Free and legal MP3: The Salteens (sparkly, guitar-free ensemble pop)

Check it out: there are no guitars in “Last Train From London,” which could make it the first train song in pop music history that cannot rely on a guitar to create the train vibe.

The Salteens

“Last Train From London” – The Salteens

Check it out: there are no guitars in “Last Train From London,” which could make it the first train song in pop music history that cannot rely on a guitar to create the train vibe. No worries, however—a percussive piano motif does the trick, with a complementary bass and drum part; some well-timed hand claps help too. Even the horns manage to get in on the act; spurred by the chugging percussion, they do, also, contribute to the train-iness of the music, in a subtle and unexpectedly Burt Bacharachian way.

And there certainly are horns aplenty here, as the long-dormant Salteens, now eschewing guitars, expanded from five to ten to create their new. brass-infused sound. The energy is sparkly, and yet the horns play with a wonderful delicacy—there’s no blaring, and no self-conscious “cue the horn charts” kinds of moments; the feel is very ’60s, somewhat soulful, and rather British, even though the band is from Vancouver. Front man Scott Walker brings Stuart Murdoch to mind, but sings with more infectious exuberance than Belle & Sebastian’s mastermind.

“Last Train From London” is the opening track on Grey Eyes, which was released in October on Boompa Records. Note that the band themselves started the label in 2003, to release their second album; note too that the label has since acquired a roster of more than 15 artists, while the Salteens themselves released nothing at all. Situation at long last rectified. MP3 via Boompa.

Free and legal MP3: CocoRosie(gentle, invigorating, inscrutable exotica)

“Lemonade” – CocoRosie

Ah, CocoRosie: I do not know what planet these two women live on but it is surely a richer and more exotic place than the one the rest of us inhabit. Or maybe it’s just that they inhabit a far greater percentage of this planet than most of us do, being quite the globe-trotting pair of sisters. This new album of theirs alone was recorded in Buenos Aires, Paris, Berlin, New York, and Melbourne. Good thing this was before the volcano.

Fortunately, you do not have to understand what they are trying to do, or why, to find yourself captivated by this gentle but invigorating song. A soothing, chime-filled opening measures leads to a lovely piano line, alternating major and minor arpeggios, and the tender but haltingly sung verse. Not sure if it’s Sierra or Bianca here but the phrasing is odd and the words are odder, offering images but no discernible story. A fat synth joins in, and some horns, which play in slow motion but lead to the jaunty, double-time chorus, enlivened now by some deep, rubbery drums. Lyrical clues now tell us we are in childhood memory territory, but there’s still no narrative, just image-moments, and a magic realism sort of sensibility (“Shot a rabbit from the backseat window”?). But with the Casady sisters, given their unusual, itinerant childhood, this could all be a simple tale of a family outing. I’m not sure I’d’ve wanted to be there, but I do love hearing about it.

“Lemonade” is from the duo’s new album, Grey Oceans, which is coming out next month on Sub Pop Records. MP3 via Sub Pop.

Free and legal MP3: Steve Goldberg & the Arch Enemies (wistful-cheerful, horn-peppered)

Wistful-cheerful blast of horn-peppered indie pop.

“The Ballad of Cherry Hill” – Steve Goldberg and the Arch Enemies

Wistful-cheerful blast of horn-peppered indie pop. When last we left Steve Goldberg, in 2007, he was a graduating college senior in Pittsburgh who recorded an album as a senior project with a revolving-door cast of fellow students. He has since come east to Philadelphia, pared the basic outfit down to four, and continues doing business as the Arch Enemies.

