Friday, January 29, 2010

Fingertips Flashback: Le Reno Amps

Okay, the second installment of the Fingertips Flashback returns us to the year 2005 and a song that I thought never got the attention it so richly deserved. Fortunately, Le Reno Amps still seem to be active, and this song is still available online.

[from "This Week's Finds," Oct. 9-15, 2005]

"Once You Know" - Le Reno Amps

Scotland's answer to They Might Be Giants, Le Reno Amps are two guys (Scott and Al) from Aberdeen with an idiosyncratic sense of song, playful ideas about making lo-fi production come to life, and an enviable knack for melody. The modus operandi is stripped-down, always geared around their two voices and two guitars. But there's goofiness in the air too, lending an ineffable magic to the aural landscape. "Once You Know" sounds like it was recorded in a gym, with bouncing balls and/or stamping feet ingeniously employed as the rhythm section for this sharp and sprightly down-home ditty. The song gets off to a great start based on melody alone; when the "percussion" kicks in with the second verse, ably accented by some hardy background "hey!"s, the song is unstoppable. The fully-whistled verse that starts at 1:14 appears at that point both a crazy surprise and utterly inevitable. "Once You Know" is from Le Reno Amps' archly-titled debut CD LP, released under their own (ha-ha) Vanity Project imprint last year. The MP3 is up on the band's site. A second CD is apparently in the works for these guys, due out some time in 2006.

ADDENDUM: "We try to write with all the fat cut out so you can savour their buttery goodness," says Scott Maple, who founded the band with Al Nero. Hard not to like that. Turns out the band's second album did not emerge until 2007, but the good news is these guys still exist, and put their third album out just last year. The band's name, mysterious as it sounds, is simply a pluralized anagram of the names Maple and Nero.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Fingertips Top 10 update

The Fingertips Top 10, over on the main site, is always a good way to catch up with some of the best songs that have been posted here over the last few months. I haven't blogged about it since October, and it's yet again turned over since then. Here's where it stands now:

1. "Johanna" - Think About Life
2. "Hotel Lights"- Amy Cook
3. "Numbers Don't Lie"- The Mynabirds
4. "The River" - Audra Mae
5. "Good Boys" - the Minor Leagues
6. "Castaways" - Shearwater
7. "Vendela Vida" - Dinosaur Feathers
8. "Floating Vibes" - Surfer Blood
9. "Get Going" - Headlights
10. "Empty-Hall Sing-Along" - Woodpigeon

Like everything else on Fingertips, the Top 10 is idiosyncratic and synchronicitous. No research is involved, no polling performed, no focus groups consulted, and no "people who like this also like..." recommendations heeded. The list exists merely to say "Well done" to ten particularly wonderful songs at any given time. Remember, however, that Fingertips only features carefully filtered music to begin with, so you can't go wrong with any of the MP3s featured here, basically ever.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Free and legal MP3 from The Fine Arts Showcase (gracefully melodic Swedish pop, w/ crooning and clapping)

"London, My Town" - The Fine Arts Showcase
     The hand claps you hear at the outset of "London, My Town" aren't just an intermittent percussive accent or atmospheric frill; they're here for the duration of the song, soon acquiring a riveting sort of desperation about them. Hand claps are usually smile-inducing but these ones, not so much; whether organic or artificial, they have the sound of palms being driven together with an almost violent tenacity. That they do so underneath a most graceful melody adds to their disconcerting vigor. Neither for that matter does front man Gustaf Kjellvander, with his crooner's baritone, have the kind of voice you expect to hear happy-claps behind.
     And so check out how the song's second section arrives, at 0:35, and immediately something feels like a clearing or a release. Yup: it's because the hand claps have stopped for the moment. "And I've given up on truth," Kjellvander sings at this point, accompanied by a pensive slide guitar line. "'Cause I'm running out of youth." Aren't we all. And then the unyielding hand claps return. The song has something to do with Kjellvander's moving back to Malmö from London after his relationship (the "Hanna" mentioned at the song's abrupt end) has broken up; the entire album, Dolophine Smile, in fact, offers an unsparing look at the crumbling relationship. Set to graceful melodies.
     The album, the Swedish quartet's fifth, was released back in April 2009 on Malmö-based Adrian Recordings. "London, My Town" has just been made available as a free and legal MP3 via Adrian, in advance of the Fine Arts Showcase's imminent German tour.

