Free and legal MP3: The Antiques (free-flowing, acoustic-based indie rock)

“Airplane Blues” – the Antiques

Joey Barro is back, and he’s got his band with him this time. Featured here in January for a song from his solo album, which he recorded as the Traditionist, Barro has a somewhat more fleshed-out sound with his L.A.-based trio, the Antiques, but the appealing, brisk, acoustic-based stream-of-consciousness-esque vibe is still here, and that’s a good thing. The repeated refrain of “There are no more new ways to…” is a winner–it functions as the chorus structurally, but an endearing, irregular sort of chorus it is, lacking any fully repeated lyrical lines. From the outset the structure is clear, which allows the listener to await each iteration with curious anticipation. (Sample, from the first go-round: “There are no more new ways to tap your shoes/There are no more new ways to sing the blues.” My favorite comes later: “There are no more new ways to try to belong.”)

The thing that seals the entire song for me is the upward leap the melody takes in the middle of this “no more new ways” section, between the first third and fourth lines. Even though there’s nothing unusual about it, it’s still a delightful semi-surprise each time. This is why I’m suspicious of flagrant songwriting twists and tricks: something reasonably plain is often all it takes.

I have not been able to discern why it’s called “Airplane Blues,” but that could just be my characteristic lack of lyric focus (I hear phrases but not storylines). The song comes from Cicadas, the second Antiques album, which has had something of a slow-motion history. Recorded in ’07 (by Scott Solter, who is known for his work with John Vanderslice, Okkervil River, and the Mountain Goats), it was released on CD in ’08 on Banter Records, and then just last week given a digital release via Filter US Recordings. MP3 via Banter.

Free and legal MP3: Foreign Born (satisfyingly complex indie pop)

“Vacationing People” – Foreign Born

At once ambling and deceptively precise, “Vacationing People” has the satisfying pop complexity of a late-era Beatles song, without being otherwise Beatlesque in any obvious way (though come to think of it, singer Matt Popieluch has a buzzy voice that can sometimes bring George Harrison to mind). While the song does have verses and a chorus, it also employs a repeating bridge, which results—unusually—in the bridge getting more air time than the somewhat elusive verses do. This kind of thing is subtle but effective: structural intricacy, when there still is structure (versus complete free-formedness), gives a pop song an ineffable sort of richness that charms the ears.

And what I think I like best here is how the song makes a hook out of something that is not inherently hooky. And let’s see if I can explain that. I’m talking about the chorus, which we hear the first time at 1:06. It’s a sort of call and response, with Popieluch singing a simple melody that meanders, ascendingly, around a shuffly beat that is surely influenced by one sort of world music or another (the press material says benga, which is from Kenya, but I don’t know enough to corroborate that); the answering vocals offer the same four-note response each time, three of the notes simply repeating before closing with one whole-step descent. The fuzzed-up bass and some tinkling guitar lines mesh with the shifty rhythms and the whole thing far exceeds the sum of its parts, forging a hook out of not one particular thing you can point to. By the second time it comes around, it sounds like an old friend.

Foreign Born is a quartet from Los Angeles. “Vacationing People” is a song from the band’s debut CD, Person to Person, scheduled for a June release on Secretly Canadian. MP3 via Secretly Canadian.

Free and legal MP3: The Happy Hollows (ingratiating, noisy, whimsical song-as-journey)

“Lieutenant” – the Happy Hollows

I am no fan of indie music that veers too sharply into the DIY camp, as my ears will forever be jarred by sloppiness, however disguised by claims of authenticity or shred guitar prowess. When I first heard “Lieutenant,” I was attracted by its left-turn hooks but wary of its seeming disjointedness. For a five-minute song, this one unspools in an unnerving number of directions; it’s hard to get a handle on too quickly, and I was not initially convinced that there was any larger sense of purpose keeping the song from simply flying apart. (I am by and large unswayed by shredding.) And yet I surely did like lead singer Sarah Negahdari’s trilly, pixie-like (or Pixies-like?) sense of drama, the trio’s Belly-esque blend of heaviness and lightness, and the sly, quasi-martial swing of the song’s stickiest hook (first heard at 1:10).

