Free and legal MP3: Better Oblivion Community Center (jangly, literate, occasionally loud)

A loose-limbed paean to 21st-century chaos.

“Dylan Thomas” – Better Oblivion Community Center

When a song comes along that’s this affable and effective, you can begin to wonder why everyone doesn’t do this. It seems so straightforward!: lay down a jangly, toe-tapping groove, add in a friendly descending melody peopled by tumbly, literate lyrics, performed by same-note, male-female harmonies, and boom—terrific song. Consider the couple of interruptions from rambunctious guitars (for instance, at 1:22) a bonus.

By their own accounts, Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers, who together comprise Better Oblivion Community Center, did in fact find this song pretty easy to write—Oberst has been quoted as calling the song a “happy accident.” It sprung from a discussion of a Reply All episode (they are both big fans of this great podcast) that had to do with the conspiracy theories online that posit, in apparent seriousness, that the current American president is only pretending to be a colossal moron. Oh and the Dylan Thomas connection seems to do with the basic fact that Oberst is himself a long-time admirer of the Irish poet.

I assume fans either of Oberst or of Bridgers individually will dig this but I myself wasn’t either in particular and I dig it too, in a whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts way. Their blended voices in this relatively upbeat setting have a delightful elan that overshadows a draggy melancholy that, to my ears, can beset both of them on their own. Not that there’s anything wrong with draggy melancholy! Sometimes that’s just the thing. But, not a thing on this loose-limbed paean to 21st-century chaos.

“Dylan Thomas” is the third track on the Better Oblivion Community Center’s self-titled debut, released in January. You can stream it as well as buy it (digital, CD, vinyl) via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Wye Oak(dreamy and driven)

When Jenn Wasner’s multi-tracked vocals arrive, they wash into the song in full-on School of Seven Bells fashion and, with the ongoing jig of synthesizers, conjure some sort of soaring, hopeful ache that seems to make life both challenging and worth living at the same time.

Wye Oak

“The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs” – Wye Oak

Both dreamy and driven, the title track from the new Wye Oak album chugs to a brisk, intricate-sounding 4/4 beat, propelled by an array of synth lines with enough texture and zest to support the 57-second introduction. (Listen in particular for the pentatonic arpeggios punctuated by percussive stabs and distant twiddles on top.) When Jenn Wasner’s multi-tracked vocals arrive, they wash into the song in full-on School of Seven Bells fashion and, with the ongoing jig of synthesizers, conjure some sort of soaring, hopeful ache that seems to make life both challenging and worth living at the same time.

And okay that’s a lot to put on an indie rock song, or any song for that matter. So let’s get back to the music itself, and specifically the guitar work. Do you even notice it? There in the chorus, that distorted, antic melody underpinning Wasner’s repetition of the titular phrase, that’s her partner Andy Stack on guitar. The sound is charming and inventive as it intertwines with the staccato synths and Wasner’s plain-spoken vocals, producing in its entirety a song that feels very alive, very of the moment. So…can we lay to rest, yet, the streaming-induced hand-wringing about the death of rock? Is getting three million streams the only legitimate goal in musical life? There are smart young musicians out there who find artistic merit in extending the spectrum of rock’n’roll history to include what they’re trying to say and do. Part of separating ourselves from the 21st century’s digital trance involves remembering there is more to music than virality. There’s more to everything than virality.

“The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs” is available as an MP3 via KEXP. The album was just released this past week on Merge Records. Wye Oak has been featured on Fingertips three previous times, dating back to 2008 (see the Artist Index for details).

Free and legal MP3: Baula (potent Scandinavian rock’n’roll)

Echoes of ’60s spy-movie music are just a part of the charm, and are woven into something that feels different and organic.

Baula

“Nova” – Baula

“Nova” grows in potency with repeated listens. Sly echoes of ’60s spy-movie music are just a part of the charm, and are woven into something that feels at once innovative and organic. This is music to sink into, music to remind us that the world remains a beautiful place, even when you find yourself living in a country with leaders who are fucked up beyond all repair, and where innocent people pay the dreadful price, over and over.