Free and legal MP3 from High Places (beat-driven, but short and engaging)

"On Giving Up" - High Places
     While beat-oriented songs usually puzzle me (okay: bore me) more than engage me, "On Giving Up" offers some extra hand-holds of interest and allure that make it more, to my ears, than just another manipulated groove of a song.
     Let's start with the beat itself, in which a blend of distinct sounds become difficult to pry apart aurally, and create, together, something larger than themselves. You can hear it at the very beginning: there's the deeper, thumpier part; there's something of an electronic tom-tom sound closely aligned with the thumpier sound (but note how the tom misses the third beat, playing only 1-2-x-4, which helps give the song its late-night swing); and then there's this distinct, higher-pitched sound, almost like an electronic wooden drum, delivering, off the beat, what feels like the song's central rhythm. And, phew, look: all these words to describe something happening nearly below conscious awareness and before the song even really starts. Maybe that's why I usually steer clear of this stuff.
     So anyway then comes that reverberant synth melody (0:09) and slinky bass line (0:17) and, lastly, Mary Pearson's floaty, echoey, Beth Gibbons-y voice, equal parts burn and withdrawal. Partly I suspect this needs to be heard at ear-vibrating volume on a foggy and mysteriously lit dance floor while surrounded by blissed-out, slightly sweaty strangers. If you get there let me know how it is. "On Giving Up" is from this Brooklyn-based duo's second album, High Places vs. Mankind, set for release in early April on Thrill Jockey Records. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3 from the Mynabirds (splendid neo-retro-gospel-pop; yup, I'm coining that)

"Numbers Don't Lie" - the Mynabirds
     A simple stuttering stomp of a keyboard vamp lies at the center of this nifty piece of neo-retro-gospel-pop (or some such thing; hey, I make this up as I go). While there are clearly a lot of nods to bygone times in the aural landscape of "Numbers Don't Lie," what charms me the most is the subtle but sure sense of currency that likewise defines this song. It is a song that belongs here in 2010 (numbers don't lie, after all), and I think what gives me that impression has to do with clarity of presentation. From the plainly articulated keyboard notes to Laura Burhenn's double-tracked vocals to the instantly enticing melody (note the hook-y chord change comes right in the second measure), all the pieces of the song ring with presence, with a "thereness" that separates a song that transcends its influences from a song that is smothered by them. (And, okay, those telephone-button blips in the bridge are a fun present-day touch too.)
     Another point of clarity involves the song's use of reverb, which is effective in its restraint. While the choral-like backing vocals get a reverb rinse, and the rhythm section also maybe a dose of it, Burhenn keeps her lead vocals clean. It makes an understated but incisive difference in the overall sound, and even though reverb is popular in present-day indie rock, this song's judicious use of it makes it seem more real, more its own new thing as a result.
     Laura Burhenn is known to some as half of the D.C. duo Georgie James, which played together for three years and released one album on Saddle Creek Records before breaking up in 2008. "Numbers Don't Lie" is the first song made available from What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood, her first release as the Mynabirds, slated for an April release on Saddle Creek. Burhenn by the way named her project after the Mynah Birds, a Canadian R&B band in the '60s that signed to Motown but never released any albums and at one point, impossibly enough, featured both Neil Young and Rick James in its lineup. MP3 via Saddle Creek.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dipping into the archives (introducing a new feature, w/ one free & legal MP3)

Fingertips has been reviewing free and legal MP3s since mid-2003, which first of all means yikes, that's a lot of songs by now. And second of all this means no way anyone following this site in 2010 has read all the reviews and listened to all the songs lo these many years.

