Free and legal MP3: Savannah Gardner

Hymn-like solemnity, down-home allure

“Heartbreak River” – Savannah Gardner

There’s a hymn-like solemnity to “Heartbreak River,” with its dignified pace, swelling vocals, and down-home vibe. There’s also something that cumulatively touches the soul here, although I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what it is. Gardner is a young singer/songwriter with an ache in her voice and a depth to her presence, so part of the song’s persuasiveness lies in her performance.

And me being a melody guy through and through, I’m also moved by the solidity of the tune itself, which has a steady majesty, and culminates in a resolution in the chorus as mighty and unshakable as they come: the first half (0:45-0:59) a thoroughgoing set-up for the second half, the second half (1:00-1:14) the unhurried and inevitable conclusion. You see the resting point coming from a mile away and it’s all the sweeter as a result.

As suits the song’s humble power, the arrangement feels easy and tasteful, grounded in simple piano playing, with intermittent violin countermelodies, the occasionally audible guitar lick, and the recurrent punctuation of layered backing vocals. These voices rise and fall with restrained drama (and perhaps a bit of vocal processing?; if so, I like the effect a lot), becoming increasingly central to the song’s complexion. The violin, for its part, hangs back a bit, curbing what might be a natural tendency in this sort of song to pour on the syrup; when it moves front and center for the short coda (3:24), it carries with it the heft and poignancy of a bygone time.

Savannah Gardner, born to British parents, was raised in California, but lives now in the Cotswolds. “Heartbreak River” is a single released back in May; her new single, “Take Me Home,” came out late last month; you can check it out via YouTube. Thanks to Savannah for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Neko Case (enigmatic brilliance)

Neko Case is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of a voice.

Neko Case

“Hell-On” – Neko Case

Neko Case is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of a voice. The more confident she has grown as a songwriter and singer over the years, the less clear her intentions, the more obscure her references, the more involuted her song structures. There is no explaining “Hell-On,” the title track to her new album, unless you are somehow blessed with an intuitive understanding of lines like this:

Just at sorrow’s waterline
I drape you on tomorrow’s plate
Ferrous, metal marrow spilling
Not yours but mine
I’m an agent of the natural world

Say what? But: keep listening. You won’t understand it any better but you might grow to understand that understanding is besides the point. Case is indeed an agent of the natural world, otherwise known as a force of nature, and there is something in her haunted melodies and cryptic utterances that command not merely respect but something approaching exaltation. “Hell-On” begins like an oddball Waitsian waltz, tip-toes through an unremitting series of puzzling declarations before shifting time signature and tone at 1:52 and again at 2:24 before finding its way back to 3/4 time at 2:54 for a finish that matches the deliberately sung, vaguely off-kilter opening section. You listen once and you have little idea where you are or what she’s doing. Any sense it begins to acquire with repeated listens is sub-rational at best. She seems so determined in her opacity that she swallows the title phrase of the song beyond recognition (the lyrics at this point [3:27] go: “Nature can’t amend its ways/Boils hell-on and then replays”)—as a listener, then, your not knowing what she’s talking about is compounded by your not even apprehending the sounds she’s making.

A lesser artist might lose me here. (Alas, we live in a world dominated by lesser artists.) Neko is the real thing. I haven’t yet had the chance to listen to the entire album but what I’ve heard so far has wowed me; I’m pretty sure this is not nearly the best song on the album, but it’s the available free and legal MP3 (via KEXP) and you should still have it. Then go on to Bandcamp and listen to the entire album. Furthermore: please consider the radical act of buying the actual album for actual money (it’s only $8), in support of actual music.

Free and legal MP3: Tracey Thorn (elegant electronic anthem)

What really renders this so potent is the gorgeous depth of the sound—a deft mix of a deep, subtly languorous disco beat, incisive percussive twizzles, and Thorn’s honeyed alto, arguably more commanding than ever.

Tracey Thorn

“Sister” – Tracey Thorn

Effortlessly brilliant, from the groove to the arrangement to the dusky authority of Tracey Thorn’s voice, “Sister” is as elegant and urgent an electronic anthem as you’re likely to hear this year (this decade?; ever?). That she even needs to write this here in 2018 is ridiculous, which she admits herself in the lyrics (“Oh, what year is it/Still arguing the same shit”), and yet with all the knuckleheads—real and fake—out there arguing in favor of white male supremacy, well, here she is, fighting (also from the lyrics) “like a girl,” which I take to be a powerful thing indeed.

And what really renders this so potent is the gorgeous depth of the sound—a deft mix of a subtly languorous disco beat, incisive percussive twizzles, and Thorn’s honeyed alto, arguably more commanding than ever. (One of many glorious vocal moments in this song comes right after the first “fight like a girl” line, where she first exhales the word “girl” into two syllables and then at 1:09 stretches the word with an extra sigh that penetrates the soul.)

