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.

Free and legal MP3: Ciel

Melodic splendor, w/ squonky noise

“Pretty Face” – Ciel

Launching without an introduction, “Pretty Face” brings us promptly into the compelling world of vocalist/guitarist Michelle Hindriks, a Netherlands native, transplanted to Brighton. Her lightly accented English and pellucid tone combine with irresistible potency, all the more so when we reach a chorus that ravishes with its melodic sweep and splendor. The subtle double-tracking of the lead vocals here adds to the poignant beauty.

At the same time, tune your ear further down into the mix and track if you can what Jorge Bela Jimenez’s guitar is doing, which is quietly and intermittently going crazy in a “don’t mind me” kind of way. You won’t hear it at first unless you listen for it. By the chorus’s third iteration (2:05), Jiminez is becoming less restrained, setting up the all-out assault that breaks free at 2:43, and carries us through a memorably squonky coda.

Lyrically the song veers into unexpected territory. By Hindriks’ account, she was inspired by a number of documentaries she found herself watching under lockdown about a variety of cults, and one particular story about a man who lost his wife to a cult–how he knows she’s still out there, but forever separated from him. While it’s not a direct experience many of us (thank goodness) can relate to, it can stand as a metaphor for living with the grief of heartache and separation.

Ciel has put out two EPs to date, most recently Monument, in April 2020. “Pretty Face,” released last month, is the second single the band has released since then. Check out the full discography on Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Brandon De La Cruz

Hushed, impressionistic storytelling

“Salmacis” – Brandon De La Cruz

Brandon De La Cruz sings with a hushed authority, his voice cracking against the muted beauty of this simple-seeming song. A two-line verse is answered by a two-line chorus, the former resolving the latter with matter-of-fact grace. Whatever story is being told here is being told obliquely, like a camera focusing only on discreet details, with no establishing shot.

We can, however, flesh out the story via the title: in mythology, Salmacis was a nymph who lusted after Hermaphroditus, the child of Hermes and Aphrodite. When he rejected her and went to bathe in her pool, she sprang upon him; when he still resisted, she prayed to the gods that the two of them should be always together. The gods, in classic “be careful what you wish for” manner, granted her her desire, and they were merged into one body. (Thus, clearly, the etymology of the English word “hermaphrodite.”)

This background renders De La Cruz’s impressionist account evocative in the extreme. We get body words–hands and arms and lips and legs–and, in the repeated chorus, words of union (collide, link up, entwined, seam). Consciously or not this song is in every possible way the antithesis of the prog-rock deep cut “The Fountain of Salmacis,” from the 1972 Genesis album Nursery Crime: concise versus expansive, humble versus baroque, quiet versus clamorous. Nothing at all against Genesis; let’s just say this goes in another direction.

“Salmacis” is one of eight tracks on the album Visions of Ovid, being released this week. With a long-standing interest in mythology, De La Cruz this time has fashioned an entire album riffing on ancient stories. Based in Portland, De La Cruz has been more or less stuck in New Zealand for a year, having chosen an unfortunate time to visit friends early in 2020.  (But there are probably worse places to be stuck!) He has been previously featured on Fingertips both in 2011 and in 2013. MP3 via the artist.

Free and legal MP3: Loma

Steady and dramatic

“Half Silences” – Loma

Loma is a band that seems to enjoy giving us space as much as sound. Don’t let the pulse-like beat that you’re first hearing distract you from the song’s more idiosyncratic attributes. Listen, for instance, to how the beat is soon neutralized by a synthesizer rhythm that slows the effective pace of the song by a factor of eight. And it’s kind of a stuttering, science-fiction-y synthesizer sound at that. Creating space, as it were.

When singer Emily Cross checks in, at 0:31, she delivers a long and careful melody line, half-time to the underlying pulse, which further works to draw the ear to the alluring expanse in which the piece unfolds. The aforementioned synth accents seem slowly to be morphing into wordless vocals by around 0:55; and by 1:16 this background vocalizing, nearly medieval in vibe, becomes the song’s signature accompaniment. Cross, meanwhile, holds the center with her unhurried, slightly smoky mezzo. I love how much drama the song creates without Cross herself having to do anything dramatic–the tension of the beat, the solemnity of the vibe, and a variety of subtle musical flourishes do the work for her. It seems a corollary of Charlie Chaplin’s famous (and effective) acting advice: if the thing you’re doing is funny, you don’t need to try to “act funny” while you’re doing it; here, the song itself is dramatic, and so Cross doesn’t need to sing dramatically to serve the music. Perhaps more singers should figure this out.

