Free and legal MP3: Midlake (gorgeous British folk revival sound)

Last heard in a Fleetwood Mac-ish soft rock mode (2007’s The Trials of Van Occupanther), the boys from Denton, Texas have reemerged with a renewed hankering for a more traditional-sounding British rock. But rather than the semi-psychedelic early Pink Floyd and Procol Harum-esque pageantry on display through much of Bamnan and Slivercork, their 2004 debut, the quintet takes it back a notch further to a ’60s British folk scene sound–think Steeleye Span, think Fairport Convention, think gentle, chivalrous melodies and general melancholy woebegone-edness.

“Acts of Man” – Midlake

Last heard in a Fleetwood Mac-ish soft rock mode (2007’s The Trials of Van Occupanther), the boys from Denton, Texas have reemerged with a renewed hankering for a more traditional-sounding British rock. But rather than the semi-psychedelic early Pink Floyd and Procol Harum-esque pageantry on display through much of Bamnan and Slivercork, their 2004 debut, the quintet takes it back a notch further to a ’60s British folk scene sound–think Steeleye Span, think Fairport Convention, think gentle, chivalrous melodies and general melancholy woebegone-edness.

But me, I’m eating it up because the stuff is marvelously crafted, ravishingly performed, and drop-dead gorgeous. What a vibe the band has here! Tim Smith’s medievally baritone is just the start of it. From the golden-toned acoustic guitar to the almost regal rumble of the drums to the deep and delicate flute lines and the potent minor-key melody that holds it all together, “Acts of Man” presents an aural landscape that all but makes me cry, for reasons beyond explanation. This is music working–as classical music is so often supposed to–at the level of pure emotion.

Apparently not everyone gets it. In addition to a number of supportive reviews, the new album, The Courage of Others, has gotten some notable pans, including a tone-deaf dismissal in Pitchfork. Normally I get a bit worked up over that kind of thing but this time it just occurs to me to feel badly for anyone whose head and ears can’t let them hear the beauty and worth of this album. Released last week on Bella Union, it’s only going to get better over time. MP3 via Insound.

Free and legal MP3: Aidan Knight(able country-tinged sing-along)

“Jasper” – Aidan Knight

When a song comes along as effortlessly gladdening as “Jasper” I actually get a little suspicious. “That’s it?” I think. “It’s that easy to write a really good song? A sing-along even? Anybody could do that!”

But of course as it turns out anybody can’t. Otherwise we’d have a lot more of this around, which we clearly do not. There’s something ramrod solid about this song, even as it glides so easily through its three and a half minutes. Perched squarely on the shoulders of Aidan Knight’s comfortable, boy-next-door baritone, “Jasper,” for all its laid-back, singer/songwriter-y vibe, shines with the melodic assurance of an old Elton John song. (This is, to be clear, a compliment, and anyone who doesn’t realize that would do well to go revisit some of the songs Sir Reg recorded between 1970 and 1974.) The song sounds channeled more than written, and everything about its presentation–from the delightfully restrained steel-guitar licks to the climactic group-sung chorus–rings true and right, as if no one had to decide any of this, as if it sprung to life of its will alone.

Knight is from the lovely city of Victoria, B.C.; “Jasper” is from Versicolour, his first album, which is due out early next month. It is also the first release for the record label Adventure Boys Club, a label started by Knight along with Tyler Bancroft, of the Vancouver band Said the Whale.

Free and legal MP3: The Fine Arts Showcase (melodic Swedish pop, w/ crooning)

“London, My Town” – The Fine Arts Showcase

The hand claps you hear at the outset of “London, My Town” aren’t just an intermittent percussive accent or atmospheric frill; they’re here for the duration of the song, soon acquiring a riveting sort of desperation about them. Hand claps are usually smile-inducing but these ones, not so much; whether organic or artificial, they have the sound of palms being driven together with an almost violent tenacity. That they do so underneath a most graceful melody adds to their disconcerting vigor. Neither for that matter does front man Gustaf Kjellvander, with his crooner’s baritone, have the kind of voice you expect to hear happy-claps behind.

And so check out how the song’s second section arrives, at 0:35, and immediately something feels like a clearing or a release. Yup: it’s because the hand claps have stopped for the moment. “And I’ve given up on truth,” Kjellvander sings at this point, accompanied by a pensive slide guitar line. “‘Cause I’m running out of youth.” Aren’t we all. And then the unyielding hand claps return. The song has something to do with Kjellvander’s moving back to Malmö from London after his relationship (the “Hanna” mentioned at the song’s abrupt end) has broken up; the entire album, Dolophine Smile, in fact, offers an unsparing look at the crumbling relationship. Set to graceful melodies.

