Free and legal MP3: Mice Parade (slinky, off-kilter indie pop)

There is something ongoingly makeshift about this song, as if these are the folks who wandered in and started playing, while waiting for the rest of the band to show up.

Mice Parade

“Contessa” – Mice Parade

I immediately enjoy this song’s slinky, semi-minimalist setting—we are shuffled into an offbeat unfolding of 4/4 without a lot of fuss. There is something ongoingly makeshift about this song, as if these are the folks who wandered in and started playing, while waiting for the rest of the band to show up. Front man Adam Pierce, also the drummer, is the first singer we hear, but his half-hidden vocal is really just a tease; the song becomes the property of second vocalist Caroline Lufkin as soon as she opens her mouth (0:42). She’s got one of those voices that feels both gentle and piercing (no pun intended; well, maybe partially intended) at the same time. Their voices work especially well together (although I’m still not sure how his voice ends up quite so mixed down on his last lead line, at 1:12—seems either a mistake or a private joke).

“Contessa” furthermore continues a streak of songs here featuring a compelling instrumental section. It starts as what seems like a standard, post-chorus instrumental break (2:44), although its cool keyboard lines and fractured drumming make it not all that standard in the first place. Around 3:06 it gathers force and leads us, via some extended percussive tension, into a second instrumental episode, this one featuring a lazy series of keyboard lines and (I think) distorted guitar blurps over a repeating but difficult-to-digest drumbeat. We seem to have stumbled upon some very odd sort of jazz combo, and while waiting for the song to re-establish itself, I looked at the clock and realized we’re running out of time. The song just fades. I kind of liked that, for whatever reason.

Based (where else?) in Brooklyn, Mice Parade is one of those “only in indie rock” kinds of outfits—an experimental post-rock ensemble with fluid membership and shifting sonic affiliations that tools along for years in relative obscurity. The constant has been Pierce, previously known (maybe) as drummer in the band The Swirlies. Mice Parade records have been coming out semi-regularly since 1998, with titles like The True Meaning of Boodleybaye and Bem-Vinda Vontade. “Contessa” is the second to last track on the new Mice Parade album, entitled Candela, which was released this week on Fat Cat Records.

photo credit: Oleg Pulemjotov

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: The Grenadines

Sultry groove, and then some

The Grenadines

“Shake” – The Grenadines

This is one of the first songs I’ve heard urging us to “shake” that strikes me as actually sexy. We begin with an itchy disco riff that might be a cliche except that this is really not a disco tune at all when you pay closer attention. There’s a thoroughgoing blurriness at work here–disco but not disco, indie but not indie, retro but not retro–and this, to me, is the achievement and the allure. It’s an expert blend, not a single malt. What comes through most of all, beyond questions of labels and genres, is the unifying force of music being created through the palpable efforts of human beings in physical space. There is no trace of electronics or loops or anything that creates sound without physical movement–and not that there’s anything wrong with all that under many different circumstances. But here you can feel the movement that music, an ancient force, is founded upon: vibrating vocal cords (and not one but two vocalists), fingers on strings, sticks and mallets on drum skins. Shake, indeed.

And it’s done with such a sultry touch, at once as casual as a glance in a bar and as purposeful as the instinctive movement the leads here are singing about. Husband and wife Michael and Lauren Shackelford bring something arresting to the alternating boy-girl vocal thing, he with his nasally charm, she with the lower, breathier magnetism. Listen in particular to how the last verse is presented, as the singers still alternate the lead while now singing together–until the last, repeated line, when each claims, alone: “I found your weakness.” Ooh, baby. Anyone who found a lot to like in Rilo Kiley’s unfairly maligned Under the Blacklight album will likely connect to this without hesitation. The rest of you should listen, too.

The Grenadines are based in Birmingham, Alabama, and in addition to the Shackelfords employ the very capable David Swatzell on guitar and the equally praiseworthy Jesse Phillips on bass. “Shake” is the lead song on a special 7-inch vinyl release, from Birmingham-based Communicating Vessels, one of a series featuring so-called “secret songwriters from the Southeast.” Rightfully, the Grenadines may not need to be such a secret moving forward.

