Free and legal MP3: Middle Kids (terrific new song from top-notch band)

The gifted Australian trio Middle Kids is back with a follow-up release to its superb 2018 album, “Lost Friends”; we remain in excellent hands.

“Real Thing” – Middle Kids

The gifted Australian trio Middle Kids is back with a follow-up release to its superb 2018 album, Lost Friends; we remain in excellent hands.

“Real Thing” pulses with an off-kilter rhythm section, navigated with nonchalance by smoky-voiced frontwoman/guitarist Hannah Joy. The melody starts casually, on the second beat of the measure, much of it double-time, comprising a lot of words but only a couple of different notes. I get from this a sense of escalation, which gets suspended by a verse extension in which the melody slows down and expands, right on the resonant phrases “hopeless romantics, anxiety magnets” (0:25). We retreat briefly into the opening melody before advancing into what we’ve been waiting for: the killer chorus. Middle Kids are in fact masters of the killer chorus; for evidence look no further than the song “Mistake,” from Lost Friends (and featured here on at the beginning of the year on EPS 6.01), which still gives me goose bumps.

What makes the chorus here work so well feels like a magic trick. It neither attempts to pound a simplified musical phrase into your head nor relies on a flagrantly memorable chord change. The most noticeable thing it does is alternate double- and single-time lines; the other prominent feature is its asymmetry: the way the third line doesn’t directly mirror the first line, as the ear expects, but extends an extra measure. And right there, somehow, is the hook, when Joy sings, “Are you like me, do you lie awake thinking?” (0:44) The line illustrates an ongoing feature of Joy’s presentation, which subtly fluctuates between phrases that seem slightly slurred or indistinct and those that jump out with precision. The chorus finishes with some wordless vocal leaps that now show how much more elastic Joy’s range is than you might initially expect (0:50-1:00). Somehow, altogether, the effect is brilliant.

Lastly, note the guitar work throughout. The band presents as a trio but uses an extra guitar in the mix, and when performing live. As you listen, it’s worth reminding yourself that this is a completely guitar-based band; all the heft and drive of their sound on top of the rhythm section comes from guitars. They’re kind of a glorious anomaly that way here in 2019, with no laptop twiddling or sampling going on. And look, I’ve got nothing against technology per se but dislike when sounds become fads and in any case look to music as something requiring intellectual, emotional, and physical skill, generated by vibrations arising from three-dimensional reality (plucked or hammered strings; breath disturbing the air). These guys, to quote their own song, are the real thing.

You’ll find this track on Middle Kids’ brand-new six-track mini album New Songs For Old Problems, released last week. Grab it for just $5.99 at Bandcamp, where you’ll also want to buy Lost Friends if you don’t already have it. MP3 via The Current.



(Note that MP3s from The Current are available in files that are 128kbps, which is below the iTunes standard of 192kbps, not to mention the higher-def standard of 320kbps. I personally don’t hear much difference on standard-quality equipment but if you are into high-end sound you’ll probably notice something. In any case I always encourage you to download the MP3 for the purposes of getting to know a song via a few listens; if you like it I still urge you to buy the music. It’s the right thing to do.)

Free and legal MP3: San Mei (hazy, guitar-laced)

Stately, hazy, guitar-laced, and ear-worm-y (in a good way), “Wonder” nods at some of contemporary pop’s aural trimmings while delivering songcraft and instrumentation unlike what our 2010s popsters are usually busy offering us.

San Mei

“Wonder” – San Mei

Stately, hazy, guitar-laced, and ear-worm-y (in a good way), “Wonder” nods at some of contemporary pop’s aural trimmings while delivering songcraft and instrumentation unlike what our 2010s popsters tend to busy themselves with. San Mei—the stage name for Australian singer/songwriter/guitarist Emily Hamilton—is committed unabashedly to the guitar, so that’s an ear-opening contrast to today’s music scene right there. And yet, with its somewhat processed, clipped ambiance, this doesn’t sound like anyone’s father’s rock’n’roll either.

