Wednesday, August 11, 2010

This blog has been moved; update your RSS feed!

This note is to remind you that the separate Fingertips blog no longer exists, but has been consolidated into the main Fingertips site, at

If you are reading this via your news reader, please update the feed address if you'd like to get back on board with the weekly Fingertips MP3 selections. The RSS feed is now located here:

Monday, June 14, 2010

Now you'll be automatically redirected

If you've come to find the Fingertips blog, it no longer exists here on Blogger. You will be automatically redirected to the new site within about five seconds. If you can't wait, the link is

See you there...

Friday, June 11, 2010

Attention linkers: change the Fingertips URL

Anyone currently linking to Fingertips using this Blogger URL is encouraged to change the link to This Blogger site is no longer being updated.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Reminder about new site and new feed

This week's MP3s will be posted tomorrow. Just wanted to remind everyone that Fingertips is now one site rather than two; the new site, now live at, incorporates the blog and the RSS feed.

Please change your feed URL through Feedburner. It's as simple as can be.

Thanks, and see you at the new site...

Thursday, May 27, 2010

This week's posts now up on redesigned Fingertips site

The new MP3s this week are from Sarah Harmer, Light Pollution, and Sarah Jaffe. But you won't be able to read about them here, alas.

Because the time has come to relieve Fingertips of its split personality and deliver one site where there used to be two. The newly redesigned Fingertips site is now itself much more blog-like than before, rendering the existence of this separate blog suddenly and permanently superfluous.

Weekly song picks will no longer be available here. Actually, pretty much nothing new will be available here moving forward.

But to ease the transition, I will for the time being post weekly here just to let everyone know that the new week's songs are up and to remind everyone to switch over to the new RSS feed.

You can do that via Feedburner.

I'm also working out whether the existing RSS feed can be automatically redirected. Such a thing is beyond my technological IQ but I've got some crack technicians on the job as we speak.

I will not be sorry to be off Blogger, but I will be sorry to leave my Blogger followers behind. The best way to follow Fingertips moving forward, besides simply subscribing to the new RSS feed, will be through either Facebook or Twitter or, even better, both.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Free and legal MP3 from The King Left (sharp, rumbling rocker at the edge of dissonance)

"The Way to Canaan" - The King Left
     Okay so noise is one thing. When you come right down to it, it's easy to make noise. Never understood what the fuss was about from the rock'n'roll primitivists who glorify sheer volume. I mean, okay--turn the bloody amps up and boom. It's noisy. Like, wow.
     Start combining noise with discipline and you begin to get my attention. Start understanding music enough to create different kinds of noise, not all of which are simply loud, and now you've really got something going. The King Left certainly does, playing continually along the edge of dissonance in this sharp, rumbling rocker. From the outset, we get no settled sense of tonic, a base chord to call home; instead we get slashing, clanging guitars and--key to keeping things unsettled--a dynamic bass line, running up and down and all around. The sound is at once harsh and tight. And listen to where the music goes when the lyrical line ends, at 0:27, and again at 0:40--we're left not only without resolution but bopping itchily in a clashing key, with that bass guitar refusing to ground us in a stable place. The chorus at long last delivers an anthemic release, but--there's a catch--buries it under a searing lead guitar, while Corey Oliver, even as he all but shouts, delivers his vocals as if now down in the basement. Nothing is easy but the hand-hold here is that it's all very precise. Knowing you're in good hands relaxes the ear, I think.
     The band's MySpace page lists Radiohead, The Beatles, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Nirvana, and R.E.M. as its first five influences and damned if "The Way to Canaan" isn't some kind of crazy-brilliant amalgam of all five. The song is from the New York City quartet's first full-length album--which is unfortunately also their last. They played their final show last week and are now no more. MP3 via the band's site. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head's up.

Free and legal MP3 from Sarah Blasko (smoky vocals over Morricone-ish setting)

"All I Want" - Sarah Blasko
     Nothing says "cinematic" better than a Morricone-inspired whistling introduction, but I like how down-to-earth and personal everything still manages to sound here. Often this kind of spaghetti western-ish styling opens up sweeping vistas with a certain amount of ironic winking, conjuring bleak deserts and dusty trails in an almost cartoonish way. But here Blasko takes the whistly intro, the Spanish-like guitar, and a touch of martial snare and wraps them up in her smoky, heartsore voice, singing a simple, haunting melody. By the time the strings arrive, we aren't picturing a lonesome rider in the blistering vastness of the faux Wild West; she is clearly singing about inner landscapes, not outer ones. That producer Björn Yttling (of Peter, Bjorn and John fame) has found a way to personalize a musical setting rooted in outsized gestures is a mighty part of this song's charm, but it took Blasko's distinctive husky-breathy voice to pull it off. I'm guessing her voice gave him the idea in the first place. There's something haunted and unreachable in it.
     Blasko is from Sydney, where she has a sizable following after three well-regarded albums. "All I Want" is from her third and most recent CD, As Day Follows Night, which was recorded in Stockholm with Yttling and released last year in Australia and this spring in Europe. A U.S. release is scheduled for August.

Free and legal MP3 from Pallers (graceful electronic dance-ballad)

"The Kiss" - Pallers
     This graceful electronic dance-ballad unfolds with a New Order-like majesty, but minus the melodrama. Despite the quickly established synth-driven pulse, a gentle dreaminess prevails during the song's careful build-up. There's no hurrying this song and in the end, you don't want to, because the payoff, while subtle, is deeply felt.
     So let this one happen on its own terms. The simple pulse--a robotic synthesizer line backed by a conga beat of organic simplicity--fuels an extended intro, while another synthesizer slowly plays with a melodic line that finally takes over the front of the mix nearly 50 seconds in. The singing starts at 1:06, adding a wistful melody to the carefully constructed beat. New synth lines emerge at 1:40. No one is in a hurry, remember. A new layer of percussion and previously unheard synthesizer flourishes add palpable substance around 2:30 but soon the song retreats back to its conga-and-synth origin before blossoming, from 3:00 to 3:15, into almost goose-bumpy wonderfulness the rest of the way, as the melody doubles its pace and we see now that our gentle electronic dream has transformed itself into something brisk, sturdy, and memorable.
     The Swedish duo Pallers is Johan Angergård (also a member of Acid House Kings, Club 8 and the Legends) and Henrik Mårtensson. "The Kiss" is a digital single due out next week on Labrador Records (a great Stockholm-based label, itself worth checking out). MP3 via Labrador.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Free and legal MP3 from Phosphorescent (slow-burning singer/songwriter fare w/ classic rock guitar)

"The Mermaid Parade" - Phosphorescent
     At once laid-back and expansive, "The Mermaid Parade" brings a slow-burning quality to its sauntering vibe. Singing this affecting if slightly mystical (or maybe just surreal) tale of love gone wrong, front man Matthew Houck has the knocked-around tone of a man who's been hurt a little too much; his voice has a built-in crack to it without ever really cracking, and he sings with the relaxed cadence of someone slowly draining the beer from a long-necked bottle.
     And the thing, to me, that really gives "The Mermaid Parade" its piercing quality is the electric guitar that plays like a backbone through the skeletally told story. Neither fancy nor newfangled, the guitar brings a classic-rock majesty to the singer/songwritery proceedings. The climactic lyric is plainspoken and startlingly moving: "But yeah I found a new friend too/And yeah she's pretty and small/But goddamn it Amanda/Oh, goddamn it all."
     "The Mermaid Parade" is four tracks in on Here's To Taking It Easy, the fifth full-length release from Phosphorescent, a band which is basically Houck and anyone else he can get to play with him at the time. The album is out this week on Dead Oceans, sister label to Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguwar. MP3 via Dead Oceans.

Free and legal MP3 from Villagers (indirect, well-crafted keeper from Ireland)

"Becoming a Jackal" - Villagers
     "Becoming a Jackal" is not necessarily an immediate smash hit; it insinuates rather than sweeps away. Never is it uninteresting, however, and I mean that quite literally, in a moment to moment way. Great hooks are awesome, don't get me wrong, but songs can sometimes coast a bit too much in between the hooks, not to mention that sometimes it's a fine line between hook-y and facile, never mind hook-y and annoying. (You'll know what I mean if you've ever gotten a song stuck in your head that you don't even like.) So there's definitely a place in my pop universe for songs like this that use well-crafted indirectness, unexpected twists, and tension-building restraint to gain your trust and devotion.
     Sink into the song's small moments, let them float by and gain strength, notice the subtle shifts in accompaniment, and eventually a few become their own, quirky sorts of non-hooky hooks. The recurring phrase "I was a dreamer" at the beginning of the not-very-chorus-like chorus may be the first that sticks but a number of other melodic motifs grow in stature as the song unfolds. I like the one that first comes, at 0:26, with the lyrics "in the scene between the window frames"; when we hear it (I think for the third time) at 2:21, with the lyrics "you should wonder what I'm taking from you," it sounds like a climactic moment, but only because of how artfully we've arrived there.
     Villagers is the name Dubliner Conor J. O'Brien has given to his musical project, which is kind of a band but kind of not a band. "Become a Jackal" is the title track to the debut album, to be released next month on Domino Records. MP3 via Domino.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Free Music Mirage (a Fingertips Commentary)

Some music free, certainly; all music free, no

Steadily, over the course of the last 10 years, the idea that recorded music "has" to be free has been transformed from a radical stance taken by those adept enough to navigate the geeky interfaces of file-sharing sites to a standard online rallying cry.

