Free and legal MP3: Joshua James (cryptic folk rocker w/ edgy vibe)

Joshua James is a young man with an old man’s voice. The words he sings are both cryptic and intense, which is a disconcerting combination.

Joshua James

“Queen of the City” – Joshua James

Joshua James is a young man with an old man’s voice. The words he sings are both cryptic and intense, which is a disconcerting combination. Written out they look merely weird; this, for instance—

I heard a lady singing,
“We’re all bound together!”
I joined her side by saying,
“To dance beneath the heavens!”

—is not the only point in the song where you just go what the what? Or, here’s the chorus’s recurring assertion: “But my dog ain’t nothin’, he ain’t nothin’ like my lover/Ain’t nothin’ like my lover at all.” This dude is operating from foreign coordinates, and I don’t mean merely the fact that he splits his time between Nebraska and Utah.

But songs aren’t poetry; lyrics are not intended to stand alone on a page or a screen. Some kind of alchemy is at work in the way these words are sung by this voice to these melodies and this steady, drum-driven arrangement. There are no flamboyant hooks or striking sounds, but there’s an edginess in here somewhere, and a catchiness too, although both are difficult to pinpoint. The key, to me, is the internal rhyme he uses in the second line of the verse. He grabs you with it in the opening moments—“I am a liar, a dirty wire”—but mutes the effect in the second verse with an inexact rhyme (“baby” and “lady”). What he’s done, consciously or not, is set us up for the third verse—the ear was waiting for the return of a true rhyme (“I’ll be she’s pretty, queen of the city”) and even though that’s the only time we hear the title’s phrase, the song now seems effortlessly to have delivered us to this phrase, at just the right moment. Just don’t expect to understand what he’s talking about. One other thing he has mysteriously set up is the twist in the third iteration of the chorus, when the dog is abruptly replaced: “But my lord, you ain’t nothin’, you ain’t nothin’ like my lover/You ain’t nothin’ like my lover at all.” I’m not sure I will ever decipher all this but it feels righteous and deep. Impressive stuff.

“Queen of the City” is a track from James’ third full-length album, From the Top of Willamette Mountain, which was released last month on Intelligent Noise Records. The produced by Richard Swift, who has worked with the Mynabirds and Laetitia Sadier and is also now a member of the Shins.

Free and legal MP3: Panoramic & True (chuggy, appealing large-ensemble pop)

Listen and I’ll think you’ll sense the three-dimensionality of the sound, the honest layering and physical interaction of instruments, in the chuggy ambiance.

Panoramic & True

“A Week of Good Health” – Panoramic & True

Thick and thumpy with instrumental diversity, “A Good of Good Health” yet retains its simple drive and almost poignant melodic and lyrical synergy. Not that I’m at all sure what front man John Lennox is singing about here (and he doesn’t even start until 0:45). We hear attractive phrases, at once comfy and mysterious; they unfold with the music with an almost magical pleasure, flaunting an elusive rhyme scheme, and defying any straightforward comprehension. Lennox sings with a casual sort of intensity, high-pitched, and he lets the ends of his words fade, as if he’s turning his face repeatedly from the microphone.

And even in a song without narrative structure, this chorus still buzzes with delightful incongruity (1:36):

A week of good health
Pin your hair back
Get some new clothes for yourself
Get ’em black on black

Don’t miss Lennox’s phrasing here, particularly in the third line, which he voices in a talking rather than a singing rhythm, and it’s more wonderful than I can describe. So let’s get back to the music itself, which I have not meant to neglect. Panoramic & True are an eight-piece band, from Chicago, and they recorded this new album, Wonderlust, on eight-track analog tape, live. Listen and I’ll think you’ll sense the three-dimensionality of the sound, the honest layering and physical interaction of instruments, in the chuggy ambiance. I’m particularly tickled by how the strings work so resolutely in the background; we hear them emerge, shyly, only a few times, and each time receding quickly back into the well-ordered commotion. Fun stuff, and chewy too.

Wonderlust is the second Panoramic & True album, released in July on Raymond Roussel Records. You can listen to it and buy it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: The Middle East (odd tale w/ inscrutable appeal)

As a plain narrative this song leaves so much unsaid as to be inscrutable. But with its extended melody line and shared male/female lead vocal, there’s a lot going on between the lines.

The Middle East

“Jesus Came to My Birthday Party” – The Middle East

After a tuning-up kind of introduction, “Jesus Came to My Birthday Party” launches with an extended melody line sung in tandem by male and female vocalists. And we have to stop here now and think about this. A 16-measure melody is hard enough to come by; to hear one delivered via male/female octave harmony is highly unusual if not unique. And yet it doesn’t draw any attention to itself, as neither of those two characteristics—the extended melody, the male/female joint lead—in and of itself sounds strange or unusual.

Couple the music now with the lyrics—themselves, too, at once strange and straightforward—and the appeal deepens. Mostly what we get is a repeated insistence by the narrator that “Jesus came to my birthday party/When I was seventeen.” The circumstances are otherwise sketchy in the extreme; we are only told that the narrator thought it was a dream, but knows he/she saw him “standing there,” and that Jesus had long hair. The song pivots on the second verse, the second and last time we hear the full 16-measure melody, when the narrator, recalling this “long ago” time when Jesus was at the birthday party, suddenly thinks he/she has seen Jesus again, but this time not actually in the flesh but “in the eyes of the strangers that pass,” and “in the eyes of the poor.”

As a plain narrative this song leaves so much unsaid as to be inscrutable. But there’s something in the repetition, the vibe, the rugged persistence of the male-female lead vocal line, and the eventual blending of acoustic rhythm guitar with a stirring electric lead guitar that prompts reflection, and opens the song up to its fuller meaning—which by the way, to me, has nothing whatever to do with anybody’s one religion, in case you’re worried.

