Free and legal MP3: Static in Verona (power pop earworm)

Everything about the song is a testament to craft, which strikes my ear as a particularly special thing in such an onrushing tune as this.

“Poor Juliet” – Static in Verona

Maybe there’s a technical term for the upbeat, syncopated melody featured in “Poor Juliet”‘s verse—the easy-to-listen-to but tricky-to-pinpoint movement, which shifts emphasis from the third beat (the ET of “Ju-li-ET”) in the first measure to the second beat in the second (the SET of “so up-SET”). Perhaps it has something to do with matching four syllables against three beats of rhythm? In any case the un-technical term would be “earworm,” because ever since hearing this song, this is the part that has relentlessly been playing in my head.

Which is almost unfair to the song, since the chorus goes on to deliver an irresistible dose of power pop melodicism that is otherwise the killer hook here (1:01). We’re dealing with a classic chord progression, to be sure, but it’s pumped up by the sparkling beat, the background organ, and some ear-catching intervals (i.e., the jump up from “don’t” to “let” at 1:07 and the jump back down from “other” to “girls” a moment later). Everything about the song is a testament to craft, which strikes my ear as a particularly special thing in such an onrushing tune as this. (As I now think about it, it seems more common to find smartly crafted tunes working in more deliberate tempos, maybe?) A good example: the subtle changes made to the second verse (e.g., the backing vocals that echo the lyrics [first heard at 1:27], or the alterations to the original melody), which may be neither necessary nor expected in a song this concise (run time 2:42).

Static in Verona is the band name the Chicago musician Rob Merz has been employing since 2009. He was previously featured here on Fingertips back in 2015 for the song “Blindfold,” itself another slice of pithy power pop goodness. As for the Juliet here, yes it’s the legendary one, but with a twist—in the song, according to Rob, her father saved her and is doing his best to offer solace in the wake of her grief. Oh and the connection between the tragic title character—famously a resident of Verona, Italy—and his band name (generated from a random incident near Verona, Wisconsin) was unintended.

“Poor Juliet” is a track from the new Static in Verona album, Sometimes You Never, released last month. You can listen to the album and buy it for a price of your choosing via Bandcamp. While you’re there, check out the previous five Static in Verona releases, all also available for whatever you’d like to pay. Thanks to Rob for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: The Cairo Gang (catchy/complex brilliance)

“Ice Fishing” is a semi-garage-y, amorphously psychedelic bit of guitar-driven power-pop brilliance that keeps getting better and better with repeated listens.

The Cairo Gang

“Ice Fishing” – The Cairo Gang

“Ice Fishing” is a semi-garage-y, amorphously psychedelic bit of guitar-driven power-pop brilliance that keeps getting better and better with repeated listens, being that rare combination of catchy and complex. Plus, it’s a song about ice fishing, which is about as refreshing a topic for a pop song in 2015 as can possibly be imagined (after of course dancing and fucking).

Just how many satisfying chord progressions ferry this song forward is difficult to quantify. And just how comforting front man Emmett Kelly’s voice is is equally hard to measure with objectivity, but his warm blend of Robert Pollard, Elvis Costello, and Jonathan Richman is a beautiful thing to behold. But most beautiful is the song itself, a wondrously assured construction of heart-melting chords and generous melodies. “Ice Fishing” is in fact so melodically generous that one of the song’s best bits is all but a throwaway: the wordless melody that functions as a kind of unresolved bridge between 2:29 and 2:40. How much self-possessed momentum does a song have to have to effect something like that? And okay the best bit of all is the most gloriously obvious: the nonchalant two-line chorus (first heard beginning at 1:00), each line with its own distinct, bittersweet/wonderful hook.

The Cairo Gang is a five-piece band based in Chicago. “Ice Fishing” is from their new album, Goes Missing, released last week [6/23] on God? Records, a side imprint of Drag City Records. The album is the band’s fourth. MP3 via the record label. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Free and legal MP3: Star Tropics

Seasonally evocative power pop

Star Tropics

“Summer Rain” – Star Tropics

Urging itself into our lives at the ever-wonderful nexus of dream pop and power pop, “Summer Rain” features a ringing, evocative guitar line, a reverby backwash, a brisk backbeat, and a breath-filled, sweet-voiced lead singer. You don’t need any more description than that, right?

