Free and legal MP3: The Daily Spreadsheets (layered, hymn-like)

A ringing guitar tone, carefully paced, sets the stage for this subtly unusual rocker.

“I’ll Never Change” – The Daily Spreadsheets

A ringing guitar tone, carefully paced, sets the stage for this subtly unusual rocker. Hang with this one for a while; what “I’ll Never Change” may lack in a certain polish it makes up for in its cumulative power.

The structure is fairly simple. The song alternates between two melody patterns; the second one may be considered the chorus if only because it concludes with the title line, “I’ll never change.” After a relatively naked run-through to start us off (0:09), we get introduced, at 0:27, to the layered vocals that will characterize the rest of the song. The vocal texture deepens as we go, via both blankets of harmony and intertwining countermelodies.

The song grows hymn-like as it proceeds, starting especially at the coalescing harmonies we hear at 1:30. Has it occurred to you yet that there’s been no percussion? No worries, the drums are coming, right after that itchy guitar solo that disrupts the vibe (in a good way) at 1:49. The drumming that starts at 1:53 delivers a modified Spector beat, which is both unanticipated and wonderful (maybe because I’m a sucker for that beat, in whatever form it takes). From here the song continues on its determined path, with one addition—a chord shift at 2:13 that alters the feel of the now-familiar melody in an appealing way, and sets up the song’s closing section, which includes two satisfying endings: the vocal closure from 3:07 to 3:12, and the instrumental denouement that follows.

The Daily Spreadsheets is another one man band this month, the bailiwick of Brazilian musician Henrique Neves. You can hear a few of his other tracks over at SoundCloud, including a brand new remix of “I’ll Never Change.” Thanks to Henrique for the MP3.

(Side note: Henrique first contacted me via Fluence, which is a place where you can pay a nominal fee to have me do a review of your song. There is no guarantee at all that this leads to a feature on Fingertips; in the vast majority of the cases, it doesn’t. But it does guarantee that I will listen closely to a song and give my relatively detailed reaction. You can learn more about this and submit a song at this link: https://fluence.io/fingertipsmusic)

Free and legal MP3: Pete Droge (feat. Elaine Summers) (Strong, gentle, lovely)

“Skeleton Crew” – Pete Droge (featuring Elaine Summers)

While singer/songwriters are relatively common here on Fingertips, I don’t end up featuring a lot of “man with a guitar” or “woman with a guitar” tunes. Not because I don’t like that kind of thing, but, truth be told, because I just don’t hear a lot that crosses the line from “nice” to “vital.” Because look: most acoustic-guitar-and-voice songs are by definition “nice.” But me, I want and need more from a song than niceness, especially now, and I think we get a lot more than that with this one, from Pete Droge, performing here with his wife and collaborator, the artist and musician Elaine Summers.

“Skeleton Crew” is a sad, sturdy song about resilience. Even as it sounds acutely relevant to our current moment —

We’ll get through this thing together
You lean on me and I’ll lean on you
Know that nothing lasts forever and ever

— in truth the song was started in November 2017 and had nothing to do with the pandemic (or, of course, our even more recent crisis). Launched off a concise, ear-catching guitar riff, the song is gracefully crafted, with its crisp, intimate guitar sound and well-placed vocal harmonies. The balance achieved between gentleness and strength, both musically and lyrically, is at the heart of the song’s loveliness and power.

Pete Droge had a moment or two back in the ’90s, with a major label record deal and some mainstream radio play; Allmusic calls him “one of the most overlooked of the modern-day Americana/rock/folk music movement.” But for whatever reason, probably having nothing to do with his talents and efforts, he faded off the scene as the new century turned. He was part of a short-lived “supergroup” called the Thorns, with Matthew Sweet and Shawn Mullins, which released an album in 2003.  Since then he has released four albums under his own name, on his own label. He has also done a lot of composing for a variety of media projects, from his home studio on Vashon Island, in the Puget Sound a short ferry ride from Seattle.

Speaking of which, Droge released “Skeleton Crew” in March as a fundraiser for a local charity, Vashon Youth and Family Services. He was kind enough to let me post the song here, but if you’re up for it, I’d suggest heading to Bandcamp and offering 50 cents or a dollar for the cause. And a big thanks goes out to visitor Scott for the head’s up about the song in the first place.

Free and legal MP3: The Milk Carton Kids (lullaby-like loveliness)

A balm to the jangled-nerve world of 2020, “The Only Ones” is two guitars and two voices, all four elements interlacing with masterful ease.

