Free and legal MP3: Pinewood (ear-pleasing mystery)

“Riverbank” – Pinewood

Fleet, spacious, and impressive, “Riverbank” gathers a solemn momentum through the determined repetition of its underlying finger-picked riff. The riff materializes from the quiet haze at 0:09 in the introduction and it literally doesn’t stop, accompanying the song straight through to the end, with one brief, well-placed shift (heard first at 1:07, repeated just once more at 2:34). The riff, warm and resolute, is augmented by a carefully curated soundscape, including a homey variety of percussion, what sounds briefly like a string section (1:12), a distant murmur of voices (2:08), an intermittent mandolin, and a great bottom-register buzz that sounds familiar but I can’t identify it—it’s often there deep in the background but can be heard a bit more clearly at around 1:50. (Maybe some kind of flanged bass guitar? Amplified mouth harp??)

The end result is an ear-pleasing mystery, at once calm and urgent, simple and complex, organic and manipulated, 1970s and 2020s, blended into a here-and-gone 3:05 composition. Such a spell is cast that the lyrics themselves seem to dissolve into the music, leaving wisps of impressions with little concrete information. Note how the song comes to an all but complete stop around 2:10, itself a somewhat mysterious turn of events. And then, later: bam, the thing ends with an abrupt shutdown.

Pinewood is the performing name of  Sam Kempe, a songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist based in Atlanta. “Riverbank” is one of four tracks on the debut Pinewood EP All Things With Symmetry, which comes out May 1.

Photo: Megan Varner

Free and legal MP3: The Spectacular Fantastic (folk rock meets power pop, & then some)

Like a mutant folk-rock/power-pop amalgam from 1974’s re-imagined version of 1991, “Wasting All My Time” takes off seemingly in mid-riff, all forward motion and melodic processed guitar.

specfan

“Wasting All My Time” – The Spectacular Fantastic

Like a mutant folk-rock/power-pop amalgam from 1974’s re-imagined version of 1991, “Wasting All My Time” takes off seemingly in mid-riff, all forward motion and melodic processed guitar. And is it just me or is it both weird and comforting how the song on the one hand rocks reasonably hard but on the other hand seems only casually to display a rhythm section? I mean, there’s drumming, for sure, and there’s a bass (if you listen carefully!; I think), but they seem elusive for such an upbeat song—the percussion presents as almost an aural illusion, perhaps willed into existence by the guitars and the fact that of course a rock’n’roll song needs percussion (it’s got a backbeat; you can’t lose it). Intentional or not I’m finding the effect oddly ingratiating. Not that drumming is overrated by any means. But maybe a little.

And talk about an oddly ingratiating effect: listen as well (actually the two phenomena are connected) to how the duo of Mike Detmer and Jonathan Williams, doing musical business as The Spectacular Fantastic, manage somehow to turn the rhythm guitar into its own kind of lead guitar. All those crunchy-ringy accompanying chords you hear after the actual lead guitar moves out of the way seem not only to anchor the song percussively (thus allowing the drums to take a bit of a backseat; see above) but to my ears, give the song uplifting direction more forwardly than typical rhythm guitar work. Perhaps Detmer’s mixed-down vocal style contributes to the circumstance but it’s a fun ride and I have now over-analyzed it far more thoroughly than necessary. The song is a scruffy, well-crafted delight.

And hey are there any long-time Fingertips followers long-time enough to remember The Spectacular Fantastic from way back in the day? Two of the Cincinnati-based band’s songs were featured here in 2005, in June and in October. The band was a bit more of a band back then but not necessarily that much; it’s always been Detmer’s baby and I’m pretty sure Williams has been around for most if not all of it as well. Since 2002, The Spectacular Fantastic has recorded seven full-length albums and four EPs. The new one, Circling the Sun, released February 29th, is the first TSF recording since 2009. You can buy the CD via 75orless Records; the band is also distributing the digital files for free—you can listen and/or download the album here.

Free and legal MP3: Suntrapp (simple/deep UK folk rock)

I can’t quite tell if “All the Seas” is a simple song that feels deep or a deep song that feels simple.

Suntrapp

“All the Seas” – Suntrapp

I can’t quite tell if “All the Seas” is a simple song that feels deep or a deep song that feels simple. It is in any case a song that casts indirect aspersions, through both beauty and sturdiness, on many current efforts at so-called “indie folk rock.”

The simple/deep enigma is driven by a few factors. First, the lyrics strike a nice balance between personal reflection and grander philosophizing. Note that that latter kind of pondering, in a pop song, can easily become ponderous (pun intended). “All the Seas” hits the mark from the opening line, which asserts a universal truth from a first-person position:

I’d rather stare into an eye
Than into a sea or into a sky, my my

Simple words, personal declaration, but a rather substantive point being made at the same time. Next, the music itself, as straightforward as it seems, provides subtle richness in the interaction of the turbulent rhythm—established by the intricate finger-picking that opens the song—and the lovely, folk-like melody that is hung on top of it. That the song sways to an underlying one-two beat is partially hidden until the chorus, and is not fully felt until the second time the chorus visits, when it is fleshed out by three extra lines, all sung, unlike most of the verse, directly on the beat. I’m finding the song’s dramatic peak at the third line in the expanded chorus (1:55; “So pay no mind…”), not only for the crisp wording but for the thoughtful melodic turns the line takes as it descends.

