Free and legal MP3: Marching Band(Swedish indie pop duo)

“It Will Never Slip” – Marching Band

Marching Band is a duo. If you were Sherlock Holmes, that should tell you everything you need to know about this song, which engages and delights largely via a subtle, playful contradiction between the big and the small. “It Will Never Slip” is full of grand, large-scale gestures performed in a modest, almost intimate setting. The song is big and echoey but also small and unassuming. It opens and closes–as do any number of bloated, album-rock standards of the ’80s–with an elusively familiar acoustic guitar riff. But note that otherwise you don’t even hear the acoustic guitar, because, after all, there are just two guys in the band. They’ve got other instruments to tend to.

And there are pretty much just two chords in the whole song. I do not believe this is because they only know two chords. Instead, consciously or not, it’s another sly way of being big and small at the same time: you’ve got the fleet-footed melody, alternately bouncing and running up and down, but you’re framing it onto those two chords–which are, in fact, C and G, perhaps the two most basic chords in the whole game. Verse and chorus, both the same two chords, but check out how they sew it all together in the chorus, between the lyrics, with that anthemic downward trio of notes (so it’s like mi-re-do). That’s typically heard in a huge, stadium-rock gesture, complete with slashing guitar chords. Here I think I’m hearing a banjo.

Marching Band hails from Linköping, Sweden, a small city roughly halfway between Göteburg and Stockholm. They’ve been playing since 2005, and released their first album in ’08. “It Will Never Slip” is from the forthcoming Pop Cycle, due out next month on U&L Records. The MP3 is another available via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3: Electric President (warm & precise electronic/acoustic combo)

“Safe and Sound” – Electric President

Here we have another duo, but that’s about all “Safe and Sound” has in common with “Hung Out.” Instead of sculpted noise and a simple verse-chorus-verse structure we here get a carefully conceived instrumental palette, a sweet-voiced singer, and a three-sectioned song linked by a chorus we hear only twice. This song sounds at once very relaxed and very precise, which is an engaging combination; every sound carries the weight of purpose, from the reverberant tom-tom of the intro to the acoustic rhythm guitar that is given a quiet 10 seconds of playing by itself in the middle of the song, to the gentle, clap-driven gospel swing that drives the song but below the level of conscious awareness until the keyboard joins it halfway through. While electronica is at the root of the band’s approach, this song replaces overt glitchiness with something that seems very much like organic warmth and is no worse for the wear.

Jacksonville is home base for Ben Cooper and Alex Kane, who have been doing business as Electric President since 2003. (Their first album, released in 2006, was called S/T: “Self-Titled.”) They do most of what they do jointly and electronically, while Ben is the aforementioned sweet-voiced singer. Their third full-length, The Violent Blue, was released this week on the small New Haven, Conn.-based label Fake Four Inc.

Free and legal MP3: Rainbow Arabia(stylish, engaging world music admixture)

“Harlem Sunrise” – Rainbow Arabia

This one morphs before your startled ears from a vaguely Middle Eastern sounding dance with an electro-beat and kitchen sink percussion into a vaguely Caribbean steel-drum-inflected shuffle with some African guitar thrown in for good measure. Too much pastiche for its own good? Or is “Harlem Sunrise,” rather, an audacious 21st-century stylistic mash-up? I vote for the latter. Nothing this warm and welcoming can be disparaged, in my book, nor something that manages, for all its sonic salmagundi and home-built vibe, to proceed with an air of the timeless about it. Even singer Tiffany Preston’s slightly pouty and distant voice, artfully reverbed and tweaked, works better here than it maybe should.

And I in any case am entirely in favor of major-key songs with minor-key introductions. That’s a nice songwriting trick you don’t hear much of in modern pop.

Rainbow Arabia–and the band name kind of immediately hints at what they’re up to–is a L.A.-based husband-wife duo (Tiffany sings and plays guitar; Danny does the keyboards and electronics). “Harlem Sunrise” is a song from their Kabukimono EP, which was released in July by Manimal Vinyl, also based in L.A. (Manimal Vinyl, by the way, is a name that does not hint at what they’re up to; the label does in fact release things on CD and digitally in addition to vinyl.) Thanks to Linda at Speed of Dark for the head’s up on this one. MP3 via RCRD LBL, and note that the link is not direct; just click “Download MP3” and it’s yours.

Free and legal MP3: Wildbirds & Peacedrums (quirky, affecting; voice & drums)

“My Heart” – Wildbirds & Peacedrums

For a voice and percussion duo, Mariam Wallentin and Andreas Werliin create music with great texture and charm. It’s still pretty idiosyncratic–okay, very idiosyncratic–but you don’t listen to “My Heart” and think, “Geez, where are all the real instruments?” because Werliin does a beautiful, canny job finding not just beats but notes and motifs in a variety of things that are struck with a stick or a mallet. Wallentin in fact sounds like she’s being accompanied by a small, quizzical orchestra, not just a drummer.

