Free and legal MP3: Alejandra O’Leary (squonky midtempo rocker, w/ melodic twists)

Combining an assured employment of squonky guitars with satisfying melodic momentum, “Wires” quickly brings the ear back to the heyday of early ’90s alternative rock at its most accessible.

“Wires” – Alejandra O’Leary

Combining an assured employment of squonky guitars with satisfying melodic momentum, “Wires” quickly brings the ear back to the heyday of early ’90s alternative rock at its most engaging. This feels like a nice thing to hear with a fresh coat of 2019 paint. And, as with some of the best material from that era (think Belly, think Garbage), “Wires” isn’t content staying exactly in one place and phoning it in from there. Hang in through the chorus (0:50-1:05) and you get an even higher level of songwriting payout, as the melody there expands in buoyant, unexpected directions.

I love how the song feels slightly unhinged and tightly controlled at the same time, with O’Leary’s clear-toned voice steering us through its twists and turns. You may notice that the verse disappears after its second go-round, replaced by a repeating bridge-like section (1:51) that offers its own hooks. And if you’ve been patiently waiting for those crunchy guitars to break out, your dividend arrives at 2:45, when O’Leary leaves off in mid-lyric for a few moments of concluding instrumental frenzy.

O’Leary is a half-Colombian, half-Irish singer/songwriter based in Portland, Maine. “Wires” is the lead track from Everest, which will be released next week. You can listen to the album, and buy it, via Bandcamp. Her back catalog of three albums and an EP are also there and worth investigating.

Free and legal MP3: Lauran Hibberd (terrific rocker w/ old-school crunch)

With satisfying, old-school crunch, “Hoochie” is the kind of song that reacquaints the ear with how simple and vital a rock song can yet be, here in our beleaguered 21st century.

Lauran Hibberd

“Hoochie” – Lauran Hibberd

With satisfying, old-school crunch, “Hoochie” is the kind of song that reacquaints the ear with how simple and vital a rock song can yet be, here in our beleaguered 21st century: guitars still excite, catchy and uncomplicated melodies still delight, and can still be put in service of sardonic young folks, especially those possessed of the right combination of charisma and purpose, as young Isle of Wight singer/songwriter Lauran Hibberd surely is. (And that’s no typo: it’s Lauran with an “a.”)

One of the main glories of rock’n’roll, well illustrated by “Hoochie,” is how musical strength renders all in its path worthy of attention. I’m not sure, for instance, that the lyrics here would be all that impressive if stripped from the music and read aloud, but the point is that this doesn’t matter in the slightest. Riding on top of this heroic groove, nestled in their textured setting, and delivered with Hibberd’s casual aplomb, the words acquire a primal sort of substance that supersedes precise meaning on the one hand, and then (this is the extra magic) delivers a new level of meaning on the other. I’m not sure I can explain this properly, but for me, the lyrics in a great rock song often don’t need to be paid close attention to and yet, then, as they present as an intrinsic part of the sonic experience, become great in their own inscrutable way. This is why it’s not often necessary to pay close attention to lyrics, even as the words nonetheless become a pivotal part of the final package.

Anyway, give this one a few listens and maybe you’ll sense that extra magic going on here too. If I were still tracking my Top 10 songs of the year, I have no doubt that this would end up there in December. You can check out all of Hibberd’s releases, six songs to date, on SoundCloud. “Hoochie” is her latest and, to my ears, best—so far.

Free and legal MP3: Record/Start (crunchy, melodic, smartly-crafted)

“Rock From Afar” manages to funnel nostalgia through a contemporary filter, conjuring the past without wallowing in it.


“Rock From Afar” – Start/Record

Crunchy, melodic, smartly-crafted rock’n’roll, “Rock From Afar” is one of those rare one-man-band home recordings that sounds spacious and outgoing. (In that way it brings to mind the work of Devin Davis, for those with long Fingertips memories.) And while full of elusive homages to great moments in rock history, this song is likewise a rare bird for managing to funnel nostalgia through a contemporary filter: conjuring the past without wallowing in it, without losing the recognition that we live in the here and now and that that’s okay too.

So—stay with me on this one—I’m thinking now that what sounds like a catchy, well-paced song is actually much more than that. With “Rock From Afar,” Simon Cowan, doing business as Record/Start, offers us a much-needed (not to mention delightful) way out of the dead-end technophilia of the early 21st century. Enough with having to pretend there is nothing of value to be had from the past, enough with entrepreneurs and venture capitalists so smug and myopic that they can’t credit or recognize anything they didn’t invent or fund. Life existed before us and life (if we don’t go all Interstellar on ourselves) will go on after us and the smartest and most valuable (not to mention most fun) people are those who partake of the whole buffet. Use the past to inform the present and aim towards the future.

