Free and legal MP3: Sass (terrific grunged-out pop)

“11:11” – Sass

Maybe what we all really need right now is some guitars. In which case, the Minneapolis band Sass is at your service. And we’re not talking mindless, mathematical thrashing. What Sass delivers, guitar-wise, runs the gamut from amiably ringing riffs and sparkly plucking to full-on crunches and delightfully distorted squonks. For the guitar-starved who also likes a good pop song, this is a veritable buffet of aural delight.

And this is indeed a terrific if thoroughly grunged-out pop song, full of melodic spunk, lyrical thrusts, and self-possessed forward movement. And did I mention guitars? Given the fitful ruckus, “11:11” requires a special someone to pull it all together, vocally, and Sass has you covered here too, in the person of front woman Stephanie Jo Murck. Often we speak of a singer’s vocal range in terms of dynamic register, as in how low to how high a voice can go. Murck’s range, alternatively, is tonal, encompassing everything from blasé yearning to full-throated howling, a range that aptly complements the variegated guitar work. There’s nothing show-off-y going on here, which is one of the song’s special powers—the dynamic performances here all hit the ear as matter-of-fact. Murck’s narrator seems to have made a misstep in a fledgling relationship after previously assuring herself she didn’t need anyone to be okay. Now she’s not so sure. It’s a complex circumstance to cover in less than three and a half minutes, and a good part of the complexity is portrayed as much by sound as by words; there’s an “I can’t go on; I’ll go on” vibe in the air. Sporadic moments of chaos convey it; sustained histrionics would ruin it.

You will hear without effort the obvious moments of ramshackle guitar splendor the song has in store for you; let me here draw your attention to a few subtler things this deft band makes happen along the way. There’s the smeary line drawn by one of the guitars from 0:28 to 0:32;  the odd group of slightly off notes woven in from 1:17 to 1:20; and the squeal at 1:35, which leads into this lyrical highlight:

I am unreasonable
Let me push and
Never be pulled
But that’s impossible

Murck lets loose on this last line, the guitars screech a while, and then we’re back to a more restrained tone, revisiting the line “I thought I’d be fine alone,” and it somehow hits the ear as especially poignant, perhaps because this time it’s followed by the lines “I’d watch a new TV show/Learn to dance and paint and sew.”

Sass was founded in 2016. After a couple of early singles, they released an EP in 2017 and their first full-length, Chew Toy, last year. You can listen to and buy all their music via Bandcamp. “11:11” was released this month, and is a track from their upcoming album, Heart to Heart. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Marvelous Darlings (Buzzcocks style power pop)

It’s loud and muscular but it’s an honest-to-goodness song, with a primitive, ear-catching riff, nostalgic melodies, and any number of musical moments one might almost call graceful except for the general head-bangy ambiance.

Marvelous Darlings

“I Don’t Wanna Go To The Party” – Marvelous Darlings

I’ve never had an ear for the harsher, DIY-fueled end of the punk spectrum. But neither have I found the more blatantly commercial “punk-pop” genre very satisfying. My sweet spot is for the sort of punk or punk-like music made by folks who may be angry, or alienated, or otherwise fed up but still manage to have their musical wits about them. My opinion is that if you’re too angry to be bothered to learn exactly how to write and perform music, maybe you should just leave the music out of it entirely? One man’s perhaps unreasonable idea.

Anyway, with stuff like this, whether in its original, Buzzcocks-y incarnation or when trotted out in the new(ish) century by a crew like Marvelous Darlings, I’m all in. It’s loud and muscular but it’s an honest-to-goodness song, with a primitive, ear-catching riff, nostalgic melodies, and any number of musical moments one might almost call graceful except for the general head-bangy ambiance. There is, for instance, that place in the relentless, mostly two-note melody when singer Ben Cook takes a fifth-interval downward dive (0:36), and it’s just exactly right. And you kind of wait for it to come back and it doesn’t, and it doesn’t, until finally very close to the end, it does (2:08). This more than makes up for Cook’s decision to add an over-the-top British affectation to the word “party,” which is probably in any case a private joke of some kind.

