Free and legal MP3: Maggie Björklund (with Mark Lanegan) (warm, dreamy, bittersweet waltz)

I always forget how much I like the sound of a pedal steel guitar. It’s easy to forget because the instrument has been all but hijacked by the cheesiest of cheesy country songs. “Intertwined, ” rest assured, is no cheesy country song; it is, rather, a warm and dreamy if vaguely bittersweet waltz, a cozy meditation with a vein of melancholy.

Maggie Bjorklund

“Intertwined” – Maggie Björklund (with Mark Lanegan)

I always forget how much I like the sound of a pedal steel guitar. It’s easy to forget because the instrument has been all but hijacked by cheesy country songs. “Intertwined,” rest assured, is no cheesy country song; it is, rather, a warm and dreamy if vaguely bittersweet waltz, a cozy meditation with a vein of melancholy.

Björklund, a pedal steel specialist from Denmark, is primarily an instrumentalist, so she has brought on board a number of guest vocalists, including Rachel Flotard (last seen collaborating with Rusty Willoughby), members of Calexico, and here, of course, the gruff but lovable Mark Lanegan, who growls comfortingly through “Intertwined.” Lanegan’s rumbly, ever-so-slightly vulnerable baritone pretty much embodies the spirit of this easy-weary tune. Björklund does sing in addition to play, and what her voice may lack in viscosity it makes up for with sweetness; there may be no one Lanegan doesn’t sound good with, but add Björklund to the list of striking duet partners.

In the end, however, it may be her instrument that most impressively intertwines with Lanegan’s deep quaver, the pedal steel’s intrinsic sound of yearning complementing him with dignity and nuance. Don’t miss how gracefully the pedal steel enters (0:27), barely scratching the aural surface, only gradually moving towards the center of the song. Björklund plays with almost unheard of subtlety, opting often for singly articulated notes, resolutely avoiding the overstated slurring/sliding that pedal steel players are often incapable of resisting. This makes the moments in which she does specifically utilize the instrument’s capacity for sliding through blurred notes all the more poignant and effective.

Björklund has played with bands and as a backing musician in both Europe and the U.S. “Intertwining” is a song from her debut album, Coming Home, which was released in March on Bloodshot Records. MP3 via Bloodshot. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Free and legal MP3: The Migrant (guitar, voice, & graceful parade of sounds)

With guitar and voice, “The Organ Grinder” starts off simply, plaintively—think Thom Yorke doing a Neil Young imitation—only to acquire offhand grandeur as a graceful parade of instruments (accordion, melodica, organ, guitalele [?], various percussive devices) add their voices to the mix.

The Migrant

“The Organ Grinder” – The Migrant

With guitar and voice, “The Organ Grinder” starts off simply, plaintively—think Thom Yorke doing a Neil Young imitation—only to acquire offhand grandeur as a graceful parade of instruments (accordion, melodica, organ, guitalele [?], various percussive devices) add their voices to the mix. For a simple-seeming singer/songwriter composition, the song unfolds with an unerring sense of drama and beauty. Check out, as one example, the whistled motif that enters, almost as an afterthought, at 0:58, and then the unexpected but almost touching way the guitar joins the whistle in delivering the second half of its melody.

And if all songs showed such attention to dramatic development as this one—the last minute here is rich and surprising—the world would surely be a better place. The rhythmic shift at 3:07 is alone worth the price of admission, even if you (to think!) had to buy it, which in this case you don’t.

The Migrant is the name that Danish singer/songwriter Bjarke Bendtsen has given to his musical project, which represents the culmination of a couple of years spent living in Texas and also traveling around the U.S. The record itself, however, was recorded with friends when Bendtsen was visiting Denmark last summer. The end result, Travels in Lowland, will be self-released later this month.

Free and legal MP3: Efterklang (affecting blend of pop and classical)

“Modern Drift” – Efterklang

Beginning with compelling, quasi-minimalist piano lines, structured around two related melodic motifs, and brilliantly integrating strings and horns with electronics and percussion, “Modern Drift” is more composition than song. Consider this a good thing–a way of bringing some of classical music’s attractive complexity into pop music’s attractive brevity. Everybody wins. We just have to work on the fact that they only seem to be able to do this sort of thing in Scandinavia.

I suggest listening to this song four or five times in a row just to let it begin to make sense in a wordless way. But if you want some handholds through the process, I recommend keeping an ear on each instrument that makes an entrance after the original piano lines–the percussion, guitar, strings, horns, and electronics. Each interacts with the underlying piano spine in a particular way, and each will come front and center in the piece at a particular time–for instance, the way the guitar begins a complementary echo of the piano at 1:28, or the very satisfying horn punctuation we begin to hear at 1:47. And listen how the strings step forward at 2:27 and create an unexpected bridge to the electronics that start at 2:45, which in turn offer a beepier version of original piano line, but now it sounds like this is home, this is where it was leading. And then the electronics withdraw and leave the unusual–but, somehow, quite natural-sounding–combination of strings and drums to bring this dexterous and affecting piece to a close. Pay attention and you’ll also hear the guitar and piano return with background support.

