Free and legal MP3: Okkervil River (insistent rocker w/ dream-scrambled vibe)

Purposefully bashy and crashy, “Wake and Be Fine” offers an insistent tumble of lyrics in the verse, offset by the comparatively soothing waltz of the chorus, wherein front man Will Sheff assures himself, and us, that we’ll “wake and be fine.”

Okkervil River

“Wake and Be Fine” – Okkervil River

Purposefully bashy and crashy, “Wake and Be Fine” offers an insistent tumble of lyrics in the verse, offset by the comparatively soothing waltz of the chorus, wherein front man Will Sheff assures himself, and us, that we’ll “wake and be fine.” The music itself reinforces the song’s theme and intention: the verses assaulting us with off-kilter semi-confusion, the chorus finding smoother footing, tapping into the consoling quality of the song’s partially disguised 3/4 time signature.

Normally uninterested in music videos, I will make an exception here and point you in the direction of the song’s visual presentation, below. It’s a stark yet dreamy black-and-white affair, with the lyrics, propaganda-like, commanding the viewer’s attention while the band, blurred and multiplied, plays in and around the words. Stay with it and you’ll see that the visual words begin to diverge from the sung words, which ingeniously enhances the song’s dream-scrambled chaos. Also interesting to note is that Sheff had the band play this song together, over and over, in a small recording space, waiting for a take in which no one made any mistakes at all, however slight. It took from 3 pm to 1 am, and I think knowing the determination and, even, slight desperation that informs the playing here adds to the vaguely surreal ambiance of the whole thing.

“Wake and Be Fine” is a song from Okkervil River’s new album, I Am Very Far, which due out next week on Jagjaguwar Records. This is the Austin-based band’s sixth album, and 13th year together. They have previously been featured on Fingertips in 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2008. MP3 via Jagjaguwar.

Free and legal MP3: The Heligoats (chunky & moody but w/ spunk)

A chunky, cheerfully moody antidote to anything (everything) you might be hearing out there in the “popular” realm during this newly-christened “golden age” of pop (hey, don’t look at me, it’s Billboard’s idea).

Live Free and Let Loose

“A Word From Our Sponsor” – the Heligoats

A chunky, cheerfully moody antidote to anything (everything) you might be hearing out there in the “popular” realm during this newly-christened “golden age” of pop (hey, don’t look at me, it’s Billboard‘s idea). “A Word From Our Sponsor” is rhythmic (but you can’t dance to it), the vocals are filtered (but not Auto-Tuned), and if there’s a synthesizer to be heard, it’s masquerading as a guitar (but I don’t think there’s a synthesizer to be heard). And listen to those guitars, will ya? They’re heavy and grumbly and played by actual human fingers. This is a song that catches the ear through the vague alchemy of craft and spirit, of vocal presence and lyrical spunk. You won’t hear it on the radio.

The Heligoats are a quartet from Bellingham, Washington fronted by Chris Otepka, last seen around these parts as lead singer for the Chicago-based Troubled Hubble, featuring on Fingertips back in 2005, not too long before they broke up. I hope it wasn’t something I said. The Heligoats actually co-existed with Troubled Hubble for most of that band’s existence, but did not get around to a recording debut until 2008.

“A Word From Our Sponsor” is from the 10-inch split EP Live Free and Let Loose, coming next month from Greyday Records, based in Portland, Ore., featuring four songs from the Heligoats (the Let Loose side) and six songs from singer/songwriter Sam Humans (the Live Free side).

Free and legal MP3: Bad Books (punchy power pop, w/ lyrical vigor)

Sounding like something the Breeders might have recorded for Beatles ’65, “You Wouldn’t Have To Ask” hangs its musical hopes and dreams upon that left-field chord we hear first at 0:07 and then keep waiting to hear a few more times, but to no avail.

Bad Books

“You Wouldn’t Have To Ask” – Bad Books

Sounding like something the Breeders might have recorded for Beatles ’65, “You Wouldn’t Have To Ask” hangs its musical hopes and dreams upon that left-field chord we hear first at 0:07 and then keep waiting to hear a few more times. But this song is so sturdy and succinct we actually hear it only once more, with emphasis (1:06), in the instrumental run-through of the verse. It’s a set-up chord, a place you go to but can’t stay at, so what we’re really waiting for is not the chord again as much as the payoff. Said payoff is delivered via that very Beatley chord progression from 1:39 to 1:41, which in turns sets up the equally Beatley set of concluding chords from 1:46 to 1:50. The song ends there on a dime because, well, it’s done its job.

And that would be enough already, but “You Wouldn’t Have To Ask” is much enhanced by its off-handedly brilliant lyrical conceit, which provides a truly great pop songwriting moment: the titular phrase is a powerful way of communicating both the connection and the disconnection between two people. If I had what you’re looking for I’d give it to you, the singer says: “You wouldn’t have to ask.” But a darker side is implied, since theoretically the other person knows this too; “You wouldn’t have to ask” may, therefore, be either pledge (“I’d give it without your asking”) or accusation (“You know I don’t have it, so why are you asking?”) and most likely a complex blend of both. Even in this short song, the complexities of the phrase are developed and deepened; I find the last iteration especially haunting, with the singer at the end now saying, “If I could help you/You wouldn’t have to ask.”