Free and legal MP3: The Decks (early Beatles meet surf rock in a 21st-century garage)

“What You Said” – the Decks

Both in title and vibe, this song recalls pre-Rubber Soul Beatles, augmented by a garage-y edge, an abiding love of surf music, and (a bonus) boy-girl singing.

I love the assertive but shuffly drumbeat, I love the old-fashioned guitar melody line (so rarely do guitarists want to give us this sort of thing any more), I love the surf guitar that kind of just sneaks in when the moment’s right, I love how blasé and sloppy the vocals can get without ever quite losing their way, and most of all I love the song’s casual but trusty momentum, which helps over the course of four minutes turn a simple but effective chorus into something just this side of extraordinary. We surely have a contender here for the song of the nascent summer, as this will go nicely blaring off a front porch accompanied by a frosty beverage.

A two-boy, two-girl foursome from Detroit, the Decks have been together since 2003, but have just now released their debut CD—Breath and Bone, which came out this week on Cass Records, a small Detroit-based label. That’s where you’ll find “What You Said.”

Free and legal MP3: the Sweet Serenades (happy/sad indie pop from Sweden)

“Die Young” – the Sweet Serenades

Despite the bright guitar line, winsome beat, perky synthesizer, and, even, bongos(!), this melodic toe-tapper is poignant through and through. (Sad lyrics to happy music is a perpetually satisfying pop music trick.) The band’s Martin Nordvall here trades vocals with guest Karolina Komstedt from Club 8, and the story is a wistful, disconnected one: smitten, he sings how he loves to linger in the morning and watch her breathe; she, forty seconds later, “not looking for love,” sings, “In the morning/You stay a little too long.” Ouch.

One of my favorite moments happens early, as the song is still setting itself up: when Nordvall sings “I haven’t been myself lately” (0:35), the words “been myself” form a sort of triplet, the second two syllables each coming ahead of the beat while—this is the cool thing—underneath, one of the guitars slashes three evocative chords precisely in rhythm with all three parts of the syncopated phrase. Okay, subtle, but it’s the kind of thing that to me signals a song of merit and purpose. I like too how one of Komstedt’s two heavy introductory sighs—before you actually hear her begin singing—come right ahead of that lyrical line.

Based in Stockholm, the Sweet Serenades are Nordvall and lead guitarist partner Mathias Näslund, who have apparently been inseparable since finding one another wearing the same then-hip Soviet CCCP hat and riding similar bikes as teens in 1991. “Die Young” is from the band’s full-length debut, Balcony Cigarettes, released last month on Leon Records.

Free and legal MP3: The Flying Tourbillon Orchestra (steady, graceful, dark indie pop, but not chamber pop)

“In a Dream” – The Flying Tourbillon Orchestra

Steady, gracefully dark indie pop from Los Angeles. The verses march, almost claustrophobically, to a carefully articulated pulse; the chorus, without that much different a melody, offers a flowing, minor-key release, as clear-voiced Kellie Noftle joins buzzy-voiced front man Hunter Costeau in a bittersweet, Nancy and Lee sort of way. Don’t miss the modulation at 2:41; the change in key, a relatively pedestrian effect, feels at that point like a mini-revelation.

While there’s nothing overtly orchestral about FTO’s sound in this song–this isn’t chamber pop–there is an almost sculptural attention to sonic detail here that I find appealing. While it’s not uncommon to hear a trio that sounds like a bigger ensemble, this is one of the few times I’ve heard a sextet sound like a smaller band, thanks to the group’s joint refusal to overplay their instruments. I’m liking for example the controlled use of a xylophone (or glockenspiel?), its chimey accents plinging in and out of the listener’s awareness. I also like that choral-like synthesizer, emerging first at 1:36 and coming into its own in the last third of the song, which works unexpectedly well with both of the guitars the band uses.

A “flying tourbillon,” by the way, is a type of tourbillon (“tour-bee-yon”), which is a mechanism inside a watch, and apparently a mechanism that was very challenging to produce, especially in the days of hand-made watches. Tourbillon watches remain prized by collectors, according to my web sources. “In a Dream” is a song from FTO’s debut EP, Escapements, which was self-released this summer. An escapement, by the way, is also a mechanism in a watch, of which the tourbillon is a part. Now you know.