Free and legal MP3: Ponyhof (elegant, dynamic, emotional)

An elegant, emotional ballad that builds with great poise and features a vibrant electric cello.

Ponyhof

“Tiger” – Ponyhof

An elegant, emotional ballad that builds with great poise, “Tiger” hooks me quickly, with its opening juxtaposition of warm keyboard and what sounds like a distant, distorted guitar but is actually an electric cello. Then Carrie Erving starts singing and I’m hooked further by that minor-key swerve at the end of each line of the verse and the persistence of Chris Loxley’s droning cello, squealing and squalling in the background like the some weirdly positive version of nails on a blackboard. It’s a great vibe they’ve got going here.

At the chorus, the song opens up with satisfying heft, as both the drums and, now, a more standard-sounding cello kick in at the same time (1:09)—not a typical pairing but an effective one. Erving’s voice here becomes both smoother and sturdier, and acquires a male background singer who happens to be Will Butler from Arcade Fire, singing here with a kind of intense restraint that transforms his voice into a shadow of hers. As the song returns to the verse at 1:37, the momentum feels unstoppable; in truth, the verses in the song from here onward advance with the power of a chorus, while what initially seemed the chorus section reveals itself to be the subtler structural partner in a increasingly forceful union. In any case, the song climaxes at the unfolding of the last verse, beginning at 2:46 (“There’s a tiger in your heart…”), which veers through lyrical changes into what will surely prove to be one of the year’s wildest guitar solos, especially since it is in fact being performed by Loxley on that electric cello of his.

Carrie Erving is the singer/songwriter at the center of Ponyhof, a Brooklyn-based foursome which Erving says might be called a band or maybe more accurately a collective of musicians who gather to play her songs. “Tiger” is from the debut Ponyhof album, Empires, which was released last month. You can download the song from the above link, or via Ponyhof’s SoundCloud page, where you can also hear the album’s title track.

Free and legal MP3: Dawn Landes (sweet, gentle, sad)

Sweet and gentle and ineffably sad, “Love Song” creates bittersweet mystery from a string of simple words, set to a sing-along rhythm.

Dawn Landes

“Love Song” – Dawn Landes

Sweet and gentle and ineffably sad, “Love Song” creates bittersweet mystery from a string of simple words, set to a sing-along rhythm. The melody is plain and sturdy, with an elegant balance of upward and downward motion, while the song is structured around verses that end, Dylanishly, with a repeating lyrical conceit that serves as a truncated chorus. The recurring line—“I want to write you a love song/With my life”—is itself achingly elusive, both a profound intention and an implicit confession (of what, is not clear). Landes sings with a tenderness that seems equal parts reflection and regret; when she sings, strikingly, of “the technicolor of a loving soul dimmed to black and white” I find it impossible to know whether she is talking about her own or her ex-lover’s or (most likely) both.

I would be remiss if I did not, now, point out that Landes was married to fellow singer/songwriter Josh Ritter for a portentously short 18 months earlier this decade, and that Ritter was the first of the two to release the so-called “divorce album” (2013’s The Beast in its Tracks). Landes’s upcoming Bluebird, arriving next month on Western Vinyl, is hers. Disliking both gossip and speculation, I leave it at that.

Landes was born in Kentucky, moved to New York City to attend NYU in 1999, dropped out after two years, and, as a self-professed studio geek, finagled her way into recording studio jobs while also working on her own music. Based in Brooklyn, she owns a studio there with two partners which has been up and running since 2008. Bluebird was co-produced by Landes and Thomas Bartlett (Doveman); among the album’s performers are Bartlett, Rob Moose, and Norah Jones. Landes was previously featured on Fingertips in February ’08 for the beguiling “Bodyguard.” Bluebird is her fifth full-length album; she also has released two EPs, including 2012’s charming but largely disregarded Mal Habillée, a French-language tribute to the yé-yé music of the early ’60s.

Free and legal MP3: The Bushwick Hotel (fiery new rock w/ old-school bones)

Propelled by some serious classic rock swing (wailing guitars division), “Graffiti of the Young Man’s Mind” comes to us in 2014 from another place and time.

Bushwick Hotel

“Graffiti of the Young Man’s Mind” – The Bushwick Hotel

Propelled by some serious classic rock swing (wailing guitars division), “Graffiti of the Young Man’s Mind” comes to us in 2014 from another place and time. And yet what might have seemed a retread hits my ears as an all-out re-imagining of both what rock’n’roll was and can yet be.

