Free and legal MP3: Great Aunt Ida (homespun, escalating chamber pop)

Brilliant evidence that some songs truly need to be listened to for more than 30 seconds.

Ida Nilsen

“Romance” – Great Aunt Ida

Clearly, people, some songs must be listened to for more than 30 seconds. If, for instance, you give “Romance” only a half-minute or so, you might hear it as a sing-songy sort of DIY keyboard pop, veering maybe (maybe) towards the precious. Fortunately for you you have decided to give it more than 30 seconds. Bass and guitar have made minor appearances by 40 seconds; that helps. The drum kicks in around 48 seconds and that both stabilizes and reorients the song. Now we’re kind of bounding in an open space, freed from the potentially claustrophobic feeling of the opening section. Even though melodically the song has merely repeated its verse, everything feels different. What sounded nearly cloying with just the keyboard (check out 0:33 to 0:39, specifically) sounds engaging with the drum and the guitar added (compare now 1:04 to 1:10).

And Ida Nilsen is just yet getting started. We finally arrive at the chorus at 1:20, and its half-time, upward-yearning melody, with the gentle male backing vocal, is just…well, wow. I didn’t see it coming, this is nothing the first 30 seconds telegraphed, and yet it makes perfect sense, and she’s got me now for good. And if that weren’t enough, she throws in a kind of chorus coda there at 1:50, another lovely and unanticipated turn of events. Then: we get horns, and a wonderful array of them. Someone thought this out quite carefully, which horn is doing what where, and after a brief keyboard solo (did the horns already go away?), the horns come back (nope!), in satisfying conversation with both the melody and one another.

Through it all, Nilsen maintains an even-keeled presence. In the muted opening—which in retrospect now sounds rather fetchingly Carole King-ish; not cloying at all, in fact—her voice has a bit of an unaffected wobble, giving her the air of Laura Veirs’ small-town cousin. But as the song escalates into its full power, so does Nilsen’s vocal presence, which without really changing acquires something of the plainspoken, breathy authority of Suzanne Vega. Not sure how she does that either.

“Romance” is from the album Nuclearize Me, the third Great Aunt Ida album, but the first since Nilsen moved from Vancouver to Toronto, and the first in which she is operating without a defined band around her. The album arrives in early December on the Zunior label. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Free and legal MP3: Joan As Police Woman (sparsely funky, keyboard-based)

“Magic” burns with a sparse but smartly-articulated sense of old-school, Stevie Wonder-ish funkiness.

Joan As Police Woman

“The Magic” – Joan As Police Woman

“The Magic” burns with a sparse but smartly-articulated sense of old-school, Stevie Wonder-ish funkiness. The song roots itself in a keyboard vibe—both electric piano and organ set the basic tone—while the verse offers up a melody at once slinky and sprightly. Vocally, Joan delivers at both ends of her singing register; I’m not sure I’ve previously heard a female singer employ her falsetto quite so Prince-ishly before.

Keys-driven groove notwithstanding, I suggest keeping your ears on the guitar, which noodles in the background early, pretty much disappears for two-thirds of the song, then makes its presence known at 2:35, laying down some scorching and dissonant lines underneath the repeated lyric “I wanna be bad.” There’s a sense here that we’re building towards a full-out wailing solo, but it never happens. And the song is better for it, as instead we veer at 3:07 into a dreamy resolution to the bridge, both musically and lyrically, with Joan singing, “My shadow must find a window in the wall”—a lovely line that’s both specific and vague, concrete and abstract, hopeful and brooding.

Joan As Police Woman has been Joan Wasser’s performing name since 2002, but the Maine-born, Connecticut-raised Wasser had been a working musician since the early ’90s, getting her start as violinist for the Dambuilders while still a Boston University student. Early in her career Wasser was perhaps best known as Jeff Buckley’s girlfriend; losing her way after his death in 1997, she eventually hooked up with Antony Hegarty in 1999, became part of his band for a while and performed on Antony and the Johnsons’ 2005 album I Am A Bird Now. Her first Joan As Police Woman album was released in 2006. “The Magic” is a track from her new album, The Deep Field, which was released in January in the U.K., and is available digitally via her web site and iTunes. A physical release in the U.S., on PIAS Recordings, is scheduled for April.

Free and legal MP3: Lips (delightful DIY keyboard pop)

Steph Brown—who is Lips, all by herself–has a lovely-yet-cheeky, plainspoken voice, the kind that can sound like she’s talking even though she’s singing, and she plunges us right into the middle of a story: “Left a note taped to the fridge:/’I’m staying with Josie.'”

