Free and legal MP3:The Clear (slinky, minor-key, retro)

Retro orchestral pop, of the minor-key, slinky variety.

The Clear

“The Planets” – The Clear

Retro orchestral pop, of the minor-key, slinky variety, “The Planets” launches off an off-kilter four-note ascending melody, a variety of which provides the ongoing motif for this nicely crafted tune. Any sonic element your ear can discern as the song develops will reward the attention, from the well-placed chimes to the space-age electronic squiggles to the subtle contributions of the electric guitar, strings, and muted horns (or some synthesized version thereof). Best of all I will point you to the major chord that glides gracefully in and then out of the song’s aural foundation (an early example is on the phrase “mine collide” at 0:35). It’s not a hook per se but it’s definitely a defining moment. I can’t get enough of that kind of thing.

For all of its rather particular musical trappings, “The Planets” has an amiable air about it; it’s going after a vibe but it doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard or belaboring the point with slavish devotion. The effort is greatly assisted by Jules Buffey’s creamy voice; she sounds like a spy-movie version of Karen Carpenter, which is a better thing than you might imagine.

From Sheffield, The Clear are Buffey, Chris Damms, and Bryan Day. “The Planets” was originally on the band’s debut album, Patchwork, which was released in March 2016. It seems to be having a new life this year as a single. You can listen to (and purchase) the entire album via Bandcamp. It’s a melodic, evocative outing, with a groovy, Mamas-and-Papas vibe, definitely worth checking out.

Free and legal MP3: Acapulco Lips (half-goofy half-serious surf-punk-pop)

With its lead vocals buried almost cartoonishly in reverb, “Awkward Waltz” displays a joyful zing greater than the sum of its garage-rock-y parts.

Acapulco Lips

“Awkward Waltz” – Acapulco Lips

With its lead vocals buried almost cartoonishly in reverb, “Awkward Waltz” displays a joyful zing greater than the sum of its garage-rock-y parts. This may have a lot to do with the old-school organ that floats through the mix, and it may have to do with the inherent appeal of a minor-key melody presented in a foot-tapping context. Or, maybe it has to do most of all with the irrepressible “oh-oh-oh” vocal descent we hear throughout the song from Austin-born singer Maria-Elena Juarez, each time delivering a frisson of catharsis, surf-punk style.

In any case, this is half-goofy half-serious fun, a song with a seeming simplicity belied by its unabashed devotion to an aural landscape that sounds more and more timeless as each new half-generation rediscovers it. Listen to drummer Davy Berruyer (who is from France, for goodness’ sake) and remind me again why electronic percussion exists. I know there’s a good reason but it’s slipped my mind in the presence of such precise and evocative pummeling. Listen to Christopher Garland and recall for a brief shining moment why we all used to love electric guitars so much—fingers on steel, sounds squealing and bending in direct relationship to sheer physical force. Juarez, meanwhile, mirroring the lead guitar with her bass, both grounds the song and frees it to splay towards its roiling conclusion. (Note that the crucial, aforementioned keyboards are supplied here by Yann Cracker, drummer Davy’s French pal.)

Acapulco Lips (coined to play coyly off the word “apocalypse”) is a trio based in Seattle. “Awkward Waltz” is the lead track off its self-titled debut album, which was released in mid-April on the brand new (?!) record label Killroom Records. You can listen to the album and purchase it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Thanks (minor-key rocker w/ appealing swagger)

While rock’n’roll may be past the point of reinventability, there is the occasional band that comes along and gives it a good ride.

Thanks

“Bad Tattoos” – Thanks

There’s something intriguingly old-school about “Bad Tattoos”—the hand-constructed beat, with its slightly fuzzy and very insistent bass line; those penny-whistle synth bursts; and a female lead singer full of soul and swagger, who happens to perform with the name Jimi Hendrix. At the same time, the song’s sonic landscape and general drive feels entirely of our 21st-century moment. While rock’n’roll may be past the point of reinventability, there is the occasional band that comes along and gives it a good ride. The Portland sextet Thanks appears to be one of these bands. If nothing else, how often, I am realizing as I listen to this, do you hear a stompy, minor-key rocker these days? Not very often, I assure you.

