Free and legal MP3: Strand of Oaks (anthemic indie rock)

This may be a slow build, but it’s not just a tedious beat; there are expressive lyrics, and, best of all, an impressively well-built melody.

Strand of Oaks

“Weird Ways” – Strand of Oaks

I am not often a fan of the slow build, I will admit that up front. In particular I usually run screaming from songs that have introductions that are both slow and long; bonus (negative) points for being overly repetitious. I’m always thinking, “This is a friggin’ pop song! Get to the point!”

But what we have here with “Weird Ways” is a slow build I’m down with. For one thing, the singing starts right away. This may be a slow build, but it’s not just a tedious beat; there are expressive lyrics, and, best of all, an impressively well-built melody. Things may not entirely cohere in your ear during this slow introductory section, but when the song opens up at 1:30, abetted now by riff and backbeat, we soon get re-introduced to the opening melody and can hear it now in all its anthemic glory. This is the kind of melody that feels classic as soon as you hear it in this setting.

A minute later, the song veers into misty reverie, but with enough texture and pulse to keep things interesting. A minute after that, a head-bobbing bridge, with layered vocals, leads into a big-time guitar solo. The bridge returns nearly a minute later, with additional drama in the vocal layers, culminating in a portentous sustain that closes things out. So much going on! But wait a minute. What happened to that anthemic melody? We hear the last of it at around the two-and-a-half-minute mark of a nearly six-minute song. As a listener, this is maybe slightly frustrating but also slyly engaging. Look, Strand of Oaks mastermind Timothy Showalter could have easily given us more of that haunting refrain but consciously decided not to. Part of it relates to the wise dictum of “Always leave them wanting more.” But he could have done that with, simply, a short song. “Weird Ways” is a long song, but only about a minute of it delivers its rousing, straightforward hook. Given that the lyrics, as much as I can follow them, talk about leaving something established behind while finding an unanticipated new path, I’m surmising that the music here is intended as thematic corroboration. Maybe ear-pleasing melodies come too easily for Showalter; maybe his soul is calling him in another direction. Or, maybe I’m reading too much into what is no more or less than an excellent 21st-century rock song.

Born in Indiana and based in Philadelphia, Showalter has now recorded five studio albums as Strand of Oaks, plus an adjunct album of demos, b-sides, and alternate takes. “Weird Ways” is the opening track on his most recent album, Eraserland, released earlier this year. MP3 via KEXP. You can buy Eraserland (digital, CD, vinyl) at Bandcamp. (Thanks to Glorious Noise for the screen cap!)

Free and legal MP3: Sharon Van Etten (forceful, introspective rock’n’roll)

A heavy beat offsets a desultory piano line, synthesizers at once ferocious and distant blaze around the edges, guitars eventually squonk onto the scene, all while Van Etten sings poetically of longing, nostalgia, and destiny.

Sharon Van Etten

“Seventeen” – Sharon Van Etten

Rock’n’roll evolves, shifts, mutates—and persists. Anyone who doubts this need only listen to “Seventeen,” which performs the magic trick of weaving a classic-sounding song out of strands and blocks of sounds and textures that never quite existed in music’s “classic rock” heyday. A heavy beat offsets a desultory piano line, synthesizers at once ferocious and distant blaze around the edges, guitars eventually squonk onto the scene, all while Van Etten sings poetically of longing, nostalgia, and destiny—lyrics at once concrete and slippery, a deft interweaving of adult and teen-aged introspection that as a listener you intuit more than comprehend. The song rumbles and, eventually, roars. A master of subtle melodic gestures, Van Etten along the way crafts a chorus that slays with muted glory.

