Free and legal MP3: Erin Rae

Dreamy, seductive pandemic ballad

“Candy + Curry” – Erin Rae

A heartwarming example of the good stuff that can emerge from bad circumstances, the woozy, unhurried “Candy + Curry” was written in the Tennessee countryside by Nashville-based Erin Rae in the midst of 2020’s disconcerting and long-lasting lockdown. The song grabs and holds attention to an unusual degree for such a languidly paced piece of music. This seems to relate to textural touches employed—including a persistent high-hat “drone,” boosted by a bicycle-bell-like chime—that convey a feeling of being carried along on a gentle breeze on a blue-sky day, or maybe just turning slow circles in a fragrant meadow, watching puffy white clouds float by. For 50 seconds or so the bass is the most prominent instrument heard, the other vague sounds providing a bare, white-noise-y background. A cello is the first to make its presence known (around 0:50); and, just when you’ve settled into the dreamy pace, a siren sounds at 1:27. No doubt a synthesizer of some sort but it starts as a genuine-sounding siren, only to perform a bit of a magic trick by transforming what is typically an alarming sound into something friendly and encouraging.

The smart, poignant lyrics, full of resonant short-cuts, reflect both the uncertainty of pandemic life as well as some of its hidden if quirky charms–or, at least, the potential charms available to those lucky enough to have shelter and good health in the midst of the widespread disaster (which, thankfully, was/is still most of us). Rae’s clear, somewhat quizzical tone serves both the words and music fabulously. I urge you to listen to this one a few times; it gets better and better as you grow familiar with it.

“Candy + Curry” is the lead track from Rae’s forthcoming album, Lighten Up, scheduled for a February release. She has two previous full-length albums to her credit, dating back to 2015. You can check her out on Bandcamp, where you can listen to two more pre-release songs from the very enjoyable Lighten Up.

Free and legal MP3: Chloe Mae

Dreamy, with a swing

“Falling” – Chloe Mae

Its dreaminess tweaked with a bit of a swing, “Falling” is an engaging song that highlights Chloe Mae’s supple and subtly potent voice. I’m hooked at the start by the Sundays-eseque character of the verse, its bi-level, 6/8 melody quickly revealing Mae’s voice as one to be reckoned with (check out the high E she hits around 0:31, a wonderful bit of passing dissonance).

But it’s the chorus that slays me for good here, the way its simple two-note melody, describing a descending major third interval, is answered a half step up and an octave higher with wordless vocals now offering an ascending minor third interval straddling the original two notes. That’s what’s going on technically but what counts is how satisfying this sounds, turning the chorus’s unusual reticence, melodically (how many choruses repeat just two notes?), into its superpower.

Things get pleasantly psychedelic in the second half, synthesizers moving from background to foreground, lyrics repeating the phrase “Falling back to you” as a sort of mantra with a synthesizer countermelody below and higher-pitched synth noodles above. Everything wraps up in a tidy 3:10. I suggest repeated listens, to allow its charms to sink further in.

Chloe Mae is a singer/songwriter from Brisbane. “Falling” is her second single, released in August.

Free and legal MP3: Orion Sun (dreamy, minimalist)

From the carefully plucked guitar through the smeary background wash and methodical drumming, the song delivers a vibe at once vague and precise, and pulls you along on its short and sultry journey as if in a comfy, if minimalist, dream.

“Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me)” – Orion Sun

And while some songs succeed via melody, there are those that establish a place in your head via atmosphere, like Orion Sun’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me).” From the carefully plucked guitar through the smeary background wash and methodical drumming, the song delivers a vibe at once vague and precise, and pulls you along on its short and sultry journey as if in a comfy, if minimalist, dream.

Orion Sun—the performing name for the Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter Tiffany Majette—favors melodies that bounce up and down, lending a rapping rhythm to her singing, or, for you truly old-school folks, bring recitative, from the opera world, to mind. The effect is at once conversational and intimate, and is accentuated by the plainspoken feelings on display, with the repeated chorus of “It feels so good to know you,” augmented by a blurry proffering of “so good”s.

The texture is so carefully established that I find myself fascinated by the way the primary guitar line sounds at once central to the song and yet spends most of the time not playing. It only finishes its full phrase at the very beginning (0:04) and then again near the very end (2:34); and it literally sounds like someone pulls the plug on the instrument halfway through the introduction (0:10). Yes, if you listen closely you will in fact hear the guitar underneath the chorus but it seems to be there all but subliminally, to give you a vague memory of something you aren’t fully experiencing.

