Free and legal MP3: The Color Forty Nine

Plaintive bilingual waltz, w/ horns

“What Would I Know? / ¿Yo Que Sé?” – The Color Forty Nine

A song with a recurring instrumental motif separate from the central melody is, to my ears, almost always a worthy enterprise. When that recurring instrumental motif is performed by a plaintive trumpet, as with “What Would I Know? / ¿Yo Que Sé?,” all the better. What I’m talking about specifically is the trumpet melody first heard in between the lyrics at 0:27, and which continues to ground the song in alluring melancholy the rest of the way. The horns—there is more than the one trumpet as we get going—have a beautiful Mexican vibe, reinforcing the song’s bilingual setting. The music, with its 3/4-time sway, lulls the ear while the English lyrics offer impressions and hints; this is one of those songs where you feel what’s going on at a level below concrete awareness. Which is to say I have no idea what the song is actually saying but that doesn’t seem to matter; I still get it.

The lyrics alternate between Spanish and English while the music alternates between major- and minor-key melodies. Every touch along the way seems ideal: the violin that weaves itself into the mix, the group vocals that bolster the chorus (which consists only of the song title, in both languages), the ongoing shifts in the horn charts, the false ending at 3:27, the subsequent coda. With its gentle folk-music sensibility and expressive craft, the song washes over the spirit, seeming to carry with it a sort of wisdom of the ages.

The Color Forty Nine is a San Diego-based quartet. The Spanish lyrics here are sung by guest vocalist Rubén Albarrán of the band Café Tacvba, from the suburbs of Mexico City. “What Would I Know? / ¿Yo Que Sé?” is a song from The Color Forty Nine’s second album, String Ladders, which was released last month.

Free and legal MP3: Chelan (martial clarity meets windswept moodiness)

Often the acoustic and electronic are mixed in a song in blatant juxtaposition; here the analog and digital mingle with unnerving ease.


“Pretend We Live Forever” – Chelan

We’ve got the snap-to-attention drumming on the one hand, and echoey industrial background washes on the other: martial clarity meets windswept moodiness. What’s not to like? And check out the sneaky way that swells of actual stringed instruments press their way into a sonic landscape that feels at once intimate and expansive. Often the acoustic and electronic are mixed in a song in blatant juxtaposition; here the analog and digital mingle with unnerving ease.

And then there’s the matter of how this thing, well…swings. Underneath the rat-a-tat snare is a deeper, swaying, gut-level beat, and this, I think, is what really nails “Pretend We Live Forever” together. (If you’ve got any desk-dancing inclinations, this song all but requires some kind of awkward-looking but satisfying upper-body gesticulations.) Another somewhat hidden strength here is singer Jennifer Grady’s voice, which has a lovely, limpid tone and is allowed to hit our ears with gratifying directness, even as a variety of layered effects swirl around her. But she’s also oddly easy to miss since so many songs that aim for the kind of ambiance we’ve got going here seem not too often interested in presenting a clear and unadulterated voice. Which kind of trains our ears not to hear. Which is another matter for another day.

Chelan is the duo of Jen Grady and Justin Hosford. She teaches music; he is a TV and film composer with a studio in the Mojave Desert, where they converge to write and record whenever they can. “Pretend We Live Forever” is a track from their forthcoming album Equal Under Pressure, to be released later this month. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: The Woodlands (gentle, but brisk and involved)

“Bronze” introduces a surprising amount of instrumental variety into a song that begins as unassumingly as possible.

The Woodlands

“Bronze” – The Woodlands

Not unlike “Strangers,” above, “Bronze” introduces a surprising amount of instrumental variety into, in this case, a song that begins as unassumingly as possible: voice only for 16 seconds, then a strummed acoustic guitar for another little while. A bass joins in, and some backing vocals, and a bit of well-placed percussion. The overall feeling is gentle and uncluttered, even as the texture gradually expands to encompass horns, a violin, hand-claps, and some seriously interesting vocal harmony intervals. While this might not always be my preference, I like how the wife and husband duo of Hannah and Samuel Robertson here manage to use sounds almost more as individual tools than aggregatable components. (You wouldn’t, after all, use both a hammer and a screwdriver at the same time.) The chorus’s recurring lyric is “Don’t quite know where we will go,” and the feel of the song backs that up in the way instruments wander in and out, each with their own little offerings, creating a subtle sense of surprise even as the song moves through its grounding verse and chorus structure.

The way “Bronze” seems almost serially built may be why it can come to a near standstill two-thirds of the way through (2:35) and the halt feels organic and engaging; this interlude of voice and violin is not an interruption, it is simply what happens next. And then what happens next is Hannah singing, “We we we we proceed,” and they do.

