Free and legal MP3: Red Morris (pyrotechnic old-school instrumental)

The classic-rock familiarity of his sleek and fiery guitar tone is “Lady Rose”‘s fearless center and ongoing inspiration.

Red Morris

“Lady Rose” – Red Morris

Dramatic, and dramatically old-school, “Lady Rose” is an electric-guitar-driven instrumental, with castanets. I love castanets. I also love little time-signature tricks such as what you’ll hear in the opening melody, the alternating 6/4 and 4/4 measures that give the guitar line an asymmetrical bit of juice. And if that particular trick soon disappears, as Maurizio Parisi pretty soon dives too far into his pyrotechnics to worry about changing time signatures, oh well. The castanets stick around, so you should too.

Parisi, using the performing name of Red Morris, is a guitarist from Brescia, in northern Italy. He claims the likes of Santana, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Cream as inspirations. What I think I’m enjoying most of all is the sonic space in which he enfolds us, a steadfast march that develops as a kind of theme and variations: first we hear the grounding melody, then Parisi goes increasingly to town with his fingers and hands. The classic-rock familiarity of his sleek and fiery guitar tone is “Lady Rose”‘s fearless center and ongoing inspiration. Electric guitars may be going the way of the dodo bird in popular music but that’s just about trends and fads, not truth; there’s no reason to be finished with the electric guitar any more than we should ever be finished with the piano or the violin.

“Lady Rose” is the title track of Red Morris’s debut album, released back in September. MP3 via Insomnia Radio.

Free and legal MP3: Shannon Wardrop (ambling, vaguely psychedelic, & impressive)

The young London-area singer/songwriter has a rich and elastic tone, and employs it with ravishing restraint.

Shannon Wardrop

“I Wanna Be Your Lady” – Shannon Wardrop

With its distorted guitars and spongy bass line, “I Wanna Be Your Lady” has an ambling, vaguely psychedelic feel that seems suddenly like the very thing we need to be listening to, collectively, right now. The song suggests weathered trees and cracked sidewalks, roasty cups of afternoon coffee, heart-breaking daylight, and things made of rugged glass; it reminds us that there may be evil in the world, and stupidity, but that right now you’re probably okay, and that’s worth something too.

A young singer/songwriter from the London area, Wardrop has a rich and elastic tone, and employs it with ravishing restraint, letting her big voice rip only in the final moments. But me I prefer the shimmering implications in her phrasing of “Wanna to be the one you call,” starting at 0:23, particularly the understated oomph she gives to the word “one.” Lots of small moments like that here add up to major delight—another one: the way the droning guitar riff gets a clipped punctuation at 0:44 that kind of sounds like a vocal and kind of doesn’t—and help to turn a song of head-bobbing simplicity into something deep and lasting.

And how great is it that there are young singer/songwriters in the world in 2015 who sound like this? The rejection of digital hubris begins here, with a generation for whom classic rock has warm parental associations, and who seek to move forward musically via simple humanity, sly good humor, and well-informed musicianship. “I Wanna Be Your Lady” is one of three songs on Wardrop’s Cloud 9 EP, her second, released last month. You can listen via Bandcamp. Her previous EP, Medicine, was released in 2013.

Free and legal MP3: The Bushwick Hotel (fiery new rock w/ old-school bones)

Propelled by some serious classic rock swing (wailing guitars division), “Graffiti of the Young Man’s Mind” comes to us in 2014 from another place and time.

Bushwick Hotel

“Graffiti of the Young Man’s Mind” – The Bushwick Hotel

Propelled by some serious classic rock swing (wailing guitars division), “Graffiti of the Young Man’s Mind” comes to us in 2014 from another place and time. And yet what might have seemed a retread hits my ears as an all-out re-imagining of both what rock’n’roll was and can yet be.

