Free and legal MP3: Toma (ear-grabbing, integrative 21st c rock’n’roll)

When will the critics understand that rock’n’roll was never about being original; it’s about being good. “Going Nowhere” is very good.

Toma

“Going Nowhere” – Toma

For a while there in the late ’90s and early ’00s, until it more or less died as far as the hipsters are concerned, rock’n’roll was increasingly taken to task for not offering up anything “new” or “original,” as if this most derivative of musical genres was ever truly about being new or original. Lazy critics yawning that this band or that wasn’t doing anything you hadn’t heard before was always beside the point. Good rock’n’roll was never really about being new or original; it was about being good. Much of rock’s goodness has always been grounded in visceral impact: does a song grab you? Does it work precisely because you don’t need to analyze it or philosophize about it or fit it into this or that intellectual construct? If at the same time a rock song can integrate its influences in ear-catching ways, then, well, we’re moving beyond good to great.

And so here comes the Austin quartet Toma, doing precisely this: taking a variety existing aural elements, integrating them in engaging ways, and crafting a song that grabs the ear quite firmly. I might even partially contradict what I just said and note that a band can in fact sound if not original then at least semi-original if it manages to combine its influences in new-seeming ways—although this point is always going to be difficult to demonstrate conclusively. But with “Going Nowhere,” my ear hears a bracing amalgam of ’80s synth pop, up-to-date production, and classic rock’n’roll (“it’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it”). And the synth pop vibe is really more a feel than a particular sound, as you will no doubt notice that “Going Nowhere” ends up being anchored in solid guitar lines.

As for this so-called “up-to-date production,” I’m referring both to the vocal effects and the background electronics the band works into the fabric of the presentation without unduly disrupting things. There is no particular way to describe this with any specificity, but it could be the thing that makes me happiest about “Going Nowhere.” The ability to use tools as tools rather than gimmicks is one that just might organically arise here in the later ’10s, as a kind of natural corrective to the overkill with which digital tools have been used by the mainstream music industry. Or, it might not. Lord knows I’ve been wrong before.

“Going Nowhere” is a song from the band’s debut album, Aroma, which is due out this week. MP3 via Magnet Magazine

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: Tele Novella (melodic, intricate, deeply appealing)

A lopey, quirky, walk-in-the-meadow kind of tune, “No Excalibur” is all meandering melody and intriguing metaphor and if by the end you haven’t been charmed out of your socks you probably just aren’t wearing socks.

Tele Novella

“No Excalibur” – Tele Novella

A lopey, quirky, walk-in-the-meadow kind of tune, “No Excalibur” is all meandering melody and intriguing metaphor and if by the end you haven’t been charmed out of your socks you probably just aren’t wearing socks.

Lacking an introduction, the song opens with front woman Natalie Gordon singing a teetering tune over a purposefully clunky, vaguely old-fashioned backbeat. The first hint of the robust adventure to come is in the unexpected chord progression that accompanies the end of the opening lyric (“crying so softly in this quiet,” 0:16). And then, when a normal song would go into a standard second verse, we get a variation and an offbeat hook on a new, repeating lyric (“Oh, I have known so many nights like this,” 0:18), after which arrives a series of linked motifs, one more interesting than the next, leading to the song’s central metaphor (“I’m no Excalibur/I’ll get out on my own”), which serves as the titular phrase but is not a chorus—we don’t hear it again.

The song’s first 50 seconds repeat musically, but not lyrically. And now Tele Novella is only getting started. The increasing melodic richness of what follows from here is matched by its intricacy—there are all sorts of juicy but not sing-along-y passages, sold with snowballing certainty by Gordon’s plainspoken, ever so slightly husky voice. I was hooked for good when she gets to the lyric “I can feel it rise/It brings tears to my eyes” (2:03), which, when it reemerges triumphantly at 2:56, after a second Excalibur reference, feels almost goosebumpy in its lyrical and musical rightness. That Gordon rhymes rhododendrons with tendons somewhere along the way is icing on the cake.