The song’s many and varied structural and compositional and artistic quirks may well be why a listener’s ear is distracted from the basic instrumental peculiarity at the core of the duo’s sound. There’s the stop-start-y melody (I dare you to sing along for very long); the shifting rhythmic foundation (the same melody happens over drastically different percussive backgrounds at different points in the song); the art-song-meets-pop-song sense of development (note for example that odd, extended interstitial moment–beginning at 0:49–of being neither in verse nor chorus); and, payoff, the unexpected but brilliant choral finish.

“My Heart” is a song from The Snake, the band’s second album, which came out in Sweden in 2008 and was released earlier this year in the UK on the Leaf Label, and finally also in the US last month by the Control Group. MP3 via NME.

Free and legal MP3: Bad Veins (nuanced indie rock w/ huge chorus)

“Gold and Warm” – Bad Veins

Propulsive and canny, “Gold and Warm” sneaks a huge, sing-along chorus into a multifaceted piece that sounds very little like standard-issue indie-rock-duo music in an age in which the duo has become oddly commonplace.

The dreamy, retro-y orchestral intro is an immediate clue that the song may not unfold as expected. While “Gold and Warm” drives with a determined beat, it also opens itself at various points to more delicate touches, and although singer-songwriter-guitarist-keyboardist Benjamin Davis pushes his voice through something of a Strokes-like filter, he doesn’t use that as an excuse to sing monotonously, which is something this particular effect typically encourages. The rich-toned Davis shows me a thing or two about the emotional range that’s still possible for a filtered voice, while partner Sebastien Schultz gives the duo the gift of a human drummer, grounding the band’s sound in something nuanced and organic, often putting his cymbal work more forward than the drumming in the mix. And then listen to him work the drum kit in the instrumental break that accompanies the instrumental interlude three-quarters of the way into the song (2:46)–that’s just some good, old-fashioned drumming the likes of which you might have heard from Ringo way back when: patient, spacious, self-effacing, and effective precisely because it doesn’t try to be intricate or show-off-y.

“Gold and Warm” is the second track on the Cincinnati-based band’s self-titled debut, released last month on Dangerbird Records. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3: the Dø (percussive, kitchen-sink indie pop)

“Tammie” – the Dø

So go ahead and listen to this song. Shrug and put it aside for two weeks or so. Listen to it again. Go: “Hm. I actually kind of like this! A lot, even.” Well okay, you don’t have to do any of that, but that’s surely what I did. Listening to music can be a flitty and unpredictable affair.

So, “Tammie”: kitchen-sink indie pop, sweetly nutty, with the large-scale energy of the Arcade Fire school of 21st-century rock, but achieved instead via a stripped-down, organic vibe driven by hand-claps and odd vocalizations and peopled by a simple (but multinational) duo—French/Finnish Olivia Merilahti and the Parisian Dan Levy. Where the song takes off, for me, is here: when the insistent, twice-repeated minor-key melodic lines of the verse resolve in the third iteration (first heard around 0:41)—such a smooth and unexpected chord slips in right there in the middle of all the staccato insistence. Check out the next time this comes up, with those invigorating harmonies (1:24, but keep listening). Another wonderful moment is when the repeated chant of the bridge, with all its percussive drive, morphs (1:47) into an orchestral interlude, featuring an enticing influx of woodwind-like sounds.

The Dø is pronounced like the first note of the scale (“‘do’ a deer,” etc.)—even though the “ø” (in languages that use it) is actually pronounced more like the “u” in “hurt.” And while the word “dø” means “die” in Danish and Norwegian, the band says the name comes simply from combining the letters of their first names. (D’oh!) “Tammie” can be found on their debut CD, A Mouthful, which was originally released last year in Europe, and given an American release this month on Get Down Records.

Free and legal MP3: The Argument (mysteriously appealing organic electronica)

“Goodbye” – The Argument

A mysteriously appealing and almost mystically engaging piece of organic electronica. With a brisk, manufactured beat and circular melody, “Goodbye” unfolds in a lyrical haze, the song’s narrator offering a series of deadpan observations in a voice at once wavery and steadfast. Through a precise combination of concrete imagery and vague scenarios, the words themselves beckon to the unconscious, leaving the conscious mind lost in the song’s upward-climbing, downward-resolving tune.

A hint of how this works comes in the second verse: “And lights will start to fade/A car goes by and a window breaks/And scatters thoughts across the floor/They’re keeping me awake/They’re keeping me awake.” The window breaks, causing thoughts to scatter across the floor: the line between the external and the internal is blurred to the point of nonrationality. Note also the blurred aural line between acoustic and electric, and how the song, churning along with a homemade sort of charm, overlays clear musical resolution with lyrical elusiveness. And while I don’t usually connect to songs with long, noodly outros, the spacey but poignant last 80 seconds or so seems perfectly designed to help a listener integrate what he or she has just absorbed.

