Free and legal MP3: Amanda Palmer (theatrical cry for justice)

While piano-based, the song’s musical palette expands in all directions, with textures both rough and intimate, accompanying a lyrical bombardment that feels all too real and up-to-the-minute, painting a picture of a culture on the brink of physical and emotional self-destruction.

Amanda Palmer

“Drowning in the Sound” – Amanda Palmer

As an artist, Amanda Palmer is such an deft navigator of our brave not-so-new social media world that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that she is a dynamic and gifted musician. The relentless energy with which she shares herself online in multi-faceted ways—creating one of the only robust and truly successful (both emotionally and financially) artist-fan communities of the 21st-century to date in the process—is as admirable as it is, to me, if I’m honest, exhausting-sounding. I can’t imagine how she manages a life that includes paying heed to 12,000 active online patrons, and would be skeptical if not outright cynical about her efforts were it not for that previously stated reality: she is a top-notch singer/songwriter/musician, and somehow (somehow) doesn’t let the potentially immolating realities of an artistic life lived on social media derail or cheapen her creative output.

Here’s her latest: a song, called “Drowning in the Sound,” that is as raw and scintillating as her best music can be, with an added wrinkle: the song was initially crowd-sourced, with the lyrical ideas and inspiration coming from 600 of her Patreon supporters. Oh, and she wrote it as part of a two-day songwriting exercise in August 2017. While piano-based, the song’s musical palette expands in all directions, with textures both rough and intimate, accompanying a lyrical bombardment that feels all too real and up-to-the-minute, painting a picture of a culture on the brink of physical and emotional self-destruction. It’s not fun, no; but the music, with its sophisticated, stop-start dynamics and Bush-ian theatricality, engages the spirit. Palmer’s voice, an agile alto with a spoken-word quality, is more than up to the wide-ranging performance, which includes portions rendered in falsetto, as if things weren’t dramatic enough. I guess if I’m going to hear about the end of the world, I’d rather it come from a song than from cable news: there’s something in the singing and the craft of it that manages yet to inspire hope, which is a crucial element in any effort any of us can take to rescue humanity from prospects that here in 2019 look on the dim side.

“Drowning in the Sound” was originally released in September 2017 as a fund-raiser for victims of Hurricane Harvey. The song has resurfaced recently as a lead single for Palmer’s first album in six years, There Will Be No Intermission, which will be released on March 8, 2019, which is International Women’s Day. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Daisy Victoria (brilliant single from emerging UK talent)

As succinct and powerful a three-and-a-half minutes of pop music as I’ve heard this year.

Daisy Victoria

“Animal Lover” – Daisy Victoria

I have already spoken admiringly of the young British musician Daisy Victoria both last year and the year before, but it turns out I was only getting started. Her latest single, “Animal Lover,” is flat-out brilliant, a thrill ride of vocal prowess, textural panache, and melodic zing. Releasing her inner Kate Bush, Victoria emotes with range and know-how; and yet, at the center of this smartly focused composition is something that sounds far more like rock’n’roll than most of what passes for 21st-century indie rock, thanks to the active, gut-level guitar work on the one hand, and the cathartic vigor of the chorus. It’s actually the first half of the chorus, rocking with beauty and precision, that I’m talking about specifically (first heard at 0:39), powered by Victoria’s extraordinary voice; the second half, meanwhile, extends at 0:55 into fully Bushian territory, with thumps and yelps to drive us along.

And then: listen with glee later on as the song concludes with the two halves layered on top of each other (2:58), something that arrives feeling at once unexpected and inevitable.

“Animal Lover” succeeds beyond my ability to say much more, as succinct and powerful a three-and-a-half minutes of pop music as I’ve heard this year. It’s the title track of a three-song EP, which will be released next week. You can hear a second song on SoundCloud. Personal thanks to Daisy for the MP3 and permission to post it here.

Free and legal MP3: Daisy Victoria (swirling, anthem-y goodness)

Another striking, swirling, anthem-y slice of pop-informed rock’n’roll from a very promising young UK talent.

