Free and legal MP3: Dirty Three (chunky, inscrutable instrumental)

Not necessarily an easy ride, but there’s something endearing about this chunky, intermittently unsteady instrumental. The Australian trio Dirty Three return after seven years.

Dirty Three

“Rising Below” – Dirty Three

Let’s be honest: no one really knows what to do with rock’n’roll instrumentals. Yes, I realize that in rock’n’roll’s first decade, instrumentals were, well, instrumental in establishing the popularity of the nascent genre. There’s “Sleep Walk,” “Apache,” “Walk Don’t Run,” yada yada yada. But those tended to be short and melodic, typically featuring an atmospheric and memorable lead guitar line. And but for a last gasp by organ-oriented Booker T. and the MGs in the latter half of the ’60s, instrumentals became novelties at best, before, a half decade later, in the hands of the prog-rock colossi, mutating into patience-testing exercises in baroque noodling.

“Rising Below” is neither novelty nor incisive burst of melody nor bombast. It’s a chunky, initially unsteady piece that sneaks in through the side door: guitar and violin motifs enunciate themselves as afterthoughts while drummer Jim White slowly ponders the variations open to him for pounding out the first three beats of each four-beated measure. Listen to what happens after the minute and a half mark—it’s as if he’s now taking the pause in which he leaves out the fourth beat to plan his next rendering; you can almost hear the new idea arrive at the end of each successive measure. And when he gets a really-new versus a subtly-new idea, the instruments follow his lead and change their own courses. The most prominent change happens as the song churns past the three-minute mark. First, White incorporates a couple of snappy rolls into his playing and then, yikes, all hell breaks loose at the drum kit (3:13), prompting the violin and guitar to follow with their own disciplined eruptions of dissonance and noise (especially the violin). Then, around 4:10, the drumming reverts to the simple pounding pattern he had been using at the beginning, the one-two-threefour rhythm that gives us four hits but leaves out the actual fourth beat. It’s like he’s saying, “Okay, calm down now.” And they do. Only it’s a fake-out, since White breaks rank at 4:45 and we get a final 45 seconds of ordered craziness before there is, apparently, nothing left to say. This is not necessarily an easy ride but there’s something endearing about it.

Dirty Three have been doing their inscrutable thing since 1992. “Rising Below” is a song from Toward The Low Sun, the Melborne trio’s ninth album, which was released this week on Drag City Records. It’s been seven years since the last Dirty Three album, and sure enough, they were here then too.

photo credit: Annabel Mehran

Free and legal MP3: Johnny Marr & The Healers (gentle, substantive old-school instrumental)

An after-the-fact Christmas tune—a newly-minted instrumental with an old-school air, from Johnny Marr.

Johnny Marr & The Healers

“Free Christmas” – Johnny Marr & The Healers

This one came in too late to post prior to year’s end, but it’s also too good to let slip by. Download, tuck it away, and be pleasantly surprised to find it when you go looking for under-played holiday songs next time Christmas rolls around.

A newly-minted instrumental with an old-school air, “Free Christmas” offers a stately, lower-register electric guitar melody over a lilting acoustic guitar setting. Without any words beyond Marr’s whispered introduction, and without either blatant lifts from well-known tunes or sonic cliches, the music, almost magically, feels like Christmas. You can just about hear the sleigh bells, even as there aren’t any in the mix. I think what does the Noël-ish trick here is how the melody culminates in that five-note, choir-tinged descent (first heard at 0:58). Coming down the scale like that evokes Christmas music in the gentlest way, even as the song otherwise seems to operate with its own vibe. While there’s nothing here to directly recall Vince Guaraldi’s famous “Charlie Brown Christmas” music, what “Free Christmas” has in common with Guaraldi’s marvelous compositions is a willingness to be its own aural world first and foremost. It’s less “I’m writing Christmas music” and more “I’m writing music and I’m inviting Christmas into it.”

In any case, I’d definitely invite this one into your 2012 Christmas mix. You’ve got plenty of advance notice. As for Marr, this free and legal MP3 appears to be a sign that his reunion with the Healers, a band he fronted in the early ’00s, will remain a going concern. He had reassembled the group, with personnel changes, this past fall, for two shows in the UK and one in NYC. (Smiths songs were played, it should be noted.) Here’s hoping for some more Marr this year, as he seems to have left the other bands he was part of and perhaps aims, at last, for a bit of front man glory.

Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up on this.

Free and legal MP3: Erik Friedlander (movie-ish jazz instrumental from NYC cellist)

Erik Friedlander

“Aching Sarah”

Apparently it’s cello week here. Or experimental music week. Not that this is experimental sounding per se—it’s quite a lovely, graspable instrumental with a jazz-like construction but with enough melody and offbeat aural flourishes (check out the percussion) to engage the ear of the non-jazz-aficionado (i.e. me). While cellist/composer Friedlander has made a name for himself in New York City’s downtown music scene (oh; it’s NYC week too), this doesn’t sound like you think that would sound like.

To begin, we get a trumpet and piano trading off on a gentle but insistent motif that is played enough to stick in your head but then gets unraveled in atmospheric development. With the cello content to play quiet descending lines in the background, we seem at first to be heading into jazz combo territory, the trumpet and piano and bass and percussion noodling around the now-unstated theme. But even here I’m appreciating the melodic focus that remains, not to mention the almost literally cinematic vibe, as the particular combination of Friedlander’s long bowing and trumpeter Michael Leonhart’s ’60s-cinema flair washes this with the wistful ambiance of a bittersweet European romantic comedy. Until, that is, Friedlander emerges from the background, at 2:47, for a droning minor-key improvisation/solo that is half spiritual plea, half cubist deconstruction of the original motif. It’s an interruption that feels both unexpected and welcome, an aural change of scene that renders the motif’s straightforward restatement as the solo gives way all the more affecting.

The movie-like feeling is apparently no accident. Released as a digital single earlier this month, “Aching Sarah” is supposed to be part of what Friedlander calls his “Cutting-Room Floor Series,” in which, he writes, “movie characters are cut from a film, and with their lives only half-realized, walk in a kind of limbo, aimless and confused, with no way to live out the arc of their scripted lives.” That not only informs the distinctive but unresolved central motif but also the concluding section, when the music seems almost literally to smash against its own limits, only to fade out. The MP3 available for free from his web site, but also for purchase via Amazon, eMusic, and iTunes.