Free and legal MP3: Ya Minko

Contemplative, textured ballad

“Chambres Vides” – Ya Minko

A gentle series of piano chords lays the groundwork for this contemplative, textured ballad from the bilingual Washington, D.C. rapper/singer Ya Minko, himself not above throwing a bit of Beatles into the downbeat mix (note in particular the beginning and the end). I am admittedly a sucker for major-to-minor chord transitions, and “Chambres Vides” (translated: “empty rooms”) gives us such moments both in the verse and the chorus. An additional, more unusual transition is also employed here, which is some alternating between French and English lyrics. (Okay I guess I’m kind of a sucker for French lyrics as well.)

Born in Gabon, Ya Minko moved to the U.S. after high school. He is self-taught on ProTools, and I give him a lot of credit for (I know this is one of my key words here) the restraint he employs throughout, resisting unnecessary vocal effects and beat augmentations. Listen, as an example, to how effective that one wood-block-y percussive sound is that he injects in the chorus (first heard at 0:51): it just does its steady thing, once per measure, on the third beat, as the music tracks through its lovely chord progressions underneath the recycling melody, with its repeated, melancholy triplets . I would go as far as to say that that one percussive sound, nearly a musical note but not quite, is what gives the song’s primary major-to-minor moment (launching from 0:57) extra impact, as that sound becomes a constant against which the switch is performed.

Another nice moment comes during the second half of the chorus, which is by and large a repeat of the first run: if you listen carefully, you’ll hear, with increasing volume, a sort of string-like bass line that mimics at the bottom of the mix the melody Ya Minko is singing (it becomes more apparent starting around 1:17). Small touches, to my ear, are so much more effective than gaudy sound effects and pop-production clichés.  As for the “Strawberry Fields Forever” callback in the coda (starting at 2:30), it functions as icing on the serene and melancholy cake that the song serves up. Ya Minko tells me the instrumentation for the track was conceived by a Las Vegas producer named Mantra, so props to him here as well.

“Chambres Vides” is the lead track from Ya Minko’s four-song EP, Catharsis, which you can listen to and download, for free, via SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Ponyhof (elegant, dynamic, emotional)

An elegant, emotional ballad that builds with great poise and features a vibrant electric cello.

Ponyhof

“Tiger” – Ponyhof

An elegant, emotional ballad that builds with great poise, “Tiger” hooks me quickly, with its opening juxtaposition of warm keyboard and what sounds like a distant, distorted guitar but is actually an electric cello. Then Carrie Erving starts singing and I’m hooked further by that minor-key swerve at the end of each line of the verse and the persistence of Chris Loxley’s droning cello, squealing and squalling in the background like the some weirdly positive version of nails on a blackboard. It’s a great vibe they’ve got going here.

At the chorus, the song opens up with satisfying heft, as both the drums and, now, a more standard-sounding cello kick in at the same time (1:09)—not a typical pairing but an effective one. Erving’s voice here becomes both smoother and sturdier, and acquires a male background singer who happens to be Will Butler from Arcade Fire, singing here with a kind of intense restraint that transforms his voice into a shadow of hers. As the song returns to the verse at 1:37, the momentum feels unstoppable; in truth, the verses in the song from here onward advance with the power of a chorus, while what initially seemed the chorus section reveals itself to be the subtler structural partner in a increasingly forceful union. In any case, the song climaxes at the unfolding of the last verse, beginning at 2:46 (“There’s a tiger in your heart…”), which veers through lyrical changes into what will surely prove to be one of the year’s wildest guitar solos, especially since it is in fact being performed by Loxley on that electric cello of his.

Carrie Erving is the singer/songwriter at the center of Ponyhof, a Brooklyn-based foursome which Erving says might be called a band or maybe more accurately a collective of musicians who gather to play her songs. “Tiger” is from the debut Ponyhof album, Empires, which was released last month. You can download the song from the above link, or via Ponyhof’s SoundCloud page, where you can also hear the album’s title track.

Free and legal MP3: Graham MacRae (ambling ballad w/ bygone air)

The atmosphere of the song implies pronouncement, but the words themselves offer mostly bewilderment.

Graham MacRae

“Wait” – Graham MacRae

An ambling ballad, seemingly from another era, with something simultaneously assertive and vulnerable about it. The Los Angeles-based MacRae has a resonant if trembly baritone; singing about a breakdown of communication, his lyrics sound more like things that are spoken than are sung, an impression amplified by the erratic way the lines sometimes scan with the melody. The accompaniment is simple, almost homely, but forceful—a strummed acoustic guitar, a bottom-heavy drum kit, a finger-picked electric guitar. The message here is: I am a plainspoken man, singing a plainspoken song.

