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.

Free and legal MP3: The Middle East (odd tale w/ inscrutable appeal)

As a plain narrative this song leaves so much unsaid as to be inscrutable. But with its extended melody line and shared male/female lead vocal, there’s a lot going on between the lines.

The Middle East

“Jesus Came to My Birthday Party” – The Middle East

After a tuning-up kind of introduction, “Jesus Came to My Birthday Party” launches with an extended melody line sung in tandem by male and female vocalists. And we have to stop here now and think about this. A 16-measure melody is hard enough to come by; to hear one delivered via male/female octave harmony is highly unusual if not unique. And yet it doesn’t draw any attention to itself, as neither of those two characteristics—the extended melody, the male/female joint lead—in and of itself sounds strange or unusual.

Couple the music now with the lyrics—themselves, too, at once strange and straightforward—and the appeal deepens. Mostly what we get is a repeated insistence by the narrator that “Jesus came to my birthday party/When I was seventeen.” The circumstances are otherwise sketchy in the extreme; we are only told that the narrator thought it was a dream, but knows he/she saw him “standing there,” and that Jesus had long hair. The song pivots on the second verse, the second and last time we hear the full 16-measure melody, when the narrator, recalling this “long ago” time when Jesus was at the birthday party, suddenly thinks he/she has seen Jesus again, but this time not actually in the flesh but “in the eyes of the strangers that pass,” and “in the eyes of the poor.”

As a plain narrative this song leaves so much unsaid as to be inscrutable. But there’s something in the repetition, the vibe, the rugged persistence of the male-female lead vocal line, and the eventual blending of acoustic rhythm guitar with a stirring electric lead guitar that prompts reflection, and opens the song up to its fuller meaning—which by the way, to me, has nothing whatever to do with anybody’s one religion, in case you’re worried.

And now comes the odd news that The Middle East, an Australian collective with an expanding and contracting roster, has unfortunately called it quits. Based in Townsville, Queensland, the band released its last album, I Want That You Are Always Happy, back in April in Australia, and played its last show at the end of July. The album was released in the U.S. in July, on Missing Piece Records. The band was previously featured on Fingertips in April 2010.

Free and legal MP3: Darren Hanlon (fun stuff from speak-singing Australian)

So here’s Darren Hanlon, about as far from our Auto-Tuned radio music as he can be, and yet, lo and behold, look how fun, look how easy to listen to, look how human.

Darren Hanlon

“Buy Me Presents” – Darren Hanlon

If you must know why I am terminally suspicious of technological frills (I’m looking at you, Auto-Tune), it’s because of this: the simple, deeply effective pleasure of hearing a musician perform his or her songs without them. And yes, I know it’s a fine line, I know that many seemingly simple songs are built using technology “they” never used to have (whoever “they” were), but I’m talking more about visible versus invisible frills. I’m all for anything that helps us better hear the instruments and voices involved in the song-making, and I’m also, absolutely, all for anything that can be used, effectively, as music, however electronic or “artificially” generated—those are organic in their own way. Faddish processing that pointlessly roboticizes the sound is less good. Way less good.

So here’s Darren Hanlon, about as far from our Auto-Tuned radio music as he can be, and yet, lo and behold, look how fun, look how easy to listen to, look how delightful. I love the homely, chuggy guitar sound, I love Hanlon’s bemused, Billy Bragg-ish speak-singing, I love the unassuming ease of this great chord progression, I love the funny but not jokey lyrics, and I love love love that valorous, unexpected saxophone.

Hanlon is an Australian singer/songwriter who began a solo career in 1999 after previously playing in a number of Aussie bands, including the Lucksmiths and the Simpletons. “Buy Me Presents” is a song from his fourth album, I Will Love You At All, released last month on Yep Roc Records. Note his breakthrough album in Australia, in 2006, had the intriguing title Fingertips and Mountaintops.

Free and legal MP3: Sarah Blasko (smoky vocals, Morricone-ish setting)

Nothing says “cinematic” better than a Morricone-inspired whistling introduction, but I like how down-to-earth and personal everything still manages to sound here. Often this kind of spaghetti western-ish styling opens up sweeping vistas with a certain amount of ironic winking, conjuring bleak deserts and dusty trails in an almost cartoonish way. But here Blasko takes the whistly intro, the Spanish-like guitar, and a touch of martial snare and wraps them up in her smoky, heartsore voice, singing a simple, haunting melody.

“All I Want” – Sarah Blasko

Nothing says “cinematic” better than a Morricone-inspired whistling introduction, but I like how down-to-earth and personal everything still manages to sound here. Often this kind of spaghetti western-ish styling opens up sweeping vistas with a certain amount of ironic winking, conjuring bleak deserts and dusty trails in an almost cartoonish way. But here Blasko takes the whistly intro, the Spanish-like guitar, and a touch of martial snare and wraps them up in her smoky, heartsore voice, singing a simple, haunting melody. By the time the strings arrive, we aren’t picturing a lonesome rider in the blistering vastness of the faux Wild West; she is clearly singing about inner landscapes, not outer ones. That producer Björn Yttling (of Peter, Bjorn and John fame) has found a way to personalize a musical setting rooted in outsized gestures is a mighty part of this song’s charm, but it took Blasko’s distinctive husky-breathy voice to pull it off. I’m guessing her voice gave him the idea in the first place. There’s something haunted and unreachable in it.

