Free and legal MP3: Jessy Bell Smith (magical, lilting, and steadfast)

Jessy Bell Smith has a magical lilt in her voice, and “John Mouse” is a magical, lilting song, all forward momentum and earnest, recycling melody.

Jessy Bell Smith

“John Mouse” – Jessy Bell Smith

Jessy Bell Smith has a magical lilt in her voice, and “John Mouse” is a magical, lilting song, all forward momentum and friendly, recycling melody. Verse and chorus are barely distinguishable as Smith, once set in motion, seems not to want to break the spell of this odd, oblique little tale. A mouse has been killed, to begin with. The narrator seems conflicted about it. After that, little is unambiguous, lyrically.

Musically, on the other hand, “John Mouse” is steadfast and definitive, with the feeling of a olden-days folk ballad re-booted by a traveling-carnival rock band with more interest in horns and tooting keyboards than electric guitars. There in the midst of the song’s light-footed élan, Smith manages to convey the sensibility of both ringmaster and empath, laying an almost poignant tenderness atop her “Step right up!” confidence.

Note by the way that it’s rare for a song to have both this trustworthy a backbeat and this offbeat an arrangement. When the backbeat disappears, starting at 2:09, the song’s idiosyncratic pith comes more fully into focus. This is fun in its own way but when the drumming returns 30 seconds later is when she really owns you. I think there’s a lesson in that but I’m not exactly sure what it is.

A singer/songwriter from Guelph, Ontario, Jessy Bell Smith has also somewhat recently become a member of the veteran Toronto band The Skydiggers. “John Mouse” is from the album The Town, released at the end of February via Choose My Music, a British music blog with a small, associated record label. The album was a limited-edition CD and appears now to be sold out; you can check out two other songs via Bandcamp, and download one of them via SoundCloud, thanks to the Guelph-based Missed Connection Records. Smith’s one previous release appears to have been a very lo-fi EP called Tiny Lights, in 2004. Two of those songs landed on this finally-recorded album. Thanks to the record label for the MP3. Thanks to Lauren Laverne for the tip.

Free and legal MP3: Cate Le Bon (portentous melancholy)

The musical atmosphere is both minimal and somehow off-kilter, the rock instruments here played with a mixture of restraint and resolve, as if they’d been told to pretend they were a jazz combo, without playing any jazz.

Cate Le Bon

“I Think I Knew” – Cate Le Bon

No introduction, literally, prepares us for the woozy “I Think I Knew”—the song begins right on the words “There’s no talking to him,” but you quickly have to wonder: is it really his fault? It’s hard to make heads or tails out of the woman lodging this particular complaint; lyrics fade in and out of comprehension, due partly to Le Bon’s singular accent (she is Welsh), partly to her unforthcoming diction, and partly to the strangeness of the words themselves. The musical atmosphere, meanwhile, is both minimal and somehow off-kilter, the rock instruments here (bass, drum, electric guitar, keyboards) played with a mixture of restraint and resolve, as if they’d been told to pretend they were a jazz combo, without playing any jazz.

The song’s central motif is both its strongest and strangest: the repetition, in the chorus, of the line “I wish I knew.” She sings it six times in a row, never once quite aligned with the beat, and phrased continually as if blurting an idle thought rather than singing a lyric. (Only later in the song do we get the additional, titular phrase “I think I knew.”) Around the repeated words dances a flute-like synthesizer, which gives us the song’s instrumental hook (that descending scale first heard around 0:59), and then also kind of just scoots away with an abrupt, naive heedlessness.

In the second verse the song becomes a duet, featuring the Seattle-based singer/songwriter Mark Hadreas, who performs as Perfume Genius, and sings with enough fragile/mysterious affect himself that his opening line, too, becomes one of the only lyrically clear moments. Some relationship has taken an unhappy turn, to be sure, but how much more wonderful to listen to such a story when the words fade into a disoriented haze of regret and second thought rather than detail a concrete narrative of blame and/or self-pity. It can be no accident that the song rises above comprehensibility only at the beginning of verses and then at the end, when the duo sings together, with portentous melancholy, “This one to cut the heart in two, the other one to choose.”