Loma is the trio of Cross, Jonathan Meiburg (front man of the band Shearwater), and Dan Duszynski.  Cross and Duszynski had been a duo together, opening for Shearwater; Meiburg was taken with their sound and attracted to the idea of relinquishing the spotlight for a while. They got together for what was to be a one-off project, resulting in a self-titled 2018 album. A second album was not in the original plan, but the three of them found themselves drawn back together, perhaps partially due to some supportive words on BBC Radio 6 from none other than Brian Eno that made their way back to the band.

“Half Silences” is the third track of 11 on Loma’s second LP, Don’t Shy Away, which was released on Sub Pop Records back in October. (Note that Eno was eventually invited to contribute to the album; he is credited with “additional synths and drum programming” on the album’s closing song, “Homing.”) The band was previously featured on Fingertips in March 2018, around the time of their debut. MP3 via KEXP. You can listen to the whole album, and buy it, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Lucy Francesa Dron

Rhythmic, jazz-inflected indie rock

“What Is Next?” – Lucy Francesca Dron

There is something fetching to me about songs in which the rhythm guitar functions as the lead guitar–when resolute strumming characterizes the accompaniment rather than any sort of fingered showing-off. “What Is Next?” is a showcase for this concept, a song built on a swinging cadence, dictated by the rhythm guitar’s determined syncopations and suspended chords. Against this backdrop of her own doing, Lucy Francesca Dron sings with a cagey, unleashed elegance, landing halfway between a ’90s alternative rocker and a jazz singer.

The guitar’s relentless, recurring chords give “What is Next?” a circular feeling, accentuated by the song’s amorphous structure, with chord-driven verses that lead to no particularly identifiable chorus outside of a few theatrical repetitions of the title phrase. The second time we get there, the song veers into a free-form bridge (2:26) with run-on, scat-like lyrics–as bravely jazz-inflected a section in an indie rock song as you’re likely to hear. Overall the song manages to feel simultaneously determined and light-footed, and presents as a breath of fresh air in our over-processed, hyper-algorithmic times.

Lucy Francesca Dron is a 21-year-old musician from Brisbane. “What Is Next?” is the third single she’s released since a debut EP back in 2017. A new EP is slated for later this year.

Free and legal MP3: The Weather Station

Steady, rich, and resonant

“Tried To Tell You” – The Weather Station

At once intimate and expansive, “Tried To Tell You” simmers with nuanced allure. While grounded in an assertive backbeat, the song’s charms lie in some less obvious places. Do you hear that wobbly synthesizer that eases its way into the mix in the introduction (0:11)? That’s the kind of small, wonderful moment to expect here, much having to do with what the various keyboard sounds are doing; you’ll discover everything from foreboding bass notes to an assortment of friendly interjections if you pay close attention.

But the star of this steady, rich, and resonant song is Tamara Lindeman, the Canadian singer/songwriter who does musical business as The Weather Station. Her voice impresses with its warmth and flexibility, as she ranges between a dusky alto and a breathy soprano, an elasticity that brings to mind none other than fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell. The chorus is concise and sublime (if, again, you stop to pay attention), with brilliant phrasing and intonation. Listen to how much she does with the phrase “I tried to tell you” first heard at 0:48, its simple parade of one-syllable words enhanced by a shift in vocal tone that takes the breath away.

“Tried To Tell You” is a track from The Weather Station’s 2021 album, Ignorance, released earlier this month on Fat Possum Records. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy it (digital, vinyl, CD, cassette, you name it) via Bandcamp.

MP3 via KEXP. The Weather Station was previously featured on Fingertips in September 2011.

