Free and legal MP3: Land of Talk (tranquil backbeat, emotional intensity)

“Weight Of That Weekend” – Land Of Talk

At once gentle and intense, “Weight Of That Weekend” finds Elizabeth Powell, the primary force behind Fingertips favorite Land of Talk, pondering something serious and yet just out of the song’s lyrical spotlight. The music offers contradictory sensations, its tranquil backbeat intermittently jarred by measures of 7/4 (in the verse) and 6/4 (in the chorus). As a singer Powell embodies this duality, with a voice feathered with ambivalence but likewise resolute.

And just after I asserted that I don’t usually listen to lyrics (see previous entry), along comes a song in which the lyrics are a seamless, central part of its texture and allure. Without an introduction, the song launches on as terse a description of being gaslighted as any you’re likely to encounter:

Always come at me from a different angle
Make me think I don’t understand
how I’m feeling

(Note that the “how I’m feeling” part is where you first hear the 7/4 measure momentarily suspend the flow.)

From here the lyrical power accumulates through what is being alluded to without being said, the words a series of understandable phrases that nonetheless never quite reveal their direct meaning. The music amplifies the unsettled atmosphere with a chorus, dominated by suspended chords, that remains unresolved musically, adding to the subtle ache of Powell’s effort to rise above troubled circumstances: “This is a prayer for love” is the insistent conclusion.

Powell by the way is a formidable guitarist; that she plays acoustically here, with restraint, is its own sort of statement. And don’t miss the French horn that wafts into the mix somewhere around 2:25, an unexpected and somehow exactly appropriate addition.

“Weight Of That Weekend” is the fourth track on the new Land of Talk album, Indistinct Conversations, which was released at the end of July on Saddle Creek Records. This is the band’s fourth full-length release; three EPs have been interspersed over the years. You can listen to a few of the new songs and buy the album via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

This is the fifth time Land of Talk has been featured here, with their first review dating back to April 2007, and their most recent appearance ten years ago to the month, in August 2010.

Free and legal MP3: Rae Morris (moody, w/ simmering momentum)

Morris—21 and British—emerges here as a young Kate Bush for the Lorde generation, with an elastic tone that ranges from sweet to muscular.

Rae Morris

“Skin” – Rae Morris

“Skin” launches off an ear-grabbing tick-tock rhythm, glides into a precisely calibrated duskiness, and builds unerring drama and interest from the knowing interplay between an itchy drumbeat and melancholy, softly-voiced piano chords. Morris—21 and British—emerges here as a young Kate Bush for the Lorde generation, with an elastic tone that ranges from sweet to muscular, and an elusive speech idiosyncrasy (listen to her “r”s) that seems only to add character to her already formidable presence.

I am not sure whether to thank Morris or her producer (Ariel Reichtshaid, who has worked with everyone from Cass McCombs and Vampire Weekend to Skye Ferreira and Kylie Minogue), but I love how adeptly “Skin” transcends “girl-at-piano”-type rock music. Part of this has to do with how obliquely the piano is employed; it never goes away, but it is very much an ensemble player here, creating the sense that every chord that does come forward is there for a purpose, not just because the singer plays piano. And then there is the song itself, and its subtly indelible chorus, which would not be as effective as it is without its unusual setting. First, there’s a pre-chorus (first heard at 0:51), followed by a chorus involving two asymmetrical iterations of its central motif. The second time (1:12), the “We break the rules” melody is repeated, after which new lyrics blossom without warning into the song’s pivotal moment: “We break our hearts and pretty much everything.”

From the seaside city of Blackpool, in North West England, Morris was signed to Atlantic Records when just 19. “Skin” was released in January, available as a free download via SoundCloud, and will apparently end up on her debut album, scheduled for release this summer. Morris has been releasing a series of EPs since late 2013; the latest is due out next month. A new single from the forthcoming EP, “Do You Even Know,” is available to stream via via SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Cate Le Bon (portentous melancholy)

The musical atmosphere is both minimal and somehow off-kilter, the rock instruments here played with a mixture of restraint and resolve, as if they’d been told to pretend they were a jazz combo, without playing any jazz.

Cate Le Bon

“I Think I Knew” – Cate Le Bon

No introduction, literally, prepares us for the woozy “I Think I Knew”—the song begins right on the words “There’s no talking to him,” but you quickly have to wonder: is it really his fault? It’s hard to make heads or tails out of the woman lodging this particular complaint; lyrics fade in and out of comprehension, due partly to Le Bon’s singular accent (she is Welsh), partly to her unforthcoming diction, and partly to the strangeness of the words themselves. The musical atmosphere, meanwhile, is both minimal and somehow off-kilter, the rock instruments here (bass, drum, electric guitar, keyboards) played with a mixture of restraint and resolve, as if they’d been told to pretend they were a jazz combo, without playing any jazz.

