Free and legal MP3: Jeni Valtinson (simple, memorable)

There appears to be a gifted singer and songwriter in the process of maturing here.

Jeni Valtinson

“Silver Linings” – Jeni Valtinson

A first-rate diamond in the rough, “Silver Linings” has a just-born aspect about it that speaks of young talent announcing itself to the world. And, to be sure, Jeni Valtinson is all of 19 and barely emerging from the covering-pop-songs-on-YouTube phase of her musical education. But my intuition tells me there may be a gifted singer and songwriter in the process of maturing here. I receive a lot of submissions from young and unformed musicians and a lot of this music, however well-intentioned, is pretty much unlistenable. “Silver Linings,” on the contrary, is a splendid song, ably assembled and arranged, and for what the production may lack in all-out sophistication it makes up for through the simple power of the song’s sturdy construction, and in particular its memorable chorus, which presents us with an earworm of the highest quality. I have lately been singing this to myself at all hours of the day. Lovely, potent stuff.

I am also charmed by Valtinson’s vocal performance, which manages to be at once slightly uneven and thoroughly poised. The rounded, breathy quality of her voice sounds at one level slightly green and yet also moves me with moments of casual depth.

Valtinson is from Orlando. “Silver Linings” is the title track to her debut, a three-song EP, which she self-released in April. It’s available to listen to and purchase at Bandcamp. She tells me she wrote all of the songs when she was 14, and that the EP took four years from start to finish. She is listed as co-producer, which gave her decision-making power throughout. If Jeni Valtinson sticks with it, “Silver Linings” could one day pale in comparison to the rest of her work.

photo credit: Reg Garner

Free and legal MP3: Tideup (lo-fi electronica w/ lovely vocals)

Singer Noelle Indovino’s voice floats with airy grace above the swells and clatters of the electronic backbeat.

Tideup

“Walk” – Tideup

Despite the volume of lifeless electronica and/or electro-pop that has flooded the internet over the last 10 or so years, let us not ever give up on the basic sound, which in the proper hands can still deliver fresh and delightful music. File “Walk” under fresh and delightful, thanks in large part to the clear sweetness of front woman Noelle Indovino’s voice. Draped in a bit of reverb, she still sounds present and crisp, a tone rarely heard in the overcrowded world of DIY electronic duos. And apparently this is no accident. Tideup mastermind/producer/multi-instrumentalist Ben Guzman spent two years searching, via Craigslist, for the right female vocalist to buoy his electronics-oriented landscapes, inspired by music he admired from the Dirty Projectors. Indovino answered his ad in December 2011, as well as his musical prayers. Her voice lends a seductive humanity to Guzman’s adept textures, floating with airy grace above the swells and clatters of the electronic backbeat.

But Tideup isn’t just about a pretty voice. “Walk” is a sturdy song, with lovely, rubbery melodies and thoughtful touches like that vivid three-note melisma in the chorus at 1:53 (melisma: one syllable held through a succession of notes), the thoughtfully sparse instrumental break at 2:20, and what sounds like the ongoing addition of organic drumming on top of the electronic beat. Listen closely and you might also notice how the verse melody is different the second time through, always a sign of a thoughtful composition. And one of the most appealing extras in “Walk” stems again from Indovino’s singing—that lovely wordless vocal she offers us ahead of the verse, which is an unusual and enticing moment. Let this one wash over you a few times and you might start glowing.

“Walk” is a song from Tideup’s debut EP, In Curses You Came, which was released digitally at the beginning of the year. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy it, via Bandcamp. Guzman and Indovino are based in Orlando, Florida.

Free and legal MP3: King of Spain (one-note melody, w/ power & style)

I don’t know if I’m a sucker for one-note melodies but I sure am fascinated by them.

