Free and legal MP3: Land of Talk (tranquil backbeat, emotional intensity)

“Weight Of That Weekend” – Land Of Talk

At once gentle and intense, “Weight Of That Weekend” finds Elizabeth Powell, the primary force behind Fingertips favorite Land of Talk, pondering something serious and yet just out of the song’s lyrical spotlight. The music offers contradictory sensations, its tranquil backbeat intermittently jarred by measures of 7/4 (in the verse) and 6/4 (in the chorus). As a singer Powell embodies this duality, with a voice feathered with ambivalence but likewise resolute.

And just after I asserted that I don’t usually listen to lyrics (see previous entry), along comes a song in which the lyrics are a seamless, central part of its texture and allure. Without an introduction, the song launches on as terse a description of being gaslighted as any you’re likely to encounter:

Always come at me from a different angle
Make me think I don’t understand
how I’m feeling

(Note that the “how I’m feeling” part is where you first hear the 7/4 measure momentarily suspend the flow.)

From here the lyrical power accumulates through what is being alluded to without being said, the words a series of understandable phrases that nonetheless never quite reveal their direct meaning. The music amplifies the unsettled atmosphere with a chorus, dominated by suspended chords, that remains unresolved musically, adding to the subtle ache of Powell’s effort to rise above troubled circumstances: “This is a prayer for love” is the insistent conclusion.

Powell by the way is a formidable guitarist; that she plays acoustically here, with restraint, is its own sort of statement. And don’t miss the French horn that wafts into the mix somewhere around 2:25, an unexpected and somehow exactly appropriate addition.

“Weight Of That Weekend” is the fourth track on the new Land of Talk album, Indistinct Conversations, which was released at the end of July on Saddle Creek Records. This is the band’s fourth full-length release; three EPs have been interspersed over the years. You can listen to a few of the new songs and buy the album via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

This is the fifth time Land of Talk has been featured here, with their first review dating back to April 2007, and their most recent appearance ten years ago to the month, in August 2010.

Free and legal MP3: Christine Fellows (joyful/serious protest)

“Unleashed” appears to be about rising up in resistance to injustice, and if so, it is surely one of the friendlier-sounding protest songs I’ve heard.

“Unleashed” – Christine Fellows

The plucky ukulele riff that opens this one, as steadfast and persistent as ukulele riffs often are, hints not at the muscular romp to follow. But after the intro and a preliminary uke-backed verse, the band kicks in, and drives “Unleashed” forward with a gleeful vigor. That terrific bit of syncopation she dishes out at the end of each short verse—spelled out first in the ukulele prelude, starting at 0:20—adds to both the glee and the vigor.

“Unleashed” appears to be about rising up in resistance to injustice, and if so, it is surely one of the friendlier-sounding protest songs I’ve heard. The ukulele helps, to begin with. But Fellows herself has one of those congenial singing voices, a singing voice with the approachable tone of a speaking voice. It’s actually perfect for a protest song; she makes you inherently want to join in.

The lyrics add to the welcoming vibe. She positions resistance to tyranny as not merely humane but joyful; one line that stands out, both for its tone and its content, is: “We enrage our enemies/With rousing elegies.” I could not help but think of President Obama here, how the right wing extremists could listen to his eloquent calls for justice and respond only with unheeding rage. Fellows frames this crazy-making situation with such good-natured zest that it reinforces the important idea that we are not responsible for the reactions of others, only for our own actions. Which means: keep it up with the rousing elegies.

If “Unleashed” is a resistance pep talk, the Winnipeg-based Fellows doesn’t, in the end, shy from somber reality. Her final words, over a portentous drone from the cello, are “And the tide is rising.” On the one hand, she may be referring to the tide of the resistance, but the words unflinchingly bring climate change to mind. In other words, the tide of resistance had better be rising, and soon. She can rouse us into action with a good-spirited zing of a song but let’s remember the stakes.

