Free and legal MP3: The Whales (short, enticing, well-crafted)

Over repeated listens, I’m getting more and more of a Kinks vibe, but in the very best way—not a slavish homage but an intriguing contemporizing of the band’s mid-’60s drive, some elusive amalgam of horsepower and brainpower that gives, in my mind, the best rock’n’roll from any era its appeal and staying power.

The Whales

“Marguerite” – The Whales

Short and enticing, “Marguerite” chugs along in a semi-garage-y world of droning sound with the enticing addition of some time signature complication: the song’s 4/4 momentum is given knowing little tugs by some well-placed 6/4 measures. A little of this goes a long way to my ears, as it indicates first and foremost that someone is paying attention, that there is some vivid musical creativity at work. No offense to groove-oriented music (maybe) but personally I am less convinced of musical artistry via what are essentially decorations (i.e., interesting sounds layered on top of a beat); I am more impressed with a creative intelligence that can work at the structural level. I mean, there’s choosing a paint color or two and there’s architecture, right? Not everyone operates at the same depth and that’s completely fine. I’m just saying…well, what am I saying? I seem to have digressed.

Oh and then there’s the subject matter, which is offbeat and refreshing, as “Marguerite” turns out to be about the French writer Marguerite Yourcenar, the first woman elected to the Académie française. (In the U.S. Yourcenar is probably best known for the 1951 novel Mémoires d’Hadrien.) As I sit with this song over repeated listens, I’m getting more and more of a Kinks vibe, but in the very best way—not a slavish homage but an intriguing contemporizing of the band’s mid-’60s drive, some elusive amalgam of horsepower and brainpower that gives, in my mind, the best rock’n’roll from any era its appeal and staying power.

The Whales are a six-piece band from the UK formed in 2013, about which not a lot of information is readily discoverable (blame in part the generic name). “Marguerite” is available via an admirable project: the British label Fat Cat Records has an ongoing SoundCloud page where it makes available as free downloads the best demos it receives, acknowledging that they simply don’t have the resources to sign every band that sends in a good song. You can visit the Fat Cat demo page here. Thanks to the Powerpopulist blog for the head’s up on the song.

Free and legal MP3: Bread & Butter (garage-y rock w/ offhanded grace)

A singularly satisfying piece of concise, four-piece, garage-flavored rock’n’roll that launches off a sweet, nostalgic guitar lick and lopes along with off-handed grace.

Bread & Butter

“Shoot My Mouth Off” – Bread & Butter

It’s easy to think of garage rock as muddy, loud, and hard-driving but that’s not the extent of the garage palette by any means. Within the general auspices of a raw sound and humble recording circumstances, a top-notch band can create many kinds of magic, the most reliable, to my ears, being that grounded in melodic flair. (This is something often overlooked: how unerringly melodic a lot of garage rock turns out to be.) And not everything has to be fast and loud. Here we have a singularly satisfying piece of concise, garage-flavored rock’n’roll that launches off a sweet, nostalgic guitar lick (or, interlacing licks) and lopes along with off-handed grace.

“Shoot My Mouth Off” hinges musically and viscerally on the major-to-minor modulation on which verse turns to chorus (first heard at 0:55); it’s here that the song’s generous embrace of rock’n’roll past and present feels most emphatic, here where singer Shane Herrell glides across the subtle threshold of greatness. Don’t miss the bass line’s important punctuation marks in the chorus, and note too that Herrell is the bass player. Bands with singing bass players, in my experience, often give us beautifully textured songs. And Bread & Butter sport a lineup I don’t think I’ve seen before: a foursome in which neither guitar player sings; not only does bassist Herrell take lead vocals but drummer Mason Lowe sings back-up. Don’t underestimate the musical value of this arrangement.

Bread & Butter is from Seattle, with five songs released to date. You can hear them all on the band’s web site. “Shoot My Mouth Off” dates back to February, and is available as free and legal MP3 via KEXP, which is where I first heard this.

Free and legal MP3: Dott (bashy, poppy, female-fronted garage rock)

With the chugging backbeat and sing-song primitivism of classic garage rock, “Small Pony” blends a thin, bashy DIY sound with something elusively richer and cleaner.

Dott

“Small Pony” – Dott

With the chugging backbeat and sing-song primitivism of classic garage rock, “Small Pony” blends a thin, bashy DIY sound with something elusively richer and cleaner. Beneath its bratty drive (I mean that in a good way), the song finds little ways to breathe and expand—that end-of-verse space where the mix reduces to bass and drum, for instance (first heard at 0:17), or that brief moment of vocal harmony heard directly after that. Small things, you’re not even really supposed to notice them, so maybe forget I mentioned them—just enjoy the side benefit of the song being cooler and more accomplished than this kind of thing often is.