“I Wish I Knew” is from Le Bon’s forthcoming album Mug Museum, slated for release in November on Wichita Recordings. The album was recorded in Los Angeles, where Le Bon relocated earlier this year. She has been featured once before on Fingertip, in January 2012. Thanks again to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Cate Le Bon (Welsh singer/songwriter w/ Nico-like air)

Unhurried and untidy, “Puts Me To Work” saunters along in its own universe of sound, with a mid-tempo beat that seems uninterested in quite coalescing.

Cate Le Bon

“Puts Me To Work” – Cate Le Bon

Unhurried and untidy, “Puts Me To Work” saunters along in its own universe of sound, with a mid-tempo beat that seems uninterested in quite coalescing. Le Bon admits to playing an out of tune piano here but to me the more salient and interesting feature is the instrument’s idiosyncratic resistance to the imperative of meter. Listen carefully to the introduction and notice how the piano chords lag ever so slightly behind the beat—or, perhaps, the beat itself moves past the piano. In any case, it’s a delightfully anomalous effect.

Everything about this song seems to lag and withhold. We don’t hear the chorus until a minute in, and we don’t hear the pay-off, titular line (“It puts me to work”) until the second and final time the chorus comes around, two-thirds of the way through the song.

And okay, once Le Bon starts singing, it’s all that a rock writer can do, it seems, to keep the name “Nico” from spontaneously emerging from his or her computer keyboard. As much as I tried to resist the urge, there is too much in Le Bon’s disaffected mezzo that recalls the one-time “Warhol Superstar.” And it’s not just the voice, and the dainty accent (Le Bon is from Wales)—it’s the world-weary vibe that combines sing-songy simplicity with some kind of instinctive but unutterable wisdom. What nails both the Nico comparison and the song is the cagey hook, which happens when the melody takes her voice to the beginning of the upper part of her range, on the lyrics “And I know you won’t remember” (first heard at 1:01). Right there it feels like the late ’60s all over again, but with better coffee.

“Puts Me to Work” is from Le Bon’s new album, CYRK, which was released this week on The Control Group. This is her second full-length release; she has also released a Welsh-language EP. MP3 via The Control Group, an indie label based in New York City.

Free and legal MP3: Grace Jones (splendid return of the trippy ’80s icon)

Grace Jones

“Sunset Sunrise” – Grace Jones

Sounding like a Marianne Faithfull for the club set, Grace Jones re-emerges as a singer after 20 years without an album release. Always somewhat ageless, not to mention androgynous, the now-63-year-old Jones pulls off this slinky, bass-driven shaker without breaking a sweat, her voice huskier and chestier than previously, her mystique unharmed for the long absence. The sheer musical presence and power of this song is a surprise and a delight, combining a sinuous playfulness with an almost oracular austerity. “Is it yours?/Is it mine?/Is it ours/To divide?” she sings, deliciously off the beat, voice vibrating with menace and experience. Grace Jones remains a trip.

Jones was always as much a visual artist as an aural one; the flat-top haircut and angular clothing she favored became quickly iconic in her new-wave era heyday; that she was both an early MTV favorite and a cartoon-ish silver screen villain is no surprise, and no one should underestimate how much a certain present-day pop star, with the fake name and the outlandish costumes, owes her act to the pioneering Jones. But here’s a big difference: Jones pulls off her persona by seeming genuinely odd, not to mention authentically bad-ass. Everyone who has followed her seems instead to be purposefully setting out to be odd, as if checking off a qualification on a resume. Not the same thing.

I mean, just take a look at this video, for the song “Corporate Cannibal,” which, like “Sunset Sunrise,” comes from the forthcoming album Hurricane. Crazy, yes? But also almost beautiful. In a trippy kind of way. Hurricane has actually been out since late 2008, but had only previously been offered up in Europe. It finally gets a U.S. release in September, via PIAS America.

