Free and legal MP3: Smug Brothers (Charming, GBV-adjacent indie rock)

Although still lo-fi, the mix is a bit cleaner, the melodies super-agreeable; this is the sound of a band inviting you very happily down its rabbit hole rather than seeming indifferent to whether you’ve dropped in or not.

“Every One is Really Five” – Smug Brothers

They are probably tired of Guided By Voices comparisons, but what the heck: here is a scruffy indie-rock band from Dayton who specialize in inscrutable yet melodic lo-fi compositions, many not even two minutes long (sample song titles here: “Antenna Chariot Quarterfinals,” “Fuel for the Maypole Osmosis”). Oh and the drummer used to be in Guided By Voices. So, you can’t blame me for using GBV as at least a point of reference.

That said, if Smug Brothers are inspired by Guided By Voices, they also seem somewhat more interested in recording songs you don’t have to try quite so hard to like (or feel like a failure if you don’t). Although still lo-fi, the mix is a bit cleaner, the melodies super-agreeable; this is the sound of a band inviting you very happily down its rabbit hole rather than seeming indifferent to whether you’ve dropped in or not. Charming from beginning to end, “Every One is Really Five” launches off rock’n’roll’s primal backbeat, yet puts us from the start in the middle of a mundane but intriguing scenario: “I recall/You were heading the other way/I recall/I was just starting my day.” You might wonder just what is going on here, and you probably won’t really find out—by the time the chorus gives us the titular assertion that “every one is really five,” I’m not sure that will make any more or less sense than the rest of it. But the completed couplet—“We’re all just lucky to be alive”—is sung with such poignant good humor that you can let the whole thing make sense in that way that has nothing to do with how unintelligible the words mostly are. This is one of music’s super powers and these guys have it going. The song chugs along with a general sense of band noise in the background until around 1:30, when a couple of nonchalant guitars decide to speak up, just a bit—clanging out some measured melody lines before fading back into the good-natured swirl of sound.

Smug Brothers have existed in one form or another since 2004, at that point consisting of Kyle Melton and Daryl Robbins. Drummer Don Thrasher (great name for a drummer!) came on board in 2008. The lineup went through a major turnover in the 2017-2018 time frame; Melton and Thrasher remain, the others are new to the party. Because these guys love their sub-2:00 songs, their discography presents a challenge in determining what’s an album versus what’s an EP; they can put 11 songs on a 20-minute record. In any case, they’ve released 15 different stand-alone recordings, six or seven of which seem to be full-length endeavors, including their most recent, Serve a Thirsty Moon, which was released earlier this month via Gas Daddy Go Records. You can check it, and the entire Smug Brothers catalog, out via Bandcamp. “Every One is Really Five” is the 21st track on the 21-track album.

Free and legal MP3:Mattiel(smart, stylish lo-fi rocker)

Propelled by a fuzzy, fluent guitar lick, the song evokes something lonesome and long ago in a package that feels nevertheless very up to date.

Mattiel

“Not Today” – Mattiel

I guess it turns out to be guitar month here on Fingertips. A smart and stylish lo-fi rocker, “Not Today” oozes confidence and wonderfulness through the course of its perfect 3:38 pop song length. Propelled by a fuzzy, fluent guitar lick, the song evokes something lonesome and long ago in a package that feels nevertheless very up to date. And I’m not sure exactly how that works, as fuzzy guitar rock isn’t exactly the most up-to-date sub-genre on today’s scene. But that’s the beauty of plumbing rock history for inspiration here in the year 2018—you can find sounds and attitudes from past decades and still, because you’re a 20- or 30-something person in the digital age, write and record a song that feels like now.

Beyond the foundational guitar lick, “Not Today” is dominated by Mattiel Brown’s arresting vocals, which are also fuzzed up a bit, and infused with a tone at once sharp and blasé that recalls Amy Winehouse, at least a little. Meanwhile, don’t overlook the unusually in-sync rhythm section, in which the smashy drums tumble around and about a bass line so deep and concise it too feels like percussion.

Mattiel is a trio based in Atlanta. “Not Today” is from their self-titled debut album, released back in October on Burger Records. It’s a KEXP trifecta this week; this MP3 found its way there in January, and here it is, some months later, as I could no longer ignore it. This one is definitely a grower.

Free and legal MP3: Waxahatchee (simple tune, understated power)

A simple tune that reverberates with understated power.

Waxahatchee

“Silver” – Waxahatchee

Not that you have to be middle-aged to put out accomplished music, by the way (see previous review). Katie Crutchfield, 28, has, up till now, recorded three albums’ worth of smart, lo-fi rock’n’roll as Waxahatchee. (And this overlooks the many independent recordings she made—both solo and with bands—dating back to age 14, often with her twin sister Allison.) You sometimes have to slow down to appreciate her penchant for introspective, drum-free electric guitar pieces. But she’ll take it up a notch or two also, and in “Silver” we get Waxahatchee at its drummiest and catchiest.