The tables have in fact been turned so entirely that anyone who dares now to suggest that people should still pay for recorded music can expect derision.

Along the way, many musicians themselves have acquiesced to the situation. Gamely, they've been willing to go along, willing to say, "Well, okay, if music has to be free, I'll figure something out, I'll get by."

But what if it's all been a figment of some overactive imaginations? What if recorded music does not in fact have to be free?

Looked at from the outside, free music is an odd conclusion to come to. To begin with, the idea originated in violation of intellectual property rights. However imperfect and in need of adjustment over time it may be, intellectual property is still a vital cultural concept. One can argue that certain aspects of intellectual property law are out of whack--such as the ridiculous copyright extensions that have been granted in recent decades--without concluding that there should be no intellectual property rights at all, or that musicians in particular should be giving their music away for no cost, all the time.

And there is also the matter of human decency. Even if you think you have good intentions, taking something for free that was not intended to be given out for free is not nice or fair. To turn around and distribute this same something to thousands of other people for free is, well, really not nice.

But of course the matter of music-sharing isn't quite so black and white. Also looked at from the outside, it should be clear that the taking and sharing of music online happens along a nuanced spectrum, including everyone from the aficionado sharing out-of-print music on a blog with fifty readers to someone who just loves a new song so much she wants to share it with a few friends to the kid stoked by ripping brand new mass-market CDs on the day of their release (or earlier) and putting them on the P2P networks.

A worthy discussion of all this might have been launched in the early '00s that accounted for the different kinds of sharing that was actually happening.

This discussion never much occurred, of course, in large part because the major record labels from the get-go have brooked no nuance, aiming to fight every instance of online file sharing, no matter the context.

It may be no coincidence that those arguing that music must be free have likewise been little interested in gray areas. Perhaps this arose as a counter-reaction to the mainstream music industry's onslaught, perhaps it's just that the free music adherents, like all good zealots, veer naturally towards extremism.

In any case, between vociferous calls to artists to stop even trying to sell actual music (they should be selling "experiences" instead; or, maybe, t-shirts) and gleeful anticipation of our imminent, cloud-based future--in which any one musician's specific songs or albums are worth fractions of pennies at best or are entirely ad-supported, and no one has to sell anything resembling either a physical product or a digital file--the free music crowd in 2010 is all but ready to declare victory.

But just because a lot of people believe something does not make it true, or right, or good. And because conversations on the internet tend to be dominated by the loudest and most self-promoting voices, it's all too easy for the true and right and good to be pushed aside.

And, bless their hearts, the free music folks have been nothing if not loud and self-promoting, convinced that they alone have a grip on reality. "Get used to it!" they explain. "Stop living in the past!" they clarify. One can all but feel their hands on one's collar, ready to yank us out of our humdrum, 20th-century-fixated lives.

But here's a news flash: it may be the free music cheerleaders who are stuck in the past.

They're the ones who are attached to the old-fashioned idea that monetary value depends on something having a three-dimensional presence.

As far as I can see, the truly future-oriented music visionary will be one with a plan that involves an industry economy that can and does attach genuine monetary value to digital entities.

Please understand that in arguing that music does not "have to be free," I am nevertheless not: a) a stooge for the major record labels; b) a believer that all music must on the other hand be paid for; c) convinced that great numbers of people will necessarily pay money for MP3 downloads per se as the future unfolds.

I understand that the technology will continue to evolve, that people may generally go in the direction of paying for access rather than ownership, and that as yet unanticipated options may arise. And I absolutely believe that there have been and will continue to be great benefits to loosening up our ideas of how and why music is distributed and paid for.

But make no mistake. Anyone who looks at the crazy, fluid, work-in-progress that is the 21st-century music scene to date and claims that the future requires all recorded music to be free both to own and to listen to is seeing things. It's a mirage. The rest of us should shake our heads, rub our eyes, and keep walking--we have an actual future to get to.

Going to Extremes

One reason the free music camp has gained credibility is because they are so resolutely opposed to an enemy already mistrusted and disliked. Few people stick up for the big record companies, for good reason. They have navigated the digital scene very badly, because--basically--they navigate badly in any arena in which fair practices must be maintained. They have consistently stood in the way of rightful progress.

But--this is the part you don't tend to hear--so have the free music proponents.

If the historical model for music revenue distribution was exploitative--which it most certainly was--then let's use this opportunity to change it. To insist that the new answer is that all recorded music must now be free is just as absurd and extremist a response to 21st-century realities as was the record companies' suing of their customers. The latter was a sort of fascist fever dream, while the former is little more than adolescent fantasy.

If nothing else, this insistence on a free music future seems an inexplicable diversion of good energy. Why are people more willing to fight for free music than to fight for a talented musician's right to earn money from his or her handiwork? Why do people jump through hoops to invent alternative scenarios for musicians to make money, rather than fight to defend the value of music itself?

These are worthy questions, not often addressed. Defending their position, some free music adherents sound like querulous children who don't want to be told they can't eat candy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Many respond with belligerance to anyone suggesting there might perhaps be moral or legal or logistical problems with their grand idea.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Now I'll admit, something without physical substance is a curious circumstance for a material species such as ourselves. And this is after all the bedrock of the "music must be free" stance: that something that's just digital bits doesn't really have to cost anything.

But then here is the even more curious circumstance. If we were willing to pay for music in the past, when it was housed on a compact disc or a cassette tape or a vinyl LP, and we are not willing to pay for music now, when we can still hear it--more conveniently than ever, I should add--then the implication is clear, but startling: in the past, we were paying solely for the physical object and not a penny for the music itself.

And yet of course that's wrong. Surely we were paying for the music--in fact, I'd say the plastic and the packaging were not much on our minds as we plunked down our money. And so--it seems quite clear in this context, yes?--if we were paying for the music back then, then we should still be paying for the music now. We should be paying for it, that is, with one notable change: the music should cost quite a bit less, because there are fewer material costs involved, and fewer distribution costs.

The bits argument is intellectual sleight of hand. We should dismiss it, and ask, instead: what is it about the internet that makes us think we should not and will not pay for music?

There is one camp that believes the answer to this question is a purely economic one--an argument most famously laid out by TechCrunch's Michael Arrington, who declared in 2007 that the price of music would "inevitably" fall to zero because the marginal production costs are zero. By this he meant that it costs nothing to produce an identical digital copy of any given song.

To his credit, Arrington encouraged discussion. He didn't shy from criticism, but dismissed most of it as "emotional." He argued from the position that economic theory was as immutable a truth as the law of gravity (which I feel compelled to point out it rather obviously isn't). He noted repeatedly that this isn't about fairness.

But in that case I have to say, with all due respect, that the argument is pointless. Fairness actually does matter, as the free market has always been properly constrained and guided by legal and cultural considerations. We live in a world of moral complexity, not of abstract economic theorizing. If you beg off the question of right and wrong then you have begged off having a voice in the matter worth listening to.

What, Me Worry?

Free music proponents who don't take refuge in hard-core economics like to employ two other prominent rationales to explain why the internet means music now has to be free. And if the economic theory rationalizers sidestep the right and wrong debate, the folks using the next rationale try to confront the morality issue head-on. This is the "I'm not doing anything wrong" rationale.

There are actually a few variations of this one, but the most common is the "I'm not doing anything wrong because nothing is actually stolen" argument.

This outgrowth of the "digital bits aren't real" concept overlooks the basic idea, mentioned earlier, that if you decide not to pay for something that the owner is otherwise asking a price for, and you take possession of this thing anyway, this is wrong. As soon as you start reverse-engineering a "What, Me Worry?" morality based on interpretation and semantics and loop holes, you've already skipped over the part about taking possession of something that is somebody else's without paying for it.

What's more, the entire premise is rooted in illogic. On the one hand, the "I'm not doing anything wrong" crew has argued that they should be able to take the digital music for free because it doesn't have any real value; on the other hand, they want the music enough to have it, which means--um--that is has value.

Because of course it does. Digital files may be elusive physically but they are still very real. To claim you're not stealing anything because the owner maintains the original file is nonsense. By a similar argument, one could say there's nothing wrong with hacking into your bank account and adding money to it because "nothing is being stolen."

