Free and legal MP3: Savannah Gardner

Hymn-like solemnity, down-home allure

“Heartbreak River” – Savannah Gardner

There’s a hymn-like solemnity to “Heartbreak River,” with its dignified pace, swelling vocals, and down-home vibe. There’s also something that cumulatively touches the soul here, although I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what it is. Gardner is a young singer/songwriter with an ache in her voice and a depth to her presence, so part of the song’s persuasiveness lies in her performance.

And me being a melody guy through and through, I’m also moved by the solidity of the tune itself, which has a steady majesty, and culminates in a resolution in the chorus as mighty and unshakable as they come: the first half (0:45-0:59) a thoroughgoing set-up for the second half, the second half (1:00-1:14) the unhurried and inevitable conclusion. You see the resting point coming from a mile away and it’s all the sweeter as a result.

As suits the song’s humble power, the arrangement feels easy and tasteful, grounded in simple piano playing, with intermittent violin countermelodies, the occasionally audible guitar lick, and the recurrent punctuation of layered backing vocals. These voices rise and fall with restrained drama (and perhaps a bit of vocal processing?; if so, I like the effect a lot), becoming increasingly central to the song’s complexion. The violin, for its part, hangs back a bit, curbing what might be a natural tendency in this sort of song to pour on the syrup; when it moves front and center for the short coda (3:24), it carries with it the heft and poignancy of a bygone time.

Savannah Gardner, born to British parents, was raised in California, but lives now in the Cotswolds. “Heartbreak River” is a single released back in May; her new single, “Take Me Home,” came out late last month; you can check it out via YouTube. Thanks to Savannah for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Magnum Dopus

Post-punk intimations

“Scratch & Dent Blonde” – Magnum Dopus

With a tight, scratchy post-punk rhythm and the rich baritone lead of vocalist Andrew McCarty, the Memphis quintet Magnum Dopus delivers an ear-catching homage to the so-called darkwave edge of ’80s new wave music. Adroit shifts between minor and major keys add to the song’s affecting, Depeche-Mode-y vibe. And while it’s definitely not just McCarty’s voice that makes the song, I do give his voice a lot of credit here. That’s quite a voice.

And yet the real hook, to my ears, is the wordless vocal accents that adorn the chorus (first heard at 1:00). The chorus opens with a sense of clearing, with the insistent scratch of the rhythm guitar abruptly dissipated and the melody easing off the double-time urgency of the verse. McCarty sings the titular phrase (it doesn’t sound much like the titular phrase but I’m assured that it is) and then we get the “oo-oo-oo-oo”s and I don’t know, there’s something in that aural maneuver that underpins the song’s potency. Whether it’s because the “oo-oo”s break the portentous trance a voice like his can induce or simply because the sound of those wordless syllables offers some sort of ineffable finishing touch that you didn’t know the song needed until you heard it, I’m convinced they are what transform the song from passingly good to something I’m now writing about here.

Oh and don’t miss the turbulent, neck-climbing guitar solo (2:31-2:48), which represents another kind of homage in a musical world that has largely devalued not just the guitar but the communal value of a soloist within an ensemble in favor of the relentless car-accident appeal of narcissistic TikTok virtuosity.

“Scratch & Dent Blonde” is the fourth of 10 tracks on Suburbanova, the band’s second full-length album, which was released last month. You can listen to and purchase it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Alan Dweck

Stately authority, passionate restraint

“Before” – Alan Dweck

Simple, elegant, and powerful, “Before” is a walking-paced blues-based rocker that converts familiarity to strength through its stately authority. The song reveals itself at its own pace and is concise in its melodic offerings—which is polite way of saying the verse and the chorus are sung to pretty much the same tune–and yet not once does it seem to drag or bore.

Everything in “Before” arrives unruffled and inevitable—instrumental tracks laid down with offhand precision, the underlying beat betraying a subtle swing, and, at the center of attention, Dweck himself with his resonant voice, at once world-weary and hopeful, an underlying fire close to the surface but never fully burning through. Encapsulating the song’s atmosphere of passionate restraint is the lead guitar, content largely with simmering background flourishes. We get a brief solo at 1:42, and an extended one at 3:02, elegiac and resolute, shining with intention but still that sense of something being held back. I mean this in a good way; I am consistently a fan of restraint when it comes to both songwriting and performing, as it almost always speaks to a level of artistry out of range of the “more is more” and/or “look at me!” approach.

Dweck is a veteran musician based in London whose career has taken him around the world, playing for the art of it rather than the commerce—an assumption I’m making based on the fact that there is little in the way of a solid informational trail to follow online beyond the press release describing him as “a globe-trotting artist” who “has continued to move people throughout the years.” “Before” is a single released in August, without a lot of tangential explanation; whether an album is forthcoming is as yet unknown. Wherever he’s been and wherever he’s yet going, the man is well worth listening to in the here and now; don’t miss this one.

