Free and legal MP3: Flo Perlin and Pilgrims’ Dream

Lovely, deep, timeless

“Life Lives Inside” – Flo Perlin and Pilgrims’ Dream

Lovely and solemn, “Life Lives Inside” is a hymn-like waltz that seems to flow from the depths of that timeless, intuitive place from which the great songs emerge. The melody has the majestic clarity of ages-old folk music, while the easy-going setting is scrupulously presented, but in a way that seems offhand and unfettered–just two people singing, with instruments so casually calibrated as to seem all but undetectable.

With a two-line verse that repeats only once, sung by Perlin alone, “Life Lives Inside” is almost all chorus. And a terrific chorus it is, with two expressive parts, presented in same-note male-female harmonies, Rob Ouseley buzzing low below Perlin’s affecting lead. The swaying rhythm conjures the song’s ocean-bound setting; the finely crafted lyrics hide and convey in equal measure, the words important as sounds as much as message. To my ears, as an example, the power of the couplet “We gave what we could/We couldn’t give more” is as dependent upon the pattern of its carefully repeated words as its poignant sentiment.

“Life Lives Inside,” for all its apparent simplicity, rewards many listens. As you travel through the song again you’ll notice a number of wonderful moments, such as Perlin’s evocative uplift on the word “eye” (0:39), and the wonderful hesitation she builds into the phrase “like nothing I’d heard” (1:46). The quiet instrumentation alone is worth an attentive ear, including the steady muted keyboard underscoring the chorus, with its occasional quiet run of right-hand countermelody, and the gorgeously curated percussion, involving nothing that sounds like a drum kit but rather a well-placed assortment of knocks, snaps, and claps.

Flo Perlin is a London-based singer/songwriter; Pilgrims’ Dream is the performing name employed by singer/songwriter/producer Ouseley, likewise in London. The two met at an open mic five years ago; they wrote and recorded “Life Lives Inside” in Perlin’s living room. The song was released earlier this month and appears to be their only collaboration to date. I for one would eagerly hear more from them.

Free and legal MP3: Fossa (a circular non-stop stream of a song)

As gentle as it is insistent, “Five Days” feels intriguingly like a song with neither a beginning nor an ending.

Fossa

“Five Days” – Fossa

As gentle as it is insistent, “Five Days” feels intriguingly like a song with neither a beginning nor an ending. We are enveloped in a warm, tick-tock groove before we quite get our bearings, and when the words start they tumble out in an unflagging stream, leaving singer Louis Shadwick with few obvious places to breathe. The concept of a verse or a chorus is quickly irrelevant here, as the words pour into a circular, sing-songy pattern that manages to seem on the one hand almost spoken and amelodic and on the other hand a fully engaging melody. This is a really unusual and captivating song masquerading as no big deal.

And while there can be few young British rock bands, whichever still exist at this point, that aren’t (rightfully) influenced (and/or intimidated) by the large shadow cast ahead of them by Radiohead, Fossa strikes me as wearing the influence as lightly and creatively as just about any I’ve heard. The band’s blending of acoustic and electric is managed so that you barely notice they’ve plugged anything in at all—at least until an honest-to-goodness electric guitar shows up at the two-minute mark and just about steals the show with its lovely, meticulous line. Although the meandering but purposeful chord progression that precedes the guitar (starting at 1:32) is pretty great too, as is the guitar again, later, when it turns clangy and anarchic.

Fossa is a London-based quartet. “Five Days” is the lead track off their debut release, a four-song EP entitled Sea of Skies. You can listen to it and buy it at Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Terminal Gods (dark yet uplifting guitar rock)

Hook-iness nestled in a gnarled shelter of blazing guitars.

Terminal Gods

“The Wheels of Love” – Terminal Gods

A pounding ferocity that makes me want to talk in clipped sentences. Hook-iness nestled in a gnarled shelter of blazing guitars. Almost poignant in its refusal of poignancy. Black leather hiding a tender heart. Those gruff, baritone lead vocals that almost aren’t even like singing.

