Free and legal MP3: Terminal Gods (dark yet uplifting guitar rock)

Hook-iness nestled in a gnarled shelter of blazing guitars.

Terminal Gods

“The Wheels of Love” – Terminal Gods

A pounding ferocity that makes me want to talk in clipped sentences. Hook-iness nestled in a gnarled shelter of blazing guitars. Almost poignant in its refusal of poignancy. Black leather hiding a tender heart. Those gruff, baritone lead vocals that almost aren’t even like singing.

But then there’s the discipline of the guitar lines themselves that give rise to a need for articulate description. I hear unexpected echoes of Big Country’s bagpipey sound lurking in the fervent fingerwork, and something of that band’s earnest hopefulness too, despite Terminal Gods’ best efforts to cloak themselves in a goth-ier growl. The song is simply too well built to be a downer, the interplay between vocalist Robert Cowlin and guitarist Robert Maisey too vivid to do anything but uplift.

Cowlin and Maisey were formerly in a band called The Mumbles from 2005 to 2011; Terminal Gods was formed shortly thereafter. “Wheels of Love” is from the band’s debut release, a six-song EP entitled Machine Beat Messiah, released in late November. You can listen and/or buy via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: John Murry (moody, churning, redemptive)

“Southern Sky” wraps you into its spacious yet slightly menacing world with an enticing mix of buzz and chime.

John Murry

“Southern Sky” – John Murry

Existing in a murky net of sound, “Southern Sky” wraps you into its spacious yet slightly menacing world with an enticing mix of buzz and chime. The song launches with a purposeful, two-chord alternation, which gives the piece both propulsion and tension. We wait for release, it doesn’t come. The verse hews to the two chords, and Murry’s blanketty voice, rich and weary, sings a melody marked by rests and delays.

At 1:10 a new chord arrives, and something like redemption: the churning, moody verse gives way to a darkly gorgeous chorus. Murry is joined by a female backup singer, that elusive marimba-like sound comes slightly more forward into our awareness, and while the melody once more occupies the back end of the measure, it now feels suffused with grace and power. Without doing any one remarkable thing, this chorus is nevertheless remarkable, and it gives “Southern Sky” the sturdy feel of something timeless and necessary.

With addiction and loss in his back story, Murry is not play-acting here; the song’s partially-contained anguish is probably all too real. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Murry has landed as a musician in the Bay Area. His debut album, The Graceless Age, was released last year in the UK, and then in the US in April via the Oakland-based Evangeline Recording Co. You can listen to the whole album, and buy it if you like, via Bandcamp. Thanks to WXPN for the head’s up. You can download the song via the link above or via SoundCloud, where you can comment directly to Murry if you are so moved.

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: Richard Hawley (swirly, neo-psychedelic rocker)

“Leave Your Body Behind” has a sturdy, satisfying momentum that is felt in the stomach.

Richard Hawley

“Leave Your Body Behind You” – Richard Hawley

A swirly shot of neo-psychedelia, “Leave Your Body Behind You” drives an eddy of trebly noise across an assertive, “While My Guitar Gentle Weeps” bass line. And lives to tell about it. Hawley’s vocals happen somewhere in the middle of all this; he’s present more as a rich baritoney buzz than as a discernible storyteller. Which is no doubt purposeful, given the song’s much-repeated title lyric. He sounds halfway there. (To leaving his body behind, that is. I sometimes can’t tell if I’m being too subtle for my own good.)

So I will leave subtle behind now and say that “Leave Your Body Behind You” is a great song—inexplicably moving, with a sturdy, satisfying momentum that is felt in the stomach. I was won over in particular, on first listen, by the melisma that Hawley employs on the word “leave” at the beginning of the chorus (first heard beginning at 0:40). To begin, he holds the note while the familiar bass line guides us through those persuasive chord changes. But then, staying on the one word/syllable, he slips in an elegant twist that resembles nothing so much as an artfully deflected pass setting up a perfect strike on goal (and perhaps you can tell I’ve been watching a bit too much of Euro 2012). Where he ends up at 0:43 is wondrous and lovely even in the midst of the general psychedelic churn. This moment seems to me to be the song’s wily fulcrum, upon which its multi-faceted greatness rests and/or depends. As befitting the psychedelic soundscape, we get a slow, spacey break in the middle, during which the chorus is turned into a ghostly chant. Lots of fun follows, including a certain amount of freak-out instrumental goodness, and a bit more chanting to boot.

