Free and legal MP3: Auditorium (dramatic vocal layers, acoustic setting)

As off-kilter as you might imagine a song entitled “My Grandfather Could Make the World Dance” would be. Also, bold and captivating.

Auditorium

“My Grandfather Could Make the World Dance” – Auditorium

The 2015 indie music scene is full of creative types who come from all sorts of idiosyncratic backgrounds. Even among his heterogeneous cohorts, however, Spencer Berger stands out for his unusual back story: from the ages of nine through 12, he was an opera singer, performing at the Metropolitan Opera with the likes of Luciano Pavarotti. And while you might not immediately guess “child opera singer” when “My Grandfather Could Make the World Dance” starts up, I’m pretty sure you can see that something muscular and expansive is going on here vocally, both in terms of Berger’s singular tone and his penchant for dramatic layering.

And so it turns out that this is as off-kilter as you might imagine a song entitled “My Grandfather Could Make the World Dance” would be; likewise is it bold and captivating. Berger’s penchant for stagy vocalizing is all the more convincing for its being matched, against expectation, with the simplest of accompaniments—acoustic guitars, a touch of piano, and a small helping of percussion is all that’s going on here, instrumentally. Musically, the song is dominated by descending melody lines, punctuated by intermittent yelping leaps; the overall effect is a kind of optimistic melancholy that helps give the whole thing the feel of a lonely suburban afternoon in 1972. I can’t pinpoint why but to me this seems quite clear.

Based in Los Angeles, Spencer Berger has been recording music as Auditorium since 2011, when his debut album, Be Brave, was released. (You can check that one out via Bandcamp.) “My Grandfather Could Make the World Dance” is a single released earlier this month. Thanks to Insomnia Radio for the link.

Free and legal MP3: Paul Armfield (disarming acoustic contemplation)

Sleek and homespun at the same time, “Speed of Clouds” may initially hit the ear as an oddity, but settle in with it and let its idiosyncrasies coalesce into the enjoyable and rather moving composition that it reveals itself, over four minutes, to be.

Paul Armfield

“Speed of Clouds” – Paul Armfield

And now for something completely different. A delicately plucked, out-of-time intro, employing a variety of under-utilized string sounds, launches us into an alternative musical world in which acoustic instruments band together orchestrally to accompany a deep-voiced troubadour musing on the profundity of aging. Sleek and homespun at the same time, “Speed of Clouds” may initially hit the ear as an oddity, but settle in and let its idiosyncrasies coalesce into the pleasurable and rather moving composition that it reveals itself, over four minutes, to be.

At the center of it is the voice and sensibility of Paul Armfield, an Isle of Wight-based singer/songwriter with a distinctive delivery, best described as a cross between Cat Stevens and mid-career Leonard Cohen, with a bit of sorcerer thrown in. His is such a different-sounding voice than we are used to hearing that at first it may seem almost primitively mannered, and yet very quickly, as you sink into the song, you may notice how soon like an old friend he sounds, not to mention how beautifully he does in fact sing, his voice projecting a three-dimensional presence that feels especially satisfying in this age of vocal processing and gimmickry.

“Speed of Clouds” is from Armfield’s fifth studio album Up Here, which was released last month. You can listen to the whole album via SoundCloud. Thanks to Paul for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: The Ericksons (singing sisters, w/ guitars, & unaffected vibe)

The Ericksons are not actively quirky in the manner of, say, Ani DiFranco, or, for that matter, any of the so-called “freak folk” crowd. If anything, the cumulative effect of the peppy “Box of Letters” is of two performers who are, simply, loose and unaffected.

The Ericksons

“Box of Letters” – the Ericksons

There’s something ever, ever so slightly unhinged about the Erickson sisters’ basic Indigo Girls-ishness that I find immediately fetching. First, the obligatory acoustic-guitar-strumming intro itself is a bit off-kilter, aligning insistently with the in-between beat (i.e. the “and” in the “one-and-two-and-three…”). When the singing starts, it’s not yet the sweet, harmony-laced offering one might expect from singing sisters with guitars but rather a blurted, conversational, idiosyncratically-phrased vocal from Bethany. And when she’s finally joined by her sister Jennifer, the first harmony we get is actually dissonant (check out the “oo”-ing at about 0:27). Even the chorus, with its delightful, light-stepping, drum-brushed momentum, has a vaguely off-center feel, thanks to how the melody lags friskily behind the song’s driving beat.

