Free and legal MP3: Colleen Brown (girl-group theatrics meets D. Springfield)

“Boyfriend” marches to a big, retro, triplet-driven beat, delivering a vibe that’s part girl-group theatrics, part Dusty Springfield-style R&B, part something elusive and (dare I say it?) new.

“Boyfriend” – Colleen Brown

“Boyfriend” marches to a big, retro, triplet-driven beat, delivering a vibe that’s part girl-group theatrics, part Dusty Springfield-style R&B, part something elusive and (dare I say it?) new.

This is in fact a quality that strikes me again and again about Canadian musicians, if I may generalize (and I assume positive generalizations are somewhat less irritating than negative generalizations!): their capacity for drawing upon influences without either drowning in them or negating them through archness and irony. Here, Edmonton-based singer/songwriter Colleen Brown–with a slightly dusky voice, some sly lyrics, and an easy way with a time-shifting melody–has built a song and a sound clearly grounded in the past while managing, at the same time, to resist painting herself into a history-centric corner. I’m not exactly sure how this works up there north of the border but I appreciate it every time I hear it. In any case, “Boyfriend,” with its driving stomp and gleeful vocal energy, is very much a winner in the here and now.

You’ll find the song on Brown’s second solo album, Foot in Heart, which was re-released last month by Dead Daisy Records, an independent label run by Canadian singer/songwriter Emm Gryner. The album had been previously self-released in 2008. Brown has also recorded as a part of a duo called the Secretaries. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3: Aidan Knight(able country-tinged sing-along)

“Jasper” – Aidan Knight

When a song comes along as effortlessly gladdening as “Jasper” I actually get a little suspicious. “That’s it?” I think. “It’s that easy to write a really good song? A sing-along even? Anybody could do that!”

But of course as it turns out anybody can’t. Otherwise we’d have a lot more of this around, which we clearly do not. There’s something ramrod solid about this song, even as it glides so easily through its three and a half minutes. Perched squarely on the shoulders of Aidan Knight’s comfortable, boy-next-door baritone, “Jasper,” for all its laid-back, singer/songwriter-y vibe, shines with the melodic assurance of an old Elton John song. (This is, to be clear, a compliment, and anyone who doesn’t realize that would do well to go revisit some of the songs Sir Reg recorded between 1970 and 1974.) The song sounds channeled more than written, and everything about its presentation–from the delightfully restrained steel-guitar licks to the climactic group-sung chorus–rings true and right, as if no one had to decide any of this, as if it sprung to life of its will alone.

Knight is from the lovely city of Victoria, B.C.; “Jasper” is from Versicolour, his first album, which is due out early next month. It is also the first release for the record label Adventure Boys Club, a label started by Knight along with Tyler Bancroft, of the Vancouver band Said the Whale.

Free and legal MP3: Woodpigeon (spacey strummer becomes hoedown)

“Empty-Hall Sing-Along” – Woodpigeon

A multifaceted musical adventure awaits you here. What begins as a sort of spacey, choral Fleetwood Mac-ish strummer takes a left turn at 1:37 and reinvents itself as a western hoedown a la Poco or Pure Prairie League (reference for those of a certain age). Front man Mark Hamilton clearly likes to surround himself with musicians–Woodpigeon is a shape-shifting ensemble featuring eight semi-regulars and a dozen and a half potential guests–but here their presence is as much vocal as instrumental. If you listen carefully, you’ll discern more than the usual number of guitar and percussion sounds, yes, but what ultimately dominates the song are an unexpectedly large chorus of voices. Five of the central eight are listed as singers and while there’s no telling who exactly is singing what, what I’m liking a lot is the vibe of a group of singers singing together, which creates an entirely different feel than multi-tracked harmonies. This is a “sing-along,” after all.

Woodpigeon is based in Calgary and issued its debut album in 2006. I don’t think I can stop myself from telling you that Hamilton called his first band Woodpigeon Divided By Antelope Equals Squirrel. That was while he was living in Scotland and it didn’t apparently amount to much. “Empty-Hall Sing-Along” comes from Die Stadt Musikanten, Woodpigeon’s third album, released this week in Canada on Boompa Records; the American release will be in March. MP3 via Boompa.

Free and legal MP3: Think About Life (exuberant deconstructed funk)

“Johanna” – Think About Life

So this may be about the best thing I’ve heard all year. How sharp and sleek and funky; how multileveled and well-crafted and exuberant; what deeply gratifying fun.

