Free and legal MP3: Sass (terrific grunged-out pop)

“11:11” – Sass

Maybe what we all really need right now is some guitars. In which case, the Minneapolis band Sass is at your service. And we’re not talking mindless, mathematical thrashing. What Sass delivers, guitar-wise, runs the gamut from amiably ringing riffs and sparkly plucking to full-on crunches and delightfully distorted squonks. For the guitar-starved who also likes a good pop song, this is a veritable buffet of aural delight.

And this is indeed a terrific if thoroughly grunged-out pop song, full of melodic spunk, lyrical thrusts, and self-possessed forward movement. And did I mention guitars? Given the fitful ruckus, “11:11” requires a special someone to pull it all together, vocally, and Sass has you covered here too, in the person of front woman Stephanie Jo Murck. Often we speak of a singer’s vocal range in terms of dynamic register, as in how low to how high a voice can go. Murck’s range, alternatively, is tonal, encompassing everything from blasé yearning to full-throated howling, a range that aptly complements the variegated guitar work. There’s nothing show-off-y going on here, which is one of the song’s special powers—the dynamic performances here all hit the ear as matter-of-fact. Murck’s narrator seems to have made a misstep in a fledgling relationship after previously assuring herself she didn’t need anyone to be okay. Now she’s not so sure. It’s a complex circumstance to cover in less than three and a half minutes, and a good part of the complexity is portrayed as much by sound as by words; there’s an “I can’t go on; I’ll go on” vibe in the air. Sporadic moments of chaos convey it; sustained histrionics would ruin it.

You will hear without effort the obvious moments of ramshackle guitar splendor the song has in store for you; let me here draw your attention to a few subtler things this deft band makes happen along the way. There’s the smeary line drawn by one of the guitars from 0:28 to 0:32;  the odd group of slightly off notes woven in from 1:17 to 1:20; and the squeal at 1:35, which leads into this lyrical highlight:

I am unreasonable
Let me push and
Never be pulled
But that’s impossible

Murck lets loose on this last line, the guitars screech a while, and then we’re back to a more restrained tone, revisiting the line “I thought I’d be fine alone,” and it somehow hits the ear as especially poignant, perhaps because this time it’s followed by the lines “I’d watch a new TV show/Learn to dance and paint and sew.”

Sass was founded in 2016. After a couple of early singles, they released an EP in 2017 and their first full-length, Chew Toy, last year. You can listen to and buy all their music via Bandcamp. “11:11” was released this month, and is a track from their upcoming album, Heart to Heart. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Katy Vernon (Americana, w/ ukulele, and grandeur)

“Undertow” has a casual but distinctive grandeur about it; listen, for instance, to the lap steel intro: sure, a standard motif in country or Americana music, but the tone here is both keening and a little whimsical.

“Undertow” – Katy Vernon

December approaches, which means that it’s time here to take stock of those songs I’ve been listening to for a good part of the year but which somehow never broke through to a feature. This can happen for any number of random reasons, often just because a song doesn’t seem to want to fit in with the other songs being presented in a given month. (No one else might, but I always listen to each group of featured songs as a linked set; I like them to work well when heard, in order, one after the other.) Needless to say this is all an idiosyncratic mess, but it’s my mess.

So, here at long last is Katy Vernon, a London-born singer/songwriter/ukulele player who has been living in Minneapolis since the late ’00s. “Undertow” has a casual but distinctive grandeur about it; listen, for instance, to the lap steel intro: sure, a standard motif in country or Americana music, but the tone here is both keening and a little whimsical. It sets your ears up for something wonderful, somehow. Maybe this has something to do with the lap steel’s partner here, which is Vernon’s omnipresent ukulele, a less standard companion. When she starts singing (0:12), her voice traces a stately verse melody bookended by two half-interval descents; this feels grounded and inevitable but, after the second pass through, primes us for something grander, which we receive in the chorus.

Now then, the chorus. First, that lap steel swell that brings you in is pretty great. Second, you are not imagining it if you hear a strong melodic echo of June Carter’s “Ring of Fire” here—it’s not only that upward leap by thirds, tracing a D chord, on “Took me down” (0:36), but also the follow-up descent (“way along the shore”); the melody is quite similar to the chorus melody in the Carter classic but the altered rhythm and feel transform it into something distinct. And, whether intentional or not, the way Vernon veers off into new territory in the resolution (starting with the words “till you” at 0:52) keeps sounding like a deft and welcome surprise. I can attest that the song is definitely a grower; I’ve been listening since March, when the Current featured the download in the “Song of the Day” feature. Something about it kept it hanging around, prompted me eventually to investigate the rest of the album (which is good!), and now, finally, here you go.

