Free and legal MP3: Winter (dream pop for the soul)

If the concept/sub-genre of dream pop didn’t already exist, you would invent it right now to describe “All the Things You Do.”

Winter

“All the Things You Do” – Winter

If the concept/sub-genre of dream pop didn’t already exist, you would invent it right now to describe “All the Things You Do,” by the Boston-born, Los Angeles-based band Winter. Front woman Samira Winter floats her cloudless voice over a languid, semi-blurry soundscape and it’s kind of immediately hard not to love this. The buoyant verse is infused with ever-appealing suspended chords; the chorus—forward and forceful—fills the ear with satisfying, wall-of-sound resolution, complete with an unexpected and extra-satisfying minor-chord detour.

And speaking of extra-satisfying detours, don’t miss the instrumental break-cum-coda, starting at 2:30, with its dreamy jazz-guitar-ish accents and splendid bass guitar lead, which kind of makes you go wow, what happened to bass guitar players anyway? And then the whole thing kind of makes you go wow, don’t we just want to be doing this, enhancing our lives with heartwarming sound, feeling the magic and power of this at once distant and intimate connection? It’s the opposite of living in fear, brutalized by not only the existence of barbaric death-mongers but by the fear-mongers who scurry around in their wake. And I don’t mean to pollute the beauty of our modest enterprise here with too much talk of tragedy but I do so to remind you that beauty is not negated by darkness, but becomes further concentrated. And important.

“All the Things You Do” is a single released this month on Burger Records. Support the band by buying it here, and if you want a reason to spend 99 cents versus having it for free, note that the hi-res, lossless version is also just 99 cents.

photo credit: Mariana Borau

Free and legal MP3: Rumble (minor key, faux-’60s romp)

Effortlessly delightful, “Nvr Surrender” is a chewy concoction of retro-y goodness.

Rumble

“Nvr Surrender” – Rumble

Effortlessly delightful, “Nvr Surrender” is a chewy concoction of retro-y goodness, from the reverbed guitar effect in the intro through the assertive minor-key backbeat the song settles itself into and, perhaps most of all, front woman Kaylie Schiff’s layered, affect-free soprano. Schiff embraces this faux-’60s romp with an astute blend of earnestness and nonchalance—while the music itself is wrapped in a more or less compulsory shell of irony, she never lets irony seep into her tone. This seems important to me all of a sudden.

Also important: the subtle vibrancy of the arrangement. It’s easy to think, oh, it’s a retro thing, they’re just following the dots, but no not really. To begin with: that oddly hesitant piano descent that opens the song—what exactly is that? Its idiosyncrasy is compelling. And listen for the horns (or, horn-like sounds) that color the background in a variety of ways. They sound unexpectedly inventive. Likewise the string (or string-like sounds), which get kind of crazy here and there, but without being showy about it. And those chimes!: how perfectly restrained. And the wind! (The wind?) Holding it all together is the sturdiness of the melody, which proceeds with expert inevitability. Quite a spiffy tune, top to bottom.

Rumble is the Los Angeles-based duo of Kaylie Schiff and Richie Follin, who played previously together in the band Guards. “Nvr Surrender,” with its unexplained missing vowels, is the opening track of Rumble’s three-song EP, released in January. This is the band’s first recording, and seems to be called either Rumble or ep.1. You can listen via Bandcamp, and you can get the EP there for free if you hand over an email address.

Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Auditorium (dramatic vocal layers, acoustic setting)

As off-kilter as you might imagine a song entitled “My Grandfather Could Make the World Dance” would be. Also, bold and captivating.

Auditorium

“My Grandfather Could Make the World Dance” – Auditorium

The 2015 indie music scene is full of creative types who come from all sorts of idiosyncratic backgrounds. Even among his heterogeneous cohorts, however, Spencer Berger stands out for his unusual back story: from the ages of nine through 12, he was an opera singer, performing at the Metropolitan Opera with the likes of Luciano Pavarotti. And while you might not immediately guess “child opera singer” when “My Grandfather Could Make the World Dance” starts up, I’m pretty sure you can see that something muscular and expansive is going on here vocally, both in terms of Berger’s singular tone and his penchant for dramatic layering.

