Thursday, December 24, 2009

Favorite free and legal MP3s of 2009

It's time for the third annual "Fingertips Favorites" list, presenting the free and legal MP3s that were my absolute favorites of the year. As with previous years, you'll note there are two lists: one of my top 10 favorite free and legal MP3s of 2008, and, this year, one of my next 10 favorite free and legal MP3s of 2008. Not only is it too hard to narrow it down to just 10, but this year I'm thinking I could feasibly exchange any (or all) songs in the second 10 for songs in the first 10. It's all guesswork, and everything is really good.


"Johanna" - Think About Life  [more]
"What You Said" - The Decks  [more]
"River of Dirt" - Marissa Nadler  [more]
"Davy Crockett" - South Ambulance  [more]
"Trophy Wife" - The Winter Sounds  [more]
"Gloomy Monday Morning" - The Black Hollies  [more]
"The River" - Audra Mae  [more]
"She Comes To Me" - Adam Arcuragi  [more]
"Goodbye" - The Argument  [more]
"The Letter" - The Veils  [more]

Honorary Top 10: "Loaded" - The Idle Hands (no longer available) [more]


"When the Devil's Loose" - A. A. Bondy  [more]
"My Maudlin Career" - Camera Obscura  [more]
"Madeline, Every Girl" - Cameron McGill & What Army  [more]
"It Hurts Me All the Time" - Faunts  [more]
"Die Young" - The Sweet Serenades  [more]
"Tammie" - the Dø  [more]
"White As Diamonds" - Alela Diane  [more]
"Lalita" - The Love Language  [more]
"Harold T. Wilkins" - Fanfarlo  [more]
"Miracle" - Sally Shapiro  [more]

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Oops, late posts this week

This week's selections were posted on the main Fingertips site a day later than usual this week, so they've been up there a few days, but somehow in my scurrying around I forgot entirely about posting them here. Oops. But it's okay because there won't be any more new MP3s reviewed until January at this point, so it's not like these songs will be bumping into a new batch very quickly.

What's happening next week is I'll be posting a list of my top 20 favorite free and legal MP3s of the year. Bigger news is that I'm also busy working on a site redesign which will merge the main site and the blog--which means no more forgetting to post here, thank goodness. Lots of tedious work to do between now and then. WordPress here we come. Eventually.

Free and legal MP3 from Shout Out Louds (musically astute, slowly building, unusually structured power pop)

"Walls" - Shout Out Louds
     Musically astute and thematically cohesive, "Walls" features an odd, almost discomfiting build-up. First, we get front man Adam Olenius singing over stark bass and drums accompaniment, the melody hard to discern. (I suggest paying attention to that bass note--a D, I believe--because it is not going away for a while.) After the sparse, foreboding opening verse, a piano riff arrives to mix things up a bit but listen to how the bass note persists, and keeps the ear from sensing any resolution.
      The full band kicks in with a second verse, followed by the piano riff again, and then a third verse, and all the while, sure enough, the bass pounds that one same note. If you're feeling a bit claustrophobic by now that's why. Because of the intervening piano riff we may not quite realize we haven't heard a chorus yet, but here we are, two minutes into the song, and nope, we haven't. It feels as if the song has stayed in one chord this whole time. Then, at 2:15, we are released: the chorus arrives, almost transcendently, using the piano riff melody but now set free from the one-note bass anchor. The forcefully sung lyrics seem especially consequential in this setting, and we hear them now three times running because there are no more verses left. By 3:15, the song is done and it's like we don't really know what hit us. But it was good.
     Shout Out Louds are a quintet from Sweden; "Walls" will be found on the album Work, their third, due out on Merge Records in February. MP3 via Merge.

