Free and legal MP3: Pillow Queens (incisive rocker w/ a mysterious pull)

What begins abruptly and somewhat droningly transforms itself with repeat listens into an authoritative rocker with a hint of transcendence.

“Handsome Wife” – Pillow Queens

“Handsome Wife” exerts a mysterious pull. What begins abruptly and somewhat droningly transforms itself with repeat listens into an authoritative rocker with a hint of transcendence. If you want an aural handhold, listen for the muscular guitar line that rings out at 0:39, shifting the ear away from the background drone, tantalizing with its unresolved finish, implying a momentous chorus that we don’t yet hear, but will soon.

Now then, there are some well-known one-note melodies in rock history (think “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” or “It’s The End of the World as We Know It”), but perhaps just as ear-catching and maybe somewhat trickier to pull off is the two-note melody, such as we get in the chorus (1:17). At this point Pamela Connolly’s fervent vocals, kicked up a register, convey a quivering air of vulnerability that pushes the song into greatness. The allure is heightened by elusive but perfectly sculpted lyrics:

I was young and I was honest
Me and all your father’s daughters
Laid beside the tide to take us
Kissed the bride and fought your favours
I may not be the wife you want
But I’m pregnant with the virgin tongue

I can’t tell you with any certainty what these words mean, and yet they vibrate with impalpable significance. I think this has to do with two attributes: first, the fact that each line itself is comprehensible, even as they don’t, together, become a digestible narrative; second, the words scan (i.e. match the rhythm of the melody) perfectly, with the opening four lines, including many one-syllable words, aligned in strict trochaic tetrameter (the academic term for what you might in your head associate with childhood rhymes—think, “Peter, Peter pumpkin-eater”; “Twinkle, twinkle little star,” etc.). I’d argue that songs with lyrics that properly scan are unconsciously more impactful than songs with scattershot accentuations. I wish more songwriters agreed.

The last piece of the snowballing puzzle here: the wordless bridge (2:27), in which Connolly’s voice retreats into a choir of reverb, dueting with a guitar line at first in sync and then offering a reassuring countermelody. Following this, the restated chorus sounds somehow more assertive and empowering, even as I still don’t know exactly what she’s singing about.

Pillow Queens are a foursome from Dublin. “Handsome Wife” is the lead single from their debut album, In Waiting, coming out on September 25. You can pre-order the album, and listen to a few more tracks, via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Middle Kids (terrific new song from top-notch band)

The gifted Australian trio Middle Kids is back with a follow-up release to its superb 2018 album, “Lost Friends”; we remain in excellent hands.

“Real Thing” – Middle Kids

The gifted Australian trio Middle Kids is back with a follow-up release to its superb 2018 album, Lost Friends; we remain in excellent hands.

“Real Thing” pulses with an off-kilter rhythm section, navigated with nonchalance by smoky-voiced frontwoman/guitarist Hannah Joy. The melody starts casually, on the second beat of the measure, much of it double-time, comprising a lot of words but only a couple of different notes. I get from this a sense of escalation, which gets suspended by a verse extension in which the melody slows down and expands, right on the resonant phrases “hopeless romantics, anxiety magnets” (0:25). We retreat briefly into the opening melody before advancing into what we’ve been waiting for: the killer chorus. Middle Kids are in fact masters of the killer chorus; for evidence look no further than the song “Mistake,” from Lost Friends (and featured here on at the beginning of the year on EPS 6.01), which still gives me goose bumps.

What makes the chorus here work so well feels like a magic trick. It neither attempts to pound a simplified musical phrase into your head nor relies on a flagrantly memorable chord change. The most noticeable thing it does is alternate double- and single-time lines; the other prominent feature is its asymmetry: the way the third line doesn’t directly mirror the first line, as the ear expects, but extends an extra measure. And right there, somehow, is the hook, when Joy sings, “Are you like me, do you lie awake thinking?” (0:44) The line illustrates an ongoing feature of Joy’s presentation, which subtly fluctuates between phrases that seem slightly slurred or indistinct and those that jump out with precision. The chorus finishes with some wordless vocal leaps that now show how much more elastic Joy’s range is than you might initially expect (0:50-1:00). Somehow, altogether, the effect is brilliant.