But then there’s the discipline of the guitar lines themselves that give rise to a need for articulate description. I hear unexpected echoes of Big Country’s bagpipey sound lurking in the fervent fingerwork, and something of that band’s earnest hopefulness too, despite Terminal Gods’ best efforts to cloak themselves in a goth-ier growl. The song is simply too well built to be a downer, the interplay between vocalist Robert Cowlin and guitarist Robert Maisey too vivid to do anything but uplift.

Cowlin and Maisey were formerly in a band called The Mumbles from 2005 to 2011; Terminal Gods was formed shortly thereafter. “Wheels of Love” is from the band’s debut release, a six-song EP entitled Machine Beat Messiah, released in late November. You can listen and/or buy via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Goldheart Assembly (energetic & smile-inducing)

Nothing is better than music that makes you smile not because it’s funny but just because it makes you smile.

Goldheart Assembly

“Oh Really” – Goldheart Assembly

With slinky-swingy energy of elusive provenance, “Oh Really” is irresistible well before the gang-style vocal response in the chorus makes further opposition futile. Nothing is better than music that makes you smile not because it’s funny but just because it makes you smile.

Beyond those fetching “Oh really?”s of the chorus, the song’s charms are rooted, to my ears, in the way the melodies snake in and around the 4/4 time signature; routine avoidance of the downbeat (i.e., the first beat of the measure) gives “Oh Really” the momentum of a slippery incantation. At the same time, the slightly over-modulated mix pushes the ear in a not-unpleasant way, adding to the goofily hyped-up ambiance. All in all a winner that needs to be listened to more than written about. (That’s your cue.)

“Oh Really” has been around since at least 2010 but did not appear on either of the band’s first two albums. It was officially unveiled as a single in January. Goldheart Assembly is a five-piece band based in London. Thanks to Lauren Laverne at BBC 6 for the head’s up, and to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Marika Hackman (quiet, but elusively sturdy)

Marika Hackman

“Skin” – Marika Hackman

Not as wispy as it initially may seem, “Skin” unfolds with just the right amount of atmospheric oddness and melodic surprise to lend an elusive sturdiness to this deep, quivery song. I am engaged by how artfully Hackman integrates her acoustic guitar with electric and electronic sounds; there’s something satisfyingly new in this aural template, without any sign of strain or self-consciousness. Her melodies, meanwhile, feel at once strong and slippery, opting for directions that often feel unexpected. The most notable example of this comes at the tail end of the verse section, first heard at 0:51 on the words “Oh here’s my hands.” Hackman’s smoky voice and eccentric way with tone and phrasing adds to the enigmatic yet self-possessed vibe.

“Skin” is also a beautifully constructed song, employing a standard verse-chorus-verse structure but tweaking it for emotional impact. Note the way the melody in the verse is repeated twice but the second time veers off unresolved. The first time this happens, the song melts into a haunting guitar break; after the second verse, we finally hear what appears to be the chorus, and a line that feels like the song’s dramatic center (1:52): “I’m a fever in your chest.” But note too that this apparent chorus is brief and also ends unresolved melodically. And then when the chorus returns musically (2:48), it arrives with different lyrics, which reinforces the song’s underlying mystique.

“Skin” features backing vocals by fellow London singer/songwriter Sivu, and is part of a collaborative project the two musicians released in December, in advance of a UK tour together. The other song on the release was a Sivu song called “I Hold” that Hackman, in turn, sang on. Hackman to date has released two EPs, the most recent one entitled Sugar Blind, which came out last month. Thanks to WXPN for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Fé (graceful, melodic, brilliant)

Now this is the kind of graceful, melodic, idiosyncratic-yet-accessible music that hits me right in my sweet spot—the kind of song Fingertips pretty much exists for.