“Undertow” is the ninth of 12 tracks on Vernon’s third album, Suit of Hearts, which was also released in March. But, to make things nominally current, the last track on the album is called “Christmas Wish,” and has just been put online as a single. Visit Vernon’s Bandcamp page to listen to everything, and buy what you’d like.



(MP3s from The Current are available in files that are 128kbps, which is below the established 192kbps standard, not to mention the higher-def standard of 320kbps. I personally don’t hear much difference on ordinary equipment but if you are into high-end sound you’ll probably notice something. In any case I always encourage you to download the MP3 for the purposes of getting to know a song via a few listens; if you like it I still urge you to buy the music. It’s still the right thing to do.)

Free and legal MP3: The Jayhawks (classy classic Americana)

The gracefully descending minor-key melody, this thing hits the ground like archetypal Jayhawks, which is more or less equivalent to archetypal Americana.

Jayhawks

“Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces” – The Jayhawks

Have you heard this before? Of course you’ve heard this before—even if not this exact song. This is not a new sound. But my god, how sweet and solid this is, and how indicative that we lose something consequential when we demand only that everything be so friggin’ new all the time. I mean, come on: it makes no more sense to demand that everything only be new than to demand that everything only be old. Surely we desire and deserve a blend, much as we desire and deserve artists presenting visions and stories from all points on the adult human life spectrum, not just from those under the age of 25. The insidious pressure to require music to sound somehow continually “new” can always be sensed when writers approach a veteran band like The Jayhawks: if a new album is favorably viewed, there are always statements lauding the idea that the band “didn’t just revisit the past”; if unfavorably viewed, it’s either because they’re “stuck in the past” or tried too hard to reinvent themselves. You can’t win for losing when the New police are on patrol. So many witches to burn.

Anyway: that opening acoustic strum, the gracefully descending minor-key melody—this thing hits the ground like archetypal Jayhawks, which is more or less equivalent to archetypal Americana, complete with (say it with me) jangly guitars. As with a lot of Americana when it’s really good, there’s a lingering strain of ’70s country-rock in the air (think Poco, or Pure Prairie League), contributing to the music’s uncanny ability to feel mournful and jubilant at the same time. If Gary Louris’s silvery tenor shows some fetching wear around the edges, it serves merely to accentuate the beautifully crafted melodies he, yet again, sings for us.

The Jayhawks, from Minneapolis, have been playing in one incarnation or another since 1985, with one mid-’00s hiatus. The band still features two original members—Louris and bassist Marc Perlman—while the other two are veterans in their own right: keyboard player Karen Grotberg first played with the band from 1992 to 2000, then rejoined in 2009, while drummer Tim O’Reagan has been on board since 1995. “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces” is the lead track on the new album, Paging Mr. Proust, which was produced by Peter Buck, Tucker Martine, and Louris. It was released at the very end of April and can be purchased directly from the band, if you are so inclined, via their website. MP3 via the good folks at KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Gramma’s Boyfriend (loose-limbed Daniel Johnston cover)

Gramma's Boyfriend

“I Live In My Broken Dreams” – Gramma’s Boyfriend

All music (and in fact all art of any kind) exists as an ongoing dynamic between existing form and free expression. The tighter a song adheres to a form, the more (in theory) a listener’s capacity to connect personally with it will depend upon the individual expressiveness of the performance. This is why (in theory, and honestly I’m just making this up as I go along) it’s so counterintuitively difficult to play the blues (or, at least, to play it effectively): the music is structurally rigid enough to require all sorts of expressiveness to have an impact, and yet adding expressiveness to something so inherently structured is a challenge indeed.

And here is “I Live My Broken Dreams”—a Daniel Johnston song that is not exactly blues (though not too far from it), but certainly a composition offering a lot of familiarity in terms of melody and chords; you’ve heard this basic form before. And here is Haley Bonar (rhymes with “honor”), the singer/songwriter (featured here back in 2008 and 2011 on her own) now fronting the peppy, intermittently frantic Minneapolis band Gramma’s Boyfriend. Not the same sound as when last we left her. But the character of voice required to command attention behind a mere guitar serves her well in this new, noisier context. More to the original point, Bonar’s expressive qualities (from tone to phrasing to just general cool-sounding-ness) shoot through the song’s somewhat homely form and help transmute it from a fractured, fragile oddity into a chewy but loose-limbed rave-up. Her four band mates deftly assist, laying down a groove at once dirty and bouncy, a semi-chaotic mix of synth squiggles and reverbed noise. With a very sudden ending.

“I Live My Broken a Dreams” is from the album PERM, released this week on Graveface Records. The band previously released an eight-song album called The Human Eye in 2013.

photo credit: Graham Tolbert Photography

Free and legal MP3: Low (not slow this time but quite, actually, low)

With a prominent, recycling major-to-minor key modulation adding to the momentum, the song does not even stop to acquire a separated chorus.

