Free and legal MP3: Erin Costelo (minimalist retro-soul from Canada)

At the center of this satisfying, reimagined retro-soul nugget is Costelo’s voice, a forceful instrument with both a booming timbre and a delicate vibrato.

Erin Costelo

“Oh Me Oh My” – Erin Costelo

At once short and expansive, “Oh Me Oh My” flaunts the open spaces offered up by both its downtempo flair and its minimalist arrangement. A firm, slow beat is established with neither fuss nor volume. Then see how the classic, early-’60s melody is partially deconstructed by the sparse setting—note, for instance, the unexpected harmony the first wordless backing vocals provide at 0:20. And then note how stingily this fetching backing vocal is used in the whole song.

At the center of this satisfying, reimagined retro-soul nugget is Costelo’s voice, a forceful instrument with both a booming timbre and a delicate vibrato. She struts through the slow, economically presented verse, expands with the double-time melody in the chorus, and never over-sings. In her upper range, her voice acquires a silvery power that smartly recalls bygone soul singers in some inscrutable—or, at least, indescribable—way. Music is difficult enough to turn into concrete description, but describing voices is pretty much impossible. I keep thinking, next time, next time I’ll nail it. But the point, ultimately, is to say: listen, listen to this voice, you’ll hear something potent in it. Your soul will be stirred.

“Oh Me Oh My” is the lead track on Costelo’s third album, We Can Get Over, which is set to arrive in early October. The album represents a stylistic culmination for the Halifax-based singer/songwriter. On The Trouble and the Truth, her 2008 debut, she presented herself as a relatively straightforward jazz singer. For her second album, 2009’s Fire and Fuss, Costelo moved more towards pop, while retaining some of her jazz-oriented inclinations. This time around, from the sound of it, she’s left overt jazz behind while exploring the elusive place at which ’60s soul and girl-group music commingles. Seems like a good idea to me.

Free and legal MP3: Lydia Loveless

Alt-country, no holds barred

Lydia Loveless

“Learn to Say No” – Lydia Loveless

Just 21, Loveless sings from a deep reserve of heart, soul, and older-than-her-years affliction. A cursory listen puts this one in the alt-country-with-an-attitude box (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but closer inspection reveals a gratifying depth to both her singer and songwriter sides.

To begin with there’s her voice, a potent combination of anger and sadness; she navigates the pain-filled lyrics (“Why does it take so much out of me/To be this weak?”) teetering between control and breakdown. You can hear it in the tiniest moments, like the way she sings the word “I” in the phrase “when I’m usually wrong” (0:21)—there’s a lot of emotion buried in that condensed flutter that aches out and is quickly reeled back in. Or, the way she chokes out the word “someday” at the beginning of the the chorus the second time through (1:50). Reinforcing the impression that she probably never sings the same word the same way twice is a song that offers subtle changes throughout its development. We don’t hear the signature guitar riff until 1:10, and when the verses return after the chorus, the melody has been subtly changed, which you can hear most clearly at the pause that appears at 1:27—a nice moment that has no equivalent point when the verses were initially presented.

Loveless, raised in rural Ohio, has a complicated back story, but the upshot is she has been playing professionally since she was 13 and quickly fell into habits and behaviors not necessarily associated with the middle-school-aged, to put it delicately. After being in the new-wavey band Carson Drew with her sisters and her father, Loveless released her first solo album in 2010. “Learn To Say No” is from album number two, Indestructible Machine, which has been out on Bloodshot Records since September. The song has been floating around the internet since at least December but it just came to my attention last week, thanks to Largehearted Boy. MP3 via Bloodshot Records, and there’s one more free and legal MP3 from the album available via the record company. Note that the label also sells a beverage cooler/holder that says “DRINK MORE. LOVE LESS,” which has a certain pugnacious charm about it.

Free and legal MP3: Heartless Bastards (muscular, timeless rock’n’roll)

This isn’t nostalgia, it’s sheer presence: the rumbling drumbeat, the unadulterated guitar lines, and, at the center, mighty Erica Wennerstrom, who can make your heart skip a beat if you listen too closely

Heartless Bastards

“Parted Ways” – Heartless Bastards

Flaunting a compact, muscular sound, the Cincinnati-born Bastards, now residing in Austin, have a timeless air about them. This is rock’n’roll as if the internet not only never happened but wasn’t even supposed to. And yet I like how unnostalgic they still manage to sound, via sheer presence: the rumbling drumbeat, the unadulterated guitar lines, and, at the center, mighty Erica Wennerstrom, who can make your heart skip a beat if you listen too closely. Whatever she’s doing, more singers should do it. Or: would if they could.

