Free and legal MP3: Laura Veirs (evocative, idiosyncratic singer/songwriter)

Long-time Fingertips favorite Laura Veirs has a plainspoken presence, a gift for evocative lyrics, and the capacity to weave magical melodies into unassuming songs.

“Wide-Eyed, Legless” – Laura Veirs

Long-time Fingertips favorite Laura Veirs has a plainspoken presence, a gift for evocative lyrics, and the capacity to weave magical melodies into unassuming songs. “Wide-Eyed, Legless”–and that’s quite a title, eh?–begins with a plucky, fairy-tale sort of ambiance, its sing-song-y verse rooted in an ancient, semi-pentatonic refrain (mostly but not all black notes) and set against gull-like synthesizer lines.

And that would just about be cool enough, but then comes the chorus and one of those brilliant little melodies of hers. “Will you ever more tie up my hair with velvet bows?” she sings (0:50), delivering, in the midst of that bouncy, spiky tune a moment of poignant melodic resolution. Complete with that old-fashioned wording, it’s quite lovely, but she doesn’t dwell on it; even as the melody repeats for a second line in the chorus it changes a bit, and ends without the resolution, plunking us back into the “hornet rain” both lyrically and musically. Something, certainly, is going on here, having something to do with ships and storms and lost love, perhaps, but I can’t really be sure, and that mystery is part of the song’s quirky allure.

“Wide-Eyed, Legless” will be found on the album July Flame, Veirs’ seventh, scheduled for release in January on her Raven Marching Band label. MP3 via her site.

Free and legal MP3: The Sun (a fuzzy blast of melodic noise)

“In Perfect Time” – the Sun

A fuzzy blast of melodic noise, “In Perfect Time” seems to want to be played really loud. As a matter of fact, it has a kind of sneaky effect going–the louder I turn it, the louder still I feel I need to hear it. This clearly has to do with how singer Chris Burney’s voice is mixed down, but it’s more than just that. Any number of other bands have done the mixed-down-vocals thing and it doesn’t always have my hand reaching for the volume dial (okay, not a dial anymore, but whatever). So what else is going on here?

Part of it has to do with the unerring melodicism on display. Songwriters with the talent to write this kind of strong, earnest pop melody–Matthew Sweet in his heyday had this kind of sound–typically give you the thing right out front. You don’t have to fight for it. I turn the volume up here because I’m trying to put the melody where I’m used to hearing it. But, of course, turning the volume up only turns all the background wash louder also. And the noise is not at all unpleasant, mind you. It’s bashy and tinny and crunchy. And when it gets louder, I need to turn the volume yet higher, again trying to raise the vocals to a more audible level. A losing battle in this case, especially since–strange but true–the wall of sound appears to get proportionally louder than the vocals as I increase the volume. Producer Mike McCarthy has some wacky magic going here, perhaps the after-effect of working with Spoon’s studied minimalism for so many years (he’s produced all their albums since 2001).

The Sun is a band from Columbus, Ohio that did not name themselves with Google in mind. “In Perfect Time” is the closing track on the album Don’t Let Your Baby Have All The Fun, released this week on Rock Proper. Rock Proper happens to be a so-called “netlabel,” which means that its releases are entirely digital and entirely free. You can download all the songs from the album as free and legal downloads here.

Free and legal MP3: Land of Talk (powerful return of Fingertips fave)

“May You Never” – Land of Talk

Another song with an introduction that’s sparser and slower than the song it introduces, “May You Never” starts with spacey/chimey sounds, a semi-pentatonic piano riff, and some ultra echoey vocals from smudgy-voiced Lizzie Powell over a doleful kettle drum. It sounds all indie-mystical, but at 0:51 the beat kicks in, and the guitar grabs the piano’s motif so effectively that you see you’ve been set up all along. The song is sharp and powerful, and driven by Powell’s mysterious way with a melodic refrain.

This is Land of Talk’s third time on Fingertips, and it is apparently impossible for me to talk about them without mentioning Powell’s crazy-delicious guitar playing, so here I am again, telling you not only to tune in for the short but sizzling solo (at 2:00) but to keep your ears on what she’s up to in and around the rest of the song, including how she starts the coda with a literal bang (3:30) and ends it (if you listen carefully) with an echo of the song’s very first notes.

“May You Never” will be one of four tracks on the band’s forthcoming Fun and Laughter EP, slated to arrive next month via Saddle Creek. The band is meager with bio info, so I’m not sure how many people are playing with Powell at this point; the bigger news in any case is that she appears to be fully recovered from vocal cord surgery in January that sidelined her just when the band was geared up to promote their last CD. MP3 courtesy of Saddle Creek.