Be warned that this is a long one, some eight-plus minutes, the last three or so committed to extending the groove rather than the content of the song. But none of it is mindless; there are shifts in sounds and effects, and a maintenance of the song’s nuanced tension that keeps my ear and mind engaged all the way through.

“Sister” is literally the centerpiece of Record, Thorn’s latest album—the fifth of nine songs, each a one-word title, mirroring the all but ironic simplicity of the album name itself. Record was released in March on Merge Records, and is her fourth post-Everything But The Girl solo release, her first since the wonderful 2012 Christmas album Tinsel and Lights. MP3 via KEXP. Thorn was previously featured on Fingertips in March 2010.

Free and legal MP3: Daisy Victoria (swirling, anthem-y goodness)

Another striking, swirling, anthem-y slice of pop-informed rock’n’roll from a very promising young UK talent.

Daisy Victoria

“Pain of Dancers” – Daisy Victoria

Fueled by a big-hearted guitar line, an unresolved chorus melody, and Daisy Victoria’s theatrical presence, “Pain of Dancers” leaps into the world with poise and vigor—just another striking,
swirling, anthem-y slice of pop-informed rock’n’roll from this promising young UK talent. (For those who missed her magical song “Nobody Dies,” from late 2014, go here, quickly.)

As much as I love pretty much everything she’s up to here, I think the deep allure is rooted first and foremost in her voice, which possesses a rare blend of richness and nuance; she invests herself fully in every note, and the subtle shifts from dusk to lightness are thrilling upon close listening. But unlike some performers blessed with natural vocal prowess, Victoria has her eyes and ears on all aspects of songcraft. Think of those synth squiggles we hear with the drumbeat in the opening seconds of the song: highly unnecessary and extremely wonderful. More centrally, there’s the super-appealing, low-register guitar line that introduces the song and recurs after each iteration of the chorus—an adroit counter-motif and nothing a singer merely trying to show off tends to bothers with. It’s this guitar line, in fact, that both grounds the song—the chorus never resolves on its own—and gives it its sky-high reach. I kind of can’t stop listening.

“Pain of Dancers” is a single, self-released last month. Thanks to Daisy for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Shannon Wardrop (ambling, vaguely psychedelic, & impressive)

The young London-area singer/songwriter has a rich and elastic tone, and employs it with ravishing restraint.

Shannon Wardrop

“I Wanna Be Your Lady” – Shannon Wardrop

With its distorted guitars and spongy bass line, “I Wanna Be Your Lady” has an ambling, vaguely psychedelic feel that seems suddenly like the very thing we need to be listening to, collectively, right now. The song suggests weathered trees and cracked sidewalks, roasty cups of afternoon coffee, heart-breaking daylight, and things made of rugged glass; it reminds us that there may be evil in the world, and stupidity, but that right now you’re probably okay, and that’s worth something too.

A young singer/songwriter from the London area, Wardrop has a rich and elastic tone, and employs it with ravishing restraint, letting her big voice rip only in the final moments. But me I prefer the shimmering implications in her phrasing of “Wanna to be the one you call,” starting at 0:23, particularly the understated oomph she gives to the word “one.” Lots of small moments like that here add up to major delight—another one: the way the droning guitar riff gets a clipped punctuation at 0:44 that kind of sounds like a vocal and kind of doesn’t—and help to turn a song of head-bobbing simplicity into something deep and lasting.

And how great is it that there are young singer/songwriters in the world in 2015 who sound like this? The rejection of digital hubris begins here, with a generation for whom classic rock has warm parental associations, and who seek to move forward musically via simple humanity, sly good humor, and well-informed musicianship. “I Wanna Be Your Lady” is one of three songs on Wardrop’s Cloud 9 EP, her second, released last month. You can listen via Bandcamp. Her previous EP, Medicine, was released in 2013.

Free and legal MP3: Rebekka Karijord (rich, rhythmic, & passionate)

But, perhaps most effective of all, there is the slow realization that the musical landscape, while pulsating with inventiveness, nevertheless roots itself in, of all things, the blues.

Rebekka Karijord

“Use My Body While It’s Still Young” – Rebekka Karijord

“Use My Body While It’s Still Young” has a haunting richness to it that belies the edgy electronics that may first grab your ear. Some of this is a simple function of Karijord’s vivid mezzo, with its half-creamy, half-vehement tone; just about anything she might sing is likely to be rich and haunting.

