Free and legal MP3: The Reflections (brisk, well-crafted, minor-key)

Brisk and engaging; keep this on repeat for a while and it just about hypnotizes you.

The Reflections

“Disconnected” – The Reflections

Sometimes the wisdom and splendor of a song can be hidden and/or encapsulated in the smallest gesture. Case in point: the second line in the opening verse of “Disconnected,” which begins at 0:41. And it’s not even the line itself but the rhythm of the delivery that I’m talking about. Front man Darian Zahedi sings, “Lost your grip on what you’ve been holding,” and the words skip out with casual, percussive cogency—“what you’ve been” is colloquialized to “wha’cha been,” and it’s the hurrying of the “what” and the in-between-beat swallowing of the “you” that makes the line inexplicably delightful. We had been delivered, following a ghostly pre-introduction, into a driving, minor-key rock song of uncertain lineage—there’s something early-’80s about it and also something early-’00s—but it’s this skippy little delivery that told me that this band was making its own, smartly-executed contribution to whatever you want to call the genre in which this brisk, engaging song is housed. I vote for “rock’n’roll.”

A similarly effective small-but-large gesture follows when the song leaves a lyrical blank at 0:53, after “disconnected and mishandled,” and fills it with a brief, plaintive piano chord. All the better that that same phrase emerges one line later to be employed in (and as) the chorus. It all seems so nonchalant and yet fully engineered. Another little detail to notice: in the second verse, the second line is sung minus the “skip” we heard in the first verse, but with the same kind of conversational phrasing (so easy to aim for and difficult to affect), and now (a bonus) with an ear-catching internal rhyme (1:28): “From a voice so near you almost hear it in your mind.” There are of course some larger good things going on too, here—the repeating ghostly “voice” (synthesized?) that propels and unifies the song, the centrality of an unadorned piano, the feeling of discrete aural space in an age in which mixes too often turn to DIY mush. Most of all I love how unfussy everything seems; the song proceeds in a “just so” kind of way; even the guitar solo (2:56) seems to float in with a fetching combination of diffidence and authority. Keep this on repeat for a while and it just about hypnotizes you.

The Reflections are a duo based in Los Angeles. Their debut full-length album is to be called Limerence and is scheduled some time in the first few months of 2013.

photo credit: Adam Goldberg

Free and legal MP3: Madeline (electric guitar + voice, but it works)

Stripped down to electric guitar and voice, “30 Days” simmers with the drama of an unreliable narrator.

Madeline

“30 Days” – Madeline

We go from a song marked by unexpected instrumentation to a song all but devoid of instrumentation. And yet it still registers as unexpected, because all we have here is electric guitar, bass, and voice. In my experience, it’s very difficult to pull off a song in which electric guitar and voice are the primary elements, way more difficult than if the guitar is acoustic. (I will resist sidetracking onto why this is so but trust me on this one, it’s so. That’s why you don’t hear a lot of people even trying to do this.)

But wow, it works to extraordinary effect here. Madeline (last name Adams, but she doesn’t use it) exploits the electric guitar’s ringing quality, and gives it to us in a manner we don’t often hear it—slow and deliberate, as the guitar is used mostly to describe a series of minor-key arpeggios. I like that this is very clearly designed for electric guitar, not simply a refried acoustic pattern. The bass, meanwhile, after its solo in the unhurried introduction, offers a simple, repeated, five-note line; you barely know it’s there but its punctuation anchors this slow and willful song. Lyrically, “30 Days” simmers with the drama of an unreliable narrator, a woman who seems only partially aware of her troubles, whose sad and seductive declarations sometimes lack connective tissue: “I had a good man who loved me all the same/And lord knows waking is the saddest thing of all.”

Madeline is from Athens, Georgia, although she left there as a teenager, landing in Bloomington, Indiana to record for the punk-oriented Plan-It-X label. She made her first album at 17, in 2002. By 2005 she was back in Athens, releasing multi-faceted albums for Orange Twin Records and working with the Elephant 6 Collective. “30 Days” is from the album B-Sides, which gathers a number of unreleased tracks from her previous albums into one package. B-Sides was released digitally this month by the Athens-based This Will Be Our Summer Records, which was founded just last year.

Free and legal MP3: TW Walsh (insistent minor-key groove)

After a delay for some ambiant, setting-up noise, “Make It Rhyme” hits upon an insistent, minor-key groove and boom, it’s got me.

