Free and legal MP3: The Joy Formidable

Dream pop w/ a triplet-based swing

“Into The Blue” – The Joy Formidable

Thum-pi-da, THUM-pi-da, thum-pi-da, THUM-pi-da: The swinging, triplet-based backbeat that launches “Into the Blue,” offset by scratchy and thoughtful guitar arpeggios, evokes something deep and disregarded in the history of rock’n’roll. What I think we’re hearing here is the ghost of doo-wop, and while doo-wop has never been my thing (I’m old but I’m not quite that old!), it feels invigorating to hear in the context of a song so otherwise rooted in the 21st century.

Layered on top of the backbeat comes a marvelous mixture of light and shadow, melody and noise, liberation and complication. The song takes a terrific turn early on, at 1:08, when front woman Ritzy Bryan is displaced for a verse on vocals by bassist Rhydian Dafydd, who sings an alternate but related melody that strikes the ears as newly urgent. Even if—this again—it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on in the lyrics, the introduction of the other person’s point of view in what sounds like a relationship-centric song intensifies the circumstances, adroitly signaling the communication issue the song seems to be about.

Through it all keep your ears on Bryan’s guitar work—the discrete notes she slips in here and there, the occasionally heard squeak of fingers on strings, and in particular how she sometimes just starts playing her own thing (example at 1:56) as a sort of combination counter-melody/counter-rhythm to the song’s determined drive forward.

The Joy Formidable is a trio founded in Wales, although Dafydd and Bryan have been living in Utah, of all places, in recent years. (The band’s third member is drummer Matthew James.) “Into The Blue” as a single has been out since March, but is soon to emerge as the title track to the fifth Joy Formidable album, arriving later this month. MP3 via KEXP. You can buy the album in a variety of formats on Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Heavy Heart (languorous dream pop)

“Bed Bug” is so approachable that you may not notice the slurry of indistinct noise that leavens this languorous tune.

Heavy Heart

“Bed Bug” – Heavy Heart

Ambling at a walking 4/4 pace, “Bed Bug” is so approachable that you may not notice the slurry of indistinct noise that leavens this languorous and crafty tune. There are instruments to discern, for sure—drums, guitar, bass: the traditional suspects—but there’s also that special dream-pop sauce of amorphous sound blurring the background into something that you hear and don’t hear at the same time. Note in particular how it rises in volume at the chorus (first iteration at 0:44), an indecipherable swirl underpinning the lovely melody, which by the way ends with a kind of unresolved resolution (1:06-1:11) (a neat trick in and of itself).

I’d also have you tune into the lead vocals here. Dream pop/shoegaze tends historically to lean on reverb, but it hasn’t here been allowed to nullify the rich, faraway tone of lead singer Anna Vincent. There’s a moment or two where she arches up to a high note (try 0:57, for one), and the way her voice just melts into it is super appealing to me, for mysterious reasons. Too much reverb there would have lost the nuance of it. I like too the song’s casual way with a guitar riff. It’s right there in the intro: a simple, one-step-down, two-note refrain, and from there it insinuates its way into the verse, at four-measure intervals, like a friendly face spied at a bit of a distance. One last, more general thing I appreciate is how “Bed Bug” keeps varying the landscape on us: not only is the verse presented in two different settings (the second time through—1:43—the sonic palette is stripped down and drum-forward) but so is the chorus, which offers us a hazier variant the second time we hear it (2:10).

Heavy Heart is a quartet from London. Released in January, “Bed Bug” was the first single the band put out since an experiment they ran in 2016 in which they wrote, recorded, and released one new song each month for the entire year; the results were then gathered into one full-length album in 2017, entitled Keepsake. You can check out all the band’s recordings and purchase them at Bandcamp. They also now have a brand-new single, “Dowsabel,” which you can listen to there or on SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: San Mei

Hazy, guitar-laced

San Mei

“Wonder” – San Mei

Stately, hazy, guitar-laced, and ear-worm-y (in a good way), “Wonder” nods at some of contemporary pop’s aural trimmings while delivering songcraft and instrumentation unlike what our 2010s popsters tend to busy themselves with. San Mei—the stage name for Australian singer/songwriter/guitarist Emily Hamilton—is committed unabashedly to the guitar, so that’s an ear-opening contrast to today’s music scene right there. And yet, with its somewhat processed, clipped ambiance, this doesn’t sound like anyone’s father’s rock’n’roll either.