Free and legal MP3: Sufjan Stevens (electronics-driven poignancy)

Stevens here brings his fragile sensibility to the oft-told tale of the jilted lover, infusing the song with the hesitant bewilderment of the unexpectedly dumped. Everything from the music’s stuttery-fuzzy foundation to Stevens’ delicate, heartbreakingly polite, broken phrasing serves the story, which is not actually recounted but reacted to.

Sufjan Stevens

“I Walked” – Sufjan Stevens

While Sufjan Stevens was having his indie moment in the mid-’00s, I stood aside. I appreciated his intelligence and sensitivity and creativity but just wasn’t connecting to the music. It was more interesting than engaging to me, more constructed than heartfelt. Clearly I was in the minority at the time, and whether he’s changed in the interim or I have, the upshot is that this offering from his upcoming album strikes me as deep and rich and true. That he’s done this by replacing the acoustic orchestral instruments he favored in the past with electronic glitchiness is one of the song’s marvelous mysteries.

Stevens here brings his fragile sensibility to the oft-told tale of the jilted lover, infusing the song with the hesitant bewilderment of the unexpectedly dumped. Everything from the music’s stuttery-crackly foundation to Stevens’ delicate, heartbreakingly polite, off-kilter phrasing serves the story, which is not actually recounted but reacted to. We don’t hear about the love affair, we don’t hear about what went wrong, we are left only with the stunned ex-boyfriend trying and failing to make sense of what doesn’t compute; he apparently bolted when he was told the news—thus, “I walked/’Cause you walked.” For a twitchy song, it develops with an unhurried and poignant elegance—a feeling fostered in part by how the verse and the chorus feature closely related melodies, both swelling and asymmetrical, reflecting the narrator’s charged but broken psyche. We don’t hear the chorus till 1:44, and don’t find ourselves at the chorus’s musical and lyrical climax till 1:59, as the melody takes echoing, upward leaps with an affirmation of the jilted lover’s paralyzing inability to face conflict (“I would not have run off/But I couldn’t bear that it’s me/It’s my fault”). It’s the sound of pure heartbreak, expressed through its non-expression.

“I Walked” is one of two new songs available as free and legal downloads via Stevens’ Bandcamp page; both are from his forthcoming album, The Age of Adz (pronounced “odds,” they’re telling us), to be released on Asthmatic Kitty Records next month. The album is loosely based on the so-called “outsider art” of an African-American sign-maker (and self-proclaimed prophet) named Royal Robertson, who died in Louisiana in 1997. Direct MP3 link courtesy of Better Propaganda. (Thanks to visitor Jon for the head’s up on the direct link.)

Free and legal MP3: Jenny Wilson (idiosyncratic Swede)

No stranger to idiosyncrasy—her first band’s first release was named “worst album of the year” by a major Swedish rock magazine, according to Allmusic.com—Jenny Wilson sings and arranges with whimsy and determination and little concern for convention.

Jenny Wilson

“Hardships (Gospel Version)” – Jenny Wilson

I am a fan of strange songs with hooks, which no doubt explains my fondness for Tom Waits, Jane Siberry, and They Might Be Giants, among others. Knowing how to be both weird and catchy is rare gift—it requires both smarts and humor—and surely weeds out both the uninformed and the formulaic.

No stranger to idiosyncrasy—her first band’s first release was named “worst album of the year” by a major Swedish rock magazine, according to Allmusic.com—Jenny Wilson sings and arranges with whimsy and determination and little concern for convention. While grounding her songs somewhere within an R&B-like setting, Wilson has no apparent interest in creating either an Amy Winehouse-style homage or a Dirty Projectors-esque deconstruction. Lord knows where the marimba came from but it works, as does the back-and-forth tension between the semi-minimalist verse and the (almost) sing-along chorus. The chorus is in fact one big inscrutable delight, both sticking in your head and continually running from it: there’s the hook-y moment at the beginning, with the words “If I…,” but see how it tails off into lyrics that are difficult to follow and the musical equivalent of a run-on sentence. It’s very engaging somehow.

