Free and legal MP3: Better Oblivion Community Center (jangly, literate, occasionally loud)

A loose-limbed paean to 21st-century chaos.

“Dylan Thomas” – Better Oblivion Community Center

When a song comes along that’s this affable and effective, you can begin to wonder why everyone doesn’t do this. It seems so straightforward!: lay down a jangly, toe-tapping groove, add in a friendly descending melody peopled by tumbly, literate lyrics, performed by same-note, male-female harmonies, and boom—terrific song. Consider the couple of interruptions from rambunctious guitars (for instance, at 1:22) a bonus.

By their own accounts, Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers, who together comprise Better Oblivion Community Center, did in fact find this song pretty easy to write—Oberst has been quoted as calling the song a “happy accident.” It sprung from a discussion of a Reply All episode (they are both big fans of this great podcast) that had to do with the conspiracy theories online that posit, in apparent seriousness, that the current American president is only pretending to be a colossal moron. Oh and the Dylan Thomas connection seems to do with the basic fact that Oberst is himself a long-time admirer of the Irish poet.

I assume fans either of Oberst or of Bridgers individually will dig this but I myself wasn’t either in particular and I dig it too, in a whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts way. Their blended voices in this relatively upbeat setting have a delightful elan that overshadows a draggy melancholy that, to my ears, can beset both of them on their own. Not that there’s anything wrong with draggy melancholy! Sometimes that’s just the thing. But, not a thing on this loose-limbed paean to 21st-century chaos.

“Dylan Thomas” is the third track on the Better Oblivion Community Center’s self-titled debut, released in January. You can stream it as well as buy it (digital, CD, vinyl) via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3:The Cairo Gang (knotty, charming pop rock)

Funneling sounds and melodies born in the power pop origin years of 1967 through 1974, “Real Enough to Believe” combines Byrdsian jangle and Beatlesque chords with the melancholy, inside-out tunefulness of Big Star.

Cairo Gang

“Real Enough to Believe” – The Cairo Gang

Emmett Kelly, the L.A.-based singer/songwriter doing musical business as The Cairo Gang, has a preternatural knack for pop rock at once knotty and charming. Funneling sounds and melodies born in the power pop origin years of 1967 through 1974, “Real Enough to Believe” combines Byrdsian jangle and Beatlesque chords (um: 2:18!) with the melancholy, inside-out tunefulness of Big Star.

Interestingly, Kelly combines these archetypally ear-friendly elements into a song that is neither power pop nor catchy in any obvious way—the pace is a bit too relaxed, the verse melody too spread out, and the chorus too subtle, what with its 10/4 time signature. Full of lovely melodic turns but resisting efforts to sing along, “Real Enough to Believe” feels, somehow, like the embodiment of thought, and not just because the lyrics are generally difficult to understand. Many songs are inscrutable lyrically but retain a sense of narrative or action. This one feels to be floating in the realm of reverie in such a way as to be somehow commenting on the process of thinking itself. Maybe I’m being influenced, or misled, by a handful of phrases that do make themselves heard—“thinking only of the time”; “it’s too far off to be real enough to believe”; “with some people it’s plain to see”—but I sense this as an unusually introspective song. To my ears, the music, with its gentle knobs and declarative intervals, reflects the rumination in a nuanced and gratifying way.

“Real Enough to Believe” is a track from The Cairo Gang’s second album, Untouchable, released in March. You can buy the album via Bandcamp. The Cairo Gang was previously featured on Fingertips for the song “Ice Fishing,” one of my favorites of 2015. The MP3 comes, as will two others this time around, from the generous gang at KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Alvvays (sweet, jangly, off-kilter)

“Archie, Marry Me” has a sweet, sweeping relentlessness about it, and if the whole thing is partially buried in mud and fuzz, this somehow makes its insistence all the more poignant

Alvvays

“Archie, Marry Me” – Alvvays

“Archie, Marry Me” has a sweet, sweeping relentlessness about it, and if the whole thing is partially buried in mud and fuzz, this somehow makes its insistence all the more poignant, makes its gorgeousness all the more down to earth. This is a song that rhymes “matrimony” and “alimony,” not to mention “Atlantic” and “panic,” “papers” and “makers.” This is a song with a woman singing to a character named Archie. This is a band called Always that spells their name Alvvays. The off-kilter appears to be their territory.

