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: Standish/Carlyon (downtempo allure)

Throw Prince, Portishead, and Steely Dan in a blender and if you’re lucky you might get something like this.

Standish-Carlyon

“Gucci Mountain” – Standish/Carlyon

Throw Prince, Portishead, and Steely Dan in a blender and if you’re lucky you might get something like this. And while those are three not-too-similar artists the one thing they have in common is an exquisite attention to sonic detail. The Melbourne-based duo Standish/Carlyon are cut from the same cloth.

Here is one downtempo brooder that, to begin with, trusts in its own slowness. Listen to how even the bubbling synthesizer percolates slowly, and leaves a delicious amount of blank space in its wake. So quickly does it train us to anticipate restraint in fact that the one extra high note it hits at 0:36 gives the ear an unexpected frisson of excitement. The entire song is just that carefully and spaciously crafted. Important note: there are no hand-claps, synthesized or otherwise. (Pet peeve alert!: hand-claps in slow songs. They make no logical or aural sense. I could mention names but I won’t.) And while we are awash with reverb, the song still displays great clarity—a compelling combination. The bass, meanwhile, is played with painterly discretion, which may have something to do with the fact that vocalist Conrad Standish is also the bass player. In my listening experience, singing bassists approach their instruments differently. The best example of this song’s uncanny capacity to turn reticence into grandeur is how arresting the chorus is when it finally arrives, even as its melody is pretty much the same as the verse’s. The trick is that in the chorus, for the first time, we get the fulfillment of an uninterrupted musical line (suddenly, no blank space). Standish now flipping up into his falsetto doesn’t hurt. No idea what he’s singing about here (“I’m chewing bamboo off the coast of Casanova”?), and it’s still thrilling.

Standish and guitarist Tom Carlyon (who also handles the electronics) were previously in a trio called The Devastations, which released their last record in 2007. “Gucci Mountain” is a track from the duo’s forthcoming debut, entitled Deleted Scenes, arriving next month via Felte.

Free and legal MP3: Polly Scattergood (dark, swinging electro-ballad)

A big dark swinging electro-ballad from a young British musician whose flair for the theatrical (“And when I shut my eyes, I can hear an orchestra playing,” she speaks) brings inevitable Kate Bush comparisons to the table.

Polly Scattergood

“Wanderlust” – Polly Scattergood

A big dark swinging electro-ballad from a young British musician whose flair for the theatrical (“And when I shut my eyes, I can hear an orchestra playing,” she speaks) brings inevitable Kate Bush comparisons to the table. But dear Kate has rarely been inclined towards something quite so accessible and concise as “Wanderlust,” which offers its head-scratching moments (mostly spoken voice in this case) within the clipped confines of a three-and-a-half-minute pop song. Neither does Bush tend towards a sound as bottom-heavy as this, but there’s a sense of playfulness in the air that does nod towards KB—for all its deep force, that opening synthesizer line (in cahoots, I’m guessing, with a bass synthesizer) does have a frolicsome aspect, like maybe dancing elephants.

I find it interesting that a song called “Wanderlust” circumscribes itself so—listen carefully and you’ll see that the verse and the chorus, while coming across as distinct, are all but indistinguishable melodically. Could be this wanderlust is just as imaginary as that orchestra she hears with her eyes closed. What effectually differentiates the verse and chorus is production prowess: the verses are delivered with a whispery veneer, and without the gut-rumbling bottom of the synthesizer. I’m actually fascinated by the vocal effect that adds the breathy hiss of whispering to Scattergood’s singing voice. (See? I have nothing against vocal effects. At least not good ones.) I can probably find a metaphor that relates this effect to the song as well but I’ll spare you that (probable) stretch and just say I like it.

Polly Scattergood is a 25-year-old musician from Colchester, in the UK (where else, with that name, which is real). “Wanderlust” is a song from Arrows, Scattergood’s forthcoming follow-up to her 2009 debut. The album is due out in June on Mute Records. MP3 via the estimable Chromewaves, one of the pioneer music blogs that remains up and running.

Free and legal MP3: Jonka (neo-’80s electro pop, w/ soul)

“Every Other Day” burns with the booty-shaking resolve of an old Hot Chocolate song, channeled through the ’80s electro-pop stylebook.

