Free and legal MP3: Static Shapes

Confident midtempo rocker

“Wolves in White” – Static Shapes

Confident in its artful foundation, “Wolves In White” is purposefully constructed from start to finish. Listen to the way it opens: there’s 10 seconds of a barely-heard, three-note synthesizer line, tracing a classical-sounding ascending interval; another 10 seconds to establish the underlying midtempo backbeat, keyboards up front; 10 more seconds for the bass to break free from the beat (keep your ears on this instrument moving forward) as that ethereal synthesizer returns to float around the top of the mix; and only then does the guitar step in, offering a rounded, lower-register lead to ground us in a fully-formed musical landscape. I’m not usually down for long introductions, but that’s only because most long intros are repetitive vamps. This is not that.

When the vocals begin (0:46) we are treated not only to singer/guitarist Steve Yutzy-Burkey’s agreeably scuffed baritone (although he’s likely tired of the comparison there’s no overlooking his Tweedy-ish tone) but also now have a front seat for bassist Rick Sieber’s acrobatic  explorations. Yutzy-Burkey likewise shares Tweedy’s gift for converting minimalism into grace, his way of altering a simple melody with improvisational-sounding shifts, along with a knack for ending melody lines without resolution. Even the song’s chorus ends up feeling elusive and unresolved: first of all, it’s heard only twice; second of all, it’s a paragon of suggestive constraint, encompassing only four basic notes and a refusal to fully land.

Keep an ear in the meantime on Sieber’s work, and the way the bass often works itself into the foreground, culminating with a nimble solo at 2:28. And if anyone can identify the likable noise we get at 3:37, I’d love to know what that is.

“Wolves in White” is the lead track from Static Shapes’ debut album, Give Me The Bad News, released in December. Listen to the whole thing via Bandcamp, where it’s available to buy in both digital and vinyl form. Based in Philadelphia, Yutzy-Burkey was previously known as the front man for the well-regarded local band The Swimmers (which featured Sieber as well). Before that, he headed up the Philly-based quartet One Star Hotel (also with Sieber), who were featured here on Fingertips way back in the innocent days of 2004. Thanks to the Yutzy-Berkey for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Kate Davis (bass-led indie rock charmer)

Fittingly enough, “Open Heart” has its central aesthetic attribute hiding in plain sight: a bass guitar more or less playing lead.

“Open Heart” – Kate Davis

Fittingly enough, “Open Heart” has its central aesthetic attribute hiding in plain sight: a bass guitar more or less playing lead. Which makes sense when you are hip to Kate Davis’s unusual background: she came to the fore musically as a teenage bass prodigy. Jazz was her thing, but as it turned out she also played the internet pretty well—an impromptu, breezily recorded version of “All About That Bass,” with Davis singing and playing the upright bass, uploaded in 2014, now has more than 18 million views.

But the New York City-based Davis apparently had no interest in being painted into a corner of standards and retro recordings. As her personal tastes veered more and more towards indie rock bands such as Beach House and TV on the Radio, she eventually knew she had a whole other kind of music in her. “Open Heart” is a deft example of what can happen when someone with serious training and chops discovers the potential in the seemingly simplified landscape of a rock song. A surface listen may detect nothing obviously abnormal in “Open Heart,” but once you pay closer attention, you’ll realize, on the contrary, that there’s actually very little that is entirely normal here.

Davis singing over her lead-like bass playing is just the start of it. Then there’s what the bass is specifically doing, which entails a lot more fret work than a typical rock song necessitates. The lyrics, too, have a sort of surreal directness to them, as an imagined doctor’s visit, leading precipitously to a heart transplant, is conflated with a love gone astray, delivered in a deliciously matter-of-fact way (“Hold tight/Oh we’re taking your heart out now”). Musically, there is flawless movement from verse to pre-chorus to chorus; as “Open Heart” unfolds, Davis’s skill as a writer of melody and crafter of song becomes clearer and clearer. Notice in particular how the heartbeat pulse of the bass leads us effortlessly from the contemplative verse through to a chorus that opens in double time and concludes, over a wonderful chord progression, in half time—all without Davis seeming to break a sweat.

