Free and legal MP3: Susto (rugged, tuneful Americana)

Walking the fine and often unwarranted line separating Americana from country rock, “Acid Boys,” with its sure backbeat and rugged tunefulness, reveals the perennial power of solid songwriting and straightforward instrumentation.

Susto

“Acid Boys” – Susto

Walking the fine and often unwarranted line separating Americana from country rock, “Acid Boys,” with its sure backbeat and rugged tunefulness, reveals the perennial power of solid songwriting and straightforward instrumentation. History will have the last word, of course, but I can’t believe that computer technology is so consequential that it eliminates the human appetite for accessible melody and music played in physical space. Sure, let’s celebrate and explore the sounds our devices can make. Just don’t throw out the guitars, okay? Or the rough-hewn voices either, for that matter.

From the musically underrated city of Charleston, South Carolina, Susto is a full-fledged six-piece band, and it is the spacious, intentional interplay of a half-dozen genuine musicians that fuels this song’s confident momentum. For example, when there is a dedicated keyboard player, the keyboard parts are inherently more thoughtful and engaging, or at least should be. Here, I like the rinky-tink piano we hear at the outside but even more I like the classic rock organ that oozes into background as the song unfolds. Likewise, a band with a lead guitarist and a rhythm guitarist can, ideally, create richer textures—sounds that you don’t always hear specifically but that add deeply to the ear’s sense of completion and certainty.

Susto has its roots in front man Justin Osborne’s trip to Cuba last year. Previously lead singer in the band Sequoyah Prep School, Osborne ended up back in Charleston to flesh out music that originated during his Cuban sojourn, first hooking up with his friend Johnny Delaware and soon adding four others to create the six-piece Susto. (Fingertips followers may remember Delaware from his most excellent song “Primitive Style,” which was featured here last year and later landed at number four in the year’s top 10 favorite list.) “Acid Boys” can be found on Susto’s debut, self-titled album, which was released in April. You can listen to the whole thing and purchase it directly from the band’s web site.

photo credit: Paul Andrew Dunker

Free and legal MP3: Blurry Lines (power pop from Charleston SC)

Not all power pop songs are good, by any means, but every good power pop song, to my ears, is almost inescapably great.

Blurry Lines

“The Hunted” – Blurry Lines

The persistence of power pop well into the 21st century is something of a musical mystery. Even in its relative heyday, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, power pop never captured any kind of mainstream attention for itself. Small wonder—the genre is too elusive and difficult to describe for mass acceptance; it seems perversely fitting that some of the genre’s most definitive songs pre-date its actual existence (yeah, it’s complicated), and equally perversely fitting that the biggest hits associated with it are songs that I, at least, don’t consider power pop at all (I’m looking at you, “My Sharona” and “What I Like About You”). And yet, 30-some-odd years later, there are still new bands pointing themselves in this star-crossed direction. I have my own theories about this, but I’ve digressed enough for now. The bottom line is I’m a melody guy and this is a melodic genre. Not all power pop songs are good, by any means, but every good power pop song, to my ears, is almost inescapably great.

“The Hunted” is very good indeed, so you do the math. We get the ringing guitar line and a pounding 4/4 drumbeat; we get the sweet-voiced lead singer; we get a couple of different, indelible melodies; and we get it all in three minutes and twenty-six seconds. What seals something as power pop to me is an abiding tunefulness that feels both majestic and pining; there’s almost always an ache buried in a good power pop song, and the fact that it comes in a candy wrapping is no doubt a big part of the allure. I hear this grand bittersweetness right in the opening salvo (0:17), as Randall Cox sings, “I took a shoebox full of poems written ABAB style” and even as the melody resolves we are denied the underlying resolving chords, which now makes me realize something new about power pop: that a lot of its vitality comes the pre-resolution moment. Here, for instance, the melody that gets us from “full of poems” through “written ABAB” is what pulls me in and has me falling hard for this song. Likewise in the chorus, the “ran through the woods” part (0:55) seems more the heart of the melody than the actual climax. And if you think I am overanalyzing, try this: I believe these guys are paying homage to the greatest proto-power-pop song of all time in the bridge (2:17) when Cox sings, twice, “We’re going all the way.” Coincidence? I think not. Even if they didn’t do it on purpose.

