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.