Lastly, note the guitar work throughout. The band presents as a trio but uses an extra guitar in the mix, and when performing live. As you listen, it’s worth reminding yourself that this is a completely guitar-based band; all the heft and drive of their sound on top of the rhythm section comes from guitars. They’re kind of a glorious anomaly that way here in 2019, with no laptop twiddling or sampling going on. And look, I’ve got nothing against technology per se but dislike when sounds become fads and in any case look to music as something requiring intellectual, emotional, and physical skill, generated by vibrations arising from three-dimensional reality (plucked or hammered strings; breath disturbing the air). These guys, to quote their own song, are the real thing.

You’ll find this track on Middle Kids’ brand-new six-track mini album New Songs For Old Problems, released last week. Grab it for just $5.99 at Bandcamp, where you’ll also want to buy Lost Friends if you don’t already have it. MP3 via The Current.



(Note that MP3s from The Current are available in files that are 128kbps, which is below the iTunes standard of 192kbps, not to mention the higher-def standard of 320kbps. I personally don’t hear much difference on standard-quality equipment but if you are into high-end sound you’ll probably notice something. In any case I always encourage you to download the MP3 for the purposes of getting to know a song via a few listens; if you like it I still urge you to buy the music. It’s the right thing to do.)

Free and legal MP3: The Holiday Crowd (brisk & jangly, w/ killer chorus)

The chorus is a recurringly climactic gem, with a shiny-catchy feeling that marvelously transmutes the song’s influences into something all its own.

The Holiday Crowd

“Anything Anything” – The Holiday Crowd

If you have any long-term knowledge of rock’n’roll history, when you listen to “Anything Anything” you are likely going to be put in the mind of the Smiths. This is not a bad thing; the Smiths were a seminal band, trafficking in a sound so unique as to be sui generis. Pretty much anyone influenced by the Mancunian quartet at all ends up kind of sounding like them in certain unmistakable ways.

But I will quickly note that “Anything Anything” is not Smiths 2.0; it’s quite a wonderful piece of pop on its own terms. If it manifests shared characteristics with Morrissey-Marr compositions—from the fade-in intro through lead singer Imran Haniff’s discontented lilt to the chiming guitar arpeggios—the song at the same time has an underlying energy that feels warmer and brighter, and a structure less willfully idiosyncratic. And boy oh boy this chorus, which feels almost goose-bumpily climactic every time it recurs, with a shiny-catchy feeling that marvelously transmutes the song’s influences into something all its own.

That all said, a visit to the band’s Facebook page informs us that they may not be in love with the Smiths comparisons. Oops! But then again, not. Because look, it’s my (self-appointed) job to put new songs I’m enjoying into their musical contexts. I compare new bands to older bands regularly. I try to do so creatively and sensitively but to act as if an obvious aural correlate doesn’t exist, or to feel it is somehow taboo to point it out, is silly. I mean, were I to write about this song and not mention the Smiths, most of you would wonder how I managed to miss that. Online commenters love to rail against “lazy” reviewers who use comparisons rather than descriptors, but this isn’t a zero-sum game. I believe in comparisons and descriptors, and anything else that assists with the eternally thorny problem of dancing about architecture, as it were. It is no more a crime to be influenced by a major musical antecedent than it is to point out this influence. End of soapbox.

The Holiday Crowd is a quartet from Toronto. They formed in 2010, and released their first album in 2013, which you can listen to on Bandcamp. “Anything Anything” is a song from their forthcoming self-titled album, due out in January. Thanks to Magnet Magazine for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: The Rebel Light (astute, catchy, and assured)

“Strangers” opens with a burst of happy wordless vocals (choosing the especially giddy “ba-ba-ba” over the more noncommittal “la-la-la”), right away informing us of its good-natured intentions.

