Free and legal MP3: Christopher Bell (cello-led, Waits-ian chamber pop)

A little bit Tom Waits, a little bit Elvis Perkins, “Darlin’, I Am Fine” is a quirky slow-burner–chamber pop at once dexterous and skewed.

Chris Bell

“Darlin’, I Am Fine” – Christopher Bell

A little bit Tom Waits, a little bit Elvis Perkins, “Darlin’, I Am Fine” is a quirky slow-burner—chamber pop at once dexterous and skewed. An unusual assortment of instruments (brass, winds, strings) trade off in the background with odd little licks and frills, adding to the song’s forceful if carnivalesque vibe, however slowly it insists on moving. Anchoring the ensemble is Bell’s cello, alternating long, melancholic bowings with tetchier scratchings, all in service of lyrics that manage quickly to assert via subtext the exact opposite of the title’s pronouncement.

Two-thirds of the way through, at 2:36, the idiosyncratic arrangement coalesces into an oddball instrumental interlude. Tom Waits famously gave his musicians an instruction during the recording of Rain Dogs to “play it like a midget’s bar mitzvah” (that’s a direct quote; I don’t mean anything insulting by the term and I don’t think Waits did either). Our instrumental passage here may not conjure the aforementioned bar mitzvah but we might be at the after-party.

Christopher Bell is a cellist, multi-instrumentalist, and engineer based in Jamestown, New York. “Darlin’, I Am Fine” is a track from the album Rust, which the prolific Bell released in September 2015. If I’m counting right Rust is Bell’s sixth full-length album, dating back to 2012; before that there were five EPs, the first coming out in 2009. In March 2015, Bell also released two albums collecting all of his work up to 2013; you can see everything on his Bandcamp page, and listen to and/or purchase all of it.

Free and legal MP3: Matt Pond (muscular yet sensitive uptempo rocker)

Muscular and sensitive in equal parts, “Hole In My Heart” smolders with a reflective kind of momentum.

Matt Pond

“Hole In My Heart” – Matt Pond

Mining some of the same thumpy, quick-paced territory as the terrific “Love To Get Used” (featured here back in 2011), “Hole In My Heart” smolders with a reflective kind of momentum. It’s muscular and sensitive in equal parts, because rather than downplaying instrumentation in favor of straight-ahead energy (what most uptempo songs naturally do), this one is beautifully enhanced by distinct instrumental touches. First, there’s the cello that weaves its way through the rhythm section starting around 0:21. Then check out that somewhat old-fashioned synthesizer accent first heard pressing in on the action at 0:36—a distinctive tone that seems somehow air-driven, as an accordion. You’ll soon hear a banjo in the mix as well (around 0:52), which adds to the hand-sewn, almost hardscrabble ambiance.

Another old-fashioned touch is the balladic device of having the title emerge repeatedly at the end of lyrical lines. But rather than letting this hem him in melodically (often this tactic is employed in lieu of a chorus), Pond uses it as a springboard into what opens into a complex and beautiful chorus. I especially love the very Pond-ian turn of melody on the line “We waste a million woes” (first heard at 0:41). So gorgeous and so fleeting; when the chorus cycles next back to this moment, it’s not even there. We are instead (starting at 0:53) led gracefully and thoughtfully back to the titular phrase.

“Hole In My Heart,” originally on the Matt Pond album, The Lives Inside the Lines in Your Hand, has recently surfaced as a free and legal MP3 via the release of a three-song EP, which features the album version of the song that you hear here, plus an acoustic version, plus a cover of the Stevie Nicks song “Wild Heart.” You can hear it all and download all the songs for free via SoundCloud. The album itself was released back in February, and was the first album recorded by Matt Pond using his name alone, rather than the band name Matt Pond PA, under which moniker he released many albums and EPs between 1998 and 2011. Note that originally, the aforementioned song “Love to Get Used” was released on the Matt Pond PA EP Spring Fools, in 2011. (It was also, later, the number-one favorite free and legal MP3 of that year here.) It too found its way onto the excellent 2013 solo release.

Matt Pond PA was previously on Fingertips not just in 2011 but in 2010, 2008, 2004, and 2003 as well.

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: Blind Willies (rugged shuffle w/ sly sense of humor)

“Lord Thought He’d Make a Man” is an old-timey song with sprinkles of Randy Newman, Kurt Weill, Tim Waits, and Jim Morrison concocted into slinky, rugged shuffle.

Blind Willies

“Lord Thought He’d Make a Man” – Blind Willies

Any band that combines a Hammond organ and a cello has my attention, to begin with. Likewise a band that features a lyric about being tried “by a jury of your fears” in the song’s first 25 seconds.

“Lord Thought He’d Make a Man” is an old-timey song with sprinkles of Randy Newman, Kurt Weill, Tom Waits, and Jim Morrison concocted into slinky, rugged shuffle. Front man Alexei Wajchman has a sly sense of humor and a slightly unhinged singing and guitar-playing style that fully commands the aural stage (and I have no doubt of his command of the physical stage as well).