TW Walsh

“Make It Rhyme” – TW Walsh

After a delay for some ambient, setting-up noise, “Make It Rhyme” hits upon an insistent, minor-key groove and boom, it’s got me. Maybe it’s the jangly tone of the electric guitar, maybe it’s the snare-free drum beat, or maybe it’s that spooky organ sustain that anchors the song’s rhythm section in something both humorous and unsettling, but this one has that great combination of being both instantly likable and deeply appealing. Speaking of humorous and unsettling, take a listen to the lyrics, which chronicle a dysfunctional relationship in a series of sardonic couplets, one of which is the titular “You sing the song/But I make it rhyme.” The extra joke here is that there are a couple of lines in the song—listen carefully and you’ll catch them—in which the rhyme is actually missing.

And the extra extra joke here is that the song is very specifically about Walsh’s long-standing friendship/musical relationship with David Bazan, erstwhile leader of the band Pedro the Lion. Walsh was the only other official member of that band; he calls this song “the worst version of myself complaining about the worst version of Dave,” with the benefit of some bemused hindsight.

Born Timothy William, Walsh recorded some solo material 10 years ago or so, and also headed a project called The Soft Drugs in the mid-’00s. He has spent more time and energy in recent years on his work as an audio engineer; his specialty is mastering, which he has done for the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Gabriel Kahane, and the Mynabirds, among many dozens of others. He has at long last put himself back in front of the microphone; “Make It Rhyme” is from the album Songs of Pain and Leisure, which was released this month on Graveface Records. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Radical Face (quietly portentous, w/ minor-major alternation)

He seems to be telling quite a story with that expressive tenor of his—and yes I get the basic gist from the title alone—but there’s something about the music, each time, that pulls me away from the words.

Radical Face

“The Deserter’s Song” – Radical Face

I like good lyrics, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t tend to default to lyric-listening. I get distracted by the music. Drawn in and swept away. Even when I start out actively trying to listen to lyrics, I often lose my way. This one, wow, I’ve been listening over and over and I can’t seem to focus on the lyrics for very long at all. He seems to be telling quite a story with that expressive tenor of his—and yes I get the basic gist from the title alone—but there’s something about the music, each time, that pulls me away from the words.

I consider this a good thing. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I think a songwriter has done quite an impressive job if you, as a listener, know that the song works and yet can’t manage quite to follow what he or she is saying. Or okay maybe it’s just me as a listener. But I hear that deep tom-tom, I hear the hushed interplay between rhythm sticks and one-handed piano playing, I hear the always effective alternation of minor and major keys, never mind the thunder and rain (not always effective, but it works here, for me), and the words disintegrate into the song itself. I absorb the portentous atmosphere with no firm idea of what the song is specifically recounting. I consider this a good thing.

Radical Face is the name Ben Cooper has given to his solo recording project. Cooper is otherwise known, to some, as half of the duo Electric President, themselves featured here last February. “The Deserter’s Song” can be found on the EP Touch the Sky, released in November on the Berlin label Morr Music. A previous Radical Face album, Ghost, came out in November 2007. MP3 via Better Propaganda. This one I have known about since its release; it just took a while to grow into something I wanted to feature. Some music works like that. I hope you guys out there don’t always dismiss a new song with too quick a hit of the “next” button. Some songs need a bit of air and space.

Free and legal MP3: John Vanderslice (brisk, concise, minor-key tale)

John Vanderslice songs often resemble dark, elusive short stories; something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is. We’re typically in the middle of something very specific, but with the large-scale details omitted in favor of tiny observations that simultaneously add atmosphere and blur the narrative.

Green Grow the Rushes

“I’ll Never Live Up to You” – John Vanderslice

John Vanderslice songs often resemble dark, elusive short stories; something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is. We’re typically in the middle of something very specific, but with the large-scale details omitted in favor of tiny observations that simultaneously add atmosphere and blur the narrative.

Even when JV gives us the premise with an explanatory note ahead of the lyrics this time (“A father so domineering and imperious, he’s even intimidating on the embalming slab”), we get history only hinted at, emotional short-cuts that bypass the details of what this father wanted and why the son didn’t or couldn’t do what was expected of him. “If they would believe me/I would tell them all the truth about you,” the son sings. What truth? Who are “they”?

The lyrics are, as usual, supported by music as concise as possible; check out, right away, that eight-second intro, and how even there, the instrumental line is a melody, not a vamp. “I’ll Never Live Up to You” offers, generally, a brisk, minor-key setting but also an ongoing font of specific moments that contribute to the whole—it’s almost as if you could take a slice of any point along the way, an aural biopsy if you will, and discern the song’s larger intent and meaning. And how on earth did he decide to use saxophones here? Anchored at the bottom of the mix, they emerge only as the song unfolds, grounding it in an organic foundation, despite the synthesized ambiance, representing the almost-buried nature of the narrator’s referenced but unspoken truth. And it was surely a conscious choice for Vanderslice to sing the song mostly in vocal layers with himself, with the melody led by an almost whispery upper register voice. We only hear his regular singing voice at one specific time in the chorus, when he repeats the words “about you” (first heard at 0:56)—a subtle but telling way to illustrate how this unfortunate son remains bound and tied to his long-dead father.