But there’s something deep in the song that moves me as well, something timeless running through its urgent, 21st-century setting. To begin with, “Use My Body…” skillfully blends electronic rhythms with what sounds like organic percussion. That always helps. Note too how the steadfast, familiar sound of an old-school organ works its way to the center of a song characterized otherwise by jittery rhythms. But, perhaps most effective of all, there is way that the musical landscape, while pulsating with inventiveness, nevertheless roots itself in, of all things, the blues. Not that I am any kind of blues fan (at all), and not that this is in any actual sense a blues song (it isn’t), but if you listen attentively you may hear what I hear in both the chord progression (unfolding in a 12-bar verse) and in the primal passion on display.

Beyond the cumulatively entrancing music, the lyrics too bear consideration. It’s not your everyday pop song that addresses the fleeting vigor of youth. Then again, Rebekka Karijord is hardly your everyday pop singer—she is, instead, a Norway-born, Sweden-based composer/performer/writer who has written music for a variety of media, including film, theater, and dance; she has worked regularly as an actor as well. Meanwhile, as a singer/songwriter, she has recorded three albums. “Use My Body While It’s Still Young” is from her second album, We Become Ourselves, which was originally released overseas in 2012. Karijord is releasing a deluxe edition of the album for the United States next month, via her own label, Control Freak Kitten Records.

Free and legal MP3: Joe Marson (soulful, w/ great restraint)

“Love You Safely” is an unexpected shot of pure soul music: deep, heartfelt, and effortlessly melodic.

Joe Marson

“Love You Safely” – Joe Marson

“Love You Safely” is an unexpected shot of pure soul music: deep, heartfelt, and beautifully crafted. This last bit is extremely important, at least to me. It’s one thing to set up a soulful groove and emote in a rich and convincing way, it’s another to do it while you happen to be singing a song that is itself rich and convincing.

The minimal but evocative introduction grabs attention immediately, with its muted, percussive guitar lick and terse, strategic organ fill. The verse begins before anything else kicks in, and Marson clearly doesn’t need much more than his voice to command the stage. (That the first word he sings is the name “Sara” sounds like a nice hat-tip to his blue-eyed soul progenitors, Daryl and John.) And yet he keeps the reins on his voice at nearly every moment, understanding how much more powerful understatement is than overstatement. Likewise the song’s accompaniment, which consistently dials itself back in the service of greater power and persuasion. And so the 10 or 12 seconds in the song where Marson cuts loose vocally (beginning around 2:50)—and still, probably, just a hint of what he might be capable of—is all the more moving and effective. Even the song’s title is a sort of understatement, breaking as it does the usual rule of deriving from a song’s most repeated phrase.

All the while the heart of “Love Your Safely” is its sturdy chorus, which unearths great power (not to mention a killer hook) in a simple, down-stepping melody. In music you don’t usually have to reinvent the wheel, you just have to take it for a good ride.

Born in San Diego, the itinerant Marson has ended up (where else?) in Brooklyn. “Love You Safely” is the first song made available from his EP Electric Soul Magic, due out in July. He has previously released one EP and one full-length album. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Kim Harris (emotional ballad sung with soul and spirit)

A rare and wonderful instance of an audio recording and a video aiding and abetting each other in elucidating the power of both the song and the singer.

Kim Harris

“The Weight of it All” – Kim Harris

I am not inherently attracted to earnest piano-based ballads, let me make that clear. Neither am I inherently oriented to videos, as any number of you already know by now, by the sheer tiresomeness of my haughty disclaimers over the years. And yet here we are: an earnest, piano-based ballad that sold itself to me to a large extent on the strength of its video. (See? I do watch them intermittently. And post them; see below.) With the wisdom of (many) years, I have come to embrace these kinds of contradictions. Who the hell wants to be that consistent, anyway?

Now then, the video of “The Weight of it All” is actually a guitar version, the song stripped to its essence and performed, almost as if an afterthought, live and uncut on a residential Halifax street. (Yes it appears to be Halifax week here. Don’t knock it; the music up there is ever vibrant and worthy.) Taken together, the video and the sound recording highlight different aspects of Harris’s soul and spirit: the video places her in three-dimensional space, and gives us an immediate, visceral affinity with her rich, athletic voice; the audio, meanwhile, in slowing the song down, allows us to savor the depth and nuance of her presence and delivery in a more contemplative way. The song itself likewise benefits from this dual presentation. The sound recording scores via its sensitive, dramatic (but not over-dramatic) production, with percussion, pedal steel, and backing vocals used with precision, giving the slower tempo a vividness unmarred by the histrionics we are all too often subjected to when mainstream music aims for emotion. The video, on the other hand, finds its power in the guiding pulse of Harris’s resolute right hand and of course the appeal of her unassisted voice, rendered all the more touching as she stands in the street and we watch and hear cars go by, with unseen birds likewise adding to the soundtrack. When she is joined later and unexpectedly by a chorus of five singers, linked arm and arm just beyond the original frame of the video, the song’s cumulative force feels instant and fresh. (Don’t miss Harris’s not-quite-masked smile—around 2:33 in the video—as she anticipates the entrance of the chorus just before the rest of us either hear or see them, a moment of unpremeditated humanity that underscores the beauty and authenticity of the performance.)