And, I have to say, one of the song’s ongoing pleasures is hearing Hamilton’s light and agile voice—which one can with no difficulty imagine layered over an electronic beat, with an easily conjured battery of back-up dancers—fronting a song that drapes its pop-inflected fabric over a sturdy body of guitar squonks and sirens. The opening testifies to what we’re in for: first, a hint of shimmery electronics, but, no, what’s really happening is the guitars are warming up (listen for the subtle scratch of electric guitar strings at 0:05). “Wonder” proceeds to launch off an honest-to-goodness guitar riff, and is driven throughout via a creative variety of electric guitar tones and etchings, including something of a psychedelic freakout at 2:23.

But there is more than guitar worship going on here. “Wonder” is structurally impressive, with its double-time tag in the verse, balanced by a pre-chorus slowdown, all leading to a chorus so solidly chorded that I’m tempted to call it anthemic were it not also so effortlessly presented—a kind of “Who, me?” approach to anthemic rock’n’roll.

San Mei was born as a laptop-based bedroom pop project, but Hamilton soon aimed her sights on a larger instrumental palette than a MIDI keyboard offered—by which of course I mean guitars: fuzzy, intersecting, drony guitars. After a debut EP in 2017. San Mei returned this year with the four-song Heaven EP, released in September. You can hear the whole thing over on SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Hatchie (catchy dream pop)

Breezing in on a vibe that explores the overlap between the Cranberries and the Sundays, “Sure” overflows with melody and nostalgia.

Hatchie

“Sure” – Hatchie

Breezing in on a vibe that explores the overlap between the Cranberries and the Sundays, “Sure” overflows with melody and nostalgia. And yet, the magic trick here is that Hatchie mastermind Harriette Pilbeam manages to put forth her music in a crisp, contemporary package. Which doesn’t (thankfully) mean she’s pandering to any of today’s all-but-listenable trends (over-processing, mindless digital rhythms, affected vocalizing). This is as solidly constructed a piece of music emerging from the remnants of the pop-rock spectrum as one can hope to encounter in the ongoing nightmare that is the year 2018.

I’m hearing a coy type of syncopation as one of the keys to this song’s earworm-y success. After the chiming, guitar-filled intro, the drums kick in at 0:22, and if you listen you’ll see that we get a direct second beat but in place of an equally accented fourth beat (which would be the classic backbeat rhythm), there’s a stuttered, off-center accent. This manages both to move the song along and to play with the flow in an agreeable way. Added to this is the way the lyrics in the verse begin only on the second beat of the measure, which creates a pleasant, head-bobbing lag, the hesitation pulling us forward rather than backward. Resolution comes with the sturdy descent of the chorus, melody now planted on the first beat, even as the drumming underneath stays with its offbeat swing.

And hey that’s a rather wordy explication; I could also just say: it’s really catchy.

Pilbeam is from Brisbane, which partially explains her easy way with this type of melodic, history-embracing music—Australia is one of a handful of countries (Sweden is another) that has figured out how to maintain cultural interest in rock’n’roll’s organic development long after the combined machinations of the mainstream American music industry and fad-obsessed internet crowds have left it for dead. “Sure” was originally released as a single in November 2017, and became more widely available with the release of her Sugar & Spice EP in May 2018. Hatchie is finishing up a US tour as we speak, with dates upcoming this month in LA and Brooklyn, among other places.

Free and legal MP3: The Luxembourg Signal (artful, guitar-oriented dream pop)

With a hypnotic groove grounded in organic drumming and a slightly off-kilter chord progression, “Laura Palmer” doesn’t reveal its “Twin Peaks” connection readily, but it’s there.

The Luxembourg SIgnal

“Laura Palmer” – The Luxembourg Signal

With a hypnotic groove grounded in organic drumming and a slightly off-kilter chord progression, “Laura Palmer” doesn’t reveal its Twin Peaks connection readily—I for one can’t make heads or tails out of the lyrics—but over the course of its almost six minutes, I do hear allusions to Angelo Badalamenti’s iconic musical landscape. Listen, for instance, to the protracted synth lines that float above the briskly moving foreground. Listen, as well, to the ominous rumble of guitar noise that rears its head down below after the 2:20 mark. And in general there’s a melancholy that weaves itself through the song that surely conjures the at once melodramatic and tragic fate of David Lynch’s mythological victim.

