Free and legal MP3:Case Conrad (muscular, concise rootsy rock)

Modest and controlled at the outset, with an ever-so-subtle swing, “The Swim” develops organically into a muscular bit of rootsy rock, timeless in its approach and vibe.

Case Conrad

“The Swim” – Case Conrad

Modest and controlled at the outset, with an ever-so-subtle swing, “The Swim” develops organically into a muscular bit of rootsy rock, timeless in its approach and vibe. A lot here rests in the capable singing voice of Gustav Haggren, the veteran Swede who is one of three lead vocalists in Case Conrad. Haggren’s is a burnished baritone, a voice that sounds like a friend and a stranger, a plea and a bargain, a dream and a disappointment. It’s a rich, human voice, unshowy and entirely at home in this easy-going composition, with its major-minor alternations and satisfying melodic resolutions (the sturdy run first heard from 0:51 to 0:58 is especially pleasurable, if you happen to be a chord progression fan).

One of the song’s agreeable touches is this odd little sidestep it takes after the second two choruses, when it deconstructs itself into 6/8 time, with a slightly loopy, Tom Waitsian flair. There’s no particular reason for it, but that’s where the magic in songwriting often lies.

Case Conrad was formed by Haggren in the wake of the 2009 breakup of his band Gustav and the Seasick Sailors, who were a notable Fingertips favorite back in the day (featured in 2005 and 2008, if you’re curious, and aren’t you, a little?). Four of the band members are from Sweden and one is from Portugal; residence-wise they are now split between Malmö and Barcelona.

“The Swim” is a track from A Tightrope Wish, the band’s third album, released last month on Stargazer Records/This Is Forte.

Free and legal MP3: Cheshires (ramshackle, melodic indie rock)

Buried in the substructure of this ramshackle forkful of indie rock goodness is a full-fledged classic rock song that’s just kind of messing with us.

Cheshires

“Love This Feelin'” – Cheshires

Buried in the substructure of this ramshackle forkful of indie rock goodness is a full-fledged classic rock song that’s just kind of messing with us. The melody is casually awesome. The same-note harmonies accentuate the song’s effortless catchiness. The chorus does that half-time thing that is as pleasant as it is elusive. There are not one but two off-kilter a capella breaks. There’s the way that the titular lyrical phrase scans properly for speaking but awkwardly (in an endearing way) for singing.

Best of all, there’s that gut-level, lower-register guitar riff that introduces the song and then waits its turn for reappearance. And waits. It partially returns in the chorus, first at 0:45, but in slightly altered, truncated form. The third time around we hear it nearly fully formed, at 2:26, enough to feel like an old friend, but still mixed down and incomplete. And so somehow this beefy, ’70s-tinged guitar riff is at once the backbone of the song and its missing piece. Nice trick!

“Love This Feelin'” is a song from Cheshires’ self-titled debut album. The L.A.-based trio is billed as a kind of resurrection of the ’90s indie band Remy Zero, as it features Remy Zero himself (birth name Shelby Tate), singer/songwriter Louis Schefano (original Remy Zero drummer), and multi-instrumentalist Leslie Van Trease, who put time in with Remy Zero when they toured. The album was released earlier this month. You can listen to it via SoundCloud and buy it via iTunes.

Free and legal MP3: Lost Woods (brisk, melodic, ’90s-ish guitar rock)

The clarity of two distinct guitars interacting is one of the sounds that the digital age has drained from our cultural commons, and I don’t recall that we took a vote on this.

Lost Woods

“Vodka Ocean” – Lost Woods

Something relaxes in me as I listen to “Vodka Ocean.” And it has nothing to do with the song’s lyrical content (about which more later). It’s the straightforward palette of traditional rock’n’roll—guitars, bass, drum. And maybe more than that: it’s the clarity of two distinct guitars interacting. That’s one of the sounds that the digital age has drained from our cultural commons and I don’t recall that we took a vote on this. You can hear it in the introduction, and during the instrumental breaks, the way both guitars find their own lead lines, working in a way that is at once complementary and also independent—it’s as if the guitars aren’t necessarily listening to each other but merely trusting that the other one is going to be in a sympathetic place.