The key, to me, is the combination of dirty, garage-y production and some serious chops, which together accentuate the fiery, contemporary presence this band has. I have, since about 1983, been tired of bands that dial up a few basic blues riffs, add some guitar pyrotechnics, and strut around like saviors of rock’n’roll. Personally, I find a lot more potential for redemption in a band that can snake some vivid guitar work through a heavy 5/4 (!) groove and find a sticky hook in an abbreviated howl of a melody. Front man Gregory Ferreira has a blessedly unfashionable voice, cutting loose like an errant blues-rocker from 1974, minus the posturing that often afflicts the trade.

For all of the retro sound involved here, I would suggest that The Bushwick Hotel is actually offering cutting-edge music, since by now, on the digital music scene, there may be no more revolutionary stance to rummage through the vault of generic classic rock for a spirited new sound, all the while playing three-dimensional instruments in real time and space, in communion with others. And, surely, no software program is going to lead you to swing with electric guitars over a 5/4 beat. I’m not exactly sure what’s up with the extended fadeout, except to note that this is the last track on the album, so it may have more resonance in that context.

“Graffiti of the Young Man’s Mind” is the title track from the band’s debut, a seven-song, 28-minute album that came out in November, available via iTunes. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Matt Mays (frank, spirited rock’n’roll)

We have wailing guitars, we have a pounding keyboard, and most of all we have an upward-surging minor-key melody so succinct and irresistible that Mays builds both verse and chorus upon it.

Matt Mays

“Take It On Faith” – Matt Mays

Could it be that popular music has been splintered and digitized and compressed and remixed and mashed up for so long now that the surest, freest sign of authenticity and revolt in 2013 is nothing more or less than a frank, spirited rock’n’roll song?

Well, okay, maybe not. But “Take It On Faith” is surely a frank and spirited rock’n’roll song, with old-school drive and new-school…something or another. Actually, I’m not quite sure what makes this sound current and alive but it does, to me, in that there is nothing nostalgic or pandering going on here. We have wailing guitars, we have a pounding keyboard, and most of all we have an upward-surging minor-key melody so succinct and irresistible that Mays builds both verse and chorus upon it. And while yes there is something Springsteen-esque in Mays’ scuffed-up baritone, the vibe here feels more nimble and quicksilver-like than a 60-something rock’n’roll deity can traffic in any longer. A particular favorite moment of mine here is how the chorus retreats after the second iteration of the words “take it on faith” (0:57), with Mays backing off the anthemic melody to grumble something low and indecipherable. It feels unexpected, real, and alluring.

“Take It On Faith” is from the album Coyote, which was released on Halifax-based Sonic Records back in September. This is Mays’ third effort as a solo artist; he also has two albums released under the name Matt Mays & El Torpedo, most recently in 2008. That was when he was previously featured here. This song just recently came to the attention of the folks at Magnet Magazine, and that’s where it even more recently came to my attention. MP3 (once more) via Magnet.

photo credit: Devin McLean

Free and legal MP3: Your 33 Black Angels (rock’n’roll at once rough-hewn & precise)

At once precise and rough-hewn—like something Ron Sexsmith would write if he were in a band with Neil Young.

Your 33 Black Angels

“Patient Love” – Your 33 Black Angels

I’ve got a news flash. Rock’n’roll is not dead. Enough with that already. No it’s not what it used to be, no it’s not at the center of the pop cultural universe but can we stop with the witless headlines that arise pretty much every year about rock being dead, or indie rock being dead, or whatever preferred “death of the month” is being declared. I mean sheesh. It is a meaningless and idiotic editorial trope and any editor who runs it is lazy and any writer who writes it is a narcissist. There. I said it.

