Free and legal MP3: The Van Doos (new rock’n’roll inspired by the old)

Combining melodies that gaze back towards the ’50s with the structural intricacies of 21st-century indie rock and the crowd-pleasing sing-along-iness of timeless pop.

The Van Doos

“Airborne” – The Van Doos

Long-time readers may be familiar with my affection for new rock’n’roll that tips its hat to the old while still standing with its feet planted in the here and now. This is my sweet spot, unabashedly so. The Van Doos pretty much knock the ball out of the park in this regard, combining melodies that gaze back towards the ’50s with the structural intricacies of 21st-century indie rock and the crowd-pleasing sing-along-iness of timeless pop. Instrumentation is rooted in classic rock, but listen closely and enjoy the disciplined crunch of the guitars, the delightfully elastic bass line, and the strategic use of castanets, among other things. I do love the strategic use of castanets.

(Now then, some might claim that any band using merely traditional rock’n’roll instruments, as opposed to laptops and digital manipulations and such, is by definition not standing with its feet planted in the here and now. I scoff at such short-sightedness and ask time to referee this battle. Come back in 30 years and we’ll see how things stand.)

Another wonderful aspect of “Airborne” is how much of a journey the song takes us on, in under four minutes, while still feeling easy to absorb rather than obtuse. The band employs an array of subtle flourishes to add depth while remaining approachable, from the sparse arrangement of the opening verse to the unexpected, simultaneous rhythm and key change at 1:00 to the offbeat structure of a song that seems not to have a chorus but a really enticing secondary verse, heard once (beginning at 1:05), immediately repeated, and then abandoned for the accumulating momentum of the rest of the song. Cool stuff, truly.

The Van Doos are a relatively new quartet from North Yorkshire, in the U.K. “Airborne” is a song from their forthcoming debut album, perspicaciously entitled Fingertips.

Free and legal MP3: Jeremy and the Harlequins (’50s rock w/ internet-oriented lyrics)

If re-imagining pre-Beatles rock’n’roll with 21st-century lyrical content is a something of a gimmick, it should be noted that rock’n’roll history is chock full of gimmicks, some of which end up succeeding rather nicely, thank you.

Jeremy and the Harlequins

“Cam Girl” – Jeremy and the Harlequins

Speaking of old-school, take a listen to this one, which goes all Buddy Holly on us before we can figure out what year we’re actually in. And yes, re-imagining pre-Beatles rock’n’roll with 21st-century lyrical content is a something of a gimmick, but it should be noted that rock’n’roll history is chock full of gimmicks, some of which end up succeeding rather nicely, thank you. In the end, it comes down to two things: 1) is the song there?; and 2) is the song there?

I think the song is here. Nothing happening on “Cam Girl” is rocket science, given how gleefully the song borrows from its antecedents (note the Roy Orbison bass line, as one clear example, the Presley lyrical reference as another), but the whole somehow rises resiliently above the sum of its parts. For as it turns out, the conceit is a powerful one; just hearing these words set to this music is a game-changer:

Tell me, girl, your name
Tell me you’re eighteen
Your profile came up on my MacBook screen

There is weight in this unexpected synthesis, particularly as Jeremy Fury and bandmates have not only ingested the sound and feel of late ’50s/early ’60s rock’n’roll but bring it back to us on real instruments (a theme this week, it seems), via analog recording. (If you don’t think this makes a difference you may not be listening that closely.) I find what this band is up to particularly compelling at a cultural moment when futurists are holding sway with the most small-minded of visions, by all appearances believing that present-day technology gives us license to trample on centuries of established human values and needs. The rather homely act of merging old-time rock with Net-gen subject matter strikes me as a subtle yet profound way of affirming the interconnection of generations. As Fury himself has written, in apparent response to reactions to his band’s music: “Stealing? No. Preserving the past for the sake of the future? Yes.” There: that’s exactly what seems to be missing from our collective, heedless hurling forward into the technological future: the idea that the past must itself be a part of the future too, that the future in fact is impoverished without it.

“Cam Girl” is a song from the first Jeremy and the Harlequins release, a self-titled EP that came out last month.

Free and legal MP3: Shelby Earl

Seattle singer/songwriter takes a star turn

Shelby Earl

“Swift Arrows” – Shelby Earl

With its slow, triplet-induced swing, “Swift Arrows” nods in the direction of the ’50s while staking out idiosyncratic 21st-century territory all its own. I don’t think I overstate my case to say that Shelby Earl has one of the best voices I’ve heard in my 10 years on call here at Fingertips—soft and hard and sweet and strong all at the same time, it’s a voice that does nothing obvious to call undue attention to itself, which makes her able, delicious yet elusive tone all the more effective, to my ears.