“The Only Ones” – The Milk Carton Kids

A balm to the jangled-nerve world of 2020, “The Only Ones” is two guitars and two voices, all four elements interlacing with masterful ease. The end result is a song at once gentle and sturdy, with a lullaby-like loveliness that helps nudge the lyrics over the edge from despair into something closer to hope. Weirdly enough, I’m hearing an almost Springsteen-esque conviction at the center of this un-Springsteen-like composition, something maybe in the mettle of the chorus’s descending melody, and its ambiguous but stirring lyrics.

The Milk Carton Kids are the duo of Joey Ryan (the tall one) and Kenneth Pattengale (the shorter one). Known for their impressive guitar skills, consummate harmonizing, and amusing stage banter, the Kids have, since 2011, been almost single-handedly in charge of keeping the time-honored “singing duo” concept alive in our 21st-century musical awareness. Written accounts of the Kids turn inevitably to talk of Simon & Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers, both of which have no doubt influenced these guys. But to me, the back-in-the-day musicians the Milk Carton Kids evoke far more directly is the duo Aztec Two-Step, who featured not only the gorgeous harmonizing but, crucially, the interplay of twin acoustic guitars, including some virtuosic finger-picking.

If you by the way have some time on your hands you could do much worse than to watch the Milk Carton Kids concert DVD, “Live from Lincoln Theatre,” which is streaming on YouTube. Pattengale’s facility as a lead guitarist is all but miraculous, and is almost as much of a visual treat as an aural one.

“The Only Ones” is the title track to the most recent Milk Carton Kids recording, an EP released this past October. MP3 via The Current.



(MP3s from the Minneapolis public radio station The Current are available in files that are 128kbps, which is below the established 192kbps standard, not to mention the higher-def standard of 320kbps. I personally don’t hear much difference on ordinary 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 as always urge you to buy the music. It’s still, and always, the right thing to do.)

Free and legal MP3: Dark for Dark (upbeat yet melancholy)

Upbeat yet melancholy, “Sweetwater”‘s power is cemented by its ear-grabbing if bittersweet chorus.

Dark for Dark

“Sweetwater” – Dark for Dark

Lap steel, banjo, and tenor guitar: this here is a country song. Sort of. The instrumentation suggests it, but as soon as Rebecca Zolkower opens her mouth, the song veers in a somewhat different direction. Zolkower sings with the unadorned charm of a dorm-room folksinger; for me, her plain and pretty tone brings Suzzy Roche to mind, a connection reinforced by the band’s composition—Dark for Dark features three women, and three female voices in confident and determined harmony with one another.

“Sweetwater” is upbeat yet melancholy, with brisk, poetic verses and a power cemented by an ear-grabbing chorus, in which, first, a jaunty melody (tracing a B major chord in a I-V-III pattern) is matched to what may be our language’s most desolate phrase (“And when I die”). But then: both the lyrics and melody slide almost out of hearing, and background singers Jess Lewis and Mel Stone proceed to echo words we didn’t quite hear when Zolkower first sang them. It’s an odd but engaging few moments. The front woman comes back to the foreground on the last phrase (“in the ground”) in a catching-up-from-behind manner that provides almost as endearing a closure as the follow-up surely does: the wordless “bah-bah” exchange between lead and backup singers through one more melodic run-through of the chorus, minus the elusive sections.

And, as often happens here, reading about it is more complicated than listening to it. Hell, the song is only two minutes twenty-eight seconds. I suggest listening.

Dark for Dark was founded in 2012, but all three members are veterans of the Halifax music scene, and Zolkower and Stone were previously together in the band The Prospector’s Union. Zolkower got the name for the band while reading The Hobbit a few years ago, and kind of laughs now at how inapposite the name is for the kind of lovely music the eventual band eventually created. “Sweetwater” is the second track on the group’s debut album, Warboats, which was self-released last month. You can listen to the whole thing, and purchase it, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Dum Dum Girls (lovely, spacious, reverb-drenched)

Front woman Dee Dee sings with an arresting air of wounded majesty about her, not hinted at in the upbeat ditties I’ve previously heard from this promising band.

Dum Dum Girls

“Lord Knows” – Dum Dum Girls

Lovely, spacious, reverb-drenched ballad with an air of old-time rock’n’roll about it—not to mention the guitar riff from “Crimson & Clover.” Front woman Dee Dee sings with a trace of wounded majesty about her, not hinted at in the upbeat ditties I’ve previously heard from this promising quartet. This is a simple song, and powerful in its simplicity. We stay rooted in the alternation of two chords (the IV and I chords, to be precise) through both the verse and most of the chorus. These two chords drive us, anchor us, move us inexorably towards the required V chord, riding the back of a stately, steadfast bass line that adds voice as much as rhythm to the proceedings.