And as fun and insistent as the head-bobbing verse melody is, with its alternating ascending/descending hook, the chorus is even better, featuring a step-like descent that now feels very Phil-Spector-girl-group-y. This impression is strengthened by the way front woman Anna McCarthy’s voice is produced here, wrapped with same-note harmonies and ever-so-subtly distorted. The break after the chorus is equally charming. First we get a guitar solo so matter-of-fact it’s almost drowned out by the drums, followed by background wordless vocals that marry a ’50s melody line to the unrelenting garage-y backbeat into one more moment that might not quite register but yet again adds to “Small Pony”‘s allure.

Even the lyrics have a kind of hiding-in-plain-sight panache. Avoiding the tired trappings of either infatuation or heartbreak, “Small Pony,” if I understand it properly, seems to be about the unique wonders of a long-term relationship. (But where the title comes from I have no idea.)

“Small Pony” is the lead track from the album Swoon, the band’s debut, released in December on Graveface Records. Dott is from the delightful if rainy city of Galway, Ireland. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Gross Ghost (reverby/jangly power-poppy garage rock)

“Leslie” stomps along with the complex buoyancy of any dark tale told to a toe-tapping beat and sing-songy melody.

Gross Ghost

“Leslie” – Gross Ghost

Delightful yet purposeful, “Leslie” is a short shot of reverby/jangly power-poppy garage rock, or maybe garage-rocky power pop. This one stomps along with the complex buoyancy of any somber tale told to a toe-tapping beat and sing-songy melody; the song’s narrator is talking to his father’s wife (not, clearly, his own mother and yes it is about his own mother, my mistake; misunderstood the lyrics), formerly and maybe still currently a drug addict. The story’s curious, even random-seeming specificity is an intermittent indie-rock songwriting trait that can either intrigue or irritate, depending entirely on the strength of the music. A lot of times—as here—you can’t really follow the lyrics anyway; when the music is this melodic and insistent, if the lyrics are more sound than story, there’s no loss to the listener, from my point of view. It’s enough for phrases to emerge—in this case, the song coheres nicely around the chorus’s poignant line: “Feels like I’m watching you but no one’s watching me.” Or at least I think it’s the chorus, in that it sounds like a chorus musically, and yet we only hear it once. I’m assuming if the song were any longer than 2:26 we would have heard it again.

Gross Ghost is a band based in Durham, North Carolina. While details are sketchy, they appear to have started life as the duo of guitarist Mike Dillon and bassist William “Tre” Acklen, but at this point their Facebook page lists four members. The debut Gross Ghost album, Brer Rabbit, was released back in March on the Chapel Hill label Grip Tapes; a second vinyl pressing will be shipping next month. In the meantime, the band has since signed with Odessa Records, also based in Chapel Hill, which plans to release the follow-up album this coming spring. Thanks to the MP3 blog Faronheit for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: The Dead Heads (sublimely effective garage rock)

That it can be the end of 2012 and that new bands exist making this kind of straightforward rock’n’roll and can still make it sound this electrifying, well, all hope is not lost.

The Dead Heads

“When I’m Dead” – the Dead Heads

This is one of those songs that helps me realize how much I like a certain musical circumstance that I never previously would have recognized or been able to articulate. And that circumstance is: when a small moment in a song, via repetition and unfolding context, becomes one of the song’s very best things, only you couldn’t have known it from the first time you heard it. I’m not sure you can plan this out, even.

The moment I’m talking about here is the way the guitar slides up and down between two notes to create that lazy/insistent riff that fuels the song. We first encounter it after the long droney introduction, when the guitar finally starts moving (around 0:28), and at first you don’t much notice it. You’re still pretty much waiting for something to happen. The vocals start at 0:40 and I immediately like the processing involved, which achieves the contradictory effect of making it sound “garage-y” and sophisticated at the same time. We seem to be in standard three-chord territory here except, hold on, a fourth chord sneaks in there at 0:54 and it’s non-standard—sounds like a suspended chord of some kind—and it provides a bit of simple complexity that helps mold the song into such a satisfying ride. And then we’re back to those sliding guitar notes, which now propel a chorus that otherwise consists only of the words “When I’m dead,” repeated. And it’s the guitar that glues it together, something in the offhanded way it slinks up and down that seems, again, both primitive and discerning at the same time. That it can be the end of 2012 and that new bands exist making this kind of straightforward rock’n’roll and can still make it sound this electrifying, well, all hope is not lost. For anything. Not bad for a song called “When I’m Dead.”

