Free and legal MP3: Aly Tadros and Ben Balmer (sweet, effective singer/songwriter duet)

A singer/songwriter duet that’s as sturdy, genuine, and endearing a song as can be.

Aly Tadros and Ben Balmer

“Whim” – Aly Tadros and Ben Balmer

An easy-going singer/songwriter duet, “Whim” has all the makings of the kind of thing they will play too often on your local adult-alternative station (if you happen to have a local adult-alternative station), and therefore, alas, all the makings of a song I will not like very much: the acoustic guitars, the male-female vocals, the folk-based melody. Not that I have anything against any of those things per se, at all; I’ve just been negatively trained in recent years to expect only the most tiresome and ersatz material of this ilk based on what tends to get pushed for concentrated radio play. And yet “Whim” turns out to be as sturdy, genuine, and endearing a song as can be. Go figure.

The voices are good, to begin with. Not showy, but with impressive character. Balmer, an Austin-based musician, opens the piece, and right away I am charmed by his plainspoken tone. I often enjoy singers who sing with such clarity and ease that it sounds almost as if they are still talking; it’s a characteristic I find more often with women singers than men so here it’s especially engaging. Tadros, on the other hand, sings with unaffected richness; her first solo words here are “I was singing my song/When a man came along/Said he liked the sound of my voice,” and because as a listener I was coming to that same conclusion just as she sang it, the effect is powerful. I am won over. The stories each singer sings—simplified, but with well-chosen words—are parallel but dissimilar tales of asymmetrical relationships: in his case, the woman was in for a brief kick, then left; in her case, the man keeps her as a trophy, with no heart connection. Both of them take turns singing the same chorus: “I’m a whim, I’m a whim/Just a passing thought/In the mind of the girl (man) I love.” Note when Tadros takes the lead, the chorus’s melody slips into the space between their harmonies, a move perhaps too subtle for heavy-rotation radio play. The chorus ends with a lyric both unassuming and brilliant: “I ain’t much/When push comes to shove”—spot-on both as character self-commentary and as lyrics that scan with impeccable grace.

Tadros is an American singer/songwriter with an unusual interest in international music, prompted in part by her father’s Egyptian heritage. She was born in Laredo, got started as a musician in Austin, and now lives in Brooklyn. She released her second album, The Fits, in January. Balmer was born in Michigan and lives in Austin; his debut album, Dug In, came out in October 2012. They wrote the song together in a couple of sessions while at music festivals they were each playing.

Free and legal MP3: Maggie Björklund (with Mark Lanegan) (warm, dreamy, bittersweet waltz)

I always forget how much I like the sound of a pedal steel guitar. It’s easy to forget because the instrument has been all but hijacked by the cheesiest of cheesy country songs. “Intertwined, ” rest assured, is no cheesy country song; it is, rather, a warm and dreamy if vaguely bittersweet waltz, a cozy meditation with a vein of melancholy.

Maggie Bjorklund

“Intertwined” – Maggie Björklund (with Mark Lanegan)

I always forget how much I like the sound of a pedal steel guitar. It’s easy to forget because the instrument has been all but hijacked by cheesy country songs. “Intertwined,” rest assured, is no cheesy country song; it is, rather, a warm and dreamy if vaguely bittersweet waltz, a cozy meditation with a vein of melancholy.

Björklund, a pedal steel specialist from Denmark, is primarily an instrumentalist, so she has brought on board a number of guest vocalists, including Rachel Flotard (last seen collaborating with Rusty Willoughby), members of Calexico, and here, of course, the gruff but lovable Mark Lanegan, who growls comfortingly through “Intertwined.” Lanegan’s rumbly, ever-so-slightly vulnerable baritone pretty much embodies the spirit of this easy-weary tune. Björklund does sing in addition to play, and what her voice may lack in viscosity it makes up for with sweetness; there may be no one Lanegan doesn’t sound good with, but add Björklund to the list of striking duet partners.

In the end, however, it may be her instrument that most impressively intertwines with Lanegan’s deep quaver, the pedal steel’s intrinsic sound of yearning complementing him with dignity and nuance. Don’t miss how gracefully the pedal steel enters (0:27), barely scratching the aural surface, only gradually moving towards the center of the song. Björklund plays with almost unheard of subtlety, opting often for singly articulated notes, resolutely avoiding the overstated slurring/sliding that pedal steel players are often incapable of resisting. This makes the moments in which she does specifically utilize the instrument’s capacity for sliding through blurred notes all the more poignant and effective.

Björklund has played with bands and as a backing musician in both Europe and the U.S. “Intertwining” is a song from her debut album, Coming Home, which was released in March on Bloodshot Records. MP3 via Bloodshot. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.