Free and legal MP3: The Casket Girls (bright, buzzy, unsettling)

Bright and buzzy cosmetics and solid pop instincts on top, something unsettling underneath.

The Casket Girls

“Western World” – The Casket Girls

Bright and buzzy cosmetics and solid pop instincts on top, something unsettling underneath. But what else to expect from a band called the Casket Girls, named for a group of poor but probably chaste young women sent by France to 18th-century New Orleans as prospective wives to the colonists there—and whom, over time, have been deemed by local legend to be vampires? Never mind that the band is from Savannah, and that the original casket girls got their name because they arrived with small suitcases that were called “casquettes.” Vampires make a better story for NOLA locals giving ghost tours, and Casket Girls has a disquieting ring for an indie rock band with two female lead singers.

In any case, “Western World” burbles with intent and strata, each sonic element—glitchy percussion, rubbery bass synth, blasé mirroring lead vocals, a smorgasbord of keyboards—adding fluently to the song’s overall sense of things at once coming together and falling apart. While many of the words flow past the ear in a portentous brew just beyond comprehension, one key, repeated lyric hits an insightful target: “But you know disease is like progress/You can’t escape the way it all shakes out.” The implications of this one simile give “Western World” extra oomph, while the carnival of accumulated sound gives you an excuse not to think too much about what they might actually be saying.

The Casket Girls is a band more or less spontaneously generated by the prolific and mysterious Ryan Graveface, best known as guitarist of Black Moth Super Rainbow but also in three other bands now, including Casket Girls. Graveface randomly came upon sisters Elsa and Phaedra Greene one day, singing odd songs in one of Savannah’s picturesque city squares, and pretty much decided on the spot that they would form a band, if only to help him continue to work through his obsession with the Shangri-Las, a girl group from the ’60s (“Leader of the Pack,” “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” et al.).

“Western World” is a song from a split EP the Casket Girls released (on Graveface Records; yes that’s him too) with the band Stardeath and White Dwarfs for Record Store Day back in November 2015. The band’s third full-length album is due out some time this year.

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.


“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: La Luz (slinky, surfy, reverby)

A slowed-down girl-group number with both nostalgic flair and the spark of unfamiliarity.

La Luz

“Call Me in the Day” – La Luz

Current indie rock nodding aurally to late ’50s or early ’60s rock’n’roll has become commonplace, although I’m still getting a kick out of it, because first of all I never anticipated it and second of all it’s a fun sound, especially for anyone who likes a good tune with his or her music. Many of the melodies that pre-Beatles songwriters wrote sounded resolutely similar to one another but melodies they were, and if a new generation of musicians sees fit to excavate the vibe to see what charms may remain, I for one will not wag my finger and scold them for not being “new” enough.

“Call Me in the Day” is a kind of slowed-down girl-group number, the days-of-yore production limitations mimicked here by the reverb-enhanced lo-fi setting; add the slinky bass and the punctuation of echoey, low-register guitar riffs, which bring surf-rock undertones to the proceedings, and all sorts of nostalgia is in the air. And yet a spark of unfamiliarity shines through. First, the rhythm section grabs the ear, the way the old-school bass line is paired with a humble but decisive snare drum, the drum less supportive than finding its own way in the empty spaces. This brings a band awareness to music that had been previously crafted by non-performing songwriters. And what really snaps me to attention are the harmonies, beginning at 0:39. There’s something abruptly pure and clean about the sound of the two women here singing together that both transcends the muddier feeling of the production and ties it all together. The interplay of the voices now justifies the song’s leisurely pace. It just feels good. And then comes an 80-second instrumental break, and by then I’m so on board with the slinky groove that this feels good too. I’ve talked in the past about the pleasures of finding latitude in short songs by cutting back on verses and adding instrumental breaks; this is an upstanding example of that.