The key, to me, is the combination of dirty, garage-y production and some serious chops, which together accentuate the fiery, contemporary presence this band has. I have, since about 1983, been tired of bands that dial up a few basic blues riffs, add some guitar pyrotechnics, and strut around like saviors of rock’n’roll. Personally, I find a lot more potential for redemption in a band that can snake some vivid guitar work through a heavy 5/4 (!) groove and find a sticky hook in an abbreviated howl of a melody. Front man Gregory Ferreira has a blessedly unfashionable voice, cutting loose like an errant blues-rocker from 1974, minus the posturing that often afflicts the trade.

For all of the retro sound involved here, I would suggest that The Bushwick Hotel is actually offering cutting-edge music, since by now, on the digital music scene, there may be no more revolutionary stance to rummage through the vault of generic classic rock for a spirited new sound, all the while playing three-dimensional instruments in real time and space, in communion with others. And, surely, no software program is going to lead you to swing with electric guitars over a 5/4 beat. I’m not exactly sure what’s up with the extended fadeout, except to note that this is the last track on the album, so it may have more resonance in that context.

“Graffiti of the Young Man’s Mind” is the title track from the band’s debut, a seven-song, 28-minute album that came out in November, available via iTunes. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Carrie Ashley Hill (brisk & melodic)

Graceful and brisk, with chime-y guitars and spirited vocals, “Lay Your Lazy Head” is grounded in a simple, beautifully effective melody—so effective, in fact, that its basic motif is employed in both the verse and the chorus.

Carrie Ashley Hill

“Lay Your Lazy Head” – Carrie Ashley Hill

Graceful and brisk, with chime-y guitars and spirited vocals, “Lay Your Lazy Head” is grounded in a simple, beautifully effective melody—so effective, in fact, that its basic motif is employed in both the verse and the chorus. Which is to say that the verses and the chorus sound largely although not exactly the same. This is not as easy to do as it might seem. It involves first of all offering a good amount of subtle variation in and around the basic repeating tune—not only, here, is it presented somewhat differently in the chorus, each iteration in the verse scans slightly differently based on lyrical and vocal discrepancies. This gives the ear something to reach for even as it has absorbed the basic reality of the repetition. The other thing required here, of course, is a strong enough melody to support the concept. To my ears, Hill has it in spades.

The specific power of “Lay Your Lazy Head”‘s basic melody comes from the unexpectedly large harmonic difference a mere half-interval makes to our ears. A clear place to focus on this is in the second visitation of the verse melody, and on the difference there between the notes that Hill lands on for the word “stray” (0:30) and then the word “own” (0:33)—they are just a half-step apart, and yet the underlying shift is from the I chord to the V chord. Which is a bunch of music theory yammering to say that this smallest available step, the half interval, can take you to a whole new harmonic neighborhood. And while I’m sure this has nothing to do with Hill’s intention, I even like how the simple half-step difference kind of reinforces the titular idea of laying down one’s “lazy head,” as there may seem nothing lazier than falling merely a half step down in a melody. Okay, a stretch, but that’s how my mind works.

“Lay Your Lazy Head” is from Hill’s debut EP, entitled Me At All, which you can listen to on her web site. The EP was released in August and was recorded with Jeff Berrall and Sam Hopkins of the band Caveman (themselves featured here back in August 2011). The Dallas-born, Brooklyn-based Hill is on tour this fall with Jane Herships, who has recorded as Spider, and is herself a Fingertips favorite with two previous features, in 2006 and 2009. Both Hill and Herships are both, also, members of the Brooklyn-based band Desert Stars.

Free and legal MP3: The Sharp Things

Piano-driven ensemble pop

The Sharp Things

“Can’t Get Started” – The Sharp Things

So very many decades after Jerry Lee Lewis first started pounding (and pounding) the ivories, the piano remains kind of a rock’n’roll outlier, in that when I hear rock’n’roll with a piano in it, I tend to think, “Oh, a piano.” This does not happen with a guitar, or a synthesizer. It doesn’t even happen that much for me with a violin these days, which is weird, and another story. A piano changes the texture of rock’n’roll, gives it a non-electrified sound powerful enough to drive the song’s core yet tender enough to offer both chiming atmosphere and melodic nuance.

That said, the piano, while giving “Can’t Get Started” its splashy opening, is hardly the only thing going on within the ensemble-pop sound of The Sharp Things. The most noticeable “ensemble-y” touches here are the various string voices you’ll hear if you listen carefully (some are unorthodox) and the group vocals, an effect that can either be tiresome or brilliant, depending to a good extent on the melody being group-sung. In this case, I love the collective vocals, which are effected with a beautiful, almost whispered restraint that accentuates the coiled energy of the verse melody’s center point—the way it gathers itself each time for that one aspiring, upward leap it takes (0:20, 0:37, et al.). Because of the discipline on display with the group vocals, the couple of moments when the voices break through for a sudden “hey!” are all the more potent.