Fé

“She Came – Fé

Now this is the kind of graceful, melodic, idiosyncratic-yet-accessible music that hits me right in my sweet spot—the kind of song Fingertips pretty much exists for. I instantly love the sense of movement and the distant ringing guitars in the introduction. And then the lyrics!; in which we are treated to a new classic opening line:

West London women have no passion
Sadness to them is just another word

Surely there is something Smiths-like in “She Came”‘s fluid, minor-key lamentation, but this is no knock-off; it bursts with a rigorous core of its own device. The melody’s brilliant development, combined with the sly harmonic and rhythmic jiggles that give it continual life, actually bring Steely Dan to mind, and that’s kind of an odd thing because this doesn’t sound at all like Steely Dan. But maybe a few of you will hear what I’m hearing. And if the opening lyrical salvo isn’t enough, there’s the chorus’s closing lines to ponder, which not only nail some kind of beautiful, aphoristic ambiguity, but arrive with an offhanded musical resolution that sneaks in and knocks my socks off:

A weaker man may not have tried
A stronger man may have survived

Fé is the London-based duo of Ben Moorhouse and Leo Duncan, new enough to the scene that they still, apparently, ride the Underground and regale commuters with skiffle-like takes on early rock’n’roll songs. These guys may well be going places that you have to get out of the Tube to arrive at.

Free and legal MP3: Big Deal (simple, compelling rock’n’roll)

There’s something grand and achy in the big sound of the London duo Big Deal—even as it bursts with movement and purpose, I feel an undercurrent of delicious melancholy here.

Big Deal

“Swapping Spit” – Big Deal

There’s something grand and achy in the big sound of the London duo Big Deal—it bursts with movement and purpose on the one hand, serves up an undercurrent of delicious melancholy on the other. This may be rooted in something as simple and structural as the song-length use of octave male-female harmonies/lead vocals. My love for octave harmonies (i.e., the same note sung an octave apart) is long established; when they come in the guise of a lead vocal shared by a man and a woman, it’s a yummy treat times two (or three, or four; not sure math works here, actually). The fact that the harmonies culminate in the repeated line, each time the chorus comes around, “I will, I will” seals the deal: I can’t follow the song lyrically, but that “I will, I will” is an arresting aural paradox—hopeful on the surface, desperate below.

And give me a simple song, tightly conceived, over a sprawling complexity any day of the week. Or, at least, some days. “Swapping Spit” has so much happening within its apparent rock’n’roll simplicity that I listen to it over and over without tiring. The male-female octave harmonies turn out to be a perfect metaphor for the effectiveness of the entire song—it’s the same note being sung (simple) but an octave apart (complication) and by opposing genders (further complication). And so do we also in “Swapping Spit” get: a verse that has two different versions (a lower melody the first time [0:16], a higher melody the second time [1:19], and boy do I love the character of both voices in their combined upper ranges); a chorus that first of all has a pre-chorus and then, the second time around, has expanded versions of both the pre-chorus and the regular chorus; and then, slyly, a song that places its title into the extended part of the chorus. And as for that title, it too offers up compelling equivocation, as Alice Costelloe and Kacey Underwood sing words—“All the lovers swapping spit/I’ll get used to it”—that mess with our heads. Love (good thing? bad thing?) comes up as one more arresting paradox.

“Swapping Spit” is a new single upcoming from Big Deal’s second album, June Gloom, which was in fact released back in June, on Mute Records.

Free and legal MP3: Lux Lisbon (soulful, w/ 4-part harmonies)

What stands out here is the unabashed effort to make inclusive, crowd-friendly music.

Lux Lisbon

“Get Some Scars” – Lux Lisbon

With its vocal-heavy arrangement and its conspicuous soulfulness, “Get Some Scars” not only sounds like little you hear in the air in the 21st century’s second decade, it sounds like a protest against a musical age known more for its robotic technological frills and hype-oriented gimmickry than for passionate musical prowess. And let me quickly add that there are of course many independent musicians today who with equal passion and prowess stand in opposition to the horror of today’s auto-tuned top 40 and its pea-brained lyrical concerns. But what stands out here is the unabashed effort to make inclusive, crowd-friendly music. And what a relief it is to remember that inclusive, crowd-friendly music can at least sometimes, still, sound so easy and so affecting. “Get Some Scars” is big without being loud, simple without being insipid, smooth without being formulaic.

