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.

Free and legal MP3: Sam Roberts Band (quasi-funky neo-psychedelia)

An assured piece of quasi-funky neo-psychedelia, complete with ear-grabbing guitar licks and a brain-sticking chorus.

Sam Roberts Band

“We’re All In This Together” – Sam Roberts Band

I would understand if Sam Roberts feels he was born in the wrong time and place. His accessible, smartly-produced, effortlessly melodic brand of rock’n’roll would’ve been all over the radio 40 years ago. Today, such music struggles for air. And it’s not like SRB is selling nostalgia; their songs have as crisp and contemporary a sound as music can have in 2014 while making no effort to pander to the EDM crowd. Good thing these guys happen to be from Canada, where they have a good strong following, and where popular taste remains admirably catholic, at least compared to what goes on here in the U.S.

“We’re All In This Together,” in any case, is an assured piece of quasi-funky neo-psychedelia, complete with ear-grabbing guitar licks, a brain-sticking chorus, and the buoyant vibe of a quintet still happy to be playing together. (I love, as one example, how the spiffy lyric “It’s a phenomenon/That goes on and on” [1:23] is so casually offered and moved on from; this is a band used to having tricks up its sleeve.) While the verses sound like a sped-up retake of David Essex’s “Rock On” (not a bad thing!), the song breaks open on the unexpectedly aspirational chorus, which—neat trick—encourages joining in both literally and figuratively, working as an almost touching reminder in our hyper-partisan times. I mean sheesh, yes. We are: in this together. How oblivious or narcissistic do you have to be to disregard this most basic truth? And sorry. Didn’t mean to get all soapboxy. It’s just a pop song. Have fun.

“We’re All In This Together” comes from the fifth Sam Roberts Band album, entitled Lo-Fantasy, which was released in February on Paper Bag Records, but lacked any free and legal downloads until recently. You can grab the song above, as usual, or download it via SoundCloud. The band was featured previously on Fingertips in 2006.

Free and legal MP3: Kim Harris (emotional ballad sung with soul and spirit)

A rare and wonderful instance of an audio recording and a video aiding and abetting each other in elucidating the power of both the song and the singer.

Kim Harris

“The Weight of it All” – Kim Harris

I am not inherently attracted to earnest piano-based ballads, let me make that clear. Neither am I inherently oriented to videos, as any number of you already know by now, by the sheer tiresomeness of my haughty disclaimers over the years. And yet here we are: an earnest, piano-based ballad that sold itself to me to a large extent on the strength of its video. (See? I do watch them intermittently. And post them; see below.) With the wisdom of (many) years, I have come to embrace these kinds of contradictions. Who the hell wants to be that consistent, anyway?

Now then, the video of “The Weight of it All” is actually a guitar version, the song stripped to its essence and performed, almost as if an afterthought, live and uncut on a residential Halifax street. (Yes it appears to be Halifax week here. Don’t knock it; the music up there is ever vibrant and worthy.) Taken together, the video and the sound recording highlight different aspects of Harris’s soul and spirit: the video places her in three-dimensional space, and gives us an immediate, visceral affinity with her rich, athletic voice; the audio, meanwhile, in slowing the song down, allows us to savor the depth and nuance of her presence and delivery in a more contemplative way. The song itself likewise benefits from this dual presentation. The sound recording scores via its sensitive, dramatic (but not over-dramatic) production, with percussion, pedal steel, and backing vocals used with precision, giving the slower tempo a vividness unmarred by the histrionics we are all too often subjected to when mainstream music aims for emotion. The video, on the other hand, finds its power in the guiding pulse of Harris’s resolute right hand and of course the appeal of her unassisted voice, rendered all the more touching as she stands in the street and we watch and hear cars go by, with unseen birds likewise adding to the soundtrack. When she is joined later and unexpectedly by a chorus of five singers, linked arm and arm just beyond the original frame of the video, the song’s cumulative force feels instant and fresh. (Don’t miss Harris’s not-quite-masked smile—around 2:33 in the video—as she anticipates the entrance of the chorus just before the rest of us either hear or see them, a moment of unpremeditated humanity that underscores the beauty and authenticity of the performance.)

Based in Halifax, Harris is originally from Newfoundland. “The Weight of it All” is a song from Only the Mighty, her debut full-length, released at the end of February. You can listen to the whole album, and purchase it, via Bandcamp. Only the Mighty was produced by Dale Murray, who, among other things, is a member of the band Cuff the Duke (featured here way back in 2005, the year Murray joined the band).

