Free and legal MP3: Orion Sun (dreamy, minimalist)

From the carefully plucked guitar through the smeary background wash and methodical drumming, the song delivers a vibe at once vague and precise, and pulls you along on its short and sultry journey as if in a comfy, if minimalist, dream.

“Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me)” – Orion Sun

And while some songs succeed via melody, there are those that establish a place in your head via atmosphere, like Orion Sun’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me).” From the carefully plucked guitar through the smeary background wash and methodical drumming, the song delivers a vibe at once vague and precise, and pulls you along on its short and sultry journey as if in a comfy, if minimalist, dream.

Orion Sun—the performing name for the Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter Tiffany Majette—favors melodies that bounce up and down, lending a rapping rhythm to her singing, or, for you truly old-school folks, bring recitative, from the opera world, to mind. The effect is at once conversational and intimate, and is accentuated by the plainspoken feelings on display, with the repeated chorus of “It feels so good to know you,” augmented by a blurry proffering of “so good”s.

The texture is so carefully established that I find myself fascinated by the way the primary guitar line sounds at once central to the song and yet spends most of the time not playing. It only finishes its full phrase at the very beginning (0:04) and then again near the very end (2:34); and it literally sounds like someone pulls the plug on the instrument halfway through the introduction (0:10). Yes, if you listen closely you will in fact hear the guitar underneath the chorus but it seems to be there all but subliminally, to give you a vague memory of something you aren’t fully experiencing.

As for the title, if there’s a reason Majette co-opted the title from a Jacques Brel classic (not to mention Regina Spektor’s more recent and much perkier song of the same name), it’s not immediately apparent. “Ne Me Quitte Pas” is from the debut Orion Sun album, Hold Space For Me, released back in March on the Mom + Pop record label. You can listen and purchase via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP. You might also be interested in a newer track of hers, “Mama’s Baby,” which was written in response to Majette having been attacked and injured by police during a protest in Philadelphia in May. Track is here; a newspaper account of the incident and resulting song is here.

Free and legal MP3: Meenk (minimal & melodic)

Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter May Rio, doing musical business as Meenk, wastes no time plunging you into her songs.

Meenk

“Up” – Meenk

Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter May Rio, doing musical business as Meenk, wastes no time plunging you into her songs, eschewing introductions for cold starts. Rio in fact goes further here and pretty much eliminates instrumental breaks of all kinds, a move that subtly increases her song’s sense of purpose—it’s all swimming, no treading water. There is a four-second, beat-driven riff that recurs as an intrinsic part of the song (and acts as an exclamation point at the end), but other than that, all song moments here are singing moments. As both singer and songwriter, Rio is up to the task, moving us deftly forward with her frank, Liz-Phair-esque vocal style and the juxtaposition of “Up”‘s blunt, two-section verse with the lovely, flowing chorus.

An interesting side effect of the vocal dominance here is how minimal an impact the instruments consequently appear to have, offering accompaniment so unobtrusive you are hard-pressed even to notice the arrangement at all. And yet this is obviously not an a capella performance. I am tempted, in fact, to find something incredibly able and robust in this elusive a musical landscape. Listen around the edges and you’ll hear some very cool things, including a wavering keyboard that straddles the thin line between old school and new, and a jangly rhythm guitar that, Johnny Marr-like, ends up feeling more than a little like a lead.

“Up” is one of four concise songs on the debut Meenk release, entitled Scamu Scau, that was released digitally in June. You can listen to it and download it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Francis and the Lights (soulful postmodern funk)

One must be a gifted vocalist and songwriter both to evoke Marvin Gaye and Brian Wilson within the span of one musical breath.

Francis and the Lights

“ETC” – Francis and the Lights

Wow, just listen to how little is required to create a deeply satisfying groove: keyboard, bass, drum. It helps that the keyboard is tracing a series of elegant, Stevie Wonder-ish chords and that the bass and drum are so tightly locked as to sound like one mysterious instrument, but still, I would send anyone who thinks music is about “making beats” to the first 22 seconds of “ETC.” Music is about making music.

That said, Francis and the Lights are a special case to begin with—an elusive ensemble trafficking in soulful postmodern minimalist funk, masterminded by Francis Farewell Starlite, about which not much more is known. Lots of musicians say they want their music to speak for itself but Starlite walks the walk. He doesn’t aim to be mysterious as much as straightforward, influenced, he has been happy to admit, by the classic writer’s guide The Elements of Style; in the spirit of “omitting needless words,” Starlite does not offer an online bio nor talk much about himself because he feels it comes across as “begging.”

