Free and legal MP3: Theater Kids (Enticing groove, accomplished debut)

Musicians that have enough confidence in their material so that they don’t have to fill our ears with sounds in every moment are usually worth paying attention to.

“Pratfall” – Theater Kids

Delectably groovy and smoothly melodic, “Pratfall” is an accomplished debut single from Philadelphia duo Theater Kids, fronted by Benny Williams. Call me a sucker for a classic chord progression, but here we have a well-known harmonic pattern wrapped in a wonderful sort of DIY sleekness (an oxymoron? actually not) which is right in my wheelhouse.

There’s something wonderfully old-school in how the introduction slowly builds the song’s soulful sound-world in way in which each addition seems inevitable, and with Williams’ vocal entrance, at 0:32, feeling as much like a resolution as an opening salvo. The lyrics are set against the back end of each measure, creating that enticing little space at the end of each line where the new measure starts musically but not lyrically. A lot of presence is created here without a lot of sonic embellishment; one of the beautiful things this song does is allow a certain amount of space around the notes being played (the bass offers a particularly lithe example). Musicians that have enough confidence in their material so that they don’t have to fill our ears with sounds in every moment are usually worth paying attention to.

I would like to articulate why this sort of chill but steady groove, these sorts of carefully laid-together textures, combined with a sterling melody, affect my ears so much much more positively than the beat-centric, effects-heavy tunes, so often about the most surface-oriented subjects, that dominate both the hipster blogs and the pop charts. (This has been an unprecedented alliance; that’s food for a separate post.) But there’s probably no useful way to put this into words. It all would appear to come down to individual taste; but, what I guess I’m always on guard against is when individual tastes have been unduly shaped and warped by larger, profit-oriented interests. Paul Weller said it most incisively a generation ago, in a song in which the lyrics initially say “The public gets what the public wants,” only to have the line flipped later, as a conclusion: “The public wants what the public gets.” The internet has made this an all the more unwieldy and complicated situation, combining technology that can make and record music without regard to an individual’s actual musical talents, with algorithms that amplify surreptitiously, and with an audience now trained to respect and notice quantity more than quality at every turn.

I digress. This is all to say that underneath “Pratfall” I sense human and musical intelligence, and I want to remember to applaud that as often as possible. I am happy to know there are individuals out there who can absorb today’s inputs and influences and still create something that feels removed from the thoughtless hubbub of SoundCloud uploads and Spotify links.

“Pratfall” was released in September. Theater Kids have released a second song, “Echoes,” earlier this month. Check everything out via Bandcamp. Thanks to the band for the download.

Free and legal MP3: Mark Tulk (plaintive but upbeat, piano-driven)

A fetching constant throughout is Tulk’s warm, strong singing voice, with a tone at once earthy and buoyant.

Mark Tulk

“Universal Code” – Mark Tulk

While tinged with a bittersweet air “Universal Code” likewise comes across as friendly and comforting. Piano-based rock music can have that effect on me, I think. Maybe it’s just because I grew up playing piano, and hearing a good amount of piano music in the house. Or maybe—just maybe—there is something built into the sound of a piano, perhaps its unique capacity to be at once melodic and percussive, that feels human-scaled and reassuring.

More to the point, see what Tulk is doing with the piano here—two things I am noticing in particular: first, the incisive, eighth-note motif that opens the song, with its accents on the one and two beats (at once basic and somewhat unusual), right away asserting the instrument’s rhythmic potency, and racing the pulse a bit; second, the song’s central chord change, heard first at 0:14, which is a homely but affecting up-step from G major to A minor. Written into the right context, moving up just one tonal interval can be a poignant thing. Which is to say he had me at hello, basically.

Which is not to say there are not engaging elements throughout, of course. The instrumentation is deftly done—the song expands beyond its piano foundation, with subtle electronic flourishes and offbeat vocal layering, without losing its piano-centric-ness, which seems its own sort of accomplishment. And then what’s this?: a coterie of reed instruments sidle in somewhere along the way, and become undeniable past the two-minute mark. An appealing constant throughout is Tulk’s warm, strong singing voice, with a tone at once earthy and buoyant.

“Universal Code” is the lead track on Embers, Tulk’s third full-length album, released in March; he has also put out two EPs. You can listen to the entire album as well as purchase it via Bandcamp. Born in Australia, Tulk, who identifies himself on his web site as a “writer, philosopher, and musician,” is based in Boulder, Colorado. MP3 courtesy of the artist.

