Free and legal MP3: Heavy Heart (languorous dream pop)

“Bed Bug” is so approachable that you may not notice the slurry of indistinct noise that leavens this languorous tune.

Heavy Heart

“Bed Bug” – Heavy Heart

Ambling at a walking 4/4 pace, “Bed Bug” is so approachable that you may not notice the slurry of indistinct noise that leavens this languorous and crafty tune. There are instruments to discern, for sure—drums, guitar, bass: the traditional suspects—but there’s also that special dream-pop sauce of amorphous sound blurring the background into something that you hear and don’t hear at the same time. Note in particular how it rises in volume at the chorus (first iteration at 0:44), an indecipherable swirl underpinning the lovely melody, which by the way ends with a kind of unresolved resolution (1:06-1:11) (a neat trick in and of itself).

I’d also have you tune into the lead vocals here. Dream pop/shoegaze tends historically to lean on reverb, but it hasn’t here been allowed to nullify the rich, faraway tone of lead singer Anna Vincent. There’s a moment or two where she arches up to a high note (try 0:57, for one), and the way her voice just melts into it is super appealing to me, for mysterious reasons. Too much reverb there would have lost the nuance of it. I like too the song’s casual way with a guitar riff. It’s right there in the intro: a simple, one-step-down, two-note refrain, and from there it insinuates its way into the verse, at four-measure intervals, like a friendly face spied at a bit of a distance. One last, more general thing I appreciate is how “Bed Bug” keeps varying the landscape on us: not only is the verse presented in two different settings (the second time through—1:43—the sonic palette is stripped down and drum-forward) but so is the chorus, which offers us a hazier variant the second time we hear it (2:10).

Heavy Heart is a quartet from London. Released in January, “Bed Bug” was the first single the band put out since an experiment they ran in 2016 in which they wrote, recorded, and released one new song each month for the entire year; the results were then gathered into one full-length album in 2017, entitled Keepsake. You can check out all the band’s recordings and purchase them at Bandcamp. They also now have a brand-new single, “Dowsabel,” which you can listen to there or on SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Jason Matuskiewicz (acoustic-based midtempo rocker)

Matuskiewicz’s vocals, at once striking and unassuming, recall a long-lost classic-rock troubadour.

Jason Matuskiewicz

“Battle Born” – Jason Matuskiewicz

A chugging acoustic rhythm pitches us straight into a composition combining old-school know-how with a 21st-century, artisanal vibe. “Battle Born” is built upon a procession of careful, heartfelt chords and a melody at once deep and understated. The song sounds tough and tender at the same time; Matuskiewicz’s unassuming vocals recall a long-lost classic-rock troubadour, pushing us forward with a sort of weary tenacity suiting well the titular phrase. There’s a bit of processing involved but mostly it’s just the Joe Walsh-ian grain of his voice that convinces.

The song has a backstory, and I will quickly note that as songs go I’m not a backstory person. I mean, it’s fine if a song has one but I don’t feel it too often benefits me as a listener to be distracted by concrete details of one particular situation. Given the inherent notionality of music—absent words, a song can only ever suggest—I’m usually on board with songwriters who, even with their words, remain at the doorstep of suggestion. So, I appreciate here that Matuskiewicz, however specific (and difficult) the circumstance that inspired the song, has spun an elusive tale rather than anything on the nose. (And, okay, not to be a tease, the backstory here is that Matuskiewicz had been watching his girlfriend going through debilitating chemotherapy, and wrote the song as an outlet for this difficult experience.) I’m even more on board with songwriters with an unwavering sense of syllabic integrity, and Matuskiewicz’s lyrics scan impeccably. I might indeed argue that it’s proper scanning that can most effectively elevate lyrics; phrases that hold tight to the rhythm can soar with the freedom of musical imagination (see: “An angel came while I was drinking lemonade” [1:06]), while clunky phrasing does just that—brings a narrative clunking down to the uninteresting earth.

Matuskiewicz is a Brooklyn-based musician who is currently in the trio Shapes on Tape, and previously in the Lexington, Kentucky-based band Candidate. “Battle Born” was released as a single in November; it will appear on a forthcoming solo EP. Thanks to Jason for the MP3, and for his patient answering of my pestering questions.