“Leave Your Body Behind You” is from Standing at the Sky’s Edge, Hawley’s seventh studio album, which was released on Mute Records in the UK last month, and then digitally in the US this month. Thanks again to Largehearted Boy for the lead. MP3 via Indie Rock Cafe. Oh, and while it is awesome with all its expansive, psychedelic instrumentals intact, the song functions nicely in hit-single mode too, without sacrificing its spacey middle break, as you can see from the version performed on Later…with Jools Holland last month, below.

Free and legal MP3: The Mark Lanegan Band (rumbly rock’n’roll, w/ grumbly baritone)

Listen to how the very rumble and swing of the music here echoes the sound Lanegan himself makes.

Mark Lanegan

“The Gravedigger’s Song” – The Mark Lanegan Band

“I always consider myself to be a pretty good breakfast cook that ended up as a singer,” Mark Lanegan told an interviewer in 2008. That would be a breakfast cook with a distinctively rich and grumbly baritone, in any case. And while the years have taken him on an unexpected musical journey—I mean, no one saw those three albums with Scottish singer/cellist Isobel Campbell coming—everything eventually reduces to that voice. While most facile efforts at pigeonholing Lanegan link him forever with the birth of grunge rock (his band, Screaming Trees, were one of Seattle’s best back in the day), there’s nothing particularly “grunge”-y about Lanegan, who did not fully explore the depth of his vocal tone until the Trees were history. His range and idiosyncrasy align him more with Tom Waits than Kurt Cobain.

Take “Gravedigger’s Song,” and listen to how the very rumble and swing of the music echoes the sound Lanegan makes. However hard-edged the vibe or menacing the lyrics with Lanegan there’s an inescapable caress involved; he sings to embrace you. And he embraces melody, however darkly presented. The music, meanwhile, is more canny than it lets on. As much as the song seems to draw on Delta blues for its spit and spirit, the thing nevertheless spills out with a triple-time feel. That juxtaposition, I think, opens the ear, at least for me, as I tend to like blues that are tweaked more than the standard-issue stuff. And note too that for all the percussive momentum here, the guitar is given the spine-tingling moments. That off chord it hits, first at 0:53, barely audible and yet seething with eloquence, just about nails the whole song—my ear semi-consciously salutes its return each time after that.

“Gravedigger’s Song” is from the album Blues Funeral, released in February on 4AD Records. It’s his seventh solo album, and his first since 2004’s Bubblegum, as well as his first following the Campbell trilogy (note they were featured once on Fingertips, in January 2006.) MP3 via 4AD Records. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

And I may as well point out that Lanegan has also been featured here for his duet with the Swedish singer/songwriter Maggie Björklund, in May of last year.

photo credit: Anna Hrnjak

Free and legal MP3: Shayfer James (theatrical, w/ bounce and menace)

Like a soundtrack to a malevolent carnival, “Weight of the World” is part bounce, part menace.

Shayfer James

“Weight of the World” – Shayfer James

Like a soundtrack to a malevolent carnival, “Weight of the World” is part bounce, part menace. Shayfer James has a theatrical baritone—rich and emotive, with a flair for phrasing; to enjoy this one you’ll have to be okay with a singer you can hear breathe and just about can see spit. But what the song may lack in subtlety it makes up for, I think, in exuberant catchiness. The swinging, syncopated chorus is all but irresistible, with its cavorting melody, inexorable chord progression, and those ghostly moans in the background.

Underneath it all James blends the cabaret and the barrelhouse with his vampy piano work. Even after all these years, tinkling authentic ivories remains a rare skill in rock’n’roll, and almost always lends a bit of show biz to the proceedings. Which I mean as a compliment, just to be clear.

