Free and legal MP3: Swaying Wires (Finnish Americana)

While there is something of the archetypal lonely West in the air, there’s also something unsettled about this song, something that doesn’t want to be entirely constrained within the strummy conventions of so-called Americana.

Swaying Wires

“Nowhere” – Swaying Wires

Melancholy yet upbeat folk rock, “Nowhere” is buoyed by graceful melodies and an even more graceful vocalist, in front woman Tina Karkinen. It is in fact the combination of the rough-edged electric guitar work and Karkinen’s easeful vocal tone that gives me such a good feeling as this song unfolds, and accentuates the impression that there is not any one thing that makes “Nowhere” stand out but rather its nuanced elements working together.

And while there is something of the archetypal lonely West in the air, there’s also something unsettled about this song, something that doesn’t want to be entirely constrained within the strummy conventions of so-called Americana. Swaying Wires is from Finland, for one thing, so their take on this kind of music is legitimately unconventional. If you listen closely you’ll see that the song builds mutably—there are wordless breaks between verses and then the verses themselves change musically with each iteration. One of the song’s most intriguing vagaries happens in the chorus, which on the one hand is rooted in a melody that circles with a gratifying momentum, but on the other hand goes harmonically off the rails in two different places—first in a subtle way (at 2:04; listen to the underlying chord around “made to last”) and then more unsettlingly (at 2:20, in and around the phrase “in a silent movie”). The juxtaposition of Karkinen’s cozy voice and these moments of quiet but willful dissonance is mysterious and persuasive, underscored by that hammering electric guitar. The song compels (and rewards) repeated listens.

Swaying Wires is a quartet from Turku, on the southwest coast, Finland’s oldest city and former capital. You’ll find “Nowhere” on I Left a House Burning, the band’s second album, which was released in January on the Brighton, UK-based indie label Battle Worldwide. MP3 via Insomnia Radio.

Free and legal MP3: Centimeter (melodic, synth-pop-like guitar rock)

If Depeche Mode had lightened things up a bit and laid off the synthesizers, they might’ve sounded something like this.

Centimeter

“Motorhead” – Centimeter

Elegant and elegiac, “Motorhead” has the sweet sad momentum of an old synth-pop anthem and yet—it takes a while to realize this—there aren’t really a lot of synthesizers here. This is mostly guitar rock, even though that fact is skillfully disguised by the pounding of a piano-like keyboard and the strategic use of glockenspiel in the introduction. And then maybe the coolest misdirection of all is the human drummer here who mimics an electronic beat but is indeed an actual person (Henrik Holmlund, to be specific) with drum sticks.

Even though the lyrics are in English and are understandable word by word (if not thought by thought), I am not sure where the title comes from and whether it has anything to do with a) the old metal band Motörhead or b) the Hawkwind song “Motorhead” that inspired the band’s name in the first place or c) Lemmy Kilmister, who wrote the song while in the latter band but later founded the former band. I do know that the lyrical climax is at once jarring and potent, which is when the initial lyric “Before the time has come/And we end up in bed” (0:59) is altered one minute later to “Before the time has come/And we all end up dead.” I also know that singer Johan Landin has a wonderful, effortless baritone, hitting the elusive sweet spot between blasé and theatrical. If Depeche Mode had lightened things up a bit and laid off the synthesizers, they might’ve sounded something like this.

Centimeter is a Stockholm-based foursome who have been together since 2004. Their first album, recorded in Swedish, was self-released in 2006. “Motorhead” is from their first English-language album, expected out later this year. MP3 via the band. They haven’t gotten much attention yet in the blogosphere so spread the word on this one.

Free and legal MP3: Lemonade (sleek, slow-motion dance music)

Conclusive proof that electronic music can have heart and soul.

Lemonade

“Neptune” – Lemonade [stream]

“Neptune” is the type of sleek, slow-motion, electronics-heavy dance music made by bands that music writers and/or record labels seem to need to employ three or four different over-specialized genres to begin to describe. Lemonade’s record company, for instance, goes with: “90’s R&B, UK 2-step Garage, Balearic house, and NY freestyle.” Come on, people. Is it that tricky? This surely sounds like a Portlandia sketch waiting to happen.

Let me simplify this and say that “Neptune” is conclusive proof that electronic music can have both heart and soul. Informed by old-school R&B and filtered through a seamless 21st-century aesthetic, the song appeals not for the number of obscure genres it can claim to embody but for the lustrous sheen of its aural landscape, its canny array of percussive sounds (both organic and electronic), and its unremarkable but affecting portrayal of a heart being broken. Yeah, it’s just a guy trying to talk to the girl, “to sort this out.” And then when she finally calls him she’s at a party and he can’t even hear her. Ouch. Hung upon an unrelenting four-note synthesizer riff and the tender vocals of front man Callan Clendenin, “Neptune” is as welcoming as you want it to be—chilly background music if you’re not paying attention, a swaying, bittersweet lament if you fall into it. The central moment, to me, is the line on which the chorus fades off (1:20): “And this really won’t do/No, no,” with those despairing melismas each time on the word “no” (a melisma is when the singer extends one syllable through multiple musical notes). Note how the second one ends conclusively rather than in an unresolved place. This is probably a bad sign for our narrator.

“Neptune” is the first song made available from Lemonade’s second album, Diver, to be released in May on True Panther Sounds. MP3 via True Panther. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up. [MP3 no longer available; above link is for the stream.]

Free and legal MP3: Steve Goldberg & the Arch Enemies (wistful-cheerful, horn-peppered)

Wistful-cheerful blast of horn-peppered indie pop.