Rock’n’roll is not dead because there are still rock bands making it, and if you are one of those people who need your rock music to be revolutionary and without precedent well boy have you come to the wrong genre in the first place. Rock bands have been reworking the classics since before Led Zeppelin was ripping off Willie Dixon. So, okay, here’s Brooklyn’s Your 33 Black Angels, and this one just kills it: the vibe is terrific, the guitar riff insistent, the lyrics slippery but compelling, and the organ fills are perfect. (Do not underestimate the organ in the rock’n’roll bag of tricks.) And then there are the little, unutterable things. One example: early in the song (0:26), when the singer sings, “I was just reminded,” and there’s that long and perfect pause between “just” and “reminded,” and it’s exactly the kind of thing you do if you really know how to write songs. In the end there is something so precise and exquisite about this seemingly rough-hewn song. It sounds like something Ron Sexsmith would write if he were in a band with Neil Young.

Your 33 Black Angels is an elusive and idiosyncratic crew, encompassing at least eight musicians, who prefer to go by names like JW, D. Zots, and (my favorite) J. O! (exclamation point included), while apparently utilizing the additional services of “countless others.” “Patient Love” is a song from their fourth album, Moon and Morning Star, which was self-released last week. The band was previously featured here in October 2008. MP3 via the music site Consequence of Sound, and although the link looks generic and sketchy, this was an official premiere so it’s all above board.

Free and legal MP3: Zeus (awesome retro rock, ’70s edition)

“Are You Gonna Waste My Time?” was made to be blaring out of your car radio, especially if you happen to be driving maybe a Buick Skylark.

Zeus

“Are You Gonna Waste My Time?” – Zeus

Can a piece of music sound thoroughly retro and entirely of the moment at the same time? Not if you believe the premise of that Retromania book from last year, with all of its pop-culture-is-over hand-wringing. Let’s call out that foolish book once and for all, shall we? I mean, good lord: no one knows what the future will bring based on present circumstances. And there’s always a lot of less-than-terrific stuff floating around in pop-culture-land. To assume everything has now ground to a halt is the height of baby boomer narcissism.

In any case, no one could possibly convince me that a song as sharp and well-presented as “Are You Gonna Waste My Time?” represents anything but pop culture at its finest. If the musical setting is all 1970s, if the lead singer even sounds oddly like the guy in Blues Image (“Ride Captain Ride,” anyone?), what of it? This is one groovy tune, from the fuzzy/flangey guitar to the stop-start melodic momentum to the (yes) cowbell to, what the heck, all the other guitar sounds as well. Special props go out to that connective, lower-register riff we hear in the chorus, first at 0:59; retro my ass, that thing is just timeless rock’n’roll, sports fans. This song was made to be blaring out of your car radio, especially if you happen to be driving maybe a Buick Skylark.

Zeus is a four-man band from Toronto that has otherwise in recent years been doing business as Jason Collett’s backing band. “Are You Gonna Waste My Time?” is a track from their second full-length album, Busting Visions, which arrives next month on the Arts & Crafts label. MP3 via Magnet Magazine. For those interested—and who shouldn’t be?—Rolling Stone has a free & legal MP3 of another new Zeus song, here.

Free and legal MP3: Heartless Bastards (muscular, timeless rock’n’roll)

This isn’t nostalgia, it’s sheer presence: the rumbling drumbeat, the unadulterated guitar lines, and, at the center, mighty Erica Wennerstrom, who can make your heart skip a beat if you listen too closely

Heartless Bastards

“Parted Ways” – Heartless Bastards

Flaunting a compact, muscular sound, the Cincinnati-born Bastards, now residing in Austin, have a timeless air about them. This is rock’n’roll as if the internet not only never happened but wasn’t even supposed to. And yet I like how unnostalgic they still manage to sound, via sheer presence: the rumbling drumbeat, the unadulterated guitar lines, and, at the center, mighty Erica Wennerstrom, who can make your heart skip a beat if you listen too closely. Whatever she’s doing, more singers should do it. Or: would if they could.