As for the title, if there’s a reason Majette co-opted the title from a Jacques Brel classic (not to mention Regina Spektor’s more recent and much perkier song of the same name), it’s not immediately apparent. “Ne Me Quitte Pas” is from the debut Orion Sun album, Hold Space For Me, released back in March on the Mom + Pop record label. You can listen and purchase via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP. You might also be interested in a newer track of hers, “Mama’s Baby,” which was written in response to Majette having been attacked and injured by police during a protest in Philadelphia in May. Track is here; a newspaper account of the incident and resulting song is here.

Free and legal MP3: Star Tropics

Seasonally evocative power pop

Star Tropics

“Summer Rain” – Star Tropics

Urging itself into our lives at the ever-wonderful nexus of dream pop and power pop, “Summer Rain” features a ringing, evocative guitar line, a reverby backwash, a brisk backbeat, and a breath-filled, sweet-voiced lead singer. You don’t need any more description than that, right?

Well, okay, I’ll talk a little. First I am taken with how all but onomatopoetic the song is, with the aforementioned ringing guitar line deftly mimicking rainfall, and with the aforementioned sweet-voiced lead singer (Nikki; no last name provided) creating, for me, somehow, the sound-picture of a warm, grey-green landscape moistened by a gentle but persistent shower (note the summer rain evoked here is of the comforting old-school variety, not the terrifying climate-change-driven monsoons of the 2010s). Next I am oddly intrigued by the brief, willowy instrumental break two-thirds of the way through the song (2:22); when songs are this assured and on-point, I’m always interested in what they are going to do with a bit of leisure time, as it were. Here we get meander-y 25 seconds that begins with the guitar kind of refusing the spotlight that was seemingly aimed at it—rather than the confident chiminess of the intro we get unassertive arpeggios and, most intriguing of all, the distant sound of repeated notes played high up on the neck. The guitar is joined by a particularly low-tech kind of synthesizer, pushing out a wistful, air-toned melody that comes from an entirely different world than Planet Dream Pop but is all but heart-breaking and perfect.

Star Tropics is a Chicago-based four-piece with one previous 7-inch release to their name. “Summer Rain” is part of double-sided single released in March. MP3 via Insomnia Radio.

Free and legal MP3: Papercuts (reverbed nostalgia, w/ something extra)

For all its diaphanous reverb and sweet nostalgia, “Do You Really Wanna Know” has a tough little core that pushes the song, for me, past some of my built-in “twee” alarms.


“Do You Really Wanna Know” – Papercuts

I have recently discovered that not everyone here realizes that the three songs selected each week are not merely handpicked for inclusion but also packaged together in a particular order, intended ideally to be listened to in little sets of three. Well it’s true. And if you don’t have time for that this week, at the very least check out the segue between They Might Be Giants and Papercuts this time around. Is that pretty cool or what?

For all its diaphanous reverb and sweet nostalgia, “Do You Really Wanna Know” has a tough little core that pushes the song, for me, past some of my built-in “twee” alarms. Some of the latent toughness I attribute to its assertive beat, some to the emphatic double-time bass at the bottom of the mix. But in the end it’s probably Papercuts front man/master mind Jason Robert Quever himself who unexpectedly sells the song’s clout. For all of his whispery tenor-ness, Quever finds an extra edge in the chorus; that’s where I really bought in to what’s going on here. The melody gets all girl-group-y while his voice loses the whisper (sort of) and gains traction. The quivery guitar-solo thing he then does before the next verse is actually odder than it sounds if you’re not paying attention.

Papercuts is a band with just one permanent member—the San Francisco-based Quever—and four albums now under their/his belt. “Do You Really Wanna Know”—no question mark—is from Fading Parade, which was released last month, on Sub Pop Records. MP3 via Sub Pop.

Free and legal MP3: Young Galaxy (dreamy pseudo-tropical groove)

Sleek, sultry, and groovy—as in, it has a groove—“Peripheral Visionaries” sounds like dance music for the sleep-deprived: you kind of want to move around, but maybe not as much as you want to nurse one last cocktail and just kind of zone out, with a blurry smile on your face.

