Free and legal MP3: Mark Tulk (plaintive but upbeat, piano-driven)

A fetching constant throughout is Tulk’s warm, strong singing voice, with a tone at once earthy and buoyant.

Mark Tulk

“Universal Code” – Mark Tulk

While tinged with a bittersweet air “Universal Code” likewise comes across as friendly and comforting. Piano-based rock music can have that effect on me, I think. Maybe it’s just because I grew up playing piano, and hearing a good amount of piano music in the house. Or maybe—just maybe—there is something built into the sound of a piano, perhaps its unique capacity to be at once melodic and percussive, that feels human-scaled and reassuring.

More to the point, see what Tulk is doing with the piano here—two things I am noticing in particular: first, the incisive, eighth-note motif that opens the song, with its accents on the one and two beats (at once basic and somewhat unusual), right away asserting the instrument’s rhythmic potency, and racing the pulse a bit; second, the song’s central chord change, heard first at 0:14, which is a homely but affecting up-step from G major to A minor. Written into the right context, moving up just one tonal interval can be a poignant thing. Which is to say he had me at hello, basically.

Which is not to say there are not engaging elements throughout, of course. The instrumentation is deftly done—the song expands beyond its piano foundation, with subtle electronic flourishes and offbeat vocal layering, without losing its piano-centric-ness, which seems its own sort of accomplishment. And then what’s this?: a coterie of reed instruments sidle in somewhere along the way, and become undeniable past the two-minute mark. An appealing constant throughout is Tulk’s warm, strong singing voice, with a tone at once earthy and buoyant.

“Universal Code” is the lead track on Embers, Tulk’s third full-length album, released in March; he has also put out two EPs. You can listen to the entire album as well as purchase it via Bandcamp. Born in Australia, Tulk, who identifies himself on his web site as a “writer, philosopher, and musician,” is based in Boulder, Colorado. MP3 courtesy of the artist.

Free and legal MP3: Paul Armfield (disarming acoustic contemplation)

Sleek and homespun at the same time, “Speed of Clouds” may initially hit the ear as an oddity, but settle in with it and let its idiosyncrasies coalesce into the enjoyable and rather moving composition that it reveals itself, over four minutes, to be.

Paul Armfield

“Speed of Clouds” – Paul Armfield

And now for something completely different. A delicately plucked, out-of-time intro, employing a variety of under-utilized string sounds, launches us into an alternative musical world in which acoustic instruments band together orchestrally to accompany a deep-voiced troubadour musing on the profundity of aging. Sleek and homespun at the same time, “Speed of Clouds” may initially hit the ear as an oddity, but settle in and let its idiosyncrasies coalesce into the pleasurable and rather moving composition that it reveals itself, over four minutes, to be.

At the center of it is the voice and sensibility of Paul Armfield, an Isle of Wight-based singer/songwriter with a distinctive delivery, best described as a cross between Cat Stevens and mid-career Leonard Cohen, with a bit of sorcerer thrown in. His is such a different-sounding voice than we are used to hearing that at first it may seem almost primitively mannered, and yet very quickly, as you sink into the song, you may notice how soon like an old friend he sounds, not to mention how beautifully he does in fact sing, his voice projecting a three-dimensional presence that feels especially satisfying in this age of vocal processing and gimmickry.

“Speed of Clouds” is from Armfield’s fifth studio album Up Here, which was released last month. You can listen to the whole album via SoundCloud. Thanks to Paul for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: The Cloud Room (NYC band returns w/ sound & swagger intact)

A stimulating combination of breezy and portentous, not to mention melodic and dark, “Mrs. Marquis de Sade” finds the elusive Brooklyn band The Cloud Room doing its New York City rock’n’roll thing with renewed vigor, even after all these years.

The Cloud Room

“Mrs. Marquis de Sade” – The Cloud Room

A stimulating combination of breezy and portentous, not to mention melodic and dark, “Mrs. Marquis de Sade” finds the elusive Brooklyn band The Cloud Room doing its New York City rock’n’roll thing with renewed vigor, even after all these years. (Many of you may remember them for their rather brilliant breakthrough song, “Hey Now Now,” featured here, and lots of other places, back in 2005.) This is a band with the enviable ability to have a “sound” without so much as breaking a sweat, based largely on the fortuitous way front man J Stuart’s Bowie-esque croon floats so naturally on top of Devon Johnson’s scratchy guitar rhythms and John Petrow’s athletic bass lines.

