Free and legal MP3: The William Shakes (Shakespearean indie rock)

The William Shakes is a project established to create indie rock songs from “de-contextualized” Shakespearean dialogue. Yeah, I know. But trust me, this works amazingly well.

The William Shakes

“The Fault” – The William Shakes

At once comfortable and intriguing, “The Fault” is better than it has any right to be, and certainly better than you are imagining it could be, based on this: The William Shakes is a project established to create indie rock songs from “de-contextualized” Shakespearean dialogue. Yeah, I know. But trust me, this works amazingly well.

The mastermind here is Boston area musician Mark McGettrick. According to press material, McGettrick was inspired by David Bowie’s famous “cut-up” methodology for writing lyrics, and for whatever reason thought to apply it to the Bard. McGettrick selects a character from a Shakespeare play, isolates that character’s lines, randomly puts them back together, and then “curates” them into song lyrics. “The Fault” is based on lines spoken by the character Cassius in Julius Caesar, who among other things uttered the famous “The fault, dear Brutus is not in our stars/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” The project has yielded a four-song EP, entitled How Goes The Night?, which is coming out in February.

Back to the song itself, which is almost hypnotically powerful–all forward motion and economical guitar accents, with a cascading melody often magnetized around one central note. McGettrick has an incisive, slightly wavery voice that wanders DIY-ishly off pitch in a fetching way that somehow makes the words all the more absorbing. And what words!; and how they shine a shrewd light on what song lyrics have to do and what they don’t have to do in service of convincing music. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter has built-in scannability (e.g., “So well as by reflection, I your glass”), his vocabulary relentless vigor; these two factors help to generate a song with ineffable backbone. As a long-time fan of song lyrics as sound versus sense, I am not bothered if I do not understand what a singer is singing or what the words actually mean. In fact, I believe that a song’s overall meaning is sometimes clearer on an abstract and intuitive level than a concrete and explainable one. Listen to “The Fault” and maybe you’ll hear what I’m talking about.

McGettrick composed and produced all songs on the EP himself, and played guitar, bass, and percussion as well. A handful of other musicians contributed, from Boston and beyond. McGettrick has been around the Boston music scene for a number of years but this appears to be his first solo recording.

Free and legal MP3: Quilt (fidgety, ’60s-inspired quasi-neo-psychedelia)

For a minute and a half, “Tired & Buttered” pounds away with a fidgety, psychedelic claustrophobia that seems counter-intuitively liberating.

Quilt

“Tired & Buttered” – Quilt

For a minute and a half, “Tired & Buttered” pounds away with a fidgety, psychedelic claustrophobia that seems counter-intuitively liberating. I don’t think we’re hearing more than two chords here, and the section that seems to be the chorus appears to be getting by with just one. Notice too that a lot of urgency is created without, actually, that much noise. No wailing or bashing, just a steady beat, some atmospheric vocal effects, an elusively non-Western guitar line, and two chords. Keep an ear on the harmonies, which are casually trippy.

At the precise halfway point, things change (1:30). The song slows and quiets, the woozy vocals get a bit woozier, the drumming gets careful and winsome. Soon an electric guitar snakes to the foreground with an informed ’60s flair for the pop-exotic, and leads us with an abrupt lack of fuss back to the opening tempo and ambiance. Now the guitar seems more clearly in charge, its background flourishes suddenly keys to the entire song. Having no clear idea what “tired and buttered” means will not detract from the song’s charms.

Quilt is a trio from Boston. “Tired & Buttered” has been floating around online since the fall, finally to emerge on the band’s second album, Held in Splendor, in late January, on the Mexican Summer label. MP3 via NPR’s fine selection of free and legal downloads from 2014 SXSW acts.

(As a P.S., the band had a bad accident in their van recently. They are all okay but their van, upon which they rely to tour, is not. You can read more details at http://quiltmusic.org/quiltmusic/HOME.html and contribute some amount, big or small, if you are so inclined.)

Free and legal MP3: This Much (folkie-ish shuffle, w/ deft charm)

Easy-going, folkie-ish shuffle with a discursive air and a sneaky kind of charm.

