Free and legal MP3: Washed Out (very appealing synth pop)

“Too Late” – Washed Out

I’m trying to figure out what Ernest Greene’s secret is. The man who does musical business as Washed Out—and let’s remember that he is credited with more or less inventing chillwave—offers up what appears on the surface to be standard-issue 21st-century electronic pop: beat-heavy, bass-forward, easy-on-the-ears, all sounds seemingly emerging from digital sources. Why is this song so good and so many similar efforts so forgettable?

I have a few ideas. First of all, never underestimate the power of a good voice. I am continually surprised by how many submissions I get that discourage me as soon as the singing starts. Not everyone who tries to sing is a good singer; not all voices are created equal. Greene’s voice has a tone at once rich and hazy, and whatever manipulative effects are employed, a listener never loses track of the appealing human voice producing the  sounds. (Boy do I wish that anyone still tempted by Auto-Tune would discover the potential of other ways to deal with voice in the digital realm. Greene should teach a master class.)

Digging deeper, there is something too in the actual notes he sings. I don’t have perfect pitch and my knowledge of music theory is incomplete at best but I do think that Greene has the happy inclination to sing what may be suspended notes, or in any case are notes appealingly off the underlying chord. You hear this as soon as he opens his mouth (0:40), singing “I saw you there”: there, that’s the note I’m talking about. It’s not in the chord backing the melody here. He doesn’t in fact meet up with the chord until the end of the next phrase (“waiting outside“); how warm and cozy that feels is a side effect of how much he has otherwise been hanging the melody in suspension. He draws some extra attention to this inclination when he gets to the word “shy” at 1:03. The subtle tension created by these notes is seductive.

Another thing going on here to the song’s benefit is the dynamic range of the percussion. I don’t know if any of this comes from a three-dimensional drum kit or not but the effect is three-dimensional because Greene offers up shifts in volume in the elements of the beat.  A lot of electronic beats, however seemingly intricate, are flatter in this regard. You can hear a purposefully dramatic incidence of this in the intro, at 0:15. But all through the verse section, what you actually have, underneath the blurry trappings, is an old-fashioned backbeat (emphasis on the second and fourth beats of the measure), effected via the dynamic range. It’s not that this is impossible or even difficult to do electronically; it may just be that music makers right now don’t really care to do it.

Lastly, Greene is comfortable getting a little odd. And a bit of oddness can be extremely welcome, especially in a musical era marked by click-oriented efforts to be “catchy.” Here we get a distinctly odd chorus (1:20): the beat disappears; the vocals layer into a vibey mist; the lyrics are punctuated by what sound like distorted, synthesized cellos; and for good measure we get some digitized hand claps before it’s done.

“Too Late” is a single released in April on Sub Pop. Washed Out was featured previously on Fingertips back in August 2011. MP3 once again via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Work Drugs (smooth electronics, understated urgency)

All smooth electronics on the surface, the song creates an understated urgency in a few ways.

Work Drugs

“Alternative Facts” – Work Drugs

A splendid marriage of vibe and craft, “Alternative Facts” is not the latest release from Philadelphia’s prolific Work Drugs, but is the one that has stuck with me most thoroughly.

All smooth electronics on the surface, the song creates an understated urgency in a few ways. First, there’s the recurrence of a simple, descending, two-note motif: it’s the notes the vocals start on, with the phrase “Get away,” and it’s repeated in four incarnations in the first 16 seconds. The song goes on to offer neither the comfort of an identifiable chorus nor an obvious resolution. Notice too the rhythmic structure: while the emphasis is the “on” beat (one and three) versus the backbeat (two and four), the beat is driven by a syncopated triplet rhythm with an accented second (oneTWOthree), which keeps the ear unbalanced and forward leaning. The place to hear this most clearly is right in the intro, before the vocals start, but that basic syncopated pulse continues throughout.

One last destabilizing point is how the recurring refrain is a repeat of the phrase “I’m not your happy ending,” articulated so the word “ending” is, ironically, all but inaudible—you have to realize it’s there to hear it. And when you do hear it, you may also notice that it is an echo of the repeated two-note motif previously discussed.

