Free and legal MP3: Strand of Oaks (anthemic indie rock)

This may be a slow build, but it’s not just a tedious beat; there are expressive lyrics, and, best of all, an impressively well-built melody.

Strand of Oaks

“Weird Ways” – Strand of Oaks

I am not often a fan of the slow build, I will admit that up front. In particular I usually run screaming from songs that have introductions that are both slow and long; bonus (negative) points for being overly repetitious. I’m always thinking, “This is a friggin’ pop song! Get to the point!”

But what we have here with “Weird Ways” is a slow build I’m down with. For one thing, the singing starts right away. This may be a slow build, but it’s not just a tedious beat; there are expressive lyrics, and, best of all, an impressively well-built melody. Things may not entirely cohere in your ear during this slow introductory section, but when the song opens up at 1:30, abetted now by riff and backbeat, we soon get re-introduced to the opening melody and can hear it now in all its anthemic glory. This is the kind of melody that feels classic as soon as you hear it in this setting.

A minute later, the song veers into misty reverie, but with enough texture and pulse to keep things interesting. A minute after that, a head-bobbing bridge, with layered vocals, leads into a big-time guitar solo. The bridge returns nearly a minute later, with additional drama in the vocal layers, culminating in a portentous sustain that closes things out. So much going on! But wait a minute. What happened to that anthemic melody? We hear the last of it at around the two-and-a-half-minute mark of a nearly six-minute song. As a listener, this is maybe slightly frustrating but also slyly engaging. Look, Strand of Oaks mastermind Timothy Showalter could have easily given us more of that haunting refrain but consciously decided not to. Part of it relates to the wise dictum of “Always leave them wanting more.” But he could have done that with, simply, a short song. “Weird Ways” is a long song, but only about a minute of it delivers its rousing, straightforward hook. Given that the lyrics, as much as I can follow them, talk about leaving something established behind while finding an unanticipated new path, I’m surmising that the music here is intended as thematic corroboration. Maybe ear-pleasing melodies come too easily for Showalter; maybe his soul is calling him in another direction. Or, maybe I’m reading too much into what is no more or less than an excellent 21st-century rock song.

Born in Indiana and based in Philadelphia, Showalter has now recorded five studio albums as Strand of Oaks, plus an adjunct album of demos, b-sides, and alternate takes. “Weird Ways” is the opening track on his most recent album, Eraserland, released earlier this year. MP3 via KEXP. You can buy Eraserland (digital, CD, vinyl) at Bandcamp. (Thanks to Glorious Noise for the screen cap!)

Free and legal MP3: Son (swaying ballad w/ heft & purpose)

Son’s voice has a depth and elasticity that brings Thom Yorke to mind, if the Radiohead front man were content singing an easy-going melody these days.

Son

“Y&M” – Son

Even here in 2019, a song will sometimes, still, arrive with a kind of purity—an individual artist, minus any management or PR apparatus, reaching out, with enough skill to assemble an articulate and easy-to-navigate email, but minus the weight and hype of an all-out media barrage. Sadly, artists who take this DIY path often end up disregarded by current standards—emails ignored, with few social media followers and no Hype Machine love, they exist in a veritable Slough of Despond, 21st-century style. And lord knows not every on-their-own musician is making music worthy of widespread attention. But it can happen, and when it does, I feel the world brighten.

Take this track by a musician who calls himself Son. Based in London, he was born and raised in Belarus, which I only know because I asked him. As of now, not a whole lot of info about the guy is available online, and even if there were, his moniker of choice is all but impossible to Google. But, all the more reason not to concern oneself with anything but the music. And the music is excellent: a swaying ballad with heft and purpose, “Y&M” launches with little fanfare, but takes its time unfolding (note, for instance, the nine-second gap between the first and second lines of the verse). The early cymbal rolls add to the anticipation of something about to happen. Son’s voice has a depth and elasticity that brings Thom Yorke to mind, if the Radiohead front man were content singing an easy-going melody these days. And while “Y&M” may not operate on a five-star level across the board—I’m not sure, for instance, we need that long second of absolute dead air at 2:44—the fact that this thing was written, produced, recorded, mixed, and mastered by this anonymous Londoner is pretty stunning. And, I have to say, I’m kind of okay with the break in the music after all given that it is followed by a one-minute guitar solo of serious thought and power.