Another important part of this song’s charm is in fact Hannah’s voice, which has a Laura Veirs-like mixture of groundedness and breathlessness to it—a child-like adultness, if you will. And her engaging capacity for backing vocals of various timbres and unexpected harmonic positions is an ongoing source of pleasure; her voice, truly, becomes another instrument in The Woodlands’ idiosyncratic but heartwarming toolbox. (Although, for the record, it should be noted that the “oo-oos” in the verses are actually Samuel’s falsetto vocals.)

“Bronze” is the opening track on the album Gems and Bones, which was released last month. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp. The Woodlands released one previous album back in 2009, also available via Bandcamp. The Robertsons are based in San Luis Obispo, California.

Free and legal MP3: The Honey Trees (lush, disciplined, gorgeous)

Lush, disciplined song with a drop-dead gorgeous chorus.

The Honey Trees

“Nightingale” – The Honey Trees

You don’t expect a song named “Nightingale” to begin with a drum solo. You do expect a song named “Nightingale” to be sung by a someone with a lovely voice. You don’t expect any song—named “Nightingale,” or not—to have a drop-dead, goose-bump gorgeous chorus, simply because there’s no sense in getting one’s expectations that high. Bonus points here for the musical elegance of the transition from verse to chorus (first heard at 0:52-0:55). Note too that even in the rarified world of crystal-pure voices, The Honey Trees’ singer Becky Filip deserves some special props. Hers is not simply pretty but full of subtle character, and impressively athletic (for example, the supple leap she takes at the end of the phrase “skin and bones,” at 0:40).

The song is lush, disciplined, unfalteringly interesting. The verse feels purposeful, as Filip floats her beguiling voice above a syncopated rhythm. I like the sudden clearing of the minimal bridge (2:26). But, seriously, this chorus. Like many acutely beautiful things, it is not perfect. It is less full-fledged chorus than indecipherable sentence, containing perhaps 10 words, and encompassing (by my count) at least six moments of ravishing harmonic delight along the way. It ends both unresolved and somewhat incomplete-seeming, the perhaps inevitable result of the breathtaking mini-journey it pulls us through. The first time you hear it, in fact, the power of its beauty may not quite to sink in before the song slides sideways into a liminal section of wordless vocals (1:10). The next two times, the chorus is repeated, creating what may well be the song’s finest moment: the drum-led threshold between the chorus’s irresolute end and its immediate repetition, which we hear both at 2:13 and at 3:14. And that second time—don’t miss it—the chorus gets an additional repeat, which this time is preceded by an unexpected upward melisma at 3:43 that in its own way introduces a delicate kind of anticipatory closure into a melody that otherwise resists completion.

The Honey Trees are a duo from central California (Filip’s band mate is Jacob Wick). “Nightingale” is a song from the band’s debut full-length album, Bright Fire. An earlier EP was released in 2009. The album was produced by Jeremy Larson in Springfield, Missouri, and will be released in April.

Free and legal MP3: TV Girl (21st c. DIY becomes classic rock’n’roll)

While the muddy/scratchy DIY ambiance feels solidly of the moment, there’s something around the edges of this boppy, summery song that comes across as pure classic rock’n’roll.

TV Girl

“She Smokes in Bed” – TV Girl

While the muddy/scratchy DIY ambiance feels solidly of the moment, there’s something around the edges of this boppy, summery song that comes across as pure classic rock’n’roll. The effortless, half-time verse melodies are a good start—while the music chugs along with a misleadingly busy feeling (there aren’t really that many sounds in play), the lyrics offer an unhurried narrative on top, buffeted by the ever-underrated trick of octave harmonies. Note the verse has two separate but related melodic sections, which keeps the ear engaged, and sets up the simple chorus with its one (titular) lyric and then those carefree but carefully constructed wordless lines that follow. Another small sonic touch that delivers a nice payoff to my ear is that slightly misaligned keyboard or synth sound that hovers in the distance, particularly in the intro and the chorus. It barely registers unless you’re listening carefully, but it adds materially to the aural palette.

For all its easy-going charm, “She Smokes in Bed” appears to take a tragic lyrical turn; while the words here tend to be swallowed by the mix, there’s no missing that the last visit to the chorus changes the verb to the past tense.

TV Girl is the San Diego-based duo of singer Brad Petering and singer/guitarist/keyboardist Trung Ngo, who grew up in the same neighborhood and went to high school together. They released their debut, self-titled, sample-oriented EP in 2010, which included an internet buzz-track (“If You Want It”) that got scrubbed from the web for its illegal use of samples from the old Todd Rundgren standard “Hello It’s Me.” A second EP followed in 2011, and then a full-length in 2012—The Wild, The Innocent, The TV Shuffle—that the band called a “mixtape” and gave away for free due, again, to its sample-reliant construction. “She Smokes in Bed” is a song from TV Girl’s new five-song EP, Lonely Women; this one is for sale and appears less obviously built by sampling. (Note that there is nothing inherently wrong with sampling but there is something inherently wrong with copyright infringement.) (Don’t get me started.) You can listen and purchase via Bandcamp. Thanks to the free and legal MP3 veterans at 3hive for the head’s up, and the download.

