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

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

Free and legal MP3: The Dead Heads (sublimely effective garage rock)

That it can be the end of 2012 and that new bands exist making this kind of straightforward rock’n’roll and can still make it sound this electrifying, well, all hope is not lost.

The Dead Heads

“When I’m Dead” – the Dead Heads

This is one of those songs that helps me realize how much I like a certain musical circumstance that I never previously would have recognized or been able to articulate. And that circumstance is: when a small moment in a song, via repetition and unfolding context, becomes one of the song’s very best things, only you couldn’t have known it from the first time you heard it. I’m not sure you can plan this out, even.

The moment I’m talking about here is the way the guitar slides up and down between two notes to create that lazy/insistent riff that fuels the song. We first encounter it after the long droney introduction, when the guitar finally starts moving (around 0:28), and at first you don’t much notice it. You’re still pretty much waiting for something to happen. The vocals start at 0:40 and I immediately like the processing involved, which achieves the contradictory effect of making it sound “garage-y” and sophisticated at the same time. We seem to be in standard three-chord territory here except, hold on, a fourth chord sneaks in there at 0:54 and it’s non-standard—sounds like a suspended chord of some kind—and it provides a bit of simple complexity that helps mold the song into such a satisfying ride. And then we’re back to those sliding guitar notes, which now propel a chorus that otherwise consists only of the words “When I’m dead,” repeated. And it’s the guitar that glues it together, something in the offhanded way it slinks up and down that seems, again, both primitive and discerning at the same time. That it can be the end of 2012 and that new bands exist making this kind of straightforward rock’n’roll and can still make it sound this electrifying, well, all hope is not lost. For anything. Not bad for a song called “When I’m Dead.”

The Dead Heads are a five-man band from Sydney, formed in either 2009 or 2010, depending on which web source you consult. They are fronted on vocals and guitars by the brothers Oscar and Ali Jeffrey. As you can hear from the music, the band’s name has nothing to do with the Grateful Dead; it derives, according to the band, from one of the dictionary meanings for “deadhead,” which is “a partially submerged log or trunk.” MP3 via the Australian new music site Triple J Unearthed; thanks to music blog The Mad Mackerel for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Bart and Friends (sweet, melancholy toe-tapper)

This one makes me picture Paul Simon writing about the leaves that are green, that kind of driven innocence, of someone intent on turning pop to poetry, or vice-versa.

Bart and Friends

“There May Come a Time” – Bart and Friends

A sweet, melancholy toe-tapper, “There May Come a Time” comes blanketed in a vague but powerful nostalgia. When Pam Berry sings, right at the start, of someday forgetting “all the words to every song,” I feel immediately transported back to some hazy, flower-filled moment in the past (in the ’60s, no doubt). And I am filled with a lost sense of longing, as if no one actually does write songs any more. Which of course isn’t true. But. I picture Paul Simon writing about the leaves that are green, that kind of driven innocence, of someone intent on turning pop to poetry, or vice-versa. We can, it seems, no longer truly get there, but we can sing about what it must have been like.

Now then, a song can’t do what I’ve been attempting to describe and not veer a bit towards the twee (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). A general kind of wavery-ness permeates here, both within the tone of Berry’s warm, unschooled alto and in the lead guitar, a mild-mannered electric which sounds as if it is being finger-picked almost the whole way through. But in the end this is much less about the quivering of too-tender emotion than the capturing of simple human performance. I like the string squeaks you can hear intermittently (the best one at 1:37)—sounds typically associated with an acoustic guitar, and in any case indicative of an organic sound. What I referred to a moment ago as wavery-ness is actually the result of honest, dynamic playing, recorded authentically, without any flattening or processing. And maybe that’s the most nostalgic thing of all.

Bart and Friends is the ongoing project of Australian musician Bart Cummings, and has featured a rotating cast of friends and fellow musicians, often from among Australia’s indie pop elite and/or semi-elite (including the Lucksmiths, the Shapiros, and the Zebras). After a 1998 debut and 2001 mini-album, Bart and Friends went on hiatus until 2010, when another mini-album was released. Ditto for 2011, and now, in 2012, an EP has emerged, with “There May Come a Time” as the title track. (You may now meditate on the difference between a mini-album and an EP.) The EP is out next week on Santa Barbara-based Matineé Recordings; MP3 via Matineé.

Free and legal MP3: Kate Miller-Heidke (haunting & smart, w/ Celtic air)

There’s something spine-tingling here in the assurance of the composition, the elegance of the arrangement, and the beauty of the vocal work.