Free and legal MP3: Adam Arcuragi (quirky acoustic strummer, w/ trumpets)

“She Comes to Me” – Adam Arcuragi

At once relaxed and intent, “She Comes to Me” is an instantly likable, subtly quirky acoustic strummer. And you should know that I don’t have a lot of patience for run-of-the-mill acoustic strummers, which strike me by and large as a little, shall we say, boring. Despite what you might hear being aired on those they-mean-well-but-they’re-really-sometimes-kind-of-dreadful “triple A” radio stations, songs are not good or wise or sensitive just because someone’s playing an acoustic guitar and has an evocative voice.

“She Comes to Me” is good and wise and sensitive because it has movement and energy, because it’s easy to listen to but difficult to pin down, because it is both aurally and structurally complex without being messy or silly. Unlike countless writers of run-of-the-mill acoustic strummers, Arcuragi here gives us a continually interesting melody, based on refreshing chord changes that don’t seem to follow a predictable pattern. The melody is in fact somewhat hard to follow at first, but not in the least off-putting or strained. The typical acoustic strummer is a more lockstep affair, with easy to digest, regularly repeating chords and a plain–if not outright predictable–melody. Another worthy point of differentiation is Arcuragi’s willingness to expand the instrumental palette beyond acoustic guitar, even as the acoustic guitar remains at the song’s aural center. I particularly like the choir-like harmonies and the high-profile trumpets that are at once unexpected and exactly right.

Adam Arcuragi is a singer-songwriter born in Atlanta, now based in Philadelphia. “She Comes to Me” is from his second full-length CD, I Am Become Joy, released in June on High Two Records. MP3 via High Two. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

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.

Free and legal MP3: Future Clouds and Radar (solid, inscrutable, wistful; R. Pollard meets M. Penn)

“The Epcot View” – Future Clouds and Radar

Last year, Robert Harrison, ex- of the Beatlesque Texas band Cotton Mather unleashed Future Clouds and Radar on an unsuspecting world—a sprawling, double-CD debut widely praised by critics for its overflowing, multifaceted psychedelic pop. Personally, I’m not sure I heard anything on that album as cogent and immediately appealing as “The Epcot View,” which sounds like the work of someone not trying quite so hard to be overflowing and multifacted anymore.

With its thoughtful mien and sweet, inviting melody, “The Epcot View” sounds a bit like “Eve of Destruction” as written by Michael Penn, with Robert Pollard making revisions. The song is not without its oddball flourishes—I like the abrupt jazz-rock break at 2:24, and the sci-fi guitar effects that follow—and the lyrics remain as inscrutable as any self-respecting Guided By Voices song, but there’s something so solid and reliable at work here that I am thoroughly charmed. Plus, the idea of an “Epcot view” has an immediate connotation that gives me a narrative handhold, even if I’m still puzzling through the rest of the thickly-written lyrics.

This time around, Future Clouds and Radar is being billed as a four-person band; last year, the group was presented as a loose ensemble masterminded by Harrison. The band’s second release, Peoria, is out this week on its own Star Apple Kingdom label. MP3 via Pop Matters.

Free and legal MP3: Dan Black (transmogrified rap, with melody and heart)

“HYPNTZ” – Dan Black

I know next to nothing about rap and hip-hop; I listen to bits and pieces occasionally but I just don’t fathom what’s going on–music without melody rarely resonates with me; when compounded by cockeyed wordplay about personally distasteful things, I pretty much check out. So needless to say I had not known of the song “Hypnotize,” by the Notorious B.I.G., but it’s a rap landmark–a posthumous #1 hit for Biggie, himself an industry legend at this point. He was killed in a drive-by shooting 15 days before the album containing “Hypnotize” (Life After Death) was released. The album is often considered one of the greatest rap albums of all time.

“HYPNTZ” is a re-conception of Biggie’s “Hypnotize” by a Paris-based Londoner named Dan Black and it mesmerizes me. I have no business liking this–beyond its rap foundation, it steals a relatively bland beat from a top-40 song (Rhianna’s “Umbrella”) and blends in samples from the soundtrack to the movie Starman (quick shout-out to fellow Karen Allen fans). I routinely run the other way from mash-ups and remixes and all that slice-and-dice stuff. And yet to my ears this thing is some weird kind of brilliant. The simple melody Black creates for those harsh, bombastic lyrics, combined with the pathos of the soundtrack sounds and the stark, repetitive beat, generates poignancy and power. A harsh slice of street braggadoccio transmogrifies into a plaintive plea of some kind. Who’d’ve thought.

Not much is out there about Black at this point, but his people are working the PR channels, so he’s not some entirely unaffiliated knob-twiddler. The storyline from the press release–only semi-believable–is that he had not intended for anyone to hear this. He is busy, we are told, putting together an album of original material. Because so much of “HYPNTZ” is in fact original, however much constructed of existing parts, I’m inclined to think he’s got something worth hearing in the works.

(Note that “HYPNTZ” is no longer available, but Black subsequently reworked the song and released it as “Symphonies,” featuring a rapper named Kid Cudi. I liked “HYPNTZ” better but if you’re curious, “Symphonies” is available via Better Propaganda.)