I digress. Listen to Karolina Thunberg’s sweet, clear-throated voice, with its understated vibrato, and then listen to how snugly Ísak Ásgeirsson’s blends in. Listen to the lonely, resonant guitar tones, redolent of empty spaces and purple skies. Listen to the evocative drumming, with its preference for rumbling over crashing. This is marvelous new music, from beginning to end, using an aural palette that evokes classic rock without sounding tired or derivative in any way. One of my favorite moments, small but impactful, is the guitar line in the middle of the chorus (first heard at 1:01-1:03), tracing a nifty chord progression without showing off. And this moment comes directly on the heels of another favorite moment, which is the way Thunberg has lyrics that repeat themselves (“In the end, no one will know”: beginning at 0:54), via musical notes that repeat themselves, but she alters the phrasing the second time through, pausing this time on the word “end.” It’s a soft change, but a suggestive one.

And can I say that among the smaller but still important reasons to love and admire the Scandinavian countries is their commitment to rock’n’roll as an ongoing, vibrant, multi-faceted genre. As corporate America continues to foster a marketplace that squashes heart and expression in favor of fad and compression, I for one heartily support cultures that recognize that humanity comprises far more than commercial concerns.

Based in Gothenburg, Sweden, the half-Swedish, half-Icelandic duo Baula formed in 2015. This is their third single; I look forward to more. Check out their stuff on SoundCloud. Thanks to the band for the MP3.


photo credit: Greta Maria Asgeirsdottir

Free and legal MP3: Winchester (stately epic)

Now this is how to start a slow song: with a stately, centered, melodic line, via a deep but elusive synth tone, in unhurried 6/8 time.

Winchester

“I’m Not Ready to Go Yet” – Winchester

Now this is how to start a slow song: with a stately, centered, melodic line, via a deep but elusive synth tone, in unhurried 6/8 time. Add, without fuss, some subtle digital noise, and then a piano (acoustic or electric, can’t tell, but it sounds acoustic, which is the important thing)—and then, unexpectedly, an acoustic guitar, strumming crisp chords. We’re already a minute and twenty seconds into the song, there is still nothing but introduction in sight, but I am on board. (I’ve heard much shorter introductions sound boring and pointless.)

The singing starts, with a subtle lead-in from some shivery cymbals, at 1:58, a clean female voice, emerging so organically from the instrumentation that it’s hard to discern exactly when she starts. The song’s steady pace, measured out in deliberate triplets, becomes its anchor, its defining core, but don’t be so lulled you miss the turning point at 2:36, when a deep electronic pulse promises some as-yet unimagined transformation. Jittery synths supplant the piano around 3:15, and the digitalia accumulates as a preface to: guitars (3:54). Silvery, siren-y guitars, putting me in the mind of Explosions in the Sky, but here, initially, matched against the background acoustic rhythm guitar. Until the next turning point, at 5:14: the trembling electric guitar (maybe it’s just one after all) goes into full solo mode, joined at long last by the drums. Had you missed the drums? This is the first we’ve heard them, which I’m pretty sure illustrates (if everything else hasn’t already done so) how carefully this song was constructed. It’s easier to aim for epic than to get there but “I’m Not Ready to Go Yet” makes the journey and, to my ears, comes out the other side.

Winchester is the Toronto-based duo of Lauren Austin and Montgomery de Luna. “I’m Not Ready to Go Yet” is a track from their forthcoming debut EP, If Time is Not Linear Why Can’t I Forget the Past? (no release date set at this point). Thanks to the band for the MP3.

p.s. While I resist typographic idiosyncrasy here, you should know for the record that the band officially spells its name with capital letters and spaces, like this: W I N C H E S T E R.

Free and legal MP3: Pop & Obachan (charming, freewheeling, good-spirited)

At once woozy and perky, “I Bet High” presents us with a brief but much-needed shot of good spirit and motion to counter the tar pit of despair many of us have fallen into since 11/9.

Pop and Obachan

“I Bet High” – Pop & Obachan

At once woozy and perky, “I Bet High” presents us with a brief but much-needed shot of good spirit and motion to counter the tar pit of despair many of us have fallen into since 11/9. But blink and you’ll miss this one: no sooner does the listener feel fully embraced by the chunky, freewheeling vibe then the song plunks to a close.

So while I like this a lot there is no hiding the fact that “I Bet High” is an odd song, with an ad hoc feeling to both structure and texture. The tinkly electric guitar sounds like some kind of far-away-in-time instrument; Emma Tringali sings with a tone mixing come-hither-ness and a playful shove, awash in reverb; and the entire song bounces along without much of a rudder—the verses melt into a charming if woolly indistinctness, while the chorus glides through our awareness before we even realize that’s what we just heard. In the end, the song’s playful, “look-at-what-I-just-found” sensibility is central to its appeal. Put it on repeat and enjoy.