Blind Willies are a San Francisco-based band that grew from a duo of students at SF’s High School of the Arts playing a combination of American folk songs and Wajchman’s original compositions. There are now five people in the band. “Lord Thought He’d Make a Man” is from the group’s’ third album, Needle, Feather, and a Rope, which was recorded live to two-inch analog tape at John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone studio, with a minimum of overdubs. The album was released last month on the band’s own imprint, Diggory Records. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Free and legal MP3: Low

Simmering and hymn-like, w/ a heartbeat pulse


“Especially Me” – Low

Given that this is Low, a band with a longstanding predilection for, shall we say, leisurely-paced songs (don’t call it slowcore, at the band’s request), nothing unfolds too suddenly here. But I’m immediately engaged by the heartbeat pulse that wanders in at :07 and stays with us the rest of the way (with a five or six second break late in the song; listen for it)—it gives us both the tempo and the tension upon which “Especially Me” is constructed.

But note how that pulse is accompanied by a triplet rhythm, each beat of the measure divided swayingly into three. This complicates the tension nicely, and contributes to the hymn-like nature of the deliberate melody drummer Mimi Parker intones. The song simmers; a cello is incorporated beautifully into the apprehensive flow. The cumulative effect of the succinct, thrice-repeated chorus (note the lyrical change in the third iteration), with its gathering harmony, is at once hypnotic and cathartic; the titular phrase, with its casual (but not) addition (“and probably you”), sits at the musical center of the song. Something is being partially explained, partially released, something still is left unsaid, and the grave weight of a relationship seems to hang in the balance. I don’t need to know exactly what’s going on; the words and the music in combination convey emotion beyond pure narrative.

Low was here back in 2005 for the terrific song “California” (it’s still online, check it out) from The Great Destroyer. The trio has a new bass player since then—Steve Garrington, who joined the husband-wife team of Parker and Alan Sparhawk in 2008, the year after the Duluth band’s last release, Drums and Guns. “Especially Me” is from C’mon, which was released this week on (them again) Sub Pop. MP3 once more via Sub Pop.

Free and legal MP3: Amor de Días (swift, mysterious chamber pop)

Despite a glimmer of electronica at the very beginning, “Bunhill Fields” moves forward with acoustic instrumentation (guitar, cello, eventually trumpets) and a brisk, no-nonsense beat—itself an unexpected and invigorating combination.

Amor de Dias

“Bunhill Fields” – Amor de Días

A short song with a lot to chew on. Despite a glimmer of electronica at the very beginning, “Bunhill Fields” moves forward with acoustic instrumentation (guitar, cello, eventually trumpets) and a brisk, no-nonsense beat—itself an unexpected and invigorating combination. (I tend to think of chamber pop as somewhat more noodly and/or deliberate.) Lupe Núñez-Fernández has the whispery, wavery tone of some indie-European chanteuse but the relentless movement (which kicks in for real at 0:36) adds something both solid and haunting to her delivery.

The chorus is swift and concise and semi-unresolved—as Núñez-Fernández sings (I think) “I can’t wait to let it go,” the melody floats back up to where it started, but she lets the word “go” melt downward again, ambiguously. Then there’s that mysterious motif with an inside out finish that follows the chorus (first heard at 0:53), begun by the guitar, played out by the cello and some vague keyboard, which we otherwise don’t hear in the song. Its simple but tricky melodic twist hangs in the air like an unanswered question. The song keeps going, words flying by answering no questions at all. The trumpets, meanwhile, seem determined to stake their own ground, independent of where the melody wants them to be be. It might help to know that Bunhill Fields is a renowned cemetery in the north of London, featuring the graves of William Blake, Daniel Defoe, and Thomas Hardy, among many other notable public figures (“the rocky garden full of stars,” as the lyrics have it). Then again, it might not.

Amor de Días is a side project duo featuring Alasdair MacLean, front man for the Clientele, and Núñez-Fernández, half of the duo Pipas. “Bunhill Fields” is from the album Street of the Love of Days, due out in May on Merge Records. MP3 via the good folks at Merge.

Free and legal MP3: Rusty Willoughby (sad & gentle, like a lullaby)

A gentle 3/4-time lullaby, “C’mon C’mon” sways with wistful momentum, down but not out. “How many times must a broken heart still break?” Willoughby sings, in his old-fashioned, Nick Lowe-ian voice.

Cobirds Unite

“C’mon C’mon” – Rusty Willoughby

A gentle 3/4-time lullaby, “C’mon C’mon” sways with wistful momentum, down but not out. “How many times must a broken heart still break?” Willoughby sings, in his old-fashioned, Nick Lowe-ian voice. Cue the mournful cello. Keep the background sweet and clean. Pair Willoughby with a singer so in sync—Rachel Flotard, of Visqueen—that her harmonies feel like they’re also coming out of his mouth. This is one sweet sad humble centered song. This is a value judgment against neither gentleman, but consider Rusty Willoughby the anti-Kanye West.

