Free and legal MP3: Billy the Zombie Kid (unabashed pop, ear-pleasing craft)

Every now and then a song comes along that’s as shiny and pop-saturated as can be and, somehow, all the things that bug the shit out of me when it comes to a lot of 21st-century pop just melt away.

Billy the Zombie Kid

“Golden Rainbows/Diamonds in the Fire” – Billy the Zombie Kid

Every now and then a song comes along that’s as shiny and pop-saturated as can be and, somehow, all the things that bug the shit out of me when it comes to a lot of 21st-century pop just melt away. It’s often kind of a mystery but with “Golden Rainbows/Diamonds in the Fire” let’s see if we can puzzle out why.

To begin with, the cold a capella opening is not only a nice touch but quickly demonstrates some harmonic sophistication—take a listen to how that wordless countermelody snakes around the main melody, complicating what you’re hearing so that you are given the song’s central hook while also having it partially hidden. This allows it later to feel both familiar and new at the same time.

When the song kicks in (0:18), we get an upbeat dance vibe, but only sort of: there’s something patient and easygoing in the air, despite the beat, a feeling reinforced by those measured, four-note synth lines that we hear before the vocals start, with their sly three-notes-off-the-beat rhythm. The ongoing sensation that a little more is going on here than standard-issue pop is reaffirmed by that little wah-wah comment we first hear at 0:42—entirely unnecessary and as a result indicative of a guiding intelligence that isn’t just about formula and expectation.

Before we are led at last back to the big hook of the chorus, we are set up at 0:52 by a pre-chorus that adheres more or less to one note and stays almost completely on the beat. This, to my ears, makes all the more satisfying the incisive melodic leaps of the chorus, as well as its adroit alternation between two measures of singing on the beat and two off the beat. And I don’t mean to make too much of this on/off-the-beat distinction, but in the context of 21st-century pop music, which has been simplified and compressed into oblivion, I applaud any evidence of ear-pleasing songwriting craft. And applaud even further any pop song that saves room for a serious guitar solo (2:48, don’t miss it!).

Billy the Zombie Kid is a four-piece band from Borlänge, Sweden, an industrial town 130 or so miles north and west of Stockholm. The band began in 2013 as an unnamed solo project from singer/guitarist Stefan Altzar. Acquiring members and a name over the course of the year, Billy the Zombie Kid released four songs online in 2014, began playing locally, and started recording in earnest in the latter part of 2015. The end result is the album entitled We’re Always Right, which was released on the label Alternative Alien Baby in July 2016. You can listen to the whole thing and download it for free via SoundCloud. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Lemonade (melodically engaging dance music)

That rare rock’n’roll bird: melodically engaging dance music.

Lemonade

“Skyballer” – Lemonade

Are bands just not interested in creating melodically engaging dance music or is such music just kind of difficult to make? I am honestly not sure. All I know is that after the seminal work of New Order, not a whole lot of bands have come along in the rock world to carry this particular torch. It is a specialized niche, to be sure. If the aim is to keep the trance going on the dance floor, melody may not only be superfluous but downright distracting. On the other hand, if one sees a purpose to music in one’s life beyond the confines of the club scene, music that engages the mind as well as the body isn’t a bad goal.

In any case, here’s “Skyballer,” which, for all its ear-candy trappings and dance-floor length, plunks a simple/great melody into the proceedings and everything makes sense. And while the sonic palette isn’t exactly the same, there is something rather New Order-y going on here in both the band’s commitment to grounding dance music in melody, and the particular kind of straightforward but compelling melody employed. The rest of the song stretches out in a cloud of falsetto, programming, and traffic whistles, with the strategic, if limited, use of guitars. Just when I think I may begin to be exasperated by the song’s clubbiness, I pick up another endearing little detail in the mix (I did not see that incisive acoustic guitar line at 3:57 coming), and then the repeat button brings the melody back and I am some odd kind of putty in its hands.

Born in the Bay Area in 2005 and based in Brooklyn since 2008, Lemonade has two full-length albums to its name, the most recent, Diver, coming in 2012. The band was featured here in March of that year for the song “Neptune.” “Skyballer” is a single released in August, as yet unconnected to a longer release. MP3 via the good folks at Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Imperial Teen (perky & dancey, w/ ELO-ish flair)

Perky and concise, “Runaway” has an old-school feel about it, which I guess is not surprising, since Imperial Teen is one of those rare indie bands that has been around long enough to be legitimately old-school itself.