Already Free? Um, No

The other interesting rationale for claiming that all music must be free is the "Music is already free" rationale. By this people mean that whether it was right or wrong no longer matters, everyone can get everything they want for free via file-sharing, why are we even discussing this any more, you idiots. (Or something like that.) Note that people using this argument are often kind of angry.

"Music is already free" is a rhetorical trick--the rationale of a wily debater who wants to frame the discussion past the point of argument. But it doesn't wash. The only way music is "already free" is if you're willing to take, for free, what the owners of that which you're taking are not offering for free. By the same assumption, one could say that everything currently in stores is already free to anyone willing to steal it.

And forgetting arguments over intellectual property rights for a moment, it should also be noted that music isn't "already free" because--minor detail--lots of people are still buying it.

People still buy CDs and people still buy digital downloads, in relatively large numbers, sometimes unexpectedly so (as with the recent Sade album, never mind the Susan Boyle album). Yes, sales are way down from where they were at the height of the CD boom, but the reasons for this are many and varied--a good subject for another essay. But there is no solid evidence to suggest that all the people who no longer are buying albums are now simply accessing their music for free, just as it is specious to pretend that no one at all buys music anymore.

Another nagging way reality is at odds with the "already free" vision: musicians themselves still sell their music. And, as Glenn Peoples recently discussed in Billboard, there remain compelling reasons for them to do so.

And what about the fact that 35 percent of Americans are still not using broadband? If you don't have broadband, you're not downloading music. Music is not free for these people.

And by the way, while precise information on this remains sketchy, common sense tells us that most people who are using broadband have no particular idea how to use the P2P networks, if only because the history of home technology has shown time and again that the average computer user has no interest in using anything even a little bit complicated.

Resuscitating Value

There is one final problem with the "music is already free" assumption; it is in fact a problem that compromises all arguments put forward by all free music zealots. And it is the indisputable fact that many music fans to this day enjoy buying songs and albums from musicians they like. Not t-shirts. Not special boxed sets of b-sides and remixes. Regular songs and albums.

I am one of these fans. And I for one resent the the assumption made by the free music advocates that anyone who is into music wants nothing more than to have all the music they want for free.

I find this kind of insulting.

Why do they think it's somehow wrong or old-fashioned to want to pay musicians for their art? Is it old-fashioned to buy a painting from an artist you admire? Is it old-fashioned now, somehow, to spend money on anything that someone else created and produced?

Which leads us back to the fundamental question I asked earlier: what is it about the internet that makes us think we should not and will not pay for music? To put it another way: why have so many people been hellbent on using the existence of digital files as an excuse to undermine the idea that an individual piece of music by an individual artist has actual value?

All this talk about how music "must" be free is peculiar in the midst of a society that has hardly abandoned the concept of capitalism. The free music camp think they're somehow saving or reinventing the music industry when they're actually bringing some big shovels to the graveyard.

And hiding behind alternative revenue schemes doesn't work. All these roundabout ways that musicians might get paid--from merchandise sales to percentages of advertising on ad-supported music sites--have one thing in common, regardless of how much or how little money they generate: they all implicitly devalue the music.

Neither can we hide behind the forces of history. No historical precedent exists to justify the idea that going digital means music must be free. History is full of shifts from one type of product to another--ice cubes to refrigerators, horses to cars, film to digital photos. In all cases, the replacement product performs the old job in a new and better way, and people pay for it accordingly.

The one valid reason I can see why the blossoming of the internet as a music medium in the 21st century has provoked the idea that music must be free has nothing to do with history, nothing to do with intellectual property laws, and nothing to do with marginal production costs. It does, however, have something to do with economics--namely, the trusty, even homely theory of supply and demand.

As the internet has all but eliminated the barrier to entry for a musician to record and distribute his or her music, the market has been flooded, the drain pipes clogged beyond repair. With the supply of music all but infinite (or at least, to quote Dr. Seuss, "up in the zillions"), the price of music should, indeed, theoretically fall to all but zero.

Unless...okay, it's a crazy idea, but...unless we somehow begin to work to distinguish quality from quantity. Sure, there's an unimaginable glut of music, but there has been and always will be a much (much) smaller supply of quality music. I have no exact idea how this could play out--maybe the subject of another essay--but if we can begin to delineate between the dabblers and the virtuosos, we might be able to establish why some music is actually worth paying for, while other music is entirely suited to free distribution.

There is plenty of precedent for this. Think about home-based artists who draw or paint or sculpt just because they love to, without any desire or need to be paid for it. Their existence, however, has never implied that nobody should be paid for those painting or drawing or sculpting.

We need tiers of musical activity. We cannot allow the existence of millions of songs that do not deserve an audience beyond friends and family to negate the idea that some songs are worthy of value in the marketplace. We need not to be telling musicians that they must work harder at mastering social media. They need to be working harder to master their craft, and need to remember that no one owes a musician a living.

But neither do we owe them a swift kick in the ass while we consciously and demeaningly deny all potential value from their chosen calling. If we can shake the sand from our eyes and look hard and fast at the horizon--if we can understand what's really there and what really isn't--we may recognize that it is up to us as well. As streaming sites continue to develop, it's easier than ever to use the internet to listen, so you can make an informed decision. Then you can do the truly revolutionary thing: buy the music that you like.

Because here's the new rule: if someone else made it and you really like it, it's not supposed to be free.

Photo Credit:

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Free and legal MP3 from Hey Marseilles (rollicking 21st-century ensemble pop)

"Rio" - Hey Marseilles
     Funny, if you think about it: the 21st-century to date has arguably contributed two abiding types of music to the rock'n'roll idiom, and they're kind of the exact opposites of each other. One is the music played by a two-person band, with keyboards and synthetic sounds at the forefront; the other is the music played by a large-ish group of people (typically five or more) wielding an idiosyncratic assortment of often (but not exclusively) acoustic instruments. Not that each type of ensemble plays one precise kind of music, so I'm not really talking about two new music styles or genres as much as two new musical energies or platforms, both thriving over the last ten years or so.
     Hey Marseilles, as you can almost guess from the name, is the second type--a seven-piece band from Seattle that plays things like accordion, cello, viola, mandolin, banjo, trumpet, and (wait for it) drumbourine. Now on the one hand, just putting a bunch of musicians with a bunch of instruments together is no guarantee for sonic success, and yet one could argue on the other hand that seven people who can play non-amplified instruments well enough together to make a coherent sound have an immediate leg up over a standard, four-person electric outfit. But then on the other other hand it also happens that larger ensembles can get so caught up in merely making the sound they make that the songs themselves--melodies, chords, structures--come up lacking. Not so with these guys, however. "Rio" is a joy from the opening hand claps, a sweetly rollicking neo sea shanty with terrific interplay between music and lyrics and delightfully rich instrumental layers. You never quite know which sounds are going to match up with which other sounds as the piece bounds along. It's great fun, both light and deep.
     "Rio" is a song from the band's debut album, To Trunks and Travel, originally self-released in 2008, but which is getting a national re-release in June via Onto Entertainment. Thanks to the irrepressible Largehearted Boy for the head's up. And if you want a sense of what this musical energy is like in person, check out this live performance of "Rio" from the band's visit to KEXP:

Free and legal MP3 from the National (brisk, deliberate burner)

"Afraid of Everyone" - The National
     "Afraid of Everyone" starts spooky, slowly and surreptitiously picks up a pulse, then a driving beat, but even as it does remains tight and restrained. This juxtaposition of brisk and deliberate adds layers to the eeriness, just as the fear expressed lyrically broadens from interpersonal to existential: what begins with a reference to today's poisonous political environment ends with Matt Berninger singing, semi-imperceptibly, "Your voice has stolen my soul." Notice (this strikes me as important) that the song itself does not change tempo; what happens is that the band finally--first around 1:10 and then more fully at 1:25--picks up on the song's implicit beat, and literally drives home the frightened and frightening message. Repeated listens give this one a palpably deeper and deeper burn.
     Originally from Cincinnati, now in Brooklyn, the National has been steadily building a critical and popular following, as expansively discussed in a recent article in the New York Times. Personally, I've been reserved about them in the past, in part because I didn't give Berninger's portentous but limited (and mumbly) baritone enough time to let the intrigue of the music penetrate. Not sure if I'm in the process of full conversion, but I very much look forward to listening to the new album, High Violet, in its entirety (which you can do this week on NPR.) The album comes out officially next week on 4AD. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3 from the Mynabirds (Laura Burhenn returns w/ more great retro pop)

"Let the Record Go" - the Mynabirds
     I cannot resist a repeat visit to the Mynabirds album, with this second free and legal MP3 now available (and also given what a great little set of music this comprises with the previous two selections). I just mainline this kind of sound--open my veins and inject it straight in. Laura Burhenn takes the standard blues progression and shapes it into a fiery piece of retro pop. Every last detail is exquisite, and yet the thing just plain stomps too. Right away, I love how the song starts in such a hurry it feels as if we're joining in midstream and then oops it stops at that place four seconds in for that great, conflicted "Oh!" from Burhenn.
     So many parts to like in such a short song!: the extended, melismatic "Oh" that functions as something between a verse and a chorus at 0:26; the repeated way the music stops or slows at just the right moments, without ever giving us the feeling of being interrupted; the fleeting bit of theatrical singing we hear at 1:04, as if maybe Lene Lovich has made a brief cameo; and then oh man when that opening "Oh!" comes back a third time right near the end (2:15) it completely melts my heart.
     So if you missed it the first time, please rush back and listen as well to "Numbers Don't Lie," the first Mynabirds MP3 featured back in January. And then do yourself an even greater favor and buy What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood, which was released just last week on Saddle Creek; it's a strong strong effort from a gifted musician.