While the basic sound remains intact—he comes across as a more extroverted version of Sufjan Stevens—the production value has improved, which has given his voice more depth and the music more oomph. I like that he has bothered to create two complete musical themes that are independent of the song’s eventual melodies—these are the first two things we hear in the introduction (the pizzicato strings theme, then the horn section theme). One of the pleasing things about the song, then, becomes listening for how and when these themes recur, woven back into or between the primary melodies. (Even if you don’t realize this is pleasing your ear, honest, it is.) Another perhaps unconsciously pleasing characteristic is the juxtaposition of downcast lyrics (here painting a scene of suburban alienation) and upbeat music. This itself is not an uncommon trick in pop music, but I like how Goldberg manages to bleed the two moods into each other a bit, thus further complicating the song’s complexion—the lively music somehow lifting the words beyond mere despair even as the words simultaneously lend a bittersweet air to the music.

“The Ballad of Cherry Hill” is from the band’s four-song EP Labyrinths, which was self-released in January. Inspired by stories by Jorge Luis Borges, the EP is available for a price of your choosing, with no minimum, via the band’s site. Thanks to Steve personally for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: The Minor Leagues (exuberant, horn-laced pop)

Exuberant, horn-laced pop, performing that endearing trick of sounding more slapdash than it actually is. I think drummer John Kathman, brandishing a combination of full-out bashing and asymmetrical fills, has a lot to do with this. The horns, too, carry with them the sound of a band a half step away from flying apart, maybe just from the inherent imprecision of brass instruments, which must create multiple octaves of notes from (typically) three valves.

“Good Boys” – the Minor Leagues

Exuberant, horn-laced pop, performing that endearing trick of sounding more slapdash than it actually is. I think drummer John Kathman, brandishing a combination of full-out bashing and asymmetrical fills, has a lot to do with this. The horns, too, carry with them the sound of a band a half step away from flying apart, maybe just from the inherent imprecision of brass instruments, which must create multiple octaves of notes from (typically) three valves. On a guitar or a keyboard, each note is precise and unique. On trumpets, less so. This occurs to me as important all of a sudden.

And then, in the middle of this burstingly happy-sounding song comes a philosophical interlude we may not be quite prepared for, as singer Ben Walpole wonders, “Jesus, why did you give me a conscience/If I can’t use it to influence my actions?/And Jesus, why do I have to know wrong from right/When the knowledge never ever beats out passion?” Um, hmm–can we get back to you on that? In the meantime, what happened to the trumpets? The guitars have taken over, along with the existential crisis. Drummer Kathman is still bashing away, however.

The Minor Leagues, from Cincinnati, have grown to seven pieces from the quartet they were when last featured here in 2006. I like how each band member, in the bio material on the Datawaslost site, places him- or herself in an exact year with a particular band, to illustrate with unusual clarity the sound each feels most connected to. “Good Boys” comes from This Story Is Old, I Know, But It Goes On, released in November via Datawaslost, which is both a musical collective and a record label. MP3 via Datawaslost.

Free and legal MP3: Think About Life (exuberant deconstructed funk)

“Johanna” – Think About Life

So this may be about the best thing I’ve heard all year. How sharp and sleek and funky; how multileveled and well-crafted and exuberant; what deeply gratifying fun.

The basic groove alone is impressive, established at the outset by some brilliant horn charts, with their stuttery swing and that softly dissonant chord they settle on at the end of each phrase. But “Johanna” has so much more going for it than the basic groove, including an memorable melodic spine–the song just hangs on it so perfectly–and Martin Cesar’s delightful, full-throated singing. When everything kind of caves in on itself momentarily, at 1:14, this isn’t just a cute effect, it’s spirited statement of purpose: this Montreal-based quartet can and will do anything they want with the sound they’re creating. In an indirect way, Think About Life brings to mind Remain in Light-era Talking Heads–not because the sound is similar, but for this group’s willingness and ability to simultaneously work with and deconstruct the funk. I have rarely heard a band manage to give off a kitchen-sink air of anything goes while at the same time writing and playing such tight, kick-ass music. This isn’t just someone pushing a button to put this sound in here, then this sound here; as with Talking Heads before them, I get a strong sense of both brainy tinkering and physical exertion in the presence of this song. The crazy-awesome instrumental interlude at 2:26–30 seconds of time standing still right in the center of the groove–is not to be missed.