Imperial Teen

“Runaway” – Imperial Teen

Perky and concise, “Runaway” has an old-school feel about it, which I guess is not surprising, since Imperial Teen is one of those rare indie bands that has been around long enough to be legitimately old-school itself. Founded in San Francisco in 1994 by Roddy Bottum, then of the band Faith No More, this boy/girl, four-person side-project has now lasted longer than Faith No More did. Remember that whenever you try to predict the future.

“Runaway” is a simple song with vintage-sounding keyboards (Supertramp, anyone?), ELO-esque vocals and such a firm bounce that I can clearly imagine a throng of people on a dance floor (old-school-style, of course) all shouting along with the “Go in! Go out!” part. With arm gestures. Which I will leave to your imagination. The production here is at once big and contained—well put together, with a bright sound, but not bombastic. The melody is basic in a way that recalls children’s songs, but then there’s that unrelenting drumbeat that kind of opposes that impression. Pay attention, by the way, to the one time the drummer opens it up just a tiny bit, during the short instrumental break at 2:47: it feels like a mini-revelation. This also happens to be the first time we can hear the guitar on its own. A pithy moment, but to me it seals the song.

Albums have been intermittent for Imperial Teen over the years; Feel The Sound, coming out at the end of the month on Merge Records, is just the band’s fifth. “Runaway” is the lead track. MP3 via KEXP.

Photo credit: Marina Chavez

Free and legal MP3: High Places (jittery & propulsive, yet introspective)

High Places is one technopop duo which is clearly not in it just to twiddle knobs or to woo the dance crowd.

High Places

“Year Off” – High Places

We are greeted by what sounds like a heavily synthesized beat, but right away there are clues that things are not what they may seem. There’s something spacious about the sound itself, even as the clipped precision of the beat speaks of serious computer manipulation. And then there’s the odd fact that the beat unfolds for all of seven seconds before the vocals start. Wow—a technopop/electronica song without a mindless, overlong introduction. Bonus points to High Places, a duo which is clearly not in it just to twiddle knobs or to woo the dance crowd.

And then there are the words themselves: “The brackish water/Swirling around/In a basin I left in the yard”—a stark, organic image, spoke-sung by Mary Pearson with, now, a new element in the mix: a chime-like keyboard tracing a C minor octave in a repeating pattern. Keep your ear on that, as it becomes the backbone of multi-instrumentalist Rob Barber’s jittery, multifaceted soundscape, which takes shape before our ears between 0:32 and 0:48 as new elements are layered in. Pearson doesn’t begin fully singing until 1:20 (and a lovely, careful voice she has, too), at which point she settles mostly on a motif that echoes the melody given us by the C minor synthesizer. Nothing about this song is very song-like in any pop sort of way, but likewise does it rise above typical club fodder in the sculpted precision of its sound and the dreamy introspection of Pearson’s vocals. Barber’s sounds often originate in organic instruments (Pearson has a degree in bassoon performance, of all things), and if that isn’t necessarily clear to the casual listener what is noticeable, and notable, is the striking texture he creates—a propulsive yet elusive setting that sounds on the one hand like little more than a beat and yet on the other hand feels fully like music. In what amounts to a bit of aural sleight of hand, the song makes do with only two chords, as far as I can detect. I for one don’t even miss a third.

High Places was founded in Brooklyn in 2006, but has since relocated to Los Angeles. “Year Off” is from the album Original Colors, the band’s third, set for release in October on Thrill Jockey Records. MP3 via Pitchfork. A duo with a definite visual flair, the band has a blog featuring photographs from their travels, which is well worth a visit. They were previously featured on Fingertips in January 2010.

Free and legal MP3: Young Galaxy (dreamy pseudo-tropical groove)

Sleek, sultry, and groovy—as in, it has a groove—“Peripheral Visionaries” sounds like dance music for the sleep-deprived: you kind of want to move around, but maybe not as much as you want to nurse one last cocktail and just kind of zone out, with a blurry smile on your face.

Young Galaxy

“Peripheral Visionaries” – Young Galaxy

Sleek, sultry, and groovy—as in, it has a groove—“Peripheral Visionaries” sounds like dance music for the sleep-deprived: you kind of want to move around, but maybe not as much as you want to nurse one last cocktail and just kind of zone out, with a blurry smile on your face.