Tele Novella is a new band from Austin, with a personnel chart only somewhat less intricate than their music. In addition to singer/guitarist Gordon, formerly of Agent Ribbons, the band consists of ex-Voxtrot members Jason Chronis (bass) and Matt Simon (drums), and keyboardist Cari Palazollo, of the band Belaire, which also includes Chronis and Simon. “No Excalibur” is one of the first two songs the band has recorded and released. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Shearwater (exquisitely crafted drama)

Another dramatic, exquisitely crafted song from the Austin-based Shearwater, whose latest album will be released on Sub Pop next week.

Shearwater

“You As You Were” – Shearwater

When you have a voice like Jonathan Meiburg’s—a sad, echoed-out tenor that registers high but resonates deep—there is no sense avoiding drama. The voice announces it, needs it, revels in it. And his songs do tend effortlessly to convey drama, via a combination of careful unfolding, subtle evocation, and urgent unleashing.

“You As You Were” beings with one note—a D# on the keyboard, repeated rapidly by the right hand for 5 seconds before stepping down to a C# as the left hand begins to sketch out a thoughtful melody under the ongoing hammering of the dominant hand’s single note. A quiet bass drum has added a pulse but maybe you don’t even notice. The rest of the band lays back until past the 40-second point. Somewhere in here the singing has started. And yet the song doesn’t feel as if it has truly kicked in until 1:24, when the drums finally give us a backbeat. And even so there’s a sense of restraint, something being held back, and finally we see what it was when one of the earlier melodies returns with a variation that leads us to a previously unheard three-note descent starting at 2:28 that features the song’s highest notes and its clearest (if still vague) sense of climax. Note that the song seems all verse, with a couple of related melodies, each of which go through some variations; there is no obvious lyrical repetition even as some key words and images recur—river, blood, mountains, weather. The song seems to be about both the damage and the promise of a personal epiphany. The combination of music and poetry here is exquisite, and well worth close, repeated listens to get to the bottom of the drama.

“You As You Were” is a song from the album Animal Joy, coming out next week on Sub Pop Records. This is Shearwater’s seventh full-length (not counting the experimental, instrumental, self-released Shearwater Is Enron album from 2010). It is the band’s first album for Sub Pop; they have recorded previously for both Matador Records and Misra Records. The MP3 is available via Sub Pop, and note that if you click on the first Sub Pop mention in this paragraph, you’ll find another free and legal MP3 from the album that is also available, and also worth hearing.

Shearwater has been previously featured on Fingertips in May 2005, March 2008, and December 2009

Free and legal MP3: Heartless Bastards (muscular, timeless rock’n’roll)

This isn’t nostalgia, it’s sheer presence: the rumbling drumbeat, the unadulterated guitar lines, and, at the center, mighty Erica Wennerstrom, who can make your heart skip a beat if you listen too closely

Heartless Bastards

“Parted Ways” – Heartless Bastards

Flaunting a compact, muscular sound, the Cincinnati-born Bastards, now residing in Austin, have a timeless air about them. This is rock’n’roll as if the internet not only never happened but wasn’t even supposed to. And yet I like how unnostalgic they still manage to sound, via sheer presence: the rumbling drumbeat, the unadulterated guitar lines, and, at the center, mighty Erica Wennerstrom, who can make your heart skip a beat if you listen too closely. Whatever she’s doing, more singers should do it. Or: would if they could.

As befitting the title, “Parted Ways” is really two songs that kind of move through each other and then separate. The first half is launched by the easy charm of the verse, with its ambling, descending melody and its seamless connection to the upward-oriented chorus. Punctuated by some Stones-worthy rhythm guitar playing, that fluent shift to the chorus (first heard at 0:31) really settles the ear; when it comes up again at 1:32, it seems newly powerful and true. As it turns out, there appear to be dualing choruses—the previously mentioned one that segues out of the verse, and then a succeeding one, beginning with the words “Out in space, I’m a long way from home” (first heard at 0:46), with a slower melody and a suspended sense of rhythm. The second chorus eventually takes the song over and moves it into a more expansive, jam-like (but not jam-band-like) space. An instrumental section modulates into an augmented version of chorus number two and then, at 3:32, we get a new vocal section with a loose, chuggy feeling that sounds like Wennerstrom doing a vocal solo the way she, as a guitarist, takes a guitar solo. Which she then in fact does as well. She is no slouch in that regard either.

