Free and legal MP3: Ruby Gilbert

Authoritative (Australian) Americana, with trumpet

“No Vacancy” – Ruby Gilbert

With an authoritative Americana brio reminiscent of early Neko Case, Ruby Gilbert is the real deal, her depth of voice matched by a knack for composition and presentation. From its opening acoustic strum–minor-key and assertive–“No Vacancy” feels at once sturdy and adventurous, with its casually resourceful chord changes and, yes, that trumpet. About which more in a moment.

Gilbert begins a story of frustrated romance with an incisive opening couplet: “My baby’s only got eyes for me/But he’s got his sights set on leaving.” The underlying premise here seems to be that all romances, however brilliant at first, will come to an end; the song’s narrator seems oppressed by this hard-won knowledge (“I don’t get no rest,” she sings, “I hear it in my head, tick and tock”).

The ache of being left alone is mirrored in the song’s musical landscape, which aligns with that particularly appealing strain of Americana music that I hear as “lonesome.” I’m not sure precisely what may generally create this impression–something in the spaciousness of the mix, I’m guessing, and/or some well-placed slide guitar lines; reverbed vocals help–but “No Vacancy” ups the ante with artful flourishes from an echoey trumpet, courtesy of Eamon Dilworth. I wouldn’t have realized this in advance but damn if that trumpet doesn’t (somehow) sound like the epitome of “lonesome Western sound.”

Ruby Gilbert is a singer/songwriter from Brisbane with a handful of recordings to date and, I hope, a bright future ahead. “No Vacancy” was released in March. She has an earlier single, “Slave,” from this past October, and a four-song EP, entitled Dearly Beloved, that came out in June 2018. You can hear everything, and buy everything at a price of your choosing, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Havana Swim Club

Well-crafted, sample-forward tropicalia

“Lagoon” – Havana Swim Club

Speaking of trumpets (see previous post), here we have that trusty brass contraption contributing to an entirely different aural universe. The trumpets on display here evoke the tones heard in Latin horn charts, while tracing a languid melody, against a swaying beat, that sounds like shade on a sunny beach day.

This is music as constructed collage; Havana Swim Club mastermind Dan Koch utilizes samples from vintage and/or global vinyl to create what he labels “nostalgic instrumental dream pop.” However digitally manipulated it is, “Lagoon” flows with a well-constructed sense of purpose and a gratifying feeling of space. One of the savvy things Koch does is reveal the song’s principal melody only once near the beginning (0:34-0:54) and once near the end (3:04-3:27). The rest of the song functions as variations to the main theme: there’s the theatrical introduction, itself a riff on the second half of the primary melody; there are dream-like snippets of the main motif, offered in minimalist segments; there indecipherable voices, shimmering sound effects, and subtle countermelodies and electronic flourishes, all nodding in the direction of the primary theme without delivering it. In the song’s second half we are teased by the return of the introduction (2:00), but the central melody remains withheld until just past the three-minute mark. At this point, the returning trumpet solo sounds luxurious and triumphant, and yet doesn’t overstay its welcome–one simple pass through the melody and the song shuts itself right down.

The evocatively-named Havana Swim Club is, as noted, the project of the Seattle-based Koch, who is a founding member of the indie rock band Sherwood. “Lagoon” is a track from the debut self-titled Havana Swim Club album, which was released last week. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy a digital copy, via Bandcamp. MP3 via the artist.

Free and legal MP3: Bachelor

Exhilarating ’90s rock update

“Stay in the Car” – Bachelor

A concise, exhilarating update of Breeders-like ’90s rock, “Stay in the Car” revs up with no intro; two chunky guitar strokes and we’re right in it. At which point three compelling things happen simultaneously: idiosyncratic lyrics about a fascinating woman watched from afar; irresistible same-note-harmony vocals from Bachelor’s two bandmates, Ellen Kempner and Melina Duterte; and a sinuous, descending verse melody that feels at once inevitable and surprising.

While the first verse rocks with a spare thumpiness, unleashed guitars provide a drony wall of sound for the chorus, and then continue to make their clamorous presence known in the second verse (but only, it should be noted, after a 12-second bass solo). I especially love the atonal stabs we hear at, say, 1:00 and 1:16. And yet: the third verse gets an acoustic guitar accompaniment, and it too sounds exactly right.