The Rebel Light

“Strangers” – The Rebel Light

Year by 21st-century year I am increasingly discouraged by our collective inability to discern good-catchy (based on effective/surprising melody) from bad-catchy (based on annoying, often shout-y repetition)—and, I suppose the greater affliction, our apparent preference for the bad-catchy. I do understand that bad-catchy is far easier to concoct and that today’s pop-oriented songwriters and producers, perceiving that virality is unrelated to quality, find bad-catchy better suited to their purposes.

Well, boo to all of them, but hooray for the astutely good-catchy “Strangers,” from the Los Angeles-based trio The Rebel Light. While sounding entirely of the 2014 moment, “Strangers” thrums with warmth and joy in a way that far too much of today’s indie pop has abandoned in favor of technology and analytics. As such, I’ll wager that this song will sound as fresh to future ears as most of 2014’s YouTube fodder will sound stale and uninteresting not that many years from now.

With a thumpy, head-bobbing core, “Strangers” opens with a burst of happy wordless vocals (choosing the especially giddy “ba-ba-ba” over the more noncommittal “la-la-la”), right away informing us of its good-natured intentions. While displaying moments of near-minimal accompaniment, the song works almost surreptitiously to add layers of aural interest as things unfold—squally electronics, hand-claps, an undercover disco beat, cowbell, acoustic guitar, a capella break, we get a little bit of everything stitched ably together into a pop-perfect 3:25 length. And at the heart of this catchy song is (of course) a super catchy chorus, featuring one of those great, inevitable-sounding melodies that good-catchy songs so often have. While easy to learn and sing along with, the chorus’s melody delivers extra oomph via the way it slides seamlessly off and on the beat. Specifically, note how each line in the chorus starts off the beat (i.e., the words “you,” “standing,” “waving,” etc.) aligns onto the beat for the middle of the line, then slips back between the beat for its three emphatic closing syllables (for instance, on the words “live this way” beginning at 0:46). I especially like when seemingly straightforward songs give us subtle little treats like that along the way.

“Strangers” is a single released by the band last month. You can download as usual via the title above, or directly from the band via SoundCloud. The band has previously released one three-song EP and one other single, both in 2013.

Free and legal MP3: Heyrocco (catnip for ’90s fans)

Tricky of a power trio to wrap its sensitive side into a thunderous song that appears to be about premature ejaculation.

Heyrocco

“Melt” – Heyrocco

Here’s a shot of adrenaline for you ’90s rock fans, full of loud crunchy guitars, gratifying melodies, slightly affected-while-trying-not-to-sound-affected vocals, sexually forward lyrics (“When you undo/My belt/I melt”), and some of that loud/soft oscillation that worked so well before smartphones took over (not that there’s a connection…necessarily…). In the bigger picture of things, “Melt” is timeless rock’n’roll—young men making their desire desirable via backbeat, melody, and loud crunchy guitars.

But notice the tempo here. It’s got a backbeat, yes, but a deliberate one. For all the mighty, bottom-heavy sound on display, “Melt” is nearly a ballad, albeit a loud and R-rated one. (Tricky of a power trio to wrap its sensitive side into a thunderous song that appears to be at least partially about premature ejaculation.) And yet this is not to be confused with those treacly so-called “power ballads” arena rock bands used to churn out back in the day. This is maybe just a slowed-down rock song, but with such brawny vitality that the crowd’s going to dance anyway. From start to finish, the sound is stout and bracing; the simple, declarative chorus is the definition of killer; and the guitar solo you have waited patiently for (2:46) is a concise, off-kilter triumph. For three minutes and forty-nine seconds you can pretend Bill Clinton is still president.

Heyrocco is a young trio from Charleston, South Carolina with one digital-only full-length release to date, 2012’s Comfort, which you can listen to and/or buy via Bandcamp. A full-fledged debut album is expected later this year.

Free and legal MP3: Marie Lalá (polished, perky pop w/ big chorus)

Right away, I like the extra beats that complicate the verse, and the staccato, neo-new wave ambiance. But everything, I soon discover, is a set-up for the chorus.