And she’s not just a voice; she’s an impressive songwriter too. I hear the song’s greatness pivoting on the moment when the titular phrase enters. The fuller phrase Earl sings is “one poison-tipped swift arrow,” but listen both to how the song is written and to how she negotiates the phrasing: the words “one poison-tipped” swoop dramatically, in relative alignment with the beat, while “swift arrow” veers irregularly, almost a melodic afterthought. And yet these last words grab the ear in a most affecting way, which I think has to do with how, as a singer, Earl manages on “arrow” to accentuate the first syllable (as one would merely speaking it) while extending the second both out and upward. This strikes me as tricky, and while I’m not sure she gave this any particular thought, it is the moment I return to over and over again. Beyond the singing and the songwriting, I’m likewise enjoying Damien Jurado’s production, with its curious union of the minimal and the baroque. There are strings, woodwinds, and deep dramatic bells and drums in the mix, and sometimes the sound rises to challenge—perhaps even to bait—Earl’s voice, but more often than not we’re just hearing those basic piano triplets in the background. The song even reduces to silence at one point (2:01). The end result is something both familiar and a little odd. Works for me, to say the least.

“Swift Arrows” is the title track to Shelby Earl’s second album, and I can confidently report that she is the real thing, a bona fide star, at least here in the Fingertips firmament. She was previously featured in October 2011 for the song “Evergreen,” and also stopped by for an notably thoughtful Q&A the next month.

The MP3 is no longer available but you can listen to the track here, via SoundCloud:

Free and legal MP3: The Drums (’50s + ’80s = ’10s)

The Drums

“Down By The Water” – the Drums

Setting a ’50s-style melody, complete with a “Heart and Soul” bass line, to a stately, hymn-like march, “Down By The Water” is an instant brain melt. You’ve heard a thousand songs like this and nothing like this. It’s beautiful and odd and tormented and stirring. The bass line is soon being delivered by a tuba-like sound. The song proceeds precisely, as if on tip-toes. Echoey tip-toes. (“If reverb didn’t exist we wouldn’t have bothered trying to start a band,” Jacob Graham, the guitarist, has said.) Vocalist Jonny Pierce, well-named, sings with an earnest ache, audibly catching his breath: Jonathan Richman doing a Johnny Mathis impersonation. What decade are we in? His bandmates join in for the solemn chorus, which accrues both gravity and pathos with each iteration.

And then—another brain melt—the synthesizer floats in. 2:12. My goodness. New Order joins the Salvation Army band. The synthesizer sounds almost mixed up, and unerringly beautiful. What decade did we decide we were in? Oh yeah. The 2010s. Of course.

The Drums are a foursome from Brooklyn, and you may be hearing a lot more about them moving forward. “Down By The Water” was originally found on the band’s debut EP, Summertime, which came out last year. It will re-emerge on the full-length self-titled debut, which is arriving in the U.S. in September on Downtown Records. (The album was released in Europe and Australia in June.)

Free and legal MP3: Iran (both lilting and noisy)

“Buddy” – Iran

Talk about retro—this one swings with a ’50s vibe, complete with doo-wop style backing vocals, a nostalgic bass line, and a simple piano vamp. At the same time, there is something unsettling in the air here. Aaron Aites’ plainspoken, unstylized voice is not, to begin with, what one expects in a musical environment typically peopled by smooth crooners. Even less expected are the guitarists Aites brings along with him, one of whom is Kyp Malone, who is better known as part of TV on the Radio.

At first we get a slashing chord or two, and a bit of reverb. Thirty seconds in, a new guitar sound enters and grows in strength–a buzzing, high-pitched line playing a slow series of extended, vibrating notes. No doubt there are two guitars doing this but the net effect is one voice, which grows increasingly louder and more insistent as the song unfolds. (The band, a trio, features two guitarists—Malone and Aaron Romanello—and Aites, a multi-instrumentalist.) The instrumental break (1:15) highlights the song’s developing juxtaposition: easy-going, old-fashioned sway meets tense guitar noise. The edgy, extended notes continue and intensify, and notice how the “oo-oo” backing vocals open out into something weirder and more diffuse along the way, becoming part of the background wash. By 2:20, Aites himself is getting louder, if only to be heard; at 2:30, the atmosphere explodes with wailing guitars and unidentifiable noise that reaches a peak ten or so seconds later and then, with disconcerting ease, withdraws, leaving the easy-going vibe intact. The screechy guitars, however, have the last word, taking longest of all to fade away.

Iran, the band, is not by the way named for the country, but for a character in the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the book which gave birth to the movie Blade Runner). The song “Buddy” was originally released on an EP late last year, and appears on the band’s new CD, Dissolver, released last week on Narnack Records.