Low

“Just Make It Stop” – Low

Built on a creamy, low-end, guitar-driven groove, “Just Make It Stop” immediately contradicts itself with music that sounds like it could pretty much keep going forever. With a prominent, recycling major-to-minor key modulation adding to the momentum, the song does not even stop to acquire a separated chorus—one melody services both chorus and verse (“I could tell the whole world/To get out of the way” indeed.)

There is something seductive here in this rich, brisk song that revels in its lower-register grace. Not only does Mimi Parker’s dusty alto dominate, but the entire piece seems to rest down below where most rock songs want to live. Rock’n’roll catharsis stereotypically happens at the shrieky end of things: guitar solos so far up the neck the fingers are really on the body; singers throwing their heads back to emit glass-shattering howls. Since its beginnings as an inadvertent “slowcore” pioneer, Low has never been about such flagrant drama, preferring to find a different kind of thrill in spaciousness of various kinds—slow tempos, thoughtful structures, uncrowded arrangements. Even as they’ve broadened their sound over the years, there remains an alluring awareness of space in the band’s music, even when the tempo in this case has us tapping our toes rather than closing our eyes. Not too many other bands would think of, never mind get away with, the skeletal instrumental break we get here after the song’s opening chorus (1:00), in which the instrumentalists play as if each waits for someone else to take the lead. The second time we get to this break (2:17), there’s what we waited for: a piano pounding out a gut-satisfying left-hand melody, grounding the song down in that deep place it’s been in the whole time. (They don’t call themselves Low for nothing.)

“Just Make It Stop” is from the album The Invisible Way, coming out next week on Sub Pop Records. Produced by Jeff Tweedy and recorded in Wilco’s Chicago studio, it is the band’s tenth album; the Duluth trio is now in their 20th year together. Longtime Low fans note that Mimi sings lead on five of 11 songs this time around—welcome news for most, as she’s usually up front for just one or two per album. MP3 via Sub Pop. If you go to Low’s page on the record label site, you’ll find eight other free and legal MP3s to download, including two that were previously featured here (in April 2011 and in February 2005).

Free and legal MP3: Mark Mallman (approachable tune from eccentric rocker)

Approachable helping of anthemic rock’n’roll, as 21st-century sounds mix with old-school touches.

Mark Mallman

“Double Silhouette” – Mark Mallman

Scratch below the surface of the well-known players on the one hand and the clamoring wannabes on the other and rock’n’roll remains, to this day, a universe peopled by any number of obscure toilers, many of whom have found a way of making it work for years on end. There are far more fully-formed characters out there on American stages than seems possible, or maybe even advisable.

Thirty-nine-year-old Mark Mallman is one of them. Emerging on the Minneapolis music scene in the late ’90s as part of a short-lived glam-rock parody band called The Odd, Mallman has been an eccentric and persistent presence there ever since, complete with wacky stage antics (playing keyboard solos in mid-air) and shticky concepts (onstage alter-ego: werewolf). Through the ’00s, he achieved a bit of notoriety for a series of unnaturally long concerts/performances he has given—so-called “Marathons” that have ranged in length from 26 to 78 hours. His most recent Marathon, number four, was done on the road in a van last month, involving 150 hours of non-stop music. I get press releases about such things and toss them in my “gimmick” folder. Ho hum. Then I actually thought to listen to the song. And well now. “Double Silhouette” is an easily approachable helping of anthemic rock’n’roll, mixing 21st-century sounds with some ineffable old-school touches—those deep chimes in the background feel inexplicably nostalgic, as do some of his vocal quirks (he’s channeling somebody there when he sings “Where everything is black and white” at 0:45, I just can’t put my finger on whom). I’m enjoying too his penchant for epigrammatic lyrics (“Nobody dies in nightmares/So I guess I must be living the dream”; “Won’t you join me on my road to ruin/’Cause it’s the only thing left worth pursuin'”; etc.); contemporary indie rock can surely do with a bit less obscurantism than we’ve been getting over the last decade.

“Double Silhouette” is the title track to Mallman’s new album, which will be released next week on Eagle’s Golden Tooth Records. It’s his seventh solo release; he has also recorded two albums with a band called Ruby Isle, in 2008 and 2010. In addition to “Double Sihoulette,” Mallman currently has five other songs of his available for download on his web site.

Free and legal MP3: Dark Dark Dark (warm & wistful, w/ captivating piano line)

With its tender, ear-opening piano motif and graceful, ruminative momentum, “Daydreaming” is fully engaging throughout its almost five-minute length, which is a relative rarity in 21st-century rock’n’roll.

