Free and legal MP3: Jared Mees & the Grown Children (exuberant, Portland-infused idiosyncrasy)

Converted last week into a big fan of IFC’s daffy sketch comedy Portlandia, it’s only natural, I guess, to find myself gravitating this week to the exuberant, Portland-infused idiosyncrasy of Jared Mees and the Grown Children.

Jared Mees and the Grown Children

“Hungry Like a Tiger” – Jared Mees & the Grown Children

Converted last week into a big fan of IFC’s loopy sketch comedy Portlandia, I supposed it’s only natural to find myself gravitating this week to the exuberant, Portland-infused idiosyncrasy of Jared Mees and the Grown Children. We’ve been there before, you and I, just this past September, when Mees & Co. were in between albums. The previously fluid ensemble has since solidified into a line-up of five, and has a new album on the horizon, for which “Hungry Like a Tiger” is the lead track.

And quite a lead track it is, with its toe-tapping drive, its effortless melodic hook, its ear-worthy lyrics, and—hail, Portlandia!—its intermittent tendency to unravel the momentum with pensive interludes, not to mention its meta awareness of itself as a song. This rollicking tune hints at the crazy energy the band surely offers its live audiences; yet for all its loosey-goosey ambiance, the song is likewise a study in discipline and restraint. With a seemingly endless number of instruments up their sleeves, Mees and the gang nevertheless refrain from barraging us with kitchen-sink assemblage, pulling out the cello, the trumpet, the Hammond organ just exactly when they are required and no more. The Hammond in fact waits to come out till the end (4:04), at which point it gets a kicking little solo. Note that it’s hard for an instrument you haven’t otherwise heard to enter late in the game and not sound out of place or distracting. Note that the Hammond sounds perfect here.

The album Only Good Thoughts Can Stay, the band’s second, is coming in May via the Portland, Ore.-based media and arts collective/record label/comics imprint/consignment store/gallery/other things Tender Loving Empire, which Mees runs with his wife Brianne. How PDX of him.

Free and legal MP3: The Salteens (sparkly, guitar-free ensemble pop)

Check it out: there are no guitars in “Last Train From London,” which could make it the first train song in pop music history that cannot rely on a guitar to create the train vibe.

The Salteens

“Last Train From London” – The Salteens

Check it out: there are no guitars in “Last Train From London,” which could make it the first train song in pop music history that cannot rely on a guitar to create the train vibe. No worries, however—a percussive piano motif does the trick, with a complementary bass and drum part; some well-timed hand claps help too. Even the horns manage to get in on the act; spurred by the chugging percussion, they do, also, contribute to the train-iness of the music, in a subtle and unexpectedly Burt Bacharachian way.

And there certainly are horns aplenty here, as the long-dormant Salteens, now eschewing guitars, expanded from five to ten to create their new. brass-infused sound. The energy is sparkly, and yet the horns play with a wonderful delicacy—there’s no blaring, and no self-conscious “cue the horn charts” kinds of moments; the feel is very ’60s, somewhat soulful, and rather British, even though the band is from Vancouver. Front man Scott Walker brings Stuart Murdoch to mind, but sings with more infectious exuberance than Belle & Sebastian’s mastermind.

“Last Train From London” is the opening track on Grey Eyes, which was released in October on Boompa Records. Note that the band themselves started the label in 2003, to release their second album; note too that the label has since acquired a roster of more than 15 artists, while the Salteens themselves released nothing at all. Situation at long last rectified. MP3 via Boompa.

Free and legal MP3: Bear Bones (well-wrought ensemble pop from Scotland)

With the soothing, 3/4 beat of a folk ballad and the tenderness of a singer/songwriter confessional, “Oil & Lacquer” is the work of an eight-piece Scottish ensemble that plays with unusual warmth and restraint.

Bear Bones

“Oil & Lacquer” – Bear Bones

With the soothing, 3/4 beat of a folk ballad and the tenderness of a singer/songwriter confessional, “Oil & Lacquer” is the work of an eight-piece Scottish ensemble that plays with unusual warmth and restraint. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with the crowded, kitchen-sink indie pop that has flooded the market in the 21st century, but there is always something to be said for restraint, especially in our generally unrestrained times. I was surprised after listening to this a number of times to see that there were in fact eight people in the band. They create the sonic space of a smaller crew, and I mean that as a compliment. They are willing, for one thing, to let one another play in relative isolation—listen, for example, to the second verse, starting at 0:48, in which singer Ben Harrison is accompanied with not much more than accordion and percussion. And okay there’s a keyboard back there if you listen carefully. The uncluttered background allows the soprano sax to add beautifully to the color of the piece when it steps closer to the front of the mix in the third verse, around 1:23.