As befitting the title, “Parted Ways” is really two songs that kind of move through each other and then separate. The first half is launched by the easy charm of the verse, with its ambling, descending melody and its seamless connection to the upward-oriented chorus. Punctuated by some Stones-worthy rhythm guitar playing, that fluent shift to the chorus (first heard at 0:31) really settles the ear; when it comes up again at 1:32, it seems newly powerful and true. As it turns out, there appear to be dualing choruses—the previously mentioned one that segues out of the verse, and then a succeeding one, beginning with the words “Out in space, I’m a long way from home” (first heard at 0:46), with a slower melody and a suspended sense of rhythm. The second chorus eventually takes the song over and moves it into a more expansive, jam-like (but not jam-band-like) space. An instrumental section modulates into an augmented version of chorus number two and then, at 3:32, we get a new vocal section with a loose, chuggy feeling that sounds like Wennerstrom doing a vocal solo the way she, as a guitarist, takes a guitar solo. Which she then in fact does as well. She is no slouch in that regard either.

Heartless Bastards were formed in Cincinnati in 2003. For most of its performing life the band has been a trio. A second guitarist (Wennerstrom has been the lead) was recently added; the band’s forthcoming album, The Arrow, will be its first as a quartet. It was produced by Spoon’s Jim Eno and is due out in February on Partisan Records. MP3 via Rolling Stone. This is the Bastards’ third appearance on Fingertips, with previous reviews in 2005 and 2006.

Free and legal MP3: Sharon Van Etten (sizzling & essential)

Tough and controlled but also ever so slightly unhinged, “Serpents” is a sizzling, guitar-driven drama.

Sharon Van Etten

“Serpents” – Sharon Van Etten

Tough and controlled but also ever so slightly unhinged, “Serpents” slays me from start to finish. The intro is all guitars, an ideal combination of drone and drive, with an unresolved chord at the center. (And I have established my predilection for intros with unresolved chords.) Keep a particular ear on the lonesome slide guitar (played by Aaron Dessner, of the National) that leads directly into the verse at 0:22, with a slurred, two-note refrain. The refrain recurs throughout the song as a kind of bittersweet anchor, a classic-rock gesture boiled and condensed into an indie-rock leitmotif.

And then Van Etten enters and she hasn’t opened her mouth for more than five seconds and she’s nailing everything. Listen to how she sings the first line, “It was a close call,” dragging the word “call” in the subtlest way, not through different notes as much as through different shapes. And then, in the next line, the way the melody jerks unexpectedly upward and forward twice in the phrase “back of the room” is another “wow” moment disguised in nonchalance. Likewise the casual, nearly haphazard (but not really) harmonies that play out in the next line (beginning at 0:37), in and around our friend the guitar refrain, and how they—the harmonies, and the guitar refrain—lead us somehow into a sort of non-chorus chorus of surprising (but not really) intensity. With barely a moment to breathe we have been taken into a sizzling, guitar-driven drama, a kind of “Layla” for the smartphone set, the guitar riff shaved to its most essential two seconds, the sex more directly alluded to and yet, still, cleverly disguised—“You enjoy sucking on dreams,” the song’s narrator snarls, with a bit of a hesitation before the word “dreams”; she shortly thereafter finishes the line “You would take me” with the word “seriously,” also after a meaningful delay. Soon the upward-gliding guitar refrain has found a new home one octave further up, where it’s more of a wail, but still hasn’t found what it’s looking for. But I have found one of my favorite MP3s of the year.

“Serpents” is from Van Etten’s forthcoming album Tramp, her third, which will arrive in February. Note that Van Etten is backed here by some serious talent, including another Dessner (Bryce) on guitar, Matt Barrick (The Walkmen) on drums, and Wye Oak’s mighty Jenn Wasner on vocals. The album will be her first for the estimable indie label Jagjaguwar Records; MP3 via Jagjaguwar.

Free and legal MP3: The Warped 45s (old-fashioned backwoods rocker)

An old-fashioned backwoods rocker with an absorbing tale, “Grampa Carl” builds with a well-plotted dramatic arc towards a culminating guitar solo of Youngian ferocity.