Free and legal MP3 from Emily Neveu (lo-fi, reverb-drenched, but w/ a sturdy melody and lovely vocals)

"My Cosmonaut" - Emily Neveu
     Not many lo-fi, reverb-drenched songs sneak through the Fingertips filter (certainly not as many as are out there) but this one struck my ears as a keeper, for at least a couple of reasons. To begin with, there's that appealing acoustic guitar riff in the introduction--appealing because it moves musically (many lesser songs will use an acoustic guitar as a kind of place-keeper, via monotonous strums) and because the chords themselves are refreshing (i.e. not just basic chords, but inversions, which are played higher up the neck). Second, there's Neveu's cloud-like voice and the layered way she's recorded it; such soft tones she sings with, but that doesn't keep her from experimenting with some intriguing harmonic intervals. Third and maybe best of all, this is one sturdy melody, from the ancient undertones of the folk-like verse to the distilled beauty of a chorus that hinges, poignantly, on a suspended chord.
     The 26-year-old, Berkeley-based Neveu has played in the bands Calico Horse, Clock Work Army, and Indian Moon. She is currently preparing a solo album, on which "My Cosmonaut" is slated to appear. She offers a nice assortment of free and legal MP3s--both her unreleased solo stuff and band songs--on her web site. And Radiohead fans may also want to check out her charming, front-porch cover of "Idioteque," via Lefse Records. When it emerges, the solo album will be out on Lefse.

Free and legal MP3 from ShellShag (squonky guitars, unschooled vocals, and a spirited hook)

"Resilient Bastard" - ShellShag
     Come to think of it, not a lot of rough-hewn DIY stuff ends up here either. I've never been personally into the anarchic posturing of old-school punks, nor the fetishistic preference for noise over musicality. But every now and then I stumble upon something from that world that reminds me that a certain number of punksters are popsters at heart, and that, when used in symbiotic tandem, punk and pop can offer a uniquely satisfying experience. And I'm not talking about what has been labeled "punk pop" on the commercial side of things. I'm talking about something like "Resilient Bastard," with its squonky guitar work, unschooled but determined vocals, sly sense of humor both lyrically and musically (sleigh bells? really?), and, best of all, its spirited hook, which depends equally on the words and music. No way that chorus kills the way it does if the singer leads with a line other than "I don't care/I'm a resilient bastard."
     Johnny "Shellhead" and Jen Shag (Shell, Shag, you see), although from different places--he, Missouri; she, New Jersey--are both rooted musically in the '90s DIY scene in San Francisco, and began playing together in 1999, first in the trio Kung Fu USA. ShellShag emerged from that experience. "Resilient Bastard" will be found on the album Rumors In Disguise, ShellShag's second full-length, scheduled for release in February on Don Giovanni Records.

Friday, December 11, 2009

MOG playlist

Anyone out there trying out the $5/mo. unlimited listening service now offered by MOG? If so, you can check out an end-of-year playlist I made there. But it's not just a list of songs I like from 2009--it's a handful of 2009 favorites blended together with an idiosyncratic mix of nuggets from rock'n'roll history. It's not random, it's not too long, and it's waiting to be heard. Is there anything, after all, more pathetic than a playlist made for the world that the world isn't listening to? Well, probably. But still. Give it a shot, it's pretty good.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Shearwater (sad grandeur over portentous rhythm section)

"Castaways" - Shearwater
     With his monumental voice, and taste for monumental subject matter, Jonathan Meiburg creates music with the sad grandeur of ruined palaces or Russian novels. But take your ear off Shearwater's front man for a moment, if you can, and check out what else is happening here, or not happening.
      The rumbly drama you're listening to is all about the vigorous rhythm section, which seems to have changed places with the rest of the band: the pounding drums and agile bass line are front and center, they're what Meiburg is singing with, they're what forms the musical center of the song, while guitar and keyboard play with care and tenderness around the edges. Yes, you'll hear the guitar and keys in the introduction, daintily, but once the drums kick in at 0:35, "Castaways" swings with its rhythm section's portentous rumble. I may be imagining it, but I feel as if I am more often hearing the guitarist's fingers moving on the strings than I am hearing the guitar itself. This is the type of tender detail that helps give the song its poignant depth, above and beyond its more obviously dramatic ambiance.
     "Castaways" is the first available song from the band's forthcoming album, The Golden Archipelago, slated for a February release on Matador Records. Note that Shearwater, from Austin, is a band that still very much believes in the album format. The CD will come with a 50-page booklet, and the vinyl LP is slightly reordered, with two additional songs, allowing for the difference in listening experiences. Note too that Shearwater has twice previously been featured on Fingertips: in March 2008 and May 2005. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3 from the Futureheads (neo-New Wave, and then some)