Free and legal MP3: Julius (indie pop, w/ graceful nuance)

Julius

“Oh Baby” – Julius

I have many issues with what passes for pop music in the year 2014: the brazen artifice of it, the lack of lyrical and melodic imagination typically on display, and the shrunken aural context (pop music in the ’10s more or less refuses to mix well with anything but other pop music from the ’10s), to name a few pet peeves. On top of this, I remain gobsmacked by the unironic embrace of pop sheen and flow by a significant segment of ’10s hipsters. Perhaps this is the ultimate consequence of shifting from ownership to (mostly) free access: the audience is so little invested in the end product that the impetus for listening becomes merely to locate something familiar and diverting, for just those three or four minutes, rather than something to stake the depth of your identity on.

Well, there’s no settling any of this while we’re still in the middle of our grand digital transition. But, in the meantime, here: “Oh Baby” is unabashed pop. It even, I think, features, albeit briefly, some Auto-Tune. And yet there is something in here, musically, that I don’t think you hear in standard-issue 2014 pop music. On the one hand it’s a texture thing—the way the musician who calls himself Julius lets his song unspool with a rich sense of space and time. Rather than the flat, compressed sound of music that’s been processed and layered within inches of its life, “Oh Baby” offers up something that appears, aurally, to straddle the digital and analog worlds. The unhurried drumbeats that provide the song’s backbone may be electronic, may be organic, may be a mix of both, but in any case they feel musical rather than logistical, with a sense of three-dimensional space rather than manipulated puzzle pieces. Likewise the backing vocals that press into the mix at 1:40: regardless of how manipulated, or not, they feel fueled by breath, they too seem to be taking up organic space.

But the thing that really won me over are the chords. However many times I listen I am in thrall to the grace of the flowing chord pattern that Julius introduces when the song first moves beyond the percussive accompaniment (beginning at 0:44). These are not showy, anthemic chords, but the elusive progression from 0:44 to 0:47 to 0:49 moves with a quiet grandeur one might usefully describe as orchestral. And here is where it merits mention that Julius is himself a refugee from the classical academy, a self-professed “weirdo classical prodigy” who only recently began listening to pop music. Once upon a time, pop stars veered into classical music to give their careers cultural heft; nowadays we may be seeing the opposite. Yes, Julius now chooses to operate in the seemingly constrained world of fluffy pop (could there be a title with any less contextual weight than “Oh Baby”?), but the song seems also, somehow, to be straining at a new way of mining depth in the musical language many if not most coming-of-age adults prefer to be speaking right now. Even lyrically the song may be presenting a bit more than it lets on; the recurring line “I’d give the world/To believe what I thought I felt” is no mere throwaway, as one example.

Released last month, “Oh Baby” is the second song Julius has recorded; it was produced by Benny Cassette, who has worked with Kanye West. You can download above, as usual, or visit his SoundCloud page, where you can also hear his first song, along with a more recently posted remix/mashup.

Free and legal MP3: Poor Moon (Fleet Foxes side project, w/ beauty & heft)

Dreamy song with with an intriguing sonic palette, elusive roots, lovely melodies, and an uncanny arrangement.

Poor Moon

“Birds” – Poor Moon

Last week I featured a song from the band Time Travelers, and noted its resemblance to music made by Fleet Foxes. This week, at the risk of redundancy, I offer up a song from the band Poor Moon and will likewise note its resemblance to music made by Fleet Foxes, with this additional footnote: Christian Wargo and Casey Wescott, two of the four gentlemen in Poor Moon, are themselves also in Fleet Foxes. So that explains that.

This is not Fleet Foxes 2.0, however. “Birds” is a dreamy song with with an intriguing sonic palette, elusive roots, lovely melodies, and an uncanny arrangement. There is something vaguely Mexican, or at least faux-Mexican, in the air here, both in the rhythm and the instrumentation, but that is merely an entry point into this music, not the end point. Sounds are used with great care, in particular those emanating from the marimba and the rest of the sensitive, idiosyncratic percussion section (tiny example: the random, exquisitely timed marimba note struck at 2:29). Chord progressions are lovingly crafted—don’t miss the heavenly, Brian Wilson-y end of the introduction (0:27-0:32), and the chorus’s lovely series of shifts (1:35-2:01, but check out 1:49 in particular). The group harmonies surely bring FF to mind, but Wargo’s lead vocal has a casual, dusky quality that blends beautifully with the warm, clackety arrangement. This is a winner that keeps on growing with repeated listens.

Wargo and Wescott have long been friends and musical associates; prior to Fleet Foxes, they played together in the bands Pedro the Lion and Crystal Skulls. The other two members are brothers Ian and Peter Murray, who otherwise play in a band called The Christmas Cards. “Birds” is the tenth of ten tracks on the band’s debut full-length release, self-titled, which will be out next week on Sub Pop Records. MP3 via Sub Pop. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.