As for that heart-mimicking bass line, that turns out to be one of a number of adroit touches that feel satisfying and almost comic, in a musical way. Another is how the music extends and momentarily freezes—we might call it a sustain—at the end of the line “the injury you sustained” (2:02). There’s also how the recurring phrase “Deep breath” is articulated with more or less the opposite affect: more of a short gulp. I like too the removal of the omnipresent bass for the last iteration of the verse (starting at 2:22), which somehow creates a sensation of an angel passing through the hospital room, conferring the stark recognition that being alive involves accepting pain.

Davis’s career as an indie rocker was first launched with a high-profile credit she earned with Sharon Van Etten (they wrote “Seventeen” together); I’m anticipating a new level of acclaim when her debut album Trophy is released in November on Solitaire Recordings. “Open Heart” will be track two on the record; you can listen to three other songs in advance over on Bandcamp, and pre-order it there as well.

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And, even as Kate has moved past this, I’m offering up the Meghan Trainor cover because it’s really impressive. I love musicians who both know how to play their instruments and know how to perform—not always the same skill.

Free and legal MP3:The Mynabirds (protest song more relevant by the day)

The easy glide of the music, propelled by a melodic, rubbery bass line, disguises the open-ended harmonics on display, as melodies manage to flow and lack resolution at the same time.

The Mynabirds

“Shouting at the Dark” – The Mynabirds

Laura Burhenn, doing musical business as The Mynabirds since 2010, has emerged as one of indie rock’s fiercest truth-tellers, and this song, although released in August, becomes more relevant by the day.

I’d rather have cuts on my knees
Than blood in my mouth
From biting my tongue
And keeping it down

“Shouting at the Dark” is one of nine songs that Burhenn wrote and recorded in the immediate aftermath of January’s inauguration and the Women’s March that followed. The title alone speaks volumes as the United States has been plunged into an amoral miasma that seems now the inevitable consequence of capitalism finding its most reliable partner in widespread stupidity. Anyone with a heart still beating in his or her chest is shouting at the dark for the better part of the day these days.

The easy glide of the music, propelled by a melodic, rubbery bass line, disguises the open-ended harmonics on display, as melodies manage to flow and lack resolution at the same time. Guitars blend effortlessly with synthesizers, with a human touch consistently reasserting itself into the groove—I like, as an example, that little three-note background tweak we hear at 1:12. I like too the thoughtful, scaled-down guitar solo we get instead of a full catharsis at 2:28. Throughout I have the sense that Burhenn is at once welcoming and challenging us, much as she does in a video that dares to show the singer/songwriter dancing with a troupe of women who neither move nor look like professional dancers but (god forbid!) real-life women.

“Shouting at the Dark” is a track from the album Be Here Now, released in August on Saddle Creek Records. You can listen to some of it and buy it (including on vinyl) via Bandcamp. Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XxbG_Ili0NM MP3 via KEXP. This is the Mynabirds’ fourth appearance on Fingertips, dating back to 2010.

Free and legal MP3: Hideout(enticing & relentless)

“See You Around” moves me in some mysterious way. Every time I re-listen, I seem initially to forget anew what it was I saw in it, only to remember again as the song takes off.

Hideout

“See You Around” – Hideout

An odd, enticing chugger of a song, “See You Around” has the relentlessness of a run-on sentence, packing a lot of action into a short amount of time.

We begin with a bass solo, which doubles as an introduction; when the singing starts, at 0:12, the first line is “Words keep pouring from your mouth”—and from that point, front man Gabriel Rodriguez sings without pause until 1:20. There don’t seem to be verses, and there’s no apparent chorus, just an edgy flow of words that hook you in through a few well-placed harmonic shifts (0:38, for one; 0:55 another). After Rodriguez finally takes a break, he starts up again with the more accurate observation “Words keep pouring from my mouth” (emphasis mine).