“Y&M”—short for “you and me,” as repeated in the chorus—was released in January. Thanks to the artist for the MP3. If you want to support him, you can buy the track on Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Dot Dash (hard-edged power pop, w/ melodic lead guitar)

Concise, hard-edged power pop that puts the humble electric guitar at the center of the melodic action.

Dot Dash

“Rainclouds” – Dot Dash

Concise, hard-edged power pop that puts the humble electric guitar at the center of the melodic action. It’s rare enough to hear an electric guitar front and center here in the 2010s, never mind a guitar playing an actual melody, and really never mind a guitar playing a melody that does not echo or mirror any of vocal melodies otherwise in the song. Songs that manage this are usually well-built and worthwhile.

So there’s a good amount going on in this punchy nugget of a tune, which clocks in at a nifty 2:43 (the same clock time as Big Star’s “Thirteen” and ABBA’s “Waterloo,” among other pithy classics). One way that “Rainclouds” saves time is by only employing one verse: it opens the song, after the intro, and is never heard from again. The chorus, meanwhile, is an intricate construct featuring one sweetly satisfying melody (the part culminating in “…put the blame on me,” heard first at 0:45) that seems to have been planted in the song just so you’ll wait for it to come back. Which it then doesn’t do quite as often as you want it to. Speaking of which, when the verse is scheduled to return, it doesn’t, and instead we get the aforementioned guitar melody in full force—at 1:09, and repeated on the spot at 1:23. The hint we get that this has replaced the verse comes from the unexpected return of the verse’s wordless backing vocals during the repeat (1:29). This strikes me as kind of unusual, hearing “ah-ah-ahs” underneath a guitar melody rather than a vocal melody. Someone has surely done it somewhere before but I can’t bring anything to mind.

Dot Dash is a D.C.-based quartet that took its name from a song by the seminal British punk/art band Wire (dot dash is the letter “A” in Morse code). Front man Terry Banks and bassist Hunter Bennett were previously together in the band Julie Ocean. “Rainclouds” is from the album Earthquakes & Tidal Waves, the band’s fourth, released last month by The Beautiful Music, a label in Ottawa. The album was produced by the semi-legendary Mitch Easter, best known for his work on R.E.M.’s early albums, at his studio in North Carolina. You can listen to it as well as purchase it via Bandcamp. MP3 once again via Insomnia Radio.

Free and legal MP3: Uncle Roman’s Jetboat (well-built, from good parts)

Look at how many distinct moving parts “Fearless Like Yourself” puts immediately into motion: the whistle, the snaky bass line, the itchy guitar, the brisk stuttering drumbeat, the haunted-house organ, all before the singing starts.

Uncle Roman's Jetboat

“Fearless Like Yourself” – Uncle Roman’s Jetboat

Look at how many distinct moving parts “Fearless Like Yourself” puts immediately into motion: the whistle, the snaky bass line, the itchy guitar, the brisk stuttering drumbeat, the haunted-house organ, all before the singing starts. A lot of rock bands allow their collective sound to pretty much mush together, which can be its own kind of fun. But I always like it when the ear can distinguish the individual parts even as they coalesce into one compelling musical narrative, which is what is going on here quite marvelously.

Then Thomas Beecham starts singing and in this case, too, the ear is immediately hooked; he begins: “While you were out/I was going through your shit/to find something to stick on you.” A first line that surely keeps you listening. Beecham has something of Thom Yorke’s nasally twitchiness, but channels it here through a less arcane song structure than the mighty Radiohead tends these days to favor. The song moves, has hooks, and interesting sounds, and nicely connected segments. We are also treated—don’t miss it—to an honest-to-goodness guitar solo, beginning at 2:39, which is squonky and delicious.

Uncle Roman’s Jetboat is a new project that combines four-fifths of the defunct Seattle band The Kindness Kind with Beecham, who is British, and was formerly in the band The Raggedy Anns. “Fearless Like Yourself” is from the debut Uncle Roman’s Jetboat release, a six-song album entitled Floodlights in the Sunlight, which is arriving in March on Don’t Be A Lout Music. MP3 via Don’t Be A Lout. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.