“Hardships!” is the name of Wilson’s first U.S. release, which came out in late August on her own Gold Medal Recordings label. (The album was previously released in Europe in 2009.) This so-called “gospel version” of the title track is the only free and legal MP3 available so far; it has a slightly different instrumental accompaniment than the original and augments her multi-tracked voice with forceful, gospel-choir-ish backing vocals that replace a prominent violin that is now nowhere to be heard. MP3 via IAMSOUND Records, which is distributing the album’s first single, “Like a Fading Rainbow” (good song too); “Hardships (Gospel Version)” is the b-side.

Free and legal MP3: Icarus Himself (minimal, idiosyncratic trio)

That’s apparently something called an Omnichord that produces that distorted, tingly, music-box-like chiming that opens “Digging Holes.” It is among a number of unusual items this Madison-based band has in its musical bag of tricks.

Icarus Himself

“Digging Holes” – Icarus Himself

A teardrop-shaped plastic box called an Omnichord is the particular electronic gizmo creating the distorted, music-box-like chiming that opens “Digging Holes.” Introduced in 1981, it’s a homely thing, filled with slanting rows of small buttons, but also a then-futuristic “touch plate,” for mimicking strumming; and yet it is not the only unusual item this Madison-based band has in its musical bag of tricks. A baritone guitar is another—this being a low-voiced six-string that can sound like a bass but also be played like a regular guitar. Front man Nick Whetro’s minimally oriented sense of arrangement is yet another and probably the most important of the band’s idiosyncratic aural facets.

“Digging Holes” has one line of melody—it’s what the Omnichord sketches out at the beginning—and this is what we hear in and around offbeat accompaniment that veers from a reggae-like organ shuffle to Balkan-style trumpet and back again. The song develops slowly, but the stark interplay between the organ and the baritone guitar is oddly inviting, and when the “normal” guitar joins in, along with the faintest drumbeat, about a minute in, its offhand lead lines over the underlying syncopation feel for a moment as if this is all the song needs to be about. And, in a way, because the song itself barely exists—is the one repeated melody line a verse or a chorus or neither?—we really are captured, throughout, by necessarily passing moments, by sounds that appear briefly and move on (a series of four percussive slaps we hear between 1:46 and 2:00; the gate-shutting guitar sound that precedes the trumpet solo at 2:46; et al). Even those elements that persist a while, like the trumpet, or the ghostly, intermittently heard slide guitar, have the effect of being somehow apart from the song, adorning its minimalist skeleton but never supplanting it.

Icarus Himself is Whetro on vocals, guitar, trumpet, and sampler, Karl Christenson on the baritone guitar and Omnichord, and (so newly added to the lineup he’s not in the pictures yet) drummer Brad Kolberg. “Digging Holes” is a song from the band’s Mexico EP, which was released in May on Science of Sound. MP3 via Science of Sound.

Free and legal MP3: Stanley Ross (slow & swingy w/ a nod to bygone styles)

“Bicycle” is fetchingly slow and swingy in a way that tips its hat to bygone stylings such as doo-wop and torch songs and the Rolling Stones trying to do country. And yet the music is at the same time entirely un-nostalgic–it is performed simply, without affect, with a grounding organ line, some nice back-porch guitar work, and a winning smidgen of idiosyncrasy in the guise of Nick Meiers’ slightly neurotic (I mean that in a good way) tenor.

“Bicycle (Take So Long)” – Stanley Ross

“Bicycle” is fetchingly slow and swingy in a way that tips its hat to bygone stylings such as doo-wop and torch songs and the Rolling Stones trying to do country. And yet the music is at the same time entirely un-nostalgic–it is performed simply, without affect, with a grounding organ line, some nice back-porch guitar work, and a winning smidgen of idiosyncrasy in the guise of Nick Meiers’ slightly neurotic (I mean that in a good way) tenor. None of this would work, I don’t think, with a more straightforward singer. But Meiers has an edgy voice that gives the impression of being more wavery than it actually is, an effect that–I like to imagine–is being generated by his shaking his head so deeply in time to the music’s slow-burning groove that he’s sometimes missing the microphone. This is no doubt an inaccurate conjecture but I’ll stick with it anyway.