A relatively simple tune, with a verse that employs but three notes, “Silver” reverberates with understated power. Some of this comes from the relentless fuzz of the guitar, some from the simple sound of a human being at a drum kit, some from the ineffable purity of Crutchfield’s unaffected voice. Also, I am getting a particular thrill out of lyrics that manage both to puzzle and to flow, as the striking preponderance of one-syllable words lends a comfortable solidity to a song that does not reveal much direct meaning. Because of the unorthodox title choice, I can’t help hearing the line “My skin all turns silver” with extra attention, but then what? Lacking comprehensible narrative message, the phrase highlights mystery on the one hand, while feeling precise and gratifying on the other—the colloquial construction of skin “all turning [x]” is lovely in the way a candid photo can be lovely: capturing something familiar and yet never quite recorded before.

Katie Crutchfield was born in Alabama—which explains, at least peripherally, Waxahatchee—but has been based (sometimes loosely) in Philadelphia since the early 2010s. “Silver” is a track from the fourth Waxahatchee album, Out in the Storm, which is coming in July on Merge Records. MP3 available, again, via the fine folks at KEXP.

Free and legal MP3:DoublePlusGood (lo-fi-ish, neo-new-wave-ish)

The new wave era pop rock that inspires them was typically fabricated with glistening studio sheen back in the day; that a song like “Sometimes” pushes forward with an almost homely plainness adds to its appeal in an odd and refreshing way.

DoublePlusGood

“Sometimes” – DoublePlusGood

The Portland duo DoublePlusGood (three guys in the photo, yes, I don’t know why) traffic in almost heart-breakingly straightforward and melodic synth pop. The new wave era pop rock that inspires them was typically fabricated with glistening studio sheen back in the day; that a song like “Sometimes” pushes forward with an almost homely plainness adds to its appeal in an odd and refreshing way.

And note that while couched in a lo-fi feel, “Sometimes” does not confuse lo-fi with mere muddiness. On the contrary, one of the song’s many charms is the aural accessibility of all of its sounds—there’s nothing going on that can’t be singled out and understood by the ear, which is actually an unusual accomplishment in an age when it is far too easy to layer and overlap till the cows come home. And bonus points here for the late-arriving bridge (singing begins at 2:48), with its darker, lower-register melody, and its eventual and artful meshing with the friendly and by now inevitable-sounding chorus.

“Sometimes” is a track from the the PDX Pop Now! Annual Compilation, which was released in June, in advance of the PDX Pop Now! music festival, scheduled for this weekend in Portland. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Son of Stan (smartly, smoothly crafted out of lo-fi parts)

Like a magician knowingly guiding our attention away from a trick’s “secret,” Richardson uses the sound of his song to distract us from its bewildering framework.

Son of Stan

“Corsica” – Son of Stan

The familiar but unplaceable instrumental sound that introduces and accompanies “Corsica” is not just an instantly engaging sound—its tone resembling a cross between a guitar and a human voice, maybe—but a strong, melodic riff that works as the song’s predominant hook. While I am not any kind of a gear geek (the “obscure and antiquated pedals” used to create the sound don’t intrigue me), I am a sucker for instrumental hooks, which have never been all that common in rock’n’roll, and have gone almost entirely MIA in 21st-century indie rock. While most songwriters prefer to put words to their hookiest melodies, I find that an instrumental melody line or motif at the song’s core adds richness that is at once notable—you can’t help hearing it—and elusive, since you can’t easily sing along to it. Making it that much more notable, says me.

While the hook pretty much carries the song, Jordan Richardson’s vocals are a complementary piece of the puzzle. A purposefully low-quality mic may have generated the thin, overmodulated sound, but check out how effectively this vocal presentation is installed within its aural habitat. Like a magician knowingly guiding our attention away from a trick’s “secret,” Richardson uses the sound of his song to distract us from its bewildering framework: there are verses, and alternate verses, and two related one-line segments of which one or the other may or may not be the chorus, and instrumental breaks, and unnameable extra sections. The two reliable unifying elements are the instrumental riff/hook and Richardson’s oddly processed voice, and they see us nicely through, and make me happy to listen again.

“Corsica” is from Divorce Pop, Richardson’s debut album as Son of Stan. He plays all the instruments on the album, but will tour with a live band. Originally from Fort Worth, Richardson, a drummer by trade, is based in Los Angeles, and has worked with Ben Harper and Ringo Starr, among others. Divorce Pop is slated for release next month on Wizardvision Records, which appears to be Richardson’s imprint.

