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.

Free and legal MP3: Work Drugs (irresistible chillwave, w/ guitar solo)

Just about as irresistible as chillwave comes.

Work Drugs

“Chase the Night” – Work Drugs

Recycling the slick grooves of the late ’70s and early ’80s through 21st-century digital noodling has given birth to an entire (sort of) genre which has in recent years been as cutting-edge hip in pop music circles as the original music had been deemed hopelessly passé for a good 20 years or more. Funny that.

But there’s no denying the allure of this stuff, and “Chase the Night” strikes me just about as irresistible as chillwave comes. Equal parts sultry beat and soaring melody, the song transcends the genre’s robotic drift via some canny songwriting chops: both the verse and the chorus have two distinct sections, the second in each case building on the first in subtle but ear-grabbing ways. In the case of the verse, the melody changes from ascending to descending at the midway point and now comes at us in double time (0:30); the chorus, meanwhile, likewise goes double-time about halfway through, adding a lower-register counter-melody (1:03) after opening more anthemically.

And the boys of Work Drugs aren’t done there. We get a short, foggy bridge that floats near a kind of vocal manipulation that tips its hat towards commercial pop, but fades as quickly and curiously as it arose, and then leads into the song’s last two, disarming sections: first (2:35), the chorus, now presented in a new, minimal setting that accentuates the appeal of both the melody and of the human voices singing it; second (2:55), an out-of-the-blue, honest-to-goodness guitar solo, which sounds beautifully in context even as it was the last thing I might have expected. (Repeat listens to the song have since revealed a guitar hiding in plain sight in the back of the mix in the chorus, but without the closing solo, I’d never have picked it out.)

Work Drugs is the bizarrely prolific Philadelphia-based duo of Thomas Crystal and Ben Louisiana. They have been recording since 2011, and their forthcoming album, Louisa, will be their seventh full-length. I’m not even sure how that happens. The band performs live as a five-piece. “Chase the Night” is from Louisa, and can be downloaded as an MP3 in the usual method, above, or you can visit the band’s SoundCloud page and grab it there as a higher-definition .wav file. Lots of other songs available there as well. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Chelan (martial clarity meets windswept moodiness)

Often the acoustic and electronic are mixed in a song in blatant juxtaposition; here the analog and digital mingle with unnerving ease.

Chelan

“Pretend We Live Forever” – Chelan

We’ve got the snap-to-attention drumming on the one hand, and echoey industrial background washes on the other: martial clarity meets windswept moodiness. What’s not to like? And check out the sneaky way that swells of actual stringed instruments press their way into a sonic landscape that feels at once intimate and expansive. Often the acoustic and electronic are mixed in a song in blatant juxtaposition; here the analog and digital mingle with unnerving ease.

And then there’s the matter of how this thing, well…swings. Underneath the rat-a-tat snare is a deeper, swaying, gut-level beat, and this, I think, is what really nails “Pretend We Live Forever” together. (If you’ve got any desk-dancing inclinations, this song all but requires some kind of awkward-looking but satisfying upper-body gesticulations.) Another somewhat hidden strength here is singer Jennifer Grady’s voice, which has a lovely, limpid tone and is allowed to hit our ears with gratifying directness, even as a variety of layered effects swirl around her. But she’s also oddly easy to miss since so many songs that aim for the kind of ambiance we’ve got going here seem not too often interested in presenting a clear and unadulterated voice. Which kind of trains our ears not to hear. Which is another matter for another day.

Chelan is the duo of Jen Grady and Justin Hosford. She teaches music; he is a TV and film composer with a studio in the Mojave Desert, where they converge to write and record whenever they can. “Pretend We Live Forever” is a track from their forthcoming album Equal Under Pressure, to be released later this month. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Hollands (thoughtful art pop, w/ extra oomph)

Even when it isn’t quite like anything else you’ve heard it always manages to be at least a little like something else you’ve heard. This is fun and as it should be.

Hollands

“Great White Shark” – Hollands

With confident cockeyed momentum, “Great White Shark” is a fun-house blend of thoughtful art pop and something bashier and more direct. A dignified violin break collides with a chugging, minimal rhythm section; articulate guitar lines locate clearings between earnest chunks of elusive lyrics; a basic verse melody repeats, with reappearing variations, while something resembling a chorus slips in once or twice; the song, while pushing five minutes, passes in something of a fever dream. Welcome to what has become of rock’n’roll in the mid-’10s, devolving and evolving simultaneously into whatever two people in Brooklyn (it’s almost always two people in Brooklyn) feeling like recording. Even when it isn’t quite like anything else you’ve heard it always manages to be at least a little like something else you’ve heard. This is fun and as it should be.

Anyway, I have listened to this song like a thousand times and I am left with two conflicting impressions: 1) its various complexities (in structure, nuance, texture, rhyme) continue to elude me; 2) its sturdy simplicity is grounded in the relentless recurrence of a basic three-note, ascending melody. And I am guessing that if I can train my brain to hold these two antithetical notions simultaneously, I may achieve some new level of enlightenment. Or, at least, would be better able to explicate a song named “Great White Shark” only, it seems, because the phrase slides quickly by in a lyric two-thirds of the way through the song.

Hollands is the married couple of John-Paul and Jannina Norpoth. John-Paul is the multi-instrumentalist, Jannina, classically trained, plays violin. Both are children of professional musicians. Among their favorite artists, according to the band’s Facebook page, are Igor Stravinsky, Frank Zappa, and Randy Newman—a mighty trio if ever there was. “Great White Shark” is a song from Restless Youth, their full-length debut, which was released last month. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it (vinyl is an option!) via Bandcamp. MP3 courtesy of Magnet Magazine.