Pop & Obachan is a studio duo and a six-piece live band, led by Tringali and Jake Smisloff and based in upstate New York. “I Bet High” is a track from their debut album, entitled Misc. Excellence, which was recorded in their apartment on a tape deck and released last month. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp. Thanks to the band for the MP3. [MP3 no longer available.]

Free and legal MP3: The Blessed Isles (’80s-style electro-pop)

The Blessed Isles

“Confession” – The Blessed Isles

Brisk, skittish, and still rather lovely, “Confession” presents as a knowing homage to ’80s electro-pop while sparkling with an energy that feels current rather than nostalgic. The effortless, sing-song-y melodicism evokes Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, without perhaps that band’s knob-twiddly thickness, while the unusually effective mix of synthesizer and guitar calls New Order to mind.

Only here, notice, the guitar doesn’t loom heavily at the bottom of the mix but provides a lilting, melodic counterpoint to the song’s electronic pulse. In the extended introduction, the guitar at first works with its own variation of a heartbeat, but later on (0:45) finds its upper register and snuggles a precise and concise melodic line into the rubbery electronic milieu. Listen in particular to when it returns, between verses, at 1:37, all glide and grace, and a seductive counterpoint to singer Aaron Closson’s sweet but substantive tenor.

The Blessed Isles is the duo of Closson and Nolan Thies. Based in Brooklyn, the band self-released an EP in 2011, and was signed to Saint Marie Records the following year. “Confession” is a track off their debut full-length album, Straining Hard Against the Strength of Night, released by Saint Marie back in May. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Work Drugs (mellow groove w/ depth & distinction)

“Roll” tosses you onto a featherbed of chill without so much as mussing your hair.

Work Drugs

“Roll” – Work Drugs

“Roll” tosses you onto a featherbed of chill without so much as mussing your hair. And yet the song also quivers with a fidgety unease, and therein, to my ears, lies the depth and distinction. It’s easy enough (although not really) to lay down a smooth beat and offer up some whispery vocals and call it a day. “Roll” starts there but heads into more stimulating corners. An initial hint is found in the bass line, in the way its staccato bursts at the beginning of each measure melt into mellower iterations at the back end. It’s a nuanced, subtly unsettling effect.

Then there are lyrical phrases, which, when rising to the listener’s awareness, do not exactly say “Let’s party,” for instance, the opening salvo: “If you want to take me out, shoot to kill,
You better burn this city down.” And probably best of all, there’s a saxophone, and the kind that sounds like the player is standing underneath a streetlight on a moonless night. Notice how it slips all but unnoticed into the background at 0:42, initially providing only muted accents before, one-third of the way in, the signature riff is blown (1:15), instantly turning the song’s introductory motif, originally laid out on synth, into something nearly heroic. Of course this was made to be a sax riff. And yet who would have anticipated that at the beginning?

Work Drugs, previously featured on Fingertips in March 2015, is the duo of Tom Crystal and Ben Louisiana (although live the band expands to four or five). Based in Philadelphia (second Philly band of the month here; go Eagles), these guys are awfully hard-working for being so mellow: “Roll” is a song from their eighth full-length album, Method Acting, released in August. Their first album came out in 2011; you do the math.

You can check out their entire catalog on Bandcamp. Alternatively, you can listen to a whole bunch of Work Drugs songs on their SoundCloud page; many of them are available there as free and legal downloads.

Free and legal MP3: People and Stars (’60s-esque, shuffly indie rock, w/ horns)

With its ’60s-esque, shuffly optimism and good-humored horn charts, “You’re Not Alone” feels like a wondrous balm during a stupidly fractious season.

People and Stars

“You’re Not Alone” – People and Stars

With its ’60s-esque, shuffly optimism and good-humored horn charts, “You’re Not Alone” feels like a wondrous balm during a stupidly fractious season. And for all its bright-eyed presence, one of the best things going on here is the melancholy that simultaneously weaves through this soul-satisfying song. From the dusky catch in vocalist Amanda Tate’s voice (I hear here a lovely echo of the late great Kirsty MacColl) to the minor-key moments etched into the catchy chorus, “You’re Not Alone” comes across less as mindlessly rosy than sensibly wistful about life’s beauty in and around its unpreventable angsts.

