“So Hard to Tell” – Debby Friday

Quasi-psychedelic electronic ballad

“So Hard to Tell” – Debby Friday

After hitting the Canadian music scene a few years ago with glitchy, club-oriented bangers (her first two EPs were entitled Death Drive and Bitchpunk, for what it’s worth), the Nigeria-born, Montreal-raised DJ-turned-musician Debby Friday unveils a gentler side with this single from her new album, Good Luck.

An electronic ballad with distorted backing vocals and washes of reverberant sound, “So Hard to Tell” centers on a soothing, circular melody that induced Friday to find a previously unutilized singing style; she usually hits the mic with a lower, speaking-voice-like register. This song finds her addressing and advising her younger self, which invited the vulnerable vocal–although she has said she was initially surprised by the sound coming out of her mouth here. There’s still some underlying glitch in the air, which to my ears is part of the appeal, as is the swirly, quasi-psychedelic atmosphere in general. It’s a hypnotic dream of a song, with a sturdy core but a tender spirit.

MP3 via KEXP. Good Luck came out March 24 on Sub Pop; the rest of the record is a good bit more forceful. You can check it out, and buy it (digital, vinyl, CD), via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Kauf (hypnotic, groove-based melancholy)

“Through the Yard” exists at a nexus we might not otherwise have noticed, joining world music to 21st-century electronica to late-era Roxy Music.


“Through the Yard” – Kauf

And now, as if to prove that neither conciseness nor organic details are the only tools in a performer’s toolbox, here is the nearly seven-minute-long “Through the Yard,” buttering your ears with its smooth hypnotic charm and groove-based melancholy. Music is more than ever a wide world, easily discerned when commercial radio stations are turned down.

Existing at a nexus we might not otherwise have noticed, joining world music to 21st-century electronica to late-era Roxy Music, “Through the Yard” launches off an ascending pentatonic scale, affected via synthesized woodwinds. Pentatonic scales, with five notes versus the usual seven, produce intervals with a far-away, vaguely non-Western feeling. And if the riff’s persistence here grounds the song in an open-ended inquiry, the lyrics further the effect, with Kauf mastermind Ronald Kaufman singing a series of clipped phrases rendered mysterious via beginnings and endings that are swallowed or otherwise indecipherable—we pick out words but not concrete meaning. It seems no accident that the song’s most-repeated lyric, “If you make a little noise,” is inherently unresolved: if you make a little noise, THEN what? I don’t think we find out.

The song, nevertheless, delivers a certain kind of arc. At first, “Through the Yard” is held together by its riff, its smartly assembled percussive sounds, and the layered allure of Kauf’s half-rich/half-disaffected vocals. A fuller-fledged electronic beat emerges at the three-minute mark. And while the first half of the song revolves around what feel like verses, the second half, after the underlying beat comes forward, employs subtler, higher-register melodies, with an upward-floating feel, and matches them against more insistent sounds below (for instance, that off-kilter line repeated by a trumpet-like synth first around 3:40, and more insistently again around 4:30). Through it all I feel drawn to how Kauf presents as both disconsolate and upbeat at the same time. I identify that as the Bryan Ferry element here.

“Through the Yard” is slated to be the final track on Kauf’s debut album, Regrowth, slated for release later this year. In the meantime, you can check out two other tracks at his Bandcamp page. Kaufman is based in Los Angeles. Thanks to the artist for the MP3.

MP3 no longer available as of August 2016.

photo credit: Daniel Trese

Free and legal MP3: Pallers (graceful electronic dance-ballad)

“The Kiss” – Pallers

This graceful electronic dance-ballad unfolds with a New Order-like majesty, but minus the melodrama. Despite the quickly established synth-driven pulse, a gentle dreaminess prevails during the song’s careful build-up. There’s no hurrying this song and in the end, you don’t want to, because the payoff, while subtle, is deeply felt.

So let this one happen on its own terms. The simple pulse–a robotic synthesizer line backed by a conga beat of organic simplicity–fuels an extended intro, while another synthesizer slowly plays with a melodic line that finally takes over the front of the mix nearly 50 seconds in. The singing starts at 1:06, adding a wistful melody to the carefully constructed beat. New synth lines emerge at 1:40. No one is in a hurry, remember. A new layer of percussion and previously unheard synthesizer flourishes add palpable substance around 2:30 but soon the song retreats back to its conga-and-synth origin before blossoming, from 3:00 to 3:15, into almost goose-bumpy wonderfulness the rest of the way, as the melody doubles its pace and we see now that our gentle electronic dream has transformed itself into something brisk, sturdy, and memorable.