Free and legal MP3: The Color Forty Nine

Plaintive bilingual waltz, w/ horns

“What Would I Know? / ¿Yo Que Sé?” – The Color Forty Nine

A song with a recurring instrumental motif separate from the central melody is, to my ears, almost always a worthy enterprise. When that recurring instrumental motif is performed by a plaintive trumpet, as with “What Would I Know? / ¿Yo Que Sé?,” all the better. What I’m talking about specifically is the trumpet melody first heard in between the lyrics at 0:27, and which continues to ground the song in alluring melancholy the rest of the way. The horns—there is more than the one trumpet as we get going—have a beautiful Mexican vibe, reinforcing the song’s bilingual setting. The music, with its 3/4-time sway, lulls the ear while the English lyrics offer impressions and hints; this is one of those songs where you feel what’s going on at a level below concrete awareness. Which is to say I have no idea what the song is actually saying but that doesn’t seem to matter; I still get it.

The lyrics alternate between Spanish and English while the music alternates between major- and minor-key melodies. Every touch along the way seems ideal: the violin that weaves itself into the mix, the group vocals that bolster the chorus (which consists only of the song title, in both languages), the ongoing shifts in the horn charts, the false ending at 3:27, the subsequent coda. With its gentle folk-music sensibility and expressive craft, the song washes over the spirit, seeming to carry with it a sort of wisdom of the ages.

The Color Forty Nine is a San Diego-based quartet. The Spanish lyrics here are sung by guest vocalist Rubén Albarrán of the band Café Tacvba, from the suburbs of Mexico City. “What Would I Know? / ¿Yo Que Sé?” is a song from The Color Forty Nine’s second album, String Ladders, which was released last month.

Free and legal MP3: The Joy Formidable

Dream pop w/ a triplet-based swing

“Into The Blue” – The Joy Formidable

Thum-pi-da, THUM-pi-da, thum-pi-da, THUM-pi-da: The swinging, triplet-based backbeat that launches “Into the Blue,” offset by scratchy and thoughtful guitar arpeggios, evokes something deep and disregarded in the history of rock’n’roll. What I think we’re hearing here is the ghost of doo-wop, and while doo-wop has never been my thing (I’m old but I’m not quite that old!), it feels invigorating to hear in the context of a song so otherwise rooted in the 21st century.

Layered on top of the backbeat comes a marvelous mixture of light and shadow, melody and noise, liberation and complication. The song takes a terrific turn early on, at 1:08, when front woman Ritzy Bryan is displaced for a verse on vocals by bassist Rhydian Dafydd, who sings an alternate but related melody that strikes the ears as newly urgent. Even if—this again—it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on in the lyrics, the introduction of the other person’s point of view in what sounds like a relationship-centric song intensifies the circumstances, adroitly signaling the communication issue the song seems to be about.

Through it all keep your ears on Bryan’s guitar work—the discrete notes she slips in here and there, the occasionally heard squeak of fingers on strings, and in particular how she sometimes just starts playing her own thing (example at 1:56) as a sort of combination counter-melody/counter-rhythm to the song’s determined drive forward.

The Joy Formidable is a trio founded in Wales, although Dafydd and Bryan have been living in Utah, of all places, in recent years. (The band’s third member is drummer Matthew James.) “Into The Blue” as a single has been out since March, but is soon to emerge as the title track to the fifth Joy Formidable album, arriving later this month. MP3 via KEXP. You can buy the album in a variety of formats on Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Shadwick Wilde

Gentle pandemic ballad

“When All of This Is Over” – Shadwick Wilde

Strangely enough we have another song this month based on a triplet rhythm, in this case a deliberate acoustic ballad expressing an all too common yearning during the Great Lockdown, as we have long been daydreaming about the return of something resembling normalcy. The song came out back in April but seems, alas, ongoingly relevant.

And while earnest singer/songwriters with simple acoustic guitar licks often stray, in my opinion, into the maudlin and/or mundane (or both), there’s something affecting to me about the ambiance here; the sincerity is not over-delivered, and the music, enhanced with tasteful string arrangements, pushes forward with an air of enigmatic buoyancy despite the mournful tone. The tune is straightforward but well-built, while the lyrics hit that alluring middle ground between the literal and the figurative: while the listener clearly knows what he’s singing about, the pandemic is brought to the table only via mention of those things we might do again on the other side. This accomplishes two interrelated things: it makes the song about something larger than our current difficulties, and it nudges us towards a sense of hope through the struggle. And while the song lacks any obvious connection to the activism championed in her writings, there’s something here that reminds me of Rebecca Solnit’s view of hope: “Hope,” she says, “locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” I feel guided towards this spaciousness in Wilde’s reminder of the larger context of human existence; as he sings offhandedly near the end: “How lucky we are/To be orbiting this particular star/At this particular distance.”

Shadwick Wilde is a Kentucky-based singer/songwriter who is also founder in 2010 of the fluid musical collective Quiet Hollers, which has released three albums to date.

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.