“Unleashed” is a track from Roses on the Vine, Fellows’ seventh album, in a recording career dating back to 2000. She was actually one of the earlier artists featured on Fingertips, appearing back in August 2004. Her new album, released last month, is available in name-your-price fashion via Bandcamp.


photo: Lesandra Dodson

Free and legal MP3: Wolf Parade (passionate, Bowie-ish L. Cohen tribute)

“Valley Boy” presents with a sonic depth and acumen that belies its pop-song length.

Wold Parade

“Valley Boy” – Wolf Parade

The well-regarded Montreal quartet Wolf Parade went on an indefinite hiatus in 2010. This fall they returned, and these were the first words from them we heard:

The radio’s been playing all your songs
Talking about the way you slipped away without a care
Did you know that it was all gonna go wrong?
Did you know that it would all be more than you could bear?

The song was written about a year ago, after two profound, near-simultaneous occurrences: the death of Leonard Cohen and the election of the 45th President of the United States. Wolf Parade has ably if enigmatically linked these two adjacent events in the rolling, quirkily anthemic, Bowie-esque rocker “Valley Boy.” With a theatrical quaver, vocalist Spencer Krug sings words that conceal more than they reveal, but the opening verse, repeated once at the end, blazes with clarity and pathos, providing a foundation of meaning for an otherwise inscrutable song. I have certainly yet to figure out the centrality of the “valley boy” reference, but I’m working at it, because it so clearly means something. The best I can surmise is that the song is wondering if, after death, Cohen has finally been able to release himself from the existential angsts he spent his life pondering. It may not be the writer’s intention but it kind of works, for me.

Musically, “Valley Boy” presents with a sonic depth and acumen that belies its pop-song length. There are dissonant motifs and churning textures; there are also moments of clearing, and some attentive, Television-ish guitar interweavings. Krug has been quoted as saying, intriguingly, that “the band itself is almost a fifth member of the band,” as a way of describing and/or explaining the group’s authoritative sound. I like that.

“Valley Boy” is from the new Wolf Parade album Cry Cry Cry, the band’s first since 2010. It was released early last month on Sub Pop. MP3, again, via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Alvvays (tuneful, attentive, irresistible)

Some alchemical mixture of voice, texture, and melody puts me in my happy place when I hear them.

Alvvays

“In Undertow” – Alvvays

All music fans, I’m pretty sure, have certain sounds that are so irresistible to them that bands who manage to hit that aural sweet spot have a more or less limitless appeal—just about anything they record sounds terrific. The Toronto-based quartet Alvvays (pronounced “Always”) is one of those bands for me. Some alchemical mixture of voice, texture, and melody puts me in my happy place when I hear them.

It all begins with Molly Rankin’s voice, with its enchanting blend of purity and depth, her honeyed tones retouched by the flawless application of reverb. Add in the band’s knack for finding contemporary homes for nostalgic melodies and I am smitten. Beyond these immediate characteristics, the band delivers likewise at a deeper level. Check out the juxtaposition of the staccato bass line with the ongoing wash of guitar noise, the bass guiding the ear through the indeterminate din that floats just beyond the surface prettiness; “ice cream truck jangle collides with prismatic noise pop” is how the band describes the general ambiance and sure, why not.

Then we have Alvvays’ ongoing attentiveness to the words employed within their sonic environment of choice. Despite the reverb and the noise, Rankin is rarely mixed beyond comprehension, which allows us to appreciate her heedful language. Note the way the words in the second part of the second verse mirror the words in the same position in the first verse, but altered into slant rhymes: “metaphorically” for “rhetorically,” “psychology” for “astrology,” “mood” for “moon.” Another sign of attention to language is the title selection—rather than rely on the most repeated phrase, which would be “no turning back,” the band names the song after a phrase heard (just barely) once. And speaking of “no turning back,” one of the few places in which Rankin muffles her words is here. With its delivery broken this way—“No turning/There’s no turning/There’s no turning back”—the phrase, at first, to my ears, sounded like “There’s no teddy bears.” Whether she did this on purpose or not, and I suspect she did, it adds poignancy to a tale of a love that’s disappeared.