The basic groove alone is impressive, established at the outset by some brilliant horn charts, with their stuttery swing and that softly dissonant chord they settle on at the end of each phrase. But “Johanna” has so much more going for it than the basic groove, including an memorable melodic spine–the song just hangs on it so perfectly–and Martin Cesar’s delightful, full-throated singing. When everything kind of caves in on itself momentarily, at 1:14, this isn’t just a cute effect, it’s spirited statement of purpose: this Montreal-based quartet can and will do anything they want with the sound they’re creating. In an indirect way, Think About Life brings to mind Remain in Light-era Talking Heads–not because the sound is similar, but for this group’s willingness and ability to simultaneously work with and deconstruct the funk. I have rarely heard a band manage to give off a kitchen-sink air of anything goes while at the same time writing and playing such tight, kick-ass music. This isn’t just someone pushing a button to put this sound in here, then this sound here; as with Talking Heads before them, I get a strong sense of both brainy tinkering and physical exertion in the presence of this song. The crazy-awesome instrumental interlude at 2:26–30 seconds of time standing still right in the center of the groove–is not to be missed.

“Johanna” is from the band’s second album, Family, which was released in Canada in May and in the U.S. last month, on Alien8 Recordings. The MP3 was made available last week via Magnet.

Free and legal MP3: Basia Bulat (charming shot of rustic exuberance)

“Gold Rush” – Basia Bulat

Eager youth and venerable tradition is a compelling combination, and a perpetual argument against sourpusses who rise with foolish predictability, in every generation, to proclaim that good music ended at some lamented moment in the receding past. Good music never stops arriving; good listening frequently grinds to a halt, however.

“Gold Rush” is a particularly charming amalgam of the old and the new. The old registers in the exuberant, rustic vibe embodied by a stringed managerie that includes fiddles and Bulat’s signature autoharp; the new is all in the song’s energy: in Bulat’s freewheeling vocals, in the galloping percussion, and maybe best of all in her innate sense of drama. This young Canadian knows just when to pull back and when to let loose–listen to how well, for instance, the song’s rollicking momentum is set up by the opening section, with its deliberate series of staccato fiddle chords; check out, also, how she clears space for those out-of-the-blue but abruptly perfect harmony vocals in the bridge (1:42). And she wraps up this spirited rollercoaster ride in a nifty three and a half minutes.

“Gold Rush” is the first song made available from Bulat’s upcoming Heart Of My Own, her second album, scheduled for release in January on Rough Trade/Beggars. MP3 via the Beggars Group.

Free and legal MP3: Land of Talk (powerful return of Fingertips fave)

“May You Never” – Land of Talk

Another song with an introduction that’s sparser and slower than the song it introduces, “May You Never” starts with spacey/chimey sounds, a semi-pentatonic piano riff, and some ultra echoey vocals from smudgy-voiced Lizzie Powell over a doleful kettle drum. It sounds all indie-mystical, but at 0:51 the beat kicks in, and the guitar grabs the piano’s motif so effectively that you see you’ve been set up all along. The song is sharp and powerful, and driven by Powell’s mysterious way with a melodic refrain.

This is Land of Talk’s third time on Fingertips, and it is apparently impossible for me to talk about them without mentioning Powell’s crazy-delicious guitar playing, so here I am again, telling you not only to tune in for the short but sizzling solo (at 2:00) but to keep your ears on what she’s up to in and around the rest of the song, including how she starts the coda with a literal bang (3:30) and ends it (if you listen carefully) with an echo of the song’s very first notes.

“May You Never” will be one of four tracks on the band’s forthcoming Fun and Laughter EP, slated to arrive next month via Saddle Creek. The band is meager with bio info, so I’m not sure how many people are playing with Powell at this point; the bigger news in any case is that she appears to be fully recovered from vocal cord surgery in January that sidelined her just when the band was geared up to promote their last CD. MP3 courtesy of Saddle Creek.

Free and legal MP3: Faunts (sweet, glum, soaring neo-shoegaze from Edmonton)

“It Hurts Me All the Time” – Faunts

Breezy and melancholy is a seductive musical combination, trickier to master than it may at first seem. The big problem when aiming for both pretty and glum at the same time is avoiding glib pastiche; in this day and age when knob-twiddlers rule the world, it’s easy enough to combine disparate moods and sounds and harder than ever to make it sound a convincing whole.

