Free and legal MP3: PJ Harvey (semi-stripped-down, agitative)

Wherein PJ Harvey continues in a sonic landscape related to the chugging, semi-stripped-down vibe of 2011’s Let England Shake.

PJ Harvey

“The Wheel” – PJ Harvey

The first song released from The Hope Six Demolition Project, “The Wheel” has fomented controversy but I am mostly going to steer clear of it, except to note that PJ Harvey has a long and unstinting career as a musical artist and deserves respect and benefit of the doubt. And: that I think it’s foolish and close-minded to find fault with her for taking artistic risks. When writing about real places with real issues, there is always the potential for uncomfortable overlap and/or interplay between someone’s artistic vision and the real lives real people are leading. But I don’t think criticizing an obviously intelligent and talented artist based on a kneejerk and probably limited understanding of song lyrics is either helpful or interesting. And with that let’s proceed to the song.

Continuing in a sonic landscape related to the agitative, semi-stripped-down vibe of 2011’s Let England Shake, “The Wheel” is propelled by an insistent, chant-like melody. At first, each lyrical line is delivered as a stand-alone pronouncement—call and response with the response, basically. The chorus gives us a slight variation on the verse melody and now with the response filled in. Keep your ears on the edges of the carefully constructed mix, where some feisty guitar work can intermittently be heard. And check out the hand claps—I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for songs that use hand claps with which you can’t really clap along. I’m easily amused, what can I say?

And can I also note that I’m delighted to have an available free and legal download at this point in time from an artist of Harvey’s gravitas and caliber? Don’t get me wrong, I love finding lesser-known acts to feature but can’t help noticing the shrinking supply in recent years of free and legal MP3s from the not-lesser-known camp. We are indeed at the tail end of the (almost) late, (almost) great Download Era, but this is the first time I’ve been able to feature Polly Jean Harvey. I’m not sure that means anything but enjoy the offering.

The Hope Six Demolition Project will be out in mid-April on Vagrant Records. Thanks much to the good folks at KEXP for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Kate Miller-Heidke (too pop for indie, too indie for pop)

With its classic chord progression, well-timed instrumental variation, and quick-witted lyrical salvos,”The Tiger Inside Will Eat the Child” is artfully designed for heavy rotation on radio stations that don’t exist.

Kate Miller-Heidke

“The Tiger Inside Will Eat the Child” – Kate Miller-Heidke

Unabashed pop, but pop in the old-fashioned sense of smartly-constructed, brightly produced, knowledgeably melodic music, sung by actual voices, rather than what pop has at least temporarily become on 21st-century Top 40 radio. With its classic chord progression, well-timed instrumental variation, and quick-witted lyrical salvos,”The Tiger Inside Will Eat the Child” is artfully designed for heavy rotation on radio stations that don’t exist.

That seems to be Kate Miller-Heidke’s niche, in fact. Her 2008 album Curiouser (not released in the U.S. until 2010) landed her likewise in a North American netherworld of being too pop for indie and too indie for pop—an album full of crisp, smart, entertaining nuggets of catchy-quirky goodness. In her native Australia, it went all the way up to number two on the album chart, but here it pretty much disappeared without a trace.

This time around, Miller-Heidke, working as always with husband/guitarist/collaborator Keir Nuttall, has veered into beat-heavy, electro-pop territory—a different-enough offering that in Australia this was released as a “side project” entitled Fatty Gets a Stylist. Here in the U.S. it’s being marketed as a Kate Miller-Heidke album called Liberty Bell, even though Nuttall is heard singing in the foreground more than previously. Miller-Heidke herself has adopted a more clipped, less idiosyncratic singing style than she’s used in the past. A conservatory-trained singer, she let her voice swoop and quaver most charmingly on Curiouser, when the song called for it. This time, she pretty much reigns that in, except maybe a bit in the album’s lead track, the ear-wormy “Are You Ready,” which New York residents may recognize from a widely seen commercial for the state lottery. (The commercial strikes me as a stretch, and successful largely because of the song itself, so for the curious, I offer up KMH’s official video rather than the ad; see below.) “Tiger Inside” isn’t as electro-poppy as some of the album’s other songs; there’s actually a nice assortment of guitar sounds to be had here. But also lots of electronic hand claps.

Miller-Heidke has been featured on Fingertips twice before—in March ’10 and in July ’05. Liberty Bell was released in the U.S. last month on the SIN/Sony Music Australia label.

Free and legal MP3: Washed Out (buoyant, hopeful/wistful synth pop)

A buoyant electronic concoction, achy melody atop a wash of synths, with something reverberant and inexact about the beat and something incomprehensible about the lyrics.