Daisy Victoria

“Pain of Dancers” – Daisy Victoria

Fueled by a big-hearted guitar line, an unresolved chorus melody, and Daisy Victoria’s theatrical presence, “Pain of Dancers” leaps into the world with poise and vigor—just another striking,
swirling, anthem-y slice of pop-informed rock’n’roll from this promising young UK talent. (For those who missed her magical song “Nobody Dies,” from late 2014, go here, quickly.)

As much as I love pretty much everything she’s up to here, I think the deep allure is rooted first and foremost in her voice, which possesses a rare blend of richness and nuance; she invests herself fully in every note, and the subtle shifts from dusk to lightness are thrilling upon close listening. But unlike some performers blessed with natural vocal prowess, Victoria has her eyes and ears on all aspects of songcraft. Think of those synth squiggles we hear with the drumbeat in the opening seconds of the song: highly unnecessary and extremely wonderful. More centrally, there’s the super-appealing, low-register guitar line that introduces the song and recurs after each iteration of the chorus—an adroit counter-motif and nothing a singer merely trying to show off tends to bothers with. It’s this guitar line, in fact, that both grounds the song—the chorus never resolves on its own—and gives it its sky-high reach. I kind of can’t stop listening.

“Pain of Dancers” is a single, self-released last month. Thanks to Daisy for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Rae Morris (moody, w/ simmering momentum)

Morris—21 and British—emerges here as a young Kate Bush for the Lorde generation, with an elastic tone that ranges from sweet to muscular.

Rae Morris

“Skin” – Rae Morris

“Skin” launches off an ear-grabbing tick-tock rhythm, glides into a precisely calibrated duskiness, and builds unerring drama and interest from the knowing interplay between an itchy drumbeat and melancholy, softly-voiced piano chords. Morris—21 and British—emerges here as a young Kate Bush for the Lorde generation, with an elastic tone that ranges from sweet to muscular, and an elusive speech idiosyncrasy (listen to her “r”s) that seems only to add character to her already formidable presence.

I am not sure whether to thank Morris or her producer (Ariel Reichtshaid, who has worked with everyone from Cass McCombs and Vampire Weekend to Skye Ferreira and Kylie Minogue), but I love how adeptly “Skin” transcends “girl-at-piano”-type rock music. Part of this has to do with how obliquely the piano is employed; it never goes away, but it is very much an ensemble player here, creating the sense that every chord that does come forward is there for a purpose, not just because the singer plays piano. And then there is the song itself, and its subtly indelible chorus, which would not be as effective as it is without its unusual setting. First, there’s a pre-chorus (first heard at 0:51), followed by a chorus involving two asymmetrical iterations of its central motif. The second time (1:12), the “We break the rules” melody is repeated, after which new lyrics blossom without warning into the song’s pivotal moment: “We break our hearts and pretty much everything.”

From the seaside city of Blackpool, in North West England, Morris was signed to Atlantic Records when just 19. “Skin” was released in January, available as a free download via SoundCloud, and will apparently end up on her debut album, scheduled for release this summer. Morris has been releasing a series of EPs since late 2013; the latest is due out next month. A new single from the forthcoming EP, “Do You Even Know,” is available to stream via via SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Polly Scattergood (dark, swinging electro-ballad)

A big dark swinging electro-ballad from a young British musician whose flair for the theatrical (“And when I shut my eyes, I can hear an orchestra playing,” she speaks) brings inevitable Kate Bush comparisons to the table.

Polly Scattergood

“Wanderlust” – Polly Scattergood

A big dark swinging electro-ballad from a young British musician whose flair for the theatrical (“And when I shut my eyes, I can hear an orchestra playing,” she speaks) brings inevitable Kate Bush comparisons to the table. But dear Kate has rarely been inclined towards something quite so accessible and concise as “Wanderlust,” which offers its head-scratching moments (mostly spoken voice in this case) within the clipped confines of a three-and-a-half-minute pop song. Neither does Bush tend towards a sound as bottom-heavy as this, but there’s a sense of playfulness in the air that does nod towards KB—for all its deep force, that opening synthesizer line (in cahoots, I’m guessing, with a bass synthesizer) does have a frolicsome aspect, like maybe dancing elephants.

