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.


“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: Blessed Feathers (beautifully sung, w/ banjo)

Jacquelyn Beaupre’ sings as if placing each note in a favored location—a bright windowsill full of keepsakes, perhaps, or a tree-trunk altar along a wooded, late-summer path—and then letting them go, no big deal.

Blessed Feathers

“Stinging Nettle, Honeysuckle” – Blessed Feathers

I’ve got another banjo song for you, somehow. Another wonderful one. Go figure.

“Stinging Nettle, Honeysuckle” is sold to me via singer Jacquelyn Beaupre’ (apostrophe included), whose sweet, determined voice blends breathy innocence with grounded certainty. She sings as if placing each note in a favored location—a bright windowsill full of keepsakes, perhaps, or a tree-trunk altar along a wooded, late-summer path—and then letting them go, no big deal. There are always more notes to sing. And don’t get too attached to her anyway because she’s likely to wander away sooner than later.

The banjo this time is plucky and thoughtful. The ambiance is ancient-folky, as the title too suggests, even as there’s likewise something snappy and contemporary in the melody and presentation. I especially like the way a certain kind of lo-fi reverb is used to scuff the background without taking over the sound. The backing vocals receive this treatment, and it turns out there’s also some persistent underlying white noise in the mix which becomes audible only when the song comes to a full stop around 2:21. Pay attention to Beaupre’ right after that as she gives us a dainty cough before continuing. I really like that cough.

Blessed Feathers is a trio that was founded as a duo. The band bio begins: “Jacquelyn Beaupre’ plays everything. Donivan Berube plays everything else.” Beaupre’ and Berube are also girlfriend-boyfriend. The recently-arrived third player is Jordan Knowles, who handles percussion. “Stinging Nettle, Honeysuckle” is from the album From the Mouths of the Middle Class, the band’s second, released this week on Listening Party Records. You can buy the digital album for whatever price you’d like or you can buy a limited-edition vinyl album for $15, both via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Like Pioneers (Americana-ish, from Chicago side project)

While many great songs catch your ear through an obvious hook, others employ something I’m inclined to think of as a “moment”—a time and place in the song that sticks with you, that you look forward to each time you hear it, but yet is not big and bold and catchy enough to think of as a hook.

Like Pioneers

“Gift From a Holiday” – Like Pioneers

While many great songs catch your ear through an obvious hook, others employ something I’m inclined to think of as a “moment”—a time and place in the song that sticks with you, that you look forward to each time you hear it, but yet is not big and bold and catchy enough to think of as a hook. Songs with moments rather than hooks can sometimes be even more alluring, because on the one hand the appeal is slightly more mysterious and on the other hand the end result can maybe seem more, I don’t know, organic—in that sometimes a big hook, however good it is, draws almost too much attention to itself. A moment, such as I’m trying to describe it, seems to flow straight from the energy of the song, whereas a hook, perhaps, flows sometimes too obviously from the mind of the songwriter, if that distinction even makes sense.

In any case, I hear the loose-limbed, Americana-tinged “A Gift From a Holiday” as a song with a moment, and that moment is in the casually delivered chorus, specifically that part of it when the rhythm of the lyrics changes, and orients for an extended line into three-syllable clumps (e.g. “wooden bench,” “left you on,” “crumbling”—and yes that last one is not strictly three syllables but is here pronounced that way). It’s an arresting moment, seeming to arise naturally from the story, and yet also with an air of oddness about it. What prompted that change, and how did this turn into the chorus? And what a strange chorus it is, lacking the sort of short, repeated phrase one expects, instead using two complete sets of lyrics with the same music, meaning we get another round of those syllable triplets (“picked me up,” “dragged me home,” et al), even more definitive-sounding this time. And not content for one good moment, “A Gift For a Holiday” offers another, beginning at 1:56, and it’s longer but still not really a hook. Here, the song shifts into a new section, neither chorus nor verse, with a sing-songy, declarative melody that repeats for 40 seconds before leading us into the extended instrumental section that becomes the song’s finale.

And maybe we can rightfully expect moment- rather than hook-songs from a project like this one, which gathered six musicians from a variety of Chicago-based bands (including Bound Stems and Chin Up Chin Up) over a couple of winter weekends just to make music, have fun, and see what happened. As it turned out, an album happened, which they called Piecemeal, reflecting the project’s makeshift origins. Released digitally this week via Abandoned Love Records, the album has also been available directly from the band via Bandcamp, where you can name your own price. MP3 via Abandoned Love.

