Free and legal MP3: Sarah Lee Langford (authentic country goodness)

It’s gorgeous stuff, grounded in a melody as stern and lustrous as a sermon, all minor chords and heart-rending turns.

“Growing Up” – Sarah Lee Langford

I’d like to think I’d have noticed the beauty and strength of this song no matter when I first listened. But as it turned out, “Growing Up” crossed my desk while I was in the middle of watching the Ken Burns documentary on country music that recently aired on PBS. Were my ears therefore more open to the backwoods twang of the song more than they might previously have been? Quite possibly. The documentary, an extraordinary work, demonstrates two things: one, that you don’t have to think you like country music to be absorbed by the film; two, that understanding the history and the context of music can profoundly impact your reaction to it. And so while I might not go and listen to a bunch of George Jones records now (although maybe I might!), I find myself with an unprecedented (for me) regard for a lot of the music that has been conveniently if often simplistically labeled “country.”

And “Growing Up” surely has the earmarks of something you’d likely want to give this label to, complete with brisk Mother Maybelle guitar work, ghostly pedal steel lines, a shuffling front-porch beat, and vocals stripped of all gloss and pretense. It’s gorgeous stuff, grounded in a melody as stern and lustrous as a sermon, all minor chords and heart-rending turns. Langford lets the melodic descent do a lot of the work for her, but listen to how potently she wields standard country melisma (stereotypically employed in yelpy little yodels) to beautiful effect (e.g., “pill” at 0:52, “pocket” at 1:45, “up” at 2:04, and many others). As fine a singer as she is, she also lets the music breathe around her, allowing her top-notch backing band to stretch out in and around the verses, with restrained honky-tonk spirit and that steel guitar floating through the atmosphere.

“Growing Up” is a track from Two Hearted Rounder, Langford’s debut album, coming out next week on Cornelius Chapel Records.

Free and legal MP3: Southern Boutique (brilliant lo-fi-ish, ’70s-style country-rock)

As genuine and inviting a song as you are likely to hear in our prickly times.

Southern Boutique

“Joanna” – Southern Boutique

As genuine and inviting a song as you are likely to hear in our prickly times, “Joanna” flows with a melody so effortless I have to wonder why melody has so often left the building here in the 21st century. Isn’t it just this easy?

Well, no, I suppose it isn’t. As a matter of fact, I would suggest that the overwhelming challenge presented by melody has a lot to do with why we don’t encounter that much of it anymore—an unheralded side-effect, perhaps, of the Age of Instant Gratification. It’s so simple to make and distribute songs so quickly, why sidetrack the effort worrying about a potent melody? But I am digressing, when all I intend to do is salute the Austin trio Southern Boutique, whose collective gift for timeless craftsmanship should be the envy of their peers. And yet here is a band that struggles to crack merely 100 Facebook likes, and can’t offer me even one band photo to use with this review, as they don’t have any at all. I recently by the way read an article published on a music industry web site that claimed that any band with fewer than 1,000 Likes is “not worth paying attention to.” Me, I think people who write articles like that are not worth paying attention to. Aren’t we talking about who makes the best music here? Does that really not count anymore because The Internet? Okay, I digress again.

“Joanna” is almost too good to bother to describe, but if you want a handhold into its lo-fi-ish, ’70s-style country-rock brilliance, consider a few attributes. First, we have a 12-measure verse melody, which is often the sign of a mightily constructed song. And listen to how the verse gets extended into the 12 measures via lines that feel casually added on, starting around 0:29. Only really smart songwriters know how to do this. Next, listen to the mysteriously satisfying chord progression that drives the chorus (specifically from 1:05 to 1:10 the first time around), and listen to how the melody resolves while remaining entirely off the beat. Probably only smart songwriters know how to do this as well. And then, to show their know-how extends into all aspects of presentation, check out how they manage to slide the catchy part of the instrumental break all the way down to the bottom of the mix, as the song’s bouncy bass line, now sounding tuba-like, is here augmented by what may or may not be some very good-natured wordless vocals (listen to 1:45-1:50 specifically).

Southern Boutique rose from the dissolution earlier this year of the band Tiger Waves. “Joanna” is a song from the trio’s self-titled debut album, digitally released last month and available to listen to and download, in .wav format, via SoundCloud. While you’re at it, you can give them a like on Facebook too, if that’s your thing.

Free and legal MP3: Lydia Loveless

Hard-edged, alt-country-flavored

Lydia Loveless

“Boy Crazy” – Lydia Loveless

Twenty-two-year-old rabble-rouser Lydia Loveless returns with another mercurial slice of hard-edged, smartly sung alt-country-flavored rock’n’roll. A talent to be reckoned with, Loveless knows how to put a song together from top to bottom, showing an accomplished grasp of structure and texture that renders her impressive vocal skills all the more striking. And while I don’t know how directly involved she is in production decisions, the fact that she in any case knows enough to end up in this setting speaks well for her vision. I am particularly taken with the combination we get here of limber bass work and droning guitar lines, which lies at the center of the song’s vigorous blend of bash and agility. I like loud stuff best when performed by folks who still seem to be paying attention to what’s going on around them.