The Swedish duo Pallers is Johan Angergård (also a member of Acid House Kings, Club 8 and the Legends) and Henrik Mårtensson. “The Kiss” is a digital single due out next week on Labrador Records (a great Stockholm-based label, itself worth checking out). MP3 via Labrador.

Free and legal MP3: The High Places (beat-driven, but short and engaging)

“On Giving Up” – High Places

While beat-oriented songs usually puzzle me (okay: bore me) more than engage me, “On Giving Up” offers some extra hand-holds of interest and allure that make it more, to my ears, than just another manipulated groove of a song.

Let’s start with the beat itself, in which a blend of distinct sounds become difficult to pry apart aurally, and create, together, something larger than themselves. You can hear it at the very beginning: there’s the deeper, thumpier part; there’s something of an electronic tom-tom sound closely aligned with the thumpier sound (but note how the tom misses the third beat, playing only 1-2-x-4, which helps give the song its late-night swing); and then there’s this distinct, higher-pitched sound, almost like an electronic wooden drum, delivering, off the beat, what feels like the song’s central rhythm. And, phew, look: all these words to describe something happening nearly below conscious awareness and before the song even really starts. Maybe that’s why I usually steer clear of this stuff.

So anyway then comes that reverberant synth melody (0:09) and slinky bass line (0:17) and, lastly, Mary Pearson’s floaty, echoey, Beth Gibbons-y voice, equal parts burn and withdrawal. Partly I suspect this needs to be heard at ear-vibrating volume on a foggy and mysteriously lit dance floor while surrounded by blissed-out, slightly sweaty strangers. If you get there let me know how it is. “On Giving Up” is from this Brooklyn-based duo’s second album, High Places vs. Mankind, set for release in early April on Thrill Jockey Records. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3: Rollercoaster Project (robotic electro-goth with a heart of pop)

“Hoods Up” – Rollercoaster Project

Churning, robotic electro-goth, with a heart of pure pop. I’m oddly entranced by the buried, electronic vocals, which hint only intermittently, only ever so slightly, at their human origin; it’s kind of like “Kid A” funneled through a lush carnival of soaring synth pop, on a bed of electronic nails. The wistful, almost heartbreaking melody of the chorus is icing on the electro-cake. Note how the electronic artifice fades into nature noises for the last minute of the track. It’s not a half hour of crickets (see Neko Case) but it’s pretty eco-ambient, and kind of a spooky coda to all the previous machinations.

And all of this, clearly, we should know by 2009, is the result of one guy fiddling with computers in a shed. The one guy this time is a Brit named Johnny White, who otherwise teaches guitar to elementary school students. White has apparently thought a lot about how our recording devices impact our memories, pondering questions such as “Has technology made us nostalgic voyeurs of our own existence?,” according to the press material. “Hoods Up” is a song from the second Rollercoaster Project album, Revenge, scheduled for release later this month on Absolutely Kosher Records. MP3 via Absolutely Kosher.

Free and legal MP3: Heroes of Popular Wars (semi-psychedelic, quasi-funky)

“A Bus Called Further” – Heroes of Popular Wars

Churny, semi-psychedelic, and borderline funky in an undanceable sort of way, “A Bus Called Further” is both groovily electronic and baroquely corporeal at the same time. Now I am the furthest thing imaginable from a gearhead so I only know what the PR material says, but apparently Stephe Sykes, the brains behind HOPW, uses all sorts of “new vintage” (i.e. ’80s) equipment (guitar synths, 20-year-old samplers, and the like), which is no doubt what lends “A Bus Called Further” its chuggy, homemade vibe. Applying 21st-century mixing and collaging know-how to equipment made before people did this sort of thing is its own sort of mad genius.

And speaking of mad genius, the fact that the song title brings to (my) mind the song “Bus Called Happiness,” from the great mad-genius band Pere Ubu, gives the whole thing bonus points.

Previously Brooklyn-based, Sykes moved Heroes of Popular Wars to L.A. this summer and is still getting settled there–a process which includes his having to find people to turn HOPW into a band that can play onstage. “A Bus Called Further” is a song from HOPW’s debut full-length album, Church & McDonald, which was self-released late last month, and was named, you may as well know, for an intersection in the Kensington section of Brooklyn.

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.