Free and legal MP3: Minka (angular post-punk-ish dance music)

There’s great precision here, but also a looseness around the edges that speaks of a band delighted to be playing actual instruments in a room full of actual people, as opposed to twiddling knobs in a booth.


“Josephine” – Minka

Electronic dance music will come and go (might we be ready for the “go” part just about now?), but vigorous, jump-around-the-dance-floor music will always exist. And the beauty is that, compared to the fundamental stylistic monotony of EDM, there are in fact a lot of ways to make dance music, a lot of styles one might employ. I myself am partial to a sound pioneered in the late ’70s by the likes of Talking Heads and David Bowie, a kind of angular white-guy funk I could, as a white guy, relate to. I especially loved this odd type of dance music’s emphasis on the electric guitar; I’m a particular sucker for that squonky metallic tone you hear at its most compelling on an album like Scary Monsters.

Some of that is going on here with the Philadelphia band Minka and I am all for it. Even before we get to full squonk (that would start at 2:14), these guys have brought post-punk dance music, or some such thing, into the 21st century, complete with scratchy rhythm guitars and a lead singer, one Ari Rubin, whose edgy croon and theatrical vibrato give us a sense of what a young David Byrne might have sounded like had he smiled once in a while.

A palpable humanity underpins this kind of sound—there’s great precision here (there has to be, with any kind of dance music) but also a looseness in the air that speaks of a band delighted to be playing actual instruments in a room full of actual people, as opposed to twiddling knobs in a booth. Now then, not every band that hypnotizes you into buying their album at the gig has the songwriting chops required to deliver both in the club and in the iPhone. And Minka is most definitely an in-person phenomenon, renowned for their shall we say uninhibited performances. But “Josephine” transcends the requirement of being in the same room with these guys, and to me, that’s about the best kind of dance music there is.

Minka is a four-man band and officially spell their name in all caps: MINKA. “Josephine” is a track from the band’s forthcoming EP, Born in the Viper Room.

Free and legal MP3: Sam Roberts Band (quasi-funky neo-psychedelia)

An assured piece of quasi-funky neo-psychedelia, complete with ear-grabbing guitar licks and a brain-sticking chorus.

Sam Roberts Band

“We’re All In This Together” – Sam Roberts Band

I would understand if Sam Roberts feels he was born in the wrong time and place. His accessible, smartly-produced, effortlessly melodic brand of rock’n’roll would’ve been all over the radio 40 years ago. Today, such music struggles for air. And it’s not like SRB is selling nostalgia; their songs have as crisp and contemporary a sound as music can have in 2014 while making no effort to pander to the EDM crowd. Good thing these guys happen to be from Canada, where they have a good strong following, and where popular taste remains admirably catholic, at least compared to what goes on here in the U.S.

“We’re All In This Together,” in any case, is an assured piece of quasi-funky neo-psychedelia, complete with ear-grabbing guitar licks, a brain-sticking chorus, and the buoyant vibe of a quintet still happy to be playing together. (I love, as one example, how the spiffy lyric “It’s a phenomenon/That goes on and on” [1:23] is so casually offered and moved on from; this is a band used to having tricks up its sleeve.) While the verses sound like a sped-up retake of David Essex’s “Rock On” (not a bad thing!), the song breaks open on the unexpectedly aspirational chorus, which—neat trick—encourages joining in both literally and figuratively, working as an almost touching reminder in our hyper-partisan times. I mean sheesh, yes. We are: in this together. How oblivious or narcissistic do you have to be to disregard this most basic truth? And sorry. Didn’t mean to get all soapboxy. It’s just a pop song. Have fun.

“We’re All In This Together” comes from the fifth Sam Roberts Band album, entitled Lo-Fantasy, which was released in February on Paper Bag Records, but lacked any free and legal downloads until recently. You can grab the song above, as usual, or download it via SoundCloud. The band was featured previously on Fingertips in 2006.

Free and legal MP3: Legs (indie dance pop w/ musical flair)

Spotless, grin-inducing 21st-century indie dance pop with more musical flair than whole playlists full of electronic dance music.


“Touchtone” – Legs

Spotless, grin-inducing 21st-century indie dance pop with more musical flair than wide swaths of what passes for electronic dance music. Rubber-like and hopscotchy, “Touchtone” is the kind of song that reaffirms my faith not merely in music but in humanity, somehow. This is what we need more of, I think: bands that can manage to sound entirely of the moment without sacrificing intelligence and aptitude on the altar of myopic digital trendiness. When we collectively decide to look up from our screens someday, we will rub our eyes and stretch and want to dance to music just like this, with large smiles on our faces, because it is nice after all to be a human being.