Dark Dark Dark

“Daydreaming” – Dark Dark Dark

With its tender, ear-opening piano motif and graceful, ruminative momentum, “Daydreaming” is fully engaging throughout its almost five-minute length, which is a relative rarity in 21st-century rock’n’roll. (When aiming for some kind of pop, few songs of this length manage without some dead spots.) Singer/pianist Nona Marie Invie is front and center from the start, her haunted voice offering up plaintive phrases, surrounded by warm acoustic instrumentation.

What exactly we are hearing in the background becomes a bit of a mystery, however, as the song progresses. Beyond the piano and the percussion there’s an accordion involved, and, according to promotional material, a banjo (that could be what we hear briefly at around 0:20); band members are also known to play clarinet and trumpet, but I’m not sure either of those account for that sound we get for a moment or two at 1:17. Invie’s repeating piano refrain, with its recurring blue notes, remains at the song’s backbone, but listen to how the accompaniment grows increasingly tense and solid after the three-minute mark. Her singing is nearly overwhelmed by the ghostly wash of noise—a clamor that is tamed only by the second round of her incisive, swooping “oo-oo”s as the song draws to its wistful close with one more half-iteration of the captivating piano line.

“Daydreaming” is not a new song, but it has arrived newly in my inbox. It comes from the Minneapolis ensemble’s second full-length album, Wild Go, which was released on Supply and Demand Records in October 2010, and then in Europe and the UK in April 2011 on Melodic Records. Featuring as many as seven members at certain times, Dark Dark Dark is currently touring in a five-person format.

Free and legal MP3: The Ericksons (singing sisters, w/ guitars, & unaffected vibe)

The Ericksons are not actively quirky in the manner of, say, Ani DiFranco, or, for that matter, any of the so-called “freak folk” crowd. If anything, the cumulative effect of the peppy “Box of Letters” is of two performers who are, simply, loose and unaffected.

The Ericksons

“Box of Letters” – the Ericksons

There’s something ever, ever so slightly unhinged about the Erickson sisters’ basic Indigo Girls-ishness that I find immediately fetching. First, the obligatory acoustic-guitar-strumming intro itself is a bit off-kilter, aligning insistently with the in-between beat (i.e. the “and” in the “one-and-two-and-three…”). When the singing starts, it’s not yet the sweet, harmony-laced offering one might expect from singing sisters with guitars but rather a blurted, conversational, idiosyncratically-phrased vocal from Bethany. And when she’s finally joined by her sister Jennifer, the first harmony we get is actually dissonant (check out the “oo”-ing at about 0:27). Even the chorus, with its delightful, light-stepping, drum-brushed momentum, has a vaguely off-center feel, thanks to how the melody lags friskily behind the song’s driving beat.

And yet the Ericksons are not actively quirky in the manner of, say, Ani DiFranco, or, for that matter, any of the so-called “freak folk” crowd. If anything, the cumulative effect of the peppy “Box of Letters” is of two performers who are, simply, loose and unaffected. The song’s quiet eccentricities—many of which have to do with vocal phrasing—seem organic rather than mannered, and each delivers a pleasant little surprise when encountered. I particularly like the crazy little flourish the women give to their “oo-oos” around 1:54, and the way the song ends with the instruments fading away while the sung note is held maybe a tad longer than expected.

“Box of Letters” is from the album Don’t Be Scared, Don’t Be Alarmed, the duo’s second, released this past fall. Thanks to Robbie at Girlysounds for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Haley Bonar (bittersweet, textured singer/songwriter pop)

“Big Star” – Haley Bonar

Rock’n’roll history is littered with singers dreaming of hitting the big time. That fame is in fact a double-edged sword is not something people usually apprehend until after they’ve been there (and then it’s kind of too late). Here, however, is a song that captures, in anticipation, the bittersweet repercussions of “big stardom,” both lyrically and–more memorably, to me–musically. My ears are struck throughout by an insistent sense of yearning, thanks to the major-minor chord shifts, the terrific and evocative instrumentation, and something achy and knowing in Bonar’s clear, sad-eyed voice.

Pay attention to what’s going on in the background throughout the song. Electric and acoustic guitars, backing vocals, and Bonar’s mellotron are woven together with a complex and rather dazzling deftness, and yet remain subtle enough that often you have to think to hear them. The ridiculously experienced Tchad Blake (Elvis Costello, Pearl Jam, Peter Gabriel, Crowded House, et al) is credited at the mixing board here, and no doubt he had something to do with the mysterious yet vivid texture that transforms this from a simple singer/songwriter tune into something deeper and richer.

Born in South Dakota, Bonar is based in Minneapolis. “Big Star” is the title track to her third CD, which was released in May on Afternoon Records. MP3 via the Afternoon web site.