And, I have to say, one of the song’s ongoing pleasures is hearing Hamilton’s light and agile voice—which one can with no difficulty imagine layered over an electronic beat, with an easily conjured battery of back-up dancers—fronting a song that drapes its pop-inflected fabric over a sturdy body of guitar squonks and sirens. The opening testifies to what we’re in for: first, a hint of shimmery electronics, but, no, what’s really happening is the guitars are warming up (listen for the subtle scratch of electric guitar strings at 0:05). “Wonder” proceeds to launch off an honest-to-goodness guitar riff, and is driven throughout via a creative variety of electric guitar tones and etchings, including something of a psychedelic freakout at 2:23.

But there is more than guitar worship going on here. “Wonder” is structurally impressive, with its double-time tag in the verse, balanced by a pre-chorus slowdown, all leading to a chorus so solidly chorded that I’m tempted to call it anthemic were it not also so effortlessly presented—a kind of “Who, me?” approach to anthemic rock’n’roll.

San Mei was born as a laptop-based bedroom pop project, but Hamilton soon aimed her sights on a larger instrumental palette than a MIDI keyboard offered—by which of course I mean guitars: fuzzy, intersecting, drony guitars. After a debut EP in 2017. San Mei returned this year with the four-song Heaven EP, released in September. You can hear the whole thing over on SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Hatchie (catchy dream pop)

Breezing in on a vibe that explores the overlap between the Cranberries and the Sundays, “Sure” overflows with melody and nostalgia.

Hatchie

“Sure” – Hatchie

Breezing in on a vibe that explores the overlap between the Cranberries and the Sundays, “Sure” overflows with melody and nostalgia. And yet, the magic trick here is that Hatchie mastermind Harriette Pilbeam manages to put forth her music in a crisp, contemporary package. Which doesn’t (thankfully) mean she’s pandering to any of today’s all-but-listenable trends (over-processing, mindless digital rhythms, affected vocalizing). This is as solidly constructed a piece of music emerging from the remnants of the pop-rock spectrum as one can hope to encounter in the ongoing nightmare that is the year 2018.

I’m hearing a coy type of syncopation as one of the keys to this song’s earworm-y success. After the chiming, guitar-filled intro, the drums kick in at 0:22, and if you listen you’ll see that we get a direct second beat but in place of an equally accented fourth beat (which would be the classic backbeat rhythm), there’s a stuttered, off-center accent. This manages both to move the song along and to play with the flow in an agreeable way. Added to this is the way the lyrics in the verse begin only on the second beat of the measure, which creates a pleasant, head-bobbing lag, the hesitation pulling us forward rather than backward. Resolution comes with the sturdy descent of the chorus, melody now planted on the first beat, even as the drumming underneath stays with its offbeat swing.

And hey that’s a rather wordy explication; I could also just say: it’s really catchy.

Pilbeam is from Brisbane, which partially explains her easy way with this type of melodic, history-embracing music—Australia is one of a handful of countries (Sweden is another) that has figured out how to maintain cultural interest in rock’n’roll’s organic development long after the combined machinations of the mainstream American music industry and fad-obsessed internet crowds have left it for dead. “Sure” was originally released as a single in November 2017, and became more widely available with the release of her Sugar & Spice EP in May 2018. Hatchie is finishing up a US tour as we speak, with dates upcoming this month in LA and Brooklyn, among other places.

Free and legal MP3: Wesley Fuller (melodic indie rock, seductive chorus)

Melodic, creative, and eminently satisfying, “Melvista,” is as assured a slice of 21st-century indie rock as I’ve heard in a while.

Wesley Fuller

“Melvista” – Wesley Fuller

Melodic, creative, and almost giddily appealing, “Melvista,” is as assured a slice of 21st-century indie rock as I’ve heard in a while. Despite its retro-y veneer, and Fuller’s obvious embrace of a certain sort of ’60s/psychedelic look, “Melvista” gushes with contemporary flair. Even the Beatlesque chord progressions at the center of its seductive chorus (first heard around 0:35) feel tweaked and updated in some ineffable and ebullient way. Also, check out the drumming, which manages to feel very ’60s and very ’10s at the same time.

So, do understand that by “contemporary flair” I do not mean the addition of meaningless aural frippery in the cynical pursuit of distracted teenagers—I’m talking instead about an awareness of how the present moment is always a cumulative outgrowth of history rather than some kind of context-free instant of existence driven by lizard-brain reflex. Being willing to funnel sounds of the past through one’s 2016 consciousness (not to mention one’s 2016 audio equipment) is in my mind a far more reliable way to create something truly of the here and now than a slavish adherence to sound-fads of any particular moment. This is exactly why music that too rigidly clings to production choices that are very “now” paradoxically becomes the music that sounds most dated in another five or 10 years.