New Fingertips Commentary: The Free Music Mirage

As I'm working on this week's regular song reviews, I wanted to pop in and let you know there's a new Fingertips Commentary posted on the main site, entitled: "The Free Music Mirage." Subtitled: "Putting an end to a persistent illusion." Sub-subtitled: "Some music free, certainly; all music free, no." I'll be posting it here on the blog too in the next couple of days, but anyone who wants a head start can get one via the main site.

Note that this split-personality thing is almost over, as Fingertips will be online with a new, single site in the reasonably near future. It's online now in beta form if you're curious to see where things are heading. Lots of pages and links and formatting remain less than perfect but the general look and feel is on target. In the meantime, however, we're stuck with this dual-posting thing for a little while longer.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

May Q&A: Greta Morgan of Gold Motel

This month, the Fingertips Q&A--featuring, as always, five questions about the future of music in the digital age--talks to Greta Morgan, front woman for the Chicago-based band Gold Motel. The band's song "Don't Send the Searchlights" was featured in February on Fingertips. Previously in the Hush Sounds from 2005 to 2008, Morgan assembled the five-piece Gold Motel in 2009. The band's self-released, self-titled debut EP, came out in December; their first full length is due in June.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Free and legal MP3 from the Silver Seas (buoyant pop w/ faux '70s-soul sheen)

"The Best Things In Life" - The Silver Seas
     Effortlessly enjoyable pop with a faux '70s-soul sheen. And I mean the faux part in a good way--after all, it's not the '70s anymore (by a long shot). It's far more fun to hear a group of 21st-century popsters re-imagine this sound with a present-day oomph than to hear some slavish recreation of the distant past.
     But there's no doubting that the '70s are the musical mother lode for this Nashville-based trio. Last time we heard from them they were more in James Taylor/Jackson Browne mode; this time Daniel Tashian and company have swung, literally, into Hall & Oates territory, with a loving, twice-removed nod to the Philadelphia Sound that that duo themselves mined. It's a breezy R&B groove poised brashly between Motown and disco, and the breeziness is exactly why slavish recreation would be self-defeating. You have to sound sharp but you can't sound rigid, and these guys strut it just right, propelled by a melody that steadfastly refuses to align with the beat in a song filled with large and small pleasures. A favorite smaller moment comes with the third lead-in to the chorus (2:34). The previous two times, the chorus begins after two smooth H&O-like "oo-oos," covering four brisk measures, which is exactly what the song appears to demand. The third time, they sing the two "oo-oos" once and then repeat them, which if you're not listening carefully you might not even notice. But it's one of those great songwriting tricks, giving us a subtle, unexpected, hang-on-what's-not-quite-right delay before the final payoff.
     "The Best Things In Life" is a song from the band's new album Chateau Revenge, which was released digitally by the band this month; the physical album is due out in July. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3 from Patrick Wolf (both channeling and reinterpreting K. Bush song)

"Army Dreamers" - Patrick Wolf
     I can count on one hand the number of cover songs I've posted here on Fingertips over the years; I'm not at all against them in theory, but I don't usually feel compelled to talk about them. It's more of a "Oh, that's interesting," and on we go. But this was a no-brainer from the opening drum-and-piano salvo. How different from the original and yet immediately exactly right. Wolf here has done the near impossible with a cover version: he has revealed the depths awaiting us in a song that even its writer hadn't quite plumbed.
     And that is to take nothing away from Kate Bush, whom I love unabashedly. But she wrote and sang "Army Dreamers" for her 1980 album Never For Ever, which found her in transition between the lush, piano-based, teenaged sounds of her first two records and the more complex, Fairlight-fueled, experimental direction she would develop fully with The Dreaming and Hounds of Love. Her original was a delicate, string-filled waltz, with a hint of weird around the edges. (But, note, a #1 record in the U.K.) Wolf--an intense, theatrical character in his own right--has done nothing as much as show us how Bush herself might have recorded this once she truly hit her stride. The martial rhythm, the creative synthesizer flourishes, the inventive percussion, the ghostly backing vocal (whether real or synthesized, an obvious homage), not to mention the exotic counter-vocal, are all evident Bushisms. But perhaps Wolf's most splendid and mysterious accomplishment is singing in his shadowy baritone--not doing an imitation, not in fact remotely sounding like her--and yet all but channeling the great and mighty KB. Thirty years later, he delivers a cover that sounds at least as authentic as the original.
     "Army Dreamers" is a track from a massive compilation album put out by the Spanish music collaborative Buffetlibre in support of Amnesty International. For five euros, you get 180 MP3s from 50 musicians from around the world, including Marissa Nadler, Ra Ra Riot, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and the Antlers. All songs are exclusive and previously unreleased. Visit Buffetlibre for more information. And what the heck, you can listen to the Kate Bush original via Lala, here:

Free and legal MP3 from Marching Band (Swedish indie pop duo)

"It Will Never Slip" - Marching Band
     Marching Band is a duo. If you were Sherlock Holmes, that should tell you everything you need to know about this song, which engages and delights largely via a subtle, playful contradiction between the big and the small. "It Will Never Slip" is full of grand, large-scale gestures performed in a modest, almost intimate setting. The song is big and echoey but also small and unassuming. It opens and closes--as do any number of bloated, album-rock standards of the '80s--with an elusively familiar acoustic guitar riff. But note that otherwise you don't even hear the acoustic guitar, because, after all, there are just two guys in the band. They've got other instruments to tend to.
     And there are pretty much just two chords in the whole song. I do not believe this is because they only know two chords. Instead, consciously or not, it's another sly way of being big and small at the same time: you've got the fleet-footed melody, alternately bouncing and running up and down, but you're framing it onto those two chords--which are, in fact, C and G, perhaps the two most basic chords in the whole game. Verse and chorus, both the same two chords, but check out how they sew it all together in the chorus, between the lyrics, with that anthemic downward trio of notes (so it's like mi-re-do). That's typically heard in a huge, stadium-rock gesture, complete with slashing guitar chords. Here I think I'm hearing a banjo.
     Marching Band hails from Linköping, Sweden, a small city roughly halfway between Göteburg and Stockholm. They've been playing since 2005, and released their first album in '08. "It Will Never Slip" is from the forthcoming Pop Cycle, due out next month on U&L Records. The MP3 is another available via Spinner.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Free and legal MP3 from the Middle East (slowly unfolding, deeply engaging)

"Blood" - The Middle East
     Over a stately acoustic guitar noodle that wouldn't sound out of place on a mid-career Genesis album, "Blood" unfolds slowly yet engages the ear instantly. (That's an advanced maneuver in the rock'n'roll style book, by the way.) The anticipation is delicious; the song doesn't fully cook until 2:55 but I don't think you'll be bored. Engaging musicianship, sensitive and creative arrangement, affecting vocals, intriguing and well-crafted lyrics, short-term melodies, long-term structure: this six-piece from northern Queensland offers a full arsenal, even--what the heck--a children's chorus before the thing is through.
     I read somewhere that this song tells the story of three different relationships, two ended by death, one by divorce, but don't expect to pick that up easily; the band's singer has a lovely, Bon Iver-esque tenor that functions more like an instrument than a tale-teller. We pick up the occasional sonorous phrase--"She woke up in a cold sweat on the floor"; "Burned by the sun too often when she was young"--but as the song develops musically, the words fade into the fabric of the composition, eventually to be left aside entirely once the central musical motif--a refrain first heard as a whistled melody at 2:01--rises in climactic, wordless, choral repetition two-thirds of the way through (the aforementioned children's chorus).
     Formed in 2005 in a quiet village near the Great Barrier Reef, the Middle East self-released an album entitled The Recordings of the Middle East in 2008. And then decided to break up. And eight months later decided to re-form, with some personnel changes. The original album was then given an Australia-wide re-release in abridged form as an EP by Spunk Records, an Australian label that happens also to release a lot of big-time American indie rock (Spoon, the Shins, Joanna Newsom, Okkervil River, et al). The EP made it to the U.S. late in 2009, and the band itself arrived for the first time this spring and is currently touring here. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3 from the Love Language (brisk, shuffly indie pop)

"Heart to Tell" - the Love Language
     This one also begins with an acoustic guitar riff, but an entirely different kind that goes in an entirely different, happy-shuffly Shins-meet-the-Left-Banke direction. A brisk slice of indie pop sparkle.
     Attentive visitors may recall the Love Language from "Lalita," a song featured here last May that ended up on the year-end "Fingertips Favorites" list. "Heart to Tell" likewise swings on a pronounced one-two rhythm, but with a gentler vibe than "Lalita." This time around the band has jettisoned the distorted vocals and funneled its penchant for harsh guitars into one short--but memorable--instrumental break. Also jettisoned this time around, in fact, is the band itself--Raleigh-based master mind Stuart McLamb has let go of the four or five or six others (reports varied) who last time functioned as the Love Language, now doing the mad genius thing by himself, aided and abetted by producer BJ Burton. The end result is a less lo-fi Love Language, but no less loose and energetic.
     "Heart to Tell" is from the Love Language's forthcoming Merge Records debut, Libraries, slated for a July release. MP3 via the fine folks at Merge.