I like too how embedded and cloaked the guitar work is here; more than a minute passes before you hear the guitar, and it arrives with such muted self-assurance (1:04) that it immediately seems as if it had already been here and you just weren’t paying attention. Through most of the rest of the song, the metallic, low-register splendor of Andrew Hanna’s guitar provides both motion and density to a song with a gratifying number of moving parts. By the time the recurring guitar line coalesces into a bit of a solo (2:50), you will have thoroughly forgotten that this song was ever anything but a guitar rave-up. But go back and listen to the beginning; surprise!

“Bad Tattoos” is a track from the annual and always engaging PDX Pop Now! Compilation, the 2015 version of which was released in early June, in advance of the PDX Pop Now! music festival, scheduled for later this month in Portland. More information about the 42-track album is available here. “Bad Tattoos” is also slated to appear on Thanks’ next release, No Mercy in the Mountain, their second full-length, and an album they are at this moment raising money for on Kickstarter.

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.

Free and legal MP3: The Rosebuds (relaxed yet meticulous rocker)

The veteran Raleigh, NC duo of Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp have long had a gift for brisk, minor-key compositions—attentively crafted songs with a subtle insistence to them, songs that expand and deepen with repeated listens.

The Rosebuds

“In My Teeth” – The Rosebuds

The veteran Raleigh, NC duo of Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp have long had a gift for brisk, minor-key compositions—attentively crafted songs with a subtle insistence to them, songs that expand and deepen with repeated listens.

True to past Rosebuds form, “In My Teeth” feels at once relaxed and meticulous, a song full of moments that read as simultaneously casual and exquisitely wrought. Everything from the placement of guitar riffs to the use of harmonies (here but not here) speaks to effortless know-how. To my ears, even the way the titular phrase scans—with accents on both “my” and “teeth”—abounds with implication.

“In My Teeth” is from the forthcoming album Sand + Silence, the band’s sixth. The album was recorded at Justin Vernon’s April Base Studio, in Wisconsin, and was recorded live. It is also something of a reunion project for Howard and Crisp, who had spent the previous two years working on solo projects. Formed back in 2001, the Rosebuds were featured previously on Fingertips in 2008 and 2010. Sand + Silence arrives next month on Western Vinyl.

Free and legal MP3: Minor Alps (minor-key indie-rock drive)

Not only do are the musical instincts of Juliana Hatfield and Matthew Caws thoroughly interconnected, but their voices are so oddly similar that Hatfield has been quoted as saying that even she sometimes can’t distinguish between them on record.

Minor Alps

“I Don’t Know What To Do With My Hands” – Minor Alps

Minor Alps is the duo of Juliana Hatfield and Matthew Caws—Caws the front man from the band Nada Surf, Hatfield the long-time indie-rock/alt-rock goddess—and this is a duo in the most intertwined sense of the word. Not only do their melodic, ’90s-based musical instincts seem thoroughly interconnected, but their voices are so oddly similar that Hatfield has been quoted as saying that even she sometimes can’t distinguish between them on record. On this song, the vocals are shared throughout, and the verses are sung without harmony, accentuating the indistinguishability. This becomes especially interesting given the subject matter, which is the awkwardness between two people spending the evening together, getting to know each other, but wondering how to instigate physical contact. Having both the male and female voice speaking the same thoughts underlines the poignancy of the insecurity. It is a small-subject song enlarged greatly by lyrical discipline and musical straightforwardness. The subtle but definitive opening is the shift in the last verse, which moves the problem from the local to the global, a songwriting technique that never fails to move me:

I can’t decide on the channel
I’m just flipping around, maybe you can choose
Maybe some kind of monster
Maybe I just don’t know how to reach out

I love the graceful blurring of meaning in the third line, as the narrator seems to slip from talking about what’s on television to what may be the state of his/her heart and mind and being. This is further insinuated by the last iteration of the chorus, as the song ends, when the lyrics finally leave out the words “with my hands,” and the relentless minor-key drive of the music arrives at both apotheosis and long-delayed resolution.