James is a New Jersey-based singer/songwriter who actively cultivates the charismatic/mysterious rogue image—a kind of Tom Waits for the new millennium, complete with fedora. (His online bio labels him “the portrait of vagabond royalty.”) It’s a tricky posture for a youngster from the suburbs but he does have both unconventional family history (his oldest sibling is six years younger than his mother; long story) and impressive stage presence; there’s a good chance that if he sticks with it, he’ll grow into the part.

“Weight of the World” is the lead track on Counterfeit Arcade, an album James self-released at the end of November, his second full-length release. You can both listen to it and buy it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Barry Adamson (post-punk refugee w/ melodic grace)

A refugee from the heart of the U.K. post-punk scene, Adamson has a deep, reverberant voice but refuses to wallow in his own richness.

Barry Adamson

“Destination” – Barry Adamson

Melody has a built-in grace. This is why it works so well with allies—such as volume and density and drive—that do not have any inherent grace at all. Not to say that there is anything wrong with a song that is simply and only beautiful. But in the long run I believe we are enhanced by juxtapositions, blends, syntheses. Note for instance in your own lives how the most interesting people you know are likely those willing to roam beyond the comforts of one well-worn path. Songs can be the same way.

“Destination” is thick and gnarly from the get-go, and Adamson, a refugee from the heart of the U.K. post-punk scene, initially adds his portentous baritone in a speak-singing mode that magnifies the overall murk. But: you can hear the croon in his voice aching to get out at the end of each line, can’t you? And he unfurls it at last at 0:49; and now, without being quite sure how we got here, we are in the middle of a fabulous melody. Adamson has a deep, reverberant voice but he keeps things moving, avoiding the trap voices such as his often fall into in which they kind of wallow in their own richness. The vibe is brisk and crisp; we lose now the buzzing guitar and get a rollicking piano in its place. The piano, half-crazed, kind of steals the show shortly thereafter. It’s not where I expected the song to go but I like it. A lead guitar wrestles the spotlight the next time the chorus sweeps through but the piano returns to accompany the dense instrumental coda that closes out this oddly satisfying composition.

Adamson was bass player in the seminal British band Magazine through both its four original years and also in the 21st-century reunion (although he left the band before it recorded its long-awaited fifth album, this year). He played briefly in the Buzzcocks as well, and landed in the Bad Seeds with Nick Cave for a few years in the mid-’80s. Adamson released the first of eight smokey, adventurous solo albums in 1988 and has also worked since then on a number of film soundtracks. “Destination” is the first available track for an as-yet unnamed album set for release in 2012. MP3 once again via the resourceful Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: The National (brisk, deliberate burner)

“Afraid of Everyone” – The National

“Afraid of Everyone” starts spooky, slowly and surreptitiously picks up a pulse, then a driving beat, but even as it does remains tight and restrained. This juxtaposition of brisk and deliberate adds layers to the eeriness, just as the fear expressed lyrically broadens from interpersonal to existential: what begins with a reference to today’s poisonous political environment ends with Matt Berninger singing, semi-imperceptibly, “Your voice has stolen my soul.” Notice (this strikes me as important) that the song itself does not change tempo; what happens is that the band finally–first around 1:10 and then more fully at 1:25–picks up on the song’s implicit beat, and literally drives home the frightened and frightening message. Repeated listens give this one a palpably deeper and deeper burn.

Originally from Cincinnati, now in Brooklyn, the National has been steadily building a critical and popular following, as expansively discussed in a recent article in the New York Times. Personally, I’ve been reserved about them in the past, in part because I didn’t give Berninger’s portentous but limited (and mumbly) baritone enough time to let the intrigue of the music penetrate. Not sure if I’m in the process of full conversion, but I very much look forward to listening to the new album, High Violet, in its entirety (which you can do this week on NPR.) The album comes out officially next week on 4AD. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3: Patrick Wolf (both channeling and reinterpreting K.Bush)

“Army Dreamers” – Patrick Wolf

I can count on one hand the number of cover songs I’ve posted here on Fingertips over the years; I’m not at all against them in theory, but I don’t usually feel compelled to talk about them. It’s more of a “Oh, that’s interesting,” and on we go. But this was a no-brainer from the opening drum-and-piano salvo. How different from the original and yet immediately exactly right. Wolf here has done the near impossible with a cover version: he has revealed the depths awaiting us in a song that even its writer hadn’t quite plumbed.

