Free and legal MP3: Shearwater (exquisitely crafted drama)

Another dramatic, exquisitely crafted song from the Austin-based Shearwater, whose latest album will be released on Sub Pop next week.


“You As You Were” – Shearwater

When you have a voice like Jonathan Meiburg’s—a sad, echoed-out tenor that registers high but resonates deep—there is no sense avoiding drama. The voice announces it, needs it, revels in it. And his songs do tend effortlessly to convey drama, via a combination of careful unfolding, subtle evocation, and urgent unleashing.

“You As You Were” beings with one note—a D# on the keyboard, repeated rapidly by the right hand for 5 seconds before stepping down to a C# as the left hand begins to sketch out a thoughtful melody under the ongoing hammering of the dominant hand’s single note. A quiet bass drum has added a pulse but maybe you don’t even notice. The rest of the band lays back until past the 40-second point. Somewhere in here the singing has started. And yet the song doesn’t feel as if it has truly kicked in until 1:24, when the drums finally give us a backbeat. And even so there’s a sense of restraint, something being held back, and finally we see what it was when one of the earlier melodies returns with a variation that leads us to a previously unheard three-note descent starting at 2:28 that features the song’s highest notes and its clearest (if still vague) sense of climax. Note that the song seems all verse, with a couple of related melodies, each of which go through some variations; there is no obvious lyrical repetition even as some key words and images recur—river, blood, mountains, weather. The song seems to be about both the damage and the promise of a personal epiphany. The combination of music and poetry here is exquisite, and well worth close, repeated listens to get to the bottom of the drama.

“You As You Were” is a song from the album Animal Joy, coming out next week on Sub Pop Records. This is Shearwater’s seventh full-length (not counting the experimental, instrumental, self-released Shearwater Is Enron album from 2010). It is the band’s first album for Sub Pop; they have recorded previously for both Matador Records and Misra Records. The MP3 is available via Sub Pop, and note that if you click on the first Sub Pop mention in this paragraph, you’ll find another free and legal MP3 from the album that is also available, and also worth hearing.

Shearwater has been previously featured on Fingertips in May 2005, March 2008, and December 2009

Free and legal MP3: Nicole Atkins (big-voiced singer/songwriter from NJ)

In the past, Nicole Atkins has parked her big voice inside of songs sparkling with ’60s pop sheen—a little bit girl group, a little bit Brill Building—and boy it fit like a glove. This time she’s moved up a decade or so and has gotten in touch with her inner Robert Plant.

Nicole Atkins

“Vultures” – Nicole Atkins

In the past, Nicole Atkins has parked her big voice inside of songs sparkling with ’60s pop sheen—a little bit girl group, a little bit Brill Building—and boy it fit like a glove. This time she’s moved up a decade or so and has gotten in touch with her inner Robert Plant. This fits like a glove too. Like I said, she’s got a big voice.

But—and this is key—she knows how to contain it. “Vultures” starts in slinky mode, all suggestion and minor key. And don’t miss by the way that great, tremulous, unresolved guitar chord that launches the song at :05; that tells you a lot about where we’re going here. If you listen closely, you’ll detect Atkins’ trademark vibrato, but she isn’t showing off. The drums hit louder than she does, at first. The lead guitar makes itself known. She lets herself be lost within gang-style vocals. She sings, “I can disappear/From who I’d like to be.” She sings a line we’ve heard before, “Take all they can get,” in a near whisper at 2:26. Then, a change. She repeats the line right away, at 2:32. She’s singing much louder, with almost instantaneous abandon; now, after all that set-up, my goodness listen to that. There’s an other-worldly force to the vocal energy unleashed here. That’s kind of where the Plant comparison comes in. I’m especially fascinated by the way she controls her vibrato, dialing it up and down like volume but with its own logic, independent of volume. Nicole Atkins has a big voice but is much more than a voice—she is a powerful singer, and a unique presence on the 21st-century rock scene.