Lips

“1not2” – Lips

Sometimes you just get a good feeling about something—it can be anything, really, from a song to a book to a restaurant to a back road in the country. You get that good feeling and you just know everything’s going to be fine.

I had that good feeling from the moment “1not2” began, with its jaunty, overlapping keyboard motif. I can’t unscramble this entirely—maybe there are two, maybe there are three different keyboards making sounds here—but I immediately like the bell-like, percussive tones employed and especially like the way the background key completes the musical phrase of the foreground leader at the end of every second measure. The intro is both agreeable and purposeful. We are in good hands. When Steph Brown—she is Lips, all by herself—begins singing, the good feeling is confirmed. She has a lovely-yet-cheeky, plainspoken voice, the kind that can sound like she’s talking even though she’s singing, and she plunges us right into the middle of a story: “Left a note taped to the fridge:/’I’m staying with Josie.'” So it’s a breakup story—one, not two. Gotcha. How infrequently here in 21st-century indie-rock-digital-music-land do we get songs with characters and story lines and people simply doing things. After the second verse gets underway (1:16), I am putty in Brown’s hands: “Took the dog out for a walk/Bumped into Mrs. Bacon/She asked me about how you were/It was an awkward conversation.” This brings to mind some of those great Squeeze story-songs from the late ’70s and early ’80s, and her adjunct commentary underneath the lyrics, as she “acts out” the scene a bit, is casually delightful. The whole song is casually delightful, but make no mistake, as DIY as this is, it’s also very smartly constructed and performed—a pure pop song in a digital sea of blurry, aimless drivel.

Lips is the name of Steph Brown’s solo recording project; “1not2” comes from the debut release, a five-song EP called Lips Songs, available via Bandcamp. Brown is from Auckland, but has been living (where else?) in Brooklyn for the last three years, with her four keyboards. (She used to have six but sold two of them to move to the US.) She is also in a band with Deva Mahal (Taj Mahal’s daughter) called Fredericks Brown, which plays an entirely different kind of music (simmering and soulful), and has also just released an EP. The “1not2” MP3 is a Fingertips exclusive right now.

Free and legal MP3: The Mynabirds (L. Burhenn returns w/ more great retro pop)

Laura Burhenn takes the standard blues progression and shapes it into a fiery piece of retro pop. Every last detail is exquisite, and yet the thing just plain stomps too. Right away, I love how the song starts in such a hurry it feels as if we’re joining in midstream and then oops it stops at that place four seconds in for that great, conflicted “Oh!” from Burhenn.

“Let the Record Go” – the Mynabirds

I cannot resist a repeat visit to the Mynabirds album, with this second free and legal MP3 now available (and also given what a great little set of music this comprises with the previous two selections). I just mainline this kind of sound–open my veins and inject it straight in. Laura Burhenn takes the standard blues progression and shapes it into a fiery piece of retro pop. Every last detail is exquisite, and yet the thing just plain stomps too. Right away, I love how the song starts in such a hurry it feels as if we’re joining in midstream and then oops it stops at that place four seconds in for that great, conflicted “Oh!” from Burhenn.

So many parts to like in such a short song!: the extended, melismatic “Oh” that functions as something between a verse and a chorus at 0:26; the repeated way the music stops or slows at just the right moments, without ever giving us the feeling of being interrupted; the fleeting bit of theatrical singing we hear at 1:04, as if maybe Lene Lovich has made a brief cameo; and then oh man when that opening “Oh!” comes back a third time right near the end (2:15) it completely melts my heart.

So if you missed it the first time, please rush back and listen as well to “Numbers Don’t Lie,” the first Mynabirds MP3 featured back in January. And then do yourself an even greater favor and buy What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood, which was released just last week on Saddle Creek; it’s a strong strong effort from a gifted musician.

Free and legal MP3: The Mynabirds (splendid neo-retro-gospel-pop)

“Numbers Don’t Lie” – the Mynabirds

A simple stuttering stomp of a keyboard vamp lies at the center of this nifty piece of neo-retro-gospel-pop (or some such thing; hey, I make this up as I go). While there are clearly a lot of nods to bygone times in the aural landscape of “Numbers Don’t Lie,” what charms me the most is the subtle but sure sense of currency that likewise defines this song. It is a song that belongs here in 2010 (numbers don’t lie, after all), and I think what gives me that impression has to do with clarity of presentation. From the plainly articulated keyboard notes to Laura Burhenn’s double-tracked vocals to the instantly enticing melody (note the hook-y chord change comes right in the second measure), all the pieces of the song ring with presence, with a “thereness” that separates a song that transcends its influences from a song that is smothered by them. (And, okay, those telephone-button blips in the bridge are a fun present-day touch too.)