Meanwhile, check out how “Touchtone” manages to sound so unhurried even as it makes you want to shake something. More like classic funk than 21st-century dance music, the song establishes a groove with no posturing harshness, and delivers both instrumental melodies and pleasing chord progressions where today we often get over-processed “beats.” Front man Tito Ramsey has a vibrant upper register, and balances his David Byrne-like jumpiness with something warmer and more grounded. I like too how easily he navigates between singing and what sounds more like chanting; it’s often his vocalizing as much as anything that accentuates the song’s wiggle-friendly rhythm.

Legs is a five-piece band based in Brooklyn. “Touchtone” is one of five songs on the group’s self-titled debut EP. You can listen to the whole thing, and download all the songs for free, via SoundCloud. Well worth checking out.

Free and legal MP3: Mates of State (breezy, funky, & then some)

For all its breezy boppiness and off-and-on funkiness, “Maracas” is one sturdy and involved piece of more-than-synth pop.

Mates of State

“Maracas” – Mates of State

For all its breezy boppiness and off-and-on funkiness, “Maracas” is one sturdy and involved piece of more-than-synth pop. Despite significant changes along the way in feel, structure, rhythm, melody, arrangement, and even vocals, the song pretty much flits by. You don’t have to notice much if you don’t want to; I saw a recent blog post elsewhere that called the song “dancey,” which, okay, great, I guess it kind of is. But also kind of isn’t. There’s not just one thing going on here; sections more or less bump into each other (for one example, how exactly does the intro introduce this song?), melodies don’t necessarily relate from one part to another, and in the end a whole is somehow created out of nothing you can quite put your finger on.

Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, together musically now for 14 years, and married since 2001, perform with such great offhand command that “Maracas” doesn’t sound written as much as discovered. Moments with an off-the-cuff feel become near hooks—such as Gardner’s vocal leap on the words “I’m taking you back” (0:59)—and the overall song acquires an elusive sort of momentum as we shift from funk to dance-rock, a move signaled by a synth break bordering on the goofy (2:00). The synth parts here are all a bit goofy, come to think of it, and this turns out to be a fine thing—I like when a band takes advantage of the synthesizer’s inherently (let’s be honest) silly sound.

“Maracas” is a track from Mates of State’s forthcoming album, Mountaintops, due in September on Barsuk Records. This will be the duo’s seventh full-length album, including 2010’s all-covers album, Crushes. MP3 via Barsuk. The couple lives in Connecticut with their two daughters. Gardner also writes on parenting issues in a blog called Band on the Diaper Run. Mates of State were previously featured on Fingertips in 2006.

Free and legal MP3: Joan As Police Woman (sparsely funky, keyboard-based)

“Magic” burns with a sparse but smartly-articulated sense of old-school, Stevie Wonder-ish funkiness.

Joan As Police Woman

“The Magic” – Joan As Police Woman

“The Magic” burns with a sparse but smartly-articulated sense of old-school, Stevie Wonder-ish funkiness. The song roots itself in a keyboard vibe—both electric piano and organ set the basic tone—while the verse offers up a melody at once slinky and sprightly. Vocally, Joan delivers at both ends of her singing register; I’m not sure I’ve previously heard a female singer employ her falsetto quite so Prince-ishly before.

Keys-driven groove notwithstanding, I suggest keeping your ears on the guitar, which noodles in the background early, pretty much disappears for two-thirds of the song, then makes its presence known at 2:35, laying down some scorching and dissonant lines underneath the repeated lyric “I wanna be bad.” There’s a sense here that we’re building towards a full-out wailing solo, but it never happens. And the song is better for it, as instead we veer at 3:07 into a dreamy resolution to the bridge, both musically and lyrically, with Joan singing, “My shadow must find a window in the wall”—a lovely line that’s both specific and vague, concrete and abstract, hopeful and brooding.

Joan As Police Woman has been Joan Wasser’s performing name since 2002, but the Maine-born, Connecticut-raised Wasser had been a working musician since the early ’90s, getting her start as violinist for the Dambuilders while still a Boston University student. Early in her career Wasser was perhaps best known as Jeff Buckley’s girlfriend; losing her way after his death in 1997, she eventually hooked up with Antony Hegarty in 1999, became part of his band for a while and performed on Antony and the Johnsons’ 2005 album I Am A Bird Now. Her first Joan As Police Woman album was released in 2006. “The Magic” is a track from her new album, The Deep Field, which was released in January in the U.K., and is available digitally via her web site and iTunes. A physical release in the U.S., on PIAS Recordings, is scheduled for April.