That’s what “Rock From Afar” does and it’s a breath of fresh air in a musical age suffocating from the addictive beats and compressed mightiness required to keep the kids dancing and the fingers clicking. Cowan finds a brisk pace and rich texture far removed from the stifling dictates of today’s pop, with guitars that bleed into a kind of 2015 Wall of Sound, and melodies that sweep you pretty close to power pop heaven. One of my favorite moments is the abrupt break for a “woo-oo-oo” vocal that happens at 2:41, because of how precisely this moment embodies the seamless melding of past and present: this kind of “woo-oo-oo” is pure Beach Boys, but Cowan augments it with an ear-popping 21st-century affect that Brian Wilson probably wishes he could have invented 50 years ago but most certainly did not.

Cowan fronted the Manchester band Carlis Star during the latter ’00s. Record/Start, a solo project, came into being in 2014. “Rock From Afar” has been bumping around the internet for a few weeks, in advance of its official double-sided single (on cassette) release next month, via Post/Pop Records. Thanks to Insomnia Radio for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Mincer Ray (multinational trio, crunchy neo-alt-rock)

The sound is rough and dirty, with that air of tumbled-together crunchiness and ramshackle singing that we often get in this particular sonic arena.

Mincer Ray

“Franki Jo” – Mincer Ray

One of the coolest things the original “alternative rock” movement of the middle ’80s did was link the DIY ethics and lo-fi sound of garage rock with hi-fi artistic pretensions introduced to rock’n’roll by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and (let’s not leave them out, as too many do) the Kinks. It’s a tricky balancing act—music of this nature can become too precious and/or too muddy for its own good—but an engaging enough aspiration to remain alive lo these 30 years later. At its best, this lineage has given birth to bands with an impressive, maybe even unprecedented breadth to their sound (think Yo La Tengo, perhaps the proto-band of whatever you actually want to call this stuff), because the foundational idea was never about one particular kind of song in the first place, and the attachment to sonic basics never actually required shoddy recording standards.

Enter “Franki Jo,” from the trio Mincer Ray, whose very name clues us in to the band’s ancestry (“Mincer Ray” is a song from Guided By Voices’ alt-rock classic Bee Thousand). The sound is rough and dirty, with that air of tumbled-together crunchiness and ramshackle singing that we often get in this particular sonic arena. But the song is hardly as slapdash as the vibe suggests. This is in truth a well-crafted song, with touches that are engaging and, often, slyly humorous—from the the heard-only-once pre-chorus (0:45) to the shifting verse melody (i.e., the second verse is not precisely the same as the first) to the extended “oo”-ing in the background in the second verse to the satisfying, two-part coda (2:48, 3:11). The song’s underlying riff (what we hear first at 0:04) is at once primal and slightly complicated, with its rushed, four-note descent, climaxing off the main beat; and after it asserts itself, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, if only because there is so much more going on from start to finish. (Think how different those old garage-rock songs were, which were often all riff, and little song.) Don’t miss as well the appearance of some spiffy chords and unexpected chord changes along the way.

Mincer Ray is a Berlin-based band of expats, comprised of Americans Graham McCarthy and Sean Anderson and Brazilian Acácio Do Conto, known as Cate (pronounced Ka-Chee). Ray Mincer, the debut full-length, came out last year. “Franki Jo” is the lead track on the EP A Magnate’s Reach, officially coming out at the end of May. You can listen and purchase via Bandcamp. Note also that if you download the song via SoundCloud, you can have the song as a .wav file, if you like higher-quality downloads.

Free and legal MP3: Making Movies (crunchy Spanish-language rock)

Crisp and crunchy Spanish-language, Latin-spiked rock’n’roll from…Kansas City, somehow. Get this one going and check out how easily your body wants to keep the beat even as the music itself seems to snake and sway in and around but never, it seems, directly on that same beat.

<"La Marcha" – Making Movies

Crisp and crunchy Spanish-language, Latin-spiked rock’n’roll from…Kansas City, somehow. I’ll take it from wherever; to my ears, Latin rhythms are a natural for rock’n’roll–we haven’t over the years heard nearly enough of them in any sort of mainstream way (whether mainstream mainstream or, as it were, indie mainstream).

“La Marcha” vigorously exploits the dynamics of a style of music called cumbia, which is known for melding a lopsided rhythm to a steady 4/4 beat. Get this one going and check out how easily your body wants to keep the beat even as the music itself seems to snake and sway in and around but never, it seems, directly on that same beat. One of the delights of that group-sung grunt (first heard at 0:10) is how precisely on the beat it is, compared to almost everything else that emerges from the drums and guitars. I also like how effectively the band works a slightly distorted rhythm guitar sound, straight from the rock’n’roll textbook, into the chorus, and how it leads with the Latino chord changes in a gratifying way. Don’t miss, also, when the band drifts seamlessly into a salsa montuno (you may not know what that is but you’ll hear it) for an instrumental rave-up at 1:56.