Most of all this song shows how a smart and effective song can be built on the foundation of not very much. In real life one day, Kempner saw an eye-catching woman, dressed in red, with wild hair, emerging from a car in a parking lot, yelling back to the man behind the wheel to find out what he wanted in the store: this became the song. And then, via rock’n’roll’s mysterious alchemy, a potentially mundane and impersonal encounter turns deep and indelible. “She said, ‘Stay in the car and I’ll grab what you want”: the lyric becomes the chorus–becomes, repeated, with that protracted “Ohhhh,” slyly majestic, a thing you can imagine transforming into some sort of cultural touchstone. And not that it will, but that it feels in the moment of listening exactly that powerful. In any case, “Stay in the Car” seems to get better and better the more I listen to it.

Kempner and Duterte were each previously known as separate artists with their own projects, Kempner at the front of the band Palehound, Duterte performing as Jay Som. You’ll find “Stay in the Car” on Bachelor’s debut album, Doomin’ Sun, which was released at the end of May on Polyvinyl Records. Listen to it over on Bandcamp, where you can also buy it as a vinyl record, a CD, a cassette, or the digital album. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Walk in Wardrobe

Sweet & ambling earworm

“Apology” – Walk in Wardrobe

Sweet and ambling, with a melancholy undertone, “Apology” is a simple, triplet-based tune, without a set chorus, that grows in stature and impact as it unfolds. Things feel at once thoughtfully put together and completely relaxed, which often makes for an endearing musical cocktail.

While not elaborately recorded, the song has a nice share of small but gratifying touches. It starts with some nice acoustic finger-picking, but rather than stay in that lane, there is, soon, a double hit of percussion–a steady tom-tom starting at 0:10 and then, just as the singing starts, perfectly timed finger-snaps. Whether organic or digital, the snaps add a pleasing touch to the rhythm section, working nicely into the fabric of the sound without drawing too much attention. And at this still-early point in the song it might be starting to occur to you what a potent voice singer Atticus Flynn has—gentle but substantive, with an ever-so-slightly roughed-up tone that lends dynamic authority to lyrics that he doesn’t always render intelligible. Note that this is not a criticism!: that the words, when they are decipherable, can sometimes hit the ear as a bit clunky becomes less relevant in the face of Flynn’s potent delivery. Then again, an occasional line pops as compelling, such as “I wouldn’t put a ripple in his sea,” which is a potent way to express that thought.

Another notable ingredient: the extra chords we get in the lead-in to the second verse (1:08-1:21); that there seems something purposeful about this is corroborated the next time the song arrives at that point, as this is when the violin joins in (2:17) and embarks on an extended solo. All in all this is a singular creation, worth spending a bit of time with, although I’ll warn you it becomes quite the earworm with a small amount of exposure.

Walk in Wardrobe is the project of Australian musician Frankie Haubrich, currently based in Vancouver. He wrote the song and plays all the instruments, with Flynn handling the vocals for this first recording. “Apology” was released in April. MP3 via the artist.

Free and legal MP3: Trapper Schoepp

Casually anthemic

“May Day” – Trapper Schoepp

“May Day” is a terrific example of how the familiar can take a turn towards the powerful. Notice at the outset how Schoepp doesn’t belabor the introduction–a canny move when you’re operating in familiar territory: as listeners, we hear the two-measure riff repeated once, and we’re good, let’s move right into it. The same thing happens with the one-note verse melody, which fades as we get into the fourth measure–the ear grasps the effect and at that point Schoepp’s decision to expand the melody beyond the one note registers as an effective surprise.

Then, the chorus: why does something this simple work so well? There are three subtle elements I can point to. First, there’s the way that the melody here slows down, with key words drawn out over multiple beats. This presents an engaging contrast to the march-like regularity of the verse. Second, there’s no denying the power of unadulterated melodic resolution: this chorus ends precisely as your ear wants and needs it to end. Lastly, Schoepp begins the chorus on a high E and ends one octave below–a broad melodic range to cover in a simple rock song. This is nothing that you actually have to know, and it’s not at all showy, but I’m convinced the breadth of the melody contributes to its potency; anthemic rock songs tend to have more concise melody lines (think Tom Petty as a classic example). All this is delivered with Schoepp’s scuffed-up tenor, which lends a down-home appeal that brings to mind Steve Forbert, for another old-school reference point.

Raised in Wisconsin and based in Milwaukee, Schoepp has been releasing music since he was a teenager in the late ’00s. “May Day” is the title track to his new album, which will be released later this month. The single is up on Bandcamp as well; you’ll find the album there too upon release.