Well, okay, I’ll talk a little. First I am taken with how all but onomatopoetic the song is, with the aforementioned ringing guitar line deftly mimicking rainfall, and with the aforementioned sweet-voiced lead singer (Nikki; no last name provided) creating, for me, somehow, the sound-picture of a warm, grey-green landscape moistened by a gentle but persistent shower (note the summer rain evoked here is of the comforting old-school variety, not the terrifying climate-change-driven monsoons of the 2010s). Next I am oddly intrigued by the brief, willowy instrumental break two-thirds of the way through the song (2:22); when songs are this assured and on-point, I’m always interested in what they are going to do with a bit of leisure time, as it were. Here we get meander-y 25 seconds that begins with the guitar kind of refusing the spotlight that was seemingly aimed at it—rather than the confident chiminess of the intro we get unassertive arpeggios and, most intriguing of all, the distant sound of repeated notes played high up on the neck. The guitar is joined by a particularly low-tech kind of synthesizer, pushing out a wistful, air-toned melody that comes from an entirely different world than Planet Dream Pop but is all but heart-breaking and perfect.

Star Tropics is a Chicago-based four-piece with one previous 7-inch release to their name. “Summer Rain” is part of double-sided single released in March. MP3 via Insomnia Radio.

Free and legal MP3: Static In Verona (one man band, big bashy power pop)

More gratifying evidence of power pop’s unanticipated third life in the 21st century.

Static In Verona

“Blindfold” – Static In Verona

Blessed with heroic chord progressions, wall-of-sound fuzz, background chimes, and a sweet-voiced singer, “Blindfold” offers up more evidence of power pop’s unanticipated third life in the 21st century. A genre all but genetically resistant to overt electronic manipulations, power pop does however seem to seduce any number of good-hearted bedroom rockers with guitars, laptops, and a decent microphone. As in this case: its big bashy extraversion notwithstanding, “Blindfold” is the product of Chicago-based Rob Merz, doing musical business as Static In Verona, and playing every last instrument his own self.

And I may be a sucker for this kind of thing, but the result here pretty much takes my breath away—some elusive combination of melodic invention, sturdy structure, and masterly conciseness (the song clocks in at a wonderful 3:33) that leaves me with little choice but to hit the repeat button, repeatedly. My music theory abandons me pretty quickly, so I can’t identify the type of chord that recurs here with great success (you can hear it at 1:13, 1:28, 2:30, et al.), but I can report that it is a Beatlesque/Brian-Wilson-y gesture that is well-known too for its memorable appearance in the extended piano coda to “Layla.” One of the greatest but most ineffable things about effective power pop is how the great exemplars, for all their straight-ahead catchiness, often weave some slight oddness or deviation into the fabric of the song. And so here: in addition to the chord in question, “Blindfold” also works with a shifty pre-chorus/chorus arrangement (the pre-chorus itself, first heard at 0:47, provides us with arguably the song’s strongest hook) and, further, sets off the chorus with an unusual, rhythmically separated mini-introduction—the “Be with you” part, which sounds maybe more normal than it actually is.

Rob Merz has been on the Chicago music scene for 18 years, most recently as a member of the band Ash Avenue. He has been recording by himself as Static In Verona since 2009. “Blindfold” is a track from the second Static In Verona full-length, Everything You Knew Before You Knew Everything, which has actually been out for almost a year. I just found out about it via a 2015 post on the Insomnia Radio blog. You can listen to the whole album via Bandcamp, where you can also buy it for any price you choose. Thanks to Merz himself for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Cameron McGill (Newman-esque piano ballad, w/ soulful flair)

Refreshingly Randy Newman-esque, “American Health Insurance” starts wry, turns earnest, and engages the ear with chord changes last heard in the early ’70s.

Cameron McGill

“American Health Insurance” – Cameron McGill

Refreshingly Randy Newman-esque, “American Health Insurance” starts wry, turns earnest, and engages the ear with chord changes last heard in the early ’70s. McGill is exactly the kind of durable, skillful singer/songwriter who might’ve made a solid name for himself back in those halcyon days. Instead, in the 2010s, he joins the legions who release good music to an indifferent world, not actually as propped up by the endless supply of free digital music as proponents keep telling us is going to happen, any day now, just wait and see. And okay, so I’m especially disgruntled because I just today saw someone still passing along Cory Doctorow’s idiotic “My problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity” meme with a straight face, as if being merely one of a zillion artists throwing free content onto the web isn’t being dreadfully obscure in a whole new way.

