging world music admixture from LA electronic duo)

"Harlem Sunrise" - Rainbow Arabia
     This one morphs before your startled ears from a vaguely Middle Eastern sounding dance with an electro-beat and kitchen sink percussion into a vaguely Caribbean steel-drum-inflected shuffle with some African guitar thrown in for good measure. Too much pastiche for its own good? Or is "Harlem Sunrise," rather, an audacious 21st-century stylistic mash-up? I vote for the latter. Nothing this warm and welcoming can be disparaged, in my book, nor something that manages, for all its sonic salmagundi and home-built vibe, to proceed with an air of the timeless about it. Even singer Tiffany Preston's slightly pouty and distant voice, artfully reverbed and tweaked, works better here than it maybe should.
     And I in any case am entirely in favor of major-key songs with minor-key introductions. That's a nice songwriting trick you don't hear much of in modern pop.
     Rainbow Arabia--and the band name kind of immediately hints at what they're up to--is a L.A.-based husband-wife duo (Tiffany sings and plays guitar; Danny does the keyboards and electronics). "Harlem Sunrise" is a song from their Kabukimono EP, which was released in July by Manimal Vinyl, also based in L.A. (Manimal Vinyl, by the way, is a name that does not hint at what they're up to; the label does in fact release things on CD and digitally in addition to vinyl.) Thanks to Linda at Speed of Dark for the head's up on this one. MP3 via RCRD LBL, and note that the link is not direct; just click "Download MP3" and it's yours.

Free and legal MP3 from Wiretree (power pop with vocal roots in the '70s)

"Back in Town" - Wiretree
     Brisk, spangly power pop from an Austin-based quartet. Equal parts mid-career Wilco and early (or late; who can say?) Traveling Wilburys, "Back in Town" is a friendly, xylophone-flecked burst of tunefulness, anchored in singer Kevin Peroni's pliable, evocative voice. What he sounds like, in a nutshell, is the '70s--Harry Nilsson, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne rolled up into one. Works for me.
     And if there are a few relative oldsters out there who recognize the chorus of the Indigo Girls song "Jonas & Ezekiel" in the chorus of "Back in Town," well, I'm always kind of tickled rather than irritated by inadvertent melody transference like this. First off, it's a heck of a good melody--I might dare to call it anthemic except I fear that word has been neutered by years of overuse. Second, the songs don't otherwise have anything to do with each other. I don't mind greeting an old friend in a new outfit.
     "Back in Town" is a song from the band's second full-length album, Luck, ready for release next week on their own Cobaltworks label.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Fingertips Top 10, currently (with impromptu contest)

The Fingertips Top 10 has turned almost entirely over since the last time I posted it, which was in August; just three songs remain from that list. Anyone interested in an impromptu contest, how about this: the first three people who can each identify one of the three songs that are still on the list from the last top 10 post on the blog can pick a CD for free from the Fingertips Prize Closet. Just because. Leave a comment below, and I'll leave an answering comment corroborating each winner and let you know how to get your prize.

Again, there are three songs that remain from the last top 10 posting. Your job is to identify just one of them. Once someone identifies one of them, he or she is the first winner, and for you to be another winner, you must identify one of the remaining two. Likewise, the last winner will have to identify the remaining one.

Note that all comments are moderated. I'll try to stay on top of them, but it is the weekend, meaning I'm not always at my desk, so there may be some delay between your posting it and it appearing.

Okay, here's the current list. You'll have to look for the last one on your own.

1. "She Comes to Me" - Adam Arcuragi
2. "Gloomy Monday Morning" - the Black Hollies
3. "Madeline, Every Girl" - Cameron McGill & What Army
4. "Turpentine" - Vandaveer
5. "Tammie" - the Dø
6. "Gold and Warm" - Bad Veins
7. "Gold Rush" - Basia Bulat
8. "Turning Into You" - Wheels On Fire
9. "A Bus Called Further" - Heroes of Popular Wars
10. "Hoping and Waiting" - the Hush Now

Good luck to one and all. To find out if you're a winner, I'd suggest waiting till Sunday night or so to check back in.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Cameron McGill & What Army (straightforward sound, wonderful song)

"Madeline, Every Girl" - Cameron McGill & What Army
     A truly wonderful song from beginning to end. But a funny thing: every time the tempo falters, because of how the song is constructed, I find myself almost annoyed because of how much I was digging the forward-moving energy that's now interrupted. And it happens in the chorus, just when I might be expecting more rather than less motion. But then each time the tempo picks back up with the new verse, I realize that maybe I'm enjoying the faster-paced section precisely because of the repeated way it pulls back. Life is like that too. Oh, and check out how, the second time we hear the chorus, McGill picks up the tempo before the end (2:00). Feels very satisfying somehow. But the third time is the best--he kicks it up for just a moment (3:22), and somehow that's most satisfying of all.
     While Cameron McGill & What Army often play music with a definite folk-rock or folk-pop feel, "Madeline, Every Girl" is, in this age of micro-genres, maybe too straightforward for any workable label: it's just guitar and bass and drums playing together without any particular fuss or special flavor. Some songs depend upon their instrumentation and arrangement for their very existence, and other songs, like this one, exist so strongly as things unto themselves that you could probably play them on a toy xylophone and they would still shine through.
     Cameron McGill is a Chicago-based singer/songwriter who released an album called Warm Songs for Cold Shoulders, his fourth, back in April on Parasol Records. "Madeline, Every Girl" is the a-side of a three-song digital single released last month called Two Hits and a Miss, which is available via iTunes. MP3 courtesy of Parasol.

Free and legal MP3 from the Black Hollies (groovy neo-garage rock)

"Gloomy Monday Morning" - the Black Hollies
     A deeply groovy shot of neo-garage rock, "Gloomy Monday Morning" is both steeped in nostalgia and alive with freshly-minted energy. Sure, there's a big-time Animals/Zombies/'60s-Kinks vibe at work here, but it's almost like this New Jersey quartet is using the bygone sound as an instrument they're playing rather than as a straitjacket limiting their buoyancy, if that makes any sense.
     The song consistently works at two different, typically contradictory levels. For instance, while blatantly backbeat driven and cymbal heavy, "Gloomy Monday Morning" also employs subtle keyboard accents and a frisky bass line to catch the ear nearly below the level of conscious awareness. Even the backbeat isn't as straightforward as it seems, working with a kind of stutter that both accentuates and deflects the two and four beat accent. Listen, also, to how a simple maneuver--that upward turn of melody that we first hear at 0:49 in the chorus, and then also in the third line of the second verse (1:08)--serves to break the song open. And what's with that cymbal sound? It's so persistent during the chorus and the bridge that it sounds less like an organically played cymbal than a sample played from a keyboard, and is used as a sort of wall-of-sound whitewash at that point more than percussion--a tactic that is, characteristically, somehow, at once heavy-handed and enigmatic. Even the title seemingly contradicts the song's groove.
     "Gloomy Monday Morning" is from the band's third full-length album, Softly Towards the Light, which was released this week by the Brooklyn-based Ernest Jenning Record Co. MP3 via EJRC.