This is one of those fortunate longer songs that creates such a seductive atmosphere as to feel, still, rather too short than too long. To my ears, it’s the artful amalgam of voice and guitar that carries “Laura Palmer” to such an exquisite place. At first the meet-up is mostly between Betsy Moyer’s voice and one finger-picked, jangly-toned electric guitar; even though I have referred to the song’s “groove,” let me note that the feel is all gentle and melodic here, not rhythmic or beat-based. More of a wall of guitar sound emerges as the song develops, but even as the texture grows in density, an overall feeling of delicacy persists. As with Twin Peaks, the song seems to exist in its own time and place. (This isn’t nearly as weird as the TV show, however.)

The Luxembourg Signal is a seven-piece band based in Los Angeles. Various members have their roots in the band Aberdeen in the ’90s, and vocalist Beth Arzy was last seen passing through these parts as a member of Trembling Blue Stars (featured here way the hell back in 2004, for the similarly woozy, name-inspired song “Helen Reddy”). “Laura Palmer” is a song from the album Blue Field, the band’s second, released in October on Shelflife Records. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Winter (dream pop for the soul)

If the concept/sub-genre of dream pop didn’t already exist, you would invent it right now to describe “All the Things You Do.”

Winter

“All the Things You Do” – Winter

If the concept/sub-genre of dream pop didn’t already exist, you would invent it right now to describe “All the Things You Do,” by the Boston-born, Los Angeles-based band Winter. Front woman Samira Winter floats her cloudless voice over a languid, semi-blurry soundscape and it’s kind of immediately hard not to love this. The buoyant verse is infused with ever-appealing suspended chords; the chorus—forward and forceful—fills the ear with satisfying, wall-of-sound resolution, complete with an unexpected and extra-satisfying minor-chord detour.

And speaking of extra-satisfying detours, don’t miss the instrumental break-cum-coda, starting at 2:30, with its dreamy jazz-guitar-ish accents and splendid bass guitar lead, which kind of makes you go wow, what happened to bass guitar players anyway? And then the whole thing kind of makes you go wow, don’t we just want to be doing this, enhancing our lives with heartwarming sound, feeling the magic and power of this at once distant and intimate connection? It’s the opposite of living in fear, brutalized by not only the existence of barbaric death-mongers but by the fear-mongers who scurry around in their wake. And I don’t mean to pollute the beauty of our modest enterprise here with too much talk of tragedy but I do so to remind you that beauty is not negated by darkness, but becomes further concentrated. And important.

“All the Things You Do” is a single released this month on Burger Records. Support the band by buying it here, and if you want a reason to spend 99 cents versus having it for free, note that the hi-res, lossless version is also just 99 cents.

photo credit: Mariana Borau

Free and legal MP3: School of Seven Bells (airy atmospherics, guitar-heavy core)

School of Seven Bells returns as a duo, its singular, glistening sound intact.

School of Seven Bells

“The Night” – School of Seven Bells

Born as a trio, featuring identical-twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Dehaza, the Brooklyn-based School of Seven Bells found duo-hood forced upon then when Claudia announced in October of last year that she was leaving. While Alejandra was the songwriter of the two—she and guitarist Benjamin Curtis compose the band’s music—there was concern (by me, anyway) that the twosome version of SVIIB would suffer in comparison. The twin-sister harmonies were central to the band’s presentation; Curtis, in fact, told NPR in 2008 that the sisters’ precise, heavenly vocal synthesis was “the most important part of School of Seven Bells,” adding: “Everything else is accompaniment, you know, in my opinion.”

But life goes on: as it turns out, the instantly seductive tone of the Dehaza voice, at once sweet and searing, remains intact, and Alejandra does a splendid job now harmonizing with herself. How this will work in performance remains a question, but the duo version of the band, recorded, sounds pretty much the same as the trio—which is a fine thing for a band with such a distinctive sound to begin with. While the label-fixated blogosphere tosses SVIIB quickly into the dream pop or shoegaze box, this is a band that from the start has been blessed with a truly individual sound: a whirly, driven amalgam that floats airy atmospherics over a guitar-heavy core, while featuring a harmonic language that does not always feel Western and lyrics that veer towards a mystical kind of incomprehensibility.