At the seeming center of this eddy of off-center goodness is front woman Molly Rankin, who sings with an enticing blend of composed abandon. Her voice veers now too close, now too far. As the band pounds and jangles along, Rankin sounds like someone at once assured and bewildered; her repeated “Hey hey”s resonate off imaginary canyons of hope and despair. But at the true center of the proceedings is the song itself, which etches melodic glory from the simplest of components, and burrows into a listener’s warmest places through the timeless, heartfelt force of guitars and drums. If you don’t concentrate you’ll miss the guitars’ wild, second-verse excursion, buried nearly beyond earshot, but all the wilder for its lack of neediness. In much the way the singer’s simple plea seems almost necessarily concealing some thornier reality, so too does the music’s apparent plainness appear to couch some more complicated sentiment. Remember, they could merely have spelled their name the way it sounds.

Alvvays is a quintet based in Toronto. Molly Rankin is the daughter of the late John Morris Rankin, of the popular and (in Canada) well-known Celtic/folk group The Rankin Family. Among band members is guitarist Alec O’Hanley, formerly of the Charlottetown-based band Two Hours Traffic, who were featured here back in 2010. “Archie, Marry Me” is from the debut, self-titled Alvvays album, released on Polyvinyl Records back in July. The song has been floating around the internet even longer than that, but only last month emerged in free and legal MP3 form over on the long-standing free and legal MP3 blog 3hive. So thanks, very much, to the 3hivers for this one. And note that you can listen to the album and buy it in various formats via the Polyvinyl web site. I encourage it.

Free and legal MP3: Allo Darlin’ (brisk, jangly, & wistful)

“Northern Lights” appears to move too quickly for its own lyrics, as sweet-voiced Elizabeth Morris has repeatedly to squeeze extra syllables into tight aural spaces. The effect is somehow fetching.

Allo Darlin'

“Northern Lights” – Allo Darlin’

Brisk and jangly, “Northern Lights” appears indeed to move too quickly for its own lyrics, as sweet-voiced Elizabeth Morris has repeatedly to squeeze extra syllables into tight aural spaces. The effect is somehow fetching. Listen, for example, to how she sings “suddenly came apart” (0:43), or how she handles the opening part of the lyric “And it makes me feel so alive” (1:09). The melodies, meanwhile, with their mid-stride minor-key modulations, have an undertow of wistfulness about them.

The song’s musical and lyrical fulcrum, to my ears, is the chorus lyric “This is the year we’ll make it right,” first heard at 1:12. The chorus presents us with a speedy gallop through a repeatedly descending, vaguely Christmasy melody line, its first two lines covering the same basic interval in such a way that the second line is subtly accentuated. The second time we get to the first two lines, in the second half of the chorus (is anyone still with me??), this moment feels extra-accentuated. And this is where we are when we get to “This is the year we’ll make it right.” And wouldn’t you know that everything else, moving forward, about the song—the “wait for me!” pace, the sweet-voiced singer expressing hopes and dreams, the lower-register guitar melody (consciously or not echoing the Blondie classic “Dreaming” starting at 1:23)—pretty much says hmm this also may not be the year you’re going to make it right. But, you can keep dreaming. (As luck would have it, Blondie will yet have the last word this week; see below.)

Allo Darlin’ is a London-based four-person band split between Brits and Aussies. “Northern Lights” is the third single from the band’s second album, Europe, which was released back in May on Slumberland Records, but the first I’ve found as a free and legal MP3. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead. You can download the song via the title above, or at the record company’s SoundCloud page. The band was featured previously here in October 2010. The three gentlemen in the band are still wearing the same shirts.