The sound is so strong and consistent that it transcends the material: “Mrs. Marquis de Sade” is not originally a Cloud Room song, but was written by filmmaker and songwriter Devon Reed as part of a project he conceived to support the non-profit organization 826 Valencia, about which more in a moment. The band clearly makes this one their own. I especially like how the chorus is split in two sections, creating an extra climax via the second, higher-ranging melody, during which Stuart conjures more than one rock’n’roll ghost (I’m hearing Richard Butler in particular) before handing center stage to a fabulously tuneful guitar line that I’m guessing was added by the band and in any case seals the wonderfulness of this brisk and oddly catchy number. (Editor’s note: Turns out I was wrong. Reed wrote the guitar lick too. More power to him!)

As for the project itself, Reed wrote a bunch of songs and then managed to corral an impressive list of top-tier indie artists to record them. The final product is an album called You Be My Heart, which will be released next week. 826 Valencia is a literacy organization focused on inspiring children to write, co-founded in San Francisco by the writer Dave Eggers. Among the other artists who recorded Reed’s songs for the album are Fingertips veterans Marissa Nadler, Bowerbirds, Saturday Looks Good to Me, and The Spinto Band. You can listen to a few songs from the album via SoundCloud. In the meantime, I should also note that The Cloud Room did end up releasing a long-anticipated second album in 2012, which was called Zither and kind of came and went without much fuss. You might want to listen to it at Bandcamp, where it is also for sale.

MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Björk (for those who overlooked Biophilia)

A slightly unruly swell of female voices provides the ether in which this song expands, while the lyrics offer an endearing sequence of creation stories, the Big Bang merely one among them.

Bjork

“Cosmogony” – Björk

I’ll admit, I overlooked Biophilia too, when initially released. I didn’t have an iPad at the time (2011), and have always been so wary of “mix it yourself” scenarios (I pay to hear the artist’s work, not my own) that I let myself forget that underneath this grand interactive/multimedia project was still a new Björk album. Finally, I went and listened to it late last year, and, well…wow. Not easy listening, but incredible listening—although as a full album experience, probably not for everyone (example: three of the songs are in 17/8 time). To my ears, she has bridged the worlds of “composition” and “pop” with singular mastery, unifying the worlds of the electronic and the organic in the process. So unique, creative, and determined an artist is Björk she even oversaw the invention of new instruments for the album.

While hardly a standard pop song, “Cosmogony” is one of the lovelier, more immediately welcoming pieces on the album. A slightly unruly swell of female voices provides the ether in which this song expands, while the lyrics offer an endearing sequence of creation stories, the Big Bang merely one among them. Through some alchemical combination of music and voice and lyric and sound, Björk manages to draw a large enough circle of life with this song to contain even the apparent polarities of science and magic, giving simultaneous context both to the limits of our knowledge and to the beauty of our spirits. The song moves me so deeply I feel unequipped to tease it apart, but for three tiny instructions/clarifications. First, what she’s saying at the beginning of each verse (and there is no chorus) is: “Heaven, heaven’s bodies/Whirl around me/Make me wonder.” When listening, I could not discern the word “bodies” in there; I finally looked up the lyrics. Second, listen to how she pronounces the word “egg” at 1:46. Lastly, I love her voice so much I even love how she breathes (see 1:05, after “cunning mate”). When Björk is on her game, as here, her song/compositions are so ripe with vitality that they burst with pleasure both vertically (listening to how, at any given moment, the layers interact and communicate to us) and horizontally—listening to how any one of these layers is itself a rich experience (as, for instance, are the aforementioned backing vocals; likewise the evocative, nearly miraculous bass playing).

“Cosmogony” is one of many viscerally artful and luminous songs on the underrated Biophilia. I eventually did get an iPad, and the Biophilia app, but nothing I could do while interacting with it introduced me to the glory of the music better than simply sitting and listening to it. Which, stupidly, I didn’t do for a long time. I mean to take nothing away from Björk’s impressive vision—the original Biophilia project encompassed not just the song/apps, but also a web site, a documentary, and a series of live performances, including educational workshops for kids. But I kind of recommend just listening to the thing. I’m not exactly sure when this “Cosmogony” free and legal MP3 went online at Epitonic, but I only recently discovered it there, and so, better late than never, here you are.