The Sharp Things are a Brooklyn-based outfit that has often shape-shifted since its founding in the late ’90s, all the while fronted by singer/songwriter Perry Serpa. Currently they do business as a nine-piece band. “Can’t Get Started” is from the album The Truth is Like the Sun, due out later this month. It is the Brooklyn collective’s fifth album. Thanks to The Sharp Things for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Lemonade (melodically engaging dance music)

That rare rock’n’roll bird: melodically engaging dance music.

Lemonade

“Skyballer” – Lemonade

Are bands just not interested in creating melodically engaging dance music or is such music just kind of difficult to make? I am honestly not sure. All I know is that after the seminal work of New Order, not a whole lot of bands have come along in the rock world to carry this particular torch. It is a specialized niche, to be sure. If the aim is to keep the trance going on the dance floor, melody may not only be superfluous but downright distracting. On the other hand, if one sees a purpose to music in one’s life beyond the confines of the club scene, music that engages the mind as well as the body isn’t a bad goal.

In any case, here’s “Skyballer,” which, for all its ear-candy trappings and dance-floor length, plunks a simple/great melody into the proceedings and everything makes sense. And while the sonic palette isn’t exactly the same, there is something rather New Order-y going on here in both the band’s commitment to grounding dance music in melody, and the particular kind of straightforward but compelling melody employed. The rest of the song stretches out in a cloud of falsetto, programming, and traffic whistles, with the strategic, if limited, use of guitars. Just when I think I may begin to be exasperated by the song’s clubbiness, I pick up another endearing little detail in the mix (I did not see that incisive acoustic guitar line at 3:57 coming), and then the repeat button brings the melody back and I am some odd kind of putty in its hands.

Born in the Bay Area in 2005 and based in Brooklyn since 2008, Lemonade has two full-length albums to its name, the most recent, Diver, coming in 2012. The band was featured here in March of that year for the song “Neptune.” “Skyballer” is a single released in August, as yet unconnected to a longer release. MP3 via the good folks at Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Legs (indie dance pop w/ musical flair)

Spotless, grin-inducing 21st-century indie dance pop with more musical flair than whole playlists full of electronic dance music.

Legs

“Touchtone” – Legs

Spotless, grin-inducing 21st-century indie dance pop with more musical flair than wide swaths of what passes for electronic dance music. Rubber-like and hopscotchy, “Touchtone” is the kind of song that reaffirms my faith not merely in music but in humanity, somehow. This is what we need more of, I think: bands that can manage to sound entirely of the moment without sacrificing intelligence and aptitude on the altar of myopic digital trendiness. When we collectively decide to look up from our screens someday, we will rub our eyes and stretch and want to dance to music just like this, with large smiles on our faces, because it is nice after all to be a human being.

Meanwhile, check out how “Touchtone” manages to sound so unhurried even as it makes you want to shake something. More like classic funk than 21st-century dance music, the song establishes a groove with no posturing harshness, and delivers both instrumental melodies and pleasing chord progressions where today we often get over-processed “beats.” Front man Tito Ramsey has a vibrant upper register, and balances his David Byrne-like jumpiness with something warmer and more grounded. I like too how easily he navigates between singing and what sounds more like chanting; it’s often his vocalizing as much as anything that accentuates the song’s wiggle-friendly rhythm.

Legs is a five-piece band based in Brooklyn. “Touchtone” is one of five songs on the group’s self-titled debut EP. You can listen to the whole thing, and download all the songs for free, via SoundCloud. Well worth checking out.

Free and legal MP3: Time Travelers (clean, invigorating rock, w/ time tricks)

In little more than three minutes, “Stormalong” propels us through a clean, invigorating piece of accessible but complex pop.

Time Travelers

“Stormalong” – Time Travelers

A minor hobby of mine as a listener is deciphering unorthodox time signatures. Of course, the more unorthodox they are, the less I can usually figure them out. “Stormalong” is one of those songs that seemed to resist precise mapping; outside of my suspecting that the rhythmic engagement of the introduction is based on alternating 6/4 and 7/4 measures, this one eluded me.

Turns out it was a trick of the ear. Vocalist Edward Sturtevant assures me that outside of the introduction, the rest of the song actually is in 4/4 time after all. What they did was place a lot of the accents on the off-beats—“to keep things interesting,” he says. It sounds so unassuming that way, but it’s worth noting that obscuring a song’s time signature has become an all but dying art in an age of digitized beats and laptop composition. “Keeping things interesting” is a modest way of acknowledging that one has enough craft and mastery to conceive of fiddling with rhythmic structure in the first place, never mind the talent to write and perform the end result. In little more than three minutes, “Stormalong” propels us through a clean, invigorating piece of accessible but complex pop. In addition to the rhythmic uncertainty, the song offers an eccentric two-part verse, a chorus that is unusually succinct and melodic (typically a chorus may be one or the other, or neither), and then an extended bridge section that is the only part that presents itself clearly in 4/4 time. Often either difficult to discern or difficult to interpret, the lyrics glide by without etching a firm picture in the mind’s eye, but the chorus’s central, allusive observation about the fine line between hope and despair is, combined with the musical bounty, strong enough to keep me eager to tease more meaning from the rest of the words as I continue to listen.