Some commentators hear Bruce Springsteen in the anthemic energy of this song, and while I get the comparison, leaving it at that diminishes Van Etten’s accomplishment. She’s no knock-off. The entire album in fact strikes my ear as a brilliant example of how to be a 21st-century rock’n’roller—taking the bones of archetypal rock music (“Seventeen” has a backbeat; you can’t lose it) and then planting your own individual 2019 self, with all its accumulated know-how and influences, right into the heart of it. Since we last heard from SVE (2014’s Are We There), she has become an actor, a film composer, a mother, and a graduate student in psychology. Which is just to say that she has quite a formidable self to align with one type of creative expression or another. When it came time to record a new album, she opted for a producer, John Congleton, known for synth-pop stylings, and arrived at the studio inspired by the dark, reverberant music of Portishead and Nick Cave. Something arresting was bound to come of all of this, and it did in the form of the enigmatic but majestic Remind Me Tomorrow, which was released in January on Jagjaguwar Records. That’s where you’ll find “Seventeen.”

Van Etten feels like an old friend by now because of the Eclectic Playlist Series, but this is only the second time she’s had a download featured here; if you missed “Serpents” back in 2011, you’re in luck: the free and legal MP3 is still available. Meanwhile, you can listen to Remind Me Tomorrow, and then buy it, on Bandcamp, where it is available digitally, on CD, or on vinyl. And in case you missed it, another song from the album, the brilliant “No One’s Easy To Love,” closes out (and provides the title for) this past month’s playlist, here.

MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: The Rebel Light (anthemic summery goodness)

This a great, must-hear summer song, now that we’re smack in the middle of summer here in the northern hemisphere.

The Rebel Light

“Where Did All The Love Go” – The Rebel Light

This a great, must-hear summer song, now that we’re smack in the middle of summer here in the northern hemisphere. The minor detail is that this song came out last summer—it fell through the cracks here, as music often does, due the unprecedented volume of recorded musical activity that entreats us in the 2010s. Apologies up front to the fine fellows of The Rebel Light, who have been dolling out delightful indie rock goodness since 2013, and were previously featured here in October 2014.

“Where Did All The Love Go” is upbeat in a languid way, has happy string riffs, is easy to sing along with, and is all about love: perfect summer song, yes? What seals the deal is that the song is not lyrically cheerful, but shot through with wistful ruminations. What is a summer song without a shot of wistfulness? Barely a summer song at all, in my book.

I like how effortlessly this trio call forth bygone musical times without caving in to pure nostalgia. There is nothing frozen here as they call forth a’70s-in-California sound; instead, they tap into the heart of anthemic pop music that knows no time or space (although has been too often kicked to the curb since the mid-’00s or so). To accentuate the song’s sing-along quality, the band gives us two different versions, lyrically, of the same chorus, and it works because they have landed on a classic-sounding melody here, leaking all sorts of references out its sides but asserting itself as its own new thing right here and now.

“Where Did All The Love Go” is a track from the band’s most recent effort, a five-song EP entitled, appropriately enough, A Hundred Summer Days, released last August on Dualtone Records. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Shiv Hurrah (gentle, stately DIY)

Shiv Hurrah mastermind David Bechle has a hint of songwriting genius about him, as far as I can tell.

Shiv Hurrah

“Girl in the Snow” – Shiv Hurrah

So this one is gentle in a grounded way that most quiet lo-fi songs don’t tend to be; too often gentle in lo-fi land tends towards the inordinately twee. And not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I am super impressed with the poise and sense of purpose on display here. And most of all with the melodic wallop. Shiv Hurrah mastermind David Bechle has a hint of songwriting genius about him, as far as I can tell. (His song “Oh Oh Oh,” featured here in 2010, was a brilliant diamond in the rough, offering up one of the best melodies I’ve yet encountered here on Fingertips.)

“Girl in the Snow”‘s simple, palpable power is reinforced by the odd but decisive choice to bring a clarinet into the mix. Even more oddly, it’s an instrument that Bechle himself had never played but in this case borrowed an instrument, learned the part, and played it himself anyway. I am far more in awe of that than I will ever be by a beat someone makes, but that’s just me being old-school again.