Free and legal MP3 from CocoRosie (gentle, invigorating, inscrutable exotica)

"Lemonade" - CocoRosie
     Ah, CocoRosie: I do not know what planet these two women live on but it is surely a richer and more exotic place than the one the rest of us inhabit. Or maybe it's just that they inhabit a far greater percentage of this planet than most of us do, being quite the globe-trotting pair of sisters. This new album of theirs alone was recorded in Buenos Aires, Paris, Berlin, New York, and Melbourne. Good thing this was before the volcano.
     Fortunately, you do not have to understand what they are trying to do, or why, to find yourself captivated by this gentle but invigorating song. A soothing, chime-filled opening measures leads to a lovely piano line, alternating major and minor arpeggios, and the tender but haltingly sung verse. Not sure if it's Sierra or Bianca here but the phrasing is odd and the words are odder, offering images but no discernible story. A fat synth joins in, and some horns, which play in slow motion but lead to the jaunty, double-time chorus, enlivened now by some deep, rubbery drums. Lyrical clues now tell us we are in childhood memory territory, but there's still no narrative, just image-moments, and a magic realism sort of sensibility ("Shot a rabbit from the backseat window"?). But with the Casady sisters, given their unusual, itinerant childhood, this could all be a simple tale of a family outing. I'm not sure I'd've wanted to be there, but I do love hearing about it.
     "Lemonade" is from the duo's new album, Grey Oceans, which is coming out next month on Sub Pop Records. MP3 via Sub Pop.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Fingertips Flashback: Vague Angels (from December 2006)

I always liked this one for relatively mysterious reasons. And this seems longer ago than it was, somehow. Anyway, this never really caught on, but it's still online, so here you are.

[From "This Week's Finds," December 17-23,2006]

"The Vague Angels of Vagary" - Vague Angels
Even though this came out in March and has nothing whatever to do with Christmas or the holiday season of any kind, I like featuring a song by a band named Vague Angels this week. It seems like all we can hope for these days, and maybe all we actually need. And never mind any of that: this free-flowing, structure-free song is itself extraordinarily cool. Rolling firmly to a strong yet elusive train-like rhythm, "The Vague Angels of Vagary" seems, well, vaguely to be about trains, and journeys, and searches. NYC-based singer/songwriter/novelist Chris Leo (brother of Ted) speak-sings the odd but engaging lyrics like Lou Reed with a higher voice and no leather jacket; he seems more bemused by what he sees that pissed off. What hooks me with this one: the energetic, good-natured, descending guitar riff that keeps the song afloat--relentlessly it climbs back to its apex and spills yet again downward while Leo goes on about train track tundras and the WPA and the MTA. "The Vague Angels of Vagary" is from the CD Let's Duke It Out At Kilkenny Katz' (yes there's that weird floating apostrophe in the title), released earlier in the year by Pretty Activity. The MP3 is via the Pretty Activity site; thanks to the Deli for the head's up.

ADDENDUM: It doesn't seem that the Vague Angels have been up to anything since 2006. According to a busy and difficult to read MySpace page, Chris Leo put out a solo album under his own name in 2009, but there is no other sign of it on the web. Leo had his own blog for a while but hasn't posted since January 2009. He may currently be living in Italy. He is still Ted Leo's brother.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Free and legal MP3 from Color Of Clouds (lovely blend of acoustic & electronic, nicely arranged and sweetly sung)

"Brother" - Color of Clouds
     With a hint of glitch seasoning its spry intimacy, "Brother" is the work of a band with a gift for uncomplicated complexity, if that phrase makes any sense. Great pleasures await here in straightforward juxtapositions. For one immediate example, listen to how the beat glides seamlessly from a chime-like electronic stutter into a cozy 4/4 with a wistful bounce, driven by the gentlest of drumbeats. And then, without fuss, enters singer Kelli Scarr, arriving as if she'd been here all along, starting the story just about in mid-sentence, in tones of bittersweet honey. She has us at hello.
     And things only get better from here in a song blending the acoustic and electronic in a most gracious manner--the instrumental palette here is nothing short of delightful--and building towards a brilliant, light-footed chorus. I still can't tell if that's some sort of steel guitar in there or a nuanced synthesizer, but those are definitely stringed instruments that arrive for a first visit at 0:57, returning with the chorus to mesh almost heart-breakingly with that steel-guitar-ish sound and, most nimbly, that subtle persistent electronic glitch in the beat. And yes I'm afraid this is one of those songs that's far more trouble to describe than to listen to. Rest your eyes and reward your ears with repeated listens.
     All three band members were previously in the electronic band Moonraker, and Scarr has also been a frequent collaborator with Moby. "Brother" is a song from the debut Color of Clouds album, Satellite of Love, released digitally this week via Stuhr Records.

Free and legal MP3 from Colleen Brown (girl-group theatrics meets D.Springfield-style R&B, & then some)

"Boyfriend" - Colleen Brown
     "Boyfriend" marches to a big, retro, triplet-driven beat, delivering a vibe that's part girl-group theatrics, part Dusty Springfield-style R&B, part something elusive and (dare I say it?) new.
     This is in fact a quality that strikes me again and again about Canadian musicians, if I may generalize (and I assume positive generalizations are somewhat less irritating than negative generalizations!): their capacity for drawing upon influences without either drowning in them or negating them through archness and irony. Here, Edmonton-based singer/songwriter Colleen Brown--with a slightly dusky voice, some sly lyrics, and an easy way with a time-shifting melody--has built a song and a sound clearly grounded in the past while managing, at the same time, to resist painting herself into a history-centric corner. I'm not exactly sure how this works up there north of the border but I appreciate it every time I hear it. In any case, "Boyfriend," with its driving stomp and gleeful vocal energy, is very much a winner in the here and now.
     You'll find the song on Brown's second solo album, Foot in Heart, which was re-released last month by Dead Daisy Records, an independent label run by Canadian singer/songwriter Emm Gryner. The album had been previously self-released in 2008. Brown has also recorded as a part of a duo called the Secretaries. MP3 via Spinner.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Fingertips Flashback: Dealership (from December 2004)

Here's an innocent burst of indie-electro-something-or-another that sounds as delightful to me now as it did five-plus years ago.

[ from "This Week's Finds," Dec. 5-11, 2004]

"Forest" - Dealership

A certain sort of confidence is required to open a song with the line "Let's go, and I'll play all my songs," but singer Chris Groves has such a sweet-sailing voice that he has me right there--I'm thinking, sure, go ahead, play away. A do-it-yourself style trio from San Francisco, Dealership transcends its indie trappings through gorgeous melodicism and songwriting aplomb. The song is propelled by the juxtaposition of a jittery/infectious guitar line against a bell-like (and inexpensive-sounding) keyboard underneath a melody that cascades on itself, like noiseless fireworks arcing pattern upon pattern. When Groves arrives at the chorus, singing, "An electronic forest, a pixelated version" and then whatever he sings next (I can't decipher the words at that point), we are in a certain sort of pop heaven. That guitarist Miyuki Jane Pinckard adds some solid yet airy (go figure) harmonies to the proceedings only adds to the feeling of being transported somewhere quite lovely, if a little bittersweet. I like how the band doesn't waste the last minute of the song (which is when a lot of songs go into automatic pilot): listen to the edge Groves' voice acquires at around the 2:15 point, and then feel the band pull the energy back at around 2:30 only to kick into a punched-up sprint to the finish at 2:50 or so. It's all pretty subtle but I tend to like subtle. "Forest" is from the CD Action/Adventure, the band's third, released in August on Turn Records; the MP3 can be found on the band's web site.