Free and legal MP3: Allen LeRoy Hug

Charming, distinctive acoustic duo

“Saturnine Boy” – Allen LeRoy Hug

Sturdy and delicate at the same time, “Saturnine Boy” is a brief, distinctive song from the one-year-old LA-based duo of Tennessee Kamanski and Sarah De La Isla, doing musical business as Allen LeRoy Hug. They self-identify as a mixture of “Big Star, The Everly Brothers, Cocteau Twins, Fionn Regan and Kate Bush,” and I don’t know about you but that grabs my attention forthwith.

And I am in fact delighted by this song while being mysteriously unable to delineate any concrete reason. The duo’s voices vibrate charmingly together; acoustic guitars gambol lightly along an idiosyncratic path; the chorus is a particular enigma, comprised of one laconic lyric (“Saturnine boy things haven’t gone right”) set to an upwardly unfolding melody marked by idiosyncratic intervals. The song is sung by a narrator who appears to have fallen for someone who may not be all that outwardly lovable (“saturnine” = “gloomy and sluggish”) but has still captured her heart. I say “appears” because the lyrics are elusive and/or allusive, in quite a pleasurable way; I mean, what else can you do with a line like “Your eyes heavy luggage I carry” but love it to pieces, especially for Kamanski’s appealing phrasing (listen to how she manages nearly to rhyme “carry” with “heavy” in a most winsome way).

Allen LeRoy Hug have released just two singles to date. You can listen to both of them, and purchase them, over there at good old Bandcamp. This is apparently just the beginning: Kamanski tells me that she and De La Isla wrote and recorded “a ton of songs” throughout the lockdown, which they will be releasing as singles over the coming months. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Perry Serpa

Incisive cover of a ’70s nugget

“Alone Again (Naturally)” – Perry Serpa

A song about losing both parents and contemplating suicide is not standard top-40 material but Gilbert O’Sullivan fashioned a catchy ditty of it back in 1972; the song was later declared the fifth most popular song of the ’70s, according to none other than Casey Kasem. Those were the days(?).

Fifty years after the song was originally recorded, NYC-based singer/songwriter Perry Serpa has pulled it out of the oldies stack, to terrific effect. While not making any flagrant changes, Serpa manages to excavate the mature heart of a song initially a bit too jaunty for its own good. He’s slowed it down slightly for one, ditched the vampy piano and sunny acoustic guitar fills for another, and, crucially, reduced the sappy swelling of strings to the sound of individually articulated violin lines. But maybe the most impactful change is the shift in vocals: O’Sullivan sang with a bright, poppy tone that fought with the content; plain-dealing and world-weary, Serpa dives into the song’s poignancy by staying ever-so-slightly above it. Where O’Sullivan gave pep the aura of hopeless defeat, Serpa delivers melancholy with an undercurrent of tenacity. At the risk of offending originalists, I like this version quite a bit better than the well-known one.

Serpa’s incisive cover is one of ten tracks on his new album, Laying Low in the Highlands, scheduled for release next week. Serpa was last featured on Fingertips in 2018, with a track from that album of his that created the fictional classic album Nick Hornby wrote about in his novel Juilet, Naked. (If you never heard it, and/or never heard about this project, go back and check it out. It’s well-done and worthwhile.) With his band, The Sharp Things, Serpa has also been here in 2013 and 2014. Thanks to Serpa for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: The Deathray Davies

Reanimated indie rock

“Oh Stars” – The Deathray Davies

“Oh Stars” launches with an understated old-school backbeat, revolving around one insistent chord that recurs with “ta-da!”-like charm; the music sounds like the feeling of something marvelous about to happen. And in a subtle way it does; “Oh Stars” may not at first knock your socks off but it succeeds with a mature “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” poise. And, it clocks in at a tidy 2:53, which is less unusual than it used to be in a Spotify/TikTok world, but in the verse-chorus-verse universe this still indicates admirable restraint.

Front man and songwriter John Dufilho, meanwhile, himself employs an understated vocal style to match the established vibe; he could surely cut loose were he not in this contemplative mood, looking at the stars and pondering life. It ends up feeling a bit like a magic trick, how Dufilho creates substance out of almost nothing I can specifically point to. Maybe it’s his melancholy but determined tone, maybe it’s the way the sing-song-y melody complements the resolute flow, or maybe it’s something as basic but unexpected as the piano which grounds the song in a series of unfussy chords that seem to be hiding in plain sight–you won’t necessarily hear them until you listen for them.