Marie Lala

“Without You” – Marie Lalá

Polished and perky, “Without You” is also sneaky memorable. Right away, I like the extra beats that complicate the verse, and the staccato, neo-new wave ambiance. But everything, I soon discover, is a set-up for the chorus, which is bright and bangly and familiar-seeming in a good way. And yet it’s not even the sing-along part that nails it for me as much as what happens at 0:45, when the momentum slows, on the words “I don’t seem to get the point.” I feel restored here to an unknown moment in the distant past, either because the melody is reminding me of a song I can’t quite remember or maybe it’s just the classic power of returning to the major after a sidestep to the minor (“the minor fall, the major lift”). But that’s where I fall in love with this song and, just about, the singer too.

And what’s not to love about the mysterious Marie Lalá? When I first featured her here, last February, I openly questioned the veracity of the Swedish singer/songwriter’s quirky, unforthcoming biography, which talked of her background as an aerialist in the circus and her current job climbing ropes on an offshore oil rig. One must be wary in this hoax-friendly day and age, mustn’t one? As her debut album, Surrender My Soul, is released this week, a bit more background has been revealed, and the story is, I now believe, the actual truth. She no longer works on the oil rig, however, as she used the job to finance her album. “Without You” is the first available track.

Note that Lalá’s given last name is Nilsson; note too that she appears to have taken her stage name from the aerialist immortalized by Edward Degas in the painting “Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando,” a reference I missed last time around. You can download the MP3 via the song title above, or visit SoundCloud for a higher-quality .wav file.

Free and legal MP3: Brave Baby (yearning, rock-solid rock)

“Living in a Country” is all yearning momentum and indelible chorus.

Brave Baby

“Living in a Country” – Brave Baby

Charleston’s Brave Baby aims big here, drawing inspiration not only from the heroic/nostalgic sounds of Arcade Fire but from the granddaddies of earnest yet incisive rock’n’roll, U2. Front man Keon Masters does sing with an air of Win Butler about him; his vulnerable tenor has a rope-like strength to it, and a subtle intricacy, as he offers different aural qualities at his different registers.

“Living in a Country” is all yearning momentum and indelible chorus. You’ll hear that without even trying. Give a closer listen, though, and you’ll encounter any number of oddly satisfying details—the Star Trek-y synthesizer (first heard in the introduction), the late entry of the bass (0:29), the ghostly octave vocals (1:40), the deconstruction of the time signature during that asymmetrical interlude after the second verse (1:54), and maybe best of all, the burnished spaciousness of the sound in the chorus, which feels partly like some kind of wall-of-sound voodoo and yet partly organic and explainable. Only I can’t explain it; all I know is that the chorus’s urgent hookiness has probably as much to do with its sonic landscape as its melody.

Three of Brave Baby’s four members have been playing music together since 2008; the quartet coalesced in 2010. “Living in a Country” is the first single available from the band’s debut album, Forty Bells, due out in January on Hearts and Plugs Records. Thanks to the record label for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Elim Bolt (droney guitars, indelible chorus)

There is something so cumulatively affecting about “Farm Kid” that it manages to seem a little short even while clocking in at over four and a half minutes. That’s usually the length at which songs begin to seem a little long.

Elim Bolt

“Farm Kid” – Elim Bolt

With something of the big ringing clamor of Arcade Fire, “Farm Kid” rocks to a swinging backbeat, adorned with delectably droney guitars. The verse is understated and blurry; we register the beat, bask in the guitar work, and don’t understand a word. And this is how we are led, perhaps against expectations, into a brilliant, indelible chorus. Too catchy for its own good, this chorus messes further with our heads by offering up the song’s only intelligible lyric, which is almost too straightforward for its own good, if it weren’t also so piteous:

And all I wanna do is truly love you
But all I seem to do is deeply hurt you

Otherwise buried in elusive aural mud, front man Johnnie Matthews emerges with these words as a full-fledged crooner, and everything about the song all of a sudden—the melody (half sing-along, half slippery), the lyrics, the delivery—grabs at the soul. The guitar that rejoins us next, first heard in the introduction, has acquired a majestic, pealing air, all the more effective for the nearly-audible distortion it seems to be keeping constantly at bay. (Some of it will break loose during the solo, at 2:49.) There is something so cumulatively affecting about “Farm Kid” that it manages to seem almost still a little short even while clocking in at over four and a half minutes. That’s usually the length at which songs begin to seem a little long.

