Free and legal MP3: The Luxembourg Signal (artful, guitar-oriented dream pop)

With a hypnotic groove grounded in organic drumming and a slightly off-kilter chord progression, “Laura Palmer” doesn’t reveal its “Twin Peaks” connection readily, but it’s there.

The Luxembourg SIgnal

“Laura Palmer” – The Luxembourg Signal

With a hypnotic groove grounded in organic drumming and a slightly off-kilter chord progression, “Laura Palmer” doesn’t reveal its Twin Peaks connection readily—I for one can’t make heads or tails out of the lyrics—but over the course of its almost six minutes, I do hear allusions to Angelo Badalamenti’s iconic musical landscape. Listen, for instance, to the protracted synth lines that float above the briskly moving foreground. Listen, as well, to the ominous rumble of guitar noise that rears its head down below after the 2:20 mark. And in general there’s a melancholy that weaves itself through the song that surely conjures the at once melodramatic and tragic fate of David Lynch’s mythological victim.

This is one of those fortunate longer songs that creates such a seductive atmosphere as to feel, still, rather too short than too long. To my ears, it’s the artful amalgam of voice and guitar that carries “Laura Palmer” to such an exquisite place. At first the meet-up is mostly between Betsy Moyer’s voice and one finger-picked, jangly-toned electric guitar; even though I have referred to the song’s “groove,” let me note that the feel is all gentle and melodic here, not rhythmic or beat-based. More of a wall of guitar sound emerges as the song develops, but even as the texture grows in density, an overall feeling of delicacy persists. As with Twin Peaks, the song seems to exist in its own time and place. (This isn’t nearly as weird as the TV show, however.)

The Luxembourg Signal is a seven-piece band based in Los Angeles. Various members have their roots in the band Aberdeen in the ’90s, and vocalist Beth Arzy was last seen passing through these parts as a member of Trembling Blue Stars (featured here way the hell back in 2004, for the similarly woozy, name-inspired song “Helen Reddy”). “Laura Palmer” is a song from the album Blue Field, the band’s second, released in October on Shelflife Records. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: The Rebel Light (anthemic summery goodness)

This a great, must-hear summer song, now that we’re smack in the middle of summer here in the northern hemisphere.

The Rebel Light

“Where Did All The Love Go” – The Rebel Light

This a great, must-hear summer song, now that we’re smack in the middle of summer here in the northern hemisphere. The minor detail is that this song came out last summer—it fell through the cracks here, as music often does, due the unprecedented volume of recorded musical activity that entreats us in the 2010s. Apologies up front to the fine fellows of The Rebel Light, who have been dolling out delightful indie rock goodness since 2013, and were previously featured here in October 2014.

“Where Did All The Love Go” is upbeat in a languid way, has happy string riffs, is easy to sing along with, and is all about love: perfect summer song, yes? What seals the deal is that the song is not lyrically cheerful, but shot through with wistful ruminations. What is a summer song without a shot of wistfulness? Barely a summer song at all, in my book.

I like how effortlessly this trio call forth bygone musical times without caving in to pure nostalgia. There is nothing frozen here as they call forth a’70s-in-California sound; instead, they tap into the heart of anthemic pop music that knows no time or space (although has been too often kicked to the curb since the mid-’00s or so). To accentuate the song’s sing-along quality, the band gives us two different versions, lyrically, of the same chorus, and it works because they have landed on a classic-sounding melody here, leaking all sorts of references out its sides but asserting itself as its own new thing right here and now.

“Where Did All The Love Go” is a track from the band’s most recent effort, a five-song EP entitled, appropriately enough, A Hundred Summer Days, released last August on Dualtone Records. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3:Coincidence Bizarre (sleek, sonorous hip-hop)

A concise and atmospheric number from an anonymous Los Angelese-based ensemble.

Coincidence Bizarre

“Invisible Man” – Coincidence Bizarre

“Invisible Man” is a concise and atmospheric number from a group or ensemble or collective that calls itself Coincidence Bizarre. Outside of their location in Los Angeles, the folks behind this effort are keeping themselves purposefully hidden. Meaning, I can’t even paper over my congenital lack of hip-hop knowledge with information about the artist. With an upfront understanding that my musical affinities are rooted in melody and therefore my ears have always felt at sea in the hip-hop world, I find myself engaged by the sleek and sonorous “Invisible Man.”