ADDENDUM: Founded in 1995 (wow), Dealership may, alas, no longer exist. The band's web site shows no sign of life since 2007, and the band's anticipated fourth album, due first in 2007 and then in 2008, seems never (yet) to have arrived. While Wikipedia has them existing to the present day, the entry itself hasn't been updated since late '07.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Free and legal MP3 from Stanley Ross (slow & swingy w/ a nod to bygone musical styles)

"Bicycle (Take So Long)" - Stanley Ross
     "Bicycle" is fetchingly slow and swingy in a way that tips its hat to bygone stylings such as doo-wop and torch songs and the Rolling Stones trying to do country. And yet the music is at the same time entirely un-nostalgic--it is performed simply, without affect, with a grounding organ line, some nice back-porch guitar work, and a winning smidgen of idiosyncrasy in the guise of Nick Meiers' slightly neurotic (I mean that in a good way) tenor. None of this would work, I don't think, with a more straightforward singer. But Meiers has an edgy voice that gives the impression of being more wavery than it actually is, an effect that--I like to imagine--is being generated by his shaking his head so deeply in time to the music's slow-burning groove that he's sometimes missing the microphone. This is no doubt an inaccurate conjecture but I'll stick with it anyway.
     Stanley Ross is another one of those "hm; is this a person taking on a stage name or is this a band?" acts. Press material is shifty on the matter. I do know that Meiers, the Chicago-based front man and singer/songwriter, has himself called Stanley Ross his "band," and the Facebook page lists three "members" so let's stick with band. In any case, "Bicycle (Take So Long)" is a song from Stanley Ross's third release, an EP called MN-EP, which follows two previous full-length albums. The EP is out this week and may be downloaded in its entirety for free via the netlabel

Free and legal MP3 from Making Movies (crispy and crunchy Spanish-language, Latin-spiked rock)

"La Marcha" - Making Movies
     Crisp and crunchy Spanish-language, Latin-spiked rock'n'roll from...Kansas City, somehow. I'll take it from wherever; to my ears, Latin rhythms are a natural for rock'n'roll--we haven't over the years heard nearly enough of them in any sort of mainstream way (whether mainstream mainstream or, as it were, indie mainstream).
     "La Marcha" vigorously exploits the dynamics of a style of music called cumbia, which is known for melding a lopsided rhythm to a steady 4/4 beat. Get this one going and check out how easily your body wants to keep the beat even as the music itself seems to snake and sway in and around but never, it seems, directly on that same beat. One of the delights of that group-sung grunt (first heard at 0:10) is how precisely on the beat it is, compared to almost everything else that emerges from the drums and guitars. I also like how effectively the band works a slightly distorted rhythm guitar sound, straight from the rock'n'roll textbook, into the chorus, and how it leads with the Latino chord changes in a gratifying way. Don't miss, also, when the band drifts seamlessly into a salsa montuno (you may not know what that is but you'll hear it) for an instrumental rave-up at 1:56.
     "La Marcha" can be found on the album In Dea Speramus, which the quartet self-released last month. The album, by the way, was pretty much recorded live, vocals and instruments together in real time--yet another reason this song has so much energetic allure.

Free and legal MP3 from Jen Olive (looped undulating acoustic guitar, layered vocals, wonderful melodies)

"Wire Wire" - Jen Olive
     A swirly, heady stew of loop-addled undulating acoustic guitar and shimmering layers of vocals, "Wire Wire" feels rich and complex while still offering the simple pleasure of a good melody, smartly delivered. While comparisons are at once inevitable and instructive--Björk meets Jane Siberry meets Juana Molina is one way to conceive of her sound--I am enchanted by the head-turning newness of the end result. Olive writes outside the box of the beat, floating the melodic line in the verse like elusive tinsel that decorates the tree without touching the branches. The warm sturdiness of the short chorus becomes all the more delectable, almost mysteriously so; she sings, "I could get/Lost in it/No regret," to a straightforward melody that out of context might not strike your ear and yet here hooks and nourishes in a wonderful, almost uncanny way.
     I have no idea how someone could conceive of writing this sort of song and it may well be because no one person did; it turns out that Warm Robot, Olive's new album, is the product of a unique collaboration between the singer/songwriter and Andy Partridge, who personally signed her to his Ape House Records label. (The XTC front man has called Olive "this astounding allegro algorithm from Albuquerque.") She recorded the basic tracks--guitar and voice and some idiosyncratic percussion sketches made on found objects like kids' blocks and wine bottles--and Partridge arranged and enhanced to create the final songs. The two didn't meet face to face until the album was already finished.
     The Ape House blog by the way has a two-part podcast online featuring the entire album with track-by-track commentary by Olive, worth checking out if you have time.

And I stand corrected on the original assumption that the guitar was looped. Apparently it's Olive playing live. Which makes this song all the more original, says me.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

April Q&A: Laura Burhenn of the Mynabirds

This month's Q&A is a lively one, featuring Laura Burhenn, formerly half of the duo Georgie James, now doing musical business as the Mynabirds. Burhenn answers the five questions about the present and future of digital music with particular verve. The Mynabirds' debut album, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, is due out later this month on Saddle Creek Records.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Spring Break

Fingertips will be on spring break this week. New selections will return on or around April 6. In the meantime, a few suggestions:

* Catch up on older featured songs. From the feedback I get, I know that lots of people don't manage to listen to all three songs every week, even when they intend to. You can go back here on the blog and listen via the play buttons next to each song, or you can go to the main site's "This Week's Finds" page and use the media player there.

* Read the playlists essay. Yeah, okay, it's long--about the length of a feature in a traditional magazine. I trust that your attention span is up for it.

* Listen to some music offline, and mindfully. This is a radical idea, and is based on a blog post I recently read by an L.A.-based musician named Eric Jensen. He suggests both making a special place you can listen to music and setting aside a special time when you can give it your full attention. I really like this idea and may even put my old turntable back into action so I can listen from a comfortable couch, with a glass of wine, and an album cover in my hand.

* Or, just go out for a walk. Never a bad idea, any time of year.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Fingertips Flashback: Novillero (from June 2005)

Here's an entirely overlooked gem from 2005, with far more musical and lyrical sophistication than one dares to expect from a largely unknown band. But it's kind of what keeps us music seekers on the prowl. You never know what you might yet find.

[from "This Week's Finds," June 5-11, 2005]

Aptitude" - Novillero
Anchored by a swinging piano riff, appealing chord progressions, and what seems an unusually hard-headed philosophy for a pop song, "Aptitude" is both immediately enjoyable and lastingly affecting. A quartet from Winnipeg founded in 1999, Novillero sounds like the real thing to me, capable of delivering music that is at once melodically and lyrically astute--no mean feat in our mash-up culture. The chorus is especially marvelous, rendered all the more effective for its jaunty bouncing between major and minor chords. Even better, it builds with each iteration--first delivered in a restrained vocal-and-piano setting, the chorus next arrives with the full band fleshing out the harmonics, and the third time with vocalist Rod Slaughter (he's also the piano player) singing an octave higher, adding a keening edge to both the music and lyrics. This works particularly well as the song has now shifted its focus: what began as a world-weary warning about how we are all limited by our inherent capabilities reveals itself (if I'm hearing it right) rather poignantly as a philosophy borne from disappointment in love. Complete with nifty horn charts. "Aptitude" is on the band's cleverly titled second CD, Aim Right For The Holes In Their Lives, which was released in the U.S. last week on Mint Records. The MP3 comes from the band's web site.

ADDENDUM: The band has since become a quintet, and was featured again on Fingertips in 2008, when their most recent album was released. Things have been quiet on the Novillero front since their last stage appearances in Canada in mid-2009.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Playlist Nation: The Unbearable Lightness of Sharing (a Fingertips Commentary)

Quick question for you: do you make playlists?

Okay, kind of a stupid question. If you're reading this, you're probably more than a little interested in music, which means you have an iPod, which means yes, of course, you make playlists.

Next question: do you share your playlists? All sorts of web sites have sprung up over the last five years that encourage you to do so. Some are stand-alone communal playlist sites, others are on-demand streaming sites that offer a playlist creation function (e.g. Lala, Mog, and even MySpace now, with the acquisition of imeem). Go to these places and you'll see there are plenty of playlists posted. Someone, surely, is sharing.

Even so, playlist sharing is not at this point a mainstream activity the way that simply listening to an iPod is a mainstream activity. You yourself may share playlists all the time, or you may not even be aware that it's something you can do.

Leading to the big, final question: do you listen to other people's playlists? While you don't in theory have to be a playlist sharer to be a playlist listener, the blanket assumption of playlist sharing is that people who are sharing theirs are also listening to the playlists of others.

And so it is that playlist sharing is becoming, in theory, its own kind of music-consuming experience. With all these playlists available, people don't have to stumble around online looking for songs to listen to; they can also tap into other people's playlists. And in so doing will no doubt find out about music they didn't otherwise know.

Which--bing bing bing--turns out to be a big part of why sites that offer online playlist sharing think they are valuable. The communal playlist site 8tracks sums it up with a pithy tagline: "Share your mix. Discover new music."