This Much

“Decision” – This Much

Easy-going, folkie-ish shuffle with a discursive air and a sneaky kind of charm. Acoustic guitars strum and pluck their way through a rhythm at once sure and waffly—the melodies solidify in and around a fair amount of blank space, while 4/4 measures appear either to get expanded (6/4) or tacked onto (2/4) in patterns that defy casual comprehension. Even so, “Decision” rolls along with a bemused unflappability, employing along the way one of the better non-hook hooks I’ve heard recently—the “you can use a kick in the back” line in what appears to be the chorus (first heard at 1:15). I love the harmonies on “you can use” and I love how the melody drops abruptly on “the back” the first time; and then I love how it doesn’t drop down the next time we hear it (2:12). Note too how the song concretely embodies the angst of decision-making via the very structure of the song, as the music and lyrics combine to prolong, in a fetchingly awkward way, the words “to make the right decision.”

In the process, this is a good example of a song that you can understand without really understanding. I have no idea what’s going on subject-wise even while I kind of do. I don’t think it’s possible for a bad song to affect this, so if nothing else, that proves that this is a good song. Music appreciation made easy! Kind of.

This Much is a self-identified “musical project” based in the Boston area, spearheaded by singer/songwriter (as well as guitarist, pianist, mixing engineer, and recording technician) Terrence Mulhern, with friends John Stricker and Denny Kennedy on bass and drums, respectively. “Decision” is from a self-released two-song EP the band issued in July. You can listen to and download both “Decision” and the second song, “Spiral,” via SoundCloud, and comment there directly to the band. “Decision” is also, of course, available above in the usual manner.

Free and legal MP3: Katie Von Schleicher (mid-tempo rocker, recorded analog & live)

There is something deep and mysterious at work here in this simple-sounding mid-tempo rocker, and the depth and mystery is rooted in the by now strange and wonderful fact that the song was recorded live, on analog equipment, in one take.

Katie Von Schleicher

“When The Rain Comes” – Katie Von Schleicher

There is something deep and mysterious at work here in this simple-sounding mid-tempo rocker, and the depth and mystery is rooted in the by now strange and wonderful fact that “When the Rain Comes” was recorded live, on analog equipment, in one take. There is nothing whatever wrong with all the technology being employed in the 21st century to make music but someone has to make it clear that what can be done with our digital tools are many different and potentially enjoyable things but one thing they cannot do, can never do, is what Katie Von Schleicher and friends do here. She and her band of living, breathing, flesh and blood human beings are singing and playing in a room together. Nothing replaces the fire of that. Even when a song unfolds in a kind of a lazy way, even when a song’s coolest hook are a bunch of “la-la-la”s, there is fire here, a fire lit by the inexplicable things that happen when human bodies and souls and voices share time and space together, and when the tools are in the service of capturing the shared effort, not manipulating it.

“When the Rain Comes” is the lead track from Silent Days, a seven-song mini-album recorded at the Soul Shop, an all-analog studio in Medford, Mass. built in 2007 into a 160-year-old barn that had previously housed a piano restoration shop. According to the studio’s web site, “We strive for a clean, open, live sound that truly captures the experience of musicians moving air within a room.” Exactly so. Listen to the vocals—both Von Schleicher’s offhanded lead and the unexpected grandeur of the harmonies in the long-delayed chorus (3:12)—and feel the concrete sense of depth and breadth (and breath) that saturates the recording. And then, best of all, the guitars: both Will Graefe and Gabriel Birnbaum, members of the band Wilder Maker along with Von Schleicher herself, are listed as guitarists here so I don’t know who’s who but I love the kind of guitar sound you hear squirting briefly to the forefront at, say, 0:49 or 0:58—a sound both muted and ringing, a melodious sound that carries within it the flavor of dissonance. A deft, off-kilter solo emerges at 1:50 (Graefe in this case), with the air of notes being decided upon moment to moment, which may almost be true—in addition to the songs being recorded live and in one take, the entire album was recorded in just a few days, without any demos, any pre-written arrangements, any rehearsals. This is hardly a formula that guarantees success but in this case, the gods were smiling. Fine stuff.