Alvvays was previously featured on Fingertips in November 2014, some months after their debut release. The band’s second album, Antisocialites, comes out in early September on Polyvinyl Records. You can check out one other song from the new album, and purhase it, on Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Winchester (stately epic)

Now this is how to start a slow song: with a stately, centered, melodic line, via a deep but elusive synth tone, in unhurried 6/8 time.

Winchester

“I’m Not Ready to Go Yet” – Winchester

Now this is how to start a slow song: with a stately, centered, melodic line, via a deep but elusive synth tone, in unhurried 6/8 time. Add, without fuss, some subtle digital noise, and then a piano (acoustic or electric, can’t tell, but it sounds acoustic, which is the important thing)—and then, unexpectedly, an acoustic guitar, strumming crisp chords. We’re already a minute and twenty seconds into the song, there is still nothing but introduction in sight, but I am on board. (I’ve heard much shorter introductions sound boring and pointless.)

The singing starts, with a subtle lead-in from some shivery cymbals, at 1:58, a clean female voice, emerging so organically from the instrumentation that it’s hard to discern exactly when she starts. The song’s steady pace, measured out in deliberate triplets, becomes its anchor, its defining core, but don’t be so lulled you miss the turning point at 2:36, when a deep electronic pulse promises some as-yet unimagined transformation. Jittery synths supplant the piano around 3:15, and the digitalia accumulates as a preface to: guitars (3:54). Silvery, siren-y guitars, putting me in the mind of Explosions in the Sky, but here, initially, matched against the background acoustic rhythm guitar. Until the next turning point, at 5:14: the trembling electric guitar (maybe it’s just one after all) goes into full solo mode, joined at long last by the drums. Had you missed the drums? This is the first we’ve heard them, which I’m pretty sure illustrates (if everything else hasn’t already done so) how carefully this song was constructed. It’s easier to aim for epic than to get there but “I’m Not Ready to Go Yet” makes the journey and, to my ears, comes out the other side.

Winchester is the Toronto-based duo of Lauren Austin and Montgomery de Luna. “I’m Not Ready to Go Yet” is a track from their forthcoming debut EP, If Time is Not Linear Why Can’t I Forget the Past? (no release date set at this point). Thanks to the band for the MP3.

p.s. While I resist typographic idiosyncrasy here, you should know for the record that the band officially spells its name with capital letters and spaces, like this: W I N C H E S T E R.

Free and legal MP3: The Holiday Crowd (brisk & jangly, w/ killer chorus)

The chorus is a recurringly climactic gem, with a shiny-catchy feeling that marvelously transmutes the song’s influences into something all its own.

The Holiday Crowd

“Anything Anything” – The Holiday Crowd

If you have any long-term knowledge of rock’n’roll history, when you listen to “Anything Anything” you are likely going to be put in the mind of the Smiths. This is not a bad thing; the Smiths were a seminal band, trafficking in a sound so unique as to be sui generis. Pretty much anyone influenced by the Mancunian quartet at all ends up kind of sounding like them in certain unmistakable ways.

But I will quickly note that “Anything Anything” is not Smiths 2.0; it’s quite a wonderful piece of pop on its own terms. If it manifests shared characteristics with Morrissey-Marr compositions—from the fade-in intro through lead singer Imran Haniff’s discontented lilt to the chiming guitar arpeggios—the song at the same time has an underlying energy that feels warmer and brighter, and a structure less willfully idiosyncratic. And boy oh boy this chorus, which feels almost goose-bumpily climactic every time it recurs, with a shiny-catchy feeling that marvelously transmutes the song’s influences into something all its own.

That all said, a visit to the band’s Facebook page informs us that they may not be in love with the Smiths comparisons. Oops! But then again, not. Because look, it’s my (self-appointed) job to put new songs I’m enjoying into their musical contexts. I compare new bands to older bands regularly. I try to do so creatively and sensitively but to act as if an obvious aural correlate doesn’t exist, or to feel it is somehow taboo to point it out, is silly. I mean, were I to write about this song and not mention the Smiths, most of you would wonder how I managed to miss that. Online commenters love to rail against “lazy” reviewers who use comparisons rather than descriptors, but this isn’t a zero-sum game. I believe in comparisons and descriptors, and anything else that assists with the eternally thorny problem of dancing about architecture, as it were. It is no more a crime to be influenced by a major musical antecedent than it is to point out this influence. End of soapbox.