Jonka

“Every Other Day” – Jonka

A textbook exercise in how to construct a groove, “Every Other Day” burns with the booty-shaking resolve of an old Hot Chocolate song, channeled through the ’80s electro-pop style book, Erasure edition. Listen to how the layers coalesce—first the basic beat, itself an alluring blend of distant-seeming sounds; then the bass, all fat and old-school; then the first foreground element, a slappy, tappy percussive sound playing a jittery series of double-time flourishes. At this point, it’s cool but not necessarily awesome. Awesome arrives with the next two elements: the organ-y synthesizer (0:24) that skitters away seemingly between the beats; and, the pièce de résistance, the high, swooping “oo-oos” (0:32) that deliver the song’s first melody, wordless though it may be.

Beyond the sure groove, what sells “Every Other Day” is Jonka’s commitment to vocal harmonies. Just as the twosome blend their names—Jon Neufeld and Annika Kaye—to create the band’s name, so do they blend their voices in a plush, ongoing layering of harmony not often heard in this musical setting. From the opening lyric, the band mates (a married couple, you should know) sing every word together, and are over-dubbed so that there are at least two of each of them singing at all times. Neufeld’s soulful baritone takes the lead but Kaye’s full-bodied backing vocals are just as important a part of the song’s texture. The song’s melodies, meanwhile, percolate relentlessly upward, giving the song an almost gospel-like sense of uplift.

Neufeld and Kaye live in Brooklyn. Neufeld grew up on Staten Island and Kaye, born in Sweden, was raised in Manhattan. “Every Other Day” is the first song available from the duo’s second album, Pinks and Blues, which is arriving at some unspecified date in the reasonably near future.

Free and legal MP3: Class Actress (distinctive electropop from NYC)

Class Actress is here to show you that not all electropop is created equal, even though it often sounds that way.

Elizabeth Harper

“Keep You” – Class Actress

Class Actress is here to show you that not all electropop is created equal, even though it often sounds that way. And it could be that this Brooklyn trio makes distinctive electropop in part because the songs come to life in a distinctive way—front woman Elizabeth Harper writes them non-electronically, on a piano or a guitar. When she’s done, she gives the song to band mate Mark Richardson, who does all sorts of magical laptop-y things to it. But Harper aims to be writing songs, not beats or (god forbid) jams. (Can we stop calling songs “jams” now by the way? Pretty please?) She has been quoted as saying that if a song can pass “the campfire test”—i.e., can be played on an acoustic guitar, anywhere—then it’s a good song. I for one wouldn’t argue with her.

So right away you can listen here to how the beat is not the song’s centerpiece. This is a refreshing turn of events. The introduction is succinct and asymmetrical; at 0:11 the singing starts, and we still haven’t sunk into the song’s groove, which, when it kicks in, kicks in with space and syncopation rather than a wash of lock-step rhythm. Note how Harper isn’t singing against a monochromatic electronic field but alternately purrs and emotes against a disciplined blend of sounds. The one I really like is the synth we hear during the instrumental break beginning at 1:49—a witty, multi-dimensional electronic tone playing a stuttery melody for maybe 10 seconds and that’s it, on we go. It’s unusual and enticing.

As a singer, Harper is both sultry and elastic; to my ears, it’s her vocal leap in the chorus that provides the cementing hook, her voice in its upper range becoming more instrument than narrator. “I want to keep you in my”—what, exactly? Lyric sites say “heart,” but the word is so indistinct it offers the hint of “arms” as well. The lyrical tag, “Ooh, I want it, I want it,” also emerges more as a moan than a clear statement, and I like that there, I like how it anchors the song in an effectually wordless melody right in the center of things.

“Keep You” has been floating around the internet since early summer, but it is in fact the lead track from Class Actress’s debut full-length album, Rapprocher, which will arrive next month on Carpark Records. Rapprocher is a French verb meaning “to come close to.” Class Actress was featured previously on Fingertips in November 2009. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3: Papertwin (brisk, alluring electro-pop)

The combination of brisk, dance-club movement with precisely conceived instrumental lines is alluring, and the understated chorus—with a half-time melody that floats behind the beat—is both gorgeous and elusive.