When last we left the Rochester, NY-based Shiv Hurrah in 2010 they were kind-of/sort-of a band, but in the years since the project has become Bechle’s baby, even as his former band mates remain good friends and are intermittently available for ideas and input. The new Shiv Hurrah album is Bechle’s second; it’s called Antiquarios and is available to listen to and purchase via Bandcamp. And, if you must know, because I needed to, the project name is a play on the renowned Bollywood songwriting tandem of Shivkumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia, who are known as Shiv-Hari.

Thanks to the band (i.e., David) for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: The Tins(quirky and anthemic)

Whatever musical amalgam this is, whatever sub-sub-genre today’s musical classifiers want to slot this into, I like rock’n’roll that sounds like this and am grateful there are still bands out there doing whatever this happens to be.

The Tins

“Let It Go” – The Tins

An offbeat blend of the quirky and the anthemic, “Let It Go” has a stop-starty vibe that fidgets against its 4/4 time signature in an appealing way. Add some tasty suspended chords into the framework, augment with synth sounds hijacked from the ’80s, and finish off with an impossible-to-resist shouty group-singing chorus and the song sends me into a very happy place. Whatever musical amalgam this is, whatever sub-sub-genre it falls into, I like rock’n’roll that sounds like this and am grateful there are still bands out there doing whatever this happens to be.

Above and beyond the general coolness of the song, allow me to draw your attention to the instrumental break that begins at 2:02. On top of a chugging bass line we first hear a rather homely synthesizer sketching out a pleasant, alternative melody over a minimized background in a one-finger-plunking kind of way. The way the interval-happy melody perseveres through eight measures, and nearly 20 seconds, is almost notable by itself but check out what happens next: the melody repeats with a fuller, more driven accompaniment and with the synth line fleshed out with two hands. The melody is transformed from pleasant to essential, and the song is given an unexpected, interstitial-based climax. Leading into one more chorus, this moment is then bookended by another unforeseen move as the song withdraws in size and volume, fading out with a delightful lesson in the value of less over more.

“Let It Go” is from Young Blame, an EP the Tins released in July. The Buffalo-based trio has one full-length and another EP previously to their name. You can listen to and purchase the EP
via Bandcamp. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Ages and Ages (anthemic group-sung indie rock)

An ambling, deftly-building piece of homespun wisdom that centers around a swaying, repeating, group-sung chorus. Slightly goofy yet genuinely inspiring.

Ages and Ages

“Divisionary (Do the Right Thing)” – Ages and Ages

The fine line between good-catchy and bad-catchy remains indistinct. And, of course, one person’s good-catchy may be another’s bad-catchy. But I do have two basic guidelines. First, there has to be an actual melody. Mindless repetition, or silly chanting, for me, is bad-catchy, not good-catchy. Secondly, there should be a sense of softness to counteract the unavoidable bluntness of aiming to be catchy in the first place. Neither ears nor minds generally speaking like to be bludgeoned without respite. And by softness I am not talking about volume; I simply mean I want to sense the humanity in the music. Lord knows the songwriting factories behind most of today’s Top 40 (arguably a more homogeneous-sounding Top 40 than at most other points in pop music history) have taken formulaic bad-catchiness to new heights (or depths), with robotic sheen and mercenary techniques obliterating any whiff of palpable human-being-ness.

“Divisionary (Do the Right Thing)” is an antidote to that kind of musical conception and delivery. An ambling, deftly-building piece of homespun wisdom, the song centers around a swaying, repeating, group-sung chorus that manages the neat trick of sounding both goofy and inspiring. While the song employs one recurring melody for both verse and chorus, it adds depth and interest via heedful instrumentation and a variety of counter-melodies that rise in conjunction with the chorus as the band forges onward with redoubtable exuberance.

The title track to the band’s new album, “Divisionary” has been floating around the internet for a few months, but only recently, to my knowledge, became available as a free and legal MP3, via NPR Music’s excellent SXSW-related cache of downloads. The album was released on Partisan Records at the end of March. Ages and Ages is a seven-member band from Portland, and were featured previously on Fingertips in August 2011.