The Argument is a duo from Sweden, about which not much information is available; their names are Marcus and Niklas and that’s about all I can tell you. “Goodbye” is from their new self-released CD, Everything Depends, their second effort. The MP3 link above is not direct; you’ll have to click the words “Download Track” once you get to the page. The entire album is in fact available as a free and legal download, and is worth checking out.

Free and legal MP3:Bishop Allen (jaunty, curious, and likable)

“The Ancient Commonsense of Things” – Bishop Allen

The Brooklyn-based duo Bishop Allen is one of the most likable bands in the kooky and sometimes unlikable world of indie rock. They are, indeed, likable at every level of activity, from the general vibe of their songs to the individual musical components employed to, even, the band’s sense of graphic design and their collective prose voice.

“The Ancient Commonsense of Things”: even a likable song title, yes? Makes you kind of relax, stop Twittering for a minute and just breathe. We were human beings before we chained ourselves to one sort of keyboard or another. As the lyrics offer the merest of sketches, the music quickly envelops you with its at once cheerful and intimate presence–it’s a soft song that sounds loud, a fast song that feels easy-going. Bright and lively percussion drive the piece–mostly sticks and clicks and xylophone–while the minimalist lyrics compare time-tested objects (a hammer, a clothespin, a cork) to the power of a soul mate. And it works, in part because of singer Justin Rice’s quizzical voice, which does both plain-spoken and buoyant equally well. The song might have benefited from one more verse, but Rice’s repetition of the titular phrase is so simultaneously jaunty and curious that I’m kind of digging the “less is more” approach. And whether that’s a bass solo or a guitar solo there at 1:40, I like its plucked sparseness–just these particular notes, in this particular order, over that clicky-clacky-chuggy-chimey background.

While Rice and Christian Rudder, who met at Harvard, are the two-man core of the group, Bishop Allen performs with other musicians, who are at least informally band members while the recording and touring goes on (a current video shows a band of five, in fact). “The Ancient Commonsense of Things” can be found on Grrr…, the band’s new CD, being released this week on Dead Oceans. MP3 via the band’s site.

Free and legal MP3: Joker’s Daughter (pastoral folk pop, via the Twilight Zone)

“Worm’s Head” – Joker’s Daughter

If Gnarls Barkley can refer to themselves as the “odd couple” (as per their 2008 album), then what to make of this pairing of Helena Costas, a London-born singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist of Greek Cypriot extraction, and Danger Mouse (himself half of Gnarls Barkley)? A really really odd couple?

And what to make of this odd-couply music, part pastoral airiness, part Twilight Zoney strangeness? There are uncanny lyrics—“The horses turn into cows/And sheep lie on the edge of the road”—and an off-kilter heaviness to a beat that kind of wants to be lilting but isn’t, really. There are warm acoustic instruments and wayward keyboards and electronic effects that sound like a combination of a theremin and an old-fashioned radio dial trying to tune in a station. Through it all, Costas—a classically trained violinist, among other things—sings with an unperturbed, slightly breathy sweetness, almost as if no one has told her exactly what she’s singing about. Not that I have any idea either. And how short this is! Just when you’re ready to sink into the mystery of it all, it’s over. Rendering it all the more mysterious, I suppose.

“Worm’s Head” came out as a digital single in November, a 7-inch vinyl record in December, and will be on the debut Joker’s Daughter album, The Last Laugh, when it comes out in February, on Team Love Records. MP3 via Team Love.

Free and legal MP3: The Rosebuds (ominous groove, easy-going melody)

“Life Like” – the Rosebuds

The Rosebuds, a Raleigh-based duo, are an elusive band, rather willfully avoiding a defining sound over the course of three CDs released between 2003 and 2007 (they were a trio until last year). As such, I’ve managed neither to get a strong grip on them musically nor to latch onto one particular song to feature. Until now.

With an insistent, somewhat ominous groove and easy-going melody, “Life Like” has plenty to recommend it. Such as, for instance, that very juxtaposition: ominous groove and easy-going melody. When pop music succeeds, it often does so through this type of aural paradox, the combining of contradictory elements into a cohesive whole. (A pop song by definition doesn’t have a lot of time to work with, so if it’s shooting for depth, it has to work with layers within the time frame.) You may not know why a song is sticking, why it’s affecting you, and many times it’s because of this sort of maneuver. With the Rosebuds, the vocal pairing of Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp is a sort of mirror of the effect: two very different vocal vibes, blending, alternating, and weaving in and around each other. Their work as dual lead vocalists has in fact been the one consistent element to the band’s music and it works glowingly well here; I love how Crisp keeps herself at a distance in the verses, harmonizing around the edges, but injects herself into the center of the mix in the chorus.

“Life Like” is the title track to the Rosebuds’ fourth CD, which is scheduled for release next month on Merge Records. MP3 via Merge.