And yet the Ericksons are not actively quirky in the manner of, say, Ani DiFranco, or, for that matter, any of the so-called “freak folk” crowd. If anything, the cumulative effect of the peppy “Box of Letters” is of two performers who are, simply, loose and unaffected. The song’s quiet eccentricities—many of which have to do with vocal phrasing—seem organic rather than mannered, and each delivers a pleasant little surprise when encountered. I particularly like the crazy little flourish the women give to their “oo-oos” around 1:54, and the way the song ends with the instruments fading away while the sung note is held maybe a tad longer than expected.

“Box of Letters” is from the album Don’t Be Scared, Don’t Be Alarmed, the duo’s second, released this past fall. Thanks to Robbie at Girlysounds for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Alexa Wilding (NYC singer/songwriter w/ compelling ambiance)

Talk about engaging the ear, what do you make of the weird chord Alexa Wilding plunks into the middle of her guitar-picking intro? It’s so odd it makes everything after it sound out of tune for a moment, until your mind adjusts, kind of, to the unexpected intrusion.

Alexa Wilding

“Black Diamond Day” – Alexa Wilding

Talk about engaging the ear, what do you make of the weird chord Alexa Wilding plunks into the middle of her guitar-picking intro? It’s so odd it makes everything after it sound out of tune for a moment, until your mind adjusts, kind of, to the unexpected intrusion.

Wilding’s voice is also part of the slightly jarring but compelling ambiance. A forthright soprano with a piercing quality to the upper register, it’s a voice I’ve seen described elsewhere as “witchy,” and I guess that’ll do. (Voices are so hard to describe. It’s worse than wine.) In the end I think what makes the song work so well for me is the melodic line that we hear, first, beginning at 0:37 (“I’ll obey whatever you say”)—it begins with an extra two beats, setting the lyrics off the regular 4/4 rhythm of the opening lines, and it finishes with spiffy chord progression that takes the resolution to the left, somehow, of what you may have been anticipating. Structurally, this line is B in a verse where the melody goes AABC (i.e. first two lines the same, musically; the second two each different). This “B” line is the most striking of the four but we hear it just that once each time through. It tantalizes, draws you in, then leaves you hanging—until the fourth verse, when the musical line finally repeats (so it’s AABB) through a second lyrical line (“Why do you think I come here today?”) and it’s so satisfying now to hear it twice, and she knows it, and gives it to us two more times as the melody to the delayed, minimal chorus. The song is an impressionistic tale of the complexities of fulfilled passion, and the music does a nice job of mirroring both the doubts and the delights.

Alexa Wilding is a New York City born and bred singer/songwriter who has just released her debut eight-song EP, self-titled. That’s where you’ll find “Black Diamond Day.” No apparent relationship to the old Dylan story-song gem “Black Diamond Bay.” MP3 via Wilding’s site.

Free and legal MP3: The Innocence Mission (lovely, pure, acoustic toe-tapper)

Innocence Mission

“God is Love” – The Innocence Mission

Karen Peris, long-time front woman for the Innocence Mission, has an idiosyncratic purr of a voice, part velvet part parchment; it alternately soothes and cracks, sometimes doing both at once. She has an unplaceable accent and likes to sing of simple things out there from her Lancaster County abode, comfy in the 20-plus-years’ presence of her bandmate husband Don and his bandmate childhood friend Mike Bitts. The trio’s new album, My Room in the Trees, their ninth, is full of the outdoors, of weather and leaves and water and quiet neighborhoods. It is lovely, and this is one of the lovely songs on it, but with more of a toe-tapping beat than most of the others, with jazz-flecked acoustic guitar chords, gentle percussion, and what sounds like a hushed horn or woodwind but is actually a combination of pump organ, chromatic harmonica, and melodica, all played by Karen.