La Luz was founded in Seattle just last year. Their first recording was the EP Damp Face, which was released in September. “Call Me in the Day” is the lead track; it was recently made available as a free and legal MP3 via Fullerton, Calif.-based Burger Records, which this week re-released Damp Face as a cassette. You can hear the whole EP, and purchase it, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Louise Burns (Boss-inspired girl-group rock)

Former teen-pop star Louise Burns reorients her career by channeling early ’60s girl groups via Bruce Springsteen’s further explorations of that same sound. Convincing and just plain cool.

Louise Burns

“Drop Names Not Bombs” – Louise Burns

You never know which way a 25-year-old former teen-pop star is going to go. So many potential avenues are open to her. The one labeled “Springsteen-inspired homages to late ’50s and early ’60s pop” is not the expected one, however. Give Louise Burns props for creatively re-imagining her career trajectory. Better yet, give her props for a fine song, and consider it a great instance of making lemonade from lemons, as “Drop Names Not Bombs” draws upon past bad experience from her days as bass player in the teenybopper Canadian band Lillix.

Now as much as people are impelled to talk “girl group” when they hear Burns’ solo debut, Mellow Drama, there’s more to it than strict revivalism. Springsteen himself is grounded in that late ’50s/early-’60s sound, and Burns here is clearly channeling the girl-group thing via the Boss—I hear it in the chimey, piano-driven backbeat, in the organ flourishes, and most of all in the melodic resolution (check out 0:55, around the lyric “I’ll be buying them drinks all night”). As Bruce drew (and continues to draw) so much from the girl-group sound, it’s a lovely counterpoint to hear a female musician double back and tap into that same spring via his subsequent language. That the mezzo-ranged Burns sings with a hint of Ronnie Spector angst lends an extra charge to the proceedings.

And okay, while I don’t want to bog down in the Lillix story, it’s too central to ignore. Formed in Cranbrook, B.C. as a four-girl band when Burns all of 11, Lillix (originally named Tigerlily) was four years later signed by Madonna’s Time Warner-funded Maverick Records imprint. This was 2001. Fed to the star-maker machinery, they got a name change (there was a preexisting Tigerlily), were handed over to mercenary producers and songwriters (the girls had previously written their own music), and forced into pandering marketing efforts (two were sent to weight-loss camp). An early breakthrough: a cover of the Romantics’ “What I Like About You” was used by the 2002 WB sitcom of the same name. After two years of major-label fussing, the first Lillix album emerged in 2003, to mixed reviews at best; it cracked the Billboard 200, barely. In 2004, Madonna, an early booster, was driven from the label in a flurry of lawsuits. A 2006 follow-up album did well in Japan, and nowhere else, and Maverick, itself foundering, dropped the foursome while they were touring. Burns left the band and started over, diving into the Vancouver music scene and embracing noisy, experimental material as an effort to overcome both her teen-pop history and her music-industry bruises. Landing for a while in a goth-y trio called the Blue Violets, she has seemingly come to accept that she is a popster at heart. But sensitivity about her past remains. In a June interview, a couple of months after her solo debut was released in Canada, Burns said, poignantly, “It’s nice that people are giving it a chance despite my background.”

I’m giving her a good good chance. Mellow Drama was long-listed for Canada’s Polaris Music Prize in June; her label, Vancouver-based Light Organ Records, released the album in the U.S. this week. MP3 via Rolling Stone.

Free and legal MP3: La Sera (reverbed, DIY, girl-groupy goodness)

Reverb-drenched, girl-groupy goodness from a woman previously known, in her role as bassist for the Vivian Girls, as Kickball Katy.

La Sera

“Never Come Around” – La Sera

Reverb-drenched, girl-groupy goodness from a woman previously known, in her role as bassist for the trio Vivian Girls, as Kickball Katy. But while the Vivian Girls play a muddy kind of DIY pop that doesn’t sound exactly like my thing, “Never Come Around”—equally DIY—pushes my happy buttons with its retro melody and dreamy, layered harmonies.