“I’ll Never Live Up to You” is one of six songs on a new, free digital EP, released last week. You can download the whole thing at his web site, complete with artwork, lyrics, and credits, or you can download individual songs.

Free and legal MP3: The Rosebuds (ominous, bouncy, w/ melodic hook)

The Rosebuds

“Secret Life of the Rosebuds” – the Rosebuds

Are duos especially well suited to exploring dualities in music? Is there something about having two people creating music together that channels and augments its capacity for exploring yin-yang properties such as darkness vs. light, happiness vs. sadness, triumph vs. loss? That’s a paper for another time here in my virtual degree program in the Serious Pop Music Studies Department. For now I’ll simply note that the Rosebuds, a Raleigh-based duo, have a deft way of conjoining the ominous and the bouncy, which do not typically co-exist. (I noted this in fact a few years ago, complete with grad-school theorizing on a slightly different topic.)

It’s the bass-heavy, minor-chorded intro that manages the trick. This kind of deep, minor-key music is typically slower if not downright thudding and yet here it snaps along at a toe-tapping pace. The beauty of the juxtaposition is that you don’t even notice it (except that I’ve gone and pointed it out) even as it is one of the song’s primary enticements. Another is that poignant leap up in the melody of the chorus, a full five intervals at the end of the line, first heard at 0:44. It’s unexpected enough to stand out and yet natural enough to feel as if you’ve anticipated it half a moment before it arrives—great hook, in other words. A bonus is how the melody reflects the lyrics, which at that moment imply crashing waves. Note how the second half of the chorus features the melody without the end leap, with different lyrics.

An opaque view of 21st century globetrotting, “Secret Life of the Rosebuds” has been around for a few years, previously available on a tour EP long since out of print. The MP3 comes newly via the Hopscotch Music Festival, happening in Raleigh in early September. The band has been together since 2001, initially as a trio, paring down to Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp in 2007. A new album, their fifth, is slated for a 2011 release.

Free and legal MP3: Sea of Bees (rumbly, minor-key goodness)

Rich, deep, and flowing, “Marmalade” has the rumble of some muddy, alt-rock classic, complete with rubbed-out vocals and a battery of guitar sounds, from fuzzy-growly to acoustic-strummy to lonesome-seering. For all the ground-level noise and minor-key darkness, however, the song lifts and soars most wonderfully. It’s an intriguing effect.

Julie Ann Bee

“Marmalade” – Sea of Bees

Rich, deep, and flowing, “Marmalade” has the rumble of some muddy, alt-rock classic, complete with rubbed-out vocals and a battery of guitar sounds, from fuzzy-growly to acoustic-strummy to lonesome-seering. For all the ground-level noise and minor-key darkness, however, the song lifts and soars most wonderfully. It’s an intriguing effect.

Julie Ann Bee’s voice is central to “Marmalade”‘s appeal. Even as she buries the brighter and quirkier aspects of her singing under the song’s portentous textures, she doesn’t give in to cliched howling–an impressive feat especially as the song features plenty of wordless “oh-oh”-ing, which lord knows could’ve been howled. Instead she plays to a dusky quality in her voice that you almost don’t hear here but in almost not hearing it’s all the more engaging. I think. Meanwhile, listen to how the various guitars combine into an almost orchestral unity of purpose. Not a sound is wasted; propelled by a swift, unstinting rhythm and its plaintive minor key, the song is a fast, involving ride, ending, each time I listen, before I quite expect it.

“Marmalade” is from Sea of Bees’ debut full-length CD, Songs For The Ravens, released last month on Crossbill Records. Sea of Bees is a musical project masterminded and performed by the Sacramento-based Bee (nee Baenzinger), with an assist from producer John Baccigaluppi and a few guests.

Free and legal MP3: Cats On Fire (Smiths worshippers from Finland)

“The Borders of This Land” – Cats On Fire

Maybe you wouldn’t expect a band from Finland to sound quite so much like the Smiths, but such is musical life in this mashed-up century of ours. And yes I mean really a lot like them: check out the urgent yet lilting minor-key suspended chord strumming; check out the meandering, melancholy melody, and the way it feels as if we’re somehow joining it already in progress; check out (as if you could miss it) the Morrisseyan croon of singer Mattias Björkas. Turns out it is sometimes a very fine line indeed between transcending and re-transmitting one’s influences.