The Holiday Crowd is a quartet from Toronto. They formed in 2010, and released their first album in 2013, which you can listen to on Bandcamp. “Anything Anything” is a song from their forthcoming self-titled album, due out in January. Thanks to Magnet Magazine for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Chris Storrow (updating a bygone sound, with horns)

“Raised the Bar” is as we speak blaring out of Top-40 radios everywhere in some alternative world in which politicians compromise and people still use taxi cabs.

Chris Storrow

“Raised the Bar” – Chris Storrow

With its anthemic horn charts, melodic bass line, and a retro-y, bittersweet bashiness, “Raised the Bar” is as we speak blaring out of Top-40 radios everywhere in some alternative world in which politicians compromise and people still use taxi cabs.

Let’s start with a hat tip to the introduction, which not only gives us those groovy horns right out of the gate but seems to accomplish a whole lot in a short time. After just 10 seconds not only does the song take off but it feels we are already smack in the middle of things, thanks to the ear-catching sixth interval on which the verse melody quickly hinges (it’s there in the second and third notes we hear). That’s one good way to write a song, for those who need more than rhythm to get the spirit fluttering. Another good way is to employ most of the notes of the scale in your melody, which “Raised the Bar” does in the chorus, skipping just one note out of eight (counting the home note in both its lower and upper registers). (End of music theory lecture.)

The bygone feeling in the air here is, according to press material, no accident—Storrow set out on this new album to write straightforward songs in the tradition of the hits one might have heard on AM radio in the 1960s. Based in Montreal, Storrow worked on these new songs with a number of notable Canadians, including musicians from the Fingertips-featured bands Stars, the New Pornographers, the Dears, and Young Galaxy, in addition to the multi-faceted singer/songwriter Patrick Watson (himself featured here back in 2006).

“Raised the Bar” is the second track on Storrow’s new album, The Ocean’s Door, released earlier this month. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Find the Others (powerful electronic-acoustic amalgam)

“We Stared at the World” begins as a gentle song oscillating mysteriously between the electronic and acoustic.

Find The Others

“We Stared at the World” – Find the Others

“We Stared at the World” begins as a gentle song oscillating mysteriously between the electronic and acoustic. Front man Andy Sheppard fills our head with his conversational tenor. Listen attentively and you may begin to hear a variety of openings in the muted landscape, soft sounds implying larger worlds. Urgency arrives un-urgently: halfway through the song all sorts of things start happening, and the layers of instrumentation become more overtly fascinating and gratifying–guitar sounds, string sounds, a determined parade of clicking-clopping percussion sounds.

And, actual drum sounds. It took me a while for it to register but this halfway point is where we begin to hear what sound like real drums being smacked with real sticks. It’s a sound that I think gives the song such a satisfying climax, during the final iteration of the chorus, beginning around 2:47. There’s something about the various juxtapositions on display right here (the organic vs. the electronic, the gentle vocal vs. the percussive accompaniment, the melodic vs. the beat-driven) that together strike me as both powerful and poignant, but also fleeting: in 12 or 13 seconds everything’s gone, replaced by 30-plus seconds of ambient tinkling and droning, a kind of sonic after-image, rendering everything previously heard abruptly dreamlike. I like that a song ostensibly about staring turns out to be so indirect, even inscrutable.

Given the band’s name, Find The Others is an ironically elusive project. It appears to be a one-man operation (the album credits Sheppard as the only performer), even as the press photo features two people (and a blank third). Web resources identify Sheppard’s location alternately as either Toronto or British Columbia, so let’s at least assume he’s Canadian—even as he shipped himself off to Iceland to work with Valgeir Sigurðsson (Sigur Rós, Björk, Feist, Nico Muhly, and then some). The end result was the album Empire of Time, on which you’ll find this song. The album was released back in April 2015; I heard it much later in the year via Insomnia Radio.