Free and legal MP3: Tim Chad & Sherry (’70s funk homage, w/ spirit)

Tim Chad & Sherry

“The Love I Make” – Tim Chad & Sherry

A thick slice of faux-’70s white-boy funk, paying homage to a generous variety of that decade’s full- and part-time practitioners, from Atomic Rooster to the Average White Band to Hall and Oates to Talking Heads. Not to mention David Bowie and maybe even the Grateful Dead. And somehow it comes together, and somehow—an important point, to me—it sounds fresh without sounding ironic.

Part of it, I think, has to do with what I was talking about last week, about music that makes you smile. If a band is being ironic, they might make you smirk, or prompt a slow knowing smile; if a band is being genuine, any smile provoked is pure—it comes to the face without the brain getting in the way. I think the intro groove is just plain happy—funky, yes, but also spiffy and elaborate in the interplay between what sounds like a synthesizer (or two) and a bass, each playing a skittery, dance floor line. The next thing to listen to is the keyboard, which has a throwback organ sound, and is used once the singing starts with the lightest possible touch, deftly echoing the end of lyrical line. Just when the musical language has seemingly been established, two loud additions crash the party—the guitar, low-register and clangy, beginning at 0:49, and then the snare drum (1:02), which had been missing in the percussion until then. With the drummer now fully engaged (I like his sense of rumble and spirit) the song breathes with added fire. In the end, maybe, authenticity emerges through simple presence: through a sense that the musicians are engaged moment to moment, both individually and collectively. The trippy guitar solo (2:14 etc.) is an obvious highlight; less obvious, maybe, is the allure of the song’s sneaky lack of structure—it’s built on a series of clipped lyrical lines that use the underlying funk to rise and fall as if we are hearing verses and choruses but we probably aren’t, and give the song its ongoing feeling of play and inspiration.

Tim Chad & Sherry is a quartet (go figure) founded by Brian Kotzur, formerly of the Silver Jews. (There is no one named Tim, Chad, or Sherry in the band, by the way.) “The Love I Make” is from the group’s debut album, Baby We Can Work It Out, released this month on Cleft Records. MP3 via Cleft. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Think About Life (exuberant deconstructed funk)

“Johanna” – Think About Life

So this may be about the best thing I’ve heard all year. How sharp and sleek and funky; how multileveled and well-crafted and exuberant; what deeply gratifying fun.

The basic groove alone is impressive, established at the outset by some brilliant horn charts, with their stuttery swing and that softly dissonant chord they settle on at the end of each phrase. But “Johanna” has so much more going for it than the basic groove, including an memorable melodic spine–the song just hangs on it so perfectly–and Martin Cesar’s delightful, full-throated singing. When everything kind of caves in on itself momentarily, at 1:14, this isn’t just a cute effect, it’s spirited statement of purpose: this Montreal-based quartet can and will do anything they want with the sound they’re creating. In an indirect way, Think About Life brings to mind Remain in Light-era Talking Heads–not because the sound is similar, but for this group’s willingness and ability to simultaneously work with and deconstruct the funk. I have rarely heard a band manage to give off a kitchen-sink air of anything goes while at the same time writing and playing such tight, kick-ass music. This isn’t just someone pushing a button to put this sound in here, then this sound here; as with Talking Heads before them, I get a strong sense of both brainy tinkering and physical exertion in the presence of this song. The crazy-awesome instrumental interlude at 2:26–30 seconds of time standing still right in the center of the groove–is not to be missed.

“Johanna” is from the band’s second album, Family, which was released in Canada in May and in the U.S. last month, on Alien8 Recordings. The MP3 was made available last week via Magnet.

Free and legal MP3: Heroes of Popular Wars (semi-psychedelic, quasi-funky)

“A Bus Called Further” – Heroes of Popular Wars

Churny, semi-psychedelic, and borderline funky in an undanceable sort of way, “A Bus Called Further” is both groovily electronic and baroquely corporeal at the same time. Now I am the furthest thing imaginable from a gearhead so I only know what the PR material says, but apparently Stephe Sykes, the brains behind HOPW, uses all sorts of “new vintage” (i.e. ’80s) equipment (guitar synths, 20-year-old samplers, and the like), which is no doubt what lends “A Bus Called Further” its chuggy, homemade vibe. Applying 21st-century mixing and collaging know-how to equipment made before people did this sort of thing is its own sort of mad genius.

And speaking of mad genius, the fact that the song title brings to (my) mind the song “Bus Called Happiness,” from the great mad-genius band Pere Ubu, gives the whole thing bonus points.

Previously Brooklyn-based, Sykes moved Heroes of Popular Wars to L.A. this summer and is still getting settled there–a process which includes his having to find people to turn HOPW into a band that can play onstage. “A Bus Called Further” is a song from HOPW’s debut full-length album, Church & McDonald, which was self-released late last month, and was named, you may as well know, for an intersection in the Kensington section of Brooklyn.