Some of them, by now, and alas, are gone with the digital wind, free and legal no more. The older they are, the more likely is this to be true. But a good many of them are still available, against all odds, and what I plan to do once a week is revisit an old post, complete with the link to the still-existing free and legal MP3. Let's say we call it the Fingertips Flashback. Or Flashback Friday, as I'm planning on doing this every Friday, pretty much. Could be Fingertips Flashback Friday for that matter. Or we don't have to call it anything at all, as the names are sounding goofy. But it is going to need a name. I'll work on it.

This will be a feature-in-progress but the idea is to present the original review and the link, and then maybe follow it up with a few words looking back at the past through the lens of the present, because we are all older and wiser now and have so much more interesting things to say than we used to say. In theory. Here we go, the first Fingertips Flashback:

[from "This Week's Finds," week of May 8-14, 2005]

"Glorious" - A. Graham and the Moment Band
There are certain sorts of on-and-off-pitch voices that are so immediately friendly and unassuming that they welcome you in like an old friend handing you a beer. Andy Graham has one of those voices. Then again, this entire song is kind of like an old friend handing you a beer, most of all the loose-limbed, sing-along chorus, featuring four of the English language's finest words--"Glorious/ Triumphant/ Optimistic/ Transcendent"-- woven together with spot-on pedal steel accents. Like Doris Henson, A. Graham and the Moment Band are another endearing, worthy band from Kansas City, Kansas. "Glorious" is the lead track on the band's 2004 CD This Tyrant is Free, released on Sonic Unyon Records. The MP3 is available via, one of the better (if also unassuming) local/regional music resources on the web.

ADDENDUM: Well, even Google can't seem to inform me of the fate of this crazy little band from the heartland. Nothing, apparently, has been recorded since their 2004 release. In its listing on, the band claims to be "alive and kicking" but there are no signs of it I can see. The song remains as friendly and approachable as ever. I don't always feel those four words but this song reminds me it's never out of the question.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Free and legal MP3 from Regrets & Brunettes (terrific sustained mood, both brisk & world-weary)

"Tough Love" - Regrets & Brunettes
     "Tough Love" does so much so effortlessly in its first 15 seconds that a casual listener may not hear much more than an intriguing mood. But check it out: first the brisk minor key guitar strum, at once mellow and urgent; then the slightly dissonant second guitar line (harsher and crunchier but also somewhat distant); then--out of left field but instantly perfect--the wistful, Bacharachesque horn motif (and that could be a keyboard sounding like a horn, but no matter). It's an extraordinarily compact introduction; Richard Bivens begins singing, with the compellingly blasé tone of any number of great rock'n'roll singers--at 0:16. Better believe I'm listening.
     The opening's terrific atmosphere sustains. This is one of those unusual pop songs in which the chorus is less catchy than the other elements, and truly this seems part of the plan--as Bivens repeats "I can't shake it," I can just about feel the physical gesture suggested and it's not supposed to be entirely pleasant. Everything works together here; in fact, I'm half convinced one reason the music withdraws a bit in the chorus is to give us a chance to ponder the curious lyric Bivens left us hanging with: "You used to take off your clothes/You used to curl up your toes with me."
     "Tough Love" is as song off the L.A.-based band's debut album, At Night You Love Me, which was self-released last month.