Free and legal MP3: Cat Power (peppy, fierce, w/ faux-Latin backbone)

Even in this upbeat, quasi-pop-like setting, Cat Power can’t take the smoke and fire from her voice; as a matter of a fact, one might argue that the voice is all the more effective in this new (for her) environment.

Cat Power

“Ruin” – Cat Power

With a measured, faux-Latin piano riff, “Ruin” offers up an expressive mix of the peppy and the fierce. Even in this upbeat, quasi-pop-like setting, Cat Power can’t take the smoke and fire from her voice; as a matter of a fact, one might argue that the voice is all the more effective in this new (for her) environment. The elusive lyrics augment her voice’s capacity to haunt—in particular the chorus’s incantation of far-flung cities and countries.

The music, meanwhile, is frisky but not frivolous. Grounded in that rhythmic riff, Power spends a lot of time in between the beat; even the emphatic choral climax only aligns with the beat for the conclusion, the words “sitting on a ruin”—which is what gives it its intriguing oomph. And for me, at least, that scratchy, slashing guitar sound is a revelation. That may be my own issue, as I have a personal disinclination for the slow, reverby, blues-guitar-y sound to which she previously defaulted. And yeah, I know, everyone was supposed to have loved that. I like this better.

Power—born Charlyn Marshall; known as Chan; pronounced “Shawn”—has not released an album of original material since her indie “mainstream” breakthrough, The Greatest, ten years into her recording career, in 2006. (There was a covers album in 2008 and a covers EP the following year.) Her backstory involves far too much angst and difficulty for me to get into here. You can look it up if interested. “Ruin” is the first song made available from her long-awaited new album, Sun, which is scheduled for a September release on Matador Records. MP3 via Matador. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

photo credit: Nils Bernstein (via http://www.thestoolpigeon.co.uk)

Free and legal MP3: Marianne Faithfull (wherein she takes her mighty voice to NOLA)

Marianne Faithfull is 64 years old but I’m pretty sure that equates to, oh, at least 128 years in most people’s lives. Let’s just say she’s been through a lot, and a lot of it self-inflicted. Her scarred and ragged and potent voice tells a good part of the story, independent of what it’s actually saying.

Marianne Faithfull

“Why Did We Have To Part” – Marianne Faithfull

Marianne Faithfull is 64 years old but I’m pretty sure that equates to, oh, at least 128 years in most people’s lives. Let’s just say she’s been through a lot, and a lot of it self-inflicted. Her scarred and persuasive voice tells a good part of the story, independent of what it’s actually saying.

For her new album she took her voice, and the rest of her, down to New Orleans, at the suggestion of producer Hal Willner, a frequent collaborator. The result is something at once familiar—no matter what she does, she sounds like herself and no one else—and a little bit anomalous. The goal was not to make a New Orleans record per se, but the local musicians and the authentic Bywater recording studio have surely added a vibe that Faithfull has not accessed previously. Check out here how “Why Did We Have To Part” manages its effortless shift in tone: what begins like a stately bit of British folk-rock soon enough settles into a song with a subtly slinky groove, thanks to bassist George Parker Jr. (listen to how he finds his own spaces to play in) and drummer Carlo Nuccio, not to mention the deft organ flourishes of none other than Bob Andrews, once a member of Graham Parker’s band the Rumour, but a NOLA resident since 1992.

And clearly the indomitable Ms. Faithfull has the voice for all of it. I’ll admit that I can’t quite shake the image of her as the Empress Maria Teresa in the film Marie Antoinette, but it’s true, there’s something in Faithfull’s accumulated history of decadence and despair that has, over time, lent her an aristocratic air. Listen to how she enunciates “What would I do without your love?” (1:38)—this is a woman who may have experienced immeasurable loss in life but she holds resolutely onto her dignity. Note that while this new album is, as is usual for her, primarily a covers album, “Why Did We Have To Part” is one of the four songs (out of 13) that Faithfull co-wrote.

The album, entitled Horses and High Heels, was released earlier this year in Europe, and is slated for a U.S. release on Naïve Records in late June.