I do hope my efforts to bring some analytical concepts to the aural reality of a song don’t end up sounding pedantic. I’m just fascinated, in a lifelong way, by what makes music good, and refuse to believe it’s all a subjective matter, any more than are facts themselves, to bring us back to the subtle theme.

Work Drugs have been here before, featured on Fingertips in both March 2015 and September 2016. They are the duo of Thomas Crystal and Benjamin Louisiana and, as noted, they put out a rather ridiculous amount of music, as you can see if you wander over to their Bandcamp page. Additionally, if you head to SoundCloud page, you’ll find a nice assortment of their songs available for free download.

Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Satchmode (buoyant, wistful electronic pop)

Both giddily buoyant and touchingly wistful, “Best Intentions” is, indeed, electronic music offering up its best intentions, finding sweet humanity in and around the fabricated nature of the sound.

Satchmode

“Best Intentions” – Satchmode

Both giddily buoyant and touchingly wistful, “Best Intentions” is, indeed, electronic music offering up its best intentions, finding sweet humanity in and around the fabricated nature of the sound. I love when electronic music can locate this special place, where synthetics come full circle back to genuine spirit; it almost single-handedly gives me faith that even in this black-and-white age of zeros and ones we will yet learn to reside more often in the good knotty life to be found in all the gray that remains around us if we only look and listen.

And even if not, this is a fine fine song. Note the slow-building intro, and note I often do not have patience for slow-building intros, and note that I really like this one. It begins on a chord that I can only describe as heavenly, as in if there is a heaven, this is the kind of chord you will hear upon entry, an unearthly blend of peacefulness and edgy wonder. An old-fashioned radio voice cycles in and out as we eventually settle on the appealing if deceptively complex bounce that comprises the song’s bewitching groove. The airy yet commanding falsetto lead vocal is, in the verse, mixed knowingly on top of what sounds like a distorted bass synthesizer (listen way down below for it); there is something in the layering of those two sounds that really engages the ear. Or my ear, anyway, which also hears in this juxtaposition an aural metaphor for how the music’s delightful bop is counter-balanced by the plaintive story sketched by the skillful and concise lyrics.

And then the chorus, counterintuitively, peels back the sound rather than piles more on—we get little but the voice and that central, captivating bounce. I especially like the skippy upward flourish we get at 1:38 and 1:56. Actually, I especially like pretty much everything here. It’s only January but this is a shoo-in for a 2014 favorite come December.

Satchmode is the Los Angeles-based duo of Gabe Donnay and Adam Boukis. They formed in 2013. “Best Intentions” is the lead track on their debut EP, Collide, which was released last week. If you visit the band’s SoundCloud page, you can currently download the EP’s title track for free. Thanks to the band for the MP3, and thanks to Largehearted Boy for the initial lead.

Free and legal MP3: Son Lux (dramatic, oddly arranged)

This is a 21st-century tone poem, in a rather literal sense, as the song unfolds as an intersecting of tones: deep tones and high tones, tinkly tones and wobbly tones, soft tones and hard tones, musical tones and mechanical tones, vocal tones and instrumental tones.

Son Lux

“Easy” – Son Lux

Slow and sparse, “Easy” is likewise dramatic and oddly arranged, creating a sense of organic space despite (or, maybe, somehow, because of) the disconcerting, palpable electronic ambiance. This is a 21st-century tone poem, in a rather literal sense, as the song unfolds as an intersecting of tones: deep tones and high tones, tinkly tones and wobbly tones, soft tones and hard tones, musical tones and mechanical tones, vocal tones and instrumental tones. The most apparently natural tones in the song—the voice, the horn sounds, the hand claps—feel processed and edgy, while the most artificial of the tones—some of the machine-like background washes, for instance—come across as intimate and three-dimensional.

Nothing moves too fast to avoid scrutiny. Often there is little more than one sound going on at a time. Yet there remains something consistently evasive about the whole endeavor, probably epitomized by the unwieldy yet compelling “horns” (I assume not actual horns) that barge in at 0:57 to oppose the very idea of “easy” even as they offer an ongoing rejoinder to that lyric. Repeat listenings seem more to augment the mystery rather than resolve it, while continuing to yield moments that the ear missed during earlier plays, such as the weird, occult-ish vocal effect at 1:38, or, of all things, the perfectly normal-sounding guitar that glides in at 3:07.