And so it turns out that this is as off-kilter as you might imagine a song entitled “My Grandfather Could Make the World Dance” would be; likewise is it bold and captivating. Berger’s penchant for stagy vocalizing is all the more convincing for its being matched, against expectation, with the simplest of accompaniments—acoustic guitars, a touch of piano, and a small helping of percussion is all that’s going on here, instrumentally. Musically, the song is dominated by descending melody lines, punctuated by intermittent yelping leaps; the overall effect is a kind of optimistic melancholy that helps give the whole thing the feel of a lonely suburban afternoon in 1972. I can’t pinpoint why but to me this seems quite clear.

Based in Los Angeles, Spencer Berger has been recording music as Auditorium since 2011, when his debut album, Be Brave, was released. (You can check that one out via Bandcamp.) “My Grandfather Could Make the World Dance” is a single released earlier this month. Thanks to Insomnia Radio for the link.

Free and legal MP3: The Rebel Light (astute, catchy, and assured)

“Strangers” opens with a burst of happy wordless vocals (choosing the especially giddy “ba-ba-ba” over the more noncommittal “la-la-la”), right away informing us of its good-natured intentions.

The Rebel Light

“Strangers” – The Rebel Light

Year by 21st-century year I am increasingly discouraged by our collective inability to discern good-catchy (based on effective/surprising melody) from bad-catchy (based on annoying, often shout-y repetition)—and, I suppose the greater affliction, our apparent preference for the bad-catchy. I do understand that bad-catchy is far easier to concoct and that today’s pop-oriented songwriters and producers, perceiving that virality is unrelated to quality, find bad-catchy better suited to their purposes.

Well, boo to all of them, but hooray for the astutely good-catchy “Strangers,” from the Los Angeles-based trio The Rebel Light. While sounding entirely of the 2014 moment, “Strangers” thrums with warmth and joy in a way that far too much of today’s indie pop has abandoned in favor of technology and analytics. As such, I’ll wager that this song will sound as fresh to future ears as most of 2014’s YouTube fodder will sound stale and uninteresting not that many years from now.

With a thumpy, head-bobbing core, “Strangers” opens with a burst of happy wordless vocals (choosing the especially giddy “ba-ba-ba” over the more noncommittal “la-la-la”), right away informing us of its good-natured intentions. While displaying moments of near-minimal accompaniment, the song works almost surreptitiously to add layers of aural interest as things unfold—squally electronics, hand-claps, an undercover disco beat, cowbell, acoustic guitar, a capella break, we get a little bit of everything stitched ably together into a pop-perfect 3:25 length. And at the heart of this catchy song is (of course) a super catchy chorus, featuring one of those great, inevitable-sounding melodies that good-catchy songs so often have. While easy to learn and sing along with, the chorus’s melody delivers extra oomph via the way it slides seamlessly off and on the beat. Specifically, note how each line in the chorus starts off the beat (i.e., the words “you,” “standing,” “waving,” etc.) aligns onto the beat for the middle of the line, then slips back between the beat for its three emphatic closing syllables (for instance, on the words “live this way” beginning at 0:46). I especially like when seemingly straightforward songs give us subtle little treats like that along the way.

“Strangers” is a single released by the band last month. You can download as usual via the title above, or directly from the band via SoundCloud. The band has previously released one three-song EP and one other single, both in 2013.

Free and legal MP3: Dive Index (gentle-assertive electro-acoustic composition)

Music that combines the acoustic and the electronic offers a lot of potential enticements (as well as some potential pitfalls) but one of the nice things it can do is create a sonic environment at once gentle and assertive.

Dive Index

“Pattern Pieces” – Dive Index

Music that combines the acoustic and the electronic offers a lot of potential enticements (as well as some potential pitfalls) but one of the nice things it can do is create a sonic environment at once gentle and assertive. Which is hard for either the purely acoustic or the purely electronic to do on their own, and which is pretty much what “Pattern Pieces” has going here, aided handsomely by singer Simone White’s intimate whisper of a voice and some breezy finger picking.

But the big “acoustic” secret here—acoustic in quotes because I may not even be right about this—is the central role played by percussion that sounds very organic and natural. Lord knows that technology has long since transcended my capacity to tease apart electronic from three-dimensional beats, but the larger point is the nature of the sound achieved. Central to the percussive heartbeat in “Pattern Pieces” are sounds that feel very close to the ear and belly in the way that drumming in actual physical space feels.