That said, slavish adherence to past sounds is of course an equally if not more unconvincing way to sound current. Maybe one of the reasons “Melvista” song escapes the gravitational pull of its inspirations is how effortlessly Fuller combines the sounds and vibes of distinct subgenres into a cohesive whole. Which is to say that “Melvista” is not merely Beatlesque—its roots can be found as well in glam rock, garage rock, and (here’s kind of the kicker) new wave. As a matter of fact, the song unfolds as a bit of a history lesson, its British invasion elements craftily transformed in plain sight by new wave injections beginning at 2:08: first, the verse is reimagined with a Cars-ish minimalism; next comes that synth-like guitar line (2:29), which culminates and then closes out the song, the likes of which ran through any number of late-’70s songs on both sides of the Atlantic and doubtlessly in Australia as well.

Originally from Perth, where he played in a series of bands, Wesley Fuller moved to Melbourne a couple of years ago. “Melvista” was his first release as a solo artist, initially out in February as a single and in July resurfacing as the title track on his debut five-song EP, released by the London-based 1965 Records. Thanks to the good folks at the Powerpopulist blog for the head’s up here, and thanks to the Austrlian music site Triple J Unearthed for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Lost Woods (brisk, melodic, ’90s-ish guitar rock)

The clarity of two distinct guitars interacting is one of the sounds that the digital age has drained from our cultural commons, and I don’t recall that we took a vote on this.

Lost Woods

“Vodka Ocean” – Lost Woods

Something relaxes in me as I listen to “Vodka Ocean.” And it has nothing to do with the song’s lyrical content (about which more later). It’s the straightforward palette of traditional rock’n’roll—guitars, bass, drum. And maybe more than that: it’s the clarity of two distinct guitars interacting. That’s one of the sounds that the digital age has drained from our cultural commons and I don’t recall that we took a vote on this. You can hear it in the introduction, and during the instrumental breaks, the way both guitars find their own lead lines, working in a way that is at once complementary and also independent—it’s as if the guitars aren’t necessarily listening to each other but merely trusting that the other one is going to be in a sympathetic place.

And as I keep listening I detect an extra element buttressing the two-guitar attack, and probably rendering it all the more ear-catching, and that’s the bass. Urgent and creative, the bass functions nearly as a third guitar for all its melodic inventiveness. It even gets a fuzzed-out solo (1:55), not something you hear everyday.

Oh and as for those lyrics apparently the song grew out of an unfortunate bit of overindulgence at a music festival, after hearing that Frank Ocean had cancelled. Further details are probably best overlooked, but any band that can turn such an incident into a song this assured and engaging is worth keeping an eye on, says me.

Lost Woods claims inspiration from early ’90s indie rock and I am not only hearing that generally but I am finding myself thinking specifically, and fondly, of the trio Dada (known best for “Dizz Knee Land” but their 1992 debut was chock full of incisive tunes). “Vodka Ocean” is the third Lost Woods single; an EP is on the way.

Free and legal MP3: Cousin Tony’s Brand New Firebird (evocative rocker w/ juxtaposed tempos)

Evocative rocker that manages to feel old-school and brand-new at the same time.

Cousin Tony's Brand New Firebird

“Soothsayer” – Cousin Tony’s Brand New Firebird

Evocative rocker that manages to feel old-school and brand-new at the same time. While you are probably first going to notice the emotive and elastic vocals of front man Lachlan Rose, the song itself, upon examination, is a more than worthy vehicle for his talents.

To me, “Soothsayer”‘s charms are rooted in the way that, tempo-wise, it moves at a good clip on the one hand while not seeming to be in any hurry on the other. Interesting juxtapositions like this are often fun and rewarding in a pop song; this one in particular is accomplished, I think, by three different means. The first is the double-time accompaniment: while the song appears to be written in a moderately-paced 4/4 time, the rhythm guitars and some of the percussion are moving at twice that pace. Another element that reinforces the faster/slower sensation is how spread out and unrepetitive the verses are; the lyrics are given musical space, while the music comprises three separate sections, each picking up pace from the previous one. The overall effect is a 45-second, 16-measure melody that draws you in to a compelling but ambiguous story.

