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: 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: Great Aunt Ida (homespun, escalating chamber pop)

Brilliant evidence that some songs truly need to be listened to for more than 30 seconds.

Ida Nilsen

“Romance” – Great Aunt Ida

Clearly, people, some songs must be listened to for more than 30 seconds. If, for instance, you give “Romance” only a half-minute or so, you might hear it as a sing-songy sort of DIY keyboard pop, veering maybe (maybe) towards the precious. Fortunately for you you have decided to give it more than 30 seconds. Bass and guitar have made minor appearances by 40 seconds; that helps. The drum kicks in around 48 seconds and that both stabilizes and reorients the song. Now we’re kind of bounding in an open space, freed from the potentially claustrophobic feeling of the opening section. Even though melodically the song has merely repeated its verse, everything feels different. What sounded nearly cloying with just the keyboard (check out 0:33 to 0:39, specifically) sounds engaging with the drum and the guitar added (compare now 1:04 to 1:10).

And Ida Nilsen is just yet getting started. We finally arrive at the chorus at 1:20, and its half-time, upward-yearning melody, with the gentle male backing vocal, is just…well, wow. I didn’t see it coming, this is nothing the first 30 seconds telegraphed, and yet it makes perfect sense, and she’s got me now for good. And if that weren’t enough, she throws in a kind of chorus coda there at 1:50, another lovely and unanticipated turn of events. Then: we get horns, and a wonderful array of them. Someone thought this out quite carefully, which horn is doing what where, and after a brief keyboard solo (did the horns already go away?), the horns come back (nope!), in satisfying conversation with both the melody and one another.

Through it all, Nilsen maintains an even-keeled presence. In the muted opening—which in retrospect now sounds rather fetchingly Carole King-ish; not cloying at all, in fact—her voice has a bit of an unaffected wobble, giving her the air of Laura Veirs’ small-town cousin. But as the song escalates into its full power, so does Nilsen’s vocal presence, which without really changing acquires something of the plainspoken, breathy authority of Suzanne Vega. Not sure how she does that either.

“Romance” is from the album Nuclearize Me, the third Great Aunt Ida album, but the first since Nilsen moved from Vancouver to Toronto, and the first in which she is operating without a defined band around her. The album arrives in early December on the Zunior label. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Free and legal MP3: Fanfarlo (tense, unusual chamber pop)

Unusual song lacking any rock-band instruments, but which keeps me coming back for more.

Fanfarlo

“Replicate” – Fanfarlo

Keep your ears on the synthesizer here. It has a wonderfully goofy-fiendish sound to it, half haunted house, half vintage sci-fi. It is also the only instrument on display in this song that you might otherwise normally find in a rock band. Everything else here is a string, a woodwind, or a piece of percussion of the sort on display on the percussionist’s table in the back of the orchestra.

I’m not sure what prompted the unusual instrument choice here. But the strangest thing is how you almost don’t register it. You notice the song’s odd sense of tension, and sparseness, and slow unfolding-ness, but not its wholesale acoustic/orchestral foundation. But check it out: no guitars, no bass, no drums. The focus is on Simon Balthazar, a Swede fronting a British band, whose Bryan Ferry-ish warble has a sneaky depth even as he spends half the song singing in stuttery slivers. His band mates meanwhile get to sing primarily in howling, wordless bursts. Okay so “Replicate” is pretty much weird beyond all explanation. And yet there is alluring muscle here, particular in the chorus, with its striking, string-voiced counter-melody and those aforementioned vocal bursts. This is the kind of song that is hard to know what to make of after only a listen or two, but that seems to prompt repeated listenings.

“Replicate” is the first song made available from Fanfarlo’s forthcoming, as-yet-untitled second album. The band’s debut, Reservoir, was released to much acclaim in 2009, when Balthazar was still going by his birth name of Aurell and the London-based five-piece was a sextet. The wonderful song “Harold T. Wilkins,” from that album, was featured here in March of that year. The MP3 comes via Pretty Much Amazing. Perhaps the video will help illuminate the song? You be the judge:

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.