Fingertips Flashback: Ryan Ferguson (from July 2007)

Returning to a previously featured song, it’s the Fingertips Flashback….

The songs did not quite get themselves together this week; expect three new ones early next week. In place of new material, how about a Flashback? Once again we return to the halcyon (?) days of 2007….

Ryan Ferguson

“Remission” – Ryan Ferguson

[from July 30, 2007]

Comfortably incisive from beginning to end, “Remission” is one of those blessed songs with a perfectly balanced feeling between the verse and the chorus. You know how a song can have a great chorus, but the verse is like treading water to get there; or conversely, some songs have a really interesting verse but then the chorus is flavorless. Here the verse is interesting and commanding, and yet leads to—rather than overpowers—the chorus, the brilliance of which is just subtle enough, in turn, not to overshadow the verse. The hidden trick behind all of this here, I think, is the strong working relationship between the words and the music. After that emphatic opening chord sequence—nicely textured with an added xylophone—listen carefully to the lyrics and note not merely the dramatic story line (this does not appear to be another tale of relationship woes, although it might work that way metaphorically) but how uncannily well the words scan with the music–that is, how the rhythm of the music allows the words to be sung exactly how they’re spoken, without putting any stress on odd syllables. All too many pop songwriters write without much sensitivity to how the words will scan; whether accidentally or purposefully, Ferguson—previously in the locally popular San Diego quartet No Knife—emerges in this song as a master. “Remission” is from his first full-length solo CD, Only Trying to Help, set for release next month on Better Looking Records. The MP3 is via the Better Looking site. Thanks to the guys at 3hive for the lead.

ADDENDUM: Ferguson has not released an album since this one. His web site, bearing a 2012 copyright, reports that he is working on a new solo project, to be called Brake Rider.

Free and legal MP3: Exquisite Corps (elegant, dynamic chamber pop)

Bass, drum, acoustic guitar, cello, two violins, so artfully put together that you would not suspect how otherwise difficult it is to merge these instruments into a cohesive presentation.

Exquisite Corps

“Light as a Feather” – Exquisite Corps

Rock’n’roll in the internet age chews up and spits out trends and genres as fast as bloggers can make them up. If you haven’t realized it by now, our task here, together, is to ignore the churn and hype and just listen in peace, find the good stuff, and let it lift our spirits. Easy, right?

So, okay, chamber pop. Is it a good thing? A bad thing? A “that’s so 2006” thing? We don’t care, you and I. We listen to “Light as a Feather” and say, wow. This is one elegant and dynamic piece of music. Bass, drum, acoustic guitar, cello, two violins, so artfully put together that you would not suspect how otherwise difficult it is to merge these instruments into a cohesive presentation. The sticking point is usually figuring out how to blend the strings with the drums, as violins and cellos and such did not grow up around drum kits. Exquisite Corps does it so well they flaunt it: the strings are introduced with a bash of the drums at 1:09, and their first job is not to be sweeping or yearning but to be percussive; they join in here (and it may be the most ear-catching part of the song) as part of the rhythm section, and when first released on their own (1:30), stay in their lower registers and remain submerged to the drumbeat. Meanwhile, singer Bryan Valenzuela impresses at both ends of his dynamic range, his edgy, Lennon-meets-Corgan voice providing the glue that links the quieter and more intense sections of this song. By the time we hear the strings in all out string-section mode (2:45), they have been fully incorporated into this distinctive rock’n’roll song, chamber pop edition.

Exquisite Corps (get it? no “e”) began life in Sacramento in early ’09 as a cello/acoustic guitar duo with Valenzuela and cellist Krystyna Taylor. Two violinists were brought in for a special performance the band was doing with a local ballet company, and stuck; before long, the bass player and drummer from Valenzuela’s old band Call Me Ishmael came on board. “Light as a Feather” is a song from the quintet’s self-titled seven-track debut album, released last month. You can listen, and buy it, on the band’s Bandcamp page.

Free and legal MP3: The Nervous Wreckords (snarly, snotty, & good-natured)

On the one hand a poison pen letter to music critics, “Let Them All Talk” is at the same time a kind of self send-up, which makes the whole thing function in a much more delightful way than it otherwise might.