"Struck Dumb" - the Futureheads
     The 21st century has not been lacking in New Wave revival bands, with their metallic guitars, punchy rhythms, and clipped British-sounding vocals (whether actually British or not). When bands fall flat in the effort it's when they get the sound right but forget to give us a worthy song in the process. So-called angularity is a notably two-dimensional quality. The ear needs more to feel satisfied.
     The Futureheads, a Sunderland (UK) quartet with three albums now under their belt, have a couple of extra things going here. First, to their spiky neo-New Wave sound they bring an intriguing outside element:
walls of harmony. It's an attractive addition to my ears, a kind of Devo-meets-Queen vibe that works unexpectedly well. Second, the song moves musically in a way a lot of similar-sounding songs--some by the Futureheads themselves, I might add--do not. Yes, that Jam-like introduction is fun and effective, but it succeeds, to my ears, precisely because the song isn't content to stay put. Sometimes this can be a simple matter of finding the right chord at the right time. The first place I hear the song open up is at 0:31, on the line "Stop living in the clouds"--it's subtle, but the chord they move through there has a wonderful theatricality to it, and it foreshadows what we'll hear in the chorus moments later. Listen in particular to the line "Negativity is controlling your dreams," beginning at 0:44, and how the chorus takes a left turn from there. We remain on the one hand within the tight sonic world of the neo-New Wave and yet also we've been launched out of it. Everything still wraps up in under three minutes, which is another triumphant gesture.
     "Struck Dumb" is from the Futureheads' upcoming album, as yet without a title or a release date, although some time in 2010 is a safe bet. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3 from Jason Boesel (friendly Americana w/ sneaky depth, from Rilo Kiley's drummer)

"Hand of God" - Jason Boesel
     Loping, good-natured Americana from the voice and sticks of one of the indie scene's busiest drummers. While the casual beat, agreeable steel guitar licks, and gang-style harmonies (i.e. no harmony) in the chorus imply a lightweight yarn, there's a bit more here than might initially meet the ear. I suspect, in fact, distraction is part of the design, and that it's precisely because the words so easily roll off Boesel's friendly, reverbed voice--think Nashville Skyline Dylan crossed with Ron Sexsmith--that you don't readily notice how he's messing with you.
     But he's doing just that, largely via the time-honored songwriting trick of changing one or two key words in lines that, repeating, otherwise appear the same. In the chorus, for instance, he first is "recovering," while "remembering" is hard; on the repeat, he is "remembering," and it's "recovering" that's hard. Or, in the first verse, he goes up the stairs and doesn't know why, while in the last verse he goes down the stairs and now he knows why. (And we do too, if we're paying attention.) Also, he first hears laughing in the dark, which he realizes "could" have been him; later he hears screaming in the dark, which he admits "had" to be him. And then this subtle, trickily told story of love gone bad climaxes with an offhand lyrical gem: "I thought I was a secret/But I was too easy to keep." A song this carefully crafted always rewards repeat listens.
     Boesel is drummer for Rilo Kiley, and has also sat at the kit for Bright Eyes, the Elected, and Conor Oberst, among others. "Hand of God" is from his debut solo album, Hustler's Son, slated for release next month on Team Love. MP3 via Team Love.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Coming soon: favorite free & legal MP3s of 2009

I've put together a preliminary list of my favorite free & legal MP3s of 2009; it's posted as a note on the Fingertips Facebook page, if you'd like to see. Got any preferences? I'm all ears. Or maybe you'd rather just wait and see what the final list looks like. I'm aiming to narrow it down to 20 if at all possible. Work proceeds apace.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

December Q&A: Vandaveer

This month, the Fingertips Q&A features Mark Charles Heidinger, who does musical business as Vandaveer. Vandaveer's song "Turpentine" was featured on Fingertips in September; the album on which it can be found, Divide & Conquer, is on my personal list of 2009's best. Heidinger's answers here are on my personal list of best Fingertips Q&As of 2009 as well.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from the Minor Leagues (exuberant, horn-laced pop, w/ existential crisis)