King of Spain

“Motions” – King of Spain

I don’t know if I’m a sucker for one-note melodies but I sure am fascinated by them. Rock’n’roll has had a smattering of famous songs with extended one-note melodies (“Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Pump It Up,” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” are the three that always come to mind) and yet consider the difference in feel between that trio of harangue-like tunes and this one-note wonder, which is smooth and cat-like in its unfolding. The arrangement, drony and hypnotic, pulls us with style and determination through such a silvery series of chords that the ear almost doesn’t hear how dogged a one-note melody this is—unlike its one-note companions from rock history, which veer now and then from the primary note, the melody in “Motions” is literally just one note for the entire length of the verse section, beginning at 0:39, until the very last note, which falls off on the last word of the phrase “This is the way that we fall.”

One-note melodies inescapably draw our attention to the lyrics, since our ears seek the source of complication in what they are listening to, in an effort to understand, and if the melody is all one note, the complication pretty much all comes from the words. The lyrics in a one-note melody carry an inescapable feeling of stream of consciousness; the lyrics of “Motions” take this one step further—they seem less a spontaneous litany of cool-sounding words than themselves a meaningful exploration of the inner workings of the mind. They pour out, demand contemplation, yet leave no time in which to contemplate. Focus if you can on the words and you’ll find the power of the song multiplies.

When the debut King of Spain album, Entropy, was released in 2007, the band was a solo project for Tampa singer/multi-instrumentalist Matt Slate. In 2009, King of Spain became a duo when bassist Daniel Wainright joined as a full-fledged member. “Motions” is from the forthcoming album All I Did Was Tell Them the Truth and They Thought It Was Hell, to be released at the end of August on New Grenada Records.

photo credit: Lucy Pearl Photography (http://www.lucy-pearl.com)

Free and legal MP3: Radical Face (quietly portentous, w/ minor-major alternation)

He seems to be telling quite a story with that expressive tenor of his—and yes I get the basic gist from the title alone—but there’s something about the music, each time, that pulls me away from the words.

Radical Face

“The Deserter’s Song” – Radical Face

I like good lyrics, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t tend to default to lyric-listening. I get distracted by the music. Drawn in and swept away. Even when I start out actively trying to listen to lyrics, I often lose my way. This one, wow, I’ve been listening over and over and I can’t seem to focus on the lyrics for very long at all. He seems to be telling quite a story with that expressive tenor of his—and yes I get the basic gist from the title alone—but there’s something about the music, each time, that pulls me away from the words.

I consider this a good thing. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I think a songwriter has done quite an impressive job if you, as a listener, know that the song works and yet can’t manage quite to follow what he or she is saying. Or okay maybe it’s just me as a listener. But I hear that deep tom-tom, I hear the hushed interplay between rhythm sticks and one-handed piano playing, I hear the always effective alternation of minor and major keys, never mind the thunder and rain (not always effective, but it works here, for me), and the words disintegrate into the song itself. I absorb the portentous atmosphere with no firm idea of what the song is specifically recounting. I consider this a good thing.

Radical Face is the name Ben Cooper has given to his solo recording project. Cooper is otherwise known, to some, as half of the duo Electric President, themselves featured here last February. “The Deserter’s Song” can be found on the EP Touch the Sky, released in November on the Berlin label Morr Music. A previous Radical Face album, Ghost, came out in November 2007. MP3 via Better Propaganda. This one I have known about since its release; it just took a while to grow into something I wanted to feature. Some music works like that. I hope you guys out there don’t always dismiss a new song with too quick a hit of the “next” button. Some songs need a bit of air and space.

Free and legal MP3: Surfer Blood(instantly engaging, unusually constructed)

“Floating Vibes” – Surfer Blood

“Floating Vibes” has that deep guitar thing going right away, which I always find gratifying. And which always makes me wonder why rock’n’roll has so consistently (and, to my ears, stupidly) glorified the sound of a wailing guitar played so high up on the neck that there’s no room left for the guitarist’s fingers. I’ll take the robust, thoughtful tremor of the lowest register over screechy wails any day. And check out the countervailing seventh notes that begin appearing at 0:20, floating with offhand precision above the darker sound, the quasi-dissonance of that interval perking the ear up in a most welcome and curious way. This song is pretty great before singer John Paul Pitts–known merely as JP–opens his mouth.