The song’s central motif is both its strongest and strangest: the repetition, in the chorus, of the line “I wish I knew.” She sings it six times in a row, never once quite aligned with the beat, and phrased continually as if blurting an idle thought rather than singing a lyric. (Only later in the song do we get the additional, titular phrase “I think I knew.”) Around the repeated words dances a flute-like synthesizer, which gives us the song’s instrumental hook (that descending scale first heard around 0:59), and then also kind of just scoots away with an abrupt, naive heedlessness.

In the second verse the song becomes a duet, featuring the Seattle-based singer/songwriter Mark Hadreas, who performs as Perfume Genius, and sings with enough fragile/mysterious affect himself that his opening line, too, becomes one of the only lyrically clear moments. Some relationship has taken an unhappy turn, to be sure, but how much more wonderful to listen to such a story when the words fade into a disoriented haze of regret and second thought rather than detail a concrete narrative of blame and/or self-pity. It can be no accident that the song rises above comprehensibility only at the beginning of verses and then at the end, when the duo sings together, with portentous melancholy, “This one to cut the heart in two, the other one to choose.”

“I Wish I Knew” is from Le Bon’s forthcoming album Mug Museum, slated for release in November on Wichita Recordings. The album was recorded in Los Angeles, where Le Bon relocated earlier this year. She has been featured once before on Fingertip, in January 2012. Thanks again to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Lisa Germano (gorgeous, sad, peculiar)

She sings in sighs; it seems you hear her every breath.

Lisa Germano

“And So On” – Lisa Germano

Lisa Germano is rivaled only by Tom Waits when it comes to the ability to insert sad, majestic melodies into squirrelly settings. Her songs tend to feel fractured, half-discarded. She sings in sighs; it seems you hear her every breath. In many if not most of her songs, she creates the disconcerting sense that much more is going on than either the words or the music quite reveals.

“And So On” is classic Germano—delicate and peculiar, gorgeous and heart-rending. Beginning with an unadorned piano and voice lament, the background shifts at 0:41 when Germano breaths out the words, “Oh, animals,” and that’s what we get—a barnyard full of chickens and cows and such, suddenly doing their thing in the background. “I just don’t want to know/The places people go,” Germano then sings, a line that seems somehow both to clarify and baffle; and by the way, check out both that chord under the word “places” and the lovely resolution it leads to, briefly. What a short and unusual journey this is. The chorus simply repeats the title phrase, as if its principal section was somehow excised and we are left both musically and lyrically with the afterthought. An acrobatic bass line temporarily wrestles the background spotlight from the animals, but they return in force the next time around. Are the animals the chatter that we try to fill our head with after a loss? Are our inner voices as confused and helpless as the voices of those without language at all? Are our emotions best expressed without words?

So far I’ve only got questions, no answers. But note that “And So On” is a song from a new album, called No Elephants, which is intended to be listened to as a whole, with a beginning and middle and end. The song is third from last. So on the one hand we are missing context but on the other hand, Germano is never all that straightforward—consider that she saw fit to put this song out there on its own, after all—so I’m guessing the entire album will likewise prompt more questions than answers. No Elephants is due out next month on Badman Recordings. MP3 again via Magnet Magazine. Site-related trivia note: Germano’s “It’s Party Time,” in May 2003 (note Web 1.0 format!), was the first song featured on Fingertips. She was also here in 2006.

Free and legal MP3:The Hermit Crabs (strummy, melancholy Glaswegian pop)

If it reminds you of Camera Obscura and/or Belle & Sebastian, well, all hail from Glasgow, where apparently this type of strummy, melancholy indie pop is a prevailing musical dialect.

The Hermit Crabs

“Stop This Now” – The Hermit Crabs

This is a lovely, crisp bit of strummy, melancholy indie pop, and if it reminds you of Camera Obscura and/or Belle & Sebastian, well, all hail from Glasgow, where apparently this type of strummy, melancholy indie pop is a prevailing musical dialect. But I encourage listening above and beyond the similarities, and tossing aside genre generalizations because, as I have said time and again, it’s far less important for a song to sound different than for it to be good. “Stop This Now” is deliciously good—so good in fact that it is different, if maybe in more subtle ways than can be summarized via pre-established labels.