And as I keep listening I detect an extra element buttressing the two-guitar attack, and probably rendering it all the more ear-catching, and that’s the bass. Urgent and creative, the bass functions nearly as a third guitar for all its melodic inventiveness. It even gets a fuzzed-out solo (1:55), not something you hear everyday.

Oh and as for those lyrics apparently the song grew out of an unfortunate bit of overindulgence at a music festival, after hearing that Frank Ocean had cancelled. Further details are probably best overlooked, but any band that can turn such an incident into a song this assured and engaging is worth keeping an eye on, says me.

Lost Woods claims inspiration from early ’90s indie rock and I am not only hearing that generally but I am finding myself thinking specifically, and fondly, of the trio Dada (known best for “Dizz Knee Land” but their 1992 debut was chock full of incisive tunes). “Vodka Ocean” is the third Lost Woods single; an EP is on the way.

Free and legal MP3: Patrick Boutwell (crunchy, complex power pop)

Rhythmic imbalance is central to the crunchy charm of “Scotch the Snake”; the melody wants to soar but is repeatedly hemmed in by the offbeat beat.

Patrick Boutwell

“Scotch The Snake” – Patrick Boutwell

We get un-clap-along-able hand claps in song one, and extended bits of 7/4 time in song two. 6/4 too. It’s my lucky week.

Of course there’s more to the crunchy, incisive “Scotch the Snake” than an asymmetrical time signature, but the rhythmic imbalance remains central, and keeps straight-ahead catchiness at bay—the melody wants to soar but is repeatedly hemmed in by the offbeat beat. And it’s kind of a good thing: we get the big guitar riffs and plaintive tenor lead of classic power pop without, quite, that genre’s simplicity (or over-simplicity). Another wrinkle here: what appears to be the verse delivers the big melodic hook, as soon as the singing starts; and what appears to be the chorus feels more bridge-like, connecting the payoff delivered each time by the verses. It’s an extra way that “Scotch the Snake” keeps the ear pleasantly off-balance.

As it turns out this is the second song heard here in recent months that offers up the aural vocabulary of power pop while undermining the genre’s tendency to be ear-candily catchy (see, previously, Cotton Mather). I’m not saying this is a national trend (if only) but I like it in any case.

Boutwell is front man for the Rhode Island-based band The Brother Kite, which one or two Fingertips veteran followers might (possibly?) remember from the early early days—they were not only featured here in 2004 but the following year the band’s song appeared on the one and only Fingertips compilation CD (Fingertips: Unwebbed, of which I still have a batch in my closet). (Anyone want one?)

“Scotch the Snake” is a track from Boutwell’s album Hi, Heaviness, which was released at the beginning of March. The phrase is Shakespearean, from Macbeth, where it refers to temporarily debilitating but not actually destroying something dangerous. You can hear the whole thing on Bandcamp, and choose to pay for it whatever you’d like. Thanks to the valiant Powerpopulist blog for the head’s up on this one. And thanks to Patrick himself for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: YAST (awesome mix of noise and melody)

Equal parts noise and melody, “I Don’t Think She Knows” is an awesome slice of 21st-century rock’n’roll, from a land (Sweden) that hasn’t given up on the genre quite as much as we have here, alas.

Yast

“I Don’t Think She Knows” – YAST

Equal parts noise and melody, “I Don’t Think She Knows” is an awesome slice of 21st-century rock’n’roll, from a land (Sweden) that hasn’t given up on the genre quite as much as we have here, alas. But with this kind of thing still crossing the border, I can yet find my happy place—until, at least, a future president sees fit to seal everything and everyone out and all of us left here just end up shouting each other to death. Did I say shouting? I meant shooting. Or, better, shouting and shooting: that’s the American way.