Free and legal MP3: Jessy Bell Smith (magical, lilting, and steadfast)

Jessy Bell Smith has a magical lilt in her voice, and “John Mouse” is a magical, lilting song, all forward momentum and earnest, recycling melody.

Jessy Bell Smith

“John Mouse” – Jessy Bell Smith

Jessy Bell Smith has a magical lilt in her voice, and “John Mouse” is a magical, lilting song, all forward momentum and friendly, recycling melody. Verse and chorus are barely distinguishable as Smith, once set in motion, seems not to want to break the spell of this odd, oblique little tale. A mouse has been killed, to begin with. The narrator seems conflicted about it. After that, little is unambiguous, lyrically.

Musically, on the other hand, “John Mouse” is steadfast and definitive, with the feeling of a olden-days folk ballad re-booted by a traveling-carnival rock band with more interest in horns and tooting keyboards than electric guitars. There in the midst of the song’s light-footed élan, Smith manages to convey the sensibility of both ringmaster and empath, laying an almost poignant tenderness atop her “Step right up!” confidence.

Note by the way that it’s rare for a song to have both this trustworthy a backbeat and this offbeat an arrangement. When the backbeat disappears, starting at 2:09, the song’s idiosyncratic pith comes more fully into focus. This is fun in its own way but when the drumming returns 30 seconds later is when she really owns you. I think there’s a lesson in that but I’m not exactly sure what it is.

A singer/songwriter from Guelph, Ontario, Jessy Bell Smith has also somewhat recently become a member of the veteran Toronto band The Skydiggers. “John Mouse” is from the album The Town, released at the end of February via Choose My Music, a British music blog with a small, associated record label. The album was a limited-edition CD and appears now to be sold out; you can check out two other songs via Bandcamp, and download one of them via SoundCloud, thanks to the Guelph-based Missed Connection Records. Smith’s one previous release appears to have been a very lo-fi EP called Tiny Lights, in 2004. Two of those songs landed on this finally-recorded album. Thanks to the record label for the MP3. Thanks to Lauren Laverne for the tip.

Free and legal MP3: Dinosaur Bones (crunchy & unresolved)

We are agitated from the start, but in a way that hooks you, like a cliffhanger in a plot line.

Dinosaur Bones

“Sleepsick” – Dinosaur Bones

Longtime visitors here may be aware of the soft spot I have for suspended and unresolved chords. To oversimplify matters, both of these types of chords just don’t sound settled when you hear them—a suspended chord because it replaces one of the “right” notes in the chord with a “wrong” note, an unresolved chord because it is leading the ear to a subsequent chord that ends up not arriving. This song’s driving, crunching introduction is especially drive-y crunchy because it’s all about suspended and unresolved chords. We are agitated from the start, but in a way that hooks you, like a cliffhanger in a plot line.

In “Sleepsick,” resolution is kept at bay, not just through the introduction but through the entire two-part verse, all 30-plus seconds of which unfold over one suspended chord. This is pretty fine songwriting right there: the melody is full of interesting intervals and effective drama, but it’s all on top of that one itchy chord. The slight processing applied to the lead vocals amplifies the claustrophobia somehow. When the chord finally shifts, at 0:48, all nearby ears break into applause—almost anything would sound like a resolution by now, but this anthemic round of alternating major/minor chords seems particularly gratifying. And yet we get just one iteration of the chorus and we are back without fuss (1:04) to the fretful world of the verse. Only when the chorus comes back, at 1:37, do we feel more fully resolved, as it is now allowed to repeat, which it really needed to the first time but didn’t. Note near 1:59 the subtle change of chord in the second line of the chorus during the repeat, on the line “Hiding from the light outside”—an almost indiscernible happening that adds elusive richness, especially in a song as stingy and purposeful with its chords as this one is. And, speaking of purposeful chords, don’t miss the song’s final gesture: the ominous (and unresolved) chord on which the song ends, with a long fade-out, beginning at 3:13.

Dinosaur Bones is a five-piece band from Toronto. “Sleepsick” is from their second album, Shaky Dream, released last month on Dine Alone Records. You can download the track from the link above, as usual, or via SoundCloud. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Free and legal MP3: Dark for Dark (upbeat yet melancholy)

Upbeat yet melancholy, “Sweetwater”‘s power is cemented by its ear-grabbing if bittersweet chorus.