Free and legal MP3: Judson Claiborne (Americana flavored, timeless)

“Song For Dreaming” – Judson Claiborne

A pleasantly droopy piece of Americana-flavored indie rock, with a sharp sense of melody and nicely integrated guitar work. Not only do the acoustic and electric guitars play beautifully in and around each other—the ear even loses track, somehow, of which is which at some points–but the lead electric lines are central to the song’s development. You don’t hear a lot of that kind of instrumental integration these days–what we hear instead all too often is a lot of what might be called instrumental hipsterism, when sounds are used merely to be unusual—and it lends something deep and timeless to this casually-paced song.

Judson Claiborne is a stage name adopted by the singer/songwriter Chris Salveter, of Chicago, who previously sang and played guitar for the band Low Skies. But the name also seems, maybe, to have turned into the band’s name; half the material I find online refers to Judson Claiborne as a band, an impression aided by current press material showing five people in a photo labeled Judson Claiborne. In any case, it’s Salveter up front, singing a melody with wistful leaps that accentuate both the warmth and idiosyncrasies of his informal, slightly quivering voice. He’s got a touch of Jim James in there, a touch of Roy Orbison even, for crying out loud, but he never goes too far, always retreats into seeming more like a guy who happened to wander up to a microphone and who’s happy just to play guitar than any kind of self-styled crooner.

The pseudonym and/or band name by the way comes from combining a first name his father had wanted to name him (his mother: nope, “too redneck”) and a last name from ancestors on his father’s side of the family. “Song For Dreaming” is from Time and Temperature, slated for release next month on La Société Expéditionnaire, a Pennsylvania-based label. MP3 via La Soc. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Free and legal MP3: The Blueflowers (reverb-laced and twangy, w/ dreamy melody)

“I Wasn’t Her” – the Blueflowers

Relaxed, reverb-laced tale of woe from a Detroit-based quintet that’s new on the scene but features musicians with a lot of experience, including two–guitarist Tony Hamera and vocalist Kate Hinote (can that be her real name? “High note”?)–who had previously fronted Ether Aura, a dream pop band with a bit of a following in the ’90s. Not to sound like a broken record on the matter, but I continue not to understand music culture’s relentless focus on newcomers when music itself is so enriched by the background and experience of the players. I don’t think musicians can sound simultaneously so laid-back and so compelling without years of playing under their belts.

In any case, dream pop is ostensibly out the door this time in favor of an old-fashioned sort of Americana that offers echoes of hard-core country and western in its slo-mo twang and steel-pedal sorrow. And yet I’m hearing in the song’s central hook—when Hinote, silkily, sings “You weren’t everything that I wanted” in the chorus—something that comes from outside the genre in which the band appears to be operating. That is not by any means a country and western melody, and hearing it here makes me realize rather abruptly that there is in fact a musical place in which C&W and dream pop are not at all far apart, given both genres’ love of reverb and dolor. Being so personally against the over-genre-ization of music, I love when the borders grow foggy, and find myself drawn again and again to songs that can’t be given a simple genre tag.

“I Wasn’t Her” can be found on the band’s self-released debut album, Watercolor Ghost Town, released in June. MP3 via; thanks to the blog Hits in the Car for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Deer Tick (gruff but lovable quasi-Americana)

“Easy” – Deer Tick

For a band with roots in Rhode Island, this one has something of the big, lonesome prairie about it, provided that you put a garage somewhere in the middle of that prairie and plugged a guitar or two into it. We’ll need a drum kit too. And a carton of cigarettes.

After the spaghetti western surf rock of the rumbly introduction, the immediate thing that will impress you (or, not) about “Easy” is the roughened—well, okay, strangled—tone of front man John Joseph McCauley III. Perhaps an acquired taste, or perhaps something you won’t want to hear for more than three or four minutes at a time, but I urge you to ride this one out because the thing that ultimately gives this song its power is, I think, the juxtaposition of McCauley’s sore-throated rasp and the urgent poise of its simple, well-crafted music. Listen to how the galloping verses leave you aching for resolution and how well the rock-solid chorus delivers it: an uncomplicated melody perched upon a flowing guitar line, everything shot through with the deep-seated authenticity of folk music, along with a shot of un-self-conscious ’70s southern rock.

Deer Tick began in 2004 as pretty much just McCauley, supported by a variety of side musicians. The band became a duo in ’07, and has evolved since then to a full-fledged quartet, now based in Brooklyn, like everybody else. “Easy” is the lead track off Deer Tick’s second album, Born on Flag Day, which will be released next month on Partisan Records, also based in Brooklyn. MP3 originally via Partisan, now via Better Propaganda.