Everything happens quickly here. The pace is light-footed, the verse concise—one melodic line, repeated twice, each time ending on an unresolved note. We’re at the chorus by 0:25, and yet see how we’re still not at any resolution. The pace stays fleet but the melody itself slows down, with front woman Melanie Whittle now singing fewer words per bar. It’s this opening part of the chorus that just nails the song for me—that lilting, deceptively simple triplet of lines (“And I know/And you know/We both know”) displaying both rueful wit and anguished charm, unfolding across those lovely chords that keep not resolving until we get to the twelfth bar (0:42). And even then we don’t feel full closure until the guitars strum their way through to the sixteenth measure, as we tend to need eight eight or sixteen measures for our ears to feel settled. The second trip through the verse is fortified by some dandy guitar work, the chorus’s follow-up enhanced with a winsome countermelody. Pay attention, however, or the thing will pass you by—it’s all over by 2:18 (the song actually ends before the MP3 does).

Founded by Whittle, the Hermit Crabs have recorded one full-length album to date, 2007’s Saw You Dancing. “Stop This Now” is from the band’s third EP, entitled Time Relentless, which is out this month on Matinee Recordings. MP3 via Matinee.

Free and legal MP3: Bart and Friends (sweet, melancholy toe-tapper)

This one makes me picture Paul Simon writing about the leaves that are green, that kind of driven innocence, of someone intent on turning pop to poetry, or vice-versa.

Bart and Friends

“There May Come a Time” – Bart and Friends

A sweet, melancholy toe-tapper, “There May Come a Time” comes blanketed in a vague but powerful nostalgia. When Pam Berry sings, right at the start, of someday forgetting “all the words to every song,” I feel immediately transported back to some hazy, flower-filled moment in the past (in the ’60s, no doubt). And I am filled with a lost sense of longing, as if no one actually does write songs any more. Which of course isn’t true. But. I picture Paul Simon writing about the leaves that are green, that kind of driven innocence, of someone intent on turning pop to poetry, or vice-versa. We can, it seems, no longer truly get there, but we can sing about what it must have been like.

Now then, a song can’t do what I’ve been attempting to describe and not veer a bit towards the twee (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). A general kind of wavery-ness permeates here, both within the tone of Berry’s warm, unschooled alto and in the lead guitar, a mild-mannered electric which sounds as if it is being finger-picked almost the whole way through. But in the end this is much less about the quivering of too-tender emotion than the capturing of simple human performance. I like the string squeaks you can hear intermittently (the best one at 1:37)—sounds typically associated with an acoustic guitar, and in any case indicative of an organic sound. What I referred to a moment ago as wavery-ness is actually the result of honest, dynamic playing, recorded authentically, without any flattening or processing. And maybe that’s the most nostalgic thing of all.

Bart and Friends is the ongoing project of Australian musician Bart Cummings, and has featured a rotating cast of friends and fellow musicians, often from among Australia’s indie pop elite and/or semi-elite (including the Lucksmiths, the Shapiros, and the Zebras). After a 1998 debut and 2001 mini-album, Bart and Friends went on hiatus until 2010, when another mini-album was released. Ditto for 2011, and now, in 2012, an EP has emerged, with “There May Come a Time” as the title track. (You may now meditate on the difference between a mini-album and an EP.) The EP is out next week on Santa Barbara-based Matineé Recordings; MP3 via Matineé.

Free and legal MP3: Clare and the Reasons (introspective, w/ mysterious power)

Introspective and artfully composed, with a chorus both subtle and majestic.

Clare and the Reasons

“The Lake” – Clare and the Reasons

Introspective and artfully composed, “The Lake” is I guess pretty much the opposite of a headbanger, and seems a perfect rejoinder to the previous song, for those who listen to each week’s update as a three-song set (which in fact I recommend!).

This is one of those songs with mysterious power—a power based on small rather than large gestures. Built on a sparse, pulse-like riff (initially played on acoustic guitar, later on keyboard), the delicate verse is augmented by complex vocal countermelodies and deft orchestration. Clare Manchon sings with a rounded, whispery tone, spiced with old-fashioned flutters and an unplaceable almost-accent. She tells a tale of inscrutable departure, vaguely narrated but sharply observed. The chorus nails it all together, at once majestic and subtle, a grand hook built out of nearly nothing: a repeating phrase, different lyrically at the beginning of each line, sung in a lazy, irregular, repeating triplet pattern. It’s intoxicating stuff, especially the second time through (beginning at 2:35), when the chorus extends and extends, the musical repetition highlighting the bottled-up emotion of the melancholy circumstance.

Clare and the Reasons is a Brooklyn-based band led by Clare and Olivier Manchon. Clare is the daughter of veteran musician Geoff Muldaur and sister of singer/songwriter Jenni Muldaur. The band, a shape-shifting ensemble, was previously featured here in 2007. “The Lake” is from the third C&TR album, KR-51, to be released next month on Frog Stand Records. The album was recorded after an eight-month stay in Berlin, much of which time was apparently spent on moped—specifically on a 1968 Schwalbe model KR-51. Thus the name.

