Free and legal MP3: Ravens & Chimes (sprightly yet reserved indie rock)

Cheerful songs are usually vigorous things. Songs that seem hesitant, wavery, or otherwise introverted, on the other hand, tend to be at best wistful if not downright mournful. “Hearts of Palm” subverts the formula, and is all the more effective for it–a sprightly, hopeful-sounding song edged by an equivocal, somewhat trembling vibe.

“Hearts of Palm” – Ravens & Chimes

Cheerful songs are usually vigorous things. Songs that seem hesitant, wavery, or otherwise introverted, on the other hand, tend to be at best wistful if not downright mournful. “Hearts of Palm” subverts the formula, and is all the more effective for it–a sprightly, hopeful-sounding song edged by an equivocal, somewhat trembling vibe.

Some of this is due to the vocal qualities of Asher Lack, who sings like someone wading into cold water, at once timid and determined, while instruments chug forward around him. But listen and you’ll hear how the music yet reinforces the partially timorous atmosphere: it’s peppy, yes, but likewise stuttery, and lacking the oomph and crunch of a typical rock band. This isn’t for lack of personnel. Ravens & Chimes is a six-person outfit, but the members are busier playing things like harmonium and flute and glockenspiel to bother with the din of standard-issue rock’n’roll. And so this is how we end up with this buoyant, reserved piece of pop and I for one am happier for having heard it. I especially love the agile, islandy flute lines and the beautiful, pure-toned female harmony vocal that blends and yet doesn’t quite blend with Lack’s quasi-speak-singing in the chorus.

“Hearts of Palm” is a single from the band’s forthcoming and as-yet untitled second album. Its first CD, Reichenbach Falls, came out in 2007. Prior to the album’s release, this song is slated to be released soon as the a-side of a 7-inch single. MP3 via the band’s site.

Free and legal MP3: The Black Hollies (groovy neo-garage rock)

“Gloomy Monday Morning” – the Black Hollies

A deeply groovy shot of neo-garage rock, “Gloomy Monday Morning” is both steeped in nostalgia and alive with freshly-minted energy. Sure, there’s a big-time Animals/Zombies/’60s-Kinks vibe at work here, but it’s almost like this New Jersey quartet is using the bygone sound as an instrument they’re playing rather than as a straitjacket limiting their buoyancy, if that makes any sense.

The song consistently works at two different, typically contradictory levels. For instance, while blatantly backbeat driven and cymbal heavy, “Gloomy Monday Morning” also employs subtle keyboard accents and a frisky bass line to catch the ear nearly below the level of conscious awareness. Even the backbeat isn’t as straightforward as it seems, working with a kind of stutter that both accentuates and deflects the two and four beat accent. Listen, also, to how a simple maneuver–that upward turn of melody that we first hear at 0:49 in the chorus, and then also in the third line of the second verse (1:08)–serves to break the song open. And what’s with that cymbal sound? It’s so persistent during the chorus and the bridge that it sounds less like an organically played cymbal than a sample played from a keyboard, and is used as a sort of wall-of-sound whitewash at that point more than percussion–a tactic that is, characteristically, somehow, at once heavy-handed and enigmatic. Even the title seemingly contradicts the song’s groove.

“Gloomy Monday Morning” is from the band’s third full-length album, Softly Towards the Light, which was released this week by the Brooklyn-based Ernest Jenning Record Co. MP3 via EJRC.