Free and legal MP3: Static Shapes

Confident midtempo rocker

“Wolves in White” – Static Shapes

Confident in its artful foundation, “Wolves In White” is purposefully constructed from start to finish. Listen to the way it opens: there’s 10 seconds of a barely-heard, three-note synthesizer line, tracing a classical-sounding ascending interval; another 10 seconds to establish the underlying midtempo backbeat, keyboards up front; 10 more seconds for the bass to break free from the beat (keep your ears on this instrument moving forward) as that ethereal synthesizer returns to float around the top of the mix; and only then does the guitar step in, offering a rounded, lower-register lead to ground us in a fully-formed musical landscape. I’m not usually down for long introductions, but that’s only because most long intros are repetitive vamps. This is not that.

When the vocals begin (0:46) we are treated not only to singer/guitarist Steve Yutzy-Burkey’s agreeably scuffed baritone (although he’s likely tired of the comparison there’s no overlooking his Tweedy-ish tone) but also now have a front seat for bassist Rick Sieber’s acrobatic  explorations. Yutzy-Burkey likewise shares Tweedy’s gift for converting minimalism into grace, his way of altering a simple melody with improvisational-sounding shifts, along with a knack for ending melody lines without resolution. Even the song’s chorus ends up feeling elusive and unresolved: first of all, it’s heard only twice; second of all, it’s a paragon of suggestive constraint, encompassing only four basic notes and a refusal to fully land.

Keep an ear in the meantime on Sieber’s work, and the way the bass often works itself into the foreground, culminating with a nimble solo at 2:28. And if anyone can identify the likable noise we get at 3:37, I’d love to know what that is.

“Wolves in White” is the lead track from Static Shapes’ debut album, Give Me The Bad News, released in December. Listen to the whole thing via Bandcamp, where it’s available to buy in both digital and vinyl form. Based in Philadelphia, Yutzy-Burkey was previously known as the front man for the well-regarded local band The Swimmers (which featured Sieber as well). Before that, he headed up the Philly-based quartet One Star Hotel (also with Sieber), who were featured here on Fingertips way back in the innocent days of 2004. Thanks to the Yutzy-Berkey for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Fenne Lily

Brisk, engaging mystery

“Alapathy” – Fenne Lily

We begin with a backbeat: the classic one-TWO-one-TWO that Chuck Berry immortalized seemingly centuries ago. Brisk and archetypal on the one hand, the backbeat here is, at the same time, curiously elusive: note that however much it defines the song’s core, Fenne Lily herself seems to pay little attention to it; the melody is driven instead by words that emerge in a deliberate flow, at half the pace of the arrangement’s urgency. And the song’s other central features likewise manifest in contrast to the backbeat, both the scratchy lo-fi guitar riff, which embodies the “on” beats (i.e., the one and three beats between the backbeat’s two and four) and the smeary, contemplative distortions of the second guitar.

For context it may help to know that Fenne Lily, on her 2018 debut, On Hold, presented as a purveyor of  echoey, precise, largely downtempo singer/songwriter fare. This feels like a related but compelling new direction.

As for that flow of words: Lily has a fascinating way of appearing to sing with perfect clarity (even her breath places prominently in the mix), while hypnotizing the ear into letting go of any effort to grasp actual content. Twenty-first-century bloggers and music writers spend a lot of time analyzing lyrics but I’m time and again puzzled by over-scrutiny of words that can often, fruitfully, be heard merely as “language-sound” versus having comprehensible meaning. To me this is not at all a failing on the part of the singer or the song.  “Alapathy”–a word Lily invented, by the way, blending allopathy and apathy–feels consequential without any scrutiny at all, the mystery and drive being as much part of the “meaning” as any actual meaning itself, if that makes any sense. This is not to denigrate the lyrics; go read them and figure it all out, if you can, and if that’s what works for you.

Lily is from Bristol, in the UK. “Alapathy” is the lead track on her new album Breach, released on Dead Oceans in September. MP3 via The Current (see note below).

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(MP3s from the Minneapolis public radio station The Current are available in files that are 128kbps, which is below the established 192kbps standard, not to mention the higher-def standard of 320kbps. I personally don’t hear much difference on ordinary equipment but if you are into high-end sound you’ll probably notice something. In any case I always encourage you to download the MP3 for the purposes of getting to know a song via a few listens; if you like it I as always urge you to buy the music. It’s still, and always, the right thing to do.)