“Vultures” is the first song available from the album Mondo Amore, Atkins’ second full-length release, which will be out in January on Razor & Tie. MP3 via Razor & Tie. This is by the way the third time that the New Jersey born and bred singer/songwriter has been featured on Fingertips, dating back to 2005.

Free and legal MP3: Los Campesinos!

Large-scale, dynamic indie rock

“The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future” – Los Campesinos!

Like the rare actor who can pull off comedy and drama with equal aplomb (I’m looking at you, Meryl Streep), the Cardiff septet Los Campesinos! herein announce that they are capable of steering their large-scale, unfettered, exclamation-pointed sound in the direction of serious fare just as knowingly as they have engaged in good-natured mayhem.

In both cases they utilize the full dynamic range of music–soft to loud, uncluttered to cluttered, solo vocals and gang singing–and an inventive sense of drama and production. This time around the band produces an almost industrial racket in service of the somber, subtly seafaring mood, and yet it’s also somewhere within that noisier-than-you-realize ambiance (check out that odd, squawking sound that punctuates the rhythm at the outset of the second verse, for instance) that something redemptive emerges. Sad, but redemptive. Maybe. The lyrics seem to have to do with the singer trying to make sense of a troubled woman he probably loves. The song isn’t fun but it’s powerful, and all but demands repeated listens for full effect.

“The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future” is a song from the band’s forthcoming CD, We Are Beautiful, We Are Damned, set for an October release on Witchita Recordings.

Free and legal MP3: The Veils

Engaging, well-conceived rock’n’roll

“The Letter” – the Veils

Finn Andrews and company return with an assured piece of rock’n’roll theater: engaging, well-performed, and rewardingly dramatic, featuring a full-fledged, recurring instrumental motif the likes of which has all but disappeared from the 21st-century rock scene. I’m talking about the ringing guitar line that opens the song; at least, I think that’s a guitar–the sound is slippery and intriguing, and even though you can sing the melody easily back to yourself, you can’t quite tell what’s making it. When the theme returns later, braided into that sleek, idiosyncratic chorus, I can’t help but smile with a wordless sort of delight at the vivid economy on display. “She wrote the letter down” is all Andrews sings, twice, and–via that delay between “letter” and “down,” and the delicious melodic sidestep he takes on the second “down”–yet manages to open up a world of struggle and drama. I can’t figure out what else he’s singing about but, as is often the case (see above) when a gifted singer gets hold of a good song, it doesn’t seem to matter.

As noted last time around, Andrews is the son of Barry Andrews, once a sideman in XTC, later frontman for Shriekback. The Veils have gone through a variety of incarnations since their 2002 inception; the current, multinational quartet features two from New Zealand (including Andrews), a German, and a Brit. “The Letter” is from the band’s new CD, Sun Gangs, released last week on Rough Trade Records. MP3 via the Beggars Group web site.

Free and legal MP3 from Juliette Commagère (lush and layered, both bashy and beautiful)

“Overcome” – Juliette Commagère

Lush, layered, and unapologetically dramatic, “Overcome” almost viscerally illustrates its theme with music that is simultaneously in your face and in the clouds. A cascade of simple descending melodies and unrestrained harmonies, “Overcome” aims for both unmitigated beauty and bashy insistence, in the process making lack of subtlety its own kind of asset–after all, a song all about being overcome is not one for nuance practice. The fact that its recurring six-note instrumental refrain mirrors the chorus of “Born in the U.S.A.” is likely a coincidence but I kind of enjoy how she’s imported that pummeling tune into a neo-Enya-like setting.

You know, I keep listening to this, which, circularly, seems to increase my desire to keep listening to it. And yet increased exposure seems to be decreasing my capacity to say anything particularly perceptive about it. I think this one aims at some entirely different part of the brain.

Commagère is the singer and keytar (yes, keytar) player for the band Hello Stranger. “Overcome” is from her first solo album, entitled Queens Die Proudly, which was released in October on the L.A-based Aeronaut Records.