Blasko is from Sydney, where she has a sizable following after three well-regarded albums. “All I Want” is from her third and most recent CD, As Day Follows Night, which was recorded in Stockholm with Yttling and released last year in Australia and this spring in Europe. A U.S. release is scheduled for August.

Free and legal MP3: The Middle East (slowly unfolding, deeply engaging)

“Blood” – The Middle East

Over a stately acoustic guitar noodle that wouldn’t sound out of place on a mid-career Genesis album, “Blood” unfolds slowly yet engages the ear instantly. (That’s an advanced maneuver in the rock’n’roll style book, by the way.) The anticipation is delicious; the song doesn’t fully cook until 2:55 but I don’t think you’ll be bored. Engaging musicianship, sensitive and creative arrangement, affecting vocals, intriguing and well-crafted lyrics, short-term melodies, long-term structure: this six-piece from northern Queensland offers a full arsenal, even–what the heck–a children’s chorus before the thing is through.

I read somewhere that this song tells the story of three different relationships, two ended by death, one by divorce, but don’t expect to pick that up easily; the band’s singer has a lovely, Bon Iver-esque tenor that functions more like an instrument than a tale-teller. We pick up the occasional sonorous phrase–“She woke up in a cold sweat on the floor”; “Burned by the sun too often when she was young”–but as the song develops musically, the words fade into the fabric of the composition, eventually to be left aside entirely once the central musical motif–a refrain first heard as a whistled melody at 2:01–rises in climactic, wordless, choral repetition two-thirds of the way through (the aforementioned children’s chorus).

Formed in 2005 in a quiet village near the Great Barrier Reef, the Middle East self-released an album entitled The Recordings of the Middle East in 2008. And then decided to break up. And eight months later decided to re-form, with some personnel changes. The original album was then given an Australia-wide re-release in abridged form as an EP by Spunk Records, an Australian label that happens also to release a lot of big-time American indie rock (Spoon, the Shins, Joanna Newsom, Okkervil River, et al). The EP made it to the U.S. late in 2009, and the band itself arrived for the first time this spring and is currently touring here. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3: Kate Miller-Heidke (cheeky, theatrical, Australian)

“Politics in Space” – Kate Miller-Heidke

This has nothing to do with NYC, and maybe little to do with Planet Earth. A classically trained soprano, Australia’s Miller-Heidke took a left turn out of the conservatory and didn’t look back; she traces her musical lineage not geographically but aesthetically, and maybe even psychologically. Artists like Lene Lovich and Kate Bush and Björk come to mind once Miller-Heidke turns herself loose, and the process of singing becomes intertwined with something resembling performance art.

But the cool thing is none of this is remotely ponderous–wacky, humorous, and cheeky, yes, but not ponderous. (Listen to how she briefly puts her “conservatory voice” to use—around 1:04—and you’ll see how cheeky.) Musically, the song hues to a deliberate beat, with relatively austere accompaniment—there’s a rubbery bass, a deep drum beat, a simply strummed acoustic guitar, hand claps, and not much else—except, that is, for the backing vocals. Turns out this song is all about the backing vocals, pretty much. (“Pretty much.”) Follow them all the way through and you’re in for a smile or two.

Miller-Heidke has had hit records in Australia, and also reaped praise last year for her performance in Sydney of Jerry Springer: The Opera. Previously featured on Fingertips in 2005, she has not had any music released in the U.S., until now. (Although some may know her from the live-recorded song “R U Fucking Kidding Me? [The Facebook Song],” which has had some viral success on the social media circuit.) Curiouser, an album originally released in Australia in October ’08 (and actually recorded in Los Angeles), will be released here this month on SIN/Sony Australia. Thanks very much to Victoria, at Muruch, for the lead. MP3 originally from somewhere else but remains online courtesy of Art Nouveau magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Ancient Free Gardeners (distinctive, meandering yet meticulous rock)

“Innards Out” – Ancient Free Gardeners

I’m attracted to the meandering feeling of this song–the way it starts as if already in the middle (note: no introduction), and unfolds in an off-kilter way–because underneath I sense a meticulous purpose and drive. Vague and precise is a compelling juxtaposition. Because of the mysterious lyrical phrases, the desultory guitar lines, the stops and starts, and the oddball chords, I’m picking up something of a Steely Dan-ish vibe, by way of the Blue Nile; nothing, in any case, seems to be happening by accident. And when the song finally delivers us to an unabashed–if still eccentric–chorus, I feel as if some sort of salvation is at hand. And yet listen to how the song pulls away from an uncomplicated resolution: when front man James Milsom sings the words “the spider and the fly,” by rights the word “fly” would come accompanied with a clear, satisfying, resolving chord. No such luck, however–we are taken to the brink and then everything scoots out the side door: Milsom dismembers the last line “We are both of these, you and I,” dragging out the word “are,” then offering the last two phrases as a kind of quizzical afterthought.

And when the song is over, it ends. This is entirely refreshing.

Ancient Free Gardeners are a quartet from Melbourne that has only been up and running since 2006. They released their debut EP last year and have put out two singles since; “Innards Out” is the latest, released in May. A full-length CD is expected later this year.