But I digress. And present “I Don’t Think She Knows” as the kind of song that can (maybe) take your mind off the parade of unmitigated lunacy currently passing as normal here in the ever-amazing (not necessarily meant in a good way) United States. Launched off a yearning, fuzzed-out two-note guitar riff, scuffed up by noise and reverb, “I Don’t Think She Knows” succeeds with a lovely, minor-key verse melody, a wordless chorus, stellar guitar work, and a healthy dose of impenetrable commotion. That juxtaposition of identifiable guitar lines and blurry hubbub is, to my ears, one of the things that gives the song its sharp appeal. And don’t lose sight of the nimble bass line either; even when all hell breaks loose (e.g., 3:06), the bass keeps us grounded structurally and sonically. We know we’re in a pop song, which every now and then is still a good place to be. Especially when the shouting and shooting starts.

YAST was formed by three musicians from the Swedish city of Sandviken in 2007, and became a quintet after moving to Malmö for its more music-oriented culture (although the two new members were also, as luck would have it, from Sandviken). The band released its first single in 2012, its first album in 2013, and a second album in September 2015, called My Dreams Did Finally Come True, which is where you’ll find this song. If you want a higher-quality .wav file, visit Adrian Recordings on SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Chris Storrow (updating a bygone sound, with horns)

“Raised the Bar” is as we speak blaring out of Top-40 radios everywhere in some alternative world in which politicians compromise and people still use taxi cabs.

Chris Storrow

“Raised the Bar” – Chris Storrow

With its anthemic horn charts, melodic bass line, and a retro-y, bittersweet bashiness, “Raised the Bar” is as we speak blaring out of Top-40 radios everywhere in some alternative world in which politicians compromise and people still use taxi cabs.

Let’s start with a hat tip to the introduction, which not only gives us those groovy horns right out of the gate but seems to accomplish a whole lot in a short time. After just 10 seconds not only does the song take off but it feels we are already smack in the middle of things, thanks to the ear-catching sixth interval on which the verse melody quickly hinges (it’s there in the second and third notes we hear). That’s one good way to write a song, for those who need more than rhythm to get the spirit fluttering. Another good way is to employ most of the notes of the scale in your melody, which “Raised the Bar” does in the chorus, skipping just one note out of eight (counting the home note in both its lower and upper registers). (End of music theory lecture.)

The bygone feeling in the air here is, according to press material, no accident—Storrow set out on this new album to write straightforward songs in the tradition of the hits one might have heard on AM radio in the 1960s. Based in Montreal, Storrow worked on these new songs with a number of notable Canadians, including musicians from the Fingertips-featured bands Stars, the New Pornographers, the Dears, and Young Galaxy, in addition to the multi-faceted singer/songwriter Patrick Watson (himself featured here back in 2006).

“Raised the Bar” is the second track on Storrow’s new album, The Ocean’s Door, released earlier this month. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Shiv Hurrah (gentle, stately DIY)

Shiv Hurrah mastermind David Bechle has a hint of songwriting genius about him, as far as I can tell.

Shiv Hurrah

“Girl in the Snow” – Shiv Hurrah

So this one is gentle in a grounded way that most quiet lo-fi songs don’t tend to be; too often gentle in lo-fi land tends towards the inordinately twee. And not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I am super impressed with the poise and sense of purpose on display here. And most of all with the melodic wallop. Shiv Hurrah mastermind David Bechle has a hint of songwriting genius about him, as far as I can tell. (His song “Oh Oh Oh,” featured here in 2010, was a brilliant diamond in the rough, offering up one of the best melodies I’ve yet encountered here on Fingertips.)

“Girl in the Snow”‘s simple, palpable power is reinforced by the odd but decisive choice to bring a clarinet into the mix. Even more oddly, it’s an instrument that Bechle himself had never played but in this case borrowed an instrument, learned the part, and played it himself anyway. I am far more in awe of that than I will ever be by a beat someone makes, but that’s just me being old-school again.