Heartless Bastards were formed in Cincinnati in 2003. For most of its performing life the band has been a trio. A second guitarist (Wennerstrom has been the lead) was recently added; the band’s forthcoming album, The Arrow, will be its first as a quartet. It was produced by Spoon’s Jim Eno and is due out in February on Partisan Records. MP3 via Rolling Stone. This is the Bastards’ third appearance on Fingertips, with previous reviews in 2005 and 2006.

Free and legal MP3: Ariel Abshire (swift & sweet, w/ a knowing hook)

Ariel Abshire

“No Great Pretender” – Ariel Abshire

The swift and simple “No Great Pretender” is an object lesson in the power of a good hook, while also an object lesson in the mysteries of what comprises a hook in the first place. The hook in question is found in the interval leaping, first up then down, that launches the chorus, with the lyric “But you caught me red-handed.”

The first leap is made between the words “you” and “caught,” and it’s a sixth interval—a relatively large space between two notes in a melody, so you notice it, but by itself not really a hook. See what happens next, however: Abshire plunges back down, this time making it a two-part interval, splitting the word “red-handed” into two different notes. There’s music theory stuff going on here that I can’t quite get my arms around but the notable thing (pun intended) is that she lands, on “handed,” a whole note below where she started; from end to end here we’ve got a major seventh interval, which melodically has deep, intrinsic appeal. Not a lot of songs sketch this interval out. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” does, but gets there with a transition at the top of the interval. Here, Abshire gets us there at the bottom. The hook is at once subtle and powerful.

So here’s a young singer/songwriter with some serious songwriting chops. Check out when she returns to the chorus after the bridge, at 2:07, and what does she do but eliminate the hook this time entirely: first skipping the “red-handed” part and then altering the melody on the “never surrender” part. It’s a tease, and of course sets up one last return before the song wraps up, not even three minutes old.

All of this talk is to take nothing away from her voice, which is strong and sweet and true. I discussed this last time she was here, in April 2009. She was 17 at that point, with one record under her belt, but a number of years of experience already singing around Austin. “No Great Pretender” is a track from her second album, the appropriately titled Still So New, due out in August. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Free and legal MP3: Okkervil River (insistent rocker w/ dream-scrambled vibe)

Purposefully bashy and crashy, “Wake and Be Fine” offers an insistent tumble of lyrics in the verse, offset by the comparatively soothing waltz of the chorus, wherein front man Will Sheff assures himself, and us, that we’ll “wake and be fine.”

Okkervil River

“Wake and Be Fine” – Okkervil River

Purposefully bashy and crashy, “Wake and Be Fine” offers an insistent tumble of lyrics in the verse, offset by the comparatively soothing waltz of the chorus, wherein front man Will Sheff assures himself, and us, that we’ll “wake and be fine.” The music itself reinforces the song’s theme and intention: the verses assaulting us with off-kilter semi-confusion, the chorus finding smoother footing, tapping into the consoling quality of the song’s partially disguised 3/4 time signature.

Normally uninterested in music videos, I will make an exception here and point you in the direction of the song’s visual presentation, below. It’s a stark yet dreamy black-and-white affair, with the lyrics, propaganda-like, commanding the viewer’s attention while the band, blurred and multiplied, plays in and around the words. Stay with it and you’ll see that the visual words begin to diverge from the sung words, which ingeniously enhances the song’s dream-scrambled chaos. Also interesting to note is that Sheff had the band play this song together, over and over, in a small recording space, waiting for a take in which no one made any mistakes at all, however slight. It took from 3 pm to 1 am, and I think knowing the determination and, even, slight desperation that informs the playing here adds to the vaguely surreal ambiance of the whole thing.

“Wake and Be Fine” is a song from Okkervil River’s new album, I Am Very Far, which due out next week on Jagjaguwar Records. This is the Austin-based band’s sixth album, and 13th year together. They have previously been featured on Fingertips in 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2008. MP3 via Jagjaguwar.