The Warped 45s

“Grampa Carl” – The Warped 45s

An old-fashioned backwoods rocker with an absorbing tale, “Grampa Carl” builds with a well-plotted dramatic arc towards a culminating guitar solo of Youngian ferocity. That a song like this can succeed in 2011—and boy does it ever—is both fascinating and inspiring. Moral of the story, yet again, is you just have to be good. Related moral of the story: being good doesn’t necessitate being different, just good. Or, maybe, better: being really good is itself a valid way of being different.

Things start with a drumbeat and a spoken introduction, with co-front man Ryan Wayne McEathron letting us know that the song is about his great-grandfather, who smuggled booze from Canada into the U.S. during Prohibition. Bass and keyboards join in, the lead guitar slightly after, and McEathron shifts from speaking to singing so casually you almost don’t notice. The casual authority of both the song and the band is what carries the day here—that and, specifically, Ryan’s cousin Dave on guitar. Dave’s got it going on, big-time: he can support the vocals with inventive but not intrusive licks on the one hand, while stepping out in between verses with honest-to-goodness lead guitar lines on the other. That indie bands have generally put the lead guitar aside is one of 21st-century rock’n’roll’s lesser accomplishments. But: I fearlessly predict that the ability to show mastery on an actual physical instrument will become more and more highly valued as the new decade wears on, and we grow collectively tired of having reduced most of our exertions to touching fingers to screens. (One can always dream, can’t one?)

“Grampa Carl” is the third track on the band’s second album, Matador Sunset, which is coming out at the end of the month on Pheromone Recordings. Because I’m so impressed with the simple power of this band and this song, I’m posting a video performance of it that does nothing but show the McEathron cousins and company doing their thing. No actors were harmed in the filming of this video.

Free and legal MP3: Idlewild (brisk, embracing rocker )

From the opening lead guitar salvo through the effortless, deadpan pre-chorus hook, “Younger Than America” feels just about perfect.

Idlewild

“Younger Than America” – Idlewild

Do we need crazy all the time? Do we need gimmicky, do we need abstract, do we need unusual and/or odd? All the time? I don’t think so. In any case, crazy and gimmicky and strange only work when there’s a benchmark of normal and straightforward to operate against, right? And so here’s your benchmark: the admirable, long-standing Scottish band Idlewild. They’ve never quite had their moment here in the U.S.—although 2000’s 100 Broken Windows came close—but they’ve been at it for 15 years now and their latest release shows us, yet again, the musical benefits to be had when a band can stick it out for a while.

From the opening lead guitar salvo through the effortless, deadpan pre-chorus hook, “Younger Than America” feels just about perfect—a brisk, embracing rocker with an active, ringing lead guitar and unexpectedly effective female backing vocals. Front man Roddy Woomble has a Dickensian name and a husky depth to his voice, sounding at once weary and inspired. Although singing about America, there’s a Celtic undertone to the music, which only accentuates (to me, anyway) a clear echo of the old Horslips song “The Man Who Built America.” Anyone else with me on that? Okay, never mind. In the meantime, I love the “couldn’t/wouldn’t/shouldn’t have” business here (first heard around 0:36)—it’s a sly but definitive hook, grabbing the ear and anchoring the song between the verse and the chorus. Check out also the slow but steady way the song develops an almost Springsteen-esque sort of spaciousness, complete with a new, wordless vocal melody introduced in the coda (3:20).

Although they have churned through bass players and second guitarists a bit, Idlewild’s core of Woomble, lead guitarist Rod Jones, and drummer Colin Newton have been together since 1995, during which time the band has evolved from being neophyte, punk-ish Fugazi wannabes into full-fledged musicians with a warm, nimble sound. “Younger Than America” is the lead track on Post Electric Blues, an album released last year in the UK and last week here in the US, by the Nice Music Group. The album was in fact initially available as a free download, and you can still hear the whole thing on the band’s site. MP3 via Insound. Note that this is a direct download, but the song will not play in the Fingertips player because of how Insound links to its MP3s.