Free and legal MP3: Lo Fine

Friendly if uneasy midtempo rocker

Lo Fine

“All We Need is Hell” – Lo Fine

Friendly and uneasy at the same time, “All We Need is Hell” is a guitar-filled midtempo number overflowing with smooth riffs, honeyed melodies, and weary-to-acerbic observations. What’s not to like?

Despite the seemingly laid-back pace, the song accrues a crafty urgency through the course of its concise three minutes. I attribute this in part to the appealing, multifaceted guitar work, as a crunchy undercurrent builds in the second half that was unapparent in the first. And the song structure itself is partly behind the cumulative power. To begin with, note how the verse and the chorus feel and sound similar musically, even as they are not actually the same. This gives the song, over time, an extra vigor, since in this case, the chorus feels less like a change of direction and more like a continued, purposeful movement down the existing path. And then there’s the matter of how the titular phrase is employed—not as an established part of the chorus but as one-time utterance in the center of the song, before the second time we hear the chorus. This strikes me as an unusual and stimulating songwriting device.

Lyrically, the song draws me in with its combination of understandable phrases and less comprehensible longer sentiments. But the lyrical linchpin is surely the line that opens the first iteration of the chorus (0:40): “Getting rid of all the demons/To get down to just the devil”—a disconcertingly profound idea, sung with front man Kevin O’Rourke’s slightly unsettling blend of sweetness and forewarning.

Lo Fine is the longstanding, ongoing musical project helmed by singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist O’Rourke. Founded in 1998 in Northampton, Massachusetts, Lo Fine has released three full-length albums and three EPs over the course of its meandering existence. “All We Need is Hell” is from the third album, Want is a Great Need, which was recorded largely in O’Rourke’s adopted home of Truro, near the tip of Cape Cod, and came out in November. A more recently released second single, “More Better,” is also available for download now, via SoundCloud. Thanks again to Magnet Magazine for the MP3.

photo credit: Petar Dopchev

Free and legal MP3: Dead Meadow (assured, midtempo psychedelia)

Sometimes, against all reason, ploddy muddy songs just sound so good—the blurry vocals, the minor-key prudence, it’s all communicating something, all the more so when you don’t actually know what the singer is singing about, which you usually don’t in these kinds of songs.

Dead Meadow

“Yesterday’s Blowin’ Back” – Dead Meadow

Sometimes, against all reason, ploddy muddy songs just sound so good—the blurry vocals, the minor-key prudence, it’s all communicating something, all the more so when you don’t actually know what the singer is singing about, which you usually don’t in these kinds of songs.

And because I don’t know what the singer is singing about, and because today is October 1, a day smart people someday will look back on with incredulity (provided there are any smart people left someday), I’m going to hear “Yesterday’s Blowin’ Back,” without any actual evidence, as a blistering indictment of the dangerous idiocy of extremist politicians. Just because I can. And just because we should.

“All your dark thoughts, they bring this on…” Indeed. So: you don’t like a law, you represent at best 18 percent of the U.S. population, and you shut down the government? Contrary to many reports, this is not a partisan issue. No reasonable person in a democratic country believes that hijacking the government is a valid oppositional strategy. Perhaps we will at some point begin the climb back towards civilization by reintroducing ourselves to the idea that news coverage is supposed to help us discover facts and truth, not simply report on what people say. People say all kinds of stupid shit nowadays, and in the strangest places (the Senate floor, for instance). And hm I guess by day’s end I am not in much mood for music analysis, which is too bad, since this assured piece of midtempo psychedelia by the veteran D.C. trio Dead Meadow is rich with musical pleasure. If only the dignified ache of the chorus—or, perhaps, the extended, intertwining guitar solos that begin at 3:22—could make me forget the despicable egotism of the cowards who shamefully scuttle the integrity of our fine country; but, alas, they don’t quite. Maybe if I just keep listening…

“Yesterday’s Blowin’ Back” is from Warble Womb, Dead Meadow’s seventh studio album, arriving later this month. This album features the return of drummer Mark Laughlin after 11 years away from band mates Jason Simon and Steve Kille. Dead Meadow was previously featured on Fingertips in December 2004. MP3 via Rolling Stone.