Doesn’t the song’s very title aptly capture the underlying poignancy of our shared adventure?: it’s not “I’m With You” or “We’re in This Together” it’s “You’re Not Alone”—which cheers us even while acknowledging what may well be every thinking, feeling human being’s most primordial dread. Another sign of the song’s enjoyable thoughtfulness is the instrumental break we get at 2:22, a tamped-down, philosophical pause in the middle of an effort to otherwise rouse us a bit more head-bobbingly. I always appreciate unexpected musical turns of events like that.

People and Stars is the duo of Tate and David Klotz, the latter a former member of the LA-based band Fonda. Klotz, furthermore, has developed quite a resume as a music editor for television, with credits including Game of Thrones, American Horror Story, and Stranger Things. “You’re Not Alone” is the duo’s first release, in advance of an EP slated for later this year. MP3 via Insomnia Radio Network.

Free and legal MP3: Death in the Afternoon (crisp economical Swedish funk)

If “We Don’t Have to Go Out Tonight” doesn’t single-handedly rescue the electric guitar in our knob-twiddling age, then we may just have to give the thing up for dead once and for all.

Death in the Afternoon

“We Don’t Have to Go Out Tonight” – Death in the Afternoon

If “We Don’t Have to Go Out Tonight” doesn’t single-handedly rescue the electric guitar in our knob-twiddling age, then we may just have to give the thing up for dead once and for all. There are the well-placed, slightly wobbly chords of the introduction; the crisp, economical riff accompanying the verse; and then, watch out!: the intertwining of the lead and rhythm guitar lines (1:04), a veritable ballet of funky precision. I’m just about hypnotized by all this. What was your question again?

And okay I’m not expecting miracles here. This is the kind of song that stirs up a tiny bit of dust in a couple of quick weeks (when blogs that need to be first with everything spit their PR-filled words onto the internet), then pretty much disappears (because those same blogs rush on to the next thing, and the next). (Don’t get me started on this, please.) So yes “We Don’t Have to Go Out Tonight” has been out for a few months. Sometimes (maybe all the time) it pays to reflect. I first heard this and it seemed pleasant but I wasn’t sure. Maybe I wasn’t in a good mood that day, who knows. So it sat around and I kept listening. One day it hit me that this song was really good. Those kind of muted lead vocals in the verse, that initially made me wonder what was happening? Turns out they are smartly redeemed by the clarity of the vocals in the chorus, when Christian joins Linda—and note how he sings backing vocals on the same note as the lead vocal for the first two lines, then offers one line of harmony, then a final line back on the same note. It’s a lovely, unassuming construction.

Much as Death in the Afternoon seems to be a lovely, unassuming duo (the aforementioned Linda and Christian, surnames missing in action). They are based in Halmstad, Sweden and take their name, for unknown reasons, from Ernest Hemingway’s treatise on the glory of bullfighting. Their self-titled debut album came out in October on the Stockholm-based Sommarhjärta label.

Free and legal MP3: Blind Lake (comfy, unhurried)

Comfy like a roomy old leather reading chair, “Lately” glides with offhanded purpose and resonant charm.

Blind Lake

“Lately” – Blind Lake

Comfy like a roomy old leather reading chair, “Lately” glides with offhanded purpose and resonant charm. Fueled by crisp acoustic strumming, the song’s instrumental palette is craftily expanded by a melodic bass line, tasteful electric guitar accents, and some good old “oo-oos” in the background. No one is in a hurry here, but the song still feels sharp and essential.

At the center of it all is the underutilized trick of synchronized lead vocals, as the duo of
Lotta Wenglén and Måns Wieslander both sing the entire song, often without harmonizing. And there is something about their cumulative effort, leading to the climactic lyric “I’ve got myself a pair of slippery hands/And nothing to hold onto” that turns “Lately” from merely comfy to downright moving without my quite knowing how it happened.

Blind Lake is based in Böste, Sweden; they take their name from a 2003 sci-fi novel by American-Canadian author Robert Charles Wilson. In their press material, the band claims that “Lately” is “best played while driving on a slightly wet road on a late summer’s night while deep thinking.” Have yet to try it but I won’t argue.

You’ll find the song on the album On Earth, released earlier this month. Thanks again to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.