Young Galaxy

“Peripheral Visionaries” – Young Galaxy

Sleek, sultry, and groovy—as in, it has a groove—“Peripheral Visionaries” sounds like dance music for the sleep-deprived: you kind of want to move around, but maybe not as much as you want to nurse one last cocktail and just kind of zone out, with a blurry smile on your face.

This one’s all about sound construction, about how sounds of different tone and fiber interact. Listen, first, to whatever it is that sounds somehow like an electronic accordion—you hear it first in the introduction at around 0:10—and then listen to how, underneath the male vocal in particular, it produces an Auto-Tune-like effect, but far less awful, thankfully. (Unless that is, also, Auto-Tune and I’m god forbid getting used to it.) There’s a definitive way this sound adds something visceral to the song that is nevertheless neither rhythm nor volume nor melody. Then there’s that plucky, rapid-fire synthesizer (I think) that builds interest and character against the more languorous beat. Those two sounds, weaving in and around each other, are the backbone of this deceptively easy-going piece; together they create an almost palpable sense of…breathing, somehow. Like the song is breathing itself. And okay, maybe I’m the one who is sleep-deprived.

With its dreamy, pseudo-tropical lilt and its studio-crafted textures, “Peripheral Visionaries” is the end result of an unusual collaboration between the Montreal-based Young Galaxy, a quartet previously known for a shoegazy kind of dream pop, and the Swedish producer Dan Lissvik. Apparently, the band completed the album, their third, and sent it off to Lissvik, who twiddled and tweaked and softwared the thing into something quite different than what the band had recorded. The album, appropriately enough, will be called Shapeshifting; it’s coming out on Paper Bag Records in February. MP3 via Paper Bag; thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Blonde Redhead

Dreamy, with deep appeal

Blonde Redhead

“Here Sometimes” – Blonde Redhead

Some bands have an uncanny ability to delight–something in the sound, the vibe, the singer’s voice, the combination of melody and rhythm, or something even more elusive, feels just right, entices the ear before any actual “hooks” or “catchy parts” arrive. Blonde Redhead is that kind of band. There are no hooks or catchy parts in “Here Sometimes,” a song that appeals deeply, at a level likely beyond analysis.

But me being me, I’m still going to try to break it down a little. And so first: listen to the opening section, in which Kazu Makino sings over a rhythmic accompaniment that itself is an inscrutable blend of an organic and electronic beat. She sings a leisurely, wistful, slightly complex melody that stretches out over 20 measures, with a couple of thoughtful pauses. A synthesizer joins very subtly along the way, but 49 seconds pass before the music starts in earnest–a mix of disparate keyboard sounds and a deliberate, syncopated bass line. And listen now to how the chords described by the instruments floating through the background change the melody dramatically. (Compare, for instance, the sound at 0:24 to 1:04—same melodic point, entirely different experience.) It’s an odd song, instrumentally, come to think of it, lacking any obvious “lead” instrument or even any sort of dominant sound; we get one 15-second synthesizer break (2:00) but even that is elusive, featuring sounds that evanesce if you listen too closely. I think the instrumental vagueness is part of what gives “Here Sometimes” its dreamy force, not to mention thematic resonance (the idea of being “here sometimes,” but not all the time).

Makino has been in Blonde Redhead with twin brothers Simone and Amedeo Pace since 1993. The band used to be larger but has been a trio since the mid-’90s. “Here Sometimes” will appear on the album Penny Sparkle, which is coming in September on 4AD. It’ll be their eighth album, and their first since 2007. MP3 via Better Propaganda.

Free and legal MP3: William F. Gibbs (dreamy yet incisive piano ballad)

“Operate” – William F. Gibbs

He’s got a name like a character actor or a middle school principal, but he’s got the dreamy voice of a romantic troubadour, a guy who’s seen enough to abandon his dreams but hangs onto them anyway.

A steady, unhurried piano ballad with an immediately engaging melody, “Operate” comes alive via a combination of Gibbs’ singing (don’t miss the phased harmonies at 1:47) and some lovely, understated guitar work. From the outset, an acoustic guitar plays in tandem with the piano, but often just at the edges of awareness; sometimes you can hear fingers moving along strings more prominently than the actual notes, which adds to an interesting sort of tension the song sustains between movement and languidness. Best of all are the dreamy slide guitar licks that get a little showcase from 1:06 through 1:32, returning in only the most whispery way through the rest of the song.

“Operate” is a track from My Fellow Sophisticates, Gibbs’ debut CD, released earlier this month on Old Man Records.