Son Lux is the performing name of Ryan Lott, a composer and producer who has worked across an impressive range of genres, from indie rock to hip hop to contemporary classical. Among his past collaborators are Sufjan Stevens, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), Peter Silberman (The Antlers), Nico Muhly, and the quartet ETHEL. “Easy” comes from the third full-length Son Lux album, Lanterns, coming later this month on Joyful Noise Recordings.

Free and legal MP3: Dungeonesse (gauzy integration of robotic & organic)

“Nightlight” combines a sweeping, Annie Lennox-like sheen with a compressed, laptop-rock sensibility, and lives to tell about it.

Dungeonesse

“Nightlight” – Dungeonesse

“Nightlight” combines a sweeping, Annie Lennox-like sheen with a compressed, laptop-rock sensibility, and lives to tell about it. An explicit verse-chorus structure is surrendered in favor of an interwoven A/B/sort-of-A structure and a succinct, recurring, cumulatively magnetic melodic hook: that five-interval leap we hear right near the beginning (0:06), and repeatedly throughout. Singer Jenn Wasner—well-known in indie circles as half of the Baltimore duo Wye Oak—sets free her inner blue-eyed-soul singer, giving voice in this side project to a fuller, deeper, more melismatic vocal style than employed in her home band, in which she has typically sounded duskier and reverb-ier.

I find the song’s integration of the robotic and the organic continually compelling. At the beginning, Wasner croons over a dry, snapping electronic beat. The percussion disappears in section two (0:45), which is driven instead by a double-time melody and reverberating, fairy-tale synths. Some programmed rat-a-tats transition us into a hazy third section (0:57) that is a close relative to section one but featuring wily keyboard runs that emerge so seamlessly from the electronics as almost to manifest unnoticed. The few measures of piano-like presence that follow seem both natural and dreamlike before melting back into electronics as the first section is reintroduced—although this time (1:19) minus the aforementioned snapping beat, which lends an elusive softness to this gauzy yet substantive composition. More clearly electronic percussion returns for a final iteration of the third section, the piano work now replaced by a rich interlacing of harmonies and wordless backing vocal lines. The song might have faded out here; instead, the double-time second section is brought back as a kind of coda, and when Wasner takes its final words up an octave, we arrive at a suddenly satisfying and unprogrammed conclusion.

Dungeonesse is a collaboration between Wasner and singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer Jon Ehrens, who has been involved in a number of bands, including White Life and the Art Department. Wasner and Ehrens composed the songs for Dungeonesse remotely, with the originally Baltimore-based Ehrens relocated to L.A. and Wasner on tour with Wye Oak. The duo’s self-titled album was released in May on the Bloomington, Indiana-based label Secretly Canadian. MP3 via Secretly Canadian.

Free and legal MP3: Lapland (lush electronics)

Warm and blippy, “Unwise” floats in a gently pulsating womb of sound.

Lapland

“Unwise” – Lapland

Warm and blippy, “Unwise” floats in a gently pulsating womb of sound. There’s a ghostly wash in the background, a quivery layer of synthesizers in the middle, and a simple, gorgeous melody holding the piece together from the top. My ear at first was particularly drawn to the marimba-like synth that ambles its way into a recurring instrumental melody through the course of the introduction. In trying to follow its logic, I bumped into two aural peculiarities. First, there’s an actual guitar in here. Could be wrong about that, but there sure seems to be something scratchy-strummy going in in the middle of the mix. (After listening many different times I finally realized it’s most apparent right in the song’s opening seconds. Somehow I had missed that.) Second, for all the song’s rhythmic allure, there is little if any percussion. This is where electronic sounds can get so fascinatingly nebulous—that fine line between “beat” and “note” that we’ve been living with for the better part of 20 years. Somewhere in this song’s subtle pulse, sounds are rippling with percussive intent, but the amount of what might directly be called percussion is minimal.

