Free and legal MP3: Christopher Bell (cello-led, Waits-ian chamber pop)

A little bit Tom Waits, a little bit Elvis Perkins, “Darlin’, I Am Fine” is a quirky slow-burner–chamber pop at once dexterous and skewed.

Chris Bell

“Darlin’, I Am Fine” – Christopher Bell

A little bit Tom Waits, a little bit Elvis Perkins, “Darlin’, I Am Fine” is a quirky slow-burner—chamber pop at once dexterous and skewed. An unusual assortment of instruments (brass, winds, strings) trade off in the background with odd little licks and frills, adding to the song’s forceful if carnivalesque vibe, however slowly it insists on moving. Anchoring the ensemble is Bell’s cello, alternating long, melancholic bowings with tetchier scratchings, all in service of lyrics that manage quickly to assert via subtext the exact opposite of the title’s pronouncement.

Two-thirds of the way through, at 2:36, the idiosyncratic arrangement coalesces into an oddball instrumental interlude. Tom Waits famously gave his musicians an instruction during the recording of Rain Dogs to “play it like a midget’s bar mitzvah” (that’s a direct quote; I don’t mean anything insulting by the term and I don’t think Waits did either). Our instrumental passage here may not conjure the aforementioned bar mitzvah but we might be at the after-party.

Christopher Bell is a cellist, multi-instrumentalist, and engineer based in Jamestown, New York. “Darlin’, I Am Fine” is a track from the album Rust, which the prolific Bell released in September 2015. If I’m counting right Rust is Bell’s sixth full-length album, dating back to 2012; before that there were five EPs, the first coming out in 2009. In March 2015, Bell also released two albums collecting all of his work up to 2013; you can see everything on his Bandcamp page, and listen to and/or purchase all of it.

Free and legal MP3: deeB (evocative, trip-hoppy instrumental)

Such is the aural buffet launching the song that the listener is hard-pressed to be impatient at the music’s unhurried unfolding.

deeB

“Call It a Day” – deeB

The nostalgia floating through “Call It A Day” is mutli-layered, irresistible, all but unfair: containing within it both the stylized noir-ish-ness of ’60s soundtracks and the elegant trip hop of three decades later, which had itself found inspiration in those evocative spy-movie sounds in the first place. And now that’s 20 years ago at this point, so here we are again. The phrase “what goes around comes around” seems especially apt, given the itchy, circular ambiance of this canny, constructed, cinematic instrumental.

And yes, I have a hard time resisting the urge to call any instrumental “cinematic,” if only because of the way sounds skittering across a lyric-free aural landscape to my ears almost automatically conjure some kind of wide-open, wordless screen scene or another. But this one all but demands the label, with its three-dimensional distances, footsteppy echoes, and suggestive detail. Such is the aural buffet launching the song that the listener is hard-pressed to be impatient at the music’s unhurried unfolding, which is hung on a framework of unresolved chords, intriguing noodles of sound, and an unpretentious beat. We don’t get even the barest melody until 30 seconds in, and from there the main theme is evaded and implied but not heard until 1:25—and, even at that point it sounds more like an afterthought at first than the star of the show. It is restated at 1:38 but still sounds like throat-clearing. Finally, at 1:52, the theme emerges with confidence but only at 1:59 do we get the first full iteration—and we see now that previously we had been hearing only the theme’s second half. United with its partner, the sparse but purposeful theme feels rich and heady, bolstered by regular visits from a whale-ish trombone sound, ghostly guitar lines, and the drumbeat’s unfrazzled shuffle.

The man calling himself deeB here is Danny van den Hoek, a Dutch producer/beatmaker who is aligned with a collective called Phonophanatic in the Netherlands. “Call It A Day” is a track from the eight-song EP A Day in a City, released in January on the netlabel Dusted Wax Kingdom, based in Bulgaria. MP3 courtesy of Insomnia Radio. You can download the whole album for free at http://dustedwax.org/dwk296.html; if you like the sound of this one song, I recommend the rest.

Free and legal MP3: Sophie Barker (downtempo loveliness)

“Say Goodbye” weaves a knowing spell, breaking no new territory but doing what it does with great bittersweet panache.

Sophie Barker

“Say Goodbye” – Sophie Barker

Sophie Barker is not a name you’re likely to recognize but you may well recognize her voice—she sang a number of songs fronting the musical outfit Zero 7, which helped popularize the so-called downtempo (or chillout, or downbeat) genre early in the millennium. (She co-wrote and sang, for one, the widely-heard song “In The Waiting Line.”) Personally, I never warmed to Zero 7, and I think it was because of my irrational prejudice against “producer music.” Zero 7 was/is the brainchild of two British producer/remixer types, and to me that eliminates the main thing I get out of music, which is a sense of personal connection to a musician who is playing an instrument and/or singing a song. This is just me, I will note. You are entitled and even encouraged to feel otherwise.

Anyway, so if Sophie Barker now comes along with a similarly chilled-out sound but is singing and performing her own material, rather than as a hired hand on a musical “project,” I find my heart much more open to it than I was to her Zero 7 performances. “Say Goodbye” weaves a knowing spell, breaking no new territory but doing what it does with great bittersweet panache. (New territory, as I’ve said many times, is way overrated.) Barker has a lovely voice, at once plainspoken and rich, with a thrilling upper register that she unleashes largely in the chorus (although don’t miss how she sometimes flits into it briefly, as for instance when she sings the words “Will you” in the line “Will you be standing by me?” at 0:45). With its offhand melodies and melancholy bursts of harmony, “Say Goodbye” shimmers with feeling, and, to me, shows the potential power of this kind of composition when sung truly from the heart.

“Say Goodbye” is from the album Seagull, Barker’s third solo album, released last year in the UK. She is currently playing in the US. No word yet on whether the album is slated for a US release, but the promotional MP3 suggests something might be in the works. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.