Bad Books is a project fronted by Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Kevin Devine and Andy Hull, of Atlanta’s Manchester Orchestra; other members of Manchester Orchestra comprise the rest of the band. “You Wouldn’t Have To Ask” is a song from the group’s self-titled debut, which was released digitally last month and physically this month on Favorite Gentlemen Recordings, a label founded in Atlanta by members of Manchester Orchestra. MP3 via Favorite Gentlemen. Thanks to the blog Eardrums for the lead.

Free and legal MP3: The Roots (terrific reworking of MOF tune)

The Roots

“Dear God 2.0” – the Roots

That’s Jim James (ok, Yim Yames) at the beginning and it’s the same “Dear God” as appeared on the Monsters of Folk album—that is, until the Roots’ Black Thought takes over. (I like, by the way, how long he waits. This is a confident band. And check out that great “Uh-huh” with which he starts his rap after James, both times.) I don’t think you have to be a big hip-hop fan (lord knows I have no expertise in the area) to sense the glory in this performance. The voice rumbles more with weariness than anger, or even pain; words tumble out but with great discipline; thoughts pile onto thoughts almost haphazardly but stark themes emerge; and—nimble trick, this—words that don’t really rhyme are made to sound better than if they did. (e.g. “Why is the world ugly when you made it in your image?/And why is living life such a fight to the finish?”) And everything floating on top of a jazz-informed soul groove, soft but persuasive, with some really sweet chord progressions, if you wait and listen for them.

And listen, I know the distance I tend to keep from hip-hop is a generational thing. I find it hard to warm to music without melody and (often) without a lot of actual instruments, and hard to warm to vocalists who seem to all want to sound the same, not to mention lyrical content that often seems so bleak and short-sighted. But never mind all that right now. This song’s the real deal, and so is this band.

“Dear God 2.0” is from the Roots’ new album How I Got Over, due out next week on Def Jam. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3 from Amanda Palmer (Dresden Dolls’ singer goes solo, produced by Ben Folds)

“Astronaut” – Amanda Palmer

The smoky alto is back, likewise the melodramatic delivery and foreboding lyrics, but Amanda Palmer arrives this time without the Dresden Dolls, the self-proclaimed “Brechtian punk cabaret” duo of which she is half. The Dolls have a compelling sound, to be sure, but perhaps it was time to see what Palmer could do when freed of the band’s intriguing but restricted soundscape–an idea that so delighted Dresden Dolls’ fan Ben Folds that he actively sought the job of being Palmer’s producer for her solo debut.

And so the Foldsian piano pounding (by Palmer) that opens this, the album’s lead track, seems no accident, but neither does the Palmerian left turn the song takes after 20 seconds of it—with the strings still echoing off the soundboard, we dive into 40 seconds of brooding quiet, which announces that Palmer has not left her bravado in her “punk cabaret” kit bag. We lean in, we wonder exactly what she’s talking about (“Is it enough to have some love/Small enough to slip inside a book”), we get closer still and then bam, we get whacked on the head a second time, when the volume and beat return, at 1:02. “I am still not getting what I want,” she sings, a thematically charged line in Palmer’s oeuvre if ever there was one, as the song leaps back to life and soon picks up an unexpectedly welcoming bounce. When Palmer belts, her voice has this commanding way of sounding off-key and on the right note at the same time. She is in fact a very precise singer and writer; whether or not I get their meaning, her words are a rhythmic pleasure, scanning with a finesse not typically found in indie rock. And she even effects a musical climax based largely on the metric foot she employs, in the bridge that starts at 2:53, which sticks with a rat-a-tat trochaic meter (ONE-two, ONE-two, ONE-two etc.) until we are pretty much beaten into submission. It’s both an impressive display of lyrical discipline and a way of adding a driving anguish to the song below the level of consciousness.

The CD Who Killed Amanda Palmer was released earlier this fall on Roadrunner Records.

Free and legal MP3: Okkervil River (great American indie rockers sing about being American indie rockers)

“Lost Coastlines” – Okkervil River

One of America’s best and most consistent indie bands of the ’00s, Okkervil River is on a tear, seemingly incapable of releasing anything but rousing, rigorously engaging rock’n’roll. On the heels of last year’s well-regarded CD, The Stage Names, the Austin-based quintet returns with The Stand Ins, which is in fact pretty much the second half of last year’s album—not only is the subject matter revisited, but the album covers cleverly connect to one another.

And so, once again, front man and songwriter Will Sheff is singing about an indie rocker’s life on the road, and once again he sidesteps the pitfalls of self-involvement through his engagingly evasive lyrics and his uncanny way with melody and presentation. Snappy and chorus-free, “Lost Coastlines” is built on top of an accelerated Motown groove (think “You Can’t Hurry Love”), over which Sheff sings with a rubbery, David Byrne-like quizzicality. At the same time, there’s a sense of poignancy in the air, having a lot to do with the interludes sung by Jonatahan Meiburg (at 0:41 and 2:09). Meiburg was in Okkervil River until this past spring, when he left to devote himself full-time to his other band, Shearwater (the parting was amicable). When Meiburg enters, the itchy guitar disappears, leaving his croony baritone to float against bass, percussion, and strings, injecting a dream-like vibe into the chuggy ambiance.

The Stand Ins was released last week on Jagjaguwar Records. MP3 via Jagjaguwar.