Vocally, Josh Mease, the master mind behind Lapland, has borrowed from the Bon Iver school of whispery beauty, minus the claustrophobic edge of the excessively falsettoed. There is in fact a falsetto vocal line here but listen to how it dissolves into the upper end of the mix—as soon as you seek to nail it down, it seems almost to disappear in the woolly ambiance. The lyrics as well are mixed to dissolve upon reaching the ear; after the opening couplet—“I’ve been unwise/Fooled by your disguise”—the songwriter’s words seem subtly to float off into a kind of dream state. And note that this is the third song this week without a real chorus; here, we are hooked by the sturdy interaction of the two basic melody lines that alone support the entire enterprise. (The transition point, first heard at 1:00, is perhaps the song’s most prominent “moment.”)

Mease is a Houston-born, Brooklyn-based musician who put out a solo album in 2009 under his given name but here in 2013 reinvents himself as Lapland. The self-titled “debut” album arrives later this month on the artist-run Brooklyn label Hundred Pockets Records.

photo credit: Susan Pittard

Free and legal MP3: Astronauts, etc. (electronic pop, w/ warmth & texture)

An object lesson in how the delicate variations in computer-generated sound can be used for good instead of evil.

Astronauts etc

“Mystery Colors” – Astronauts, etc.

I enjoy my share of electronic-based music but I will admit I sometimes get weirded out by the immateriality of it all. Knowing that the sounds are all generated by the inscrutable insides of laptops and rectangular boxes with keyboards on them, if nothing else, makes my job here kind of hinky. It’s one thing to talk about the guitar and its aural character, and then maybe the bass, and the drums; it’s another thing to try to talk merely about sounds, the differences between which sometimes are so subtle that the line separating, even, beats and notes seems all but hallucinatory.

If the specific sounds in “Mystery Colors” are, therefore, difficult to identify and/or distinguish, the collective result is nevertheless an introspective pleasure. Anthony Ferraro, the solo mastermind behind Astronauts, etc., is uncommonly adept at creating warmth and texture from the delicate variations in computer-generated sound—and then, double the achievement, turning this warmth and texture into tuneful pop. In physical-instrument-based rock’n’roll, a rapid procession of notes and rhythms typically creates drive or tension; but listen here to how a tranquil vibe is maintained over and above the brisk arpeggios and fidgety beats. A lot of this has to do with Ferraro’s soothing tenor and the silky melody he’s singing. Note in particular the vocal effect during the chorus (first heard at 1:41), when he layers his vocals in two different registers, which creates a kind of whisper effect that feels cozy and personal. The choral break at 2:11 is another nice touch; human voices cut through artifice like nothing else.

Ferraro is a Berkeley-based musician who was on a classical piano performance track until beset by arthritis. Electronic music saved his career, pretty much. I look forward to seeing where he takes it all. “Mystery Colors” is from his first EP, entitled Supermelodic Pulp, which was released last month. You can listen to it as well as buy it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Black City Lights (grand & memorable, if you wait for it)

A slow-developing opening minute leads us eventually into something grand and memorable.

Black City Nights

“Rivers” – Black City Lights

I am a patient person—except when it comes to music. Songs that delay the entry of sensible structure or noticeable melody tend to annoy me, if I may be blunt. So I’m not sure how I managed even to listen to “Rivers”—with its 30 opening seconds of ambient electronic sounds and 30 additional seconds of instrumental introduction—without hitting stop and delete and moving on to the next thing. Sometimes, it seems, my ear hears things that my brain doesn’t initially latch onto. And I am in any case very glad I didn’t throw this one in the scrap bin, because that opening minute leads us into something grand and memorable.

It turns out this song, musically at least, is all about delayed gratification. After the long (long) introduction, the melody, in a series of ways, keeps edging near resolution and backing away. You can hear it, maybe, at 1:20, and then in an extended way at 1:40—note that Julia Catherine Parr then literally starts singing about being “so lost,” as the music retracts into background noise. We wait and wait and find deliverance with the line she belts at 1:57. I can’t understand the words but the music, at last, tells us the wait is over, and at 2:01 we plunge into something that feels deep and grounded, while also kind of sparkly and flowy. We are led to a point of resolution at 2:11 (on the words—no coincidence—“take you home”) that feels both solid and liquid: we resolve, and yet we keep flowing. The second half of the song is like that, at once robust and feathery, and the fact that it leads to a coda of heavenly voices seems exactly right. I suspect that not one moment of this song is accidental. It’s a fine ride, and reminds me to be patient in music as in life. At least sometimes.