Anyway. McGill does a nice job here, coming across as simultaneously weary and engaged, while the song smartly transforms from an ambling piano ballad into something more soulful, complete with spiffy horn charts. The title alone prompts a bit of a surprised smile, but despite the opening line, McGill himself has noted that the song is not actually about health insurance, but about how it feels to be an American in this insecure moment in history. And while that may not actually feel too good, I can’t help but be buoyed by McGill’s subtly spirited performance. He’s got one of those rounded voices that can get a little blurry if too reverbed, but we get a good balance in the mix, which stays generally crisp (horn charts will do that for you), and gives him a chance to stretch a bit—I like both his falsetto reaches and then, in particular, that stirring tone he achieves on the lyrics “when the house was on fire” at 1:42. I think we sometimes forget that half of a singer/songwriter’s job is singing, and maybe sometimes some of them forget that too. Not Mr. McGill.

“American Health Insurance” is from the album Gallows Etiquette, released a couple of weeks ago, its title taken from a Charles Simic poem. This is McGill’s sixth album, and his first after a trio of releases with him fronting a band called What Army. He was featured in that time frame here on Fingertips back in October 2009, for the wonderful song “Madeline, Every Girl.” Note that the Chicago-based McGill is also a member of the band Margot & the Nuclear So-and-So’s. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: The Sea and Cake (meandering but melodic)

A meandering song with backwards structure and a sweet incisive melody.

The Sea and Cake

“Harps” – The Sea and Cake

Very pleasant wiggles and noodles, to a beat, for a full (but pleasant!) minute, lead us with a nice electronic swoosh into a more succinct synth line (1:11) that feels briefly like a more “normal” intro; a couple of evocative sighs later, the first verse at long last appears (1:26). And quite a sweet and incisive melody line we get, with its double-time descent and half-time re-ascent, playing off layers of chiming keyboards. Suddenly it feels like this meandering song is in fact a song that means a lot of business. But exactly what kind of business remains unclear. Without repeating the verse, a vigorous instrumental section leads us into an extended middle section that seems sort of like a bridge except we haven’t come across the chorus yet.

And no chorus in fact materializes. Back we go to the introductory sighs and then an exact repeat of the first verse (2:45), reinforcing just how tidy and attractive a melody this is. And now we finally begin to feel grounded as the melody recycles, with new words, two more times. We end with fading noodles over the now-assertive drum beat, left to contemplate what it was we just heard. What kind of song was that? The structure is partially backwards, and partially inside out. It begins at its vaguest and yet also holds the ear. The most memorable melody is repeated not at the beginning but the end. No chorus in fact materializes. This is all highly enjoyable, if in a vague and noodly way.

The Sea and Cake are a Chicago quartet that has been recording since 1994, with a hiatus taken from 2004 to 2007. “Harps” is from a new album called Runner, which was written in a new way for the band. This time around, front man Sam Prekop put the guitar down and began songs with a synthesizer/sequencer. The songs went from Prekop to his three band mates remotely, and each was encouraged to do what he saw fit with it. The final songs were often quite different than Prekop’s early sketchings, and even within each song, the musical arc often moved in unanticipated ways. This no doubt has something to do with the unique path “Harps” takes.

Runner was released this week on Thrill Jockey Records. MP3, once again, via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Panoramic & True (chuggy, appealing large-ensemble pop)

Listen and I’ll think you’ll sense the three-dimensionality of the sound, the honest layering and physical interaction of instruments, in the chuggy ambiance.

Panoramic & True

“A Week of Good Health” – Panoramic & True

Thick and thumpy with instrumental diversity, “A Good of Good Health” yet retains its simple drive and almost poignant melodic and lyrical synergy. Not that I’m at all sure what front man John Lennox is singing about here (and he doesn’t even start until 0:45). We hear attractive phrases, at once comfy and mysterious; they unfold with the music with an almost magical pleasure, flaunting an elusive rhyme scheme, and defying any straightforward comprehension. Lennox sings with a casual sort of intensity, high-pitched, and he lets the ends of his words fade, as if he’s turning his face repeatedly from the microphone.