Stanley Ross is another one of those “hm; is this a person taking on a stage name or is this a band?” acts. Press material is shifty on the matter. I do know that Meiers, the Chicago-based front man and singer/songwriter, has himself called Stanley Ross his “band,” and the Facebook page lists three “members” so let’s stick with band. In any case, “Bicycle (Take So Long)” is a song from Stanley Ross’s third release, an EP called MN-EP, which follows two previous full-length albums. The EP is out this week and may be downloaded in its entirety for free via the netlabel RockProper.com.

Free and legal MP3: Jen Olive (undulating acoustic guitar, layered vocals)

A swirly, heady stew of loop-addled acoustic guitar and shimmering layers of vocals, “Wire Wire” feels rich and complex while still offering the simple pleasure of a good melody, smartly delivered. While comparisons are at once inevitable and instructive–Björk meets Jane Siberry meets Juana Molina is one way to conceive of her sound–I am enchanted by the head-turning newness of the end result.

“Wire Wire” – Jen Olive

A swirly, heady stew of loop-addled acoustic guitar and shimmering layers of vocals, “Wire Wire” feels rich and complex while still offering the simple pleasure of a good melody, smartly delivered. While comparisons are at once inevitable and instructive–Björk meets Jane Siberry meets Juana Molina is one way to conceive of her sound–I am enchanted by the head-turning newness of the end result. Olive writes outside the box of the beat, floating the melodic line in the verse like elusive tinsel that decorates the tree without touching the branches. The warm sturdiness of the short chorus becomes all the more delectable, almost mysteriously so; she sings, “I could get/Lost in it/No regret,” to a straightforward melody that out of context might not strike your ear and yet here hooks and nourishes in a wonderful, almost uncanny way.

I have no idea how someone could conceive of writing this sort of song and it may well be because no one person did; it turns out that Warm Robot, Olive’s new album, is the product of a unique collaboration between the singer/songwriter and Andy Partridge, who personally signed her to his Ape House Records label. (The XTC front man has called Olive “this astounding allegro algorithm from Albuquerque.”) She recorded the basic tracks–guitar and voice and some idiosyncratic percussion sketches made on found objects like kids’ blocks and wine bottles–and Partridge arranged and enhanced to create the final songs. The two didn’t meet face to face until the album was already finished.

The Ape House blog by the way has a two-part podcast online featuring the entire album with track-by-track commentary by Olive, worth checking out if you have time.

And I stand corrected on the loop business. Which makes this song all the more original, says me.

Free and legal MP3: Judson Claiborne (Americana flavored, timeless)

“Song For Dreaming” – Judson Claiborne

A pleasantly droopy piece of Americana-flavored indie rock, with a sharp sense of melody and nicely integrated guitar work. Not only do the acoustic and electric guitars play beautifully in and around each other—the ear even loses track, somehow, of which is which at some points–but the lead electric lines are central to the song’s development. You don’t hear a lot of that kind of instrumental integration these days–what we hear instead all too often is a lot of what might be called instrumental hipsterism, when sounds are used merely to be unusual—and it lends something deep and timeless to this casually-paced song.

Judson Claiborne is a stage name adopted by the singer/songwriter Chris Salveter, of Chicago, who previously sang and played guitar for the band Low Skies. But the name also seems, maybe, to have turned into the band’s name; half the material I find online refers to Judson Claiborne as a band, an impression aided by current press material showing five people in a photo labeled Judson Claiborne. In any case, it’s Salveter up front, singing a melody with wistful leaps that accentuate both the warmth and idiosyncrasies of his informal, slightly quivering voice. He’s got a touch of Jim James in there, a touch of Roy Orbison even, for crying out loud, but he never goes too far, always retreats into seeming more like a guy who happened to wander up to a microphone and who’s happy just to play guitar than any kind of self-styled crooner.

The pseudonym and/or band name by the way comes from combining a first name his father had wanted to name him (his mother: nope, “too redneck”) and a last name from ancestors on his father’s side of the family. “Song For Dreaming” is from Time and Temperature, slated for release next month on La Société Expéditionnaire, a Pennsylvania-based label. MP3 via La Soc. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.