Von Schleicher is a singer/songwriter based both in Boston and Brooklyn. Before Wilder Maker she was in the band Sleepy Very Sleepy. I thank her directly for the MP3. You can hear the whole album as well as purchase it via Bandcamp.

photo credit: Dianne Lowry de Ortega

Free and legal MP3: Marissa Nadler (swaying, spooky-gorgeous ballad)

“The Wrecking Ball Company” both pulls you in and develops slowly. Somehow you don’t mind.

Marissa Nadler

“The Wrecking Ball Company” – Marissa Nadler

Fingertips favorite Marissa Nadler returns with a swaying ballad sung over a mournful, triplet-based accompaniment (ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, that is). While the music is inspired by the classic blues progression, a wonky chord slips in to keep your ears shiny; meanwhile, the rhythm is torchy and the mood spooky-gorgeous. Nadler lives in the spooky-gorgeous, with a dollop of reverb.

“The Wrecking Ball Company” both pulls you in and develops slowly. Somehow you don’t mind. It’s just guitar and voice for the first almost-minute. And then we arrive, at 0:54, at the song’s signature moment: first we get a muted gong-like cymbal roll and then Nadler hits a high C-sharp with a wordless “Oooh.” If you’re listening with the right kind of attentive inattention, your spine should tingle right about then. If not, go back and try again. Another moment of note: 1:31, when the bass and drum officially start keeping the beat you were already keeping in your head. The song right here is in an interesting place—the verse has kind of ended but then extends unexpectedly before cycling us through the introductory arpeggios again (complete with wonky chord). As the second verse starts, the simple addition of the sparse rhythm section deepens the song’s sad sway, which deepens again when we get to the second instance of the C-sharp “Oooh” (2:37), wrapped now in elusive harmony, which includes both Nadler’s own voice and that of Mike Fiore, a fellow Boston singer/songwriter, who records as Faces on Film. Fiore’s voice is blended in such a way as to add to the sound without quite registering as a male harmony. We’ll hear more from him—subtly—during the song’s lovely minute-long vocal coda, featuring a series of wordless melodies over some ghostly guitar work and slippery chord changes. I never anticipated how Radiohead-like Nadler might be able to get but here you are. Pretty sweet.

“The Wrecking Ball Company” is from an eight-song album entitled The Sister, which came out at the end of May, and serves as a subtle companion work to her self-titled album of 2011. Both albums were self-released on Nadler’s Box of Cedar label. This is Nadler’s fourth time here, having been previously in 2007, 2009, and 2011. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3: Slowdim (sturdy, potent power pop)

“Money” hearkens back to decades of rock radio hits without any air of contrivance or over-retro-ism.

Slowdim

“Money” – Slowdim

A winner from beginning to end, “Money” is shrewdly constructed but gloriously unfussy, its pure (power) pop heart hearkening back to decades of rock radio hits without any air of contrivance or over-retro-ism. Songs this well-built rarely sound so free.

It begins with a “two-level” intro—10 seconds of restrained warm-up, the guitars swirling and jangling but as if from maybe the next room; then, the real thing, with a full-bodied, sing-along lead guitar riff that first grabs attention and then gets out of the way so the song can start. Less obvious than the great guitar line here is the note with which the bass launches said guitar line (listen carefully at 0:11), a nifty music-theory maneuver that adds subliminal texture and alerts the ear, however unconsciously, that what follows is worth listening to. I like too how the two-part intro is a subtle mirror of the heart of the song, with its two-part chorus. Speaking of which, listen to how what you might call the pre-chorus (first heard at 0:45) is itself a great hook and yet feels incomplete without the arrival of the true chorus. Note that the song’s title derives from the pre-chorus—another subtle songwriting trick, simultaneously adding substance to the pre-chorus while creating, via the pre-chorus’s unresolved melodies, an emotional demand for the second part, which delivers a spirited release with its layered harmonies and gratifying, descending melody.

Not to be confused with the British shoegaze band Slowdive, Slowdim is a four-piece band from Boston that has been together for about a year, although various combinations of its members have known each other for a good deal longer. “Money” is the band’s first single. They are currently recording their debut album. MP3 via the band.