The debut Minor Alps album, Get There, came out on Barsuk Records back in October without causing as much fuss as it might have; critics liked it but it never rose to buzz level here in the only place that matters, the internet. (Please add dripping sarcasm to that last sentence, if you haven’t already.) Thanks to the ever-discerning Lauren Laverne at BBC 6 for the head’s up on the more recent availability of this song as a free and legal MP3. You can download it above, in the usual way; but note that this one plus six others are currently available as free and legal downloads via NoiseTrade, where leaving a “tip” for the artists is also encouraged. Note that four of the songs on NoiseTrade are not on the album. Alternatively, the fine song “Buried Plans” (on the album) is available as a free and legal download via Barsuk Records.

Free and legal MP3: Matt Mays (frank, spirited rock’n’roll)

We have wailing guitars, we have a pounding keyboard, and most of all we have an upward-surging minor-key melody so succinct and irresistible that Mays builds both verse and chorus upon it.

Matt Mays

“Take It On Faith” – Matt Mays

Could it be that popular music has been splintered and digitized and compressed and remixed and mashed up for so long now that the surest, freest sign of authenticity and revolt in 2013 is nothing more or less than a frank, spirited rock’n’roll song?

Well, okay, maybe not. But “Take It On Faith” is surely a frank and spirited rock’n’roll song, with old-school drive and new-school…something or another. Actually, I’m not quite sure what makes this sound current and alive but it does, to me, in that there is nothing nostalgic or pandering going on here. We have wailing guitars, we have a pounding keyboard, and most of all we have an upward-surging minor-key melody so succinct and irresistible that Mays builds both verse and chorus upon it. And while yes there is something Springsteen-esque in Mays’ scuffed-up baritone, the vibe here feels more nimble and quicksilver-like than a 60-something rock’n’roll deity can traffic in any longer. A particular favorite moment of mine here is how the chorus retreats after the second iteration of the words “take it on faith” (0:57), with Mays backing off the anthemic melody to grumble something low and indecipherable. It feels unexpected, real, and alluring.

“Take It On Faith” is from the album Coyote, which was released on Halifax-based Sonic Records back in September. This is Mays’ third effort as a solo artist; he also has two albums released under the name Matt Mays & El Torpedo, most recently in 2008. That was when he was previously featured here. This song just recently came to the attention of the folks at Magnet Magazine, and that’s where it even more recently came to my attention. MP3 (once more) via Magnet.

photo credit: Devin McLean

Free and legal MP3: Young Hunting (moody & dramatic, w/ potent drumming)

Minor-key gravitas and powerfully succinct drumming drive us all the way home.

Young Hunting

“Baby’s First Steps” – Young Hunting

Pretty great introduction to this one, yes? Some songs just wrap you up in them right away. Bonus points here for brevity: we get the tightly coordinated, rhythmic interplay between lower-register, minor-key guitar arpeggios and a pulse-like tom tom for all of about 10 seconds; then come the vocals. All too many songs hang onto notably less interesting instrumental motifs for a lot longer before deciding to get started.

“Baby’s First Steps” is a nicely dramatic song in general, with its minor-key gravitas and apparently chorus-free structure—we get a wordless vocal section in between each verse until, after the third verse, we are finally delivered the chorus. (Delayed gratification is an under-utilized pop music tool.) But what lies at the heart of the song’s drama is the drumming, which is minimal, atmospheric, and potent. Launched on the juxtaposition of a steady yet stuttering rhythm, the song somehow seems to move faster than its own beat, if that makes any sense (it might not). This central sonic paradox feeds a number of related contradictions: the song feels at once smooth and itchy, calm and ominous, moody and defiant. The drumming is incredibly succinct; most of the drum kit remains unused for most of the song—we get one cymbal bash at 1:02, another at 1:13, but then we’re back to the tom, now with a purposeful shaker of some sort anchoring the relentless beat. Cymbals don’t enter regularly until the two-minute mark, when the drummer finally opens up a bit, but we still don’t get anything that feels like “normal” rock’n’roll drumming until two-thirds of the way through the song. This is also when the guitars move at last towards the front of the mix, but we have to wait even longer, until the last 30 seconds, for the (very effective) guitar solo. That’s discipline, baby.

