Free and legal MP3: Mr. Jenkins (slow, odd, endearing)

As quirky and rumpled as a song can be while still possessing genuine pop spirit.

Mr. Jenkins

“Suddenly, I Don’t Feel So Afraid” – Mr. Jenkins

As quirky and rumpled as a song can be while still possessing genuine pop spirit. The unusual combination of being both slow-moving and short is but one of its oddnesses, as well as one of its charms. Note how the slowness feels almost unnatural, more trippy slow-motion than merely downtempo.

After a sparse, deliberate introduction, the song opens with its chorus—good move in a sub-two-minute number, I’d say—and the melody, though sluggish, is playful. Listen to that little speeded-up phrase (around 0:21), the second iteration of “I don’t feel so”: there’s something Bacharachian in there, and yet it almost creates cognitive dissonance in this swimming-through-jello vibe. The lyrics are incomprehensible globally, but pregnant phrases register, and it could be that the chorus’s use of repeating, understandable lyrical phrases matched against asymmetrical musical phrases is what lends such force to the tune:

Suddenly I don’t
I don’t feel so strange
I don’t feel so afraid anymore
You surely feel it too

First comes the immediately repeated “I don’t”s, and then that third one fitting now into the syncopated double-time flourish, leading next into the completely artificial way the “afraid anymore/You” break scans, and as much as I am by and large a proponent of lyrics that scan naturally, in this case, I find myself delighted.

Nick Jenkins is an experimental drummer-composer-illustrator who has been involved in a wide range of musical projects—alternative rock, jazz, alt-country, contemporary classical, you name it. As a solo performer he has been recording as Mr. Jenkins since 2006—32 releases and counting. Most have been EPs, and while the total includes a seven-volume series (Samples) each release of which presents simply and only the 12 notes of the standard chromatic scale as represented by one particular type of sound producer (wine bottles, cell phones, et al), the rest of them feature full-fledged songs, usually instrumentals, and often with endearing tiles such as “Love is Not Thinking” and “It Would Be So Much Easier If I Could Just Swim Across.” “Suddenly, I Don’t Feel So Afraid Anymore” is from the album of the same name, released in November 2012 (although this is a remixed version of the original); you can check the whole unusual thing out on Bandcamp. This new verseion came to my attention via a free and legal sampler just released by the record company, Hearts and Plugs, on whose roster you’ll also find the Fingertips-featured bands Elim Bolt and Brave Baby (not to be confused, conversely, with Grave Babies!).

Free and legal MP3: Mice Parade (slinky, off-kilter indie pop)

There is something ongoingly makeshift about this song, as if these are the folks who wandered in and started playing, while waiting for the rest of the band to show up.

Mice Parade

“Contessa” – Mice Parade

I immediately enjoy this song’s slinky, semi-minimalist setting—we are shuffled into an offbeat unfolding of 4/4 without a lot of fuss. There is something ongoingly makeshift about this song, as if these are the folks who wandered in and started playing, while waiting for the rest of the band to show up. Front man Adam Pierce, also the drummer, is the first singer we hear, but his half-hidden vocal is really just a tease; the song becomes the property of second vocalist Caroline Lufkin as soon as she opens her mouth (0:42). She’s got one of those voices that feels both gentle and piercing (no pun intended; well, maybe partially intended) at the same time. Their voices work especially well together (although I’m still not sure how his voice ends up quite so mixed down on his last lead line, at 1:12—seems either a mistake or a private joke).

“Contessa” furthermore continues a streak of songs here featuring a compelling instrumental section. It starts as what seems like a standard, post-chorus instrumental break (2:44), although its cool keyboard lines and fractured drumming make it not all that standard in the first place. Around 3:06 it gathers force and leads us, via some extended percussive tension, into a second instrumental episode, this one featuring a lazy series of keyboard lines and (I think) distorted guitar blurps over a repeating but difficult-to-digest drumbeat. We seem to have stumbled upon some very odd sort of jazz combo, and while waiting for the song to re-establish itself, I looked at the clock and realized we’re running out of time. The song just fades. I kind of liked that, for whatever reason.

Based (where else?) in Brooklyn, Mice Parade is one of those “only in indie rock” kinds of outfits—an experimental post-rock ensemble with fluid membership and shifting sonic affiliations that tools along for years in relative obscurity. The constant has been Pierce, previously known (maybe) as drummer in the band The Swirlies. Mice Parade records have been coming out semi-regularly since 1998, with titles like The True Meaning of Boodleybaye and Bem-Vinda Vontade. “Contessa” is the second to last track on the new Mice Parade album, entitled Candela, which was released this week on Fat Cat Records.

photo credit: Oleg Pulemjotov

Free and legal MP3: The Van Allen Belt (off-kilter, extraterrestrial instrumental)

Cheery and off-kilter, a semi-angelic and vaguely extraterrestrial instrumental.

The Van Allen Belt

“Solar Crosses Stolen From Cemetery” – The Van Allen Belt

Why does this song attract me so? There seems a magnetic pull here. And there was me just a few weeks ago talking about how no one knows what to do with rock’n’roll instrumentals. This one is an entirely different animal than the Dirty Three song, arriving all cheery and off-kilter, semi-angelic and extraterrestrial (or at least Star Trekky), churning through the ether with its chimey, upturning melody. And yes, it’s not strictly speaking an instrumental in that there are vocals here, but they are wordless and choir-like. And so, to me, an instrumental. (Typically, the band does employ vocals with lyrics, via singer/multi-instrumentalist Tamar Kamin.)

The time signature—the ear-grabbing yet awkward 5/4—is central to its appeal. When the rare someone comes along who can harness 5/4’s freakishness into a flowing piece of music, we pay attention. And “Solar Crosses” does it without relying on any kind of swing or in-between beats that 5/4 and 7/4 songs often employ to sound agreeable. What we get instead is a straightforward five count and an open-ended chord progression that gives the melody an Escher-like sense of climbing ever upward. There is no time to catch one’s breath, the music just keeps piling on itself, with bonus flourishes and fluctuations along the way. I like the four-second, two-chord guitar burst at 1:37 and the factory-like drumbeat that takes over at 1:50, to name two.

The Van Allen Belt is a four-person experimental ensemble from Pittsburgh featuring music written and produced by Benjamin K. Ferris. Ferris began writing avant-garde material in the late ’90s and the band coalesced through the ’00s into its current lineup. Everything about the outfit’s background and music is too complicated to sum up succinctly; even their discography (two full-lengths and one EP to date) is muddled by the fact that the EP and their most recent album were released on the same day in January 2010. Their titles are generally too long to mention. “Solar Crosses” has a similarly involved back story, being a song featured on one of four seasonal compilations released in 2008 on the Vancouver label Peppermill Records. Bands participating had seven days to record a song, the title of which had to be taken from a headline in the news that week. (There’s more to it than that but I’m running out of space.) How it came to my attention here in 2012 is yet more complication, plus a dollop of serendipity. Let’s just be happy it did. Thanks to the band for the MP3.