And given our fractious age, with tolerance and intolerance locked in misery on the cultural dance floor, I feel a need to comment briefly on the subject matter. Despite the title’s centrality to the lyrics, this is not an overtly religious song; its spiritual message in fact is so deeply ecumenical as to unify all but the most strident fundamentalists fuming away on the two extreme sides of the God-existence argument. I’ve seen one online review take the song to task for its lyrical simplicity, a criticism that never fails to amuse me. Ninety percent of all songs have simple lyrics. That’s why they’re songs. They rise or fall on the depth of the music, which can also appear simple in many cases. This song’s simplicity is part of its allure; purity has a place in our ears and hearts. Not a lot of indie music explores this place; I give these guys a lot of credit for making it look, and sound, as easy and comfortable as a conversation with old friends.

Which these guys, recording together since 1989, surely are. My Room in the Trees was released last week on Badman Recording Co.

Free and legal MP3: Postdata (hushed, echoey, portentous ballad)

Postdata

“Tobias Grey” – Postdata

I missed this one when it came out back at the beginning of the year, but it was probably one of those on-purpose accidents, as there is something in this hushed, portentous, echoey acoustic ballad that resonates with me in the middle of this seriously wacked-out weather. There’s a stifling stillness in the air during a heat wave, you don’t even have to go outside to feel it, it seeps through the building’s walls, suffuses the remedial air conditioning, makes effort—any effort—sad and impossible. This song is kind of like that, only pretty, also. Bonus for particularly relevant lyrics
(“Sometimes the weather don’t change/It just stays in the very same place”).

And it’s all so very quiet, with whispery vocals, tightly recorded acoustic guitar (you can hear fingers squeaking on the strings), and a really effective keyboard drone in the background, grounding the piece in something electric and threatening.

Postdata is a Canadian duo featuring Paul Murphy of the band Wintersleep and his brother Michael. The self-titled, self-released album has been out since January. The songs were born during a visit to their parents’ home in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. They were recorded on a laptop originally, then reworked a bit some months later in Halifax—mics, at least, were added, but they still used the laptop. So if you hear some lo-fi distortion here, that’s why. And for once I don’t really mind the roughness of the recording because the intimacy isn’t compromised—it might even be augmented.

Free and legal MP3: Jen Olive (undulating acoustic guitar, layered vocals)

A swirly, heady stew of loop-addled acoustic guitar and shimmering layers of vocals, “Wire Wire” feels rich and complex while still offering the simple pleasure of a good melody, smartly delivered. While comparisons are at once inevitable and instructive–Björk meets Jane Siberry meets Juana Molina is one way to conceive of her sound–I am enchanted by the head-turning newness of the end result.

“Wire Wire” – Jen Olive

A swirly, heady stew of loop-addled acoustic guitar and shimmering layers of vocals, “Wire Wire” feels rich and complex while still offering the simple pleasure of a good melody, smartly delivered. While comparisons are at once inevitable and instructive–Björk meets Jane Siberry meets Juana Molina is one way to conceive of her sound–I am enchanted by the head-turning newness of the end result. Olive writes outside the box of the beat, floating the melodic line in the verse like elusive tinsel that decorates the tree without touching the branches. The warm sturdiness of the short chorus becomes all the more delectable, almost mysteriously so; she sings, “I could get/Lost in it/No regret,” to a straightforward melody that out of context might not strike your ear and yet here hooks and nourishes in a wonderful, almost uncanny way.

I have no idea how someone could conceive of writing this sort of song and it may well be because no one person did; it turns out that Warm Robot, Olive’s new album, is the product of a unique collaboration between the singer/songwriter and Andy Partridge, who personally signed her to his Ape House Records label. (The XTC front man has called Olive “this astounding allegro algorithm from Albuquerque.”) She recorded the basic tracks–guitar and voice and some idiosyncratic percussion sketches made on found objects like kids’ blocks and wine bottles–and Partridge arranged and enhanced to create the final songs. The two didn’t meet face to face until the album was already finished.

The Ape House blog by the way has a two-part podcast online featuring the entire album with track-by-track commentary by Olive, worth checking out if you have time.

And I stand corrected on the loop business. Which makes this song all the more original, says me.

Free and legal MP3: Emily Jane White (lovely, stark, textured, and sad)

“It’s not my job to create happy music,” says Emily Jane White, a San Francisco-based singer/songwriter. “I’m okay with that.” This may be a tricky stance to maintain for a long career, but you and I can be okay with that too for now if the end result is something as lovely, stark, and textured as “Liza.” Sure, there’s surface-level sadness in the air, but the music, while reasonably simple, offers an enticing depth of sound and spirit right from the outset.