The album, the Swedish quartet’s fifth, was released back in April 2009 on Malmö-based . “London, My Town” has just been made available as a free and legal MP3 via Adrian, in advance of the Fine Arts Showcase’s imminent German tour.

[Sad footnote: Gustaf Kjellvander passed away in 2011.]

Free and legal MP3: Sangre Degrado (sleeper w/ something of an early ’70s vibe)

“Pearl and Oyster” – Sangre Degrado

“Pearl and Oyster” has the casual aplomb of some forgotten nugget of early ’70s rock goodness. And it’s not so much that this California trio sounds precisely like this or that long-ago band as much as that they don’t especially sound like anything I’m hearing out of my trusty desktop speakers these days. Lead singer and guitarist Dan Chejoka has a chesty baritone with an elastic range, not to mention an engaging falsetto; behind him, his twin brother Nart, on drums, and their good friend Greg Johnson, on everything else, romp with determination and spirit through this sleeper of a song that has gotten about zero attention to date from the fickle and trend-obsessed blogosphere.

And pretty much everything you need to know about this one you can hear even before Chejoka opens his mouth, in the brisk and yearning introduction with its rubbery, soaring guitar line. That’s the sound of people not just looking to fill up space before the lyrics start, it’s the sound of a band with a story to tell that transcends words (which is what good music, even if it has words, should ideally do). The easy way the song unfolds from there–the elaborate melodies in both chorus and verse and the effective instrumental building blocks in between–is both delightful and matter of fact. Listen in particular to how the dramatic, falsetto-charged chorus builds to an emotional–but, interestingly, not a musical–resolution. I don’t think that’s easy to do.

“Pearl and Oyster” is from a debut album with a great title, The Nerve of That Ending, which the band self-released in October. MP3 via the band’s site, where the entire album is in fact available for free.

Free and legal MP3: Sea Wolf (agile, subtly orchestrated)

“Wicked Blood” – Sea Wolf

A dreamy wash of tingly synthesizers leads us into an agile, subtly orchestrated tune with a mixed-down piano vamp (itself intriguing; mostly when someone is pounding a piano, it’s just about all you can hear) and a hint of portentousness. When Alex Brown Church starts singing (and hm, we have two solo performers this week who record using an animal name), that sense of something impending, even prophetic, in the air is further accentuated both by his slightly husky but resonant baritone–it is a voice ready to pronounce something–and by the elusive stream of words he sings. The words resist a narrative throughline but are full of concrete images: veils and curls and mountains and chandeliers and waterfalls and such. Ever since Dylan went electric, this has been a surefire way to sow intrigue and anticipation in a pop song: give us lots of good nouns. We don’t know how that ember got in those rafters, or where the rafters even are, but we emotionally respond to the threat.

Church first gained indie notice as a member of the LA band Irving, which formed back in 1998. As he began writing songs that didn’t seem like Irving songs, he started performing on his own, as Sea Wolf, in 2003. (So you know, Irving has spawned at least one other side project–Afternoons, who were featured here last year; Irving itself is on hiatus at this point.) “Wicked Blood” is the lead track off White Water, White Bloom, the second Sea Wolf album, which came out last week on Dangerbird Records. MP3 via the good folks at Better Propaganda.

Free and legal MP3: Joe Henry (deconstructed, slow-motion gospel blues)

“Death to the Storm” – Joe Henry

A dusty, deconstructed, slow-motion gospel-blues stomp. I consistently like Joe Henry’s music without really knowing why. His songs succeed through atmosphere, maybe, more than anything else, which with Henry involves a canny intermingling of his fuzzy-buzzy baritone–rich and weary in a fin de siècle sort of way–with an idiosyncratic mix of sounds and organic beats. This time around, I’m particularly enjoying Marc Ribot’s unmistakable guitar lines, with their dry ghostly twang, which imply a bunch of noise they’re not actually making; the subtle interplay of a tinkly piano with a quiet horn of some sort; and the continuous use of drum rolls, on at least two different types of drums, to keep things edgy and forlorn.

Each time Henry releases an album, music writers seem to knock themselves out talking about how different it is from his last one but to my ears, everything sounds entirely Joe Henryesque. However different the music may be–and in all honesty I’m not hearing the differences others are hearing–the voice and the warm, intriguing sonic amalgam is a strong constant. If you’ve liked his stuff in the past, you’ll like this; if you like this, go back and check out some of his older things. You’ll like them too.<

"Death to the Storm" is from the album Blood From Stars, to be released next week on Anti Records. MP3 via Spinner.