The Dead Heads are a five-man band from Sydney, formed in either 2009 or 2010, depending on which web source you consult. They are fronted on vocals and guitars by the brothers Oscar and Ali Jeffrey. As you can hear from the music, the band’s name has nothing to do with the Grateful Dead; it derives, according to the band, from one of the dictionary meanings for “deadhead,” which is “a partially submerged log or trunk.” MP3 via the Australian new music site Triple J Unearthed; thanks to music blog The Mad Mackerel for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Eux Autres (sneakily well-crafted garage pop)

Sneaky-accomplished garage pop from the endearing Bay Area trio Eux Autres.

Eux Autres

“Home Tonight” – Eux Autres

Well they tell me there’s a hundred ways to fight
But I’ll only need a few of them tonight

Every now and then an unassuming band delivers up a classic rock song opening line. The Bay Area trio Eux Autres does that here, and then ups the ante by altering the first line when the verse is repeated later in the song so that we now get this:

Well they tell me there’s a hundred ways to fight
And I’m hoping not to use them all tonight

Such attention to detail, and humor, is just one sign that this lo-fi-ish song is sneaky-accomplished. It’s a simple song, with two verses and a chorus and a bridge, but the way things interlock creates a subtle sense of satisfaction in the unsuspecting ear. First, there’s the repeating verse with the altered line; next, we get an augmented chorus the second time through (1:37), with new words delivered to the original melody before the existing chorus is then, also, heard; lastly, the bridge (2:05) arrives using the phrase “‘Cause there’s no way to prove,” which was first heard in the first verse.

None of this would matter that much if the thing weren’t so relentlessly melodic. Note, first, the lack of introduction. Let’s just get right to business. Note, second, the 16-measure melody in the verse. Not a common thing in general, and especially not in this kind of garage pop. Note, third, how both the verse and the chorus have instant appeal, which is another unusual thing—often this kind of quick, catchy pop tune skimps on the verse to offer up the killer chorus. No skimping here.

“Home Tonight” is from the new Eux Autres EP, Sun Is Sunk, which was released last week on the band’s own imprint, Bon Mots Records. (Pronounce the name “ooz oh-tra,” with the “oo” as in “good.) While founded as the brother/sister duo of Heather and Nicholas Larimer, the group added drummer Yoshi Nakamoto in 2008. They have been previously featured here both in September 2010 and way back in May 2005. Ridiculously faithful Fingertips followers may remember, too, that the band was part of the Fingertips: Unwebbed CD compilation, released in 2005.

Free and legal MP3: The Pharmacy (garage rock, w/ aspirations)

“Dig Your Grave” packs an unusual amount of variety into a two-minute song that might at least partially pass for garage rock.

The Pharmacy

“Dig Your Grave” – The Pharmacy

This is almost not a song. A scant two minutes to start with, “Dig Your Grave” uses the first 40 seconds on its three-part introduction. Then we hear an engaging, They Might Be Giants-esque verse and a very concise chorus (the words “Dig your grave” repeated three times) before returning to 20 or so more seconds of instrumental; we finish up with the chorus repeated a couple of times. So this thing is two minutes long and fully half of it doesn’t involve singing, and a good part of the singing that exists consists of just three words.

If it all manages to work—and I think it does, particularly in the context of this week’s three songs, as a follow-up to “Black Silk“—it does so on its ability to pack an unusual amount of variety into a narrow time frame. Most short songs, perhaps too aware of their shortness, don’t invest in introductions and instrumental breaks because there seems no time to fiddle with such frivolities. The Pharmacy does the opposite, honing the song down to one verse—although it may be two, sung back to back—so that the rest of the song still has space to breathe and develop. The “frivolities,” it turns out, offer a lot substance. Another way the song seems to expand beyond its clock time is through its rather distinctive mashing together of a very garage-rock-y vibe, complete with lo-fi-seeming vocal distortion, and a more aspirational sort of musicality. The keyboard motif that opens “Dig Your Grave” does not in any way shout “garage rock” at us, and neither does the song’s multifarious construction. And yet the chorus certainly does.

From Seattle, the trio The Pharmacy has been doing its lo-fi, neo-garage-rock thing for 10 years now. They have three albums to show for it and, in keeping with its lo-fi street cred, a bunch of 7-inch singles, a split cassette, and a demo CD-R. “Dig Your Grave” is the lead track from its latest 7-inch, which, at four songs, is more of an EP than a single. It comes to us from Kind Turkey Records, and they’re the ones offering up the MP3 as well.

Free and legal MP3: Big Eyes (power-poppy-punky)

Front woman Kate Eldridge, formerly in a band called Cheeky, has a really effective DIY-ish voice—forceful, maybe even a little bratty, unschooled, but not (praise the lord) out of tune, and not so muddied up in the mix that you can’t sense the personality behind the voice.