Papertwin

“Coma” – Papertwin

Electro-pop, by its programmable nature, too often breezes into the world in a digitized rush of symmetrical beats and swooping synth lines. How much happier the ear is, however, when it hears a song that begins like “Coma” does, with its well-constructed intro, full of purpose and asymmetrical motifs. There are three basic sections—the opening, bass synthesizer section, a shorter section with a guitar, and then the last, longest section, with the deeper-sounding guitar that brings New Order clearly to mind. None of these sections is the same length. And within each one, the melody lines are strong but irregular—they hook your ear but without telegraphing where they are going, each, also, lasting different lengths of time.

This is a long-winded way of saying they had me at hello. When vocalist Max Decker opens his mouth and that haunted, slightly roughed-up, slightly reverbed tenor comes out, there’s no stopping this song. New Order, yes, is a big influence, but Papertwin emerges with its own take on that formidable sound. The combination of brisk, dance-club movement with precisely conceived instrumental lines is alluring, and the understated chorus—with a half-time melody that floats behind the beat—is both gorgeous and elusive. So elusive, in fact, that the band fiddles with it the second time through, so we only really hear it twice in the four-minute song. Another example of this song’s hidden good work is the new synth melody introduced in the song’s coda (3:05). Most songs are coasting by then. It’s a subtle touch that makes the subsequent return of melody lines from the introduction all the more satisfying.

“Coma” is one of two songs on Papertwin’s debut digital single, released last month, and both available as free downloads on the band’s Bandcamp page. Thanks to the band for letting me host the MP3 here.

Free and legal MP3: The Submarines (jaunty, reflective, augmented electropop)

At once jaunty and reflective, “Birds” offers up an appealing mix of the electro and organic, as husband-wife duo John Dragonetti and Blake Hazard augment their based guitar-and-keys sound with strings, bird song, sing-along harmonies, and—a first for them—a live drummer.

The Submarines

“Birds” – The Submarines

At once jaunty and reflective, “Birds” offers up an appealing mix of the electro and organic, as husband-wife duo John Dragonetti and Blake Hazard augment their based guitar-and-keys sound with strings, bird song, sing-along harmonies, and—a first for them—a live drummer. (And hey, it’s Jim Eno, from Spoon.) More than most electropop, this song sounds like it was recorded by real people in real three-dimensional space. Warmth permeates, and the electronic tools utilized feel all the more effective in this setting. This is something I suspect that more bands are likely to understand in this new musical decade: the power of integration. Now that we can literally concoct any sound we want at any time, creating more and more new sounds is no longer a particular talent. The talent is to integrate the sounds we have in newly effective ways. Just making electropop suddenly becomes a narrow and uninteresting pursuit; learning how to incorporate the sounds of electropop into a broader aural spectrum—much more interesting, and fun, I should think.

To hear a bit of the power of this, check out the difference between the song’s two instrumental breaks. At 1:25, a ghostly synthesizer line gives way, via a manipulated drumbeat, to two varieties of strings—the rhythmic pizzicato pluckings of violins, and the low bowing of a cello. And then at 2:42, the same opening melody is voiced with a more classic electro sound, which now leads into a spiffy shot of backwards guitar lines. That the song has led up to this instead of just fed us this electro diet from measure one—and that the electro elements have grown naturally from the aural palette of the overall song—is a great part of the charm, to me.

The Submarines are based in Los Angeles and have two previous full-length albums to their credit (and were featured on Fingertips back in 2006, at the time of their debut). “Birds” is a track from their forthcoming album Love Notes/Letter Bombs, slated for an April release on Nettwerk Records. MP3 via Spin.com. Bonus Submarines trivia: Hazard is the great-granddaughter of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Free and legal MP3: Roman Ruins (electro pop w/ bashy beat & odd beauty)

Spacious, stately electro pop with a bashy beat and a swirly sensibility. The vocals land in that nether space between reverb and mud, lending a DIY-ishness to a song that is nonetheless precisely if mysteriously crafted.