Free and legal MP3: TW Walsh (insistent minor-key groove)

After a delay for some ambiant, setting-up noise, “Make It Rhyme” hits upon an insistent, minor-key groove and boom, it’s got me.

TW Walsh

“Make It Rhyme” – TW Walsh

After a delay for some ambient, setting-up noise, “Make It Rhyme” hits upon an insistent, minor-key groove and boom, it’s got me. Maybe it’s the jangly tone of the electric guitar, maybe it’s the snare-free drum beat, or maybe it’s that spooky organ sustain that anchors the song’s rhythm section in something both humorous and unsettling, but this one has that great combination of being both instantly likable and deeply appealing. Speaking of humorous and unsettling, take a listen to the lyrics, which chronicle a dysfunctional relationship in a series of sardonic couplets, one of which is the titular “You sing the song/But I make it rhyme.” The extra joke here is that there are a couple of lines in the song—listen carefully and you’ll catch them—in which the rhyme is actually missing.

And the extra extra joke here is that the song is very specifically about Walsh’s long-standing friendship/musical relationship with David Bazan, erstwhile leader of the band Pedro the Lion. Walsh was the only other official member of that band; he calls this song “the worst version of myself complaining about the worst version of Dave,” with the benefit of some bemused hindsight.

Born Timothy William, Walsh recorded some solo material 10 years ago or so, and also headed a project called The Soft Drugs in the mid-’00s. He has spent more time and energy in recent years on his work as an audio engineer; his specialty is mastering, which he has done for the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Gabriel Kahane, and the Mynabirds, among many dozens of others. He has at long last put himself back in front of the microphone; “Make It Rhyme” is from the album Songs of Pain and Leisure, which was released this month on Graveface Records. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Plates of Cake (fuzzy & jangly, w/ rhythmic hiccups)

The swift and confident “As If The Choice Were Mine” is at once fuzzy and jangly, teasing us with whiffs of the ’60s and hints of rhythmic trickery.

Plates of Cake

“As If The Choice Were Mine” – Plates of Cake

The swift and confident “As If The Choice Were Mine” is at once fuzzy and jangly, teasing us with whiffs of the ’60s and hints of rhythmic trickery. Front man Jonathan Byerly has some of Matt Berninger’s portentous grumble, but cleared of any pontifical mannerism by the song’s underlying vim, as well as the three-part harmony he sings as part of from start to finish. The song is chorus-free, with one eight-measure melody repeated three times, around instrumental breaks. This is part of what gives the tune its light-footed momentum, this not having to reorient itself for something sing-along-ier.

But it’s also the nature of the melody itself that gives the song its appeal. Listen to how it begins, unusually, on a heavily accented first beat, which both grabs the ear and kind of knocks it off kilter. It is an eight-measure melody, mostly but not completely in 4/4 time, expanding nonchalantly into 6/4 time in measures five and six (from 0:26 to 0:32). For no reason I can discern except further slyness, the introduction, which recurs as the first instrumental break, comes with 6/4 time in measure seven as well, while the second instrumental break, a different thing entirely, is but seven measures long, all in 4/4 but the seventh, which is in 6/4. And yes I’m kind of fascinated by time signature tricks and changes, so there you go.

Meanwhile, what about that title? It’s a hall-of-fame song title, with bonus points for proper use of the conditional tense, and packing so much meaning and subtext into its six words that it hardly requires any further embellishment. And in truth we don’t get much—beyond the repeated opening gambit “As if the choice were mine/And not some fated thing,” the lyrics are both sparse and elusive; after many listens, I still can’t quite make out what the “hollow angels” are doing.