Free and legal MP3: Tideup (lo-fi electronica w/ lovely vocals)

Singer Noelle Indovino’s voice floats with airy grace above the swells and clatters of the electronic backbeat.

Tideup

“Walk” – Tideup

Despite the volume of lifeless electronica and/or electro-pop that has flooded the internet over the last 10 or so years, let us not ever give up on the basic sound, which in the proper hands can still deliver fresh and delightful music. File “Walk” under fresh and delightful, thanks in large part to the clear sweetness of front woman Noelle Indovino’s voice. Draped in a bit of reverb, she still sounds present and crisp, a tone rarely heard in the overcrowded world of DIY electronic duos. And apparently this is no accident. Tideup mastermind/producer/multi-instrumentalist Ben Guzman spent two years searching, via Craigslist, for the right female vocalist to buoy his electronics-oriented landscapes, inspired by music he admired from the Dirty Projectors. Indovino answered his ad in December 2011, as well as his musical prayers. Her voice lends a seductive humanity to Guzman’s adept textures, floating with airy grace above the swells and clatters of the electronic backbeat.

But Tideup isn’t just about a pretty voice. “Walk” is a sturdy song, with lovely, rubbery melodies and thoughtful touches like that vivid three-note melisma in the chorus at 1:53 (melisma: one syllable held through a succession of notes), the thoughtfully sparse instrumental break at 2:20, and what sounds like the ongoing addition of organic drumming on top of the electronic beat. Listen closely and you might also notice how the verse melody is different the second time through, always a sign of a thoughtful composition. And one of the most appealing extras in “Walk” stems again from Indovino’s singing—that lovely wordless vocal she offers us ahead of the verse, which is an unusual and enticing moment. Let this one wash over you a few times and you might start glowing.

“Walk” is a song from Tideup’s debut EP, In Curses You Came, which was released digitally at the beginning of the year. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy it, via Bandcamp. Guzman and Indovino are based in Orlando, Florida.

Free and legal MP3: The Blank Tapes (impeccable song, classic sound)

Lo-fi recording master Matt Adams takes his Blank Tapes project into a full-fledged recording studio for the first time. Goodness ensues.

The Blank Tapes

“Coast to Coast” – The Blank Tapes

Previously known for his home-recorded-onto-cassette output (and quite a lot of output it was), Matt Adams has taken his shape- (and location-)shifting lo-fi project The Blank Tapes into an actual recording studio, solidified it into a permanent band, and given us an impeccable helping of rock’n’roll goodness in the process.

Adams has always had a knack for songwriting; to my ears, it’s a pleasure to hear a song of his given the width and depth that lo-fi recording really can’t deliver. But it’s not like he’s turned into Beyoncé or anything—a fuzzy sense of the homemade and hand-crafted very much remains, and completely serves a song that pays homage to the garage-y side of classic ’60s rock while avoiding the feel of a hollow knock-off. Hints of the Zombies, the Kinks, CCR, and/or the Guess Who are sprinkled in and around “Coast to Coast,” which is additionally full of splendid touches of its own, both small and large—the minor-key wordless vocal introduction to the major-key song; the fleeting Spector beat in front of the chorus; and (my favorite) the extended bridge that offers not only an aural change of pace but unfolds into a very satisfying coda section (2:48). When the ear is taken on that effective of a side trip, hearts are usually won over.

Adams has spent musical time in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. The latest incarnation of the Blank Tapes is an L.A.-based trio featuring D.A. Humphrey on bass and Pearl Charles on drums. “Coast to Coast” is the first available song from the album Vacation, which is due out in May on Antenna Farm Recordings. You can download the song via the link above or from SoundCloud. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Connections (stellar lo-fi power pop)

“Mall Lights” is one of a series of lo-fi power pop gems on the band’s debut album, Private Airplane.

Connections

“Mall Lights” – Connections

In classic science fiction, everything in the future was always new. Even though the present moment of our actual experience always incorporates sights and sounds and objects and ideas from generations, even centuries, gone by, that reality was typically overlooked by writers and directors creating imaginary futures in science fiction novels and movies. Blade Runner notably shattered that perspective, and things have been a little better since. But the idea that the future must somehow be purely new, jettisoned of all previous history, remains a resolute mindset among a certain type of cyber zealot—the one who likes to stomp around calling anyone with any interest in attitudes and artifacts from the pre-digital age a “dinosaur,” a “Luddite,” or “afraid of change.” This person is a buffoon. Real-life human society does not discard its past whole-hog; the only way we truly grow, collectively, in fact, is to learn from our past, and, quite often, to preserve helpful ways of being and doing precisely because they will help us even in the face of changing circumstances.