“See You Around” moves me in some mysterious way. Every time I re-listen, I seem initially to forget anew what it was I saw in it, only to remember again as the song takes off, and in particular when it arrives at the first shifting point, from 0:38 to 0:40. The song in that moment acquires some ineffable emotional capital that proceeds to grow as it careens to its early finish.

Rodriguez is a Manhattan-based musician who has played for years in the live version of the band Cults. He released his first album as Hideout in 2014. “See You Around” is from the new Hideout LP, So Many Hoops/So Little Time, released in February on Small Plates. “See You Around” is not the single, or featured track, but it’s the one that caught my ear. You too can listen to the whole album, and buy it, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Winter (dream pop for the soul)

If the concept/sub-genre of dream pop didn’t already exist, you would invent it right now to describe “All the Things You Do.”

Winter

“All the Things You Do” – Winter

If the concept/sub-genre of dream pop didn’t already exist, you would invent it right now to describe “All the Things You Do,” by the Boston-born, Los Angeles-based band Winter. Front woman Samira Winter floats her cloudless voice over a languid, semi-blurry soundscape and it’s kind of immediately hard not to love this. The buoyant verse is infused with ever-appealing suspended chords; the chorus—forward and forceful—fills the ear with satisfying, wall-of-sound resolution, complete with an unexpected and extra-satisfying minor-chord detour.

And speaking of extra-satisfying detours, don’t miss the instrumental break-cum-coda, starting at 2:30, with its dreamy jazz-guitar-ish accents and splendid bass guitar lead, which kind of makes you go wow, what happened to bass guitar players anyway? And then the whole thing kind of makes you go wow, don’t we just want to be doing this, enhancing our lives with heartwarming sound, feeling the magic and power of this at once distant and intimate connection? It’s the opposite of living in fear, brutalized by not only the existence of barbaric death-mongers but by the fear-mongers who scurry around in their wake. And I don’t mean to pollute the beauty of our modest enterprise here with too much talk of tragedy but I do so to remind you that beauty is not negated by darkness, but becomes further concentrated. And important.

“All the Things You Do” is a single released this month on Burger Records. Support the band by buying it here, and if you want a reason to spend 99 cents versus having it for free, note that the hi-res, lossless version is also just 99 cents.

photo credit: Mariana Borau

Free and legal MP3: Fabryka (adroit mix of dream and drive, from Italy)

Not often do you hear inventive bass-playing and inventive drumming intertwining so smartly while still allowing a coherent song to be built on top.

Fabryka

“The Unheard”- Fabryka

Check out the rhythm section on this one: not often do you hear inventive bass-playing and inventive drumming intertwining so smartly while still allowing a coherent song to be built on top. And what a coherent and engaging song it turns out to be—astutely arranged and structurally sound, “The Unheard” is a marvelous slice of 21st-century rock’n’roll, coming to us from the seemingly unlikely source of Bari, Italy, down there at the top of the heel of Italy’s “boot.”

I like how busy and determined this is even while cloaking itself in a bit of shoegazey mist. There’s that rhythmic pulse at the bottom driving things, but it’s that ongoing, canny employment of both electric guitars and synthesizers that ultimately gives the ear a lot to chew on—so much, in fact, that what appears to be the song’s chorus (first heard at 1:31) feels like a dreamy breather between purposeful building blocks. Both the guitars and the synths each get a motif-like theme to express—the former a hard-charging, syncopated riff (first heard at 0:55), the latter a chimy noodle (1:21) that shares a similar sense of syncopation. The more I listen, the more I am impressed with the song’s construction, and the more I think I hear something genuinely timeless in its mix of drive and dream. Give good credit to singer Tiziana Felle, whose voice can penetrate or levitate, depending on the need.

“The Unheard” is a song from the band’s new EP, Sparkles, which comes out in Italy next week. This will be the band’s third release, following an EP in 2012 and a full-length album, Echo, in 2013.

Free and legal MP3: The Cloud Room (NYC band returns w/ sound & swagger intact)

A stimulating combination of breezy and portentous, not to mention melodic and dark, “Mrs. Marquis de Sade” finds the elusive Brooklyn band The Cloud Room doing its New York City rock’n’roll thing with renewed vigor, even after all these years.