When the harmonies arrive in the chorus, it feels like pure release, even as the melody hasn’t yet resolved. We have been set up from the beginning for the long-delayed arrival of the V chord, on the words “Lord knows” (1:15); and see how each of the three chords now feels like its own part of the resolution—the V chord at 1:15, the IV at 1:19, and the I at 1:22. Directly after this is where the “Crimson & Clover” homage enters, its landmark riff being an inverted incarnation of a I-V-IV progression. In the background, meanwhile, if you haven’t noticed yet, what’s with all the blurry noise? It’s hard to put your finger on, but contributes to the song’s weary grandeur. As do the accumulating vocal harmonies, which often themselves seem to dissolve into the backdrop. Do not miss the climactic harmony at the end of the last verse, at 2:26. Worth the price of admission.

“Lord Knows” has been bouncing around the internet since the summertime, but the EP on which you’ll find it, End of Daze, is just coming out next week, on Sub Pop Records. This is the bi-coastal band’s fourth EP; they also have two full-length albums to date, the most recent being Only in Dreams, released in September 2011, also on Sub Pop. MP3 via Sub Pop.

Free and legal MP3: Firs of Prey (odd but lovable)

Eccentric vocalizing, offbeat song structure, unorthodox instrumentation—“What You Say” has it going on, oddball-wise.

Firs of Prey

“What You Say” – Firs of Prey

Eccentric vocalizing, offbeat song structure, unorthodox instrumentation—“What You Say” has it going on, oddball-wise. Long before the trombones descend (that would be around 1:53), this song has little that might be identifiable as “normal,” little that sounds like a hook, and yet, go figure, it manages to grab the ear quickly and hangs on for dear life. There really is, even after all these years, much more that people might be doing with what is loosely called rock’n’roll than people tend to do.

Of course it’s easy enough simply to be odd. I hear plenty of odd, day to day. To my particular kind of musical preference, oddness, however potentially enticing, is never enough by itself; as a matter of fact, oddness is a special kind of attractive characteristic in that it is inherently not attractive at all. Once committing to being odd, a song has to double back on actual goodness to be worth one’s time as a listener, it seems to me. Andrew Miller, the low-profile mastermind behind Firs of Prey, doubles back and then some. The minimalist soundscape he creates sets the stage—a deep, unadorned tribal drumbeat combining with a wordless vocal melody, layered in wacky harmony is not your everyday intro. New elements are eventually woven in: the aforementioned trombones, delightfully off the beat; a layer of lower-register vocal harmonies; a pulsing, bubbling keyboard down below; and a suddenly appearing electric guitar, speaking with splendid clarity in this otherwise guitar-free zone.

Firs of Prey, based in Portland, has released one EP to date, 2009’s Keep the Lions Asleep. “He is known for doing things like being tall, speaking really loud and hugging people too hard,” Miller says, of himself, on the sparsely informative Firs of Prey site. “He hopes to one day live in a Lighthouse.” Miller is also in the band Datura Blues, which has a marginally better web presence than his solo project. “What You Say” is a song from a compilation album with the fetching title of Well, I Don’t See Why Not Vol. 3, featuring independent musicians from the Northwest. It is indeed the third in a series, all of which have been offered up by Ms. Valerie Park Distro, a self-described “small distributor of independently-created things,” based in Olympia. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead, and thanks to MVPD for permission to host the MP3 here.

Free and legal MP3: Stornoway (buoyant w/ melody & innocence)

Stornoway

“Zorbing” – Stornoway

As invigorating as a bright blue puffy-clouded day, “Zorbing” bursts with melody and innocence, but gets there on its own terms. For the first 35 seconds, we hear only the light, idiosyncratic voice of Brian Briggs and a one-note bass line. Maybe you’ll notice it’s a wonderful melody he’s singing, or maybe you’ll be a bit distracted by the minimalist presentation. Just wait.

His band mates join in vocally at 0:36 and wow that can’t be what anyone was expecting—an almost barbershop quartet-like burst of harmony, baritone and bass voices with little precedent in rock’n’roll after the doo-wop era ended. The bass guitar player at the same time frees himself from his one-note prison and I am completely engaged now. A simple drumbeat and a faintly-played acoustic guitar come on board at 0:54, but with the emancipation of the bass the song now feels both fleshed out and buoyant; when the vocal harmonies return in this setting (1:19), they sound even more striking. Later on we get trumpets and a freewheeling keyboard—so freewheeling, in fact, it not only shifts the feel of the song’s chords but sometimes sounds like it’s floated in from a different song. This is perhaps an unintended consequence of the recording, which was done by the band in non-studio locations like dorm rooms and garages. But it furthers the song’s fancy-free vibe, as does the knowledge of what “zorbing” actually is: “the recreation of rolling downhill in an orb, generally made of transparent plastic” (thanks, Wikipedia!).