The other thing this song does is cycle us adroitly through a series of shifting electronic sounds. Towards the beginning, with the organic (maybe) drumming and natural vocals, the electronics we hear are generally subtle background gestures, the type of which come a bit more to the fore in the instrumental break at 1:00. Note how these are quickly followed by the entrance of a pure acoustic guitar, to keep the electro-acoustic balance flowing. A similar break at 1:50, meanwhile, leads to a more diffuse vocal section than previously which in turn migrates us to a new sonic palette (beginning at 2:30) featuring heavier electronic sounds and processed vocals. This heavier section registers as both a definitive shift and a natural-seeming progression, especially given how easily, a minute later, we are delivered back to the earlier vibe.

The Los Angeles-based Dive Index is less a band than a self-described “collaborative project”; the mastermind is songwriter/producer Will Thomas, who earlier in the millennium was recording electronic music as Plumbline. The first Dive Index album emerged in 2007. “Pattern Pieces” is from Lost in the Pressure, the third Dive Index release, out this week on Neutral Music.

(If you go to the SoundCloud page you can download this file in higher-quality .wav format.)

Free and legal MP3: Satchmode (buoyant, wistful electronic pop)

Both giddily buoyant and touchingly wistful, “Best Intentions” is, indeed, electronic music offering up its best intentions, finding sweet humanity in and around the fabricated nature of the sound.

Satchmode

“Best Intentions” – Satchmode

Both giddily buoyant and touchingly wistful, “Best Intentions” is, indeed, electronic music offering up its best intentions, finding sweet humanity in and around the fabricated nature of the sound. I love when electronic music can locate this special place, where synthetics come full circle back to genuine spirit; it almost single-handedly gives me faith that even in this black-and-white age of zeros and ones we will yet learn to reside more often in the good knotty life to be found in all the gray that remains around us if we only look and listen.

And even if not, this is a fine fine song. Note the slow-building intro, and note I often do not have patience for slow-building intros, and note that I really like this one. It begins on a chord that I can only describe as heavenly, as in if there is a heaven, this is the kind of chord you will hear upon entry, an unearthly blend of peacefulness and edgy wonder. An old-fashioned radio voice cycles in and out as we eventually settle on the appealing if deceptively complex bounce that comprises the song’s bewitching groove. The airy yet commanding falsetto lead vocal is, in the verse, mixed knowingly on top of what sounds like a distorted bass synthesizer (listen way down below for it); there is something in the layering of those two sounds that really engages the ear. Or my ear, anyway, which also hears in this juxtaposition an aural metaphor for how the music’s delightful bop is counter-balanced by the plaintive story sketched by the skillful and concise lyrics.

And then the chorus, counterintuitively, peels back the sound rather than piles more on—we get little but the voice and that central, captivating bounce. I especially like the skippy upward flourish we get at 1:38 and 1:56. Actually, I especially like pretty much everything here. It’s only January but this is a shoo-in for a 2014 favorite come December.

Satchmode is the Los Angeles-based duo of Gabe Donnay and Adam Boukis. They formed in 2013. “Best Intentions” is the lead track on their debut EP, Collide, which was released last week. If you visit the band’s SoundCloud page, you can currently download the EP’s title track for free. Thanks to the band for the MP3, and thanks to Largehearted Boy for the initial lead.

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: Monster Rally (found-sound assemblage, w/ a tropical groove)

Unlike almost any other electronic creation I have heard to date, “Orchids” sounds like something that might have been conceived in three dimensions and played in real time and real space.

Monster Rally

“Orchids” – Monster Rally

An instrumental of pure invention and relentless groove, “Orchids” is an unusually cogent example of 21st-century song-as-assemblage. Monster Rally master mind Ted Fleighan mines sounds from old records, re-imagining them into sonic environments with their own logic, momentum, and—this is the strange part—organic vitality.

Listen here to the two main interacting motifs—a jazz-guitar-y lead riff, with its syncopated flair (heard first at 0:31 and repeated throughout), answered by a downward melody (0:34 et al.) described by the jittery strumming of some exotic stringed instrument or another (I’m afraid I’m not entirely schooled in exotic stringed instruments). Theirs is a simple but intriguing conversation, accompanied by the easygoing percussive sounds of a tropical lounge combo; add the recurring “conclusion” of sorts (0:47 et al.) from the jazz guitar, subtly undergirded by strings, and this is our whole song. A fan neither of mash-ups nor claustrophobic laptop rock, I find myself unaccountably charmed by the alternative acoustic reality created by Feighan’s unfathomable fabrications. Unlike almost any other electronic creation I have heard to date, “Orchids” sounds like something that might have been conceived in three dimensions and played in real time and real space, and while some might consider it a failure of imagination on my part to admire this condition, I consider it a failure of humanity to overlook it. We remain flesh and blood, despite the wires and wavelengths that connect us.