"Good Boys" - the Minor Leagues
     Exuberant, horn-laced pop, performing that endearing trick of sounding more slapdash than it actually is. I think drummer John Kathman, brandishing a combination of full-out bashing and asymmetrical fills, has a lot to do with this. The horns, too, carry with them the sound of a band a half step away from flying apart, maybe just from the inherent imprecision of brass instruments, which must create multiple octaves of notes from (typically) three valves. On a guitar or a keyboard, each note is precise and unique. On trumpets, less so. This occurs to me as important all of a sudden.
     And then, in the middle of this burstingly happy-sounding song comes a philosophical interlude we may not be quite prepared for, as singer Ben Walpole wonders, "Jesus, why did you give me a conscience/If I can't use it to influence my actions?/And Jesus, why do I have to know wrong from right/When the knowledge never ever beats out passion?" Um, hmm--can we get back to you on that? In the meantime, what happened to the trumpets? The guitars have taken over, along with the existential crisis. Drummer Kathman is still bashing away, however.
     The Minor Leagues, from Cincinnati, have grown to seven pieces from the quartet they were when last featured here in 2006. I like how each band member, in the bio material on the Datawaslost site, places him- or herself in an exact year with a particular band, to illustrate with unusual clarity the sound each feels most connected to. "Good Boys" comes from This Story Is Old, I Know, But It Goes On, released in November via Datawaslost, which is both a musical collective and a record label. MP3 via Datawaslost.

Free and legal MP3 from Soulsavers (Oldham channels Lanegan, w/ swampy groove)

"Sunrise" - Soulsavers
     I'll admit I have something of a mental block against music that emerges from so-called production and remix teams. Maybe it's because I dislike remixes with such a pointless passion. But that's just me and my bias towards song--I find music that's so blatantly constructed (and re-constructed) to be odd and artificial at its core. And yet, here are Soulsavers, a production and remix duo from England, and I like this one quite a lot.
     Then again, this is not just a laptop creation. "Sunrise" began life as a real song--it was written by Mark Lanegan and was first heard back on his 1994 album Whiskey For The Holy Ghost--and in this incarnation features new performances by, among others, Will Oldham, who does the singing here. (Lanegan, it should be noted, has been Soulsavers' chief vocalist for the past two albums--2007's It's Not How Far You Fall, It's the Way You Land, and this year's Broken.) In Soulsavers' hands, "Sunrise" has become atmospheric in a gratifyingly swampy sort of way--we get a piano vamp, washes of cymbals, and a dirty-sounding harmonica, all rinsed through with reverb. And front and center we get Oldham singing with more rough-edged gravitas than he gives us in his more fragile Bonnie "Prince" Billy mode. He seems in fact to be doing an homage to Lanegan; this version of "Sunrise" sounds almost more Lanegan-y than the original, somehow, with its dark echoey groove and that killer harmonica, which replaces the sax heard in the original, to great effect.
     Broken was released back in August, without a lot of fanfare, on Columbia. (Note how even now the big labels don't know how to promote off-kilter projects.) "Sunrise" is actually a non-album single, released just prior to the CD.

Free and legal MP3 from Laura Veirs (evocative, idiosyncratic singer/songwriter)

"Wide-Eyed, Legless" - Laura Veirs
     Long-time Fingertips favorite Laura Veirs has a plainspoken presence, a gift for evocative lyrics, and the capacity to weave magical melodies into unassuming songs. "Wide-Eyed, Legless"--and that's quite a title, eh?--begins with a plucky, fairy-tale sort of ambiance, its sing-song-y verse rooted in an ancient, semi-pentatonic refrain (mostly but not all black notes) and set against gull-like synthesizer lines.
     And that would just about be cool enough, but then comes the chorus and one of those brilliant little melodies of hers. "Will you ever more tie up my hair with velvet bows?" she sings (0:50), delivering, in the midst of that bouncy, spiky tune a moment of poignant melodic resolution. Complete with that old-fashioned wording, it's quite lovely, but she doesn't dwell on it; even as the melody repeats for a second line in the chorus it changes a bit, and ends without the resolution, plunking us back into the "hornet rain" both lyrically and musically. Something, certainly, is going on here, having something to do with ships and storms and lost love, perhaps, but I can't really be sure, and that mystery is part of the song's quirky allure.
     "Wide-Eyed, Legless" will be found on the album July Flame, Veirs' seventh, scheduled for release in January on her Raven Marching Band label. MP3 via her site.