Stornoway is a quartet from Oxford, named after a small island town in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. “Zorbing” was originally self-released as a single last summer. The band was signed to 4AD this spring, and the label released Beachcomber’s Windowsill in May in the UK. The band had planned to release their debut themselves, and the label liked it enough to put it out pretty much in its original, demo-like form. A US release is set for August. MP3 via 4AD One Track Mind, with a thank you to Frank at Chromewaves for the tip.

Free and legal MP3: MiniBoone(energetic neo-new wave, w/ harmonies)

Energetic, crisply executed fun, filled with rhythmic dissonance, echoes of 1978-ish American new wave music, and large-scale harmonies falling somewhere on a line connecting Queen to Sparks (but not, to my ear, Animal Collective, as per some of the band’s press).

“Devil In Your Eyes” – MiniBoone

Energetic, crisply executed fun, filled with rhythmic dissonance, echoes of 1978-ish American new wave music, and large-scale harmonies falling somewhere on a line connecting Queen to Sparks (but not, to my ear, Animal Collective, as per some of the band’s press). And hey I really like how effectively this shifts the mood from Hadestown‘s heavy-hearted tragedy even as it delivers a synchronistic lyrical alignment (which believe it or not I didn’t notice until I’d already laid this week’s songs out in order).

I especially love the guitars here. From beginning to end they play prickly, often rapid-fire chords that seem never to align quite with the melody either sonically or rhythmically. Listen, for instance, to the choked-neck sound you hear at the beginning, just past the organ opening: the engaging noise made by a guitar used more percussively than tonally. None of the actual notes that emerge jibe with what the song theoretically would want harmonically but the kinetic insistence of it becomes its own logic. The sound continues into the verse but note how the guitar steadily comes to life, the choked hammering giving way, around 40 seconds in or so, to fuller-fledged chord slashes that any music writer worth his or her salt would be tempted to call “angular” except maybe for how lively an atmosphere the band is churning up at this point. Typically, angular guitars are heard in a less flamboyant setting. One more example of creative guitar work comes in the chorus, when the layered harmonies take over center stage, pushing the guitar into making odd little offbeat exclamation points.

MiniBoone is a five-piece from New York City. “Devil In Your Eyes” is a song off the band’s new EP, Big Changes, which was released at the end of January on Drug Front Records. MP3 via the band’s web site.

Free and legal MP3: The Futureheads (neo-New Wave, and then some)

The Futureheads, a Sunderland (UK) quartet with three albums now under their belt, have a couple of extra things going than most 21st-century neo-New Wave bands. First, to their spiky retro sound they bring an intriguing outside element: walls of harmony. It’s an attractive addition to my ears, a kind of Devo-meets-Queen vibe that works unexpectedly well.

“Struck Dumb” – the Futureheads

The 21st century has not been lacking in New Wave revival bands, with their metallic guitars, punchy rhythms, and clipped British-sounding vocals (whether actually British or not). When bands fall flat in the effort it’s when they get the sound right but forget to give us a worthy song in the process. So-called angularity is a notably two-dimensional quality. The ear needs more to feel satisfied.

The Futureheads, a Sunderland (UK) quartet with three albums now under their belt, have a couple of extra things going here. First, to their spiky neo-New Wave sound they bring an intriguing outside element: walls of harmony. It’s an attractive addition to my ears, a kind of Devo-meets-Queen vibe that works unexpectedly well. Second, the song moves musically in a way a lot of similar-sounding songs–some by the Futureheads themselves, I might add–do not. Yes, that Jam-like introduction is fun and effective, but it succeeds, to my ears, precisely because the song isn’t content to stay put. Sometimes this can be a simple matter of finding the right chord at the right time. The first place I hear the song open up is at 0:31, on the line “Stop living in the clouds”–it’s subtle, but the chord they move through there has a wonderful theatricality to it, and it foreshadows what we’ll hear in the chorus moments later. Listen in particular to the line “Negativity is controlling your dreams,” beginning at 0:44, and how the chorus takes a left turn from there. We remain on the one hand within the tight sonic world of the neo-New Wave and yet also we’ve been launched out of it. Everything still wraps up in under three minutes, which is another triumphant gesture.

“Struck Dumb” is from the Futureheads’ upcoming album, as yet without a title or a release date, although some time in 2010 is a safe bet. MP3 via Spinner.