“The Ballad of Cherry Hill” – Steve Goldberg and the Arch Enemies

Wistful-cheerful blast of horn-peppered indie pop. When last we left Steve Goldberg, in 2007, he was a graduating college senior in Pittsburgh who recorded an album as a senior project with a revolving-door cast of fellow students. He has since come east to Philadelphia, pared the basic outfit down to four, and continues doing business as the Arch Enemies.

While the basic sound remains intact—he comes across as a more extroverted version of Sufjan Stevens—the production value has improved, which has given his voice more depth and the music more oomph. I like that he has bothered to create two complete musical themes that are independent of the song’s eventual melodies—these are the first two things we hear in the introduction (the pizzicato strings theme, then the horn section theme). One of the pleasing things about the song, then, becomes listening for how and when these themes recur, woven back into or between the primary melodies. (Even if you don’t realize this is pleasing your ear, honest, it is.) Another perhaps unconsciously pleasing characteristic is the juxtaposition of downcast lyrics (here painting a scene of suburban alienation) and upbeat music. This itself is not an uncommon trick in pop music, but I like how Goldberg manages to bleed the two moods into each other a bit, thus further complicating the song’s complexion—the lively music somehow lifting the words beyond mere despair even as the words simultaneously lend a bittersweet air to the music.

“The Ballad of Cherry Hill” is from the band’s four-song EP Labyrinths, which was self-released in January. Inspired by stories by Jorge Luis Borges, the EP is available for a price of your choosing, with no minimum, via the band’s site. Thanks to Steve personally for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: A Camp (shimmering, bittersweet pop)

“Love Has Left the Room” – A Camp

At once expansive and intimate, “Love Has Left the Room” shimmers with the large yet delicate pop energy of something from the ’60s that didn’t rock, with Cardigans front woman Nina Persson here playing the part of Lesley Gore, maybe, or even Vicki Carr. We get the orchestral flourishes, the lyrical and melodic melodrama, and the engaging pattern of verse-tension and chorus-release that gave that sort of music its radio-friendly kick.

As with “Airplane Blues” (above), this song likewise has one particular moment that makes the whole thing come together, for me: it’s the elongated “you” in the chorus, in the line “I’ll let go if you just tell me”—a note that pretty much epitomizes the bittersweet interpersonal stalemate the song describes. The “you” is offered just one whole step down from the “I” but in a separate, disconsolate harmonic context; even the way the note is held, a half breath more than seems seemly, speaks as well as the words do about the pangs associated with a relationship that disintegrates without closure.

Persson launched A Camp way back in 1997, to be a sort of experimental side project from her regular work fronting the Cardigans, but at this point the Cardigans are on hold and A Camp has had the more recent success—its self-titled 2001 debut won four Grammys in Sweden. “Love Has Left the Room” is from the trio’s second album, Colonia, which was released last month on Nettwerk Records. MP3 via Spin.com.

Free and legal MP3: Camera Obscura (happy/sad reverb rock, from Scotland)

“My Maudlin Career” – Camera Obscura

And speaking of reverb, well, here you are. Camera Obscura has built a sturdy sound around a spacious, melancholy reverb, affecting not just lead singer Tracyanne Campbell’s voice but, it seems, the entire rest of the band as well. Combine this with a knack for nostalgic beats and bittersweet lyrics and we end up pretty much suffused with a happy kind of sadness that only certain kinds of pop songs can deliver. This one carries an extra bonus ironic twist, as the song’s narrator, contrary to all musical cues, insists by the end that she will not be sad again. As the extra bonus ironic saying goes, good luck with that.

The (reverbed) keyboard motif that launches the song and recurs throughout is the spine which supports the whole–ongoing, upward-yearning octaves and near octaves that can almost sound optimistic if you’re not listening carefully, and against which Campbell’s disconsolate purr feels particularly star-crossed. Pianist Carey Lander is apparently playing ABBA’s piano on this track, which seems to me another ironic touch, another way the band is playing with bubblegummy nostalgia but finding their own present-day substance in the process.

“My Maudlin Career” is the title track to the fourth Camera Obscura album, due out next month on 4AD Records (this will be the band’s fourth record label in four tries). MP3 via the band’s site.

Free and legal MP3: Haley Bonar (bittersweet, textured singer/songwriter pop)

“Big Star” – Haley Bonar

Rock’n’roll history is littered with singers dreaming of hitting the big time. That fame is in fact a double-edged sword is not something people usually apprehend until after they’ve been there (and then it’s kind of too late). Here, however, is a song that captures, in anticipation, the bittersweet repercussions of “big stardom,” both lyrically and–more memorably, to me–musically. My ears are struck throughout by an insistent sense of yearning, thanks to the major-minor chord shifts, the terrific and evocative instrumentation, and something achy and knowing in Bonar’s clear, sad-eyed voice.

Pay attention to what’s going on in the background throughout the song. Electric and acoustic guitars, backing vocals, and Bonar’s mellotron are woven together with a complex and rather dazzling deftness, and yet remain subtle enough that often you have to think to hear them. The ridiculously experienced Tchad Blake (Elvis Costello, Pearl Jam, Peter Gabriel, Crowded House, et al) is credited at the mixing board here, and no doubt he had something to do with the mysterious yet vivid texture that transforms this from a simple singer/songwriter tune into something deeper and richer.

Born in South Dakota, Bonar is based in Minneapolis. “Big Star” is the title track to her third CD, which was released in May on Afternoon Records. MP3 via the Afternoon web site.