The Nervous Wreckords

“Let Them All Talk” – The Nervous Wreckords

Snarly and snotty and yet still good-natured, “Let Them All Talk” is a speak-singing throwback to some earlier, more primal kind of rock’n’roll. I’m not sure I normally like this kind of thing—whatever “kind of thing” this in fact is—but I am won over by front man Brian Karscig’s unerring musical instincts. Even while sort-of-talking it’s clear that he has a fine singing voice, and even as the song sounds simple, the arrangement is inventive and the band ever so tight. I love in particular the peculiar, background guitar solos (0:57 and 2:12) and the perfect finishing touch of the female background singers who begin chiming in with fills of “Oooo! Jealous!” at 3:01.

On the one hand a poison pen letter to music critics, “Let Them All Talk” is at the same time a kind of self send-up, which makes the whole thing more delightful than it otherwise might be. I don’t know if there’s any effective way for a rock singer to take a straight potshot at critics without sounding like a whiner; Karscig avoids that with his goofy bravado, which winks while it chastises, and includes some actual flak he himself has received (e.g. “sounds like a girl when he sings,” a charge sometimes leveled at him while in the band Louis XIV). In the process he comes across as both serious and jokey, which, in a meta kind of way, allows him all the better to get some good digs in (e.g., “You act like a rock star/But all you play is your pen, and your mouth”). The best way to act like a tough guy in our post-ironic age is to make fun of acting like a tough guy.

Karscig played with the relatively successful Louis XIV (2003-2009), which released two of its three albums on Atlantic Records, and made appearances on late-night TV in the U.S. The Nervous Wreckords were started in the wake of Louis XIV’s dissolution in 2009. In addition to playing guitar and singing, Karscig has worked increasingly often as a producer. “Let Them All Talk” is the title track to the second Nervous Wreckords album, which was recorded in Karscig’s home studio on a vintage Neve board with ’60s and ’70s gear. This will be the band’s first national release, slated to arrive in September via Knitting Factory Management. MP3 courtesy of the fine folks at Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Sea of Bees (sweet and powerful)

Julie Bee

“Broke” – Sea of Bees

At once sweet and powerful, “Broke” appears the picture of simplicity: straightforward melodies, one ear-catching effect in an otherwise uncomplicated arrangement, matter-of-fact singing. But there is strength and mastery on display here if you listen for it.

The song is built upon two related but slightly different verse melodies and an extended chorus that comes with a sort of addendum to it. This is how it manages to have the feel of accessible clarity and gratifying complexity at the same time—that is, it’s on the one hand just a verse and a chorus but on the other hand not really. The moment that seals it for me is the wonderful chord change we hear in the chorus (first time at 0:45, along with the words “somebody hear me out”). It’s especially effective because the chorus has just started, and had already engaged us with the textural change delivered when the swirly electric guitar is replaced by a richly strummed acoustic just as the drummer kicks all the way in. And so the chord change at 0:45—taking us into momentarily into a minor key—was not “required” by the ear. And is all the more persuasive as a result. This is neither rocket science nor avant-garde music theory. But it’s a great moment, which anchors the song as it recurs in each iteration of the chorus.

“Broke” is one of 11 songs on the forthcoming Sea of Bees album Orangefarben (Team Love Records), all of them with one-word titles. (If the web is to be trusted, “orangefarben” appears to mean “orange” as an adjective in German, as in “orange-colored.”) This is the second album that Sacramento-based Julie Ann Bee (birth name Baenzinger) has recorded as Sea of Bees. This one arrives with a pretty heavy-duty personal back story (conservative upbringing, coming out, first same-sex relationship, and then break-up), and yet also, as is apparent here, with great musical joy and know-how. MP3 via Team Love. Sea of Bees was previously featured on Fingertips in June 2010.

Free and legal MP3: Emily Jane White (hypnotic, acoustic, reverbed)

The insistent yet elusive “Black Silk” pulls you into a magical past that somehow blends the Victorian and the medieval.

Emily Jane White

“Black Silk” – Emily Jane White

At once insistent and elusive, “Black Silk” unfolds in a reverbed acoustic setting that evokes a sense of bygone remoteness; we feel immediately pulled into a magical past that somehow blends the Victorian and the medieval. And yet this sound is likewise very 2010s. Go figure.

At the center of the song is White’s spacious, slightly smoky alto. She sings as if to hypnotize you. The music assists, as she backs her soothing, folk-like melody with a river of double-time finger-picked arpeggios that lull us so with their diligence that we almost don’t notice the rather threatening entrance of the electric guitar about midway through. The song’s very structure, in fact, leads us along as if spellbound, lacking a true chorus while flowing through a mostly unrepeated series of interrelated pieces. The listener can feel both lost and dizzy by the time we get to the climactic clearing. At which point, all White has to say is “oh oh oh,” as you’ll see.

Born in California, White ended up launching her solo music career while living in France in the ’00s, and still has a larger following overseas than in the U.S. “Black Silk” is from Ode To Sentience, her third album, which was released on the Talitres label in France last year. The American release is slated for May on Antenna Farm Records. White was previously featured on Fingertips last March.