Efterklang is a quartet from Copenhagen that has been active since 2001. The name is a Danish word that means both “reverberation” and “remembrance.” (Grieg, a Norwegian, once wrote a lyric piece for the piano called “Efterklang.”) “Modern Drift” is the opening track from the band’s third full-length album, Magic Chairs, which was released last month on the British label 4AD. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Slaraffenland (inventive Danish art-pop, w/ horns)

“Meet and Greet” – Slaraffenland

The enigmatic Danish art-popsters Slaraffenland return to Fingertips with a brisk, deceptively restless composition that incorporates some of the most delightful and inventive horn charts I’ve heard in a pop setting, not to mention some gratifyingly precise and rumbly percussion. This is the kind of song that, if you sink into it on its own terms, has you rethinking what a three- or four-minute rock song might be able to do. I don’t hear any standard hooks here and yet not for a moment does my attention or spirit sag.

And do check out those horns. There’s the splendid bit of syncopated layering we hear from them in their first concentrated appearance, from 1:14 to 1:36, but then listen to how they come back in the same extended instrumental section (now 1:48), this time playing in a blurry, sliding/pulsing sort of chorus, and yet still with their own rhythmic integrity. This is extremely wonderful, to my ears. Eccentric, but extremely wonderful.

For some interesting notes on the band’s name, read the review from the last time they were here. “Meet and Greet” is the lead single from the forthcoming album, We’re On Your Side, slated for a September release on the Portland, Ore.-based Hometapes label.

[The link is no longer direct, but the song is still available as a free and legal download, via Stereogum.)

Free and legal MP3: Mew (streamlined “prog pop”)

“Repeaterbeater” – Mew

A Danish band that has referred to itself as making “pretentious art rock,” the good-natured members of Mew here offer a chewy morsel of something that might legitimately be called “prog pop.” With all the swirling, driving, off-balance magnitude of full-out prog rock, “Repeaterbeater” condenses its weighty, almost-pompous intro into seven seconds, then hits the ground running.

Over a pulsing but irregular beat, the verse divides its melody into syncopated spurts, carving up the time signature in the process. That’s an effective songwriting trick, to my ears: combining the illusion of a normal beat with a complex rhythm. The chorus is at once flowier but still oblique, with its guitar effects and a melody that’s smoother but still so resolutely off the beat that we have the impression of further adventures in time signature shifting. And yet the whole chorus is actually in 4/4 as far as I can tell. Another effective songwriting trick, the opposite of the last one: making a regular time signature sound offbeat. And then maybe the best trick of all is that “Repeaterbeater,” which wraps up in just two and a half minutes, catches the ear so emphatically and yet without the benefit of any sort of standard hook. It’s a mysterious thing.

“Repeaterbeater” is a song from the trio’s forthcoming album, the title of which is written as a poem: No More Stories/Are Told Today/I’m Sorry/They Washed Away/No More Stories/The World Is Grey/I’m Tired/Let’s Wash Away. It’s due out next month on Sony BMG. Before that, the song will also be featured on the five-song No More Stories EP at the end of this month. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3: Slaraffenland (obliquely cheerful experimental pop)

“I’m a Machine” – Slaraffenland

Ambling along with an idiosyncratic blend of drums, electronics, and orchestral instruments, “I’m a Machine” eschews the verse-chorus-verse handhold for a noodly sort of soothing reiteration. Not your typical pop song, to be sure, but as merry and involving as any pop song worth its salt should be.

The intro sets pastoral woodwind motifs against a rattling, appliance-like sort of groaning and churning, while men chant vaguely in the background. This lasts for more than 80 seconds and, truly, somehow, I could’ve kept listening to just that–they manage a singular blend here of the free-form and the cheerful. This, I realize in a flash, is what has been missing from so many dreary efforts by contemporary classical composers to combat romantic melodicism: cheerfulness. The cheerfulness is oblique to be sure, but it’s here, swirled somewhere into the song’s circular structure, layered sound, orchestral motifs, yelpy vocals, and the overall sense of its being a sort of deconstructed folk song.

“I’m a Machine” does perhaps have just as much to do with not-pop music as pop music. I think this cross-fertilization is good for all involved, and from this Copenhagen-based quintet’s point of view, no accident, as they clearly have their collective eye on both musical and cultural history. Slaraffenland is the Danish name for a mythical land of idleness and luxury that was well-known in many countries throughout the Middle Ages (in England, it was called the land of Cockaigne). Slaraffenland was also the subject, and name, of a popular ballet by 20th-century Danish composer Knudåge Riisager. Everything is connected, especially on the internet. “I’m a Machine” is a song from the band’s Sunshine EP, released last month on Hometapes.