Free and legal MP3: Johnathan Rice (concise midtempo charmer)

Johnathan Rice is the rare 21st-century singer/songwriter who is making a career of it without gathering much in the way of blog buzz and hipster worship.

Johnathan Rice

“My Heart Belongs to You” – Johnathan Rice

There’s something unabashedly old-fashioned about “My Heart Belongs to You,” from its sentimental title to its easy-going, midtempo melodicism. There’s something old-fashioned about Johnathan Rice as well, being the rare 21st-century singer/songwriter who is making a career of it without gathering much in the way of blog buzz and hipster worship, relying instead on more, shall we say, professional tastemakers such as actual music publications and real-life music supervisors (his earliest marketplace breakthrough came via song placements on The OC and Grey’s Anatomy). Instead of worrying about his social media presence he has spent time doing things like playing Roy Orbison in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. (I will note however that Rice is indeed a dry and entertaining Twitterer, so it’s not like he’s living in 1974.)

In any case, this song is terrific. Check out how quickly it hooks us via solid songwriting chops—the verse adjoins four initial measures of pleasing, run-on melody lines with four follow-up measures of breath-catching, in which the melody is related, but different, and if anything, even catchier. It’s an easy step from there into a two-part, four-measure chorus, which resolves all melodies and leads us, with some gratifying “oo-oos,” back to the beginning. The conciseness of Rice’s craft is a joy to behold; he does not muddy a good thing with a tacked-on bridge, creating drama in the last third of the song instead via the rarely-used tool of a false ending.

Rice was born in Virginia but raised partially in Scotland, his parents’ native country. He moved from Virginia to New York City at the age of 18 on September 9, 2001; his first album, Trouble is Real, was released in 2005. A tour highlight for him that year was opening for R.E.M. in London’s Hyde Park in front of 80,000 people. In 2006, he joined Jenny Lewis’s touring band, and the two of them have had a close working (and personal) relationship ever since, including a lot of songwriting together. In 2010, the two formed the duo Jenny and Johnny, and released an album of the same name. “My Heart Belongs to You” is from Rice’s third solo album, Good Graces, which is coming in September on SQE Music. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Buffalo Killers(indie rock w/ classic rock aura)

“Huma Bird” – Buffalo Killers

Any 21st-century indie band that can this successfully channel their inner Joe Walsh is a friend of mine. Not that I’m a particular Joe Walsh fan; it’s more the principal of the thing. This is not a sound I expect to come out of my MP3 player in the year 2009. It’s a simple, grounded sound, a mid-tempo loper with a light acoustic rhythm at the front of the mix, sometimes messing playfully with the beat, with a heavy bass line underneath and a resonant electric guitar that interjects kind of whenever you’ve forgotten there’s an electric guitar hanging around.

And then there’s no avoiding that voice. This Cincinnati trio features brothers Andrew and Zachary Gabbard on lead guitar and bass, respectively, and both sing, so I’m not sure who is who here, but whoever is offering up that achy, upward-straining, and yet decidedly masculine tenor is paying uncanny homage to James Gang-era Walsh. But this is no lifeless imitation; “Huma Bird,” while completely relaxed, manages to soar with confidence and verve. Only fitting, as a huma bird, by the way, is a mythological creature, from a Sufi fable, which was said to live stratospherically high above the earth and never in its life touch the ground or even a tree. The bird laid its egg from so high up that the baby could grow inside, peck its way out, and manage to learn to use its wings just before the egg smashed to the ground. Some might find a metaphor in this. (Weird side note, not necessarily metaphorical: the song starts fading, for no apparent reason, 50 seconds before its official ending, and leaves us with a good 12 seconds of complete silence.)

“Huma Bird” is a new song, not yet on an album. The band’s last CD was Let It Ride, which came out in July 2008 on Alive Records. MP3 via the band’s site. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.