I’m still not completely sure which side of the line between sophistication and random craziness that “Lieutenant” lands on, but the moment, probably, that won me over was this: the minute and a half in the middle of the song that features the most jumpy, unglued material climaxes, at around 4:00, with all three band members singing together and then just sort of shouting with jump-in-the-pool abandon. Weeeeeee. It cemented the song-as-journey concept, and I liked where it led: into a coda with a new, unexpectedly soothing melody. Well, okay, it gets wacky again for the last five seconds. They can’t help themselves.

“Lieutenant” is the lead track off the L.A.-based band’s second EP, Imaginary, which will be released by the band next week.

Free and legal MP3: The Flying Tourbillon Orchestra (steady, graceful, dark indie pop, but not chamber pop)

“In a Dream” – The Flying Tourbillon Orchestra

Steady, gracefully dark indie pop from Los Angeles. The verses march, almost claustrophobically, to a carefully articulated pulse; the chorus, without that much different a melody, offers a flowing, minor-key release, as clear-voiced Kellie Noftle joins buzzy-voiced front man Hunter Costeau in a bittersweet, Nancy and Lee sort of way. Don’t miss the modulation at 2:41; the change in key, a relatively pedestrian effect, feels at that point like a mini-revelation.

While there’s nothing overtly orchestral about FTO’s sound in this song–this isn’t chamber pop–there is an almost sculptural attention to sonic detail here that I find appealing. While it’s not uncommon to hear a trio that sounds like a bigger ensemble, this is one of the few times I’ve heard a sextet sound like a smaller band, thanks to the group’s joint refusal to overplay their instruments. I’m liking for example the controlled use of a xylophone (or glockenspiel?), its chimey accents plinging in and out of the listener’s awareness. I also like that choral-like synthesizer, emerging first at 1:36 and coming into its own in the last third of the song, which works unexpectedly well with both of the guitars the band uses.

A “flying tourbillon,” by the way, is a type of tourbillon (“tour-bee-yon”), which is a mechanism inside a watch, and apparently a mechanism that was very challenging to produce, especially in the days of hand-made watches. Tourbillon watches remain prized by collectors, according to my web sources. “In a Dream” is a song from FTO’s debut EP, Escapements, which was self-released this summer. An escapement, by the way, is also a mechanism in a watch, of which the tourbillon is a part. Now you know.

Free and legal MP3: Jessie Baylin (smartly put together singer/songwriter pop)

Jessie Baylin

“Was I On Your Mind” – Jessie Baylin

“Was I On Your Mind” has the hallmarks of a great pop hit—hooks, craft, canny performance—and yet is unlikely to be anything of the sort here in 2008, just because who the hell knows anymore. The music market is as unhinged as the oil market. History teaches us, however, that craziness is always an aberration in the long run. There is no reason to assume that a song as crisp, well put together, and engagingly sung as this one won’t again find favor with the general public, but, alas, it’ll probably be too late for Ms. Baylin.

Fingertips, of course, exists in a sort of alternative universe in which what matters is the song, the spirit, the intelligence, the ineffable spark of human-to-human connection. So as far as I’m concerned this song is already a hit—an incisive example of how it’s really really okay to apply polish and know-how to songwriting, at least when such things avoid cliché and are grounded in a voice, both lyrically and musically, that’s feels real, solid, true. With her dusky alto and nimble delivery, the New Jersey-born, L.A.-based Baylin sounds to me, fetchingly, like Shawn Colvin doing a Sam Phillips impression; to the insistently upward, yearning melody of the chorus, she adds a textured presence that pretty much melts me. I like too how even in the context of this smartly produced number, little quirks can be found, including how the end note she hits repeatedly on the word “wrong” strikes the ear as unresolved, and how she breaks the songwriter “rule” of making the title the most repeated phrase in the song (which in this case would be “Tell Me I’m Wrong”).

You’ll find this one on Baylin’s new CD, Firesight, released this week on Verve Forecast. Produced by Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney), this is the 24-year-old’s second album; the first, You, was an iTunes-only self-release.