As befitting the title, “Parted Ways” is really two songs that kind of move through each other and then separate. The first half is launched by the easy charm of the verse, with its ambling, descending melody and its seamless connection to the upward-oriented chorus. Punctuated by some Stones-worthy rhythm guitar playing, that fluent shift to the chorus (first heard at 0:31) really settles the ear; when it comes up again at 1:32, it seems newly powerful and true. As it turns out, there appear to be dualing choruses—the previously mentioned one that segues out of the verse, and then a succeeding one, beginning with the words “Out in space, I’m a long way from home” (first heard at 0:46), with a slower melody and a suspended sense of rhythm. The second chorus eventually takes the song over and moves it into a more expansive, jam-like (but not jam-band-like) space. An instrumental section modulates into an augmented version of chorus number two and then, at 3:32, we get a new vocal section with a loose, chuggy feeling that sounds like Wennerstrom doing a vocal solo the way she, as a guitarist, takes a guitar solo. Which she then in fact does as well. She is no slouch in that regard either.

Heartless Bastards were formed in Cincinnati in 2003. For most of its performing life the band has been a trio. A second guitarist (Wennerstrom has been the lead) was recently added; the band’s forthcoming album, The Arrow, will be its first as a quartet. It was produced by Spoon’s Jim Eno and is due out in February on Partisan Records. MP3 via Rolling Stone. This is the Bastards’ third appearance on Fingertips, with previous reviews in 2005 and 2006.

Free and legal MP3: Shelby Earl

Sad, strong, slowly swinging

Shelby Earl

“Under Evergreen” – Shelby Earl

Some songs, to paraphrase William Shakespeare (badly), are born great; others have greatness thrust upon them. “Under Evergreen” as a song is simple and torchy, a song to fade into the background or rise to the foreground based less on its intrinsic qualities than on the strength and spirit the singer brings to it.

Earl enters the piece on her own, singing the words “I look around” before the instruments begin playing. This itself is a wonderful, subtle statement, alerting us before we can fully register it that we are dealing with a singer of arresting power and poise. And let’s hear it for how poise tempers power; while “X Factor” histrionics on the one hand and runaway robotics on the other have overrun pop singing at the mass-market level, Earl single-handedly confirms the heart-breaking effect of vocal strength and tone when used with discipline and without fetishistic techno-fads. She is a new singer/songwriter who sounds like an old one. I mean that in the best of ways. (Even her god-given name sounds like an old singer/songwriter.) Under her guidance, “Under Evergreen” becomes three minutes and forty-three seconds of sad, strong, slowly swinging greatness.

The song is part of Earl’s debut album, Burn the Boats, set for release at the beginning of November on Local 638 Records, the Seattle-based label owned by Rachel Flotard. Earl by the way spent many years working at relatively high-level music-industry day jobs, trying to get the musician thing going at night. Late in 2009, she made the leap, working as a waitress to pay the rent but otherwise focusing on following her musical bliss. Lord knows how this will work out for her as a lifestyle decision but as an artistic decision it was a no-brainer. I’ve been listening to the whole album and she is without question the real thing.

Free and legal MP3: Alela Diane (fine singing, songwriting, w/ ’70s nuances)

From the opening bars here, Alela Diane has clearly put down the “(freaky) girl with guitar” mantle with a “good riddance” sort of authority.

Alela Diane

“To Begin” – Alela Diane

“To Begin” is a song of purpose and know-how, laced with the feel of compositions that were long-ago written on pads of paper and worked out by human beings on physical instruments. Whether knowingly or not, Carole King floats through this tune as a guiding spirit, and the listener is lighter and brighter for it.

In any case, from the opening bars here, Alela Diane has clearly put down the “(freaky) girl with guitar” mantle with a “good riddance” sort of authority. “To Begin” begins with a Supertrampy keyboard banging out the IV note rather than the tonic (which we don’t land on till 0:18); we open in an engaging state of flux, and not an acoustic guitar in sight. Diane gives us a characteristic melismatic vocal leap in the first lyric (on “golden light,” at 0:15), the sort that “White As Diamonds” was all about when we checked in with her in 2009, but that melody doesn’t repeat. The song moves on—it’s all about movement, this one—and with fewer of the yodelly acrobatics we hear her strong and lovely voice (part brass, part velvet) as if for the first time. She sings with so much authority that she gives us the ear-grabbing chorus only once(!); be sure not to miss that CK-flavored chord change through the lyric “Have you lived before this time?” (specifically the pivot from 1:05 to 1:06).