The third and perhaps most obvious thing creating this fast/slow tension down is the chorus, which feels like it slows the song down although doesn’t—all that happens is we lose the double-time backing: front man Lachlan Rose now sings with minimal assistance, but the song’s pace never actually changes. Most choruses in pop songs aim to burst forth with volume and energy, the better to come across as “catchy.” “Soothsayer” instead gives us a chorus that all but brings the song to a halt. “Catchy” seems suddenly besides the point when “arresting” is happening. (Such thinking might also underscore the recalcitrant fact that what might be the song’s most fetching moment, when the lyrics speed up with the phrase “thinking about yourself,” at 1:02, is never repeated.)

Cousin Tony’s Brand New Firebird is a trio from Melbourne. “Soothsayer,” their first single, has been out for a number of months, but their debut EP, Queen of Hearts, on which you’ll find this song, was released just last month in Australia. You can listen via SoundCloud. Thanks to Triple J Unearthed and the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Angharad Drake (simple setting, potent singing & songwriting)

Via the song’s soft, triplet-based accompaniment, you can just about sense the leg-pumping momentum, the giddy semi-dizziness of leaning straight back into the pendulum energy of an actual swing.

Angharad Drake

“Swing” – Angharad Drake

Lovely and unassuming, “Swing” acquires gentle power from its soft, triplet-based accompaniment, which as the song unfolds does indeed give the listener the sensation of being on a swing—you can just about sense the leg-pumping momentum, the giddy semi-dizziness of leaning straight back into the pendulum energy. Listen to the swing of the chorus—“If I could be anything/I’d be your darling”—in which Drake achieves the almost impossible trick of employing an awkward scan for both musical and metaphorical purpose: the “incorrect” emphasis amplifies the swinging sensation while also capturing the ambiguous command of one on a swing, where you are in control but also not really. And you are by necessity alone.

Through it all, “Swing” carries with it the force of Angharad Drake’s clear, tranquil voice, combining an intimate tone with unexpected potency when the moment calls for it. Young singer/songwriters don’t often write and sing with this much authority, and compound the problem by too obviously attempting to compensate. Drake glides easily into her simple sonic landscape of guitar and voice, drawing only as much attention to herself as is required, leaving us with the satisfying sense of having been visited more by a great song than a particular personality. This will serve her well in the long run. We grow far more easily weary of personalities than songs.

Drake is from Brisbane; her first name is not as difficult as it looks—accentuate the second syllable and it becomes pleasantly easy to say. “Swing” is the title track from an eight-song EP, her second, that she released in September. You can listen to and and buy it via Bandcamp. Thanks to Insomnia Radio for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3:Emma Swift(brilliant, achy cover of new wave nugget)

I have only rarely heard such a satisfying reinterpretation.

Emma Swift

“Total Control” – Emma Swift

Australian singer/songwriter Emma Swift has transformed this new wave classic via the most delicate and deft mutation. The Motels tune still burns slowly, achingly. In place of the original’s rubbery, late-’70s itch Swift employs a torchy, old-style country setting, with exquisite pedal steel work and a slight but effective vocal twang.

We know we are in excellent hands from the opening notes: Swift creates an entirely new introduction for the song, composed of lovely, unresolved arpeggios, played on a silver-toned guitar. It couldn’t be more different than the dated, repetitive staccato of the original intro, which had its new-wave-y charms but always struck me as clunky. (It can be a fine line between a slow burn and lack of imagination.) And while there is likewise nothing wrong with Martha Davis’s vocals—okay they were a bit affected but that was her thing—Swift here really sings this baby, accessing all sorts of actual emotion in places where Davis was content to go for eccentricity.

That’s the thing about this cover that feels almost shockingly appealing: how deep and lived-in Swift makes a song that never previously seemed much more than a quirky curiosity. Some of this has to do with the subtle but superb arrangement; there does not appear to be one note in the background or foreground that isn’t being played for a purpose. Even something as seemingly minor as the decision to deliver the oddly climactic line “Stay in bed/Stay in sheets” with harmony vocals (Swift otherwise sings single-tracked the whole way through) becomes a moment rich with ineffable delight via some combination of know-how and hunch. In any case, I have only rarely heard such a satisfying reinterpretation.