Well, if only. Listen carefully and see how the words unfold with the faulty momentum of a heat-of-the-moment exchange. The atmosphere of the song implies pronouncement, but the words themselves offer mostly bewilderment. First, it’s: “Wait/I’m coming this way/With one thing left to say to you”; soon, it’s: “Wait/You can’t leave on that note/Why must you speak in constant code?”; in conclusion it’s “Hey/I don’t know/These are age-old questions.” Those three lines together are so much the crux of the song that rest of the words are basically false trails, communicating foundering without focus. Any spurned lover impelled to use the word “egregious” in a sentence—never mind a song!—has his head spun around too much to be convincing.

Dundrearies is MacRae’s second full-length album, following up his 2008 self-titled debut. The word dundrearies, you might not know, refers to a style of long, bushy sideburns or muttonchop whiskers and is taken from the character Lord Dundreary in a 19th-century play called Our American Cousin, best known to history as the play Abraham Lincoln was watching when assassinated in 1865.

Free and legal MP3: Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos (poignant, world-weary ballad)

Poignant, world-weary ballad from a shape-shifting band that has previously inspired both a cult following and an impressive amount of critical invective. But there’s little not to like here, or, truly, on the rest of their fine new album, Buzzard.

Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos'

“Lunatic, Lunatic, Lunatic” – Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos

Poignant, world-weary ballad from a shape-shifting band that has previously inspired both a cult following and an impressive amount of critical invective. But there’s little not to like here, or, truly, on the rest of their fine new album, Buzzard. From the clarity of the acoustic guitar to the subtle, well-chosen embellishments to front man Richard Edwards’ elusive and compelling voice, “Lunatic Lunatic Lunatic” commands and rewards attention. And don’t miss the song’s revelatory transformation from a sleepy, singer-songwriter-y narrative to a compelling band piece, which begins with the backward-sounding guitar break at 2:23. Compare how Edwards sings the song’s first lyrics, beginning at 0:29, to how he conveys them with the band at 2:56—compare in particular the two different voices he uses for the phrase “all the time.” Same words, same notes, and yet he almost sound like two different singers.

Turns out that “Lunatic, Lunatic, Lunatic” is one of those admirable songs for which the strength of the music and performance deeply invigorates the lyrics. I might not otherwise be engaged by the second-hand exploits of some supposedly crazy, unappealing young woman, but the melody and vibe grab me and cause me to reevaluate what I’m hearing. I stop to consider why the narrator is spending so much time on this grubby tale. Why, in fact, does he insist on calling this girl a lunatic not just once but three times each time? Weaker music would kill the story; here I intuit grand subtext. By the end of the song, listened to a certain way, one might legitimately wonder who the actual crazy person is.

Originally from Indianapolis, now Chicago-based, Margot features not even one person named Margot. Once something of a chamber-pop ensemble, the So and Sos have reoriented their sound—it’s a bit roughed up and guitar-based at this point—while re-populating themselves: there are eight of them listed as current members on their Facebook page, but only three remain from their initial incarnation. (Among the new folks is singer/songwriter Cameron McGill, who himself was featured on Fingertips just around this time last year.)

Buzzard was released on Mariel Recordings last month. MP3 via Filter Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: The Medders (sweeping, melancholy C&W-ish ballad)

“Gunslinger” – the Medders

A sweeping, melancholy ballad with solid (but not annoying) country-western roots, “Gunslinger” tells a woeful tale with care, finesse, and canny harmonies. Constructed without a chorus, the song steadfastly repeats an eight-measure melody, with some instrumental breaks, all the while building in intensity both musically and lyrically. I like the great combination of deliberation and power on display, which gives this slower-paced song a vehemence normally achieved, in rock, through speed and volume. And the male-female harmonies are not just a boon but may well be the ultimate key to how well “Gunslinger” works, adding to the song’s pathos and musicality simultaneously. The all-male Medders employed singer Priscilla Jeschke for the job; note she is also lead singer Cheyenne Medders’ girlfriend.

The Medders are a quartet from Nashville featuring three brothers–Cheyenne, Carson, and Will–who themselves are the sons of singer/songwriter Jule Medders. Their self-titled, self-released, and self-assured debut album is scheduled for a September release.