Free and legal MP3 from Lay Low (twangy toe-tapper w/ Icelandic charm)

"By and By" - Lay Low
     Doing musical business as Lay Low, Icelandic singer/songwriter Lovísa Elísabet Sigrúnardóttir combines a genuine feel for--of all things--classic country and western with the ability, consistently shared by musicians in her home country, to tap into something marvelous and otherworldly.
     On the surface, yes, the song is an upbeat, twangy little thing, but me, I am for some reason paying extra attention to how Lovísa meanders away from the regimen of the sprightly beat that appears at first to define the song. In the verses, only the first two words of each line are firmly on the beat; by the end of the verse, she willfully ignores the momentum of the song, her voice all but purring with an unusual blend of intimacy and puckishness. The chorus, meanwhile, sounds like a return to alignment (0:59) but for the life of me even when the melody appears to be in lockstep with the beat I swear she sounds like she's laying off ever so slightly. And then soon enough (1:04) she lets it go entirely. Listen to how she manages the transition between the words "before" and "I"; I cannot describe it. And behind her it's all just perky country playing, as if nothing is awry, as if it's maybe just a big guy in a cowboy hat who's on stage and we're group-imagining this (marvelous, otherworldly) Nordic visitation.
     "By and By" will be found on Lay Low's second album, Farewell Good Night's Sleep, due out in March on Lovísa's own Loo label.

Free and legal MP3 from Matt Pond PA (another stellar effort from indie-pop stalwart)

"Starting" - Matt Pond PA [not a direct link]
     All these years and personnel changes later and Matt Pond PA, founded in 1998, still holds it own on the strength of its front man's voices--both his singing voice and his writing voice, that is, each of which is indelible.
      Vocally, Pond trades on a pensive graininess of tone and an elusive range that gives him the sound of neither--or both--a baritone and a tenor. Once you've heard his singing voice it is thereafter unmistakable, which is a splendid, if probably random, characteristic. And yet his true strength is the means by which he gives himself something to sing: the staunch, well-crafted songs that he writes, full of concrete words to draw us in (dead bolts, gasoline, hips, knees), parallel structures (i.e. lyrical lines that share a certain construction) to display offhand authority, inaudible lyrics to make us listen harder next time, and bright turns of melody that in fact make us want to listen any number of other times. I especially like how, in a largely inscrutable song, he manages to slip in a conclusion as pithy and suasive as: "Make no mistake/There's no love/When the words are gone."
     Matt Pond PA was one of the first bands whose sound and depth impressed me as Fingertips was first getting going back in the '03-'04 time frame, and indeed became one of the first 21st-century indie bands to hit some semblance of the big time via exposure on broadcast TV soundtracks. But the '00s showed us that there is indeed a fine line between up-and-coming and down-and-going. I feel sorry for quality bands stuck navigating their careers through a fickle and fragmented culture that hews to a shallow and imaginary view of good and bad, but I am happy that Matt Pond and company persevere. "Starting" will appear on the album The Dark Leaves, the band's eighth full-length, slated for an April release on Altitude Records. MP3 via Paste Magazine. Note that this is not a direct link; click on the song title here and you will be taken to a page from which you can then download the song.

Friday, January 15, 2010

New contest: win July Flame, from Laura Veirs

Win the new Laura Veirs album, July Flame, at the contests page on the main Fingertips site. While there you can also watch a short, homey documentary on the making of the album. July Flame is Veirs' seventh release; it was produced by Tucker Martine, who has worked with the Decemberists and Sufjan Stevens, among others. "Wide-Eyed, Legless," from the album, was featured here in December.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Free and legal MP3 from Woodpigeon (spacey strummer becomes western hoedown, w/ lots of voices)