But the song charms me. I keep listening, I keep saying, “Okay, maybe too much,” and yet sure enough, by the time Björkas gets to that part about being lowered into the ground (0:48), the song–ironically enough–comes alive. In my book, sounding like someone else, even a lot, doesn’t prevent you from writing a good song. And if you’ve written a good song, then look at that: you’ve transcended your influences. (For the record, there’s a healthy dollop of Belle & Sebastian in here too.) I particularly like the changes that unfold through the chorus: how it starts as an extension of the verse but takes first a melodic twist (at “your friends will set up…”; 0:56), and then both a rhythmic and tempo shift (“supporting all the boys…”; 1:02), which is not only not particularly Smiths-like but is in fact nicely unusual. And then the chorus kind of lingers on beyond its natural ending point, which makes the return to the lilting, brisker, strummy section especially effective.

“The Borders of This Land” is the second “side” of an MP3 single the band released on the Swedish label Cosy Recordings in December. (Note that the song is labeled a “live demo” but doesn’t to my ears sound notably demo-ier than the A-side.) I found out about the band via a recent Contrast Podcast with the theme of “Borders”–specifically thanks to JC, who runs the Vinyl Villain blog. MP3 via Cosy Recordings.

Free and legal MP3: Midlake (gorgeous British folk revival sound)

Last heard in a Fleetwood Mac-ish soft rock mode (2007’s The Trials of Van Occupanther), the boys from Denton, Texas have reemerged with a renewed hankering for a more traditional-sounding British rock. But rather than the semi-psychedelic early Pink Floyd and Procol Harum-esque pageantry on display through much of Bamnan and Slivercork, their 2004 debut, the quintet takes it back a notch further to a ’60s British folk scene sound–think Steeleye Span, think Fairport Convention, think gentle, chivalrous melodies and general melancholy woebegone-edness.

“Acts of Man” – Midlake

Last heard in a Fleetwood Mac-ish soft rock mode (2007’s The Trials of Van Occupanther), the boys from Denton, Texas have reemerged with a renewed hankering for a more traditional-sounding British rock. But rather than the semi-psychedelic early Pink Floyd and Procol Harum-esque pageantry on display through much of Bamnan and Slivercork, their 2004 debut, the quintet takes it back a notch further to a ’60s British folk scene sound–think Steeleye Span, think Fairport Convention, think gentle, chivalrous melodies and general melancholy woebegone-edness.

But me, I’m eating it up because the stuff is marvelously crafted, ravishingly performed, and drop-dead gorgeous. What a vibe the band has here! Tim Smith’s medievally baritone is just the start of it. From the golden-toned acoustic guitar to the almost regal rumble of the drums to the deep and delicate flute lines and the potent minor-key melody that holds it all together, “Acts of Man” presents an aural landscape that all but makes me cry, for reasons beyond explanation. This is music working–as classical music is so often supposed to–at the level of pure emotion.

Apparently not everyone gets it. In addition to a number of supportive reviews, the new album, The Courage of Others, has gotten some notable pans, including a tone-deaf dismissal in Pitchfork. Normally I get a bit worked up over that kind of thing but this time it just occurs to me to feel badly for anyone whose head and ears can’t let them hear the beauty and worth of this album. Released last week on Bella Union, it’s only going to get better over time. MP3 via Insound.

Free and legal MP3: Regrets & Brunettes (brisk & world-weary LA rock)

“Tough Love” – Regrets & Brunettes

“Tough Love” does so much so effortlessly in its first 15 seconds that a casual listener may not hear much more than an intriguing mood. But check it out: first the brisk minor key guitar strum, at once mellow and urgent; then the slightly dissonant second guitar line (harsher and crunchier but also somewhat distant); then–out of left field but instantly perfect–the wistful, Bacharachesque horn motif (and that could be a keyboard sounding like a horn, but no matter). It’s an extraordinarily compact introduction; Richard Bivens begins singing, with the compellingly blasé tone of any number of great rock’n’roll singers–at 0:16. Better believe I’m listening.

The opening’s terrific atmosphere sustains. This is one of those unusual pop songs in which the chorus is less catchy than the other elements, and truly this seems part of the plan–as Bivens repeats “I can’t shake it,” I can just about feel the physical gesture suggested and it’s not supposed to be entirely pleasant. Everything works together here; in fact, I’m half convinced one reason the music withdraws a bit in the chorus is to give us a chance to ponder the curious lyric Bivens left us hanging with: “You used to take off your clothes/You used to curl up your toes with me.”

“Tough Love” is as song off the L.A.-based band’s debut album, At Night You Love Me, which was self-released last month.