And that’s it, there’s not much more to this little song than its retro melody and layered harmonies. And Katy Goodman, doing musical business as La Sera, knows it too, which is why she has the unusually good sense to end the song in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it two minutes flat. There’s not even a chorus—just a fun little wordless vocal run in between a couple of the breezy verses, although she does manage to make time for a quick instrumental go-round of the foundational melody. It’s good-spirited, nicely put together fun—which is more than I, personally, can say about visually dissonant video, in which Katy G. sings her lovely ditty while graphically eviscerating some guy in the kitchen, with a kitchen knife. It continues from there. For the one or two of you out there who don’t find graphic violence entertaining, consider this a good reminder that music is for listening. (Everyone else: enjoy!)

“Never Come Around” is the lead track on a 7-inch to be released later this month on Seattle-based Hardly Art Records, in advance of a full-length expected early in 2011. MP3 from Pitchfork; thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Colleen Brown (girl-group theatrics meets D. Springfield)

“Boyfriend” marches to a big, retro, triplet-driven beat, delivering a vibe that’s part girl-group theatrics, part Dusty Springfield-style R&B, part something elusive and (dare I say it?) new.

“Boyfriend” – Colleen Brown

“Boyfriend” marches to a big, retro, triplet-driven beat, delivering a vibe that’s part girl-group theatrics, part Dusty Springfield-style R&B, part something elusive and (dare I say it?) new.

This is in fact a quality that strikes me again and again about Canadian musicians, if I may generalize (and I assume positive generalizations are somewhat less irritating than negative generalizations!): their capacity for drawing upon influences without either drowning in them or negating them through archness and irony. Here, Edmonton-based singer/songwriter Colleen Brown–with a slightly dusky voice, some sly lyrics, and an easy way with a time-shifting melody–has built a song and a sound clearly grounded in the past while managing, at the same time, to resist painting herself into a history-centric corner. I’m not exactly sure how this works up there north of the border but I appreciate it every time I hear it. In any case, “Boyfriend,” with its driving stomp and gleeful vocal energy, is very much a winner in the here and now.

You’ll find the song on Brown’s second solo album, Foot in Heart, which was re-released last month by Dead Daisy Records, an independent label run by Canadian singer/songwriter Emm Gryner. The album had been previously self-released in 2008. Brown has also recorded as a part of a duo called the Secretaries. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3: Gold Motel(new Chicago band w/ ’60s flair)

Gold Motel

“Don’t Send the Searchlights” – Gold Motel

With a clipped, fleet Motown beat, an expansive girl-group-style sing-along chorus, and an oh-so-classic length of two minutes fifty seconds, “Don’t Send the Searchlights” has one eye quite obviously on our musical past. But at the same time there’s something lovely and casual going on that allows the music to transcend its influences; Greta Morgan, the band’s singer, songwriter, and keyboard player, has the sound of someone just kind of happening upon this song rather than sweating the historical details, and “Don’t Send the Searchlights” jumps and swings accordingly.

I think a good part of the song’s flair arises from the melodic intervals Morgan builds into both the verse and the chorus. You can hear an example when she sings “before we hit the dawn” at 0:18–from the “we” she jumps down a fifth to “hit” and then back up a fifth to “dawn.” This larger-than-normal interval creates a sense of movement and freedom, and in so doing reflects the lyrics, which on the surface extol the benefits of breaking off a relationship so it won’t turn sour (“Always leave before tomorrow comes/All the greatest loves are the unfinished ones”). But don’t believe everything she says. There’s something wistful playing at the edges of the song’s breeziness, and once again a melodic interval comes into play: the leaps she takes while singing both “goodbye” and “good guy” turn on the half-step difference between the first and second “good,” which turns the chord from major to minor. She may not be as happy as she’d like to believe she is. And the chorus ends musically unresolved–not typically a sign that all is well.

Formerly of the Hush Sounds (2005-2008), Morgan assembled the five-piece Gold Motel in 2009. “Don’t Send the Searchlights” is one of five songs on the band’s self-released, self-titled debut EP, which came out in December. Expect a full length in June. MP3 via the band’s site.