“It Hurts Me All the Time” blows right past any difficulties from the get-go: first comes that extended intro mixing sprightly synths and low-level dissonance, and then (eventually) the decisive opening lines: “You could never love me/The sky is black above me,” sung with pitch-perfect doleful-sweetness by Tim Batke (one of three Batke brothers in this five-man band). Scored or sung the wrong way, lyrics like that might set off the twee alarm, but not only is Batke’s voice burnished with a subtle throatiness one might not expect from a soaring pop tenor, get a load too of that clanging guitar noise going on as a backdrop to the bubbling synthesizers accompanying him–a visceral signal of the song’s mixed message. And then there’s also the smooth, repeated synthesizer theme that’s more or less an instrumental hook for the song–a pretty line aired with an eerie, organic fragility; a line which, as well, carries with it a distinct echo of Joy Division’s famously melancholy “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which further undermines the sweetness.

“It Hurts Me All the Time” is a song from the CD Feel.Love.Thinking.Of., the Edmonton band’s second album (not counting last year’s remix album), to be released next week on Friendly Fire Recordings. MP3 via Friendly Fire.

Free and legal MP3: Matt Mays & El Torpedo (Neil meets the Boss, deftly)

“Tall Trees” – Matt Mays & El Torpedo

Driving, slashing Neil Youngish guitars leap into action here, but listen, at the same time, to the thoughtful melody and, best of all, to the off-the-beat octave harmonies that wrap up the verse with the repeated refrain “Tall trees hanging over the road.” I love the combination of heaviness and lightness that we get as a result, all the more delightful coming from a group called Matt Mays & El Torpedo. The deftness on display is—dare I say—charming.

Here in the midst of an indie-rock dominated decade, “Tall Trees” sounds like little of what we’re used to finding and sharing in the music blogosphere. This isn’t quirky, except maybe to the extent that not being quirky is its own sort of quirk by 2008. I’m hearing Bruce Springsteen in and around this ingratiating song—not in an obvious homage (a la Neon Bible) but in the succinct, road-friendly songwriting and, especially, in Mays’ ability to sound at once weary and inspired in that gruff, everyman way of his. And hm maybe on repeated listen there is a bit of a direct homage going on; check out the early bridge (1:12 to 1:26) and see if you don’t pick up a taste of something from one of the Boss’s first three or four albums (“She’s the One,” maybe?). I like this.

Matt Mays & El Torpedo is, as luck would have it, another quintet from Canada—Halifax this time. “Tall Trees” is a song from Terminal Romance, the group’s second CD, which was released on Sonic Records in July. Mays himself two releases as a solo artist as well.

Free and legal MP3: Land of Talk (urgent indie rock w/ subtle twitchiness)

“Some Are Lakes” – Land of Talk

Elizabeth Powell is a mighty guitar player, a compelling singer, and the front woman for a Montreal-based band that appears destined for big things.

Last year’s Applause Cheer Boo Hiss EP was a spunky, spiky debut; “Some Are Lakes,” the title track to the band’s forthcoming full-length CD, sounds a bit smoother on the surface than did the songs on the EP, but Land of Talk’s appealing sense of roughness and urgency remains, now channeled into the workings of the song itself. Instead of lo-fi atmospherics–basically, loud/soft and fast/slow changes–“Some Are Lakes,” with its wistful air and a muted drive, offers a subtler sort of twitchiness in the form of open-chorded melodies, a dissonant, cymbal-heavy chorus, and the buzzy undercurrent of Powell’s gravelly guitar playing. And Powell sings here without vocal processing this time, allowing us to hear more than ever the heart and soul in her powerful voice.

Some Are Lakes will be released next month on Saddle Creek Records. MP3 via Saddle Creek.

Free and legal MP3: Ghostkeeper (stompy, old-fashioned, and a little strange)

“Three More Springs” – Ghostkeeper

Stompy, greasy, old-fashioned, and a little bit strange. Ghostkeeper is a band from the remote reaches of northern Alberta; leader Shane Ghostkeeper (apparently his real name) is a self-taught musician who grew up listening to Hank Williams, CCR, the Stones, Robert Johnson, and maybe not that much else. With Ghostkeeper co-founder Sarah Houle (a self-taught drummer), he has figured out how to channel his influences together and emerge with something that is no mere nostalgia trip. “My whole idea is just to explore how I can contribute to the evolution of old-time intentions,” he has been quoted as saying.

“Three More Springs” is from the band’s debut CD, Children of the Great Northern Muskeg, released last month on the Calgary-based label Saved By Radio.