The New York-born Willoughby has operated from Seattle since the ’80s, having fronted a series of well-regarded, left-of-center bands over the years, including Pure Joy, Flop, and Llama. “C’mon C’mon” is from the new album Cobirds Unite, released last week on the Seattle label Local 638.

Free and legal MP3: Erik Friedlander (movie-ish jazz instrumental from NYC cellist)

Erik Friedlander

“Aching Sarah”

Apparently it’s cello week here. Or experimental music week. Not that this is experimental sounding per se—it’s quite a lovely, graspable instrumental with a jazz-like construction but with enough melody and offbeat aural flourishes (check out the percussion) to engage the ear of the non-jazz-aficionado (i.e. me). While cellist/composer Friedlander has made a name for himself in New York City’s downtown music scene (oh; it’s NYC week too), this doesn’t sound like you think that would sound like.

To begin, we get a trumpet and piano trading off on a gentle but insistent motif that is played enough to stick in your head but then gets unraveled in atmospheric development. With the cello content to play quiet descending lines in the background, we seem at first to be heading into jazz combo territory, the trumpet and piano and bass and percussion noodling around the now-unstated theme. But even here I’m appreciating the melodic focus that remains, not to mention the almost literally cinematic vibe, as the particular combination of Friedlander’s long bowing and trumpeter Michael Leonhart’s ’60s-cinema flair washes this with the wistful ambiance of a bittersweet European romantic comedy. Until, that is, Friedlander emerges from the background, at 2:47, for a droning minor-key improvisation/solo that is half spiritual plea, half cubist deconstruction of the original motif. It’s an interruption that feels both unexpected and welcome, an aural change of scene that renders the motif’s straightforward restatement as the solo gives way all the more affecting.

The movie-like feeling is apparently no accident. Released as a digital single earlier this month, “Aching Sarah” is supposed to be part of what Friedlander calls his “Cutting-Room Floor Series,” in which, he writes, “movie characters are cut from a film, and with their lives only half-realized, walk in a kind of limbo, aimless and confused, with no way to live out the arc of their scripted lives.” That not only informs the distinctive but unresolved central motif but also the concluding section, when the music seems almost literally to smash against its own limits, only to fade out. The MP3 available for free from his web site, but also for purchase via Amazon, eMusic, and iTunes.

Free and legal MP3: Sarah Jaffe (crisp & insistent, w/ cello)

“Clementine” – Sarah Jaffe

“Clementine” creates an appealing sense of urgency without a lot of volume or density or high drama. I’m thinking it’s the cello. The cello has a deep tone, but not as deep as a bass; it registers more as melody than rhythm, but also colludes with an acoustic guitar in an elusive way. It’s there but it’s not there. It adds depth.

Jaffe’s voice doesn’t hurt either. She’s got a slightly roughed-up, Lucinda-like edge to her singer/songwriter delivery, and it’s particularly well-suited to a melody that gains traction from the purposeful repetition both of lyrics and of small musical intervals–few if any of the notes are more than two whole-steps apart. This might be almost claustrophobic if the song weren’t so fleet and insistent. And then, at 1:52, we get that new and different stringed sound–a clipped and itchy motif that sounds maybe like some pizzicato, maybe also on the cello–that helps drive the song even more insistently forward.

Jaffe is based in Denton, Texas, also home to Midlake, with whom she has toured. “Clementine” is a song from her debut album, Suburban Nature, which was released last week on Kirtland Records. The album came out digitally last month. MP3 via Jaffe’s web site. Thanks to Some Velvet Blog for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Bonfire Madigan (string-based punk rock, with heart)

“Lady Saves the Dragon (From the Evil Prince)” – Bonfire Madigan

I don’t think I’ve ever been tempted before to feature a song simply because of its title but this one was hard to resist. Fortunately the song backed me up here: a strange but hearty slice of punk-cello-rock with a great pulse, an uncorked singer, and the ability to create loose-cannon drama out of not a lot of actual noise. There are no electric instruments here–just a cello, a contrabass, and drums. And then at the center, cellist Madigan Shive’s unruly, Björk-ish yowl. (I don’t by the way think that those electronic punctuation marks heard at 2:45 and 2:52 are vocal shrieks but then again you never know.)

Even as I continue to find it hard to get my arms completely around this, I remain amazed each time I listen by how quickly time passes here; the song is just about four minutes but feels much more fleeting, even as the deep sounds of those big-bodied stringed things ground this odd composition in something rich and compelling. Something is happening here but I don’t know what it is.

Bonfire Madigan is the name of the four-person ensemble founded in 1998 by Shive, who comes by her freewheeling sound rightfully–she grew up in an extremely alternative household, was called Running Pony until she was six years old, and was thereafter given an expanding variety of names until, at 14, she chose one of them, Madigan, for keeps. This song is the semi-title track from Bonfire Madigan’s Lady Saves EP, released in May by Shive’s own MoonPuss Records. A full-length album is expected before the end of the year.