It all sounds great, and the future of music cognoscenti, ever furious to second-guess the future before it arrives on its own, are all over it. Wired's Eliot Van Buskirk in late November wrote an article focused on 8tracks with a headline that said it all: "Playlists Could Be Free Music's Killer App."

The article focused on the economics involved: because playlist-sharing sites can launch with much less of an onerous licensing burden than an on-demand listening site, playlist sites are more likely to thrive and ultimately become the best place for people to listen to free music, whereas on-demand may ultimately be available only via a subscription. But Van Buskirk was implicitly enthusiastic about the communal playlist concept as a music fan too; at the end of the article he shared a playlist he himself made on the site. is spiffy at first glance. I like how simple it looks, how easily it draws the visitor in. Each playlist is just eight songs (thus the name), so that sounds manageable, yes? You can either click on one of the 24 intriguing graphic squares on the home page, each leading to a playlist, or you can browse by genre. Once drawn in, however, watch out.

Want to browse by genre? 8tracks gives you seven all-purpose genres on the main page. Okay, so let's start with "alternative rock"; click it and you'll see the eight most recent lists with that genre tag, out of (yipes) 21,000 more. And let's stop right there because a human being cannot "browse" 21,000 items of any kind, never mind playlists, even if they each have only eight songs. (Another barrier to effective browsing: because of its licensing arrangement, 8tracks cannot tell you what songs are on any given list, can only mention three of the artists included.)

And okay, not all genres have quite that many playlists. R&B has only 2,100, synthpop a mere 200. So maybe the thing to do is to scope out the genres first, narrow down to one you'd like? Good luck with that. You are then invited to click through page after page of genres, 50 per page, with literally hundreds and hundreds of choices, in no discernible order, and with nonsensical overlaps (there's "R&B" and then there's "r & b," for instance). There are standard genre names like indie, soul, jazz, and reggae and then an astounding assortment of less standard things like rain, bastard pop, fuck you, and bob. All told there are 77,000 (and counting) playlists to sort through.

I don't mean to bog down on details, but in the end, pundit pronouncements aside, these are the details that comprise a user's experience. And the details are preposterous. is the future of nothing. No doubt it's a brilliantly busy place but the web is filled with brilliantly busy places; the internet is heaven for splinter groups. This doesn't make any one of them worthy of widespread attention, never mind a "killer app."

And, the larger point: the idea that the future of music hinges upon masses of people sharing playlists online is absurd. Yes, there are already apparently thousands upon thousands of people doing it on countless different sites, but numbers of users in this case are not only irrelevant but actively misleading in terms of the success and value of the overall concept.

I know that we are trained on the web to believe it's all about eyeballs or followers, that it's the sheer number of people doing something that makes it a winning concept. But this is an advertising-centric goal only. If the intent is to attract advertising, then yes, attracting many visitors is a logical aim.

Not so with the sharing of playlists. In this case, the more people who do it, the less helpful it is. There are already way too many playlists online to be useful, and if playlist advocates have their way, we've just gotten to the tip of the iceberg. Lord help the Good Ship Music when it plows straight into this one.

The situation is almost poignant, because in theory and aspiration, the playlist is a wonderful idea. I'm sure there are any number of delightful playlists buried among's 77,000, or on any of the other playlist-sharing sites that exist. Used properly, with restraint and constraints, playlists could be an invigorating part of a thriving music industry.

But it doesn't look like we're heading in that direction. And, as it turns out, having too many playlists online is only part of the problem.

I. The Rise of the Playlist

To be better prepared for the rest of the argument, let's rewind a bit.

Music has been online for more than a decade now and we are still trying to wrap our collective arms around how this impacts the ways we find, listen to, and absorb the songs that musicians continue to give birth to. (They just don't stop, these people. All those songs. I mean, honestly.)

So, okay, we all know the obvious things: how music, once digitized, became effortlessly reproduceable, and how that led to the ability to transport songs into physical and logistical contexts far beyond the old idea of putting a record on a record player and sitting down in one particular room to listen to it.

Forgetting for a moment the havoc this has played with the economics of the music industry, let's concentrate on the one underlying revolutionary circumstance here: no longer requiring a physical object to exist, songs no longer had to stay where the people who created and recorded them put them.

Thus piracy. Thus the iPod. Thus all the present-day dreams of "music in the cloud." A song does not need a physical object to exist. The very idea seems to excite and confuse people.

Apple was the first company to figure out what to do with this new reality in a significant way, and therefore the first company to get the physically-oriented record companies to play along. The iPod has been something of a success, yes?

Towards the goal of helping average consumers deal with these ghosts of songs, these songs unmoored from their physical contexts, someone somewhere along the way at Apple decided that the experience would include a new organizational and conceptual element: the playlist.

It seems obvious enough now but it was new with the first iPod: this idea that consumers were henceforth going to be actively deciding not only when to listen to any given song but in what context. The menu hierarchy on the iPod put "Playlists" at the top of the "Music" menu, above "Artists," "Albums," and "Songs." Apple's designers--due either to research or intuition or both--understood the ramifications of song-as-electronic-file and that people, now that they could, would inherently want to group songs together for all different sorts of reasons, and listen to them in these new and shifting contexts.

The iPod playlist was, of course, a direct descendent of the mixtape that avid music fans, in the cassette age, would make for themselves and their friends--a carefully selected and ordered group of songs, culled from a variety of albums, ideally to be listened to in one sitting.

But the playlist of the '00s left the mixtape of the '80s and '90s in the dust functionally speaking. Making a mixtape was actual work, occurring in real time and consuming physical space, and limited physical space at that--typically 60 or 90 minutes' worth of magnetic tape. You had to record songs before you could hear exactly how they sounded together, and you had to play them in their entireties to record them.

A playlist, on the other hand, is made with a few clicks and drags. It can be as long or as short as the maker wants it to be. And because shorter is harder--the narrowing down to cassette length for a mixtape was always tricky--playlists err on the long side.

The playlist as a result is a far more elastic concept than the mixtape, and making playlists a much more common activity than making mixtapes used to be. You don't need a lot of time, you don't need a lot of thought. You can dump all 203 Kinks songs you have into one playlist called "The Kinks." You can find a few dozen extra-quiet songs and put them, in no particular order (why bother? you'll shuffle it anyway) in a playlist called "Headache." These kind of things work fine for your own purposes.

But here's an interesting thing. Most individual iPod users understand the inherent quantitative limits of playlists. On one's own iPod, there comes a point of diminishing returns--so that even in our own private, relatively limited digital music universes, playlists stop being useful when there are too many of them. Playlists can't be effortlessly organized like albums (by artist; artists in alphabetical order), and when something can't be obviously organized, there exists a practical limit to how much of this something can exist before, basically, all hell breaks loose.

So imagine the kind of hell we're talking about when theoretically millions of people are throwing their playlists online in uncountable, unstoppable numbers.

II. What's Not to Like

And so, yes, a big part of the problem here in Playlist Nation is sheer volume, as already noted. But even if we could somehow manage the crazy numbers of them--who knows, maybe someone will figure out an effective filtering system--online playlist sharing still fails as a music listening experience.

The first reason relates to the playlist's origins in the iPod. By its nature, the iPod playlist is a casual, impromptu affair, often little more than a quick dumping together of songs for very personal reasons or, just as likely, for no particular reason at all.

And now, via online playlist sites, people are being encouraged to share these not always brilliant groupings of songs with the whole wide world. Unlike mixtapes of old, which were typically created with a specific purpose and usually for a specific person, playlists online are created with unnerving randomness and launched onto the internet at breakneck speed. (Note that on 8tracks, if you filter by most recently posted, the first eight playlists you see on the front page have all been posted within the last hour.)

Certainly there must be people out there creating thoughtful, well-designed playlists, but if so they are drowning in a flood of real-time frenzy. The briefest of visits to any playlist sharing site will be enough to familiarize you with the Stupid Playlist Tricks that predominate in that world. (The most common problem is the way-too-long playlist but that is hardly the only type of silliness on display.)

And then, as a sort of maladroit pièce de résistance, playlist sharing online takes widespread poor design and adds to it the bane of anonymity. Online playlists are presented by an endless array of screen names and avatars. It passes for social online but it's still anonymity. ("Nobody knows you're a dog," as the famous cartoon caption read.)

And anonymity defeats the point of sharing playlists. Think, again, of the mixtape's very reason for being: it was one individual's deliberate effort to put a limited number of songs together for one particular friend or, sometimes, a small group of friends. There was nothing anonymous here. This was human-to-human connection. In theory the main reason you wanted to listen to a friend's mixtape was exactly because of the friendship, because someone you liked and respected chose these particular songs for you to listen to. The music discovery was a by-product of the friendship, not the other way around.