“La Marcha” can be found on the album In Dea Speramus, which the quartet self-released last month. The album, by the way, was pretty much recorded live, vocals and instruments together in real time–yet another reason this song has so much energetic allure.

Free and legal MP3: Bettie Serveert

Dutch proto-indie band returns

“Deny All” – Bettie Serveert

Moving into their 20th year together, the Dutch band Bettie Serveert may at long last be outlasting the “college rock” tag they earned as a proto-indie band in the mid-’90s. In any case, when their new album, Pharmacy of Love, is released later this month, they will have released more albums in the 21st century than they did in the 20th. So the time is ripe for listening to this engaging, not-quite-place-able-sounding band with new ears. It’s not 1995 anymore in any possible way that I can think of.

“Deny All” presents the Betties at their fastest and crunchiest. Guitarist Peter Visser couldn’t be having a better time, combining searing lead lines with exuberantly squonky chords–one moment barely choked out, another fraying with dissonance. Leave it, however, to the fetching Carol van Dyk to distract us rather unfairly from Visser’s heroics. The Canadian-born, Netherlands-raised singer has always helped to give the band a subtly inscrutable sound; moving to Amsterdam at age seven, she apparently never quite mastered a native Dutch accent but didn’t grow up speaking English as a North American either. If you don’t listen carefully you might not notice anything unusual but then again, given that lucid voice of hers, at once bright and dreamy, why aren’t you listening carefully?

“Deny All” leads off Pharmacy of Love, the band’s ninth album, due out this month on Second Motion Records. MP3 via Second Motion. Bettie Serveert was previously featured on Fingertips in December 2003 and January 2005.

Free and legal MP3: The Morning Benders(musically astute pop w/ crunch & charm)

“Promises” – The Morning Benders

Chunky, loping, and unaccountably engaging new song from a long-time Fingertips favorite. But never fear, I will try to account for it. First, note how the octave harmonies (I always love octave harmonies as you may know by now) set up the first kind-of-hook, which is at 0:25, when the melody shifts from something low and slinky to something higher and more forceful. The melodic shift hooks the attention precisely because of the octave harmonies: the first half of the melody naturally focuses your ear on the lower harmony voice but when the higher-register section starts the ear now latches onto the higher voice. So it’s like we hear a more pronounced displacement than is actually happening. It may not be a hook per se but it’s subtly compelling. You want to keep listening.

Next point on the tour: that crunchy, unresolved chord that both ends one verse and starts the next (0:31). And then, notice that as the second verse unfolds, it doesn’t play out like verse one, and now for the first time we get phrases that stand out both musically and lyrically. The first is when Chris Chu sings “They say it’s only natural,” and then, even better: the linchpin point to which the song has been building (0:58), at the lyric, “I can’t help thinking we grew up too fast.” Things deconstruct a bit after that, with shifting time signatures and accumulating noise. And round about now I’m noticing how thick with musical detail this song actually is–there are engaging guitar licks, hidden keyboard flourishes, unexpected percussive accents, stray sounds, and an ongoing parade of nifty chord changes. These guys know what they’re doing.

The Morning Benders, a quartet from Berkeley, are no strangers here, having been featured twice previously–in June ’08 and, for the sublime “Grain of Salt,” in December ’06. “Promises” is from the Big Echo, the band’s second full-length, and first for Rough Trade Records, due out next month. MP3 via the Beggars Group, of which Rough Trade is a part.

Free and legal MP3: The Happy Hollows(itchy & slashing, w/ pixie-ish vocals)

“Faces” – the Happy Hollows

The L.A.-based Happy Hollows return to Fingertips with an itchy-crunchy bit of indie rock enlivened by Sarah Negahdari’s pixie-ish (but full-throttled) vocals and slashing guitar work. As intermittently discussed here, the rock trio can be a wondrous beast, especially when veering towards the noisy side of things. Because even at high volume, a trio always announces itself discretely: each part–guitar, bass, drum–is unavoidably and distinctly heard, each an important third of the sound. While there is (duh) room in the rock world for larger ensembles, the trio, when properly talented (I can imagine there is on the other hand little more discouraging than a mediocre trio), has the feeling of something archetypal.

What grabs me here in particular? Hmm. This seems to be one of those songs that I intuitively gravitate to without a conscious sense of why. Sure, I could probably retrofit an explanation but first of all that seems like cheating, and also, I think, part of the charm here is the song’s holistic power. It’s not one or another thing in particular, it’s the everything altogether. Though, okay, I do specifically like the second line of the chorus, both the interesting chord it veers onto and the way Negahdari’s voice hits a new level of vehemence just around then. It’s the kind of shift that registers more unconsciously than consciously with the listener, and adds to the general sense of engagement. With this listener, at least.

“Faces” is the opening track from the band’s forthcoming full-length debut, Spells, scheduled for an October release.