What the song lacks in sheer busy noise it makes up for in developing intensity. Part of this is accomplished via song structure, which isn’t the standard verse-chorus-verse but more like verse-verse-verse-chorus-chorus. The chorus half of the song is kicked off when most of the players put their instruments down and start singing, around 2:09. It’s a fine moment, and shifts the song into a deeper place; while the chorus melody is something of a variation of the verse melody, the music simplifies as the lyrics sharpen—the narrator goes from singing about life to singing about Life, and somewhere along the way the song gets me right in the gut.

Front man Ben Harrison was born and raised on the Isle of Islay in Scotland, in (on?) the Inner Hebrides (home not only of good music but some mighty fine Scotch); he and the band are now based in Glasgow. “Oil & Lacquer” was the ensemble’s first single, released this past spring in the UK. A new single will be out in December on the new Scottish label Eli and Oz. No word yet on a full-length release.

Free and legal MP3: Jared Mees & the Grown Children (homespun hoedown w/ cosmopolitan concerns)

Engaging, homespun hoedown, with a loose, swift sense of purpose about it. But for all its back-porch, fiddle-fronted ambiance, note how the song has no obvious lyrical connection to dirt roads and rustic living beyond its title image; we hear instead contemporary words and phrases like television, red ink, lead actor, tragicomedy.

Jared Mees and the Grown Children

“Cockleburrs and Hay” – Jared Mees & the Grown Children

Engaging, homespun hoedown, with a loose, swift sense of purpose about it. But for all its back-porch, fiddle-fronted ambiance, note how the song has no obvious lyrical connection to dirt roads and rustic living beyond its title image; we hear instead contemporary words and phrases like television, red ink, lead actor, tragicomedy. Towards the end of the song, Mees rhymes “cradle-robbing capillary blocker” with “limp-wristed back-alley stalker.”

This ongoing tension between the song’s cosmopolitan concerns and its rural sound is a good part of the charm. The ensemble’s spirited, toe-tapping energy pretty much takes care of the rest. Exactly who the Grown Children are at any one time has not been made clear, it being a name for, basically, whomever shows up and plays with Mees at any given time (more than 20 players are identified, by first name, on the MySpace page). The informality of the gathering, combined with the quality of the musicianship, is, I think, what lends this song its particular flair—it doesn’t sound painstakingly rehearsed as much as spontaneously combusted.

The Portland, Ore.-based Mees originally recorded “Cockleburrs and Hay” (minus one “r”) for his 2007 solo album If You Want to Swim With the Sharks; this is a new and improved version of the song, recorded during a recent studio session and not yet on any album. The group’s first album, Caffeine, Alcohol, Sunshine, Money, was released in 2008 on Tender Loving Empire.

Free and legal MP3: Cloud Cult (expansive, shimmery, optimistic)

A big bursting semi-ecstatic valentine to human potential, “You’ll Be Bright” tingles and churns and sparkles with earnest, offbeat energy as only this environmentally focused, biodiesel van-touring Midwestern ensemble can dish out.

Cloud Cult

“You’ll Be Bright (Invocation P. 1)” – Cloud Cult

A big bursting semi-ecstatic valentine to human potential, “You’ll Be Bright” tingles and churns and sparkles with earnest, offbeat energy as only this environmentally focused, biodiesel van-touring Midwestern ensemble can dish out.

We begin with front man/mastermind Craig Minowa singing ardently over an appealingly psychedelic accompaniment—on top of a simple acoustic guitar pattern there’s some kind of phasing or looping going on, but it sounds unusually precise, as if the bending of the notes is itself a sculpted part of the music. The introduction is an extended one, with lyrics that are idiosyncratic listings of categories and things, interspersed with the exhortation to “travel safely.” There’s a feeling of ritual and mystery in the air, as befitting a song parenthetically labeled an “invocation.”