Based in Charleston, South Carolina, Blurry Lines is a duo featuring Cox on lead vocals and keys and Richard Hussey on guitar, bass, and backup vocals. “The Hunted” is from the debut Blurry Lines release, an EP entitled Minor Works in Major Keys, Vol. 1, released in September and produced by Josh Kaler, who plays drums on three of the tracks, including this one. A Volume 2 is due out before year’s end.

Free and legal MP3: Johnny Delaware (Boss-like bravura meets New Romantic ardor)

“Primitive Style” arrives to us fully grown, independent of time and place; it seems not to have been written at all—it just is.

Johnny Delaware

“Primitive Style” – Johnny Delaware

“Primitive Style” arrives to us fully grown, independent of time and place; it seems not to have been written at all—it just is. Lacking the semblance of novelty that tends to entice the hive mind, “Primitive Style” will likely attract no particular blog buzz but is in fact a deeply satisfying rock’n’roll song, a wondrous commingling of Springsteen-esque bravado and New Romantic ardor, complete with engaging dynamic shifts, well-placed suspended chords, and a killer chorus.

Tying it all together is Delaware himself, whose voice all but croons, successfully, in the softer verses while opening comfortably into full-fledged rocker mode during the chorus. He sounds like someone with something to say, which in rock’n’roll is really more than half the battle. And pay attention if you would to the deft switch to 6/4 in the fifth measure of the chorus (heard for the first time in and around 1:04, on the word “primitive”). The best songs, to my ear, find some way to tweak the relative simplicity of the pop music form, and in so doing aim for the possibility of depth and resonance while remaining accessible to the ear.

Delaware (his real name? seems unlikely) was born in South Dakota and spent time in Nashville, Albuquerque, and Austin before landing in Charleston to partner with producer Wolfgang Zimmerman (himself last heard around these parts as part of the awesome band Brave Baby, featured in December 2012). “Primitive Style” is from Delaware’s debut album, Secret Wave, set for official release in October—but you can already listen to it in full on Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Elim Bolt (droney guitars, indelible chorus)

There is something so cumulatively affecting about “Farm Kid” that it manages to seem a little short even while clocking in at over four and a half minutes. That’s usually the length at which songs begin to seem a little long.

Elim Bolt

“Farm Kid” – Elim Bolt

With something of the big ringing clamor of Arcade Fire, “Farm Kid” rocks to a swinging backbeat, adorned with delectably droney guitars. The verse is understated and blurry; we register the beat, bask in the guitar work, and don’t understand a word. And this is how we are led, perhaps against expectations, into a brilliant, indelible chorus. Too catchy for its own good, this chorus messes further with our heads by offering up the song’s only intelligible lyric, which is almost too straightforward for its own good, if it weren’t also so piteous:

And all I wanna do is truly love you
But all I seem to do is deeply hurt you

Otherwise buried in elusive aural mud, front man Johnnie Matthews emerges with these words as a full-fledged crooner, and everything about the song all of a sudden—the melody (half sing-along, half slippery), the lyrics, the delivery—grabs at the soul. The guitar that rejoins us next, first heard in the introduction, has acquired a majestic, pealing air, all the more effective for the nearly-audible distortion it seems to be keeping constantly at bay. (Some of it will break loose during the solo, at 2:49.) There is something so cumulatively affecting about “Farm Kid” that it manages to seem almost still a little short even while clocking in at over four and a half minutes. That’s usually the length at which songs begin to seem a little long.

You’ll find the song on the band’s debut album, entitled Nude South, which is scheduled for release next month on Hearts and Plugs Records.