Time Travelers are a four-man band based in Brooklyn. As reported last time they were here, in August 2012, they got together in 2008 as sophomores at Bates College in Maine. “Stormalong” is the title track from the band’s soon-to-be-released EP, which will be their third to date.

Free and legal MP3: Fantasmas (noisy guitars, put to good purpose)

While the guitars are given a lot of opportunity to go at it—there’s even a guitar break in the middle of the chorus somehow—the song still manages to give us a larger feeling of space than noisy guitars alone usually convey.

Fantasmas

“No Soul” – Fantasmas

A blurry, spiky surge of noisy guitars powers this three-minute keeper from a young Brooklyn band calling themselves Fantasmas. Amidst the punk-ish ambiance I sense a great deal of poise. I like that particular juxtaposition, so here you are.

Note the long introduction (unusual for this kind of music), and note that it starts off the tonic—meaning, away from the key in which the the song is written. (Whatever that pulsating, semi-dissonant chord-like thing the guitars are slashing away at for 45 seconds is, it’s not the home chord.) This is a sneaky yet time-honored way to keep you listening, because our ears, bless their simple needs, just want to be brought home. At 0:45 (phew), we are shifted into the tonic, get 12 more seconds of slashing guitars, and only then we get to see what the song is really about. Which is pretty much more slashing guitars, but now they are sculpted around minimalist lyrics—eight pithy blurts per verse—delivered with indelible New York City-style blasé-ness by a vocalist identified only as Kam. (I especially like his nearly-spoken lines at 1:56.) While the guitars are given a lot of opportunity to go at it—there’s even a guitar break in the middle of the chorus somehow—the song still manages to give us a larger feeling of space than noisy guitars alone usually convey. Some of this probably has to do with how the guitars are dialed back during the sung parts of the chorus; we get much more tension than noise here, a seemingly small detail with a large impact on our listening experience.

Fantasmas are a relatively new quartet from Brooklyn. The name is Spanish for ghosts, and this new band is not to be confused with Fantasma (a cumbia band from Argentina) or Los Fantasmas, an obscure quintet from the Isle of Wight. “No Soul” is the second half of their debut two-sided seven-inch single, the first imprint served up by Low Life Inc., a Brooklyn-based music promotion firm that recently started a label. You can download the song as usual via the link on the title above, or via the record company’s SoundCloud page. The single came out in December, but I only recently came across it, thanks to The Mad Mackeral.

Free and legal MP3: Eleanor Friedberger (singular voice, brisk & word-centric song)

Friedberger’s sound is hurried and wordy, even when the music slows down.

Eleanor Friedberger

“Stare at the Sun” – Eleanor Friedberger

Eleanor Friedberger has a sneaky sort of uniqueness to her sound. Listen casually and you might miss it—nothing sounds obviously revolutionary, she doesn’t whoop or yelp, she doesn’t deconstruct or make sound collages or mold digital files out of rhythm and electronics. She writes and sings relatively normal-sounding songs. And yet damned if she hasn’t arrived at something truly her own, even as she refuses to dumbfound us with quirkiness (which is, alas, just about the only way to get the blogosphere’s undivided attention).

And it’s actually kind of odd that her music isn’t stranger, given the pre-eminent idiosyncrasy of many of the songs she recorded as part of The Fiery Furnaces. But as a solo artist, Friedberger has slipped off the Furnaces’ strangeness like a worn-out layer of skin. Her voice hasn’t really changed, but the setting displays it in newly attractive ways, her edgy mezzo showing off a dusky, Carly Simon-esque roundness one might not have sensed back in Blueberry Boat days. “Stare at the Sun” is a brisk lyric-centric affair—Friedberger’s sound is hurried and wordy, even when the music slows down—propelled by a crisply-strummed guitar and a three-part chorus that gradually takes the song over from its verses. To my ears, the song’s central moment comes in the middle chorus section, on the line “I’ve been in exile so long,” and what makes the moment is how Friedberger shifts the momentum to emphasize the word “so,” breaking the song’s unrelenting forward motion, and giving us something inexplicably memorable in the process.

Friedberger recorded with her brother Matthew as The Fiery Furnaces from 2003 through 2009; the band is currently on hiatus. She released her first solo album in 2011; Fingertips featured the excellent “My Mistakes” from that album, as some may recall. “Stare at the Sun” is from her forthcoming album, Personal Record, due out in June on Merge Records. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.