"Empty-Hall Sing-Along" - Woodpigeon
     A multifaceted musical adventure awaits you here. What begins as a sort of spacey, choral Fleetwood Mac-ish strummer takes a left turn at 1:37 and reinvents itself as a western hoedown a la Poco or Pure Prairie League (reference for those of a certain age). Front man Mark Hamilton clearly likes to surround himself with musicians--Woodpigeon is a shape-shifting ensemble featuring eight semi-regulars and a dozen and a half potential guests--but here their presence is as much vocal as instrumental. If you listen carefully, you'll discern more than the usual number of guitar and percussion sounds, yes, but what ultimately dominates the song are an unexpectedly large chorus of voices. Five of the central eight are listed as singers and while there's no telling who exactly is singing what, what I'm liking a lot is the vibe of a group of singers singing together, which creates an entirely different feel than multi-tracked harmonies. This is a "sing-along," after all.
     Woodpigeon is based in Calgary and issued its debut album in 2006. I don't think I can stop myself from telling you that Hamilton called his first band Woodpigeon Divided By Antelope Equals Squirrel. That was while he was living in Scotland and it didn't apparently amount to much. "Empty-Hall Sing-Along" comes from Die Stadt Musikanten, Woodpigeon's third album, released this week in Canada on Boompa Records; the American release will be in March. MP3 via Boompa.

Free and legal MP3 from White Hinterland (mysterious-sounding, beat-driven electro-pop)

"Icarus" - White Hinterland
     Arriving on the indie scene in 2006 as a precocious, Nellie McKay-ish singer/songwriter/pianist, Casey Dienel has since taken on a band name (White Hinterland), a band mate (Shawn Creeden), and a new musical setting. I for one am happy to hear it, as I believe the world can use propulsive, mysterious-sounding, beat-driven but melodic electro-pop a bit more than it needs a second Nellie McKay.
     Underscored by swooshing wind-like white noise, "Icarus" has a slinky sound that gains traction via the interplay between Dienel's airy, plaintive singing style and the clattering rhythm sticks that are placed front and center in the mix. They are unavoidable there, and are thus transformed from percussive accent into full-fledged musical statement, particularly when Dienel sings the wordless refrain of "oo-oo-oohs" that functions as a chorus-like link between verses. Check out how the clacking rhythm stutters and syncopates along the way, just enough to keep your head in the game, to keep the song from fading into over-smoothness. Time passes much more quickly because the ears aren't being lulled to sleep; every time I get to the end--at 3:47, the song is not notably short--I feel a little startled.
     Born and raised in the Boston area, Dienel studied classical voice and composition at the New England Conservatory of Music before leaving to have a go as a pop musician. She is now located in Portland, Oregon. "Icarus" will be found on White Hinterland's second album, Kairos, which is due out in March on Dead Oceans. MP3 via Dead Oceans.

Free and legal MP3 from Sangre Degrado (sleeper w/ something of an early '70s vibe, but not exactly)

"Pearl and Oyster" - Sangre Degrado
     "Pearl and Oyster" has the casual aplomb of some forgotten nugget of early '70s rock goodness. And it's not so much that this California trio sounds precisely like this or that long-ago band as much as that they don't especially sound like anything I'm hearing out of my trusty desktop speakers these days. Lead singer and guitarist Dan Chejoka has a chesty baritone with an elastic range, not to mention an engaging falsetto; behind him, his twin brother Nart, on drums, and their good friend Greg Johnson, on everything else, romp with determination and spirit through this sleeper of a song that has gotten about zero attention to date from the fickle and trend-obsessed blogosphere.
     And pretty much everything you need to know about this one you can hear even before Chejoka opens his mouth, in the brisk and yearning introduction with its rubbery, soaring guitar line. That's the sound of people not just looking to fill up space before the lyrics start, it's the sound of a band with a story to tell that transcends words (which is what good music, even if it has words, should ideally do). The easy way the song unfolds from there--the elaborate melodies in both chorus and verse and the effective instrumental building blocks in between--is both delightful and matter of fact. Listen in particular to how the dramatic, falsetto-charged chorus builds to an emotional--but, interestingly, not a musical--resolution. I don't think that's easy to do.
     "Pearl and Oyster" is from a debut album with a great title, The Nerve of That Ending, which the band self-released in October. MP3 via the band's site, where the entire album is in fact available for free.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Free and legal MP3 from Paper Route (majestic, wistful, full-bodied rock w/ electronic fuzz)

