Free and legal MP3: The Woodlands (gentle, but brisk and involved)

“Bronze” introduces a surprising amount of instrumental variety into a song that begins as unassumingly as possible.

The Woodlands

“Bronze” – The Woodlands

Not unlike “Strangers,” above, “Bronze” introduces a surprising amount of instrumental variety into, in this case, a song that begins as unassumingly as possible: voice only for 16 seconds, then a strummed acoustic guitar for another little while. A bass joins in, and some backing vocals, and a bit of well-placed percussion. The overall feeling is gentle and uncluttered, even as the texture gradually expands to encompass horns, a violin, hand-claps, and some seriously interesting vocal harmony intervals. While this might not always be my preference, I like how the wife and husband duo of Hannah and Samuel Robertson here manage to use sounds almost more as individual tools than aggregatable components. (You wouldn’t, after all, use both a hammer and a screwdriver at the same time.) The chorus’s recurring lyric is “Don’t quite know where we will go,” and the feel of the song backs that up in the way instruments wander in and out, each with their own little offerings, creating a subtle sense of surprise even as the song moves through its grounding verse and chorus structure.

The way “Bronze” seems almost serially built may be why it can come to a near standstill two-thirds of the way through (2:35) and the halt feels organic and engaging; this interlude of voice and violin is not an interruption, it is simply what happens next. And then what happens next is Hannah singing, “We we we we proceed,” and they do.

Another important part of this song’s charm is in fact Hannah’s voice, which has a Laura Veirs-like mixture of groundedness and breathlessness to it—a child-like adultness, if you will. And her engaging capacity for backing vocals of various timbres and unexpected harmonic positions is an ongoing source of pleasure; her voice, truly, becomes another instrument in The Woodlands’ idiosyncratic but heartwarming toolbox. (Although, for the record, it should be noted that the “oo-oos” in the verses are actually Samuel’s falsetto vocals.)

“Bronze” is the opening track on the album Gems and Bones, which was released last month. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp. The Woodlands released one previous album back in 2009, also available via Bandcamp. The Robertsons are based in San Luis Obispo, California.

Free and legal MP3: The Shoe (delicate & determined)

“Dead Rabbit Hopes” has a mesmerizing matter-of-factness about it, creating a serious flow with the gentlest of beats.

The Shoe

“Dead Rabbit Hopes” – The Shoe

Delicate and determined, “Dead Rabbit Hopes” is the shy girl who is not really shy at all, just uninterested in attracting attention via normal channels. “I am hungry for you/I am chewing straight through you”—see? Not so shy. The song has a mesmerizing matter-of-factness about it, creating a serious flow with the gentlest of beats. The lyrics, actually, have this odd way of sounding like they might have otherwise been rapped but instead have floated into a sweet, interval-jumping melody.

The vocalist for The Shoe by the way is actress Jena Malone and if you are initially skeptical of her seriousness as a musician look no further than this quote from a recent online interview: “I’m still trying to write like ‘Cortez the Killer.’ I want it to happen one day.” She has me at “Cortez the Killer.” Her partner in the odd, improvisation-fueled musical project that is The Shoe is Lem Jay Ignacio, a Los Angeles area musician and composer who himself was profiled in the New York Times way back in 2000 for being a pioneer in the field of creating music and audio effects for the web. He told the Times: “It’s exciting to think of sound not as a melody or phrase but as tiny frozen and unfrozen specks of sonic sparkle.” He has me at “specks of sonic sparkle.” Clearly these two oddballs are meant for each other; they have in fact been noodling around musically since 2008.

As for the strange normal-ness of “Dead Rabbit Hopes,” Malone in the same previously cited interview gives us a handhold on what she may be singing about, here: “It’s a metaphor saying that sometimes it is hard being a girl,” she is quoted as saying. “It is so easy to feel so far removed from your beauty. You end up valuing other people’s value of it.” Even if that doesn’t completely clarify anything, I respect the insight. The song appears on the debut album from The Shoe, entitled I’m Okay, released earlier this month via Community Music and There Was An Old Woman Records (as in “who lived in a…).

Free and legal MP3: Stornoway (attentive, gentle, artfully arranged)

“Tumbling Bay” is one of those songs so exquisitely constructed and artfully arranged that you can isolate any slice and find all sorts of goodness to relish.

Stornoway

“Tumbling Bay” – Stornoway

Attentive, gentle rock’n’roll that tells a tender story with an absorbing series of musical and lyrical details. “Tumbling Bay” is one of those songs so artfully arranged that you can isolate any slice and find all sorts of goodness to relish. At any moment, there are wonderful things going on with the guitar work, the percussion, and the vocals, never mind how these separate elements are continually weaving in and around each other, and working to create a whole that transcends its parts.

The song is named for a swimming area that used to exist in the Thames River in Oxford, the quartet’s hometown, and is a tale of unrequited love, told, unusually, from the perspective of the unwitting object rather than the tortured subject. Singer Brian Briggs has a distinctively innocent-sounding tenor, and he serves up the halting, affecting melodies with conviction; but don’t miss as well the background vocal efforts of his bandmates, as Stornoway is not averse to letting the whole band sing at the same time. (Indeed, the simple vocal coda we get at 3:36 is both haunting and oddly cathartic, not to be missed.)