And that is to take nothing away from Kate Bush, whom I love unabashedly. But she wrote and sang “Army Dreamers” for her 1980 album Never For Ever, which found her in transition between the lush, piano-based, teenaged sounds of her first two records and the more complex, Fairlight-fueled, experimental direction she would develop fully with The Dreaming and Hounds of Love. Her original was a delicate, string-filled waltz, with a hint of weird around the edges. (But, note, a #1 record in the U.K.) Wolf–an intense, theatrical character in his own right–has done nothing as much as show us how Bush herself might have recorded this once she truly hit her stride. The martial rhythm, the creative synthesizer flourishes, the inventive percussion, the ghostly backing vocal (whether real or synthesized, an obvious homage), not to mention the exotic counter-vocal, are all evident Bushisms. But perhaps Wolf’s most splendid and mysterious accomplishment is singing in his shadowy baritone–not doing an imitation, not in fact remotely sounding like her–and yet all but channeling the great and mighty KB. Thirty years later, he delivers a cover that sounds at least as authentic as the original.

“Army Dreamers” is a track from a massive compilation album put out by the Spanish music collaborative Buffetlibre in support of Amnesty International. For five euros, you get 180 MP3s from 50 musicians from around the world, including Marissa Nadler, Ra Ra Riot, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and the Antlers. All songs are exclusive and previously unreleased. Visit Buffetlibre for more information.

Free and legal MP3: Ceremony (putting the pop into noise pop)

Ever since My Bloody Valentine there have been no shortage of bands choosing to wallop our ears with washes of noisy guitars while teasing those same ears with muffled vocals, but not enough of them–either in the original shoegaze era or in its current “neo” phase–have bothered mixing a strong melody into the sonic assault. The duo calling themselves Ceremony, on the other hand, while making themselves inaccessible Googlistically speaking, have decided to put the “pop” back into noise pop.

“Someday” – Ceremony

Ever since My Bloody Valentine there have been no shortage of bands choosing to wallop our ears with washes of noisy guitars while teasing those same ears with muffled vocals, but not enough of them–either in the original shoegaze era or in its current “neo” phase–have bothered mixing a strong melody into the sonic assault. The duo calling themselves Ceremony, on the other hand, while making themselves inaccessible Googlistically speaking, have decided to put the “pop” back into noise pop.

Springing from the same Fredericksburg, Virginia trio–Skywave–that ended up giving birth to NYC’s A Place to Bury Strangers, Ceremony are loud, no question. But right away see how they take the noisy, rapid-fire beat and use it to as a framework for a melody both leisurely and tuneful. The first hint we get is the lilting–in fact, rather Cure-like–instrumental theme that emerges from the beat at 0:16. That’s an ear-friendly hook before the singing even starts. The vocals, when they arrive, are buzzy but not buried; you can not only understand a good number of words, but the singer–either Paul Baker or John Fedowitz (both are listed with the exact same credits: vocal, guitar, bass, drum machine)–sings like he wants to be heard; he’s got a portentous baritone, but he enunciates, while singing a catchy little tune when all is said and done. Rather audacious of him, especially on a song with this straightforward refrain: “Take my heart and my life/’Cause someday you’ll be my wife.” Borrowing a bit from a recent post by Michael Azzerad, one might argue that in a loud and angry age such as ours, using this particular aural toolbox to deliver an unironic, non-violent message of love and connection is more subversive than any effort to be just noisy.

“Someday” was released on a 7-inch single in January, and will appear on Ceremony’s debut second full-length album, Rocket Fire, to be released next month. Both releases are on Killer Pimp Records, which also hosts the MP3. Thanks yet again to the indefatigable Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.