Another point of clarity involves the song’s use of reverb, which is effective in its restraint. While the choral-like backing vocals get a reverb rinse, and the rhythm section also maybe a dose of it, Burhenn keeps her lead vocals clean. It makes an understated but incisive difference in the overall sound, and even though reverb is popular in present-day indie rock, this song’s judicious use of it makes it seem more real, more its own new thing as a result.

Laura Burhenn is known to some as half of the D.C. duo Georgie James, which played together for three years and released one album on Saddle Creek Records before breaking up in 2008. “Numbers Don’t Lie” is the first song made available from What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood, her first release as the Mynabirds, slated for an April release on Saddle Creek. Burhenn by the way named her project after the Mynah Birds, a Canadian R&B band in the ’60s that signed to Motown but never released any albums and at one point, impossibly enough, featured both Neil Young and Rick James in its lineup. MP3 via Saddle Creek.

Free and legal MP3: Tahiti 80 (carefree English-speaking French pop)

“Unpredictable” – Tahiti 80

Carefree English-speaking French pop from a band doing it before it was a genre. There’s something not only charming but truly satisfying about a song that works quite so well both for people who are barely paying attention and for people paying close attention. This is no small feat. For the first group, a jaunty, smoothly sung tune is all that’s required. Great background music. The second group is trickier to please, as the music has to display a sort of depth that jaunty, smoothly sung tunes by their nature often lack.

The depth here, for me, is rooted in the song’s offhanded musicality. “Unpredictable” is full of interesting moments that whisper rather than shout as they unfold. Listen, for instance, to the very start: we hear a basic drumbeat that the ear expects to be established through four standard measures but instead–there for us to notice, or not–it’s interrupted after three seconds, in the second measure, which grounds the song in a sort of percussive pre-introduction. Only after that comes the standard four-measure intro. Listen, as another example, to the subtle adjustments the melody makes in the verse and how seductively singer Xavier Boyle wraps his faintly textured tenor around them: the way the melody mimics the keyboard riff at 0:23; the slow then fast pacing in the phrase “knock me down” at 0:31; the way the verse line is shortened and turned on the unresolved phrase “on the wall” at 0:35; and that’s just in the first verse. I give the band points, too, for an entirely different kind of craftiness–how the song title comes not from the chorus but from the verse. That’s rare in a chipper number like this one; anyone seeking only the inattentive audience will place the title where it repeats most obviously.

Bouncing along since 1993, Tahiti 80 is quartet from Rouen, France. “Unpredictable” is from the album Activity Center, the band’s fourth, which has been out for a year in Europe; its U.S. release comes, at last, later this month.

Free and legal MP3: Slideshow Freak (glam-ish bedroom rock)

“Something More” – Slideshow Freak

This song, on the other hand, had me at hello, pretty much. A simple arpeggio, some electro-tinkling, some smooth keyboard vamping, then, boom–“Something More” begins right in its sweet spot, with its full-out, neo-glam-rock chorus. Somehow that’s really all it needs. Yes, there are verses in between and surely they kind of have to be there–a song can’t be all chorus, can it?–but you’ll be hard-pressed afterwards to remember exactly what they sounded like. I’m thinking you’ll be equally hard-pressed to dislodge the chorus from your head, not least for the way its swinging, backbeat-driven melody offers up pronouncements as big and dauntless as its sound: “It takes a better man than me/To save a broken heart”; “I spend my life on my back/But never see the stars”; et al.

Slideshow Freak is another one of those “not a band, just a guy” acts made possible by 21st-century technology, musical know-how, and a lot of time on one’s hands. The guy this time is one Jamie Wright, who was born and raised in the UK but appears to be living in Florida now. “Something More” is the lead track to the debut Slideshow Freak EP, We Should Swing, which was released in July on Filthy Little Angels Records. Thanks to the typically excellent Low Slung Podcast for the head’s up. MP3 via Filthy Little Angels. Note that you can download all six songs from the EP on the FLA site.