Free and legal MP3: Almost Free (power pop gem w/ multi-decade inspiration)

So on the surface, this one is a brisk and catchy bit of power pop, or something like it. The sing-along-style chorus, turning on the repetition, across the beat, of a mundane phrase (“really don’t know”), nails it as a chewy little piece of ear candy to be sure. But “Really Don’t Know (About You)” is a good deal more than that if you care to investigate.

Almost Free

“Really Don’t Know (About You) – Almost Free

So on the surface, this one is a brisk and catchy bit of power pop, or something like it. The sing-along-style chorus, turning on the repetition, across the beat, of a mundane phrase (“really don’t know”), nails it as a chewy little piece of ear candy to be sure. But “Really Don’t Know (About You)” is a good deal more than that if you care to investigate.

Listen, to begin with, to the introduction, with its ear-catching combination of a nimble beat and an unusual interval, as Andy (not Andrew) Bird, grabs his guitar high up the neck and itches out a reiterating major sixth interval in a loose, ever-evolving manner. This sixth—nine half steps—is an notably wide leap between two notes in a pop song and even though it’s a consonant (i.e. not dissonant) interval there’s something fluid and unsettled about it. The introduction’s music haunts the rest of the song. Meanwhile, the melody in the verse then turns around and features downward leaps, while likewise touching most of the notes in the scale before it’s done—usually the sign of savvy songwriting. (A nice, related touch is how the guitar itself runs up the scale in between the chorus and verse [1:05].)

When we get to the aforementioned chorus, the song solidifies and expands and—this is the real trick to listen carefully for—marries five decades’ worth of influences into a hook casual enough to have been born in a ’60s garage yet grand enough to stand with any new wave or post-punk anthem. Here is a song, furthermore, informed by the Smiths’ seminal ’80s work as well as by the ’90s britpop that followed, even as it keeps wanting to sound like something from 1977…except for all that 21st-century guitar work and scronky noise. All in all what’s happening here is enough to blow a Pandora algorithm’s mind (if only a Pandora algorithm had a mind). I like.

“Really Don’t Know (About You)” is from Almost Free’s In/Out EP, due out in June. The Detroit-based trio has been playing together for seven years, with one full-length album released to date, back in 2009.

Free and legal MP3: Alex Winston (bashy & engaging)

Winston is 21, and was born and raised in the Detroit area. She’s now in New York City and watch out. I suspect we’ll be hearing from her.

Alex Winston

“Sister Wife” – Alex Winston

How and why do some songs grab you right away? It’s a mystery. This one has a bashy, kitchen-sink-y feeling to its wordless vocal intro that makes me quickly happy. And then there may be something in the octave span that deepens the introduction’s allure. That is, Winston’s “oo-oos” descend an entire scale in that opening section; and I think the ear is engaged when a melody encompasses the whole scale, just like our eye is engaged by a black-and-white photo that utilizes the entire range of gray.

And when she starts singing the actual lyrics, watch out. I am now hooked by new mysteries: her rich yet slightly baby-ish voice, calling up echoes of early Kate Bush recordings; a lyrical audacity that launches us into the middle of a song that seems to be about polygamy; the xylophone that augments the “oo-oo” section the second time we hear it. There’s something big and brash on display here, but it’s a sweet sort of brashness, the kind borne of young talent, talent that just does things because they seem right. I could pontificate about the slidey sort of verse that we hear and how it’s sung largely off the beat and out of the center of the measure, and then how it pairs so effectively with a front and center chorus, nearly anthemic in its melodic inevitability; and it may have nothing to do with how she just wrote the damn thing.

Winston is 21, and was born and raised in the Detroit area. She’s now in New York City and watch out. I suspect we’ll be hearing from her. “Sister Wife” is the title track to her debut “mini-LP,” coming in March on Heavy Roc. MP3 via NME.

Free and legal MP3: The Blueflowers (reverb-laced and twangy, w/ dreamy melody)

“I Wasn’t Her” – the Blueflowers

Relaxed, reverb-laced tale of woe from a Detroit-based quintet that’s new on the scene but features musicians with a lot of experience, including two–guitarist Tony Hamera and vocalist Kate Hinote (can that be her real name? “High note”?)–who had previously fronted Ether Aura, a dream pop band with a bit of a following in the ’90s. Not to sound like a broken record on the matter, but I continue not to understand music culture’s relentless focus on newcomers when music itself is so enriched by the background and experience of the players. I don’t think musicians can sound simultaneously so laid-back and so compelling without years of playing under their belts.

In any case, dream pop is ostensibly out the door this time in favor of an old-fashioned sort of Americana that offers echoes of hard-core country and western in its slo-mo twang and steel-pedal sorrow. And yet I’m hearing in the song’s central hook—when Hinote, silkily, sings “You weren’t everything that I wanted” in the chorus—something that comes from outside the genre in which the band appears to be operating. That is not by any means a country and western melody, and hearing it here makes me realize rather abruptly that there is in fact a musical place in which C&W and dream pop are not at all far apart, given both genres’ love of reverb and dolor. Being so personally against the over-genre-ization of music, I love when the borders grow foggy, and find myself drawn again and again to songs that can’t be given a simple genre tag.

“I Wasn’t Her” can be found on the band’s self-released debut album, Watercolor Ghost Town, released in June. MP3 via Last.fm; thanks to the blog Hits in the Car for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: The Decks (early Beatles meet surf rock in a 21st-century garage)

“What You Said” – the Decks

Both in title and vibe, this song recalls pre-Rubber Soul Beatles, augmented by a garage-y edge, an abiding love of surf music, and (a bonus) boy-girl singing.

I love the assertive but shuffly drumbeat, I love the old-fashioned guitar melody line (so rarely do guitarists want to give us this sort of thing any more), I love the surf guitar that kind of just sneaks in when the moment’s right, I love how blasé and sloppy the vocals can get without ever quite losing their way, and most of all I love the song’s casual but trusty momentum, which helps over the course of four minutes turn a simple but effective chorus into something just this side of extraordinary. We surely have a contender here for the song of the nascent summer, as this will go nicely blaring off a front porch accompanied by a frosty beverage.

A two-boy, two-girl foursome from Detroit, the Decks have been together since 2003, but have just now released their debut CD—Breath and Bone, which came out this week on Cass Records, a small Detroit-based label. That’s where you’ll find “What You Said.”