“Tumbling Bay” is one of six songs to be found on the group’s newly-released “mini-album,” You Don’t Know Anything, which is a follow-up to its full-length Tales From Terra Firma, released earlier this year. Thanks to Lauren Laverne at BBC6 for the head’s up, and thanks to Rolling Stone for the MP3. Stornoway was last seen here in July 2010, for the fabulous song “Zorbing,” which ended up among my top 10 favorite free and legal MP3s of the year that year.

Free and legal MP3: The Lawlands (sedate, assured, & poetic)

Sedate and assured, with two simple verses, no chorus, and an unexpected poetic kick.

The Lawlands

“Youth” – The Lawlands

Front man Anthony Ferraro is crooning—there’s no other word for it—but he does so with a wondrous light touch: the rare crooner who sounds like he is singing actually to communicate, rather than to hear the sound of his own voice. (Ouch, regarding all the other crooners, but true, -ish.)

The sedate, assured “Youth” plays out as two simple verses, with no chorus; each verse cycles twice through a melody that is gentle but resolute, unfolding over a double-time rhythm section and a gliding series of open chords. The song’s musical core is I think best understood and reflected by the 35-second instrumental break after the first verse, with a chiming lead guitar line landing more often than not on semi-dissonant notes, creating that open-chorded feeling. There’s a sense of flow, and exploration, and ineffable yearning, and (important) exquisite craftsmanship; I feel I could sit in this space for a long time. But the best is yet to come, as the second verse’s final lyrics open out into unequivocal poetry:

It’s strange, the child that I put to rest
Is beating on the walls of my head
And shouting I’m not finished yet

I call this poetry because any attempt to explicate the meaning would require far more words than the lyric used to get there itself. And because there’s an apprehension (both meanings) in these lines that’s almost thrilling to discover. The song finishes with Ferraro repeating one wistful question—“Where is everything I’ve read about?”—which on the one hand brings good old Morrissey (another crooner!) to mind, with echoes of a famous question he asked only in the song’s title (“How soon is now?”). But here I think we transcend that earlier song’s mopey, unripe concerns. This is pretty deep stuff.

Ferraro has been previously featured on Fingertips for a song he recorded as the one-man project Astronauts, etc., in October 2012. Note that at the time I called his voice a “soothing tenor,” but I guess that was more like a “soothing falsetto.” The Lawlands is a Bay Area band that he joined not long ago when their previous lead singer left the country. From left to right in the picture, you are looking at Drew, Alex, Shaun, and Anthony. “Youth” is available as an MP3 through the link here, or via the SoundCloud page, which also offers up the lyrics and, of course, the opportunity to comment on the song directly to the band.

Free and legal MP3: Time Travelers (gentle, brisk, w/ Fleet Foxes affinity)

It’s okay if this sounds somewhat like the Fleet Foxes. Still a really good song.

Time Travelers

“Minnow” – Time Travelers

Already the silvery vibe and agile beat bring to mind a Fleet Foxes song, and then Edward Sturtevant opens his mouth and Robin Pecknold all but tumbles out. But you know what? Doesn’t matter. A band sounding like another band is no sin. First of all, removing ourselves from the bubble of musical over-exposure, a lot of the time, what seems an obvious resemblance to us may not register on other ears. Second, and more important, the only thing that need offend the ears, as far as I’m concerned, is a bad song; good songs, on the contrary, are entirely welcome in whatever guise they choose to arrive. “Minnow” is a wonderful song.

At the root of it is one of those juxtapositions that pop songs can, when they want to, manage so well. The often-discussed pop-song juxtaposition is happy music with sad lyrics, but there are other, subtler ways to juxtapose countervailing moods. In “Minnow” we get a brisk 4/4 beat paired with a mild, bittersweet demeanor—a gentle-but-fast amalgam that creates a distinctive sense of urgency, an urgency that gives itself up to you rather than pushes itself onto you, if that makes sense. And within the consistent, fast-moving framework, the song offers us two differentiated approaches to the beat: the expansive verse, with a swaying feel fostered by an accentuated third beat; and the seemingly faster-moving (but not) chorus, with its double-time rhythm section. Through it all, Sturtevant is almost disconcertingly affecting; he sings with an ache but entirely without the histrionics that generally plague 21st-century American vocalists whenever they try to emote (thank you, yet again, “American Idol”). He is assisted by an able-bodied melody that is at once assertive and evasive, with lines that begin emphatically but end, often, by veering away from resolution.

Time Travelers formed while the foursome were sophomores at Bates College in 2008. They moved (where else?) to Brooklyn, last year. “Minnow” is a song from Vacationland, the band’s second EP, which was released at the beginning of this year but only recently brought to my attention. You can listen to it and/or buy it (for a price of your choosing) via Bandcamp. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

photo credit: Liz Rowley