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: Death in the Afternoon (crisp economical Swedish funk)

If “We Don’t Have to Go Out Tonight” doesn’t single-handedly rescue the electric guitar in our knob-twiddling age, then we may just have to give the thing up for dead once and for all.

Death in the Afternoon

“We Don’t Have to Go Out Tonight” – Death in the Afternoon

If “We Don’t Have to Go Out Tonight” doesn’t single-handedly rescue the electric guitar in our knob-twiddling age, then we may just have to give the thing up for dead once and for all. There are the well-placed, slightly wobbly chords of the introduction; the crisp, economical riff accompanying the verse; and then, watch out!: the intertwining of the lead and rhythm guitar lines (1:04), a veritable ballet of funky precision. I’m just about hypnotized by all this. What was your question again?

And okay I’m not expecting miracles here. This is the kind of song that stirs up a tiny bit of dust in a couple of quick weeks (when blogs that need to be first with everything spit their PR-filled words onto the internet), then pretty much disappears (because those same blogs rush on to the next thing, and the next). (Don’t get me started on this, please.) So yes “We Don’t Have to Go Out Tonight” has been out for a few months. Sometimes (maybe all the time) it pays to reflect. I first heard this and it seemed pleasant but I wasn’t sure. Maybe I wasn’t in a good mood that day, who knows. So it sat around and I kept listening. One day it hit me that this song was really good. Those kind of muted lead vocals in the verse, that initially made me wonder what was happening? Turns out they are smartly redeemed by the clarity of the vocals in the chorus, when Christian joins Linda—and note how he sings backing vocals on the same note as the lead vocal for the first two lines, then offers one line of harmony, then a final line back on the same note. It’s a lovely, unassuming construction.

Much as Death in the Afternoon seems to be a lovely, unassuming duo (the aforementioned Linda and Christian, surnames missing in action). They are based in Halmstad, Sweden and take their name, for unknown reasons, from Ernest Hemingway’s treatise on the glory of bullfighting. Their self-titled debut album came out in October on the Stockholm-based Sommarhjärta label.

Free and legal MP3:Debbie Neigher and Tidelands (break-up song w/ fatigued grandeur)

Launched off the ambiguity of suspended chords, “Atoms” has a fatigued grandeur to it, with its resonant strumming, keenly placed piano fills, and superb male-female vocals.

Debbie Neigher and Tidelands

“Atoms” – Debbie Neigher and Tidelands

Pop songwriters, among all creative artists, have it easiest when titling their work. Novels and screenplays, sculptures and symphonies: these can be vexingly difficult to name. A song with lyrics, on the other hand, pretty much names itself by the time it’s finished. Find the word or phrase most often repeated and there’s your title—usually. But there are always some outliers—either because the song’s lyrics don’t deliver an obviously repeated phrase, or because the songwriter wants to mess with you a bit. In the case of “Atoms,” a bit of both may be going on. The chorus is heard only twice, and opens with a focus on one word so generic and over-employed that it kind of resists titlehood (“love”). So nothing super obvious suggests itself as a name although I’m thinking “Breaking Point” would have won out had Tidelands front man and songwriter Gabriel Leis been less interested in offering up a puzzle and/or contemplation.

Instead we get “Atoms,” which turns out to be a cunning title for this declarative yet melancholy piece, featuring singer/songwriter Debbie Neigher in duet with Leis. Paradoxical pests that they are, atoms comprise the solid world that we know without possessing any solidity of their own. When Leis sings, “I’m counting atoms,” in this graceful tale of lovers who can no longer communicate, his character’s self-righteousness and futility bleeds through. Meanwhile, launched off the ambiguity of suspended chords, the music has a fatigued grandeur, with its resonant strumming and keenly placed piano fills. Best of all, to my ears, are the vocals: Leis sings with a command that brings Colin Meloy to mind, minus the vocal quirks, and with a muscularity the Decemberists’ front man doesn’t offer; Neigher, brought in as a guest, adds a lovely, dusty edge to the female character’s point of view. The song was inspired, unfortunately, by the break-up of Leis’ marriage and was originally written for only the male narrator, the female part conveyed in third person.

“Atoms” is one side of a split single on white vinyl that Tidelands and Neigher released earlier this month on Redgummy Records, with Neigher’s song “Smile” on the other side. Check that one on Neigher’s web site, it’s also quite good. You can order the white vinyl via Bandcamp. Leis’s partner in Tidelands is drummer Mie Araki. All musicians involved here are based in the San Francisco area. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: The Middle East (odd tale w/ inscrutable appeal)

As a plain narrative this song leaves so much unsaid as to be inscrutable. But with its extended melody line and shared male/female lead vocal, there’s a lot going on between the lines.

The Middle East

“Jesus Came to My Birthday Party” – The Middle East

After a tuning-up kind of introduction, “Jesus Came to My Birthday Party” launches with an extended melody line sung in tandem by male and female vocalists. And we have to stop here now and think about this. A 16-measure melody is hard enough to come by; to hear one delivered via male/female octave harmony is highly unusual if not unique. And yet it doesn’t draw any attention to itself, as neither of those two characteristics—the extended melody, the male/female joint lead—in and of itself sounds strange or unusual.

Couple the music now with the lyrics—themselves, too, at once strange and straightforward—and the appeal deepens. Mostly what we get is a repeated insistence by the narrator that “Jesus came to my birthday party/When I was seventeen.” The circumstances are otherwise sketchy in the extreme; we are only told that the narrator thought it was a dream, but knows he/she saw him “standing there,” and that Jesus had long hair. The song pivots on the second verse, the second and last time we hear the full 16-measure melody, when the narrator, recalling this “long ago” time when Jesus was at the birthday party, suddenly thinks he/she has seen Jesus again, but this time not actually in the flesh but “in the eyes of the strangers that pass,” and “in the eyes of the poor.”

As a plain narrative this song leaves so much unsaid as to be inscrutable. But there’s something in the repetition, the vibe, the rugged persistence of the male-female lead vocal line, and the eventual blending of acoustic rhythm guitar with a stirring electric lead guitar that prompts reflection, and opens the song up to its fuller meaning—which by the way, to me, has nothing whatever to do with anybody’s one religion, in case you’re worried.

And now comes the odd news that The Middle East, an Australian collective with an expanding and contracting roster, has unfortunately called it quits. Based in Townsville, Queensland, the band released its last album, I Want That You Are Always Happy, back in April in Australia, and played its last show at the end of July. The album was released in the U.S. in July, on Missing Piece Records. The band was previously featured on Fingertips in April 2010.