Free and legal MP3: Cub Scouts (breezy, but w/ melancholy core)

Breezy, but with a melancholy core.

Cub Scouts

“Do You Hear” – Cub Scouts

A breezy song with a melancholy core. Tempo-wise, it’s a finger-snapper but listen attentively and you’ll hear a song that again and again resists resolution, both melodically and harmonically. The expectant vibe with which it launches never quite disappears. That’s what makes it feel kind of lost and lonely, independent of the lyrics (which sound lost and lonely too, though, as much as I can grasp them).

So what’s going on is that the song is rooted in a chord that is not the song’s tonic chord. The tonic chord is, typically, the home base of a song, the chord based on the song’s key (i.e., if a song is written in D major, the D major chord is the tonic chord). We don’t need to hear this chord all the time but it’s usually there to ground us. “Do You Hear” opens up on one chord, stays with it for nearly half a minute, and it’s not the tonic. This would feel pretty edgy except for the bouncy demeanor. And it is this juxtaposition that gives the song its depth and allure, as far as I can tell. In the chorus, by the way, we get a kind of opposite effect, as the melody stays focused mostly on one note as the chords shuffle through a progression that finally resolves—briefly—when the melody drops through to the tonic note (heard the first time at 0:53, on the third iteration of “things you’ve done”). But listen to how quickly we are kicked away from that moment, emphasized by a guitar riff yet again away from the tonic chord. Even the song’s final chord (3:02) keeps the resolution at bay, a not-often-heard effect.

A quintet from Brisbane, Cub Scouts is a new band with two singles so far to their name. “Do You Hear” will appear on a forthcoming EP.

Free and legal MP3: Snailhouse (smooth, swanky, melancholy)

Best of all, I do believe that this song offers up an as good if not better use of the “sentimental”/”gentle” rhyme than the familiar, if rather forced, one we got oh so long ago in the Bob Welch-penned classic that this song is a winning homage to.

Mike Feuerstack

“Sentimental Gentleman” – Snailhouse

Smooth and swanky and melancholy, this wise/weary homage to the old Fleetwood Mac/Bob Welch chestnut “Sentimental Lady” is a sneakily wonderful work in its own right. I love its rubbery, lazy-afternoon vibe, sprinkled with unresolved lead-guitar chords, unhurried horns (or horn-like sounds), and some built-in applause that one can truly call a smattering. Best of all, I do believe that this song offers up an as good if not better use of the “sentimental”/”gentle” rhyme than the familiar, if rather forced, one we got oh so long ago in the Welch-penned classic.

The voice and guitar we are hearing here belongs to Mike Feuerstack, of the veteran Canadian band Wooden Stars; Snailhouse has been his lo-fi-ish side project since pretty much the same time Wooden Stars got off the ground, back in 1994. With both a slight tremble and a pleasing richness, Feuerstack’s voice emerges from his throat so effortlessly he seems merely to be talking, an effect accentuated by his wry, conversational lyrics, which seem at least in part to deal with what it’s like to be an experienced but still pretty much unknown rock’n’roller. “We lied to the promoter/Said we’re packing them in,” he asserts, dryly, along the way.

“Sentimental Gentleman” is the title track to the sixth Snailhouse album, which was released in April in Europe on Mi Amante Records, and then in May in Canada through White Whale Records and Forward Music. MP3 via Mi Amante.

Free and legal MP3: Matt Longo (sweet, melancholy, concise)

Sweet, melancholy, and concise, “The Night” is half ballad, half lullaby, with a lovely, organic melody that links the verse and chorus so seamlessly that it sounds like one long outpouring of thought, breath, desire, regret.

Matt Longo

“The Night” – Matt Longo

Sweet, melancholy, and concise, “The Night” is half ballad, half lullaby, with a lovely, organic melody that links the verse and chorus so seamlessly that it sounds like one long outpouring of thought, breath, desire, regret. Longo’s light, expressive tenor works equally well with the simple guitar accompaniment that begins the piece and the string- and drum-enhanced arrangement in the middle.

The song sounds like something you might stumble upon at a late-night party, where a guy with a guitar breaks into an easy, heartfelt tune, is joined by a couple of other friends with instruments, while a quiet roomful of people nod their heads in musical sympathy. There’s nothing complicated about it except its power to move you without being complicated. To kind of go meta on you for a moment.

“The Night” is one of seven songs on Longo’s debut album, Alexandria, which was released in November and available for free via Bandcamp.