Feighan is from Ohio but is now based in Los Angeles. “Orchids” is the first available track from Return to Paradise, the third Monster Rally full-length release, due at the end of October on Gold Robot Records. You can download via the link above, as usual, or via SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Graham MacRae (ambling ballad w/ bygone air)

The atmosphere of the song implies pronouncement, but the words themselves offer mostly bewilderment.

Graham MacRae

“Wait” – Graham MacRae

An ambling ballad, seemingly from another era, with something simultaneously assertive and vulnerable about it. The Los Angeles-based MacRae has a resonant if trembly baritone; singing about a breakdown of communication, his lyrics sound more like things that are spoken than are sung, an impression amplified by the erratic way the lines sometimes scan with the melody. The accompaniment is simple, almost homely, but forceful—a strummed acoustic guitar, a bottom-heavy drum kit, a finger-picked electric guitar. The message here is: I am a plainspoken man, singing a plainspoken song.

Well, if only. Listen carefully and see how the words unfold with the faulty momentum of a heat-of-the-moment exchange. The atmosphere of the song implies pronouncement, but the words themselves offer mostly bewilderment. First, it’s: “Wait/I’m coming this way/With one thing left to say to you”; soon, it’s: “Wait/You can’t leave on that note/Why must you speak in constant code?”; in conclusion it’s “Hey/I don’t know/These are age-old questions.” Those three lines together are so much the crux of the song that rest of the words are basically false trails, communicating foundering without focus. Any spurned lover impelled to use the word “egregious” in a sentence—never mind a song!—has his head spun around too much to be convincing.

Dundrearies is MacRae’s second full-length album, following up his 2008 self-titled debut. The word dundrearies, you might not know, refers to a style of long, bushy sideburns or muttonchop whiskers and is taken from the character Lord Dundreary in a 19th-century play called Our American Cousin, best known to history as the play Abraham Lincoln was watching when assassinated in 1865.

Free and legal MP3: Young Hunting (moody & dramatic, w/ potent drumming)

Minor-key gravitas and powerfully succinct drumming drive us all the way home.

Young Hunting

“Baby’s First Steps” – Young Hunting

Pretty great introduction to this one, yes? Some songs just wrap you up in them right away. Bonus points here for brevity: we get the tightly coordinated, rhythmic interplay between lower-register, minor-key guitar arpeggios and a pulse-like tom tom for all of about 10 seconds; then come the vocals. All too many songs hang onto notably less interesting instrumental motifs for a lot longer before deciding to get started.

“Baby’s First Steps” is a nicely dramatic song in general, with its minor-key gravitas and apparently chorus-free structure—we get a wordless vocal section in between each verse until, after the third verse, we are finally delivered the chorus. (Delayed gratification is an under-utilized pop music tool.) But what lies at the heart of the song’s drama is the drumming, which is minimal, atmospheric, and potent. Launched on the juxtaposition of a steady yet stuttering rhythm, the song somehow seems to move faster than its own beat, if that makes any sense (it might not). This central sonic paradox feeds a number of related contradictions: the song feels at once smooth and itchy, calm and ominous, moody and defiant. The drumming is incredibly succinct; most of the drum kit remains unused for most of the song—we get one cymbal bash at 1:02, another at 1:13, but then we’re back to the tom, now with a purposeful shaker of some sort anchoring the relentless beat. Cymbals don’t enter regularly until the two-minute mark, when the drummer finally opens up a bit, but we still don’t get anything that feels like “normal” rock’n’roll drumming until two-thirds of the way through the song. This is also when the guitars move at last towards the front of the mix, but we have to wait even longer, until the last 30 seconds, for the (very effective) guitar solo. That’s discipline, baby.

Young Hunting is a five-piece band from Los Angeles. “Baby’s First Steps” is a song from the band’s debut full-length album, Hazel, slated for a June release on Oakland-based Gold Robot Records. The band previously put out a seven-inch single in 2010. Thanks to Gold Robot for the MP3.