Free and legal MP3: The Clientele (breezy sound w/ a pensive undercurrent)

“I Wonder Who We Are” – the Clientele

With an echo of the cheerful old Aztec Camera song, “Oblivious,” in the air here, what do you know, we’ve got yet another summery delight on our hands.

At least, seemingly. “I Wonder Who We Are” is an upbeat song with an ostensibly carefree, kicking-around kind of vibe, and yet between the open chords, pensive vocals, and central role of acoustic instruments (guitar, violin, piano), there’s a reserve bordering on melancholy that I’m hearing despite the surface-level peppiness. And sure, lead singer Alasdair MacLean is offering those airy “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba”s but they keep leading to that recurring, rather poignant question: “I wonder who we are?” So I for one am not surprised by the 20-second pause at 3:06 when everything clears away, the chugging rhythm disappears, and we’re left with a bit of forlorn but lovely guitar noodling. Soon enough the “ba-ba”s come back, toes resume tapping, but I’m left with a feeling that we are being invited to ponder something the typical summer song doesn’t usually get tangled up with.

The Clientele are a London-based quartet with a recording history dating back to 2000. “I Wonder Who We Are” will be found on the band’s fifth album, Bonfires on the Heath, slated for a September release on Merge Records. MP3 via Merge.

Free and legal MP3:Bishop Allen (jaunty, curious, and likable)

“The Ancient Commonsense of Things” – Bishop Allen

The Brooklyn-based duo Bishop Allen is one of the most likable bands in the kooky and sometimes unlikable world of indie rock. They are, indeed, likable at every level of activity, from the general vibe of their songs to the individual musical components employed to, even, the band’s sense of graphic design and their collective prose voice.

“The Ancient Commonsense of Things”: even a likable song title, yes? Makes you kind of relax, stop Twittering for a minute and just breathe. We were human beings before we chained ourselves to one sort of keyboard or another. As the lyrics offer the merest of sketches, the music quickly envelops you with its at once cheerful and intimate presence–it’s a soft song that sounds loud, a fast song that feels easy-going. Bright and lively percussion drive the piece–mostly sticks and clicks and xylophone–while the minimalist lyrics compare time-tested objects (a hammer, a clothespin, a cork) to the power of a soul mate. And it works, in part because of singer Justin Rice’s quizzical voice, which does both plain-spoken and buoyant equally well. The song might have benefited from one more verse, but Rice’s repetition of the titular phrase is so simultaneously jaunty and curious that I’m kind of digging the “less is more” approach. And whether that’s a bass solo or a guitar solo there at 1:40, I like its plucked sparseness–just these particular notes, in this particular order, over that clicky-clacky-chuggy-chimey background.

While Rice and Christian Rudder, who met at Harvard, are the two-man core of the group, Bishop Allen performs with other musicians, who are at least informally band members while the recording and touring goes on (a current video shows a band of five, in fact). “The Ancient Commonsense of Things” can be found on Grrr…, the band’s new CD, being released this week on Dead Oceans. MP3 via the band’s site.

Free and legal MP3: Slaraffenland (obliquely cheerful experimental pop)

“I’m a Machine” – Slaraffenland

Ambling along with an idiosyncratic blend of drums, electronics, and orchestral instruments, “I’m a Machine” eschews the verse-chorus-verse handhold for a noodly sort of soothing reiteration. Not your typical pop song, to be sure, but as merry and involving as any pop song worth its salt should be.

The intro sets pastoral woodwind motifs against a rattling, appliance-like sort of groaning and churning, while men chant vaguely in the background. This lasts for more than 80 seconds and, truly, somehow, I could’ve kept listening to just that–they manage a singular blend here of the free-form and the cheerful. This, I realize in a flash, is what has been missing from so many dreary efforts by contemporary classical composers to combat romantic melodicism: cheerfulness. The cheerfulness is oblique to be sure, but it’s here, swirled somewhere into the song’s circular structure, layered sound, orchestral motifs, yelpy vocals, and the overall sense of its being a sort of deconstructed folk song.

“I’m a Machine” does perhaps have just as much to do with not-pop music as pop music. I think this cross-fertilization is good for all involved, and from this Copenhagen-based quintet’s point of view, no accident, as they clearly have their collective eye on both musical and cultural history. Slaraffenland is the Danish name for a mythical land of idleness and luxury that was well-known in many countries throughout the Middle Ages (in England, it was called the land of Cockaigne). Slaraffenland was also the subject, and name, of a popular ballet by 20th-century Danish composer Knudåge Riisager. Everything is connected, especially on the internet. “I’m a Machine” is a song from the band’s Sunshine EP, released last month on Hometapes.