Dark for Dark

“Sweetwater” – Dark for Dark

Lap steel, banjo, and tenor guitar: this here is a country song. Sort of. The instrumentation suggests it, but as soon as Rebecca Zolkower opens her mouth, the song veers in a somewhat different direction. Zolkower sings with the unadorned charm of a dorm-room folksinger; for me, her plain and pretty tone brings Suzzy Roche to mind, a connection reinforced by the band’s composition—Dark for Dark features three women, and three female voices in confident and determined harmony with one another.

“Sweetwater” is upbeat yet melancholy, with brisk, poetic verses and a power cemented by an ear-grabbing chorus, in which, first, a jaunty melody (tracing a B major chord in a I-V-III pattern) is matched to what may be our language’s most desolate phrase (“And when I die”). But then: both the lyrics and melody slide almost out of hearing, and background singers Jess Lewis and Mel Stone proceed to echo words we didn’t quite hear when Zolkower first sang them. It’s an odd but engaging few moments. The front woman comes back to the foreground on the last phrase (“in the ground”) in a catching-up-from-behind manner that provides almost as endearing a closure as the follow-up surely does: the wordless “bah-bah” exchange between lead and backup singers through one more melodic run-through of the chorus, minus the elusive sections.

And, as often happens here, reading about it is more complicated than listening to it. Hell, the song is only two minutes twenty-eight seconds. I suggest listening.

Dark for Dark was founded in 2012, but all three members are veterans of the Halifax music scene, and Zolkower and Stone were previously together in the band The Prospector’s Union. Zolkower got the name for the band while reading The Hobbit a few years ago, and kind of laughs now at how inapposite the name is for the kind of lovely music the eventual band eventually created. “Sweetwater” is the second track on the group’s debut album, Warboats, which was self-released last month. You can listen to the whole thing, and purchase it, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Matt Mays (frank, spirited rock’n’roll)

We have wailing guitars, we have a pounding keyboard, and most of all we have an upward-surging minor-key melody so succinct and irresistible that Mays builds both verse and chorus upon it.

Matt Mays

“Take It On Faith” – Matt Mays

Could it be that popular music has been splintered and digitized and compressed and remixed and mashed up for so long now that the surest, freest sign of authenticity and revolt in 2013 is nothing more or less than a frank, spirited rock’n’roll song?

Well, okay, maybe not. But “Take It On Faith” is surely a frank and spirited rock’n’roll song, with old-school drive and new-school…something or another. Actually, I’m not quite sure what makes this sound current and alive but it does, to me, in that there is nothing nostalgic or pandering going on here. We have wailing guitars, we have a pounding keyboard, and most of all we have an upward-surging minor-key melody so succinct and irresistible that Mays builds both verse and chorus upon it. And while yes there is something Springsteen-esque in Mays’ scuffed-up baritone, the vibe here feels more nimble and quicksilver-like than a 60-something rock’n’roll deity can traffic in any longer. A particular favorite moment of mine here is how the chorus retreats after the second iteration of the words “take it on faith” (0:57), with Mays backing off the anthemic melody to grumble something low and indecipherable. It feels unexpected, real, and alluring.

“Take It On Faith” is from the album Coyote, which was released on Halifax-based Sonic Records back in September. This is Mays’ third effort as a solo artist; he also has two albums released under the name Matt Mays & El Torpedo, most recently in 2008. That was when he was previously featured here. This song just recently came to the attention of the folks at Magnet Magazine, and that’s where it even more recently came to my attention. MP3 (once more) via Magnet.

photo credit: Devin McLean

Free and legal MP3: The Bicycles (breezy yet substantial)

“Sun Don’t Want to End” is nearly as good as a truly breezy song can be (angst-ridden songs that merely sound breezy don’t count).

The Bicycles

“Sun Don’t Want to End” – The Bicycles

One of the more difficult songwriting challenges in the pop world is how to write a song that’s breezy on the one hand but substantive enough to be worth listening to on the other. Go too easy-breezy on us and the thing floats away from the ear, substance-free (and often insipid and annoying to boot). Another way to go of course is to write a song that sounds breezy but is actually full of angst. That can deliver the substance to be sure, but it’s sort of cheating, no?