The Cloud Room

“Mrs. Marquis de Sade” – The Cloud Room

A stimulating combination of breezy and portentous, not to mention melodic and dark, “Mrs. Marquis de Sade” finds the elusive Brooklyn band The Cloud Room doing its New York City rock’n’roll thing with renewed vigor, even after all these years. (Many of you may remember them for their rather brilliant breakthrough song, “Hey Now Now,” featured here, and lots of other places, back in 2005.) This is a band with the enviable ability to have a “sound” without so much as breaking a sweat, based largely on the fortuitous way front man J Stuart’s Bowie-esque croon floats so naturally on top of Devon Johnson’s scratchy guitar rhythms and John Petrow’s athletic bass lines.

The sound is so strong and consistent that it transcends the material: “Mrs. Marquis de Sade” is not originally a Cloud Room song, but was written by filmmaker and songwriter Devon Reed as part of a project he conceived to support the non-profit organization 826 Valencia, about which more in a moment. The band clearly makes this one their own. I especially like how the chorus is split in two sections, creating an extra climax via the second, higher-ranging melody, during which Stuart conjures more than one rock’n’roll ghost (I’m hearing Richard Butler in particular) before handing center stage to a fabulously tuneful guitar line that I’m guessing was added by the band and in any case seals the wonderfulness of this brisk and oddly catchy number. (Editor’s note: Turns out I was wrong. Reed wrote the guitar lick too. More power to him!)

As for the project itself, Reed wrote a bunch of songs and then managed to corral an impressive list of top-tier indie artists to record them. The final product is an album called You Be My Heart, which will be released next week. 826 Valencia is a literacy organization focused on inspiring children to write, co-founded in San Francisco by the writer Dave Eggers. Among the other artists who recorded Reed’s songs for the album are Fingertips veterans Marissa Nadler, Bowerbirds, Saturday Looks Good to Me, and The Spinto Band. You can listen to a few songs from the album via SoundCloud. In the meantime, I should also note that The Cloud Room did end up releasing a long-anticipated second album in 2012, which was called Zither and kind of came and went without much fuss. You might want to listen to it at Bandcamp, where it is also for sale.

MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Wheat (slippery song from an elusive band)

“House of Kiss” gives off a bright, circular vibe, and is probably as catchy as a song can be that so little resembles anything we might picture as a “hit song.”

Wheat

“House of Kiss” – Wheat

Oddly engaging anti-pop pop from the eclectic, reclusive, semi-beloved Boston band Wheat. “House of Kiss” gives off a bright, circular vibe, and is probably as catchy as a song can be that so little resembles anything we might picture as a “hit song.” The structure is slippery at best. The song centers around an insistent, run-on lyric in which the narrator assures his partner or lover that he’s paying attention, really and truly. This seems neither like a verse nor a chorus, and it repeats, through the song, a total of seven times in just over three minutes. At first listen this “Don’t think twice” lyric seems all that makes an impression; the accompanying instrumentation appears unremarkable on the surface—guitars, bass, drum, mostly—and everything unfolds in 4/4 time.

But there are these in-between sections that trouble the flow of the song, some instrumental, some vocal, featuring melodies that lag well behind the beat. Keep an ear on the bass, which plays deft, fluid lines underneath the repeating “Don’t think twice” section but constricts itself during the slow sections. Eventually a sense of intertwining between the song’s vague parts emerges, most notably when one of the slower melodies is used underneath the main theme as a kind of counter-melody at 1:58. We eventually hear something resembling strings; and then a perky synthesizer riff. But for all its vagaries, the overall feeling is of a song marching on, of a magnet-like return to the “Don’t think twice” lyric. Eventually it occurs to me what a strong backbeat (i.e., emphasis on the second and fourth beats) there is and yet how the lyrical flow pays no attention to it. And this—the repetition over the ignored backbeat—may be what in the end lends “House of Kiss” an amusement-park-ride-like sense of flying around in a grand but yet almost dizzying circle. You get off a little wobbly but you kind of want to go back and have another ride.