“The Night” has an itchy vibe; launching from a sparse, uncentered interplay between two opposing guitar sounds, the song takes off at a running clip and yet also fosters an ineffable tension. Listen carefully and you’ll see how few chords are employed here. If I’m not mistaken, we may not have a chord change until 1:20. Note the lyrical clue at 0:50, when, still on the opening chord, Dehaza sings, “You’ve frozen my thoughts/You’ve frozen me out/I’m in the same place you left me baby.” We go from there into the chorus and still the music, almost claustrophobically, refuses to offer a chord progression for yet another 20 seconds. We have been set a purposeful, musical trap, and the song ultimately delivers, but for reasons which defy explicit description. Chalk it up to the same alchemy that allows SVIIB to craft its unique sound from the same ingredients theoretically available to everyone else.

“The Night” is the first track the duo has made available from their upcoming album,
Ghostory, which is due in late in February as a joint release by Vagrant Records and Ghostly International. MP3 via Pitchfork. School of Seven Bells were featured previously on Fingertips in 2008.

Free and legal MP3: Boris (kitchen-sinky chunk of sped-up dream pop)

A kitchen-sinky chunk of sped-up dream pop, “Spoon” is instantly likable even as it presents more to the ear than the ear initially can absorb.

Boris

“Spoon” – Boris

A kitchen-sinky chunk of sped-up dream pop, “Spoon” is instantly likable even as it presents more to the ear than the ear initially can absorb. Which actually isn’t easy to do, I don’t think: package sonic overload into something brisk and immediate.

Here’s maybe the key to how Boris does it: for all the aural exuberance, “Spoon” hews to the conventional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus design. This is why we can kind of “get” the song even when it’s offering more musical information in any given slice than we can consciously process. There are so many things to listen for here, from intermittent concrete sounds like breaking glass and cracking whips and children’s voices to ongoing threads like the singular rhythm section, which combines a stuttery drumbeat with a fluid, hyperactive bassline. That bursty drum sound does everything it can to break the song into disjointed moments, while the bass works hard to stitch it all together. Throughout, the slightly breathy lead vocal from guitarist Wata gives us something delightful to stay focused on when all else fails.

And never mind the difficult-to-absorb song—Boris itself is a difficult-to-absorb band. Together since 1992, a trio since 1996, this veteran Japanese outfit has a complex history of experimentation and genre-blending and -hopping. (The band has been identified with ambient, doom metal, drone metal, industrial, minimalist, noise rock, and punk, among quite a few others.) Its members all go by single names, which is just as well—slightly less information to process. They tour a lot and are reportedly more well known in North America than they are in Japan, having done things like open for Nine Inch Nails and appear on avant-garde film soundtracks, including one for Jim Jarmusch. The band’s 2006 album Pink was listed among the year’s best by Pitchfork, SPIN, and Blender. “Spoon” is a song from Boris’s new album called (finally, someone did it) New Album. New Album is actually (more complications) the band’s third release of 2011, this one a dream-pop-ish reworking of songs that were on the other two albums, with some new songs as well. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3: Acrylics (dream pop plus, from Brooklyn)

“Sparrow Song” quickly establishes itself in dream pop land, with layers of glistening keyboards and synthesizers, reverbed female vocals, and a stately 4/4 beat.

Acrylics

“Sparrow Song” – Acrylics

As with the Joan As Police Woman song above, here is another composition in which the guitar makes a late entrance, but with an entirely different vibe and effect.

“Sparrow Song” quickly establishes itself in dream pop land, with layers of glistening keyboards and synthesizers, reverbed female vocals, and a stately 4/4 beat that supports both the faster-paced melody of the verse and the slower, more expansive and harmonically-layered chorus. And yet there, in the midst of this shimmering soundscape, what’s that we hear at 2:20 but…a guitar. And not just any guitar, and certainly not the kind of processed, Cocteau Twins-like guitar sound that typically propels this dreamy kind of music. Nope, what we have here is a mellow electric guitar that sounds unassuming and organic as it plays the chorus melody in an easy-going lower register. Note how it then finds itself placing notes in an around a swirling vocal-like sound that might be a voice or might be synthetic. And how this type of ’70s-like guitar seems to have no business here—and yet it entirely does. “Sparrow Song” is deeper and richer for its presence.

Acrylics (as with Eurythmics, no “the”) is the duo of Molly Shea and Jason Klauber. They have been playing music together in one form or another since meeting at Oberlin College in the mid-’00s. Acrylics was started in Brooklyn in 2008. “Sparrow Song,” which features Caroline Polachek, from the group Chairlift, on backing vocals, is a track from the album Lives and Treasures, released this week on Friendly Fire Recordings, in conjunction with Hot Sand Records. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead. MP3 via Stereogum; it won’t show up in the media player here but click on the song title and you’ll get the download.