Free and legal MP3: Dinosaur Bones (crunchy & unresolved)

We are agitated from the start, but in a way that hooks you, like a cliffhanger in a plot line.

Dinosaur Bones

“Sleepsick” – Dinosaur Bones

Longtime visitors here may be aware of the soft spot I have for suspended and unresolved chords. To oversimplify matters, both of these types of chords just don’t sound settled when you hear them—a suspended chord because it replaces one of the “right” notes in the chord with a “wrong” note, an unresolved chord because it is leading the ear to a subsequent chord that ends up not arriving. This song’s driving, crunching introduction is especially drive-y crunchy because it’s all about suspended and unresolved chords. We are agitated from the start, but in a way that hooks you, like a cliffhanger in a plot line.

In “Sleepsick,” resolution is kept at bay, not just through the introduction but through the entire two-part verse, all 30-plus seconds of which unfold over one suspended chord. This is pretty fine songwriting right there: the melody is full of interesting intervals and effective drama, but it’s all on top of that one itchy chord. The slight processing applied to the lead vocals amplifies the claustrophobia somehow. When the chord finally shifts, at 0:48, all nearby ears break into applause—almost anything would sound like a resolution by now, but this anthemic round of alternating major/minor chords seems particularly gratifying. And yet we get just one iteration of the chorus and we are back without fuss (1:04) to the fretful world of the verse. Only when the chorus comes back, at 1:37, do we feel more fully resolved, as it is now allowed to repeat, which it really needed to the first time but didn’t. Note near 1:59 the subtle change of chord in the second line of the chorus during the repeat, on the line “Hiding from the light outside”—an almost indiscernible happening that adds elusive richness, especially in a song as stingy and purposeful with its chords as this one is. And, speaking of purposeful chords, don’t miss the song’s final gesture: the ominous (and unresolved) chord on which the song ends, with a long fade-out, beginning at 3:13.

Dinosaur Bones is a five-piece band from Toronto. “Sleepsick” is from their second album, Shaky Dream, released last month on Dine Alone Records. You can download the track from the link above, as usual, or via SoundCloud. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Free and legal MP3: Jay Arner (both pensive & anthemic)

Brisk, concise, and allusive, “Don’t Remind Me” is a fine song for any lingering summer evenings that remain, while hinting at the chill yet to come.

Jay Arner

“Don’t Remind Me” – Jay Arner

Vancouver multi-instrumentalist Jay Arner here performs the estimable trick of creating a pensive anthem. The pensiveness is heard in the song’s continued reliance on both minor and suspended chords, as well as in Arner’s naturally reticent singing voice. Even the title is oddly introspective for a command, as well as ambiguous: when you tell someone “Don’t remind me,” you are typically talking about something you’re already dwelling on; on the other hand, spoken seriously, the sentence can nearly be a threat.

The song’s stellar chorus serves as a pithy distillation of the entire composition, its air of yearning, sing-along-iness at once undermined and enriched by something more slippery and reflective. Arner keeps his voice mixed a little bit further down than we might hear in a typical anthemic rocker, and even in the chorus keeps finishing his melodic lines on top of one of those suspended chords of his. He even buries the power-poppy lead guitar line nearly below audibility, forcing the ear to listen for something it may not even realize is there. Brisk, concise, and allusive, “Don’t Remind Me” is a fine song for any lingering summer evenings that remain, while hinting at the chill yet to come.

Arner has previously made a career from being in bands and/or producing and/or remixing other people’s music. His self-titled solo debut was released in late June on Mint Records. I like that “Don’t Remind Me” is the seventh track of ten; that alone speaks to Arner’s thoughtfulness. You can download the song the usual way, via the link above, or head to SoundCloud and contribute some bandwidth back to Fingertips by downloading over there.