I find it interesting that a song called “Wanderlust” circumscribes itself so—listen carefully and you’ll see that the verse and the chorus, while coming across as distinct, are all but indistinguishable melodically. Could be this wanderlust is just as imaginary as that orchestra she hears with her eyes closed. What effectually differentiates the verse and chorus is production prowess: the verses are delivered with a whispery veneer, and without the gut-rumbling bottom of the synthesizer. I’m actually fascinated by the vocal effect that adds the breathy hiss of whispering to Scattergood’s singing voice. (See? I have nothing against vocal effects. At least not good ones.) I can probably find a metaphor that relates this effect to the song as well but I’ll spare you that (probable) stretch and just say I like it.

Polly Scattergood is a 25-year-old musician from Colchester, in the UK (where else, with that name, which is real). “Wanderlust” is a song from Arrows, Scattergood’s forthcoming follow-up to her 2009 debut. The album is due out in June on Mute Records. MP3 via the estimable Chromewaves, one of the pioneer music blogs that remains up and running.

Free and legal MP3: Niki and the Dove (dark yet resplendent synth pop from Sweden)

At once sludgy and resplendent, “The Fox” thunders and sparkles, blending darkness and light in a most uncommon and indelible way.

Niki and the Dove

“The Fox” – Niki and the Dove

At once sludgy and resplendent, “The Fox” thunders and sparkles, blending darkness and light in a most uncommon and indelible way. Rock’n’roll advances rarely via the bolts from the blue most critics and bloggers seem to demand, much more often through absorption, and there is something in “The Fox” that reverberates with a number of classic influences, from Kate Bush (the fox reference is just part of it) and Siouxsie Sioux and Björk to David Bowie and Radiohead. This is good stuff. Theatrical too. Equal effort is paid here to catch the ear—to be “pop,” essentially—and to challenge it. Check out that abrupt segue between the lighthearted glissando that opens the song and the chunky, lagging, deep-voiced guitar (or guitar-like sound; no guitarist is associated with the band) it bumps into. That’s part of what the whole piece is about—interesting, off-kilter, carefully constructed musical moments, hung onto a sturdy framework of melodic and synthetic know-how. The song has great flow—it really pulls me in—and yet nearly any slice of it, all the way through, has its own singular DNA. Did I mention this is really good stuff?

Niki and the Dove is a Stockholm duo, featuring Malin Dahlström and Gustaf Karlöf, founded in February 2010. There have been no albums released to date; the band, furthermore, seems inclined to mystery and minimal information. What can be said is that they signed with Sub Pop in March, and “The Fox” is the first Sub Pop single. While the label is coy about it, there does appear to be an EP—also entitled The Fox —on the way in June.

Free and legal MP3: Alex Winston (bashy & engaging)

Winston is 21, and was born and raised in the Detroit area. She’s now in New York City and watch out. I suspect we’ll be hearing from her.

Alex Winston

“Sister Wife” – Alex Winston

How and why do some songs grab you right away? It’s a mystery. This one has a bashy, kitchen-sink-y feeling to its wordless vocal intro that makes me quickly happy. And then there may be something in the octave span that deepens the introduction’s allure. That is, Winston’s “oo-oos” descend an entire scale in that opening section; and I think the ear is engaged when a melody encompasses the whole scale, just like our eye is engaged by a black-and-white photo that utilizes the entire range of gray.

And when she starts singing the actual lyrics, watch out. I am now hooked by new mysteries: her rich yet slightly baby-ish voice, calling up echoes of early Kate Bush recordings; a lyrical audacity that launches us into the middle of a song that seems to be about polygamy; the xylophone that augments the “oo-oo” section the second time we hear it. There’s something big and brash on display here, but it’s a sweet sort of brashness, the kind borne of young talent, talent that just does things because they seem right. I could pontificate about the slidey sort of verse that we hear and how it’s sung largely off the beat and out of the center of the measure, and then how it pairs so effectively with a front and center chorus, nearly anthemic in its melodic inevitability; and it may have nothing to do with how she just wrote the damn thing.