Big Eyes

“Why Can’t I” – Big Eyes

You hear that thing in the introduction, that instrument that establishes both the ambiance and the melody with its crunchy electric drive? That’s a guitar. And you know what you do with a guitar? You either play it (if you’re in the band) or you listen to it (if you’re not in the band). This guitar you’re hearing doesn’t need you to remix it or loop it or make an app out of it. It’s just a terrific power-poppy-punky guitar part, with a strong lineage (hear “Starry Eyes” in it, a little? not to mention any number of Cheap Trick songs?) and a good heart. Listen and love it and don’t forget that listening—really listening—is as interactive an activity as there is.

Front woman Kate Eldridge, formerly in a band called Cheeky, has a really effective DIY-ish voice—forceful, maybe even a little bratty, unschooled, but not (praise the lord) out of tune, and not so muddied up in the mix that you can’t sense the personality behind the voice. This is a little kid’s plea, after all—“Why can’t I…?”—and yet there’s more happening here than may first meet the ear. Yes, Eldridge’s slightly snotty tone creates the surface impression that she is, little-kid-ishly, asking after something she feels entitled to but isn’t getting. But check out the pivotal lyric: “Sometimes you make me so mad/All I want to do is treat you bad/Baby now why can’t I just love you all the time?” She’s really wondering about that deeper thing that drives people who love each other into opposing camps. She sees her own limitations; her “why can’t I” isn’t railing against her external circumstances as much as her internal ones. This laces her brashness with a vulnerability that informs all three minutes and twenty-three seconds of this spiffy piece of good old rock’n’roll.

Big Eyes are a trio from Brooklyn. They have released a tape (yes, a tape), and a 7-inch single prior to this, their latest 7-inch single, issued earlier this month by Don Giovanni Records. The band’s debut LP is due out in May.

Free and legal MP3: The Black Hollies (groovy neo-garage rock)

“Gloomy Monday Morning” – the Black Hollies

A deeply groovy shot of neo-garage rock, “Gloomy Monday Morning” is both steeped in nostalgia and alive with freshly-minted energy. Sure, there’s a big-time Animals/Zombies/’60s-Kinks vibe at work here, but it’s almost like this New Jersey quartet is using the bygone sound as an instrument they’re playing rather than as a straitjacket limiting their buoyancy, if that makes any sense.

The song consistently works at two different, typically contradictory levels. For instance, while blatantly backbeat driven and cymbal heavy, “Gloomy Monday Morning” also employs subtle keyboard accents and a frisky bass line to catch the ear nearly below the level of conscious awareness. Even the backbeat isn’t as straightforward as it seems, working with a kind of stutter that both accentuates and deflects the two and four beat accent. Listen, also, to how a simple maneuver–that upward turn of melody that we first hear at 0:49 in the chorus, and then also in the third line of the second verse (1:08)–serves to break the song open. And what’s with that cymbal sound? It’s so persistent during the chorus and the bridge that it sounds less like an organically played cymbal than a sample played from a keyboard, and is used as a sort of wall-of-sound whitewash at that point more than percussion–a tactic that is, characteristically, somehow, at once heavy-handed and enigmatic. Even the title seemingly contradicts the song’s groove.

“Gloomy Monday Morning” is from the band’s third full-length album, Softly Towards the Light, which was released this week by the Brooklyn-based Ernest Jenning Record Co. MP3 via EJRC.

Free and legal MP3: Wheels On Fire (garage-y stomper w/ vivid riff)

“I’m Turning Into You” – Wheels On Fire

There’s something about the summertime that makes this sort of driving, garage-y stomper, complete with wheezing keyboards, the perfect soundtrack for warm breezes and open car windows. (And for anyone roughly in the neighborhood, what about a big shout-out for the amazing summer weather we’ve been having in the mid-Atlantic so far? The nicest I can possibly imagine for July: warm blue days, cool starry nights, no air conditioning necessary.)

Front and center in the song–the first thing you hear, and what the song is framed on–is an urgent, unadorned guitar riff: five tinny chords, strummed in a relentless rhythm: one; two; three; four-five. The beauty of the great guitar riffs is that they can kind of resemble each other–this one concludes in “Sweet Jane” territory–even while banging out their own piece of the rock’n’roll rock, as it were. A great riff doesn’t have to be surprising, as a great melody must at some level be, and yet it can’t be nondescript either. Rhythm and chord placement is everything; the effect is more primal than intellectual (think “You Really Got Me”; think “Roadrunner”; think “Alex Chilton”). This one rocks, which is all it’s trying to do, and all it needs to do on another ideal July day.

Wheels On Fire is a four-piece from Athens, Ohio. You’ll find “I’m Turning Into You” on the CD Get Famous, which was released back in February on Big Legal Mess Records, a label with a distribution deal with Fat Possum Records. MP3 via Big Legal Mess.