Free and legal MP3: Earthquake Party (noise pop from Boston)

A new band from Boston gives us fuzzed-up noise pop, with boy-girl harmonies.

Earthquake Party

“Pretty Little Hand” – Earthquake Party

Another short song for you this week. Not many chords this time either. Easy to fit in around your pre-holiday hubbub: you can listen, and get on with it. And hey, you get a lot of sound for the time invested here. I mean, check out the fuzzed-up bash of background noise that Earthquake Party churns up, and that heavy, decisive “mi-re-do” downward riff that anchors the song. Everything immediately feels buzzy and overheated, like someone’s pinned the recording levels too high.

Then front man Justin Lally comes along and just kind of speak-sings against the noise, neither shouting to be heard nor being drowned out by the sludge; it’s a balance I find counter-intuitive and appealing. (Note that this is a phenomenon singularly available to recorded music, not live music.) Even more appealing: when keyboardist Mallory Hestand adds harmony in the chorus, and their two voices seem to ricochet away from each other B-52s-ishly. The melody they somehow describe between them is richer and deeper than the one either of them sings. And bonus points for the pithy lyrics they sing, full of both mystery and implication: “All I want’s a pretty little hand/That’s full of pills and candy.” I like how, in the end, this song feels like pop, despite all the fuss and noise. It’s amazing what a good chorus can do for you.

Earthquake Party is a trio founded last year in Boston. “Pretty Little Hand” is one of three songs on its debut EP, vs. Pizza, that the band released on a so-called cassingle (yup, a cassette tape) last month. And I do mean self-released: they bought 200 blank cassettes for $100 via mail order, put the music on them, and then made the inserts and labels, all by themselves. You can listen to all three songs and buy the cassette and/or downloads at the band’s Bandcamp page. The cassette will come with the download codes, so you don’t really need to have a cassette player, although all the better if you do. MP3 via the band. (And don’t worry about the generic-looking URL; this is a legitimately free and legal download.)

Free and legal MP3: Wheat (slippery song from an elusive band)

“House of Kiss” gives off a bright, circular vibe, and is probably as catchy as a song can be that so little resembles anything we might picture as a “hit song.”

Wheat

“House of Kiss” – Wheat

Oddly engaging anti-pop pop from the eclectic, reclusive, semi-beloved Boston band Wheat. “House of Kiss” gives off a bright, circular vibe, and is probably as catchy as a song can be that so little resembles anything we might picture as a “hit song.” The structure is slippery at best. The song centers around an insistent, run-on lyric in which the narrator assures his partner or lover that he’s paying attention, really and truly. This seems neither like a verse nor a chorus, and it repeats, through the song, a total of seven times in just over three minutes. At first listen this “Don’t think twice” lyric seems all that makes an impression; the accompanying instrumentation appears unremarkable on the surface—guitars, bass, drum, mostly—and everything unfolds in 4/4 time.

But there are these in-between sections that trouble the flow of the song, some instrumental, some vocal, featuring melodies that lag well behind the beat. Keep an ear on the bass, which plays deft, fluid lines underneath the repeating “Don’t think twice” section but constricts itself during the slow sections. Eventually a sense of intertwining between the song’s vague parts emerges, most notably when one of the slower melodies is used underneath the main theme as a kind of counter-melody at 1:58. We eventually hear something resembling strings; and then a perky synthesizer riff. But for all its vagaries, the overall feeling is of a song marching on, of a magnet-like return to the “Don’t think twice” lyric. Eventually it occurs to me what a strong backbeat (i.e., emphasis on the second and fourth beats) there is and yet how the lyrical flow pays no attention to it. And this—the repetition over the ignored backbeat—may be what in the end lends “House of Kiss” an amusement-park-ride-like sense of flying around in a grand but yet almost dizzying circle. You get off a little wobbly but you kind of want to go back and have another ride.