Of course if more artists could manage Starlite’s singular style of succinct, emotive, genre-bending music, they too might find promotional talk unnecessary. As in previous visits here in 2008, Francis and the Lights spin a compelling song out of odd, ambiguous elements: verses like overheard inner arguments, hypnotic and diaphanous; a two-part, unresolved chorus linking a throaty question (“What will we do from here?”) with a soaring, inconclusive Beach Boys reference (“And will we be happy?”). One must be a gifted vocalist and songwriter to evoke Marvin Gaye and Brian Wilson within the span of one musical breath.

“ETC” is a single, as yet unconnected to a larger release. Thanks to Francis for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Hockey (bass-heavy electro-pop, w/ character)

Inside of a rubbery, minimalist soundscape front man Ben Wyeth offers a sad and soulful tune with a recycling kind of momentum.

Hockey

“Defeat on the Double Bass Line” – Hockey

So we’ve hit the indie-rock geographical trifecta this week, hopping from Melbourne to Göteborg to, now, Brooklyn in a matter of screen-inches. Bonus points for the fact that the two guys in the band Hockey are originally from Portland.

Under the spotlight this time is a bass-heavy slab of melancholy electro pop. Inside of a rubbery, minimalist soundscape front man Ben Wyeth offers a sad and soulful tune with a recycling kind of momentum. Two related things, I think, help to create the song’s wistful flow. First, we are in the unrelenting presence of the mighty I-V-vi-IV chord progression, one of pop’s most inevitable-sounding patterns. The verse melody may be slightly differentiated from the chorus melody (although not much), but the I-V-vi-IV structure remains rock solid, bordering on hypnotic, from beginning to end. But: then, the second thing about the song’s alluring movement is that even while working with this most steadfast of chord patterns, the band keeps things twitchy and unsettled, mostly via Jerm Reynolds’ acrobatic bass work. We keep anticipating the right chords in our heads, while often bumping into what feels false or incomplete resolutions; and this, I’m thinking, drives the piece more memorably than a more straightforward unfolding might have. One final thing to notice are those lyrical “echoes” that Wyeth begins offering at 2:19, the last word of each line repeated, in lockstep; the effect is at once edgy and comforting.

Although expanded to a quartet for a time, Hockey has reverted to its roots as a duo, featuring
Wyeth (previously known by his given name, Grubin) and Reynolds. “Defeat on the Double Bass Line” is from the band’s forthcoming album, the curiously named Wyeth IS, which will be self-released digitally in May. As with the other songs this week, you can download the MP3 via the link above, or via SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Erin Costelo (minimalist retro-soul from Canada)

At the center of this satisfying, reimagined retro-soul nugget is Costelo’s voice, a forceful instrument with both a booming timbre and a delicate vibrato.

Erin Costelo

“Oh Me Oh My” – Erin Costelo

At once short and expansive, “Oh Me Oh My” flaunts the open spaces offered up by both its downtempo flair and its minimalist arrangement. A firm, slow beat is established with neither fuss nor volume. Then see how the classic, early-’60s melody is partially deconstructed by the sparse setting—note, for instance, the unexpected harmony the first wordless backing vocals provide at 0:20. And then note how stingily this fetching backing vocal is used in the whole song.

At the center of this satisfying, reimagined retro-soul nugget is Costelo’s voice, a forceful instrument with both a booming timbre and a delicate vibrato. She struts through the slow, economically presented verse, expands with the double-time melody in the chorus, and never over-sings. In her upper range, her voice acquires a silvery power that smartly recalls bygone soul singers in some inscrutable—or, at least, indescribable—way. Music is difficult enough to turn into concrete description, but describing voices is pretty much impossible. I keep thinking, next time, next time I’ll nail it. But the point, ultimately, is to say: listen, listen to this voice, you’ll hear something potent in it. Your soul will be stirred.

“Oh Me Oh My” is the lead track on Costelo’s third album, We Can Get Over, which is set to arrive in early October. The album represents a stylistic culmination for the Halifax-based singer/songwriter. On The Trouble and the Truth, her 2008 debut, she presented herself as a relatively straightforward jazz singer. For her second album, 2009’s Fire and Fuss, Costelo moved more towards pop, while retaining some of her jazz-oriented inclinations. This time around, from the sound of it, she’s left overt jazz behind while exploring the elusive place at which ’60s soul and girl-group music commingles. Seems like a good idea to me.

Free and legal MP3: Liz Green (windswept, blues-ish & precise, w/ tuba)

A windswept, precisely orchestrated bit of minimalist pseudo-blues, complete with lonesome percussion, a cleanly picked acoustic guitar, and an offbeat, handpicked blend of brass and woodwind.