Why? Not exactly sure. I like the gentle texture of its careful construction, the way there is always something of aural interest happening but without melodrama or turgidity. I like the wit on display. Even just the way it starts, with something resembling a jazz guitar noodle, gives me a good feeling. As a bonus, my ear notes not one but two hooks, one with lyrics (the “Skip along, Sam” part) and one instrumental (the little run on that same guitar, immediately following [e.g., 0:42]). And I do not at all underestimate the simple power of an appealing voice in this context. For better or worse (and it’s probably an age thing), the aural character of what strikes me as a typical rapper’s voice has been a longstanding turn-off for me. The sound to my ear is bratty and self-involved. (Just for context, I didn’t much like the bratty and self-involved vocal character of someone like Johnny Rotten either.) The rapper here, whoever he is, conveys depth and spirit, humanity and complexity. I want to listen to him, and he layers his voice within a cunning amalgam of samples, effects, and surprises. Don’t miss the eerie insertion of something choral-sounding in the mix (around 1:56) as the song trips along to its conclusion.

“Invisible Man” is the A side of a single released in mid-May. It is the only Coincidence Bizarre release to date.

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:Kacey Johansing (warm and alluring)

“Bow and Arrow” has a melancholy majesty about it, formed of straightforward acoustic guitar strumming, a calm but resolute backbeat, and the dusky beauty of Kacey Johansing’s voice.

Kacey Johansing

“Bow and Arrow” – Kacey Johansing

“Bow and Arrow” has a melancholy majesty about it, formed of straightforward acoustic guitar strumming, a calm but resolute backbeat, and the dusky beauty of Kacey Johansing’s voice. This is the kind of music that grabs me at some level below or beyond the ear. I’m a sucker, to be sure, for suspended chords, and am pulled in effortlessly, as well, by lyrics that do this, even as I’m not sure exactly what “this” is:

I held the bow and arrow
Unsteady was my shot

These words arrive near the beginning; a scene is suggested without clarifying details—the titular bow and arrow could be pure metaphor, or could have a literal side; whatever story Johansing tells is sketched so elusively that we read the live-and-learn sorrow without apprehending a storyline. As the plot is probably thickening, in fact, Johansing backs away from enunciation, floating the second verse into smudges of suggestions; released from particulars, the listener tunes further into the emotion of the climactic lines (which I hope I’ve gleaned accurately):

I wanted to feel
Anything at all
I wanted to know
How far I could fall

So it turns out that songs are only partly fathomable as concrete notes and words on paper. Arrangement, vibe, and quality of singing voice can transform and transport. Meaning: it’s not always what someone is saying but how they are saying it—which then feeds back (crucially, alchemically) into what they are saying. That’s the magic of song, pretty much. Kacey Johansing (previously featured on Fingertips in 2013, by the way) has a firm grip on this magic.

Johansing is currently based in Los Angeles, after a decade in the Bay Area. “Bow and Arrow” is a song from her third album, The Hiding, which comes out in June on Night Bloom Records. MP3 via Insomnia Radio, a stalwart source of downloads in this wayward, stream-focused age.

Free and legal MP3: Auditorium (brisk, elusive, unique)

“Never Wrote a Diver a Poem” is brisk and elusive, ending before the cavalcade of mysterious lyrics can quite register, before, it might seem, the song has truly taken full flight.

Auditorium

“Never Wrote a Diver a Poem” – Auditorium

Last heard here in January 2015, Spencer Berger is back with his unique, theatrical take on 21st-century rock’n’roll. “Never Wrote a Diver a Poem” is brisk and elusive, ending before the cavalcade of mysterious lyrics can quite register—before, it might seem, the song has truly taken full flight.

But boy what an incisive little piece this is, with its mix of arcane pronouncements (“Never helped a builder learn the dirt’s a liar”) and aphoristic gems (“‘Kindly’ is a word that makes me doubt my deeds”), set to a rolling melody that spikes almost astonishingly with a one-off hook (the “once in generation” segment, starting at 0:54) before cuddling back into its determined groove. And even while barely reaching 1:40, the song is concise enough to first offer up a wordless melody in the introduction and then, at the end, bring that motif back into the song, now with lyrics (1:24).