Kate Miller-Heidke

“The Devil Wears a Suit” – Kate Miller-Heidke

With the air of Celtic folk music about it, “The Devil Wears a Suit” is a haunting piece of smart, beautifully-crafted pop. There’s something spine-tingling here in the assurance of the composition, the elegance of the arrangement, and the beauty of the vocal work. And it’s not just the music but the lyrics too which crackle with purpose. The chorus is central, and striking, and it’s that line in the middle that really moves me—

He’s not underground
He’s not in the air
He’s not in that book
You take everywhere
The devils wears a suit
He lives in our town
He lives on our street
In your home
In your bed

“He’s not in that book/You take everywhere”: it’s a nonchalant kind of line, almost a throwaway, and yet in its casual, observational adroitness, it just about breaks the heart. And I’m not even sure why, but it’s the kind of moment in a song that compels me to thank the universe that talented musicians still exist who can do this, whatever “this” actually is.

An established star in Australia, Miller-Heidke remains a fringe figure at best here in the U.S., largely because the market has (temporarily, one hopes) turned away from any song in which the intelligence behind it is audible in the music itself versus the technology or the beat. I’m still optimistic on Miller-Heidke’s behalf because someone with this much polish, musical know-how, and personality is bound to find a sizable audience sooner or later, and definitely deserves it. “The Devil Wears a Suit” is a song from her fourth album, Nightflight, which was released in April in Australia and is coming later this month in the U.S. Thanks to Muruch for the head’s up. Note that this is Miller-Heidke’s fourth appearance on Fingertips; she was here most recently this past November. Note too that the entire album is currently streaming on SoundCloud; go there and you’ll also find two other free and legal MP3s to download.

Free and legal MP3: Husky (buoyant neo-folk-rock)

Cross Love with America and you’re in the ballpark.

Husky

“The Woods” – Husky

Although it has more than a touch of ’60s/’70s West Coast folk-rock earnestness about it, “The Woods” feels somehow more approachable than this might imply. The overall tone is buoyant, not weighty. Cross Love with America and you’re in the ballpark.

A lot is going on here for a song that’s not much more than three minutes long. The crisp acoustic intro—yes, it kind of sounds like “Hotel California” for a moment—starts in one key then switches us to another. The song proper opens with a verse melody that descends via a series of alternating up and down intervals, a particularly engaging melody because it begins with seven distinct, non-repeating notes. This an nifty feat, drawing the listener without effort into the song’s universe. The dramatic drum accents don’t hurt. Moving forward, we get: a rhythmic shift with the chorus (0:44), itself featuring a yearning, briefly-sing-along melody; a revisit of the verse in light of the new rhythm (1:21) (and keep your ear on the lovely piano fills); a bridge that slows the song nearly to a halt (2:14); and a haunting, falsetto-driven coda inspired by the song’s first line (2:44).

Named for front man Husky Gawenda, the band coalesced as a foursome in Melbourne in 2008. Its debut album, Forever So, was released in Australia last fall, and is coming on in the US on Sub Pop in July. They are in fact the first Australian band signed to the landmark indie label. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Cub Scouts (breezy, but w/ melancholy core)

Breezy, but with a melancholy core.

Cub Scouts

“Do You Hear” – Cub Scouts

A breezy song with a melancholy core. Tempo-wise, it’s a finger-snapper but listen attentively and you’ll hear a song that again and again resists resolution, both melodically and harmonically. The expectant vibe with which it launches never quite disappears. That’s what makes it feel kind of lost and lonely, independent of the lyrics (which sound lost and lonely too, though, as much as I can grasp them).

So what’s going on is that the song is rooted in a chord that is not the song’s tonic chord. The tonic chord is, typically, the home base of a song, the chord based on the song’s key (i.e., if a song is written in D major, the D major chord is the tonic chord). We don’t need to hear this chord all the time but it’s usually there to ground us. “Do You Hear” opens up on one chord, stays with it for nearly half a minute, and it’s not the tonic. This would feel pretty edgy except for the bouncy demeanor. And it is this juxtaposition that gives the song its depth and allure, as far as I can tell. In the chorus, by the way, we get a kind of opposite effect, as the melody stays focused mostly on one note as the chords shuffle through a progression that finally resolves—briefly—when the melody drops through to the tonic note (heard the first time at 0:53, on the third iteration of “things you’ve done”). But listen to how quickly we are kicked away from that moment, emphasized by a guitar riff yet again away from the tonic chord. Even the song’s final chord (3:02) keeps the resolution at bay, a not-often-heard effect.

A quintet from Brisbane, Cub Scouts is a new band with two singles so far to their name. “Do You Hear” will appear on a forthcoming EP.

Free and legal MP3: Dirty Three (chunky, inscrutable instrumental)

Not necessarily an easy ride, but there’s something endearing about this chunky, intermittently unsteady instrumental. The Australian trio Dirty Three return after seven years.