Drums sneak in around the minute mark—I dare you to figure out exactly when—and the song breaks open at 1:12, with driving guitars and percussion and a new melody and chord progression. “I found stars on the tip of your tongue,” Minowa sings, and it’s all carefully constructed exuberance and uplift and mystery from there on in. The song unspools like a journey, with an expansive, circular feeling to it, and sure enough, by the end we have found ourselves back to the beginning, as the opening lyrics reprise amid all the shimmering clatter the band can muster.

Cloud Cult was previously featured on Fingertips in March 2008, and it’s worth going back to read that earlier review for some interesting background information on this most unusual, Minneapolis-based band. “You’ll Be Bright” can be found on the album Light Chasers, released digitally earlier this summer and due out on CD in September on the band’s own Earthology label; it’s their eighth full-length studio album in their 15-year career. MP3 via Utne Reader‘s August Music Sampler.

NOTE: I did not realize, when featuring this, that Utne Reader only keeps its samplers online for the month in question. As a result, this song, unfortunately, is no longer available. For future reference, I will not feature Utne’s selections (although they’re good!), because I’d ideally like songs on Fingertips to be available for more than a few weeks.

Free and legal MP3: Lost in the Trees

Poignant indie melodrama

Lost in the Trees

“Walk Around the Lake” – Lost in the Trees

Melodramatic noises and rhythms greet us, without hesitation: an ominous chorus of wordless singing over bass-drum-heavy three-beated measures, the minor, steadily descending melody like some mini-opera exorcising specters and despair. A fourth beat sneaks in on the fourth and eighth measures and then we’re at a clearing, and front man Ari Picker (great name for a guitarist) starts singing. He’s got a pressing, Thom Yorke-ish tenor, the voice of a man who thinks too much, and then thinks he can think his way out of thinking that way.

Makes for a messy life but potentially powerful songs. “Walk Around the Lake” tricks out its epic ambiance with a poignant hesitancy, never staying too long in one time signature, and never giving us those operatic bashings for too long before retreating to the sound of one acoustic guitar. This is after all an introspective song—“Some times all it takes/Is a walk around the lake/To ease your mind”—and so the back and forth between the hubbub and the repose during the first two-thirds of the song seems to evoke the way a tender psyche can feel battered by the world, along with its efforts to find solace. The last third might be seen as an effort to more fully integrate the inner and outer worlds, which makes the short section near the middle (1:15) the linchpin upon which the song turns. This is when the ensemble swings into 2/4 for a focused, Pink Floydian seven seconds or so, staving off the foreboding 3/4 soundscape for the first time. We will hear that just once more, after which we finish out in balanced 4/4 time, Picker singing now about how his heart has grown and he’s moving on. And this a song not quite three minutes long.

Lost in the Trees, from Chapel Hill, began life as a solo project for the Berklee-educated Picker; now a seven-piece ensemble, the band lists some 20 extra people as part of its “extended family.” “Walk Around the Lake” is from the album All Alone in an Empty House, which was initially released on Trekky Records in 2008, but has been reworked and enhanced by producer Scott Solter for a new version, which is due out next month on Anti- Records.

Free and legal MP3: Hey Marseilles (rollicking 21st-century ensemble pop)

“Rio” – Hey Marseilles

Funny, if you think about it: the 21st-century to date has arguably contributed two abiding types of music to the rock’n’roll idiom, and they’re kind of the exact opposites of each other. One is the music played by a two-person band, with keyboards and synthetic sounds at the forefront; the other is the music played by a large-ish group of people (typically five or more) wielding an idiosyncratic assortment of often (but not exclusively) acoustic instruments. Not that each type of ensemble plays one precise kind of music, so I’m not really talking about two new music styles or genres as much as two new musical energies or platforms, both thriving over the last ten years or so.

Hey Marseilles, as you can almost guess from the name, is the second type–a seven-piece band from Seattle that plays things like accordion, cello, viola, mandolin, banjo, trumpet, and (wait for it) drumbourine. Now on the one hand, just putting a bunch of musicians with a bunch of instruments together is no guarantee for sonic success, and yet one could argue on the other hand that seven people who can play non-amplified instruments well enough together to make a coherent sound have an immediate leg up over a standard, four-person electric outfit. But then on the other other hand it also happens that larger ensembles can get so caught up in merely making the sound they make that the songs themselves–melodies, chords, structures–come up lacking. Not so with these guys, however. “Rio” is a joy from the opening hand claps, a sweetly rollicking neo sea shanty with terrific interplay between music and lyrics and delightfully rich instrumental layers. You never quite know which sounds are going to match up with which other sounds as the piece bounds along. It’s great fun, both light and deep.