Above and beyond all this remains the singular allure of Berger’s singing voice, which is tinged with exotic drama, bearing little resemblance to anything you’re normally streaming in the 2010s (unless you happen to be a Bat Out Of Hell fan; I must inescapably join in with others who hear Meatlovian elements in Auditorium vocals). One would guess Berger’s distinctive sound has something to do with his unique background, having been a professional opera singer from the ages of nine through 12; as a child, he literally sang with Pavarotti. Based in Los Angeles, he began recording as Auditorium in 2011. His new album, The First Music, was released in January; you can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp. It’s a real one-man-band effort, as Berger not only sings all the vocal parts and plays all the instruments, he also recorded and mixed it himself.

(Note that the song I featured here two years ago, “My Grandfather Could Make the World Dance,” has also ended up as a track on the new album.)

Thanks to Spencer for the MP3.


photo credit: Liza Boone

Free and legal MP3: Sara Melson (oceanic beauty)

Melson has an arresting voice, at once very direct, in a Jenny Lewis sort of way, but with a subtle, engaging quirkiness to it, a muted theatricality of tone.

Sara Melson

“El Matador Beach” – Sara Melson

Gentle and elegant, “El Matador Beach” unfolds slowly. Melson has an arresting voice, at once very direct, in a Jenny Lewis sort of way, but also with a subtle, engaging quirkiness to it, a muted theatricality of tone. Her voice feels particularly central to the developing song since it proceeds without percussion for 1:45; the most concentrated sound we hear during this slow build-up is Melson’s self-harmonizing in the chorus (1:12), and the effect, over the song’s oceanic sway, is angelic.

When the drumming starts, syncing beautifully with the melodic bass line, the tidal feeling expands out of the lyrics directly into the music, accentuated by the way the hypnotic chorus expands to fill most of the song’s second half. It almost prompts inexplicable laughter, a kind of bittersweet spiritual delight, to hear a song this committed to beauty in this most un-beautiful year.

Sara Melson is a singer/songwriter based in Los Angeles. Following her graduation from Harvard she became a successful television actress in the ’90s, appearing on shows like Frasier and Beverly Hills 90210. But over time, stifled by the cliched characters she was playing, she found music to be a more fulfilling way to be an artist, happily trading mainstream success for the chance to express herself authentically. (And what a better place the world might be if everyone felt this way.)

“El Matador Beach” is the first track on Melson’s new album Safe and Sound, her third full-length recording, released earlier this month. You can listen to it in full as well as buy it via Bandcamp. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Cheshires (ramshackle, melodic indie rock)

Buried in the substructure of this ramshackle forkful of indie rock goodness is a full-fledged classic rock song that’s just kind of messing with us.

Cheshires

“Love This Feelin'” – Cheshires

Buried in the substructure of this ramshackle forkful of indie rock goodness is a full-fledged classic rock song that’s just kind of messing with us. The melody is casually awesome. The same-note harmonies accentuate the song’s effortless catchiness. The chorus does that half-time thing that is as pleasant as it is elusive. There are not one but two off-kilter a capella breaks. There’s the way that the titular lyrical phrase scans properly for speaking but awkwardly (in an endearing way) for singing.

Best of all, there’s that gut-level, lower-register guitar riff that introduces the song and then waits its turn for reappearance. And waits. It partially returns in the chorus, first at 0:45, but in slightly altered, truncated form. The third time around we hear it nearly fully formed, at 2:26, enough to feel like an old friend, but still mixed down and incomplete. And so somehow this beefy, ’70s-tinged guitar riff is at once the backbone of the song and its missing piece. Nice trick!

“Love This Feelin'” is a song from Cheshires’ self-titled debut album. The L.A.-based trio is billed as a kind of resurrection of the ’90s indie band Remy Zero, as it features Remy Zero himself (birth name Shelby Tate), singer/songwriter Louis Schefano (original Remy Zero drummer), and multi-instrumentalist Leslie Van Trease, who put time in with Remy Zero when they toured. The album was released earlier this month. You can listen to it via SoundCloud and buy it via iTunes.