And then, whether done consciously or not, the fact that front man Jacob Houlsby swallows the lyric that would be the song’s primary teaching moment is another, rather charming way we not only avoid pretentiousness but also cultivate depth. “All the seas, all the seas, have been”—what: “seen”? “sailed”? I can’t make it out. (Do feel free to let me know what you think he’s saying.) And yet clarity here not only doesn’t seem to matter, it somehow softens me to the song by sending me into my own imagination, accompanied by the churning, oceanic rhythm.

Houlsby is from Newcastle in the UK; Suntrapp is a project poised in a Bon Iver-like way between being a one-man project and a full-out band. “All the Seas” is the first release, and will be found on an upcoming EP called Yannina. Thanks to The Mad Mackeral for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Husky (buoyant neo-folk-rock)

Cross Love with America and you’re in the ballpark.

Husky

“The Woods” – Husky

Although it has more than a touch of ’60s/’70s West Coast folk-rock earnestness about it, “The Woods” feels somehow more approachable than this might imply. The overall tone is buoyant, not weighty. Cross Love with America and you’re in the ballpark.

A lot is going on here for a song that’s not much more than three minutes long. The crisp acoustic intro—yes, it kind of sounds like “Hotel California” for a moment—starts in one key then switches us to another. The song proper opens with a verse melody that descends via a series of alternating up and down intervals, a particularly engaging melody because it begins with seven distinct, non-repeating notes. This an nifty feat, drawing the listener without effort into the song’s universe. The dramatic drum accents don’t hurt. Moving forward, we get: a rhythmic shift with the chorus (0:44), itself featuring a yearning, briefly-sing-along melody; a revisit of the verse in light of the new rhythm (1:21) (and keep your ear on the lovely piano fills); a bridge that slows the song nearly to a halt (2:14); and a haunting, falsetto-driven coda inspired by the song’s first line (2:44).

Named for front man Husky Gawenda, the band coalesced as a foursome in Melbourne in 2008. Its debut album, Forever So, was released in Australia last fall, and is coming on in the US on Sub Pop in July. They are in fact the first Australian band signed to the landmark indie label. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Old Canes(drum-fueled folk rock)

“Little Bird Courage” – Old Canes

It’s unusual for a song that feels like some kind of folk rock to have this much percussive appeal, but “Little Bird Courage” is all about the drumming from the get-go–we pretty much don’t even hear anything else until almost 20 seconds in. And this is in fact how Old Canes front man and master mind Chris Crisci envisions his songs—he records the drum tracks first, and builds the songs up from there.

Everything ends up feeling rhythmic and propulsive as a result. With its vibrant but informal energy, spurred by relentlessly strummed acoustic guitars and accentuated by Crisci’s mixed-down vocals, “Little Bird Courage” has the vibe of a happier incarnation of Neutral Milk Hotel, an impression accentuated by the homely chorus of trumpets that appears halfway through, just when the whole thing seemed to be grinding to a halt. While it’s hard to pick up a lot of the lyrics, I get the impression of something transcendent and triumphant here; the title alone speaks volumes.

Chris Crisci is perhaps better known as a member of the Appleseed Cast, the Lawrence, Kansas-based band usually identified as being a “post-rock” pioneer; Old Canes has been a side project of his dating back to 2004. “Little Bird Courage” is from Feral Harmonic, the second Old Canes album, slated for release next week by Saddle Creek Records.

Free and legal MP3: Samuel Markus (quasi-psychedelic neo-folk rock?)

“Rosa” – Samuel Markus

A full-bodied helping of quasi-psychedelic neo-folk rock, or some such thing, “Rosa” treads an alluring line between the contemporary and the classic, mixing a Derek & the Dominoes-like guitar-band drive with crispier beats and 21st-century production effects.

Holding it all together—because I have to admit, that description doesn’t sound all that alluring as I read it back to myself!—is 22-year-old Samuel Markus, whose voice contains something of Grant Lee Phillips’ deep melodrama, but with a lighter touch and self-effacing tone. The song is pretty much built around a cascade of two-syllable almost-rhymes that repeat at the end of each lyrical line; Marcus wins the day with his earnest yet quizzical delivery, all but reveling in the mismatches that tumble out (e.g. “Casanova” and “composer” and “for ya”) in service of his ramshackle, bittersweet-sounding story.

Markus co-founded the N.Y.C.-based band the Rosewood Thieves (featured on Fingertips in Aug. ’06) before splitting to do his own thing out in California. “Rosa” can be found on New Dawn, a CD recorded with an ensemble he calls the Only Ones (no relation to the British new wave band of the same name, which has apparently been playing together again recently). New Dawn was released at the end of September by Yatra Media.