Free and legal MP3: AM & Shawn Lee (sublime summertime groove)

“The instruments are played, the vocals are sung, and the songs are written.”

AM & Shawn Lee

“All the Love” – AM & Shawn Lee

Too early to nominate the Song of the Summer? Probably. But this one should stay in consideration, not only for its slinky, slidy beat, which patrols the razor’s edge between funk and disco, but for its honest, dare I say organic soundscape. These guys may construct songs while thousands of miles apart—AM is a singer/songwriter in Los Angeles, Shawn Lee a London-based multi-instrumentalist and producer—but they’re building from genuine components; as their press material puts it: “The instruments are played, the vocals are sung, and the songs are written.” It’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it.

The physical nature of the construction gives “All the Love” a resplendence difficult to generate digitally. Unlike our ubiquitous 21st-century beats, this is first and foremost a bass-and-guitar-driven groove. And listen to how spare and disciplined the guitar riffs are! Lesson number one: when the song is written, the players don’t have to show off, they just have to show up. Listen too to the instrumental break beginning at 2:15: you can hear the space between the bass and the drums and how the retro, space-agey synthesizer squiggles vertically down through it. And let’s not overlook what is almost always overlooked in any kind of funked-up setting: the melodies, which here are wonderfully concise and well-conceived—the verse with its carefully considered intervals, the chorus with its chugging, uphill, double-time hook.

“All the Love” is from the album La Musique Numérique, released in May on Park The Van Records. This one follows the duo’s 2011 debut Celestial Electric. Download above or via SoundCloud, which allows you to comment directly to the band, and spares me a bit of bandwidth in the process.

Free and legal MP3: Meshell Ndegeocello (genre-crossing minimalism, w/ conviction)

A steely conviction running through the center of this rhythmic, genre-crossing song.

Meshell Ndegeocello

“Dirty World” – Meshell Ndegeocello

After 16 seconds of indistinct, ambient background noise, we get a bass line, and a funky snaky ear-grabbing bass line it is. This is Meshell Ndegeocello; she plays bass; and this is how she plays. She had me at hello.

Listen to the mincemeat she makes of the 4/4 time signature, without ever actually leaving it. How could someone conceive of this particular rhythm, never mind add an edgy drumbeat to it, never mind write a song around it? Surely she is not singing while she’s playing here, though I guess you never know. Her smooth round voice floats, unhurried, over the knotty instrumentation of the verse, with a breathy loveliness that belies the venom of the lyrics. With the chorus, everything changes: the beat normalizes, her voice acquires first a plaintive sting and, at the end, as a kicker, plunges into a gruff lower register. As the title suggests, she isn’t singing about rainbows and flowers. There’s a steely conviction running through the center of this song.

Look, too, at how she accomplishes so much with so little. Much of the song is just bass and drums and voice. Guitar and keyboard are not an assumed part of the proceedings but are added only when deemed necessary. The chorus is not much more than the two words, “dirty world,” repeated; the substance comes from the rhythm—specifically, the subtle but definitive shift in emphasis from stressing only the word “world,” the first three times, to additionally stressing the first syllable of “dirty” the fourth time around.

Genre-crossing minimalism has been Ndegeocello’s trademark since Plantation Lullabies, her 1993 debut. “Dirty World” is a track from Weather, her ninth album, due in November on Naïve Records.