And even in a song without narrative structure, this chorus still buzzes with delightful incongruity (1:36):

A week of good health
Pin your hair back
Get some new clothes for yourself
Get ’em black on black

Don’t miss Lennox’s phrasing here, particularly in the third line, which he voices in a talking rather than a singing rhythm, and it’s more wonderful than I can describe. So let’s get back to the music itself, which I have not meant to neglect. Panoramic & True are an eight-piece band, from Chicago, and they recorded this new album, Wonderlust, on eight-track analog tape, live. Listen and I’ll think you’ll sense the three-dimensionality of the sound, the honest layering and physical interaction of instruments, in the chuggy ambiance. I’m particularly tickled by how the strings work so resolutely in the background; we hear them emerge, shyly, only a few times, and each time receding quickly back into the well-ordered commotion. Fun stuff, and chewy too.

Wonderlust is the second Panoramic & True album, released in July on Raymond Roussel Records. You can listen to it and buy it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Narrow Sparrow (fuzzy, buzzy, busy piece of off-kilter pop)

A buzzy blend of the melodious and the cacophonous, “Joe Meek’s Dream” fuses retro-futuristic synthesizers to folk-singer strumming. Wait; what?

Narrow Sparrow

“Joe Meek’s Dream” – Narrow Sparrow

If “Joe Meek’s Dream”‘s baroque, overprocessed ambiance and obscure lyrical content brings Neutral Milk Hotel to mind, the song’s particular fusing of retro-futuristic electronics to folk-singer strumming doesn’t sound like anything anyone has managed to think of before. At the same time, if the space-age synthesizer melody sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because Joe Meek was the eccentric Brit who wrote and produced the song “Telstar,” a 1962 hit by the Tornados that surely inspired the Star Trek theme music a few years later. More on all that in a minute.

In the meantime, consider this song’s rollicking momentum, which wants you to love it, and its lack of definable structure, which wants you to be disoriented. There is no real hook here; I don’t think there are even any verses or chorus. But, aha, there is instead a recurring melodic moment that feels to me like the song’s musical heart—first heard at 0:59, there supporting the lyrics “I fall asleep and think of other things.” On the one hand it’s just the simple, time-honored progression from the IV to the V chord (F major to G major here), with the melody quite literally sketching out each chord in arpeggio form; on the other hand, coming in the midst of a fuzzy, buzzy, busy piece of off-kilter pop, this modest melodic motif resounds with a homemade kind of glory. We move quickly on, and are never actually quite sure where in the song we are, but that’s the moment that, to me, allows everything else not only to happen but to make sense. It comes back just one more time, at 1:42, with different lyrics, but because the chord progression cycles regularly through the song, your mind starts filling the melody in even when it’s not really there.

And okay, now for the back story. An innovator in the studio who did unprecedented things with distortion and compression and echo, Joe Meek was interested in electronics, outer space, and the occult. Over time he became obsessed with Buddy Holly, whom Meek believed was guiding his career from the afterlife. Meek sadly fell into debt and depression, and ended up killing his landlady and himself on the eighth anniversary of Holly’s death, in 1967. Among the many tragedies here was the fact that Meek never made a dime off “Telstar,” which was (good trivia question) the first song from England to be #1 on the U.S. charts. The royalties were held up for years in an apparently wrongful lawsuit; it was finally settled three weeks after he died. How much of any of this is directly dealt with in the song here is impossible to say, as the lyrics are largely lost in the mix. But the general atmosphere of fuzzed electrical overcharge prevails.

“Joe Meek’s Dream” is from the debut Narrow Sparrow EP, entitled Synthworks, which was self-released earlier this month and is available for free via this new, and promising, Chicago-based band. Vinyl is due out next month.

Free and legal MP3: Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos (poignant, world-weary ballad)

Poignant, world-weary ballad from a shape-shifting band that has previously inspired both a cult following and an impressive amount of critical invective. But there’s little not to like here, or, truly, on the rest of their fine new album, Buzzard.

Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos'

“Lunatic, Lunatic, Lunatic” – Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos

Poignant, world-weary ballad from a shape-shifting band that has previously inspired both a cult following and an impressive amount of critical invective. But there’s little not to like here, or, truly, on the rest of their fine new album, Buzzard. From the clarity of the acoustic guitar to the subtle, well-chosen embellishments to front man Richard Edwards’ elusive and compelling voice, “Lunatic Lunatic Lunatic” commands and rewards attention. And don’t miss the song’s revelatory transformation from a sleepy, singer-songwriter-y narrative to a compelling band piece, which begins with the backward-sounding guitar break at 2:23. Compare how Edwards sings the song’s first lyrics, beginning at 0:29, to how he conveys them with the band at 2:56—compare in particular the two different voices he uses for the phrase “all the time.” Same words, same notes, and yet he almost sound like two different singers.

Turns out that “Lunatic, Lunatic, Lunatic” is one of those admirable songs for which the strength of the music and performance deeply invigorates the lyrics. I might not otherwise be engaged by the second-hand exploits of some supposedly crazy, unappealing young woman, but the melody and vibe grab me and cause me to reevaluate what I’m hearing. I stop to consider why the narrator is spending so much time on this grubby tale. Why, in fact, does he insist on calling this girl a lunatic not just once but three times each time? Weaker music would kill the story; here I intuit grand subtext. By the end of the song, listened to a certain way, one might legitimately wonder who the actual crazy person is.

Originally from Indianapolis, now Chicago-based, Margot features not even one person named Margot. Once something of a chamber-pop ensemble, the So and Sos have reoriented their sound—it’s a bit roughed up and guitar-based at this point—while re-populating themselves: there are eight of them listed as current members on their Facebook page, but only three remain from their initial incarnation. (Among the new folks is singer/songwriter Cameron McGill, who himself was featured on Fingertips just around this time last year.)

Buzzard was released on Mariel Recordings last month. MP3 via Filter Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Like Pioneers (Americana-ish, from Chicago side project)

While many great songs catch your ear through an obvious hook, others employ something I’m inclined to think of as a “moment”—a time and place in the song that sticks with you, that you look forward to each time you hear it, but yet is not big and bold and catchy enough to think of as a hook.

Like Pioneers

“Gift From a Holiday” – Like Pioneers

While many great songs catch your ear through an obvious hook, others employ something I’m inclined to think of as a “moment”—a time and place in the song that sticks with you, that you look forward to each time you hear it, but yet is not big and bold and catchy enough to think of as a hook. Songs with moments rather than hooks can sometimes be even more alluring, because on the one hand the appeal is slightly more mysterious and on the other hand the end result can maybe seem more, I don’t know, organic—in that sometimes a big hook, however good it is, draws almost too much attention to itself. A moment, such as I’m trying to describe it, seems to flow straight from the energy of the song, whereas a hook, perhaps, flows sometimes too obviously from the mind of the songwriter, if that distinction even makes sense.

In any case, I hear the loose-limbed, Americana-tinged “A Gift From a Holiday” as a song with a moment, and that moment is in the casually delivered chorus, specifically that part of it when the rhythm of the lyrics changes, and orients for an extended line into three-syllable clumps (e.g. “wooden bench,” “left you on,” “crumbling”—and yes that last one is not strictly three syllables but is here pronounced that way). It’s an arresting moment, seeming to arise naturally from the story, and yet also with an air of oddness about it. What prompted that change, and how did this turn into the chorus? And what a strange chorus it is, lacking the sort of short, repeated phrase one expects, instead using two complete sets of lyrics with the same music, meaning we get another round of those syllable triplets (“picked me up,” “dragged me home,” et al), even more definitive-sounding this time. And not content for one good moment, “A Gift For a Holiday” offers another, beginning at 1:56, and it’s longer but still not really a hook. Here, the song shifts into a new section, neither chorus nor verse, with a sing-songy, declarative melody that repeats for 40 seconds before leading us into the extended instrumental section that becomes the song’s finale.

And maybe we can rightfully expect moment- rather than hook-songs from a project like this one, which gathered six musicians from a variety of Chicago-based bands (including Bound Stems and Chin Up Chin Up) over a couple of winter weekends just to make music, have fun, and see what happened. As it turned out, an album happened, which they called Piecemeal, reflecting the project’s makeshift origins. Released digitally this week via Abandoned Love Records, the album has also been available directly from the band via Bandcamp, where you can name your own price. MP3 via Abandoned Love.