Swift is a singer/songwriter from Sydney who spends half her year in Nashville. She also hosts an Americana-oriented radio show on the Australian station Double J. “Total Control” can be found on Swift’s debut release, a self-titled six-song EP, which you can listen to and/or purchase via Bandcamp. Thanks muchly to Cover Lay Down for the link. Joshua’s been running a genial covers-only music blog there for years and years; check it out at http://coverlaydown.com.

Free and legal MP3: Lower Plenty (relaxed wonderfulness, from Australia)

The concise tale told here of a love gone missing has the quizzical, haphazard feel of a Basement Tapes song.

Lower Plenty

“Nullarbor” – Lower Plenty

Can I tell you why some slow-ish songs bore with their lethargic pace and underdeveloped ideas while others beguile with their relaxed know-how? I don’t think I can. Can I tell you what Nullarbor means? That’s easier. The Nullarbor Plain is huge, semi-arid stretch of remote countryside in southern Australia. The name comes from the Latin meaning “no trees.” (For a sense of the scrubby flat endless-road landscape, check out the video, below.)

“Nullarbor” the song, meanwhile, presents the listener with a long, ambling introduction—not semi-arid per se but entirely without either vocals or, even, the sense that vocals are planning to arrive. A guitar strums, another guitar noodles an imprecise melody, a brushed snare keeps a gentle beat, and the world seems a serene if slightly baggy kind of place. I find myself in no hurry to get anywhere with this introduction, and maybe that’s what a slow song that’s beguiling rather than boring does most of all: it slows you down so that you join its world, rather than feeling like an annoying drag on your world. The singing, when it starts, is worth the wait: Al Montfort speak-sings with offhanded, oddly affecting aplomb, often letting the guitar lines suggest the melody he’s not quite articulating. All in all, the concise tale told here of a love gone missing has the quizzical, haphazard feel of a Basement Tapes song, but with a warmer, more personal air about it. I could listen to this all night, and might just yet.

Lower Plenty is a quartet from Melbourne, and also the name of a Melbourne suburb. “Nullarbor” is one of nine shorts songs on the band’s debut album, Hard Rubbish. The song’s wonderfully spontaneous sound has a lot to do with the fact that the album was recorded onto eight-track, reel-to-reel tape, often in one take. Hard Rubbish was released last year in Australia; it comes out next month here on Fire Records. You can download the MP3 via the link above, or through the SoundCloud page. Thanks to the indomitable Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Meg Mac (retro soul w/ old-school flair)

Songs that can make you clap and move while fiddling with time signatures are generally songs to be admired.

Meg Mac

“Known Better” – Meg Mac

Just too damn charming to quibble about anything that might, here, be so quibbled. Is Meg Mac aiming to split the difference between Adele and Amy Winehouse? Could be. And why not? There’s a real musical sweet spot to be found there, and here, in this knowing piece of first-rate retro-soul. What lights this on fire to me is the song’s stompy, asymmetrically-placed piano riff, which plunks itself down between beats, creating a powerful stutter, both tripping the song up and launching it further at the same time. Songs that can make you clap and move while fiddling with time signatures are generally songs to be admired.

From its old-school intro—not instrumental vamping, but a slow, otherwise unused vocal melody—“Known Better” oozes both ardor and aptitude. There are knowing chord changes (not just the dramatic one at 0:39 but the subtler set-up, after the words “back someday” at 0:34), there are skillful production effects, such as the shot of processed vocals at 0:50, and most of all there are the songwriting chops that put this all together so spiffily, with that piano riff ever at the center of things. For a short piece of pop, the song is not satisfied standing still. The second iteration of the verse uses a somewhat different melody, and there seem to be not one but two different bridges, including that one in the middle with the hand-claps and an ear-catching switch to 6/4 time. The use of a refrain line instead of a full-fledged chorus helps keep things moving, and never underestimate the effectiveness of expertly placed “ah-ah-ah”s.

All through, Mac (neé McInerney) sings with panache, perhaps a bit thinly, but I hear someone who is still finding her voice. She’s 22, from Melbourne, and this appears to be her first release of any kind. MP3 via TripleJ, the Australian music site.

photo credit: Tanaya Harper