And now comes the odd news that The Middle East, an Australian collective with an expanding and contracting roster, has unfortunately called it quits. Based in Townsville, Queensland, the band released its last album, I Want That You Are Always Happy, back in April in Australia, and played its last show at the end of July. The album was released in the U.S. in July, on Missing Piece Records. The band was previously featured on Fingertips in April 2010.

Free and legal MP3: Robert Pollard (pretty & inscrutable, over triplets)

“In a Circle” is unexpectedly pretty, as Pollard’s songs sometimes are, and incomprehensible, as his songs pretty much always are.

Robert Pollard

“In a Circle” – Robert Pollard

Inscrutable, indefatigable Robert Pollard returns with his 157th solo album in June and the thing with Mr. Pollard is you just have to remind yourself he is not here to be fathomed. There is no understanding what he’s up to, pretty much ever, at the level either of individual song lyrics or of larger career trajectory. Semi-famous, to some, for founding and fronting the Dayton-based band Guided By Voices way back in 1983, he also remains pretty much completely obscure, and growing more so by the ticking of our 21st-century clock. Such is the fate of anyone touted as an indie legend. The fragmentation of the marketplace leaves no legacies in its wake. (Current indie legends, take note.)

(And okay this is not really his 157th album, but it is his second, already, of 2011; and he has written more than 1,300 songs all told.)

This new album, Lord of the Birdcage, was created around poems he had already written and later decided to set to music. I can’t begin to claim enough expertise in Pollardiana to be able to note any resulting differences between “In a Circle” and Pollard’s previous work. All I know is this one is unexpectedly pretty, as his songs sometimes are, and (you were forewarned) incomprehensible, as his songs pretty much always are. Words flow by over a triplet-centric rhythm, the verses slipping past before you can quite catch them, the chorus marked by a series of phrases at once floodlit by emphasis and lacking any obvious through-line: “routine exercise,” “constant reverie,” “makeshift comfort suites,” and, the one which becomes its own sort of offbeat hook based on its location, “nine o’clock meetings.” He is clearly up to something here, and if he keeps putting this much material out, maybe someday I’ll figure out what it is.

Lord of the Birdcage is due out in June, on Pollard’s Rockathan Records label. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3: Matt Pond PA (stellar effort from indie-pop stalwart)

“Starting” – Matt Pond PA

All these years and personnel changes later and Matt Pond PA, founded in 1998, still holds it own on the strength of its front man’s voices–both his singing voice and his writing voice, that is, each of which is indelible.

Vocally, Pond trades on a pensive graininess of tone and an elusive range that gives him the sound of neither–or both–a baritone and a tenor. Once you’ve heard his singing voice it is thereafter unmistakable, which is a splendid, if probably random, characteristic. And yet his true strength is the means by which he gives himself something to sing: the staunch, well-crafted songs that he writes, full of concrete words to draw us in (dead bolts, gasoline, hips, knees), parallel structures (i.e. lyrical lines that share a certain construction) to display offhand authority, inaudible lyrics to make us listen harder next time, and bright turns of melody that in fact make us want to listen any number of other times. I especially like how, in a largely inscrutable song, he manages to slip in a conclusion as pithy and suasive as: “Make no mistake/There’s no love/When the words are gone.”

Matt Pond PA was one of the first bands whose sound and depth impressed me as Fingertips was first getting going back in the ’03-’04 time frame, and indeed became one of the first 21st-century indie bands to hit some semblance of the big time via exposure on broadcast TV soundtracks. But the ’00s showed us that there is indeed a fine line between up-and-coming and down-and-going. I feel sorry for quality bands stuck navigating their careers through a fickle and fragmented culture that hews to a shallow and imaginary view of good and bad, but I am happy that Matt Pond and company persevere. “Starting” will appear on the album The Dark Leaves, the band’s eighth full-length, slated for an April release on Altitude Records. MP3 via Paste Magazine. Note that this is not a direct link; click on the song title here and you will be taken to a page from which you can then download the song.

Free and legal MP3: Holopaw (pensive, inscrutable)

“The Art Teacher and the Little Stallion” – Holopaw

Airily idiosyncratic, not to mention lyrically inscrutable, “The Art Teacher and the Little Stallion” required repeated listens for me to really hear it. Songs with vocal (rather than purely instrumental) introductions are a bit hard to get one’s pop-oriented mind around, to begin with. And when Holopaw’s John Orth is the one doing the vocalizing, maybe it’s even harder. He’s actually got an engaging, feathery sort of voice, but when it’s the very first thing one hears–without the grounding of obvious melody or structure–it seems a challenge, to me.

But here’s something to listen for early on: the two notes he sings on the word “breath,” at 0:12 (which are E-flat and D-flat, if my keyboard widget is to be trusted). These are soon revealed as the two notes the rest of the song consistently turns on, the two notes which, magnet-like, attract and re-attract the melody–for instance, at the end of the recurring lyric “Couldn’t we just get lost?” The musical phrase described by these notes is unresolved, but listen to how the violin follows (e.g. 0:56) with a countermelody that does then resolves it, and with folk-like poignancy. Keep your ear on the violin all the way through; I think the yearning ballast it provides is what lends the song, at least after a number of listens, its quirky majesty.

From Gainesville, Florida, Holopaw was previously featured on Fingertips in August 2005, but are rather a whole different band now: three of its original five members moved north after that second album, replaced slowly but surely by four Gainesville-based others. “The Art Teacher and the Little Stallion” is the first song on the band’s Oh, Glory. Oh, Wilderness. album, due out next month on Bakery Outlet Records.