“Sun Don’t Want to End” is nearly as good as a truly breezy song can be, and the main reason, my ears tell me, is its stellar opening riff—a snappy, tappy ringing guitar that sounds like what you might get if you major-scaled the Smiths. It’s an incisive little jig, at once familiar and unplaceable, and trusty enough to serve as both a stand-alone introduction and melodic counterpoint to the verse. I like it when bands can weave together two melodies like that, one vocal and one instrumental—it’s an old-school move only to the extent that analog, three-dimensional music skills are required for this kind of boppy integration. From there we are delivered into an extra-breezy (not to mention super-quick) chorus with just the right touch of ’70s-radio suspended chords before being hooked back into the central riff, which, in slightly fleshed-out form (0:53) sounds now like a long-lost friend. The second verse plays with the melody in a satisfying, offhand way—the “Just be good to me/And I’ll be good to you” part, at 1:08—but it turns out we were indeed supposed to notice that, since the song closes on an extended jam featuring those very lyrics. And sure, if you want to be a spoilsport, you could complain that the song goes on for probably a minute too long in that vein, but hey, it’s breezy and fun and good: no need to rush these guys out the door, is there?

“Sun Don’t Need to End” is from the album Stop Thinking So Much, the band’s third, which is coming in April on Fuzzy Logic Recordings (Toronto) (vinyl, digital) and Aporia Records (CD).

photo credit: Christa Treadwell

Free and legal MP3: Aidan Knight (unconventional & affecting)

The joy and the pleasure here come from Knight’s willingness to think beyond the stark restraints of the pop song, and willingness to trust that there may be some listeners willing to take that ride with him.

Aidan Knight

“A Mirror” – Aidan Knight

From its opening sounds—warm, mysterious, unresolved—“A Mirror” lets you know how good it is going to be, and how unusual. This is not a conventional pop song; not only is there no catchy chorus, there doesn’t even appear to be any recognizable verse. What we get instead is a series of motifs—some with lyrics, some instrumental—which do recur, if you’re paying attention, but which need to be listened to a number of times before they begin to coalesce into a meaningful whole.

I suggest giving this song that kind of time. A singer/songwriter from Victoria, BC, himself the son of a singer/songwriter, Knight has the natural touch of a born musician. In lieu of any one instantaneous moment of short-attention-span gratification, “A Mirror” employs its entire almost-five minutes to deliver its ineffable goods. The more I listen, the more individual pieces I grow to love (an early favorite: “I’m alive/I’m alive/I’m right here,” beginning at 0:51), while at the same time acquiring a gradual understanding of the song’s larger arc. I have no idea how a composition like this gets conceived and written, as it’s operating on a much different level than most songs I encounter. And yet also, thankfully, it comes without any avant-garde baggage or contemporary-classical pretenses. Its general musical language is familiar enough, but the joy and the pleasure here come from Knight’s willingness to think beyond the stark restraints of the pop song, and willingness to trust that there may be some listeners willing to take that ride with him.

“A Mirror” is the second of 10 songs on the album Small Reveal, Knight’s second full-length release, coming out later this month on Outside Music. Knight was previously featured on Fingertips at the time of his first album, in 2010. MP3 via Outside Music.

Free and legal MP3: Fine Times (big-bodied, synth-flavored)

Wall-of-sound-like illusions attached to a swaying, arena-friendly beat, with a soupçon of craftiness.

Fine Times

“Hey Judas” – Fine Times

Attaching wall-of-sound-like illusions to a swaying, arena-friendly beat, the synth-flavored rock’n’roll of “Hey Judas” is big-bodied from the get-go. And that’s even before we get to the wordless sing-along at the end of the chorus, which graduates from arena- to stadium-sized.

And yet note how it’s not really that easy to sing along with, that wordless sing-along part (1:16). It’s comprised of unexpected leaps and sly intervals and finishes not with a grand finale but with an evasive syncopation. It’s a large gesture at the center of a large-gestured song and yet is also some wonderfully subtle music hiding in plain sight. As such it has a kind of ripple effect on the rest of the song. I’m listening more closely. Some of it is indeed as straightforward as it seems (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). But there are synth lines here, lyrical flourishes there, melodic angles elsewhere that dance through “Hey Judas” and give this swelling, swaggering tune an intriguing soupçon of craftiness. I kinda like that.

Fine Times is the Vancouver-based duo of vocalist/keyboardist Matthew Moldowan and bassist Jeffrey Josiah Powell. Most recently together in a band called 16mm, the two emerged as a band in their own right late in 2010 and shortly thereafter, apparently, producer Howard Redekopp (The New Pornographers, The Zolas, Tegan & Sara) gave them access to his spiffy collection of vintage synthesizers. So the unmistakable ’80s keyboards here are nothing if not authentic. (For good measure, check their worthy cover of “Enola Gay,” below.) “Hey Judas” is a track from the duo’s self-titled debut, which was released this week on Light Organ Records. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

photo credit: Mathew Smith