What's more, a mixtape's very physicality was part of its essence. It was a three-dimensional object that sat on your desk or near your stereo or in your car, a reminder of your friend and the work that went into it. An online playlist is ever so much more ignorable, just something else to blip across your ever-changing screen, something else to glance at quickly and/or ignore and/or delete. Even if it comes from a friend, it's far easier to overlook, not deal with, never listen to.

And if instead it is just a list of songs from an anonymous stranger, where on earth is the inducement to pay attention through 30 or 40 or 60 or (way) more minutes of unfamiliar songs? When playlists are created by anonymous screen names on web sites accumulating dozens of new lists by the hour, there is no authentic connection, and little motivation to listen very carefully for very long, if at all.

III. Many to None

As it turns out, however, the lack of long-term motivation to listen to playlists may easily coexist with the continual motivation to create playlists. This is something that online playlist proselytizers and entrepreneurs either don't understand or to which they turn a willfully blind eye.

That was indeed something of a dirty secret of the mixtape era--the fact that they were all too often more fun to give than to receive. Coming up with the songs, crafting the order, nailing the segues, even writing the titles down just right, and then handing it over to a friend--for serious music fans, that's really where the fun was. Being at the receiving end? Often, somehow, less fun.

The dirty secret of the mixtape era becomes a flagrant lunacy in Playlist Nation, beginning with how this is always called "sharing" ("Share your playlists!") when this is actually not sharing in any proper sense of the word.

True sharing requires both sides to be partaking in what is being shared, requires a more or less equivalent desire to give on the part of the giver and to receive on the part of the receiver. Playlist "sharing" is unilateral sharing--a giving that is largely ignored or lost in the torrent of everything else that's ongoingly uploaded. Here, the giver gives and prays to the heavens above that someone, anyone, might want to receive.

Media theorists have long since noted how the internet has upended the traditional "one to many" broadcasting model with a "many to many" paradigm. I contend the academicians have overlooked the perhaps equally significant "many to none" paradigm.

And the more the "many," the likelier the "none" at the other end. Once put online, a playlist is merely some more lines of text and buttons in a continual tsunami wave of text and buttons. Spurred by boredom, random listeners may stumble upon random playlists. But this isn't connection. This isn't "social." It's web surfing. It's not much different than Chat Roulette. Next!

For all I know, most of the people who post playlists aren't even expecting any listeners. A playlist may be seen as nothing more or less than another mode of self-expression, like joining an offbeat Facebook group or choosing an avatar. And at that level there's nothing much wrong with it. (Or, maybe there is.) But in any case, playlist sharing cannot be considered a serious new way of encountering music, not if the vast numbers of playlists put online to be "shared" are rarely if ever heard by anyone but their creators.

IV. The Stunning Conclusion

The lack of substantive sharing when it comes to online playlists belies a selling point pushed by playlist-sharing sites and many music futurists alike--the underlying idea that music is an inherently social activity, that people naturally and incessantly want to share music with each other, that we are indeed perpetual music sharing machines, at long last enabled by web 2.0 technology.

I believe this view has no basis in fact or history. Yes, there is beyond doubt a percentage of music fans out there who are keen on active sharing--who constantly seek out new sources of music anywhere they can--but strong anecdotal evidence, not to mention the occasional research paper, suggests that this segment is an overwhelming minority.

The reason more people don't share music more often? It's all but heresy to suggest it, but what the heck, I promised a stunning conclusion: people don't share music more often because for most people, the connection to music is not primarily social at all but, rather, internal and personal.

This contradicts what the music futurists and social media mavens are telling us (24 hours a day), but I contend that most engaged music fans do not relentlessly look to their friends either for new music suggestions or to make suggestions to them. Some do, quite joyfully, but they are the vocal minority. And many who do enjoy sharing their musical discoveries with friends tend to have very specific friends with whom they do this. They are not parading with their music down the hallways of their lives on the off chance someone might connect.

Because at its core the music makes a personal connection in your own individual mind and heart and spirit. When you sense another who understands, you share. But this is not a "contagious" activity that spreads willy-nilly throughout one's (actual or virtual) friend base.

Age is a factor in this to be sure. It seems more natural to share music with friends when you're in your teens and 20s than later in life. You might do a bit more parading at that age. But even for those in their teens and 20s now, things will change later. The futurists forget this, time and again--the fact that people's behaviors evolve naturally with age, the fact that the future does not turn into what everyone does in their teens and 20s, and that the internet doesn't change that. People with plenty of time on their hands to make lots of playlists--and maybe even listen to other people's playlists--will find that time diminishing as they get older, work longer hours, have children, shift focus, etc.

And this may be the ultimate and entirely unremarkable reason why playlist sharing, however much of a side activity it may be for some people, has no significant mainstream future: because listening to playlists takes too much goddamned time. Never mind that there are too many to listen to; I'm talking about how any one given playlist itself represents a serious time commitment.

So much of what we do online has been streamlined, designed for speed, created for zippy convenience. But even in its digital form, released from the plodding cassette tape, a playlist maintains one crucial, analog-like reality: to experience it, one must listen to it end to end. Forgetting those nonsensical 200-song playlists for a moment, let's remember that even a modest 15-song playlist takes maybe an hour to listen to.

Playlists are time sucks because they're attention sucks too: if you're not listening relatively closely, it defeats the purpose of even listening at all. The underlying point is to discover new music, right? You just can't do that if you're not paying attention. And isn't that an endemic problem online? That no one is in fact paying attention to anything for very long? A playlist is really kind of an oddity, a dinosaur, a relic from the day when people actually had more than two or three minutes to devote to any one thing before moving on. (Next!) Maybe that's one of the reasons they're flooding online but making no impact. We'd love to think we had that kind of time. We'd love to think we could pay that kind of attention.

And yet. The fact that random, frenzied playlist sharing is an exercise in collective expressive futility should not, in the end, blind us to the beauty and power of a good playlist, which generates from the beauty and power of sharing music in a genuine social context rather than the often artificial "social" context of "community" web sites. "Many to none" is outlandish; one to one, or one to few, is another matter.

So that's where we can and should take the playlist idea moving forward. Forget publishing playlists so that "someone" may see them--this is an empty gesture that feeds the ego while missing the place where music matters: the soul. For the sharing to have meaning, it should start not from "what are my favorite songs that I need to tell the whole world about?" but from "What friend do I want to reach out to, with music?"

And here's your assignment: think of a good friend of yours, perhaps someone you haven't been able to connect with for a while. Make a playlist with this person in mind, and either send it to him or her via a link to one of the available playlist-making tools (I recommend using either or, or--a radical idea, I know--just burn the thing onto a CD and send it to him or her in the old-fashioned mail.

And if this seems like a little too much work all of a sudden, never mind even the playlist. Simply take one song you've recently discovered and really love, think of one particular friend who might also love it, and send it via the transmission method of choice (email, tweet, Facebook, etc.).

Don't let the music futurists brainwash you into thinking you're "supposed" to do this all the time, with all of your friends. This is not a grand, public gesture. This is not a "look at my great taste in music" bit of online territory-marking. This is, simply, true connection. We are not here for anything more, or anything less.

(This is a full re-post of the essay that was published on the main Fingertips site on Monday. The only difference is that this version lacks the footnotes of the original.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Free and legal MP3 from Annuals (exuberant, unusually structured, relentlessly attractive)

"Loxtep" - Annuals
     Fingertips veterans from Raleigh, Annuals have been featured three previous times over the past four years and somehow are still only in their early 20s. I promise at some point to stop pointing out how young they are. But geez, just listen to the conviction with which they render their exuberant, unusually structured, complex yet relentlessly attractive 21st-century rock'n'roll. I need to keep noting their relative youth because otherwise you'd never know.
     "Loxtep" is another shot of Annuals adrenaline, and if it again features a characteristic shift in dynamics, note how this pliable sextet continues to explore different ways to affect that shift. This time, it's not a straightforward matter of going from soft to loud, or slow to fast; instead, when the band crosses the dynamic borderline, at 1:08 (and can't you sense it coming, as it gets closer?), the tempo does not increase, and while the volume does to an extent, the song isn't as much louder after the change as deeper, and more intense. Basically, the rhythm section has kicked in, both drum and bass adding bottom to the mix that wasn't there before (the most significant percussion we heard in the first minute was, charmingly enough, castanets). But at the same time, strange stuff is happening, such as that funky-sounding synth joining in (1:21) apparently for the fun of it.
     I won't begin to try to untangle further "Loxtep"'s structure--which features among other things a series of musical reconfigurations of previously heard motifs--except to point out how, at around 3:05, the song manages to turn something that wasn't the chorus (namely, the lyrical phrase beginning with "lying around") into a sort of second, de facto chorus. Here's a band that is truly reimagining what a pop song can be even as you can still sing and dance along. "Loxtep" is from Sweet Sister, a five-song EP the band will release next month on Banter Records. MP3 via Banter.