When last we left the Rochester, NY-based Shiv Hurrah in 2010 they were kind-of/sort-of a band, but in the years since the project has become Bechle’s baby, even as his former band mates remain good friends and are intermittently available for ideas and input. The new Shiv Hurrah album is Bechle’s second; it’s called Antiquarios and is available to listen to and purchase via Bandcamp. And, if you must know, because I needed to, the project name is a play on the renowned Bollywood songwriting tandem of Shivkumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia, who are known as Shiv-Hari.

Thanks to the band (i.e., David) for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Thin Lear (conflicted nostalgia, tender urgency)

There is sweetness here, and pining, and a sense that it won’t end well because, well, nothing does in the long run.

Thin Lear

“Second Nature” – Thin Lear

And speaking of the Kinks (of whom we really can’t speak enough), here we are treated to two fleeting lyrical references to the great British band, reinforcing a lovely song with a (now that I think about it) distinctly Daviesian brand of conflicted nostalgia. Even without being able to make too much of the lyrics here (and I can’t), there is sweetness, and pining, and a sense that it won’t end well because, well, nothing does in the long run.

Effortlessly melodic, “Second Nature” is propelled by a rhythmic, gently plucked electric guitars emphasizing the “on” beats (one and three) versus rock’n’roll’s classic backbeat (two and four) orientation (cf.: “It’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it”). One clear lyrical feature here is the purposeful repetition of words and/or sounds in successive lines (e.g., “Sick to death/Sick in bed/Sic the dogs on us instead”), which may or may not be intended as a subtle augmentation of the title phrase but in any case adds to the song’s tender urgency. And I suggest you pay attention to the saxophone when it shows up (1:47, briefly; then, closing the song out from 2:31)—not just because you don’t hear a lot of saxophone in 2015 rock’n’roll but because there seems something inexplicably moving about hearing this instrument presented in such a straightforward way, something about the pure sound of it that captures the subtle heartache of the entire track. And throughout of course there’s the obvious contribution of Longo’s gentle, agile tenor, which lends memorable complexion to every upward sweep of melody.

Matt Longo is a gifted singer/songwriter, based in Queens, NY, whose work has been featured here twice previously, in 2011 and in 2013. He is performing with the name Thin Lear this time around, partially inspired by an absurd image from a dream he had one night. A six-song EP is due out later this fall; you’ll be able to buy it via Bandcamp, and can listen there in the meantime to his past recordings.

Free and legal MP3: The Cairo Gang (catchy/complex brilliance)

“Ice Fishing” is a semi-garage-y, amorphously psychedelic bit of guitar-driven power-pop brilliance that keeps getting better and better with repeated listens.

The Cairo Gang

“Ice Fishing” – The Cairo Gang

“Ice Fishing” is a semi-garage-y, amorphously psychedelic bit of guitar-driven power-pop brilliance that keeps getting better and better with repeated listens, being that rare combination of catchy and complex. Plus, it’s a song about ice fishing, which is about as refreshing a topic for a pop song in 2015 as can possibly be imagined (after of course dancing and fucking).

Just how many satisfying chord progressions ferry this song forward is difficult to quantify. And just how comforting front man Emmett Kelly’s voice is is equally hard to measure with objectivity, but his warm blend of Robert Pollard, Elvis Costello, and Jonathan Richman is a beautiful thing to behold. But most beautiful is the song itself, a wondrously assured construction of heart-melting chords and generous melodies. “Ice Fishing” is in fact so melodically generous that one of the song’s best bits is all but a throwaway: the wordless melody that functions as a kind of unresolved bridge between 2:29 and 2:40. How much self-possessed momentum does a song have to have to effect something like that? And okay the best bit of all is the most gloriously obvious: the nonchalant two-line chorus (first heard beginning at 1:00), each line with its own distinct, bittersweet/wonderful hook.

The Cairo Gang is a five-piece band based in Chicago. “Ice Fishing” is from their new album, Goes Missing, released last week [6/23] on God? Records, a side imprint of Drag City Records. The album is the band’s fourth. MP3 via the record label. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

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.