Free and legal MP3: People and Stars (’60s-esque, shuffly indie rock, w/ horns)

With its ’60s-esque, shuffly optimism and good-humored horn charts, “You’re Not Alone” feels like a wondrous balm during a stupidly fractious season.

People and Stars

“You’re Not Alone” – People and Stars

With its ’60s-esque, shuffly optimism and good-humored horn charts, “You’re Not Alone” feels like a wondrous balm during a stupidly fractious season. And for all its bright-eyed presence, one of the best things going on here is the melancholy that simultaneously weaves through this soul-satisfying song. From the dusky catch in vocalist Amanda Tate’s voice (I hear here a lovely echo of the late great Kirsty MacColl) to the minor-key moments etched into the catchy chorus, “You’re Not Alone” comes across less as mindlessly rosy than sensibly wistful about life’s beauty in and around its unpreventable angsts.

Doesn’t the song’s very title aptly capture the underlying poignancy of our shared adventure?: it’s not “I’m With You” or “We’re in This Together” it’s “You’re Not Alone”—which cheers us even while acknowledging what may well be every thinking, feeling human being’s most primordial dread. Another sign of the song’s enjoyable thoughtfulness is the instrumental break we get at 2:22, a tamped-down, philosophical pause in the middle of an effort to otherwise rouse us a bit more head-bobbingly. I always appreciate unexpected musical turns of events like that.

People and Stars is the duo of Tate and David Klotz, the latter a former member of the LA-based band Fonda. Klotz, furthermore, has developed quite a resume as a music editor for television, with credits including Game of Thrones, American Horror Story, and Stranger Things. “You’re Not Alone” is the duo’s first release, in advance of an EP slated for later this year. MP3 via Insomnia Radio Network.

Free and legal MP3: Kauf (hypnotic, groove-based melancholy)

“Through the Yard” exists at a nexus we might not otherwise have noticed, joining world music to 21st-century electronica to late-era Roxy Music.

Kauf

“Through the Yard” – Kauf

And now, as if to prove that neither conciseness nor organic details are the only tools in a performer’s toolbox, here is the nearly seven-minute-long “Through the Yard,” buttering your ears with its smooth hypnotic charm and groove-based melancholy. Music is more than ever a wide world, easily discerned when commercial radio stations are turned down.

Existing at a nexus we might not otherwise have noticed, joining world music to 21st-century electronica to late-era Roxy Music, “Through the Yard” launches off an ascending pentatonic scale, affected via synthesized woodwinds. Pentatonic scales, with five notes versus the usual seven, produce intervals with a far-away, vaguely non-Western feeling. And if the riff’s persistence here grounds the song in an open-ended inquiry, the lyrics further the effect, with Kauf mastermind Ronald Kaufman singing a series of clipped phrases rendered mysterious via beginnings and endings that are swallowed or otherwise indecipherable—we pick out words but not concrete meaning. It seems no accident that the song’s most-repeated lyric, “If you make a little noise,” is inherently unresolved: if you make a little noise, THEN what? I don’t think we find out.

The song, nevertheless, delivers a certain kind of arc. At first, “Through the Yard” is held together by its riff, its smartly assembled percussive sounds, and the layered allure of Kauf’s half-rich/half-disaffected vocals. A fuller-fledged electronic beat emerges at the three-minute mark. And while the first half of the song revolves around what feel like verses, the second half, after the underlying beat comes forward, employs subtler, higher-register melodies, with an upward-floating feel, and matches them against more insistent sounds below (for instance, that off-kilter line repeated by a trumpet-like synth first around 3:40, and more insistently again around 4:30). Through it all I feel drawn to how Kauf presents as both disconsolate and upbeat at the same time. I identify that as the Bryan Ferry element here.

“Through the Yard” is slated to be the final track on Kauf’s debut album, Regrowth, slated for release later this year. In the meantime, you can check out two other tracks at his Bandcamp page. Kaufman is based in Los Angeles. Thanks to the artist for the MP3.

MP3 no longer available as of August 2016.


photo credit: Daniel Trese