Free and legal MP3: Matt Mays (frank, spirited rock’n’roll)

We have wailing guitars, we have a pounding keyboard, and most of all we have an upward-surging minor-key melody so succinct and irresistible that Mays builds both verse and chorus upon it.

Matt Mays

“Take It On Faith” – Matt Mays

Could it be that popular music has been splintered and digitized and compressed and remixed and mashed up for so long now that the surest, freest sign of authenticity and revolt in 2013 is nothing more or less than a frank, spirited rock’n’roll song?

Well, okay, maybe not. But “Take It On Faith” is surely a frank and spirited rock’n’roll song, with old-school drive and new-school…something or another. Actually, I’m not quite sure what makes this sound current and alive but it does, to me, in that there is nothing nostalgic or pandering going on here. We have wailing guitars, we have a pounding keyboard, and most of all we have an upward-surging minor-key melody so succinct and irresistible that Mays builds both verse and chorus upon it. And while yes there is something Springsteen-esque in Mays’ scuffed-up baritone, the vibe here feels more nimble and quicksilver-like than a 60-something rock’n’roll deity can traffic in any longer. A particular favorite moment of mine here is how the chorus retreats after the second iteration of the words “take it on faith” (0:57), with Mays backing off the anthemic melody to grumble something low and indecipherable. It feels unexpected, real, and alluring.

“Take It On Faith” is from the album Coyote, which was released on Halifax-based Sonic Records back in September. This is Mays’ third effort as a solo artist; he also has two albums released under the name Matt Mays & El Torpedo, most recently in 2008. That was when he was previously featured here. This song just recently came to the attention of the folks at Magnet Magazine, and that’s where it even more recently came to my attention. MP3 (once more) via Magnet.

photo credit: Devin McLean

Free and legal MP3: Mark Mallman (approachable tune from eccentric rocker)

Approachable helping of anthemic rock’n’roll, as 21st-century sounds mix with old-school touches.

Mark Mallman

“Double Silhouette” – Mark Mallman

Scratch below the surface of the well-known players on the one hand and the clamoring wannabes on the other and rock’n’roll remains, to this day, a universe peopled by any number of obscure toilers, many of whom have found a way of making it work for years on end. There are far more fully-formed characters out there on American stages than seems possible, or maybe even advisable.

Thirty-nine-year-old Mark Mallman is one of them. Emerging on the Minneapolis music scene in the late ’90s as part of a short-lived glam-rock parody band called The Odd, Mallman has been an eccentric and persistent presence there ever since, complete with wacky stage antics (playing keyboard solos in mid-air) and shticky concepts (onstage alter-ego: werewolf). Through the ’00s, he achieved a bit of notoriety for a series of unnaturally long concerts/performances he has given—so-called “Marathons” that have ranged in length from 26 to 78 hours. His most recent Marathon, number four, was done on the road in a van last month, involving 150 hours of non-stop music. I get press releases about such things and toss them in my “gimmick” folder. Ho hum. Then I actually thought to listen to the song. And well now. “Double Silhouette” is an easily approachable helping of anthemic rock’n’roll, mixing 21st-century sounds with some ineffable old-school touches—those deep chimes in the background feel inexplicably nostalgic, as do some of his vocal quirks (he’s channeling somebody there when he sings “Where everything is black and white” at 0:45, I just can’t put my finger on whom). I’m enjoying too his penchant for epigrammatic lyrics (“Nobody dies in nightmares/So I guess I must be living the dream”; “Won’t you join me on my road to ruin/’Cause it’s the only thing left worth pursuin'”; etc.); contemporary indie rock can surely do with a bit less obscurantism than we’ve been getting over the last decade.

“Double Silhouette” is the title track to Mallman’s new album, which will be released next week on Eagle’s Golden Tooth Records. It’s his seventh solo release; he has also recorded two albums with a band called Ruby Isle, in 2008 and 2010. In addition to “Double Sihoulette,” Mallman currently has five other songs of his available for download on his web site.