The secret to its success is, I think, its groove. This is a serious groove, but an elusive one.The bass more often sings and sustains rather than plucks in the funky style often associated with grooves. Percussion takes a backseat to vocal harmonies. This is it seems a groove created and fed by the swinging, swaying momentum of the melody, and driven home by the vocal layers, as emphatic as they are organic. (The band recruited an extra singer to help front man Stuart Rook with the four-part harmonies.) My ear keeps telling me that the melodic interval that repeats, both in the verse and the chorus, somehow feeds the groove—it’s a major third, four semitones apart, and heard most clearly at the start of the chorus (1:27), with the words, “Oh while we’re young,” each syllable bouncing the interval top to bottom and back again, and with great swing, and all those harmonies. And right here is where the otherwise slippery lyrics solidify into a true moment, words and music coalescing into something larger than either:

Oh while we’re young, yeah, let’s go out and get some scars
‘Cause when we’re older we wear them to tell us apart

Lux Lisbon is a five-piece band founded in Nottingham and now based in London. The band’s name is one of the sisters in the Jeffrey Eugenides novel The Virgin Suicides. “Get Some Scars” is their latest single, released last month. You can listen to their debut album, released in January, via Bandcamp. Thanks to the band for the MP3. And in case this relates to any of your schedules this weekend, Lux Lisbon will be playing at the Bestival on the Isle of Wight, on Sunday night.

Free and legal MP3: Scanners (musically astute & cinematic)

“Salvation” – Scanners

The London-based foursome Scanners make a kind of music once all too common and now all too rare: smartly-produced, aurally interesting, musically astute rock’n’roll. This is music that isn’t trying to be fancy, or arcane, or difficult; and yet neither is it simple-minded in sound or concept. Now, I said that this sort of smartly produced (etc.) rock used to be pretty common, which leaves us with the interesting reality that we are not, in 2009, used to hearing music like this in songs that we don’t already know. (Such a dispiriting genre, “classic rock”–sealed off by definition from the living, breathing world.) Kind of an odd truth, and one which makes a song like “Salvation” all the more appealing.

I like, right at the start, how the song offers depth and drama with such sparse instrumentation: until 55 seconds in, we hear precious little but an itchy acoustic guitar lick and some distant chimes, joined for a bit by a quiet keyboard motif. The atmosphere is fostered by the minor key melody and those resonant backing vocals, which are echoey and mixed in such a way as to sound as if the voices were shouting but the volume was turned way down. It’s a foreboding effect. Keep an ear on the harmonies throughout–they remain central, and get increasingly interesting. And for all the sonic theatrics, discipline rules the day. You don’t hear too many rockers that will dial back halfway into a song (1:19) so that you can only hear, for three seconds, one repeated note on an acoustic guitar.

“Salvation” is from the band’s forthcoming album, Submarine, scheduled for a February release on Dim Mak Records. The band was previously featured here in Aug ’06, around the time of the first album, Violence is Golden. MP3 via Better Propaganda.

Free and legal MP3: The Clientele (breezy sound w/ a pensive undercurrent)

“I Wonder Who We Are” – the Clientele

With an echo of the cheerful old Aztec Camera song, “Oblivious,” in the air here, what do you know, we’ve got yet another summery delight on our hands.

At least, seemingly. “I Wonder Who We Are” is an upbeat song with an ostensibly carefree, kicking-around kind of vibe, and yet between the open chords, pensive vocals, and central role of acoustic instruments (guitar, violin, piano), there’s a reserve bordering on melancholy that I’m hearing despite the surface-level peppiness. And sure, lead singer Alasdair MacLean is offering those airy “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba”s but they keep leading to that recurring, rather poignant question: “I wonder who we are?” So I for one am not surprised by the 20-second pause at 3:06 when everything clears away, the chugging rhythm disappears, and we’re left with a bit of forlorn but lovely guitar noodling. Soon enough the “ba-ba”s come back, toes resume tapping, but I’m left with a feeling that we are being invited to ponder something the typical summer song doesn’t usually get tangled up with.

The Clientele are a London-based quartet with a recording history dating back to 2000. “I Wonder Who We Are” will be found on the band’s fifth album, Bonfires on the Heath, slated for a September release on Merge Records. MP3 via Merge.