And so, you see, for all of the new sounds and innovative devices that have flooded the music world over the last 15 years, and for all the new micro-genres they have generated, there will always, in our lifetime at least, be people somewhere making music like this—people who plug their guitars into their amps and have a go at it. A lot of these people will produce music too redundant or too derivative or too uninspired to be worthy of attention. But then there will be the occasional band like Connections, a quintet from Columbus, Ohio, who plug their guitars into their amps, set up their drum kits, and wowee—the ears smile, the heart gladdens, and for two minutes or so at a time, all is right with the world. “Mall Lights” is one of a series of lo-fi power pop gems on the band’s debut album, Private Airplane. What makes this one work particularly well above and beyond the jangly guitars, resolute backbeat, and fuzzy ambiance is the song’s all but unending hookiness. The verse grabs me immediately with its grounded, NRBQ-ish musicality, its major-minor shifts, and its adroitly employed power chords. And yet this is mere set-up for the sublime chorus, which artfully skips the first beat of each measure until (0:45) its tail section wraps the tune up with a brilliant bow.

Connections didn’t invent any of this stuff; I’m guessing that fans of Guided by Voices in particular will hear a lot of that Ohio institution’s work in the lo-fi poppiness on display here. Note that Connections features two guys from 84 Nash, a defunct Columbus-based band whose 1997 debut was released by GBV patriarch Robert Pollard’s Rockathon record label, as well as one guy from the band Times New Viking. But as with any good music, however influenced by past masters, the end product transcends its roots. This is time-tested music produced by time-tested musicians, and the world is a better place for it.

Private Airplane was released in January on Columbus-based Anyway Records. Thanks to the band for the MP3, which is a Fingertips exclusive at this point.

Free and legal MP3: Soltero (jaunty & homespun)

Reminiscent of Yo La Tengo’s acoustic side.

Soltero

“Mercenary Heart” – Soltero

Jaunty and homespun, “Mercenary Heart” has the loose-limbed warmth of Yo La Tengo’s acoustic side. Underneath the mild-mannered ambiance, however, is the same kind of songwriting diligence that Soltero has displayed the previous two times they’ve been featured here (in 2004 and 2008).

Although not as extremely positioned as the Cub Scouts song regarding resolution, or lack thereof, singer/songwriter Tim Howard definitely uses unresolved moments to his advantage here, employing melody lines both in the verse and in the chorus that end before resolving. Rather than leaving the ear hanging, however, Howard lets the music resolve after the singing stops, which, in addition to the breezy pace, is what gives the song its sense of relentless motion.

I also like how effectively Howard works with sound, and how he shows that you don’t have to go nuts with strange and novel sonic elements to create compelling textures. Here, Howard works with little more than two guitar sounds and the regular and upper register of his own voice. True to the cliche, less can often be more.

Soltero recorded four albums as a (usually) four-piece band in Boston from 2000 to 2005. The fifth album, in 2008, was pretty much a solo endeavor for Howard, who was then living in Philadelphia. He went on to live in North Carolina and Central America before settling recently in Brooklyn. “Mercenary Heart” is a song from 1943, the latest Soltero album, set for release next week. The album was recorded largely with Alex Drum (who is in fact a drummer), but playing live now the band is back to four pieces. Note that there are two other songs in addition to this one available as free and legal MP3s via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Mirror Lady (luminous lo-fi)

This is one of those songs that you can take a slice of at any point and find all sorts of interesting and wonderful things happening.

Mirror Lady

“Hands Are Tied” – Mirror Lady

Careful readers will know that lo-fi music makes an occasional appearance here, but it’s more accident than statement. I am not a fan of lo-fi for the sake of its lo-fi-ness; I am a fan of good songs, and when they happen to be constructed in a lo-fi environment, hooray for that, because it’s another worthy three or four minutes of music unleashed in the world.

“Hands Are Tied” is a particular marvel, a song both superbly crafted and distinctly attuned to its lo-fi setting—so attuned in fact that you almost don’t notice how lo-fi it is. That, to me, is a brilliant accomplishment. The key is the warmth of the sound. Bathed in reverb, the song still feels lucid and distinct. The keyboard, guitar, and the bass all but melt together, sketching lazy joint melodies over a drum beat at once urgent and welcoming. This is one of those songs that you can take a slice of at any point and find all sorts of interesting and wonderful things happening. I particularly like the woodwind-y synth melody that chimes in after the phrase “always the same,” first heard at 1:45. I am charmed as well by the very end of the song, how you can hear the bass turn off, which in that one sound/gesture embodies the song’s lo-fi warmth.

Now based in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, the three men calling themselves Mirror Lady first started playing together while students at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “Hands Are Tied” is from the band’s debut recording, an EP entitled Roman Candles, which was self-released last month and is available via Bandcamp on a “name your price” basis.