Free and legal MP3: Amy Cook (exquisite song from Austin-based singer/songwriter)

“Hotel Lights” – Amy Cook

And here’s a real new year’s treat—a song as good as anything you’re likely to hear over the coming 12 months. On the one hand, it’s a quiet bit of singer/songwriter fare; on the other hand, oh my, what an exquisite tune. Cook plays an electric guitar here—the old-fashioned kind, with f-holes—not an acoustic one, and its rich, rounded tones lend an immediate depth to the song, and nicely complements her ever-so-slightly-dusky voice.

But it’s sheer songwriting prowess that makes this one shine. Cook, based in Austin, works wonders in particular with asymmetricality. Listen, first of all, to the melody line at the beginning of the verse (0:12), and how those three words (“All the girls”) are set apart, separated by a measure and a half from the rest of the line, which then streams out without a break through the lyric’s end. There’s great power in that quiet lack of regularity, and Cook uses it again, in a different way, at the opposite end of the structure. After the first two lines of the chorus, in which her words emerge in two-syllable clusters at the beginning of each measure, she proceeds to extend the second line four extra measures, partially mirroring the two-syllable clustering but now filling in the empty spaces with an uneven but luscious melody. Much more delightful to listen to than to read about.

“Hotel Lights” is from Cook’s album Let The Light In, produced by Alejandro Escovedo and slated for an early March release. This appears to be her third album but details are sketchy. Thanks to Bruce at Some Velvet Blog for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Shearwater (sad grandeur, portentous rhythm section)

With his monumental voice, and taste for monumental subject matter, Jonathan Meiburg creates music with the sad grandeur of ruined palaces or Russian novels. But take your ear off Shearwater’s front man for a moment, if you can, and check out what else is happening here, or not happening.

“Castaways” – Shearwater

With his monumental voice, and taste for monumental subject matter, Jonathan Meiburg creates music with the sad grandeur of ruined palaces or Russian novels. But take your ear off Shearwater’s front man for a moment, if you can, and check out what else is happening here, or not happening.

The rumbly drama you’re listening to is all about the vigorous rhythm section, which seems to have changed places with the rest of the band: the pounding drums and agile bass line are front and center, they’re what Meiburg is singing with, they’re what forms the musical center of the song, while guitar and keyboard play with care and tenderness around the edges. Yes, you’ll hear the guitar and keys in the introduction, daintily, but once the drums kick in at 0:35, “Castaways” swings with its rhythm section’s portentous rumble. I may be imagining it, but I feel as if I am more often hearing the guitarist’s fingers moving on the strings than I am hearing the guitar itself. This is the type of tender detail that helps give the song its poignant depth, above and beyond its more obviously dramatic ambiance.

“Castaways” is the first available song from the band’s forthcoming album, The Golden Archipelago, slated for a February release on Matador Records. Note that Shearwater, from Austin, is a band that still very much believes in the album format. The CD will come with a 50-page booklet, and the vinyl LP is slightly reordered, with two additional songs, allowing for the difference in listening experiences. Note too that Shearwater has twice previously been featured on Fingertips: in March 2008 and May 2005. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3: Wiretree (power pop with ’70s roots)

“Back in Town” – Wiretree

Brisk, spangly power pop from an Austin-based quartet. Equal parts mid-career Wilco and early (or late; who can say?) Traveling Wilburys, “Back in Town” is a friendly, xylophone-flecked burst of tunefulness, anchored in singer Kevin Peroni’s pliable, evocative voice. What he sounds like, in a nutshell, is the ’70s–Harry Nilsson, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne rolled up into one. Works for me.

And if there are a few relative oldsters out there who recognize the chorus of the Indigo Girls song “Jonas & Ezekiel” in the chorus of “Back in Town,” well, I’m always kind of tickled rather than irritated by inadvertent melody transference like this. First off, it’s a heck of a good melody–I might dare to call it anthemic except I fear that word has been neutered by years of overuse. Second, the songs don’t otherwise have anything to do with each other. I don’t mind greeting an old friend in a new outfit.

“Back in Town” is a song from the band’s second full-length album, Luck, ready for release next week on their own Cobaltworks label.