“Johanna” is from the band’s second album, Family, which was released in Canada in May and in the U.S. last month, on Alien8 Recordings. The MP3 was made available last week via Magnet.

Free and legal MP3: Slaraffenland (inventive Danish art-pop, w/ horns)

“Meet and Greet” – Slaraffenland

The enigmatic Danish art-popsters Slaraffenland return to Fingertips with a brisk, deceptively restless composition that incorporates some of the most delightful and inventive horn charts I’ve heard in a pop setting, not to mention some gratifyingly precise and rumbly percussion. This is the kind of song that, if you sink into it on its own terms, has you rethinking what a three- or four-minute rock song might be able to do. I don’t hear any standard hooks here and yet not for a moment does my attention or spirit sag.

And do check out those horns. There’s the splendid bit of syncopated layering we hear from them in their first concentrated appearance, from 1:14 to 1:36, but then listen to how they come back in the same extended instrumental section (now 1:48), this time playing in a blurry, sliding/pulsing sort of chorus, and yet still with their own rhythmic integrity. This is extremely wonderful, to my ears. Eccentric, but extremely wonderful.

For some interesting notes on the band’s name, read the review from the last time they were here. “Meet and Greet” is the lead single from the forthcoming album, We’re On Your Side, slated for a September release on the Portland, Ore.-based Hometapes label.

[The link is no longer direct, but the song is still available as a free and legal download, via Stereogum.)

Free and legal MP3: Jar-e (old-fashioned soul with an indie slant)

“3 Leaf” – Jar-e

With a genuine groove, the likes of which we don’t often hear in the indie rock world, “3 Leaf” slithers its way into my brain and then kind of just stays there. This song does not have hooks as much as moments: the big-voiced way Jar-e (real name: Jon Reid) sings at the outset of the verse; the sudden—perfect—appearance of horn charts in the chorus; the casual build-up to the song’s central metaphor (a “three-leaf clover”; not good luck, in other words).

Embodying an unabashed, old-fashioned sound (heck, it’s even got a saxophone solo), “3 Leaf” is something of an anomaly—a big-hearted blast from the past, seeking to be nothing if not accessible, that nonetheless has the spunky, independently-produced spirit of the ’00s. Take those horns, for instance: while bringing to mind the horns you might hear on a soul record from the ’60s, they’re actually kind of edgy and intricate–they don’t offer punch as much as ongoing counterpoint.

You’ll find “3 Leaf” on Jar-e’s second album, Chicas Malas, which was released in February on Exotic Recordings, based in the decidedly unexotic town of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Reid grew up in Norfolk, Virginia and is currently based in Asheville, NC. Thanks to the hard-working Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Evening Magazine (a big ensemble w/ capacity to stay quiet)

“Apple Eye” – Evening Magazine

Marrying an old-fashioned “sound of Philadelphia” sweep to 21st-century electronics and indie-rock flavorings, Evening Magazine makes music that shouldn’t probably work but in this case does, however idiosyncratically. A nine-piece collective from (yes) Philadelphia, the band is led by guitarist/vocalist David Disbrow (formerly of the band BC Camplight) and engineer Kevin Francis (who plays synths too), and features a trumpeter, trombonist, flutist, and harpist, among others. For all the colorful instrumentation, the band doesn’t feel the need to fill in all the aural blanks. As a singer, Disbrow has a somewhat fragile presence, and the music gives him space to establish this presence; in fact, he usually isn’t singing on top of much more here than an acoustic guitar and a drumbeat. The arrangement is reminiscent of classical music, which is more willing than rock to explore dynamics via having instruments just stop playing for a while. Rock musicians, if they’re holding an instrument, they want to play it pretty much constantly.