Washed Out

“Amor Fati” – Washed Out

Washed Out is a mild-mannered-looking young fellow with the mild-mannered name of Ernest Greene who managed, via a handful of laptop-generated songs posted on MySpace in 2009, to give birth—inadvertently, of course—to an entire genre. Or maybe it was a sub-genre, or maybe it wasn’t really a genre at all as much as an ironically named, accidentally grouped cadre of bands who didn’t realize they entailed a movement until a blogger with nothing better to do pointed it out one day. And even though 2009 is ancient history now, in internet years, the semi-ironic, semi-concocted genre of chillwave continues to exist not merely as a point-of-reference label but, in a meta kind of way, as a symbol of both the artificiality of rampant sub-genre-ization and of the acceptance of the artificiality. Or something like that.

Anyway, okay: “Amor Fati,” Latin for “love of fate,” or, more to the point, “love of one’s own fate”; the phrase is Nietzsche’s, but hey, if the history of chillwave is too elusive for effective summary here, then forget about Nietzsche. I’ll stick to the song itself, which is a buoyant electronic concoction, achy melody atop a wash of synths, with something reverberant and inexact about the beat and something incomprehensible about the lyrics. Greene has said he doesn’t want his lyrics to be fully audible, that he’s after a mood, and wants the songs to take on life in a listener’s head. Objective achieved, but elusively: said mood is simultaneously hopeful and wistful, cool and warm, introspective and expansive, ’80s and ’10s. With hand claps.

I should note that after a couple of bedroom-constructed EPs, Greene was signed by Sub Pop. His debut full-length, Within and Without, released in mid-July, features a well-textured, fuller-fledged sound that might run counter to chillwave’s distinctly lo-fi origins, but to me illustrates a point always worth remembering: some who employ lo-fi techniques do so only of necessity, not out of philosophical conviction. Greene sounds like someone who deserves an actual studio. “Amor Fati” is the third track on the new album. MP3 via Sub Pop.

Free and legal MP3: The Heavenly States (smartly crafted, smile-inducing)

Even though thumpy and clappy and light-hearted, “Model Son” also unfolds deliberately, with an exquisite sense of sound and accompaniment.

The Heavenly States

“Model Son” – The Heavenly States

Even though thumpy and clappy and light-hearted, “Model Son” also unfolds deliberately, with an exquisite sense of sound and accompaniment. The precisely-picked acoustic guitar line that we hear in the introduction lays the slightly-skewed groundwork for this smartly-made song. Without ever quite knowing what’s going on lyrically, you are likely to find a smile on your face through the cumulative force of happy music. This sounds like XTC and CCR joining forces to enter a Modest Mouse songwriting competition.

The level of detail at nearly any moment is splendid and endearing (example? that penny-whistle sound that wiggles oh-so-briefly to the forefront at 0:58). In the hands of the Heavenly States, a section of the song that might otherwise be like treading water—some wordless backing vocals over a steady beat, tying the end of the chorus to the beginning of the next verse (beginning around 1:00)—becomes its own charming adventure. Violinist Genevieve Gagon is another matter entirely, shredding everything in her path when her solo arrives (2:19).

Currently a trio (although the picture on the Oakland-based band’s home page still shows four; see above), the Heavenly States have been recently in the news because they are, somehow, and bizarrely, the only American band ever to have played in Libya, which they did in 2005; Gagon and front man Ted Nesseth were interviewed on CNN about the experience earlier this month. She and Nesseth, by the way, are married; her brother Jeremy is the band’s drummer.

“Model Son” is from the EP Oui Camera Oui, due out next month on Hippies Are Dead Records, a label founded last year as an offshoot of the blog of the same name. MP3 via HAD.

Free and legal MP3: The Fine Arts Showcase (melodic Swedish pop, w/ crooning)

“London, My Town” – The Fine Arts Showcase

The hand claps you hear at the outset of “London, My Town” aren’t just an intermittent percussive accent or atmospheric frill; they’re here for the duration of the song, soon acquiring a riveting sort of desperation about them. Hand claps are usually smile-inducing but these ones, not so much; whether organic or artificial, they have the sound of palms being driven together with an almost violent tenacity. That they do so underneath a most graceful melody adds to their disconcerting vigor. Neither for that matter does front man Gustaf Kjellvander, with his crooner’s baritone, have the kind of voice you expect to hear happy-claps behind.

And so check out how the song’s second section arrives, at 0:35, and immediately something feels like a clearing or a release. Yup: it’s because the hand claps have stopped for the moment. “And I’ve given up on truth,” Kjellvander sings at this point, accompanied by a pensive slide guitar line. “‘Cause I’m running out of youth.” Aren’t we all. And then the unyielding hand claps return. The song has something to do with Kjellvander’s moving back to Malmö from London after his relationship (the “Hanna” mentioned at the song’s abrupt end) has broken up; the entire album, Dolophine Smile, in fact, offers an unsparing look at the crumbling relationship. Set to graceful melodies.

The album, the Swedish quartet’s fifth, was released back in April 2009 on Malmö-based . “London, My Town” has just been made available as a free and legal MP3 via Adrian, in advance of the Fine Arts Showcase’s imminent German tour.

[Sad footnote: Gustaf Kjellvander passed away in 2011.]