Free and legal MP3: Grounders Fuzzy noisy chorus-free pop

Via unexplained mechanisms, the Toronto-based quartet Grounders employ a familiar-sounding synth pop vocabulary to create something that strikes my ear as anomalous, and very satisfying.

Grounders

“Bloor Street and Pressure” – Grounders

Via unexplained mechanisms, the Toronto-based band Grounders employ a familiar-sounding synth pop vocabulary to create something that strikes my ear as anomalous, and a lot of fun. As the perky intro, propelled by a series of six-note descents, takes some time to establish itself, you’ll notice, if you listen, the ongoing encroachment of fuzzy noise (or, perhaps, noisy fuzz) underneath the main melody; almost as if a series of retro-futuristic machines are being variously turned on, the noise is all but constructed before our eyes (ears). Once the vocals finally start (0:52), it then provides a constant, multifaceted background throughout the song’s sung portions.

But it’s elusive, this fuzz/noise. Is it simply an extension of the bass line? Something extra going on in the synthesizer department? Something to do with that unaccountable “wa-wa” sound that cycles through the musical undergrowth? Whatever it is, it’s both always there and sometimes not quite there, and may be what gives “Bloor Street and Pressure” its intangible charm. That and the fact that for all its propulsive energy and ear-worm-ish bias, the song does not possess either a chorus or anything much to sing along with. Which is great if you can get away with it.

Grounders is a five-piece band that was previously a four-piece band and might in fact still be a four-piece band, but their current photo has five guys in it. These things can be hard to untangle. They are in any case from Toronto (where, in fact, you will find Bloor Street). Their debut self-titled album was released on Nevado Records in May. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp.

MP3 courtesy of Insomnia Radio.

Free and legal MP3: Alvvays (sweet, jangly, off-kilter)

“Archie, Marry Me” has a sweet, sweeping relentlessness about it, and if the whole thing is partially buried in mud and fuzz, this somehow makes its insistence all the more poignant

Alvvays

“Archie, Marry Me” – Alvvays

“Archie, Marry Me” has a sweet, sweeping relentlessness about it, and if the whole thing is partially buried in mud and fuzz, this somehow makes its insistence all the more poignant, makes its gorgeousness all the more down to earth. This is a song that rhymes “matrimony” and “alimony,” not to mention “Atlantic” and “panic,” “papers” and “makers.” This is a song with a woman singing to a character named Archie. This is a band called Always that spells their name Alvvays. The off-kilter appears to be their territory.

At the seeming center of this eddy of off-center goodness is front woman Molly Rankin, who sings with an enticing blend of composed abandon. Her voice veers now too close, now too far. As the band pounds and jangles along, Rankin sounds like someone at once assured and bewildered; her repeated “Hey hey”s resonate off imaginary canyons of hope and despair. But at the true center of the proceedings is the song itself, which etches melodic glory from the simplest of components, and burrows into a listener’s warmest places through the timeless, heartfelt force of guitars and drums. If you don’t concentrate you’ll miss the guitars’ wild, second-verse excursion, buried nearly beyond earshot, but all the wilder for its lack of neediness. In much the way the singer’s simple plea seems almost necessarily concealing some thornier reality, so too does the music’s apparent plainness appear to couch some more complicated sentiment. Remember, they could merely have spelled their name the way it sounds.

Alvvays is a quintet based in Toronto. Molly Rankin is the daughter of the late John Morris Rankin, of the popular and (in Canada) well-known Celtic/folk group The Rankin Family. Among band members is guitarist Alec O’Hanley, formerly of the Charlottetown-based band Two Hours Traffic, who were featured here back in 2010. “Archie, Marry Me” is from the debut, self-titled Alvvays album, released on Polyvinyl Records back in July. The song has been floating around the internet even longer than that, but only last month emerged in free and legal MP3 form over on the long-standing free and legal MP3 blog 3hive. So thanks, very much, to the 3hivers for this one. And note that you can listen to the album and buy it in various formats via the Polyvinyl web site. I encourage it.