Free and legal MP3: Pepper Rabbit (off-kilter 3/4 time rocker)

“Rose Mary Stretch” seems at once relaxed and edgy, both musically and lyrically. Front man Xander Singh reinforces this sensation with a voice alternating between a summery breathiness and a Win Butlery vehemence. Even the band’s name speaks to this engaging dichotomy: spicy, but cuddly.

Pepper Rabbit

“Rose Mary Stretch” – Pepper Rabbit

The insistent one-two rhythm that opens “Rose Mary Stretch” turns quickly into something of an aural illusion, as the off-kilter emphasis of the joint notes/rhythms the guitar and drum create together masks the song’s 3/4 beat as a 2/4 melody. This is a trick more common in classical music than pop music; the effect is at once arresting and unsettling, kind of making you lean forward in your seat waiting for some solid ground. We get it at 0:26, when the drum kicks in more fully and in so doing spells out the actual three-beated measures.

But the off-kilteredness remains a central part of the song. As a listener, I feel partly able to settle into the groove, and partly perched outside of it. “Rose Mary Stretch” seems at once relaxed and edgy, both musically and lyrically. Front man Xander Singh reinforces this sensation with a voice alternating between a summery breathiness and a Win Butlery vehemence. Even the band’s name speaks to this engaging dichotomy: spicy, but soft. In the end, the song’s edge manages to merge with its groove, much the way the off-center rhythm gives the melody a cumulative swing that’s both attractive and powerful.

Pepper Rabbit is a duo based in LA but born in NOLA, a fact betrayed, to New Orleans natives, by the title of the new album, Red Velvet Snow Ball, which refers to a favorite flavor of the local frozen treat of choice, the snow ball. (The unconverted need only one trip to Hansen’s to see the light.) The band’s vaguely carnivalesque ambiance springs from the fact that Singh not only sings but plays a wide variety of instruments, including ukulele, clarinet, horns, and an assortment of analog synthesizers. (Partner Luc Larent oversees the rhythm section.)

Red Velvet Snow Ball, the band’s second album, is due out in August on Kanine Records. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3: Rusty Willoughby (sad & gentle, like a lullaby)

A gentle 3/4-time lullaby, “C’mon C’mon” sways with wistful momentum, down but not out. “How many times must a broken heart still break?” Willoughby sings, in his old-fashioned, Nick Lowe-ian voice.

Cobirds Unite

“C’mon C’mon” – Rusty Willoughby

A gentle 3/4-time lullaby, “C’mon C’mon” sways with wistful momentum, down but not out. “How many times must a broken heart still break?” Willoughby sings, in his old-fashioned, Nick Lowe-ian voice. Cue the mournful cello. Keep the background sweet and clean. Pair Willoughby with a singer so in sync—Rachel Flotard, of Visqueen—that her harmonies feel like they’re also coming out of his mouth. This is one sweet sad humble centered song. This is a value judgment against neither gentleman, but consider Rusty Willoughby the anti-Kanye West.

The New York-born Willoughby has operated from Seattle since the ’80s, having fronted a series of well-regarded, left-of-center bands over the years, including Pure Joy, Flop, and Llama. “C’mon C’mon” is from the new album Cobirds Unite, released last week on the Seattle label Local 638.

Free and legal MP3: Orchestraville (very nicely crafted, in 3/4-time)

There’s an appealing, homespun rigor to this song, something in the way it laces its 3/4 time gallop with a rock-band oomph that you don’t typically hear, come to think of it, in 3/4-time songs.

Orchestraville

“Half and Half” – Orchestraville

There’s an appealing, homespun rigor to this song, something in the way it laces its 3/4 time gallop with a rock-band oomph that you don’t typically hear, come to think of it, in 3/4-time songs. (For the record, “Manic Depression” is a relative rarity, and in that case Hendrix all but deconstructs the time signature. ) I think it’s the organ that really launches things at the beginning; even though it refuses to move to the center of the mix, it plays its swaying, off-melody lines with haunted-house abandon. The ear is officially engaged.

And the song delivers, especially if you listen carefully. The craft is subtle but exquisite. For instance, listen to the way the melody shifts slightly but unmistakably from the first to the second line of the verse: while the words, nearly repeating (“Why did you smile?/Why did you laugh?”), set us up for a straight repeat of the melodic line, the last note of the line veers up a step. This is ever-so-subtly unsettling, and the exact kind of thing that creates interest, because our ears, bless their hearts (?), like nothing better than to guess where the melody is going and then be proven wrong. It also deftly sets up the resolving turn taken in the third line (from 0:29 to 0:31), which soon, even more deftly, glides us into the sly chorus at 0:40, when Christopher Forbes sings “And the same goes for you” in descending half-steps. It’s sly because this the introverted rather than extroverted part of the song (a chorus by nature is a song’s most extroverted part); we seem to stumble upon the titular phrase as if by accident. And then check back the next time the chorus comes around (1:13) and notice both the lyrical (“And the same goes for me”) and musical changes, as we get a sort of post-chorus—three additional lines that finally deliver the contradictory message to the recurring idea that the you and I in the song are “a perfect match,” an idea never, in fact, borne out by the music.

The Ohio-based Orchestraville seems a poster child for a certain kind of spirited, persevering 21st-century indie band. They have a long and convoluted history (personnel changes, relocations, disbanding, reuniting; sadly, there is also a death involved), they worked hard at what they did, and the fact that they have little in the way of widespread recognition to show for it is obviously no reason to think any less of them. It is indeed what we are all in the process of getting used to in the age of musical over-abundance. “Half and Half” is from the band’s last album, Poison Berries, which was recorded in the first half of the ’00s but never released because the band broke up in ’05. This year, however, they began to make their existing albums available as digital downloads, and in the process put Poison Berries out both as a vinyl album and in MP3 format in September. MP3 for the song via the band’s site.

Free and legal MP3: Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions (satisfying, “Fade Into You”-ish ballad)

“Blanchard” – Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions

Fronting the ’90s band Mazzy Star, Hope Sandoval–she with the gauzy, achy, reverb-drenched vocals–made a much larger impact on music fans of a certain age (and gender) than the band’s status as a one-hit wonder (“Fade Into You”), not to mention her terminally shy personality, might suggest. The internet is crawling with people who love her, madly.
     “Blanchard” will not disappoint them, but its graceful allure should extend beyond the hopelessly smitten, as it were. To my ears, Mazzy Star’s music blurred into a nebula of echoing, almost debauched gloom too often undisturbed by an actual melody, despite Sandoval’s resonant if downbeat charm as a singer. “Blanchard” echoes much of her previous band’s aura, but eases off on the druggy haze–the reverb is toned down, the pace less dreary. “Blanchard” shares its ghostly 3/4-time rhythm with “Fade Into You” (itself brighter-sounding than most Mazzy Star songs) but gives us what that well-known tune never did: a chorus with a nuanced but noticeable resolution away from the relentless, open-chorded ambivalence in which the band basked. Sandoval doesn’t dwell in the payoff, of course, but the shift at 1:36 is rich and heart-warming. As if, perhaps, to make up for the musical reward, the lyrics at that point become stubbornly unintelligible.
     While Mazzy Star is still officially intact, it has not released an album since 1996’s Among My Swan. Meanwhile, Sandoval began recording with a backing band called the Warm Inventions in 2001; two subsequent EPs were released, rather quietly. “Blanchard” is the lead track from the CD Through the Devil Softly, which is scheduled to be out in September, on Nettwerk Records. MP3 via Stereogum (note: not a direct link).