“Liza” – Emily Jane White

“It’s not my job to create happy music,” says Emily Jane White, a San Francisco-based singer/songwriter. “I’m okay with that.” This may be a tricky stance to maintain for a long career, but you and I can be okay with that too for now if the end result is something as lovely, stark, and textured as “Liza.” Sure, there’s surface-level sadness in the air, but the music, while reasonably simple, offers an enticing depth of sound and spirit right from the outset. The introduction alone is mysteriously satisfying, with its evocative blend of picked electric guitar and violin, and that repeat musical line at the finish, which makes me feel like I’ve just heard an entire story in 24 seconds.

Certainly White’s subtly toasted alto is well-suited to the “not happy” vibe, but I’m actually enjoying more her phrasing and delivery than her tone. It’s not too hard to sound gloomy; it’s hard to sound interesting while also sounding gloomy. I like her off-handed delivery, the way she manages to sound like she’s just deciding what to sing as she sings it, rather than reciting lyrics committed to memory–a particular feat in a song featuring not many lyrics in the first place. And why does the abrupt entrance of the drumming, at 1:51, sound like precisely the thing that needed to be there? Curious. The first verse, re-sung, is transformed by that insistent drum beat, which soon drives the violins into a double-time swirl, creating the feeling of a chase through the woods. The subsequent slowdown (2:56) is likewise sudden but somehow wonderful. We hear the first verse yet again. And that repeat finishing line from the introduction gets an extra repeat at the end of the song, exactly as required.

“Liza” is from White’s second full-length, Victorian America, set to be released next month on Milan Records. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3: The Antiques (free-flowing, acoustic-based indie rock)

“Airplane Blues” – the Antiques

Joey Barro is back, and he’s got his band with him this time. Featured here in January for a song from his solo album, which he recorded as the Traditionist, Barro has a somewhat more fleshed-out sound with his L.A.-based trio, the Antiques, but the appealing, brisk, acoustic-based stream-of-consciousness-esque vibe is still here, and that’s a good thing. The repeated refrain of “There are no more new ways to…” is a winner–it functions as the chorus structurally, but an endearing, irregular sort of chorus it is, lacking any fully repeated lyrical lines. From the outset the structure is clear, which allows the listener to await each iteration with curious anticipation. (Sample, from the first go-round: “There are no more new ways to tap your shoes/There are no more new ways to sing the blues.” My favorite comes later: “There are no more new ways to try to belong.”)

The thing that seals the entire song for me is the upward leap the melody takes in the middle of this “no more new ways” section, between the first third and fourth lines. Even though there’s nothing unusual about it, it’s still a delightful semi-surprise each time. This is why I’m suspicious of flagrant songwriting twists and tricks: something reasonably plain is often all it takes.

I have not been able to discern why it’s called “Airplane Blues,” but that could just be my characteristic lack of lyric focus (I hear phrases but not storylines). The song comes from Cicadas, the second Antiques album, which has had something of a slow-motion history. Recorded in ’07 (by Scott Solter, who is known for his work with John Vanderslice, Okkervil River, and the Mountain Goats), it was released on CD in ’08 on Banter Records, and then just last week given a digital release via Filter US Recordings. MP3 via Banter.

Free and legal MP3: William F. Gibbs (dreamy yet incisive piano ballad)

“Operate” – William F. Gibbs

He’s got a name like a character actor or a middle school principal, but he’s got the dreamy voice of a romantic troubadour, a guy who’s seen enough to abandon his dreams but hangs onto them anyway.

A steady, unhurried piano ballad with an immediately engaging melody, “Operate” comes alive via a combination of Gibbs’ singing (don’t miss the phased harmonies at 1:47) and some lovely, understated guitar work. From the outset, an acoustic guitar plays in tandem with the piano, but often just at the edges of awareness; sometimes you can hear fingers moving along strings more prominently than the actual notes, which adds to an interesting sort of tension the song sustains between movement and languidness. Best of all are the dreamy slide guitar licks that get a little showcase from 1:06 through 1:32, returning in only the most whispery way through the rest of the song.

“Operate” is a track from My Fellow Sophisticates, Gibbs’ debut CD, released earlier this month on Old Man Records.