You’ll find the song on the band’s debut album, entitled Nude South, which is scheduled for release next month on Hearts and Plugs Records.

Free and legal MP3: Two Wounded Birds (brisk, unironic rock’n’roll, w/ pure pop appeal)

No electronic trickery, thematic gimmickry, or theatrical tomfoolery; rock’n’roll with an unironic heart of pure pop.

Two Wounded Birds

“To Be Young” – Two Wounded Birds

“To Be Young” is so insidiously appealing that anything that might cause some possible trouble here (copping half a melody from the Pretenders “Don’t Get Me Wrong”; intermittently affected vocal style) is neutralized by the soaring success of its pure pop songiness.

A deep-noted guitar lick both launches and anchors the piece. Note how swiftly the music moves even as the lyrics take their time; both in the verse and the chorus there are at least two brisk measures of music between every single lyrical line. This creates a built-in anticipation for each subsequent line—as listeners, we kind of lean in, waiting. This kind of structural delayed gratification is reinforced by melodies that deliver their payoff on the back end. For instance, the verse hook (or, maybe, not so much a hook as a “moment”) is the repeated melody at the end of the line (in the first verse (0:34), it’s the same lyric too: “My head don’t feel right”). In the chorus, as much as the ear is lured in by the opening salvo (“It’s too early”), the song, to my ears, triumphs by nailing the landing, as it were—with the lines “‘Cause we were young/And hopeless,” with that slightly hesitant melisma on the word “young,” the notes of which repeat on “hopeless,” and the music separating them out while we wait, and wait, for the resolution. This comes, actually, only with the transition back to the verse. The song moves on, briskly.

Two Wounded Birds are a quartet from Margate, in the UK. They have previously released an EP and a couple of singles. “To Be Young” is from the band’s self-titled debut album, set for release in June on the Holiday Friends Recording Co., a label co-founded by Jacob Graham of the Drums and now part of the French Kiss Records family. MP3 via Austin Town Hall.

Free and legal MP3: Slowdim (sturdy, potent power pop)

“Money” hearkens back to decades of rock radio hits without any air of contrivance or over-retro-ism.

Slowdim

“Money” – Slowdim

A winner from beginning to end, “Money” is shrewdly constructed but gloriously unfussy, its pure (power) pop heart hearkening back to decades of rock radio hits without any air of contrivance or over-retro-ism. Songs this well-built rarely sound so free.

It begins with a “two-level” intro—10 seconds of restrained warm-up, the guitars swirling and jangling but as if from maybe the next room; then, the real thing, with a full-bodied, sing-along lead guitar riff that first grabs attention and then gets out of the way so the song can start. Less obvious than the great guitar line here is the note with which the bass launches said guitar line (listen carefully at 0:11), a nifty music-theory maneuver that adds subliminal texture and alerts the ear, however unconsciously, that what follows is worth listening to. I like too how the two-part intro is a subtle mirror of the heart of the song, with its two-part chorus. Speaking of which, listen to how what you might call the pre-chorus (first heard at 0:45) is itself a great hook and yet feels incomplete without the arrival of the true chorus. Note that the song’s title derives from the pre-chorus—another subtle songwriting trick, simultaneously adding substance to the pre-chorus while creating, via the pre-chorus’s unresolved melodies, an emotional demand for the second part, which delivers a spirited release with its layered harmonies and gratifying, descending melody.

Not to be confused with the British shoegaze band Slowdive, Slowdim is a four-piece band from Boston that has been together for about a year, although various combinations of its members have known each other for a good deal longer. “Money” is the band’s first single. They are currently recording their debut album. MP3 via the band.