Black City Lights is the project of Wellington, New Zealand producer Calum Robb and vocalist Parr. Either a sign of the times or a complete aberration, Robb just began writing and producing music late in 2010. “Rivers” is one of six songs on the Black City Lights debut EP, Parallels, released last week on Stars & Letters, a small NYC-based label. MP3 via Stars & Letters.

Free and legal MP3: Unison (dreamy, determined electronic pop)

Dreamy, determined, enticing electronic pop.

Unison

“Brothers & Sisters” – Unison

With a clicky, sampled undercurrent and a seductive, eardrummy beat, “Brothers & Sisters” is an effortlessly wonderful piece of electronic pop—dreamy, determined, and enticing. The music is, in fact, as likable as our current-day tendency to micro-label such music is unlikable. (There is a whole side story here about Unison making music that is part of a genre called “witch house,” which started as a joke and then became a thing, even as debate continues whether it actually is a thing or not. Boring.)

Much of the allure lies in the substantive soprano of Melanie Moran. Don’t let the airy whisper fool you; here is a woman who sings with the resolute agency of an indie diva. (And I’m passing no judgment here on her personality, just on the consequence of her voice.) In the context of Unison, her voice is one of many sonic elements—some percussive, some keyboardy—but note how, through the first two-thirds of the song, she is never subsumed; even whether other sounds appear louder, Moran is always given space. Her tone is weighty from low register to high, and I would say it is precisely her authoritative tone that allows the band to throw all the whooshy/clackety electronics onto the track so successfully.

And when, at last, the kitchen-sink background rises fully to meet her (3:37), we may lose some of her articulation but her bell-like sonority still anchors the swelling soundscape, which by now is full of beats and ghostly backing vocals and something resembling a doorbell having a nervous breakdown.

Unison is the French duo of Moran and Julien Camarena. “Brothers & Sisters” is a song from their self-titled debut, which was released in France in September, and arrives in the U.S. next month on Lentonia Records.

Free and legal MP3: Lux (fuzzy-buzzy guitars, w/ pop know-how)

A fuzzy-buzzy mix of guitars and electronics, crafted by actual human hands.

Lux

“Coroner’s Office” – Lux

A fuzzy-buzzy mix of guitars and electronics, “Coroner’s Office” succeeds where a lot of this kind of lo-fi fuzz-buzz (to my ears) fails, and this is because David Chandler and Leah Rosen may love the DIY thing but they also love the pop song thing. This is a real, complete song; even if partially electronic and programmed, it feels actually crafted by actual human hands. Developing over a sturdy, repeating four-chord progression, the same one for both the verse and the chorus, “Coroner’s Office” is generously sprinkled with delightful songwriting moments. Such as: the back-door, idiosyncratic hook we get here at the end of the verse with the repeating lyric “This is really real” (first heard at 0:39). And check out how the melody, which feels simple note to note, has the winsome tendency to leap up and down.

Note too how well Chandler’s blasé, wavering voice serves this kind of melody, and how well his phrasing serves the lyrics. Such as (0:57): “But you don’t know what she’s capable of/In the back of an old Chevrolet,” and listen to how he phrases that exactly as he might speak it, running the “know what she’s” part together whereas most singers would be tempted to accent the “know,” which makes sense singing but not talking. I appreciate too how his voice may be somewhat muffled but is still entirely present, the lyrics intelligible rather than turbid.

And then there are the tangential sounds, like the bright bell-like synth we get at 1:14 in the chorus, and then that wind-like synth that sweeps in at 1:50, and, further, that even more bell-like sound that chimes in at 1:58. This is what adds texture and heft.

The Seattle-based duo came together via Craigslist, each looking for a bandmate. Their mutual love of pioneering alternative rock bands (Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, New Order, Pavement, Jesus & Mary Chain, et al) spawned Lux in early 2010. A first EP emerged five months later. Their self-released debut album, We Are Not The Same, is coming in early April.

 

photo credit: The Ripper