Plates of Cake are a Brooklyn-based foursome with one full-length album to their name, released in 2010 on the All Hands Electric label. “As If The Choice Were Mine” is a digital single, to be officially released later this month. Go to the band’s page on its label’s web site and you can download a couple of free and legal MP3s from the debut album.

Free and legal MP3: The Spires (smartly written, Velvet-y garage rock)

The guitar line upon which “Orange Yellow” is built is a thing of rock’n’roll beauty: sturdy, jangly, memorable, and simple-sounding without actually being that simple. Listen carefully and you’ll hear how the line turns upon a time-signature trick that adds two extra beats every third measure. This creates a delicious delay in the unfolding resolution; the resulting asymmetry is somehow marvelous and true.

The Spires

“Orange Yellow” – the Spires

The guitar line upon which “Orange Yellow” is built is a thing of rock’n’roll beauty: sturdy, jangly, memorable, and simple-sounding without actually being that simple. Listen carefully and you’ll hear how the line turns upon a time-signature trick that adds two extra beats every third measure. This creates a delicious delay in the unfolding resolution; the resulting asymmetry is somehow marvelous and true.

Laid upon this potent foundation, the song does well with its neo-Velvets vibe—singer Jason Bays even has something of a nasally, Lou Reed-ish semi-warble—even while bouncy along with more of a SoCal than a downtown groove. Production is garage-ish, but knowingly so, or even mischievously so: I feel certain that the ’60s buzzy-fuzzy aura is not merely purposeful but exists to distract the listener from quite how beautifully crafted the song is.

The Spires are a trio from Ventura featuring Bays on guitar, his wife Colleen Coffey on drums, and Catelyn Kindred on bass. “Orange Yellow” will be found on the band’s Curved Space EP, to be released later this month on Beehouse Records. Beehouse was created by Bays and Coffey in 2004 so they could release their stuff and has become an actual record label. A few other free and legal MP3s from the band can be found on the Beehouse site.

Free and legal MP3: The Idle Hands (casually brilliant neo-Britpop)

“Loaded” – The Idle Hands

Simple, driving, and evocative, “Loaded” has the cool dry makings of an underground anthem about it. Embodying a musical vector that starts in the late ’60s with the Velvets (Loaded, in fact, was the name of the last true Velvet Underground album) and runs through ’70s Bowie, ’80s Smiths, and ’90s Oasis, The Idle Hands here deliver a casually brilliant, sharply-produced bit of neo-Britpop that’s positively resplendent in its matter-of-fact-ness, if that makes sense. Surely it outshines the majority of the either under- or over-thought-out indie rock music that’s all but strangling the internet (not to mention, this week, the city of Austin, Texas) by decade’s end. Almost always the amount of naiveté or frippery on display in a song is inversely proportional to the underlying musical solidity of the enterprise. “Loaded” is nothing if not sleek and to the point, even if the point is a world-weary one.

The ongoing trick for quality rock’n’roll, however, is how to keep the simple from being, simply, boring. “Loaded” catches and holds the ear in a number of ways. I like the rubbery synth line that traces a satisfying upward and downward path in the intro; I like the forceful but blasé baritone of singer Ciaran (no last name given), a voice at home with lyrics alternately cultivated and dissipated—bringing Morrissey (no first name given) to mind yet without sounding like a mindless acolyte. I like the somewhat unusual (in indie rock) use of internal rhyme—there’s nothing too strict going on here, but if you pay attention you’ll hear words being rhymed that do not always end a lyrical line. I like the perfect balance of fuzz and jangle in the guitar sound, and how neither sound overwhelms the song. And most of all I like the direct but vivid chorus, built upon the most basic three notes in the musical scale, just do re mi, but it’s all about putting them in the right order, to the right rhythm, with the right chords.

Featuring two Irish brothers and three Americans, the Idle Hands are based in Minneapolis and are readying their full-length debut for an American release this year. “Loaded” was originally on an EP released only in the U.K. in 2006; it will appear on the new CD as well. MP3 via One Track Mind.