If “Oh Stars” feels like a bit of a throwback, there’s good reason for it: the Dallas-based Deathray Davies were a project born in the late ’90s, with a heyday coinciding with the heyday of indie rock in the early to mid-’00s. “Oh Stars” comes from a new album, Time Well Wasted, released last month after what Dufilho has called “a 15-year nap.” The Deathray Davies leader hasn’t himself been napping in the meantime, having been busy through the years with a series of other Dallas area musical projects, including the bands Clifffs, Cantina, and Motorcade. He was also, as of the late ’00s, absorbed into the Athens, Georgia-based musical collective Apples in Stereo, a band that itself has mostly been on hiatus for 10 years or so as well.

You can listen to Time Well Wasted, and purchase it, via Bandcamp. The band was featured once before on Fingertips, way back in 2005.

Free and legal MP3: The Antlers

Lovely bittersweet chamber pop

“Solstice” – The Antlers

Here’s another indie-rock darling reemerging after a hiatus. In this case, the Antlers were a group that had truly hit the big-time–glowing reviews, two appearances on The Tonight Show, etc.–and yet decided to put the enterprise on ice for quite a while.

While operating generally within their familiar soundscape–a reverby, unhurried package of tender vocals, acoustic orchestrations, and electric atmospherics–the Antlers are here in 2021 with perhaps a less angst-driven sound. “I think this is the first album I’ve made that has no eeriness in it,” front man Peter Silberman has said, of the new record, Green to Gold. No eeriness, and maybe a gentler tone overall, but there remains an underlying aura of bittersweet tension that seems all but inherent to Silberman’s wavering tenor. Even a song as pure and lovely as “Solstice” doesn’t deliver an unalloyed feeling of contentment as much as the sense of a slightly apprehensive respite and/or a determination to keep the spirits up in the face of life’s inevitable travails.

But pure and lovely this surely is: Silberman delivers a deeply gratifying verse melody, that fragile voice of his navigating strong upward and downward intervals, the melody in the process exploring the breadth of the octave–an often effective songwriting maneuver. The accompaniment here is provided by deftly arranged stringed instruments and bolstered by a digital wash blurring backing vocals into white noise. The song is little more than the bewitching verse melody and a chorus comprised of wordless vocals and the two-word lyric “Keeping bright bright bright.” And yet even this super simple chorus feels rich with craft and intention, with strings providing both rhythm and texture. A beautiful effort from beginning to end.

“Solstice” is the third track of 10 on Green to Gold, which was released in March on Anti- Records. This is the first Antlers album since 2014’s Familiars. The Antlers were previously featured on Fingertips in 2009, when the Silberman solo project first became a genuine band. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: The Great Emu War Casualties

Crafty songwriting, dynamic arrangements

“I’m a Yes Man” – The Great Emu War Casualties

For all its loose, swinging atmosphere, “I’m a Yes Man” is a highly disciplined exercise in catchy late-period rock’n’roll. The swing comes from melodies consistently centered off the first beat of the measure, while the sense of looseness is propelled by a dynamic bass line down below and wailing electric guitars up top. The discipline, meanwhile, can be felt in the tightness of the performances (random example: that tiny dead-air pause in the proceedings at 0:19), including the disaffected, precise vocal stylings of front man Joe Jackson (yup that’s his name). His rhythmically astute phrasing is impressive, maybe nowhere clearer than on the standout line “I’ve got half a mind to half-remember half the time” (1:14). The song is written to encourage his careful, clever singing, which doubles back to highlight the crafty songwriting. I like, as an example, how the line “And could you offer in a helping hand?” at 1:24 extends beyond the confines of its musical phrase, which strikes me as a confident bit of composition.

The arrangements, with their intertwining guitars and savvy dynamics, reinforce the air of a band in complete control. This might have a fair amount to do with producer Alex Newport, who has worked with a number of heavy-hitting outfits, among them Death Cab for Cutie and Bloc Party; in any case, the song is continually enlivened by not only the particular instrumental mix in use at any given time but the push and pull of volume and accompaniment. One small example: not only does the swell of sound drop away at the start of the verse (0:40), but we also get a guitar playing notes that imply chords that do not match the melody in the vocal–an enticing bit of passing dissonance. This is one of those songs that you can take a slice of at pretty much any moment and find something interesting going on. I suggest you try it.

The Great Emu War Casualties is a trio from Melbourne. “I’m a Yes Man” is a track from their five-song EP, Vanity Project, which was released at the end of February. You can check out the whole thing, and buy it, via Bandcamp. Oh and in case you’re interested: the Great Emu War was actually a thing, involving the Australian government employing the military to control a runaway emu population in 1932. You can read more here. Executive summary: the emus won.