"Thank God The Year Is Finally Over" - Paper Route
     A bracing blend of majesty and wistfulness, from its direct and poignant title straight through to an unexpected appearance by a harmonica in the outro. (The harmonica is surely one of music's most wistful instruments.) There's enough fuzz and noise along the way for shoegaze fans to appreciate but not enough to overwhelm the song's simple but effective melody (note how the long descending line of the chorus sounds nicely late-December-ish), not to mention the octave harmonies in the vocals. (I love me my octave harmonies--that is, when the harmony vocal is the same note but one octave higher or lower.)
     This band surely aims for a big-hearted sound, and yet more than ever, it seems, there's a fine line between a band with big heart and a band with a shallow heart. Somehow. The fact that these guys are touring with the curiously popular Owl City doesn't help the "big heart" case but listening with my ears (a good practice), I find something splendid in this smartly-paced piece of expansive, electronic-tinged rock. And that harmonica surprises every time.
     Paper Route is a quartet from Nashville; their debut full-length CD, Absence, was released on Universal Records in April 2009. "Thank God The Year Is Finally Over" is from a free Christmas EP the band released in December. MP3 via Spinner. (The entire EP is available as a zip file here.)

Free and legal MP3 from Dinosaur Feathers (ramshackle, pseudo-Latin indie pop)

"Vendela Vida" - Dinosaur Feathers
     Ramshackle, pseudo-Latin indie pop that may engage your ear and spirit in a way that Vampire Weekend didn't manage to (if, that is, you happen to be among those whose ears and/or spirits were not, in fact, engaged thereby; I know some of you are out there). The music by this Brooklyn-based trio has an amiable, second-nature feel to it, while singer/guitarist Greg Sullo possesses a marvelous rock'n'roll tenor, at once lazy and insistent. He sounds like a guy who doesn't sweat the details and yet for whom the details seem to work out pretty well most of the time.
     Vendela Vida--and isn't her name fabulously easy to say?--is a writer, and wife of the perhaps more well-known writer Dave Eggers. Not sure how the song relates--Sullo does manage to rhyme "Vida" and "read her"--but she was born to be a lyric, among her other accomplishments. You'll find the song on the band's debut album, Fantasy Memorial, which is scheduled for self-release in March. MP3 via Magnet. Oh and as another sign of these guys' musical aptitude, check out the cool mixtape they made in conjunction with an interview on the Music is Art blog last summer, which connects the Kinks to Harry Belafonte to NWA to Genesis and more.

Free and legal MP3 from Amy Cook (exquisite song from Austin-based singer/songwriter)

"Hotel Lights" - Amy Cook
     And here's a real new year's treat--a song as good as anything you're likely to hear over the coming 12 months. On the one hand, it's a quiet bit of singer/songwriter fare; on the other hand, oh my, what an exquisite tune. Cook plays an electric guitar here--the old-fashioned kind, with f-holes--not an acoustic one, and its rich, rounded tones lend an immediate depth to the song, and nicely complements her ever-so-slightly-dusky voice.
     But it's sheer songwriting prowess that makes this one shine. Cook, based in Austin, works wonders in particular with asymmetricality. Listen, first of all, to the melody line at the beginning of the verse (0:12), and how those three words ("All the girls") are set apart, separated by a measure and a half from the rest of the line, which then streams out without a break through the lyric's end. There's great power in that quiet lack of regularity, and Cook uses it again, in a different way, at the opposite end of the structure. After the first two lines of the chorus, in which her words emerge in two-syllable clusters at the beginning of each measure, she proceeds to extend the second line four extra measures, partially mirroring the two-syllable clustering but now filling in the empty spaces with an uneven but luscious melody. Much more delightful to listen to than to read about.
     "Hotel Lights" is from Cook's album Let The Light In, produced by Alejandro Escovedo and slated for an early March release. This appears to be her third album but details are sketchy. Thanks to Bruce at Some Velvet Blog for the head's up.