Roman Ruins

“The Comedown” – Roman Ruins

Spacious, stately electro pop with a bashy beat and a swirly sensibility. The vocals land in that nether space between reverb and mud, lending a DIY-ishness to a song that is nonetheless precisely if mysteriously crafted. The long instrumental section that begins at 2:25 and pretty much closes the song out seems on the one hand the kind of meandering mush I steer clear of and yet on the other hand is a weird kind of compelling, unfolding into something oddly beautiful. For instance, there’s something in the layering of synthesizer and noise that goes on between 2:53 and 3:00 that feels careful and deep. And then there’s the casual return of those heavenly vocals (3:14) that we heard previously but then had disappeared. Take beauty where you can find it, my friends.

Roman Ruins is a side project for Graham Hill, who at this point is better known as the touring drummer for the bands Beach House and Papercuts. “The Comedown” was released as a 7-inch single in July on the Oakland-based label Gold Robot Records. The single actually began as a Kickstarter project, a collaboration between Hill and an artist named Hunter Mack, delivering both a vinyl record and a limited art print to fans who funded it. MP3 via Gold Robot. Thanks to the blog My Eyes Are Diamonds for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Saadi (hazy electro-pop w/ piano)

Saadi

“Pollen Seeking Bees” – Saadi

Sweet yet surprisingly sturdy bit of piano-driven electronic pop. The piano line is a two-finger special—I mean quite literally it sounds like two index fingers going at it—that is instantly likable because its seeming simplicity still generates a complex rhythmic bed. Or, alternatively, because it’s the same two notes that open “Friday On My Mind“—you decide.

Born in Syria, raised in Pittsburgh and Manhattan, Boshra AlSaadi got her rock’n’roll start in the band Looker, which was featured in January 2007 (strangely enough, the same week, again, as Arcade Fire). In that incarnation she was cooking in a punk-pop mode; here, on her own, with her name abridged, she simmers in a hazier, electro-ish setting, but her potent soprano keeps this from getting too noodly. She sings in the midst of a smeary, reverberant bath that kind of spreads her voice out but does not touch the rest of the aural space, which is kind of an interesting effect. Note how she keeps the lyrics close to the edge of comprehensibility except for the third verse (1:08), beginning (hmm) with “Images in pixels” and ending (hmm again) with “the fog is knee deep.” Mixing lyrics down is a common trick but I don’t know that I’ve often heard them come and go within one song. It surely pulls the ear in, like getting a suddenly clear clue on an obscure puzzle.

“Pollen Seeking Bees” is from a 12-inch vinyl EP entitled Bad Days that came out in March on Serious Business Records. The link to the free and legal MP3 only recently emerged on Largehearted Boy, which is where I first heard it. MP3 via Serious Business.

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Free and legal MP3: Simian Ghost (warm, graceful electronic pop)

The allure of electronic pop is also its abiding challenge: the transformation of an alienating aural landscape of beeps and tones and tinkles and ripples into music with some emotional impact. There’s a thin line between elegant and icy, and the best electronic pop music glides along that line without breaking a sweat.

Simian Ghost

“Star Receiver” – Simian Ghost

The allure of electronic pop is also its abiding challenge: the transformation of an alienating aural landscape of beeps and tones and tinkles and ripples into music with some emotional impact. There’s a thin line between elegant and icy, and the best electronic pop music glides along that line without breaking a sweat.

“Star Receiver” glows with not only elegance but genuine warmth. Listen to how it builds itself up from a few meandering synth lines, grounding the song from the start in something not simply mechanical sounding. Even after the beat kicks in (0:16), the listener’s ear is drawn to the sounds that either float above or weave themselves gently around the basic rhythm. The effect is unhurried and idiosyncratic rather than robotic or clock-like. When the groove is completed by the deft integration of an acoustic guitar (0:48), the rhythm gets a discernible riff and, ultimately, after an entirely unhurried series of graceful repetitions, a genuine, resolving melody (1:32). And then, at long last, Sebastian Arnström begins singing. This is its own kind of treat–his lovely tenor is at once firm and delicate, the trace of an unplaceable accent adding to its subtle tremor. He backs himself up, elusively, with vocals that echo in a lower pitch, adding spaciousness and intrigue. Soon we get a sound nearly like a violin, or maybe a harmonica. The whole thing glistens and bubbles and moves.

Arnström is in the Swedish band Aerial; Simian Ghost is a side project. “Star Receiver” is from the debut Simian Ghost album, Infinite Traffic Everywhere, set for release in the fall on Nomethod Records, a Swedish label. MP3 via Nomethod.