Based in Halifax, Harris is originally from Newfoundland. “The Weight of it All” is a song from Only the Mighty, her debut full-length, released at the end of February. You can listen to the whole album, and purchase it, via Bandcamp. Only the Mighty was produced by Dale Murray, who, among other things, is a member of the band Cuff the Duke (featured here way back in 2005, the year Murray joined the band).

Free and legal MP3: Shelby Earl

Seattle singer/songwriter takes a star turn

Shelby Earl

“Swift Arrows” – Shelby Earl

With its slow, triplet-induced swing, “Swift Arrows” nods in the direction of the ’50s while staking out idiosyncratic 21st-century territory all its own. I don’t think I overstate my case to say that Shelby Earl has one of the best voices I’ve heard in my 10 years on call here at Fingertips—soft and hard and sweet and strong all at the same time, it’s a voice that does nothing obvious to call undue attention to itself, which makes her able, delicious yet elusive tone all the more effective, to my ears.

And she’s not just a voice; she’s an impressive songwriter too. I hear the song’s greatness pivoting on the moment when the titular phrase enters. The fuller phrase Earl sings is “one poison-tipped swift arrow,” but listen both to how the song is written and to how she negotiates the phrasing: the words “one poison-tipped” swoop dramatically, in relative alignment with the beat, while “swift arrow” veers irregularly, almost a melodic afterthought. And yet these last words grab the ear in a most affecting way, which I think has to do with how, as a singer, Earl manages on “arrow” to accentuate the first syllable (as one would merely speaking it) while extending the second both out and upward. This strikes me as tricky, and while I’m not sure she gave this any particular thought, it is the moment I return to over and over again. Beyond the singing and the songwriting, I’m likewise enjoying Damien Jurado’s production, with its curious union of the minimal and the baroque. There are strings, woodwinds, and deep dramatic bells and drums in the mix, and sometimes the sound rises to challenge—perhaps even to bait—Earl’s voice, but more often than not we’re just hearing those basic piano triplets in the background. The song even reduces to silence at one point (2:01). The end result is something both familiar and a little odd. Works for me, to say the least.

“Swift Arrows” is the title track to Shelby Earl’s second album, and I can confidently report that she is the real thing, a bona fide star, at least here in the Fingertips firmament. She was previously featured in October 2011 for the song “Evergreen,” and also stopped by for an notably thoughtful Q&A the next month.

The MP3 is no longer available but you can listen to the track here, via SoundCloud:

Free and legal MP3: Elin Ruth (assured, retro-y soulful pop)

The big world out there goes nuts for the flamboyant belters but in the small world of Fingertips, I love best the singers who might cut loose but don’t. The artistry is in the restraint.

Elin Ruth

“Bang” – Elin Ruth

So even as I have, for the sake of a pithy heading, described “Bang” as “assured, retro-y soulful pop,” let me quickly note that this is not as easy to do as it probably sounds. First you need a good song (difficult to come by!); then you also need all the right touches. I hear an impressive supply of them here: the background “oo-oohs,” the horn charts, the prickly guitar strum, that little wooden-sounding percussion flourish (first heard at 0:24), and best of all those three extra beats in the first measure of the chorus. I love songs that know how to do that kind of thing.

And—let us not forget—you need an able singer. Elin Ruth starts out kind of speak-y and casual. She is holding back. Compare the end of the first lyrical line (“until we’re dead,” at 0:19) to the end of the second (“around your wing,” 0:34). She holds her note maybe a half second longer, but it’s a delicious little half second. Here is a singer with a big voice, but it’s not “X Factor” showy. It actually has an unexpected grit to it (listen to how she sings “There’s nothing I can do about it” at 0:50), but even that she refuses to flaunt. The big world out there goes nuts for the flamboyant belters but in the small world of Fingertips, I love best the singers who might cut loose but don’t. The artistry is in the restraint.

Elin Ruth began recording, in 2003, as Elin Ruth Sigvardsson. She just released her fifth album in her native Sweden, but in 2010 fell in love with a New Yorker and last year they were married. She now lives in Queens, and is readying her first album to be released in the United States, which will be called simply Elin Ruth. It’s slated for release in January on her own label, Divers Avenue Music. In the meantime, she has put together a four-song EP for the U.S., featuring “Bang” as the title track. She is now offering it as a free download via her Facebook page. All songs on the EP were originally featured on her previous Swedish albums, “Bang” coming from her 2009 album Cookatoo Friends.