“Greenhill” – Naomi Keyte

Understated acoustic gem

“Greenhill” – Naomi Keyte

Unlike many listeners with an affinity for acoustic-oriented singer/songwriters, I do not embrace this style of music indiscriminately. In fact, as much as I can appreciate musicians with acoustic guitars up front, I am more often than not unmoved by performers of this type, who seem frequently to allow the intrinsic sonority of their instrument to stand in for musical value. Which I guess is a kind way of saying “using pleasant sounds to cover up mediocre songwriting.” By that measure, however, when I do come across a musician presenting in this setting with a strong sense of self and craft I am overjoyed. Someone’s still got it.

The Australian singer/songwriter Naomi Keyte, from Adelaide, definitely has it. “Greenhill” is an understated gem, which first and foremost requires the direct attention of the listener. You’ll have to bring it on your own; Keyte has too much integrity and composure to pander or preen like so many of the TikTok-addled musicians who clutter my inbox. Keyte, rather, sings lyrics resonant with domestic details in a near hush, relying on propulsive finger-picking to add momentum to a song replete with what presents as a sort of still-life-in-motion. She herself has described “Greenhill” as “a love song to a house and its inhabitants,” written specifically about life during lockdown. The melody’s downward pattern feels as introspective as the lyrics, lower notes sometimes all but swallowed out of earshot.

The chorus is a particular thing of beauty, from the lovely subtle upturn Keyte’s voice takes at the end of the word “road” (e.g., 0:54) to the elegant way she eliminates the stopping point between the second and third lines, which grabs the ear on the one hand but also mirrors the words she’s singing about the air rushing in through the windows. The second time we hear the chorus (1:59) the arrangement opens up to include drums, piano, and double-tracked vocals, which settles the song into a deep new place. Listen too, at this point, for the male voice blended deftly into the background, via Ben Talbot-Dunn, who also produced the song.

“Greenhill” is a single released in October; Keyte recently dropped a new single, “Gilian”; both songs are slated to appear on a forthcoming LP, and both are available via Bandcamp. The new album will be her second; her first, Melaleuca, was released in 2017, and can also be found on Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Chloe Mae

Dreamy, with a swing

“Falling” – Chloe Mae

Its dreaminess tweaked with a bit of a swing, “Falling” is an engaging song that highlights Chloe Mae’s supple and subtly potent voice. I’m hooked at the start by the Sundays-eseque character of the verse, its bi-level, 6/8 melody quickly revealing Mae’s voice as one to be reckoned with (check out the high E she hits around 0:31, a wonderful bit of passing dissonance).

But it’s the chorus that slays me for good here, the way its simple two-note melody, describing a descending major third interval, is answered a half step up and an octave higher with wordless vocals now offering an ascending minor third interval straddling the original two notes. That’s what’s going on technically but what counts is how satisfying this sounds, turning the chorus’s unusual reticence, melodically (how many choruses repeat just two notes?), into its superpower.

Things get pleasantly psychedelic in the second half, synthesizers moving from background to foreground, lyrics repeating the phrase “Falling back to you” as a sort of mantra with a synthesizer countermelody below and higher-pitched synth noodles above. Everything wraps up in a tidy 3:10. I suggest repeated listens, to allow its charms to sink further in.

Chloe Mae is a singer/songwriter from Brisbane. “Falling” is her second single, released in August.

Free and legal MP3: Ruby Gilbert

Authoritative (Australian) Americana, with trumpet

“No Vacancy” – Ruby Gilbert

With an authoritative Americana brio reminiscent of early Neko Case, Ruby Gilbert is the real deal, her depth of voice matched by a knack for composition and presentation. From its opening acoustic strum–minor-key and assertive–“No Vacancy” feels at once sturdy and adventurous, with its casually resourceful chord changes and, yes, that trumpet. About which more in a moment.

Gilbert begins a story of frustrated romance with an incisive opening couplet: “My baby’s only got eyes for me/But he’s got his sights set on leaving.” The underlying premise here seems to be that all romances, however brilliant at first, will come to an end; the song’s narrator seems oppressed by this hard-won knowledge (“I don’t get no rest,” she sings, “I hear it in my head, tick and tock”).

The ache of being left alone is mirrored in the song’s musical landscape, which aligns with that particularly appealing strain of Americana music that I hear as “lonesome.” I’m not sure precisely what may generally create this impression–something in the spaciousness of the mix, I’m guessing, and/or some well-placed slide guitar lines; reverbed vocals help–but “No Vacancy” ups the ante with artful flourishes from an echoey trumpet, courtesy of Eamon Dilworth. I wouldn’t have realized this in advance but damn if that trumpet doesn’t (somehow) sound like the epitome of “lonesome Western sound.”

Ruby Gilbert is a singer/songwriter from Brisbane with a handful of recordings to date and, I hope, a bright future ahead. “No Vacancy” was released in March. She has an earlier single, “Slave,” from this past October, and a four-song EP, entitled Dearly Beloved, that came out in June 2018. You can hear everything, and buy everything at a price of your choosing, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: The Great Emu War Casualties

Crafty songwriting, dynamic arrangements

“I’m a Yes Man” – The Great Emu War Casualties

For all its loose, swinging atmosphere, “I’m a Yes Man” is a highly disciplined exercise in catchy late-period rock’n’roll. The swing comes from melodies consistently centered off the first beat of the measure, while the sense of looseness is propelled by a dynamic bass line down below and wailing electric guitars up top. The discipline, meanwhile, can be felt in the tightness of the performances (random example: that tiny dead-air pause in the proceedings at 0:19), including the disaffected, precise vocal stylings of front man Joe Jackson (yup that’s his name). His rhythmically astute phrasing is impressive, maybe nowhere clearer than on the standout line “I’ve got half a mind to half-remember half the time” (1:14). The song is written to encourage his careful, clever singing, which doubles back to highlight the crafty songwriting. I like, as an example, how the line “And could you offer in a helping hand?” at 1:24 extends beyond the confines of its musical phrase, which strikes me as a confident bit of composition.

The arrangements, with their intertwining guitars and savvy dynamics, reinforce the air of a band in complete control. This might have a fair amount to do with producer Alex Newport, who has worked with a number of heavy-hitting outfits, among them Death Cab for Cutie and Bloc Party; in any case, the song is continually enlivened by not only the particular instrumental mix in use at any given time but the push and pull of volume and accompaniment. One small example: not only does the swell of sound drop away at the start of the verse (0:40), but we also get a guitar playing notes that imply chords that do not match the melody in the vocal–an enticing bit of passing dissonance. This is one of those songs that you can take a slice of at pretty much any moment and find something interesting going on. I suggest you try it.

The Great Emu War Casualties is a trio from Melbourne. “I’m a Yes Man” is a track from their five-song EP, Vanity Project, which was released at the end of February. You can check out the whole thing, and buy it, via Bandcamp. Oh and in case you’re interested: the Great Emu War was actually a thing, involving the Australian government employing the military to control a runaway emu population in 1932. You can read more here. Executive summary: the emus won.

Free and legal MP3: Middle Kids

Terrific new song from top-notch band

“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

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


“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-unlistenable 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

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.