Young Hunting is a five-piece band from Los Angeles. “Baby’s First Steps” is a song from the band’s debut full-length album, Hazel, slated for a June release on Oakland-based Gold Robot Records. The band previously put out a seven-inch single in 2010. Thanks to Gold Robot for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Seaweed Meadows (minor-key Swedish power pop)

Power pop aches to be widely loved, yet languishes as a sideshow genre, its advocates forever mystified at how it misses the commercial mark, again and again and again.

Seaweed Meadows

“Ruins” – Seaweed Meadows”

With its earnest, minor-key urgency and old-school instrumental melody, “Ruins” is a brisk slice of timeless power pop. Although that’s redundant, isn’t it?: “timeless power pop”? Power pop by definition is timeless. I mean, listen to “Starry Eyes.” Even when it sounds dated, power pop is timeless. Go figure.

One of the essential properties of pure power pop is a fluid melody line—melodies that either flow through a lot of adjacent notes, or describe gratifying chords. Having a sweet but not too sugary tenor lead singer (in this case, one Matthias Johansson) is a plus. Economy of expression in the process is also prized—not too many notes, just exactly the right amount—and that may be why the chorus here is so gladdening: its opening phrases (“Bite your tongue/Close your eyes”) feature a simple, half-step descending melody, the most basic descent you can make. In fact, very little about the actual music in a power pop song is remotely mysterious; the melodies are easy to understand, the song structure uncomplicated. But there is one lingering, central mystery to the entire genre, and that is this: why songs this catchy and well-executed are rarely very popular. Power pop aches to be widely loved, yet languishes as a sideshow genre, missing the commercial mark, again and again and again. I truly hope this is not the case for Seaweed Meadows and that they get all sorts of blog love and real-world success. But I’m not holding my breath.

Seaweed Meadows, a six-piece band, is based in Gothenburg, Sweden (though can’t we jettison the Anglicized name for the real one, Göteborg? how did that become “Gothenburg”? doesn’t look or sound right; but I digress). “Ruins” is the first single to be made available from the band’s forthcoming debut, Echoes of an Avalanche, which does not yet have a release date. Download the MP3 from the link above, or via SoundCloud if you would like to ease my bandwidth burden.

Free and legal MP3: Kait Lawson (backwoods shuffle w/ NOLA flourishes)

A backwoods shuffle with an immediate if unexpected dash of New Orleans-y instrumentation, “Place in the Ground” is an object lesson in durable songwriting.

Kait Lawson

“Place in the Ground” – Kait Lawson

A backwoods shuffle with an immediate if unexpected dash of New Orleans-y instrumentation, “Place in the Ground” is an object lesson in durable songwriting. Inspired by her grandparents, Lawson has written a song both pure and driven; it is a song that is not only about something but is okay letting you in on it. I like elusive lyrics as much as the next guy (well, maybe not quite as much), but there comes a time as a listener when I want clear context and direct meaning. On the other path lies the potential both for great artistry and for great fakery. Sometimes the line is thin indeed. Often over there in Elusiveland it seems to come down to the songwriter simply declaring “This is art,” because otherwise who can tell.

Lawson, on the other hand, doesn’t mess around. At her grandmother’s funeral 13 years ago, she overheard her grandfather, paying his last respects, talk out loud to his departed wife, telling her that she wasn’t supposed to be the one to go first. This song fleshes out that incisive moment. It could easily have gone sappy but Lawson stays disciplined on all counts. Musically, she gives us a minor key, appropriate to lamentation, but pushes it to a swinging beat, with fluid clarinet and trombine and tuba playing that evokes the “second line” style music at a traditional New Orleans funeral. The words grab us so firmly—opening line: “Her clothes still hang in the closet”—that it’s easy to overlook the melodic aptitude on display: the 16-measure melody of the verse, and a chorus so incisive and un-showy you almost don’t notice how it grips the heart. Lyrically, Lawson gives us concrete lyrical details, keep us in a narrative, but surprises us with nuance and emotion. Repeatedly she lets specificities imply both logistical and emotional content—for instance, how “She finally took your hand” tells us a lot more about the relationship then had she simply said that they got married.

Lawson is from Memphis, has spent time in both Nashville and NYC, but returned home to record her debut album. “Place in the Ground” is track number four on that album, which is called Until We Drown, and is slated for release in March on Madjack Records.

photo credit: Lisa Bertagna