Winston is 21, and was born and raised in the Detroit area. She’s now in New York City and watch out. I suspect we’ll be hearing from her. “Sister Wife” is the title track to her debut “mini-LP,” coming in March on Heavy Roc. MP3 via NME.

Free and legal MP3: Patrick Wolf (both channeling and reinterpreting K.Bush)

“Army Dreamers” – Patrick Wolf

I can count on one hand the number of cover songs I’ve posted here on Fingertips over the years; I’m not at all against them in theory, but I don’t usually feel compelled to talk about them. It’s more of a “Oh, that’s interesting,” and on we go. But this was a no-brainer from the opening drum-and-piano salvo. How different from the original and yet immediately exactly right. Wolf here has done the near impossible with a cover version: he has revealed the depths awaiting us in a song that even its writer hadn’t quite plumbed.

And that is to take nothing away from Kate Bush, whom I love unabashedly. But she wrote and sang “Army Dreamers” for her 1980 album Never For Ever, which found her in transition between the lush, piano-based, teenaged sounds of her first two records and the more complex, Fairlight-fueled, experimental direction she would develop fully with The Dreaming and Hounds of Love. Her original was a delicate, string-filled waltz, with a hint of weird around the edges. (But, note, a #1 record in the U.K.) Wolf–an intense, theatrical character in his own right–has done nothing as much as show us how Bush herself might have recorded this once she truly hit her stride. The martial rhythm, the creative synthesizer flourishes, the inventive percussion, the ghostly backing vocal (whether real or synthesized, an obvious homage), not to mention the exotic counter-vocal, are all evident Bushisms. But perhaps Wolf’s most splendid and mysterious accomplishment is singing in his shadowy baritone–not doing an imitation, not in fact remotely sounding like her–and yet all but channeling the great and mighty KB. Thirty years later, he delivers a cover that sounds at least as authentic as the original.

“Army Dreamers” is a track from a massive compilation album put out by the Spanish music collaborative Buffetlibre in support of Amnesty International. For five euros, you get 180 MP3s from 50 musicians from around the world, including Marissa Nadler, Ra Ra Riot, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and the Antlers. All songs are exclusive and previously unreleased. Visit Buffetlibre for more information.

Free and legal MP3: Blue Roses (brisk acoustic/electronic blend)

“I Am Leaving” – Blue Roses

So-called folktronica often seeks to blend the acoustic and the electronic, but typically in a moody, glitchy ambiance; what Laura Groves introduces us to with “I Am Leaving”–Blue Roses is the name the multi-instrumentalist Groves uses for recording–is an acoustic/electronic blend that is at once bright and dreamy, the brisk folky guitar almost but not quite overwhelmed by a glistening synth that sounds like what a harpsichord might sound like if it could sustain. Soon we hear her harmonizing wordlessly, swoopingly, with herself; the (beguiling) effect is Kate Bush doing an imitation of the Roches, if you’ll excuse the old-school references. When she first begins to sing actual words (at 0:40), her unadorned singing voice seems almost too…I don’t know, too something: too raw, too high, too present and unfiltered. But give it a little time, and when the harmonies return, wow, check out some of those intervals–I can’t even begin to guess what notes she’s putting together at 0:59, on the second syllable of “silent.” My goodness.

I’ll tell you exactly where it all began to make sense to me: at 1:12, when the swooping, wordless harmonies come back once more, and the melody makes that gratifying descent through an octave (first as she sings “Oh give me a clue somehow”). She repeats it, then resolves it with one extra melody line, then we go back into the verse–and we never hear this section again. But its existence haunts the song, renders it deeper and more complex. Everything sounds different from here on in, and not only because of the shift in instrumentation.

“I Am Leaving” is from the debut, eponymous Blue Roses album, which was released in April in the U.K. and is scheduled for a July release on Beggars Banquet Records in the U.S. MP3 via the Beggars Group web site.