“Rio” is a song from the band’s debut album, To Trunks and Travel, originally self-released in 2008, but which is getting a national re-release in June via Onto Entertainment. Thanks to the irrepressible Largehearted Boy for the head’s up. And if you want a sense of what this musical energy is like in person, check out this live performance of “Rio” from the band’s visit to KEXP:

Free and legal MP3: Broken Records (brisk, folk-infused, toe-tapping tragedy)

“If Eilert Loevborg Wrote A Song, It Would Sound Like This” – Broken Records

We begin with a mournful folk melody, played on cello and accordion, full of sad old-country wisdom. An added mandolin leads to a tempo shift, and now we’re tapping our toes, but we’re still sad. Music is like that sometimes. Tragedy is in the air; Eilert Loevborg (or Ejlert Løvborg) is in fact Hedda Gabler’s flawed, doomed ex-lover in the Ibsen play. I haven’t been able to discover why this seven-piece Scottish band chose to write a song from the point of view of this particular character, but ours is not to question why. Listen instead to Jamie Sutherland’s commanding, rough-edged baritone and the unerring ensemble playing, led by the swift, crestfallen cello.

There’s a Northern air about all this—some elusive mix of Nordic and Scot, perhaps—but also something Eastern European, and then dawns the realization that at heart, old-country music blends nearly into one, from many different cultures. This might have to do with the violin (or fiddle) that lives in the center of so many folk traditions, or it might have to do with something deeper and more primordial in the human spirit. All I know is this band—whose members also play piano, trumpet, and glockenspiel in addition to guitar, bass, and drums—has a full and satisfying presence, the song a cumulative power. By the time Sutherland, with convincing torment, sings, “And does your husband know the lies that we’ve kept?/And has he ever felt that warmth from your bed?” (1:31), I feel that inner shift that happens when musical notes and instruments and voices combine in a way that touches the soul. We can sometimes point out when it happens but never can we ever truly say why.

“If Eilert Loevborg Wrote…” is from Broken Records’ debut CD, Until the Earth Begins to Part, scheduled for a May release on 4AD Records. MP3 via 4AD.

Free and legal MP3: Evening Magazine (a big ensemble w/ capacity to stay quiet)

“Apple Eye” – Evening Magazine

Marrying an old-fashioned “sound of Philadelphia” sweep to 21st-century electronics and indie-rock flavorings, Evening Magazine makes music that shouldn’t probably work but in this case does, however idiosyncratically. A nine-piece collective from (yes) Philadelphia, the band is led by guitarist/vocalist David Disbrow (formerly of the band BC Camplight) and engineer Kevin Francis (who plays synths too), and features a trumpeter, trombonist, flutist, and harpist, among others. For all the colorful instrumentation, the band doesn’t feel the need to fill in all the aural blanks. As a singer, Disbrow has a somewhat fragile presence, and the music gives him space to establish this presence; in fact, he usually isn’t singing on top of much more here than an acoustic guitar and a drumbeat. The arrangement is reminiscent of classical music, which is more willing than rock to explore dynamics via having instruments just stop playing for a while. Rock musicians, if they’re holding an instrument, they want to play it pretty much constantly.

What makes it all work for me is nothing more complicated than a pleasing melodic interval. Actually, a relationship of intervals. After the relaxed, horn-driven intro, the melody in the verse, itchier, finds Disbrow singing a rapid-fire series of tones. Staying on the first note for six or seven iterations, he slips down just a half-step for four syllables and then up five steps of the scale for the last three. Disbrow sounds particularly fragile at the top of the leap—so much so that the note, while actually the tonic of the scale, the home base, sounds unresolved, just a bit off, adding to the muted urgency of the ambiance fostered by that half-step-down, big-leap-up combination.
     “Apple Eye” is the lead track off the band’s debut EP, The Ride Across Lake Constance, released this month on Ohso Records, which appears to be the band’s own imprint. Thanks to the band for the MP3.