What makes it all work for me is nothing more complicated than a pleasing melodic interval. Actually, a relationship of intervals. After the relaxed, horn-driven intro, the melody in the verse, itchier, finds Disbrow singing a rapid-fire series of tones. Staying on the first note for six or seven iterations, he slips down just a half-step for four syllables and then up five steps of the scale for the last three. Disbrow sounds particularly fragile at the top of the leap—so much so that the note, while actually the tonic of the scale, the home base, sounds unresolved, just a bit off, adding to the muted urgency of the ambiance fostered by that half-step-down, big-leap-up combination.
     “Apple Eye” is the lead track off the band’s debut EP, The Ride Across Lake Constance, released this month on Ohso Records, which appears to be the band’s own imprint. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Fred (jaunty, endearing Irish band)

“Running” – Fred

This song is not about running for political office, but it should be; I think we’d be in great shape if candidates went about their business with this exact sort of wacky, good-natured, earnest, interconnected joie de vivre. (Listen to that goofy-wonderful violin in the intro for an immediate sense of what this is going to be about. The violin plays with the trumpet and sounds like it’s trying to be a trumpet; the sound they manage to make together has a lot to do with the song’s success.)

Needless to say, joie de vivre has not generally been a characteristic of American political campaigns, which have instead over time been all but vanquished by nastiness and amorality. And yet it makes no sense. Why have we for so many years trusted people to work in our legislatures and run our states and our country who behave like playground bullies when they’re out there seeking our votes? (And oops I’m not really talking about the music, am I.) But: is this the year that something…changes? All I know is that finally, someone–in fact, That One–had the courage and vision to try a different approach on a vast, unprecedented scale, running on positive energy and a belief in our actual name: the United States. If you didn’t personally prefer him or vote for him, I don’t understand it (seriously: have you listened to him, really and truly?), but that’s okay too. On this side of things, we criticize based on facts, and we don’t demonize the opponent, or his or her followers. And we will see soon enough if there is, in fact, any hope left in–and for–our country.

In the meantime, Fred: an exuberant quintet from Cork City, Ireland with a knack for bouncy music–jaunty melody, great “oo-oo’s” in the background, horn charts, endearing vocalist–and impish album titles. There was Can’t Stop, I’m Being Timed in 2002; We Make Music So You Don’t Have To, in 2005; and now, Go God Go, which came out on Sparks Music earlier in the year in Ireland, and will be released here in February ’09. This is where you’ll find “Running.” (Note that Go God Go was released digitally last month, for those who can’t wait and don’t need plastic and liner notes in their lives.)

Free and legal MP3: Juana Molina (churning, hypnotic, expansive, ecstatic)

“Un Día” – Juana Molina

I suggest giving yourself some time and space to take this one in. Being in an altered state might help, although this song, if you open yourself to it, might help you achieve one.

A long-time Fingertips favorite, Molina returns with a crazy, churning, ecstatic daze of a song. The Argentinian former sitcom star has, as a musician, pioneered an alluring if evasive sort of folktronica, with lots of loops and repetition. “Un Día” is some of that, but also something else entirely. Despite how rigorously plotted out and worked over this sort of song construction probably is, Molina here sounds almost nuttily spontaneous and expansive, both musically and vocally. Ecstatic, yes: there seems something nearly spiritual in the air as Molina all but chants–her voice sounds freer, more unrestrained than in the past–against a marvelously textured and continually varying undercurrent of voice, electronics, horns, sounds, and percussion. As usual, for English-speaking listeners, the language adds another element of incomprehensibility, but she appears to be aiming in that direction in any case; one of the lyrics here, translated, reads: “One day I will sing the songs with no lyrics and everyone can imagine for themselves if it’s about love, disappointment, banalities or about Plato.”

“Un Día” is the title track from Molina’s forthcoming album, her fifth, due out next month on Domino Records. Can’t wait to hear the whole thing. MP3 via Stereogum.