Liz Green

“Hey Joe” – Liz Green

An interesting and/or amusing playlist might be made of songs with the same title as a much more famous song, but which are new songs, not covers of the famous ones. “Hey Joe” goes right on that playlist, as this is assuredly not the Jimi Hendrix song of the same name.

What we have instead is a windswept, precisely orchestrated bit of minimalist pseudo-blues. Featuring lonesome percussion, a cleanly picked acoustic guitar, and an offbeat, handpicked blend of brass and woodwind, “Hey Joe” swivels on the lyrical structure of traditional blues, with its repeating lines, but veers into idiosyncratic territory when it comes to chord progressions and instrumentation. The more I listen, the more taken I am by the accompanying quartet of tuba, trumpet, trombone, and tenor sax that enters around 1:26 and oom-pahs and croons its way across this “simple bitter tale of love,” as Green herself has described the song. I can almost believe that the musical accompaniment somehow preceded the song itself, that Green concocted her words and melodies specifically to hang on the weighty, unorthodox foursome who give testimony from a deeper place. Cool song.

A self-proclaimed “tragi-comic pop clown” (so she says on her Twitter page), Liz Green is a singer/songwriter from Manchester, England who came into the public eye in the UK when she won the Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent Competition in 2007, which is apparently a pretty big deal. She released a 7-inch single in 2008 and then just kind of disappeared. Until now. Her debut full-length album, O, Devotion!, came out in the UK late in 2011 and sees its American release next week, on the PIAS label.

Free and legal MP3: Jennifer O’Connor (melodic, unadorned guitar rock)

Anyone who misses the gruff, melodic, unadorned guitar rock that Liz Phair used to make before she (let us say) found other things to do might want to give Jennifer O’Connor a few listens.

Jennifer O'Connor

“Already Gone” – Jennifer O’Connor

Anyone who misses the gruff, melodic, unadorned guitar rock that Liz Phair used to make before she (let us say) found other things to do might want to give Jennifer O’Connor a few listens. And lord knows O’Connor is probably tired of the Liz Phair comparisons already, and truth be told, as O’Connor by now has a longer history of sounding like this than Phair herself does, we’ve probably got it backwards. But Phair surely laid the groundwork, and to date made a bigger name for herself (let’s not count Jennifer out yet, however!), so I guess she’s stuck with it at least a while longer.

In “Already Gone,” the classic-rock chug is produced merely by a droning electric guitar, a relentless, double-time bass line, and a drum kit so simplified it sounds like little more than a snare (and okay there seems to be a tambourine in the intro, briefly). In a song this minimally formulated, small gestures loom large. Take, for instance, the way the bass punctuates the end of the verse by momentarily abandoning its persistent staccato foundation to play a quick, descending melody (first heard around 0:40). Consider it the aural equivalent of the way a well-chosen spice can add depth to a simple recipe. The harmony O’Connor sings with herself Amy Bezunartea adds along the way is another artful touch that exists almost below the level of conscious attention. Even O’Connor’s purposeful guitar solo, which begins at 1:45, is a delightful albeit subtle articulation (and, okay, sorry for one more Phair reference, and an obscure one at that, but the solo here recalls rather wonderfully Phair’s discerning solo in “Love Is Nothing,” from the overlooked Whitechocolatespaceegg).

“Already Gone” is from O’Connor’s fifth album, I Want What You Want, which was released this week on Kiam Records, a label that she founded and runs—an honest-to-goodness label, not just a name attached to self-releases. Some quick, relevant background: O’Connor’s two previous albums had been for indie powerhouse Matador Records, but she and they separated in 2009. O’Connor was at that point exhausted and broke and unsure of her musical future, working at a grab bag of odd jobs during much of 2009 and 2010. But eventually her music called her back and she’s got the new album, released on her birthday, to show for it. MP3 via Rolling Stone.

Free and legal MP3: Hospitality (quirky, minimalist NYC pop)

Spunky and ineffably nostalgic, “Friends of Friends” is a New York song with a New York sound, firmly in the later ’70s.

Hospitality

“Friends of Friends” – Hospitality

Spunky and ineffably nostalgic, “Friends of Friends” is a New York song with a New York sound, and one that to my ears is rooted firmly in the later ’70s—music that blends an edgy Television/Talking Heads 77-ish bounce with a more playful David Johansen/Syl Sylvain-y groove and throws in a saxophone that surely has arrived through a time machine.