A band since 1996, Wheat is neither prolific nor forthcoming, but the duo of Brendan Harney and Scott Levesque has appeared abruptly back on the scene late in 2011 with a “double a-side” single featuring “House of Kiss” and “The Used 2 Be In Love Blues.” Note that there is now an official third member of the band, multi-instrumentalist Luke Hebert. Two more double a-sides are due out in the reasonably near future, while the band’s sixth full-length album is moving somewhat more slowly towards a 2012 release, maybe. Wheat was previously featured here on Fingertips way back in 2004 (around the time of their one sort-of-hit, “I Met a Girl”) and also in 2007. Thanks to the band for the MP3 here.

Free and legal MP3: Caged Animals (bass-driven blend of old & new)

Front man Vincent Cacchione manages to blend a knowing, 21st-century approach to beats and lyrics with a grander vision of popular music, evoking ’50s doo-wop groups as surely as he does anything current.

Caged Animals

“Teflon Heart” – Caged Animals

Okay, so after that, perhaps you’d like to balance things out with a superbly constructed song and a highly disciplined production? No problem. “Teflon Heart” is slinky and deliberate, written with care and performed with controlled New York City cool. I love the way front man Vincent Cacchione manages to blend a knowing, 21st-century approach to beats and lyrics with a grander vision of popular music, evoking ’50s doo-wop groups as surely as he does anything current. His words have hip-hop flair, but the mood is more reflective, the rhythm leisurely, the beat dominated by actual bass playing, the singing hinting at inner ache more than outer bravado:

I know you know I’m not bourgeois
You act like I’m a replica
A ghost inside your retina
That only you can see

Another highlight is Cacchione’s prickly guitar work, offering up almost-but-not-quite dissonant solos in between verses, deconstructing both melody and rhythm as the beat, literally, goes on. And do not overlook the effectiveness of the central metaphor, which might seem too slick for its own good but for the subtext conveyed by the singer’s plaintive conclusion “I want one too,” regarding the teflon heart in question.

Caged Animals began as a solo project for the Brooklyn-based Cacchione but has blossomed into a foursome. “Teflon Heart” is from the album Eat Their Own, released in late September on Lucky Number Music. MP3 via Lucky Number. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

NOTE: Far sooner than usual, this MP3 has been taken down by the record company, and is no longer available.

Free and legal MP3: Meshell Ndegeocello (genre-crossing minimalism, w/ conviction)

A steely conviction running through the center of this rhythmic, genre-crossing song.

Meshell Ndegeocello

“Dirty World” – Meshell Ndegeocello

After 16 seconds of indistinct, ambient background noise, we get a bass line, and a funky snaky ear-grabbing bass line it is. This is Meshell Ndegeocello; she plays bass; and this is how she plays. She had me at hello.

Listen to the mincemeat she makes of the 4/4 time signature, without ever actually leaving it. How could someone conceive of this particular rhythm, never mind add an edgy drumbeat to it, never mind write a song around it? Surely she is not singing while she’s playing here, though I guess you never know. Her smooth round voice floats, unhurried, over the knotty instrumentation of the verse, with a breathy loveliness that belies the venom of the lyrics. With the chorus, everything changes: the beat normalizes, her voice acquires first a plaintive sting and, at the end, as a kicker, plunges into a gruff lower register. As the title suggests, she isn’t singing about rainbows and flowers. There’s a steely conviction running through the center of this song.

Look, too, at how she accomplishes so much with so little. Much of the song is just bass and drums and voice. Guitar and keyboard are not an assumed part of the proceedings but are added only when deemed necessary. The chorus is not much more than the two words, “dirty world,” repeated; the substance comes from the rhythm—specifically, the subtle but definitive shift in emphasis from stressing only the word “world,” the first three times, to additionally stressing the first syllable of “dirty” the fourth time around.

Genre-crossing minimalism has been Ndegeocello’s trademark since Plantation Lullabies, her 1993 debut. “Dirty World” is a track from Weather, her ninth album, due in November on Naïve Records.