Dirty Three

“Rising Below” – Dirty Three

Let’s be honest: no one really knows what to do with rock’n’roll instrumentals. Yes, I realize that in rock’n’roll’s first decade, instrumentals were, well, instrumental in establishing the popularity of the nascent genre. There’s “Sleep Walk,” “Apache,” “Walk Don’t Run,” yada yada yada. But those tended to be short and melodic, typically featuring an atmospheric and memorable lead guitar line. And but for a last gasp by organ-oriented Booker T. and the MGs in the latter half of the ’60s, instrumentals became novelties at best, before, a half decade later, in the hands of the prog-rock colossi, mutating into patience-testing exercises in baroque noodling.

“Rising Below” is neither novelty nor incisive burst of melody nor bombast. It’s a chunky, initially unsteady piece that sneaks in through the side door: guitar and violin motifs enunciate themselves as afterthoughts while drummer Jim White slowly ponders the variations open to him for pounding out the first three beats of each four-beated measure. Listen to what happens after the minute and a half mark—it’s as if he’s now taking the pause in which he leaves out the fourth beat to plan his next rendering; you can almost hear the new idea arrive at the end of each successive measure. And when he gets a really-new versus a subtly-new idea, the instruments follow his lead and change their own courses. The most prominent change happens as the song churns past the three-minute mark. First, White incorporates a couple of snappy rolls into his playing and then, yikes, all hell breaks loose at the drum kit (3:13), prompting the violin and guitar to follow with their own disciplined eruptions of dissonance and noise (especially the violin). Then, around 4:10, the drumming reverts to the simple pounding pattern he had been using at the beginning, the one-two-threefour rhythm that gives us four hits but leaves out the actual fourth beat. It’s like he’s saying, “Okay, calm down now.” And they do. Only it’s a fake-out, since White breaks rank at 4:45 and we get a final 45 seconds of ordered craziness before there is, apparently, nothing left to say. This is not necessarily an easy ride but there’s something endearing about it.

Dirty Three have been doing their inscrutable thing since 1992. “Rising Below” is a song from Toward The Low Sun, the Melborne trio’s ninth album, which was released this week on Drag City Records. It’s been seven years since the last Dirty Three album, and sure enough, they were here then too.

photo credit: Annabel Mehran

Free and legal MP3: Kate Miller-Heidke (too pop for indie, too indie for pop)

With its classic chord progression, well-timed instrumental variation, and quick-witted lyrical salvos,”The Tiger Inside Will Eat the Child” is artfully designed for heavy rotation on radio stations that don’t exist.

Kate Miller-Heidke

“The Tiger Inside Will Eat the Child” – Kate Miller-Heidke

Unabashed pop, but pop in the old-fashioned sense of smartly-constructed, brightly produced, knowledgeably melodic music, sung by actual voices, rather than what pop has at least temporarily become on 21st-century Top 40 radio. With its classic chord progression, well-timed instrumental variation, and quick-witted lyrical salvos,”The Tiger Inside Will Eat the Child” is artfully designed for heavy rotation on radio stations that don’t exist.

That seems to be Kate Miller-Heidke’s niche, in fact. Her 2008 album Curiouser (not released in the U.S. until 2010) landed her likewise in a North American netherworld of being too pop for indie and too indie for pop—an album full of crisp, smart, entertaining nuggets of catchy-quirky goodness. In her native Australia, it went all the way up to number two on the album chart, but here it pretty much disappeared without a trace.

This time around, Miller-Heidke, working as always with husband/guitarist/collaborator Keir Nuttall, has veered into beat-heavy, electro-pop territory—a different-enough offering that in Australia this was released as a “side project” entitled Fatty Gets a Stylist. Here in the U.S. it’s being marketed as a Kate Miller-Heidke album called Liberty Bell, even though Nuttall is heard singing in the foreground more than previously. Miller-Heidke herself has adopted a more clipped, less idiosyncratic singing style than she’s used in the past. A conservatory-trained singer, she let her voice swoop and quaver most charmingly on Curiouser, when the song called for it. This time, she pretty much reigns that in, except maybe a bit in the album’s lead track, the ear-wormy “Are You Ready,” which New York residents may recognize from a widely seen commercial for the state lottery. (The commercial strikes me as a stretch, and successful largely because of the song itself, so for the curious, I offer up KMH’s official video rather than the ad; see below.) “Tiger Inside” isn’t as electro-poppy as some of the album’s other songs; there’s actually a nice assortment of guitar sounds to be had here. But also lots of electronic hand claps.

Miller-Heidke has been featured on Fingertips twice before—in March ’10 and in July ’05. Liberty Bell was released in the U.S. last month on the SIN/Sony Music Australia label.