And yet “Friends of Friends” struts with its own, minimalist center of gravity and personality-driven sensibility. Check out the bass playing at the beginning for a conspicuous example of the band’s unembellished aesthetic, as well as the spaces, generally, that are left around the beat. As for personality, Hospitality has Amber Papini, a Kansas City-born kindergarten teacher who apparently learned to sing by copying Richard Butler on the Psychedelic Furs’ Talk Talk Talk album. (Well and who didn’t?) Here, she takes a herky-jerky melody and really works it. Neither the blurty verse nor the clipped, seemingly under-developed chorus is easy to make sense of as a singer; she pulls them off through sheer force of tone and presence.

Hospitality formed as a trio in 2007. They are now a quartet, and they have recently been signed to the consistently wonderful indie label Merge. The full-length Hospitality debut album is due in March 2012.

Free and legal MP3: Icarus Himself (minimal, idiosyncratic trio)

That’s apparently something called an Omnichord that produces that distorted, tingly, music-box-like chiming that opens “Digging Holes.” It is among a number of unusual items this Madison-based band has in its musical bag of tricks.

Icarus Himself

“Digging Holes” – Icarus Himself

A teardrop-shaped plastic box called an Omnichord is the particular electronic gizmo creating the distorted, music-box-like chiming that opens “Digging Holes.” Introduced in 1981, it’s a homely thing, filled with slanting rows of small buttons, but also a then-futuristic “touch plate,” for mimicking strumming; and yet it is not the only unusual item this Madison-based band has in its musical bag of tricks. A baritone guitar is another—this being a low-voiced six-string that can sound like a bass but also be played like a regular guitar. Front man Nick Whetro’s minimally oriented sense of arrangement is yet another and probably the most important of the band’s idiosyncratic aural facets.

“Digging Holes” has one line of melody—it’s what the Omnichord sketches out at the beginning—and this is what we hear in and around offbeat accompaniment that veers from a reggae-like organ shuffle to Balkan-style trumpet and back again. The song develops slowly, but the stark interplay between the organ and the baritone guitar is oddly inviting, and when the “normal” guitar joins in, along with the faintest drumbeat, about a minute in, its offhand lead lines over the underlying syncopation feel for a moment as if this is all the song needs to be about. And, in a way, because the song itself barely exists—is the one repeated melody line a verse or a chorus or neither?—we really are captured, throughout, by necessarily passing moments, by sounds that appear briefly and move on (a series of four percussive slaps we hear between 1:46 and 2:00; the gate-shutting guitar sound that precedes the trumpet solo at 2:46; et al). Even those elements that persist a while, like the trumpet, or the ghostly, intermittently heard slide guitar, have the effect of being somehow apart from the song, adorning its minimalist skeleton but never supplanting it.

Icarus Himself is Whetro on vocals, guitar, trumpet, and sampler, Karl Christenson on the baritone guitar and Omnichord, and (so newly added to the lineup he’s not in the pictures yet) drummer Brad Kolberg. “Digging Holes” is a song from the band’s Mexico EP, which was released in May on Science of Sound. MP3 via Science of Sound.

Free and legal MP3:Tracey Thorn (EBTG vocalist returns w/ Brel-like waltz)

“Oh, The Divorces!” – Tracey Thorn

Just the sort of lovely, bittersweet song that Tracey Thorn, known best as half of Everything But the Girl, seems born to sing. A Jacques Brel-like waltz with both pathos and humor, minimally scored with piano and strings, “Oh, The Divorces!” deftly captures the exquisite sorrow of marital demise, viewed from that stage in life when one’s friends begin to break up, in seeming droves. “Who’s next?/Who’s next?” she sings at the outset. “Always the ones that you least expect.”

The nicely sculpted lyrics are a particular treat, and not just because they emerge from Thorn’s dusky yet velvety alto, although that doesn’t hurt. At once matter-of-fact and ever so slightly sly, some of the words shine with almost Sondheimian savvy (“And this one is different/And each one of course is/And always the same/Oh, the divorces”). There’s something gratifyingly grown-up about this song–from the wise, hurt depth of Thorn’s singing to the wistful (and yet also sometimes almost ironic) bowing and plucking of the violins–and those rock’n’rollers who persist in championing loud and aggressive music as the only legitimate means of expression are so incredibly missing the boat I’m beginning to feel sorry for them, rather than annoyed. (Although I’m still pretty annoyed. Essay to follow. But read Azzerad’s first if you haven’t.)

“Oh, The Divorces!” is the lead single from Thorn’s upcoming Love and Its Opposite, slated for a May release on Merge Records. MP3 via Merge. This is her second solo record since EBTG went on hiatus in ’02. Thorn remains married to band mate Ben Watt–happily, one hopes.