And it gets better. The basic guitar refrain of the introduction becomes the verse melody, with the seventh-note question marks now removed, giving the melody a newly grounded sense of certainty. The harmonies that accompany the melody the second time through (1:00) are subtle and ingenious–the harmony voice is pretty much singing one note–and solidify the melodic construction so firmly that the song never returns to it. It turns out that for all its easy-going tunefulness, “Floating Vibes” is subversive with respect to form: there is no standard chorus and no verse that repeats throughout the song. Rather, there are three different verse melodies, separated by instrumental breaks. The first is the one rooted in the introduction, the second is introduced at an instrumental break at 1:16, and the third (2:35) is a kind of mash-up of the first two. The final instrumental section moves onto yet another melody and features a violin, as unexpected as it is effective.

Surfer Blood is a quintet of non-surfers from West Palm Beach. “Floating Vibes” is the lead track from Astro Coast, the band’s debut, slated for released in January on Brooklyn-based Kanine Records. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3: Holopaw (pensive, inscrutable)

“The Art Teacher and the Little Stallion” – Holopaw

Airily idiosyncratic, not to mention lyrically inscrutable, “The Art Teacher and the Little Stallion” required repeated listens for me to really hear it. Songs with vocal (rather than purely instrumental) introductions are a bit hard to get one’s pop-oriented mind around, to begin with. And when Holopaw’s John Orth is the one doing the vocalizing, maybe it’s even harder. He’s actually got an engaging, feathery sort of voice, but when it’s the very first thing one hears–without the grounding of obvious melody or structure–it seems a challenge, to me.

But here’s something to listen for early on: the two notes he sings on the word “breath,” at 0:12 (which are E-flat and D-flat, if my keyboard widget is to be trusted). These are soon revealed as the two notes the rest of the song consistently turns on, the two notes which, magnet-like, attract and re-attract the melody–for instance, at the end of the recurring lyric “Couldn’t we just get lost?” The musical phrase described by these notes is unresolved, but listen to how the violin follows (e.g. 0:56) with a countermelody that does then resolves it, and with folk-like poignancy. Keep your ear on the violin all the way through; I think the yearning ballast it provides is what lends the song, at least after a number of listens, its quirky majesty.

From Gainesville, Florida, Holopaw was previously featured on Fingertips in August 2005, but are rather a whole different band now: three of its original five members moved north after that second album, replaced slowly but surely by four Gainesville-based others. “The Art Teacher and the Little Stallion” is the first song on the band’s Oh, Glory. Oh, Wilderness. album, due out next month on Bakery Outlet Records.

Free and legal MP3: Morningbell (spoke-sung verses, vigorous rhythms)

“Marching Off To War” – Morningbell

Equal parts character and commitment, “Marching Off To War” props itself on top of some seriously good-natured drumming and never looks back. The verses–all two of them–involve some smiley, spoke-sung lyrics that serve as gatekeepers to the body-shaking rhythmic attack of the chorus, in which singer/guitarist Travis Atria wails the repeated line “Marching off to war” in full Perry Farrell mode. Is there a disconnect here between the jolly sounds and the somber words? I’m guessing that’s the point. Note the way the chorus ends with a line that comes across as a throwaway–“I don’t care what you say anymore”–but may indeed be the fulcrum of the song.

Because that’s exactly what happens when human beings are rallied to act against their own better natures: they must be jollied up to the point where they don’t want to know there’s another way to look at the situation. Don’t bother me, I’m marching off to war. My head’s full of happy nonsense. Whatever the latest war is. (The war against health care reform will do.) “I don’t care what you think anymore,” is how the line goes later in the song.

Named after the Radiohead song (and why not; Radiohead too made a one-word name for themselves from another band’s two-word song title), Morningbell is a quartet from Gainesville. Travis’s brother Eric plays bass (and, Radiohead-ishly, theremin), and Eric’s wife Stacie plays keys. (The exhilarating drummer, not related, is named Chris Hillman, of all things.) The band was previously featured here in May 2007. “Marching Off To War” will be found on their fourth and forthcoming album, Sincerely, Severely, slated for release on the band’s own non-profit label, Orange Records, in December.