This one’s all about sound construction, about how sounds of different tone and fiber interact. Listen, first, to whatever it is that sounds somehow like an electronic accordion—you hear it first in the introduction at around 0:10—and then listen to how, underneath the male vocal in particular, it produces an Auto-Tune-like effect, but far less awful, thankfully. (Unless that is, also, Auto-Tune and I’m god forbid getting used to it.) There’s a definitive way this sound adds something visceral to the song that is nevertheless neither rhythm nor volume nor melody. Then there’s that plucky, rapid-fire synthesizer (I think) that builds interest and character against the more languorous beat. Those two sounds, weaving in and around each other, are the backbone of this deceptively easy-going piece; together they create an almost palpable sense of…breathing, somehow. Like the song is breathing itself. And okay, maybe I’m the one who is sleep-deprived.

With its dreamy, pseudo-tropical lilt and its studio-crafted textures, “Peripheral Visionaries” is the end result of an unusual collaboration between the Montreal-based Young Galaxy, a quartet previously known for a shoegazy kind of dream pop, and the Swedish producer Dan Lissvik. Apparently, the band completed the album, their third, and sent it off to Lissvik, who twiddled and tweaked and softwared the thing into something quite different than what the band had recorded. The album, appropriately enough, will be called Shapeshifting; it’s coming out on Paper Bag Records in February. MP3 via Paper Bag; thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: The Concretes (atmospheric indie pop, w/ a dance beat)

“Good Evening” is six and a half minutes. It takes its time. There is a groove involved. There are interesting sounds (try 0:34 on for size, or 1:22, or those background springy percussion noises at 1:28). A sense of tension is established—a combination of the beat, the restrained instrumentation, and a determination to stay focused on two chords—and extends well past the two-minute mark.

The Concretes

“Good Evening” – the Concretes

I am a long song skeptic; I don’t think there is often a very good reason for a pop song to be much longer than four minutes, in fact. Usually things are just repeating themselves at that point, or stretching on without apparent purpose. And yet I’ll admit I’m also a fan of music that might be considered atmospheric, and now that I think about it, atmospheric music almost by definition requires a certain amount of time and space to develop. Do I contradict myself? (My iTunes library is large, it contains multitudes.)

“Good Evening” is six and a half minutes. It takes its time. There is a groove involved. There are interesting sounds (try 0:34 on for size, or 1:22, or those background springy percussion noises at 1:28). A sense of tension is established—a combination of the beat, the restrained instrumentation, and a determination to stay focused on two chords—and extends well past the two-minute mark. This is not something that you can do in a three-minute song. Another thing you can’t do in a three-minute song is take a one-minute recess during which the rhythm and beat stop, most of the instruments leave, and the percussion reduces to something that sounds like swinging, amplified footsteps. Check that out starting at 4:00. Now, admittedly, longer songs are common when there’s a dance beat involved—the club ambiance requiring a totally different musical animal than, say, a radio, or even an iPod. That “Good Evening” manages to bridge that gap, bringing a bit of club-floor panache to something that works as an actual song, is a good part of its well-built allure.

An eight-piece band from Stockholm, the Concretes have been around in one incarnation or another since 1995, although didn’t start recording albums until 2003. “Good Evening” has been making the online rounds for a few months, but is actually from the brand new album WYWH, which was released just this week on Friendly Fire Recordings. It is the band’s fourth full-length. MP3 via Friendly Fire.

Free and legal MP3: Deluka (appealing electro-dance-rock)

“Cascade” – Deluka

Appealing electro-dance-rock with a sweeping ambiance and a more difficult-than-it-first-seems-to-pin-down sound. As much as one may initially want to hear this as harmless retro-y fun, one problem is that it’s unclear exactly what era/genre this song is most reflective of, as it seems to gather everything from new wave and post-punk to disco and electro and then some under its sonic umbrella. Which maybe has the net effect of not seeming quite so retro after all. Certainly there’s something in not only the sharp production but in the sheer urgent musical delight here that lends “Cascade” a sparkling currency—you’ve heard it before, except maybe not exactly. More to the point, you’re likely to keep hearing this in your head moving forward. And surely this goes immediately to the top of the list of definitive summer songs for the summer of ’09, at least here in Fingertips land. At least for now. The summer is yet young.

Named after Laura San Giacomo’s character in the movie Pretty Woman, Deluka is from Birmingham (UK) but has taken up in Brooklyn after being signed by the Brooklyn-based VEL Records-. “Cascade” is the band’s first recorded song. A digital EP will be released this summer, with a full-length CD expected in the fall. MP3 via VEL.