A band since 1996, Wheat is neither prolific nor forthcoming, but the duo of Brendan Harney and Scott Levesque has appeared abruptly back on the scene late in 2011 with a “double a-side” single featuring “House of Kiss” and “The Used 2 Be In Love Blues.” Note that there is now an official third member of the band, multi-instrumentalist Luke Hebert. Two more double a-sides are due out in the reasonably near future, while the band’s sixth full-length album is moving somewhat more slowly towards a 2012 release, maybe. Wheat was previously featured here on Fingertips way back in 2004 (around the time of their one sort-of-hit, “I Met a Girl”) and also in 2007. Thanks to the band for the MP3 here.

Free and legal MP3: Abbie Barrett & The Last Date (zippy, asymmetrical rocker)

A straightforward, Kathleen Edwards-like rocker with the added zest of insistent asymmetry.

Abbie Barrett and The Last Date

“Here to Stay” – Abbie Barrett & The Last Date

Straightforward, Kathleen Edwards-like rocker with the added zest of insistent asymmetry. To begin with, listen to how the first lyric (0:13), “Build a house, they tear it down,” ends in a melodically unresolved place, which makes your ear kind of expect two full measures of instrumental counter-balance against the length of the lyric. But we only get one. Hm. This feels odd enough that it almost seems as if there’s a time signature change going on, although there isn’t. It’s asymmetrical; our ears ache for symmetry. Then, after the next lyric (“Run you to the edge of town”), we do get the full two measures of instrumental “response,” but listen now to how the drummer intrudes on the second measure (0:22) and confuses the beat for us. What’d he do that for? Even the symmetry feels asymmetrical at this point.

I could go on but it’s going to get as boring to read about as it is not-boring to listen to. One other thing to note: the verse is a rather odd 20 measures long. For reasons, again, of aural symmetry, a verse is typically eight measures long, occasionally 16. If it’s 20, they’re just messing with us. The edgy word repetition that tricks out the end of the melody, itself asymmetrical, probably had something to do with it, and in any case is an ear-catching way to finish out a verse—one of those unaccountable songwriting tricks that sounds great but you wonder how someone thought to write it that way.

“Here to Stay” has more going for it than its asymmetry, of course. I like Barrett’s voice a lot; she’s got one of those plain-spoken ways of singing that almost doesn’t sound like singing. And yet there is also, if you listen closely, a lot of oomph to her tone—a good thing, since all of those lyrical lines that end unresolved (itself another sort of asymmetry) require an unswerving voice to pull it off. I also like how the bridge takes us, around 2:40, to a tranquil clearing with an almost fugue-like ambiance, and how we then charge full-steam back into the song’s abiding stomp, without one time-signature shift. All in all this is one of those songs that might pass your ears by if you don’t stop to enter its world but is kind of a bright, tough little nugget of goodness if you give it its due.

“Here to Stay” comes from The Triples: Volume 1, released earlier this month, which is the first of three scheduled three-song EPs that Barrett and her band are set to release in relatively quick succession—an interesting alternative to a more standard full-length album. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Marissa Nadler (torchy & reverbed, but also sharp & immediate)

Marissa Nadler

“Baby, I Will Leave You in the Morning” – Marissa Nadler

Torchy, reverby, and nostalgic, but also sharp, disciplined, and genuinely dramatic. Not to mention gorgeous.

Pay attention to how the reverb in Nadler’s creamy voice blends seamlessly with the spacey, Pink Floyd-ish guitars which soar in the distance below. This is why the song doesn’t get bogged down in echoey mud—there’s a lot going on outside the reverb that keeps the ear grounded in immediacy. The crisp acoustic guitar that emerges with a tinkling chord every now and then is a case in point; it is recorded so immaculately that you can sometimes hear fingers on strings (check out 0:58 if you don’t believe it).

Meanwhile, the composition’s abiding drama is built on a structure that has the song modulate upward with each return to the home melody, a musical fact that gains sly lyrical support near the end as Nadler sings “I am getting higher by the moment” (2:55).

“Baby, I Will Leave You in the Morning” is a track from her forthcoming self-titled album, which was funded via Kickstarter. This will be the fifth full-length release for the Boston-based singer/songwriter, who turns 30 in early April. She was previously featured here in 2007 and 2009.