Loveless was previously featured here in April 2012, and you should definitely check out that review if you want to learn a bit about her somewhat unusual past. The bottom line is whatever she’s been through and whatever combination of nature and nurture gave her her musical know-how, she’s a live wire who sings from somewhere deep inside; sparks fly from her smallest, instinctive shifts. Listen, for instance, to the end of the first time through the chorus, where one moment she tosses off a guttural “Uhh!” (1:58) only to swing seamlessly into a measure of lovely “oo-oo”-ing. I’m not sure you can teach that or even plan for it. And then, at the same place, the second time we hear the chorus, check out how she at once belts and breathes out the words “hit a home run” (3:15), somehow wrapping desire and frustration into one evanescent package.

“Boy Crazy” is the title track to a five-song EP released earlier this month on Bloodshot Records. The EP is currently streaming at American Songwriter. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Denver (country roots, both laid back & incisive)

With its ambling backbeat and lonesome pedal steel guitar,”The Way It Is” has the spacious, laid-back authority of some ’70s piece of pre-Americana.

Denver

“The Way It Is” – Denver

With its ambling backbeat and lonesome pedal steel guitar,”The Way It Is” has the spacious, laid-back authority of some ’70s piece of pre-Americana. Which we might as well just call country. At the same time, it manages an incisiveness that is almost unsettling; you just don’t expect a song with this kind of scruffy, dirty-booted ambiance to be focused enough to finish up under three minutes. Denver pulls off this magic trick by forsaking the instrumental break, and just sticking to the musical facts: melody, accompaniment, and weary, achy-hearted singing.

“The Way It Is” launches off an smooth, two-chord vamp, Neil Young-ish in character. As with the Hermit Crabs song above, the verse is a succinct two lines; in this case, however, it leads into a chorus that is fat with resolution, using a descending bass line to anchor a determined series of classic chords. The melody takes one solid step up and tumbles incrementally down a satisfying perfect fifth. The lyrics, meanwhile, blaze with unpretentious majesty, if I haven’t managed to coin a double or triple oxymoron: “There’s things in the world that I know nothing about,” laments the song’s narrator, without pity, “And that’s just the way it is.” You and me both, pal.

Denver is named more for feeling than geography; the six-man band is actually based in Portland, and features three guys from Alela Diane’s band Wild Divine, including Diane’s husband Tom Bevitori and two from Blitzen Trapper. (Diane and band were featured together here in March 2011.) Five others are said to “rotate” through the lineup. The band’s debut album was recorded and engineered at the home of a friend’s mother—“Drums in the living room, singer in the bedroom, four-track cassette recorder, cases of beer, whiskey, sandwiches and a sunny porch,” is how band co-founder Birger Olsen has described it. The self-titled album was released in mid-August on Portland-based Mama Bird Recording Co.

Free and legal MP3: Lydia Loveless

Alt-country, no holds barred

Lydia Loveless

“Learn to Say No” – Lydia Loveless

Just 21, Loveless sings from a deep reserve of heart, soul, and older-than-her-years affliction. A cursory listen puts this one in the alt-country-with-an-attitude box (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but closer inspection reveals a gratifying depth to both her singer and songwriter sides.

To begin with there’s her voice, a potent combination of anger and sadness; she navigates the pain-filled lyrics (“Why does it take so much out of me/To be this weak?”) teetering between control and breakdown. You can hear it in the tiniest moments, like the way she sings the word “I” in the phrase “when I’m usually wrong” (0:21)—there’s a lot of emotion buried in that condensed flutter that aches out and is quickly reeled back in. Or, the way she chokes out the word “someday” at the beginning of the the chorus the second time through (1:50). Reinforcing the impression that she probably never sings the same word the same way twice is a song that offers subtle changes throughout its development. We don’t hear the signature guitar riff until 1:10, and when the verses return after the chorus, the melody has been subtly changed, which you can hear most clearly at the pause that appears at 1:27—a nice moment that has no equivalent point when the verses were initially presented.

Loveless, raised in rural Ohio, has a complicated back story, but the upshot is she has been playing professionally since she was 13 and quickly fell into habits and behaviors not necessarily associated with the middle-school-aged, to put it delicately. After being in the new-wavey band Carson Drew with her sisters and her father, Loveless released her first solo album in 2010. “Learn To Say No” is from album number two, Indestructible Machine, which has been out on Bloodshot Records since September. The song has been floating around the internet since at least December but it just came to my attention last week, thanks to Largehearted Boy. MP3 via Bloodshot Records, and there’s one more free and legal MP3 from the album available via the record company. Note that the label also sells a beverage cooler/holder that says “DRINK MORE. LOVE LESS,” which has a certain pugnacious charm about it.