“To Begin” is the (yup) first song on Diane’s upcoming album, Alela Diane & Wild Divine, named after the band she’s been playing with, which not only includes her husband Tom Bevitori, but her father, Tom Menig. The album, produced by Scott Litt, will be out in early April on Rough Trade Records. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3: Nicole Atkins (big-voiced singer/songwriter from NJ)

In the past, Nicole Atkins has parked her big voice inside of songs sparkling with ’60s pop sheen—a little bit girl group, a little bit Brill Building—and boy it fit like a glove. This time she’s moved up a decade or so and has gotten in touch with her inner Robert Plant.

Nicole Atkins

“Vultures” – Nicole Atkins

In the past, Nicole Atkins has parked her big voice inside of songs sparkling with ’60s pop sheen—a little bit girl group, a little bit Brill Building—and boy it fit like a glove. This time she’s moved up a decade or so and has gotten in touch with her inner Robert Plant. This fits like a glove too. Like I said, she’s got a big voice.

But—and this is key—she knows how to contain it. “Vultures” starts in slinky mode, all suggestion and minor key. And don’t miss by the way that great, tremulous, unresolved guitar chord that launches the song at :05; that tells you a lot about where we’re going here. If you listen closely, you’ll detect Atkins’ trademark vibrato, but she isn’t showing off. The drums hit louder than she does, at first. The lead guitar makes itself known. She lets herself be lost within gang-style vocals. She sings, “I can disappear/From who I’d like to be.” She sings a line we’ve heard before, “Take all they can get,” in a near whisper at 2:26. Then, a change. She repeats the line right away, at 2:32. She’s singing much louder, with almost instantaneous abandon; now, after all that set-up, my goodness listen to that. There’s an other-worldly force to the vocal energy unleashed here. That’s kind of where the Plant comparison comes in. I’m especially fascinated by the way she controls her vibrato, dialing it up and down like volume but with its own logic, independent of volume. Nicole Atkins has a big voice but is much more than a voice—she is a powerful singer, and a unique presence on the 21st-century rock scene.

“Vultures” is the first song available from the album Mondo Amore, Atkins’ second full-length release, which will be out in January on Razor & Tie. MP3 via Razor & Tie. This is by the way the third time that the New Jersey born and bred singer/songwriter has been featured on Fingertips, dating back to 2005.

Free and legal MP3: Audra Mae (singer/songwriter w/ big voice)

“The River” – Audra Mae

With clear roots in country and folk, two very structured genres, “The River” hooks the ear with a series of surprising melodic and harmonic shifts. We hear this first at 0:15, when Mae follows the opening two traditional-sounding lines with a third (“The river’s gonna wash my sins away”) that runs unexpectedly up through a diminished chord. How did we get here? Suddenly the music is unresolved, and remains so until one more surprising shift, at 0:26, on the words “make me forget.” Resolution comes on the succeeding phrase, “my sorrow.” That’s some nifty songwriting–uncomplicated but subtly startling–and Mae uses it all to set up her bittersweet chorus. It begins with one more musical shift: that heartbreaking half-step she takes in the phrase “I can’t swim” (1:02), which starts the major-key chorus with a minor-key twist. Even the lyrics provide a subtle shock here, aurally–when she gets to the phrase “even if I could,” the lack of rhyme isn’t what the ear expects. But she has slyly shifted the rhyme scheme, which the listener catches onto as the chorus continues. More niftiness.

And maybe niftiest of all is how everything is delivered by a young, big-voiced singer who seems anachronistically delighted to use her vocal substance in service of small musical moments. No “American Idol”-ish histrionics for this big voice. One example: listen to how differently she sings the word “I” the first two times she says it: first, the opening word of the song (“I done a bad thing, it’s okay”; 0:05) and second, the beginning of the second line, four seconds later (“I’m going down to the river today”). The first “I” is fast, easy, almost evasive; the second “I,” made resonant with the contracted “m,” feels deep, mighty, and mournful as it encompasses an extra half-beat in the singing. Words don’t do it justice so now I’ll be quiet.

“The River” is the lead track from Audra Mae’s debut EP, Haunt, released last week on SideOneDummy Records. The Oklahoma-born Mae is now based in L.A. and, speaking of big voices, happens to be Judy Garland’s grand niece.