An additional moment of odd grace: how the interwoven repetition of the basic theme (“I don’t want to go”) we hear at 1:04 resolves into a syncopated, falsetto release at 1:11. The song hammers us unflaggingly with a classic rock’n’roll backbeat and yet offers us a few moments like this one that dance away from it. Another is the brief but dandy guitar solo (1:44-1:54).

Marvelous Darlings is a Toronto band featuring Cook and Matt Delong, who were co-founders of the Canadian hardcore band No Warning; Cook, who also performs under the name Young Governor, is best known these days as a member of the Toronto band Fucked Up, which somewhat unexpectedly won Canada’s Polaris Prize in 2009 for best Canadian album. “I Don’t Wanna Go To The Party” is the lead track on Single Life, an album comprised of previously released 7-inch vinyl singles, put out this week by the Canadian label Deranged Records. MP3 via Deranged. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Free and legal MP3: Red Pens (bashy, reverbed, loud, musical)

“Hung Out” – Red Pens

Things maybe haven’t been loud enough around here for a while. Not that loud is an automatically positive value; lord no. But done with the right spirit, and with a concurrent sense of musicality, loud can be fun. Bashy and reverb-laced, “Hung Out” is definitely fun, and it’s definitely loud, or definitely should be. That’s up to you and your volume dial of course, but if you don’t turn this one up pretty high, it’s not going to sound right. (No, even louder than that. Go on, I’ll wait.) Listen to this too softly and you’ll just get thin, tinny, clangy, and indistinct instead of rich, resonant, three-dimensional, and mind-opening. Or at least sinus-clearing. And you’ll definitely miss the nuances of Howard W. Hamilton III’s crazy guitar solos.

I mean, check this out at 2:22: the solo’s already underway and now he introduces a motif featuring notes that are rapidly attacked but taken together sketch out a slower melody, a melody that, at high volume, rings out with unexpected melodicism, and then wow to how it crunches at 2:25 into an outlandish mondo-chord that has no business being there except that now it is. Somewhere within is the chord that the ear was expecting, and as it turns out the other chords that are packaged around it make the elusive “right” chord all the more persuasive.

Red Pens, based in Minneapolis, are Hamilton on guitar and lead vocals and Laura F. Bennett on drums and backing vocals. “Hung Out” is the lead track from Reasons, their full-length debut, which was self-released in June ’09 and then re-released by Grain Belt Records in the fall. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: All Get Out (loud, w/ a power pop hook)

“Water and God” – All Get Out

Four strong beats on the drum and bang, not two seconds in and we’re delivered right to this song’s big hook, first heard as a synthesizer melody played against a loud, bashy background. When the verse starts, the song retreats–lower volume, itchier vibe–to build the tension that rises as we await the inevitable, triumphant return of the Hook. But wait: more tension first, because when said Hook returns, we initially hear it as a quiet vocal melody against one staccato guitar line. This then adds to the feeling of blessed release when we finally hear the central melody full-fledged, as the driving chorus it was meant to be, at 1:17 (and thereafter).

The melody itself is simple: first, a basic upward progression (the one, three, four, and five notes of the scale) in B minor, then a repeat of the notes with one difference–the first note shifts one whole step down, to the A instead of the B, which magically turns the B minor chord previously outlined into a D major chord (exploiting the tantalizing closeness between any minor key and its relative major). This is not a new trick, but it’s a catchy one. There is nothing much new going on in this song at all and I for one say praise the lord. As noted on Fingertips with some regularity: “new” is a pointless measure of value in music; all that matters is “good.” New does not automatically equal good any more than does good automatically equal new. If only a music critic or two understood this.

All Get Out is a foursome from Charleston, S.C.; the name derives from the phrase “loud as all get out,” which the band uses as its URL. Unlike most bands that strive to be loud, however, these guys still want the music to sound like music, which is another part of this song’s charm. “Water and God” has appeared on both of its first two EPs, most recently a self-titled disc released near the end of 2008 on Favorite Gentlemen Recordings. MP3 via the SXSW web site, one last nod here to the mammoth festival that wrapped up this past weekend.