Free and legal MP3: AM & Shawn Lee (sublime summertime groove)

“The instruments are played, the vocals are sung, and the songs are written.”

AM & Shawn Lee

“All the Love” – AM & Shawn Lee

Too early to nominate the Song of the Summer? Probably. But this one should stay in consideration, not only for its slinky, slidy beat, which patrols the razor’s edge between funk and disco, but for its honest, dare I say organic soundscape. These guys may construct songs while thousands of miles apart—AM is a singer/songwriter in Los Angeles, Shawn Lee a London-based multi-instrumentalist and producer—but they’re building from genuine components; as their press material puts it: “The instruments are played, the vocals are sung, and the songs are written.” It’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it.

The physical nature of the construction gives “All the Love” a resplendence difficult to generate digitally. Unlike our ubiquitous 21st-century beats, this is first and foremost a bass-and-guitar-driven groove. And listen to how spare and disciplined the guitar riffs are! Lesson number one: when the song is written, the players don’t have to show off, they just have to show up. Listen too to the instrumental break beginning at 2:15: you can hear the space between the bass and the drums and how the retro, space-agey synthesizer squiggles vertically down through it. And let’s not overlook what is almost always overlooked in any kind of funked-up setting: the melodies, which here are wonderfully concise and well-conceived—the verse with its carefully considered intervals, the chorus with its chugging, uphill, double-time hook.

“All the Love” is from the album La Musique Numérique, released in May on Park The Van Records. This one follows the duo’s 2011 debut Celestial Electric. Download above or via SoundCloud, which allows you to comment directly to the band, and spares me a bit of bandwidth in the process.

Free and legal MP3: Mincer Ray (multinational trio, crunchy neo-alt-rock)

The sound is rough and dirty, with that air of tumbled-together crunchiness and ramshackle singing that we often get in this particular sonic arena.

Mincer Ray

“Franki Jo” – Mincer Ray

One of the coolest things the original “alternative rock” movement of the middle ’80s did was link the DIY ethics and lo-fi sound of garage rock with hi-fi artistic pretensions introduced to rock’n’roll by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and (let’s not leave them out, as too many do) the Kinks. It’s a tricky balancing act—music of this nature can become too precious and/or too muddy for its own good—but an engaging enough aspiration to remain alive lo these 30 years later. At its best, this lineage has given birth to bands with an impressive, maybe even unprecedented breadth to their sound (think Yo La Tengo, perhaps the proto-band of whatever you actually want to call this stuff), because the foundational idea was never about one particular kind of song in the first place, and the attachment to sonic basics never actually required shoddy recording standards.

Enter “Franki Jo,” from the trio Mincer Ray, whose very name clues us in to the band’s ancestry (“Mincer Ray” is a song from Guided By Voices’ alt-rock classic Bee Thousand). The sound is rough and dirty, with that air of tumbled-together crunchiness and ramshackle singing that we often get in this particular sonic arena. But the song is hardly as slapdash as the vibe suggests. This is in truth a well-crafted song, with touches that are engaging and, often, slyly humorous—from the the heard-only-once pre-chorus (0:45) to the shifting verse melody (i.e., the second verse is not precisely the same as the first) to the extended “oo”-ing in the background in the second verse to the satisfying, two-part coda (2:48, 3:11). The song’s underlying riff (what we hear first at 0:04) is at once primal and slightly complicated, with its rushed, four-note descent, climaxing off the main beat; and after it asserts itself, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, if only because there is so much more going on from start to finish. (Think how different those old garage-rock songs were, which were often all riff, and little song.) Don’t miss as well the appearance of some spiffy chords and unexpected chord changes along the way.

Mincer Ray is a Berlin-based band of expats, comprised of Americans Graham McCarthy and Sean Anderson and Brazilian Acácio Do Conto, known as Cate (pronounced Ka-Chee). Ray Mincer, the debut full-length, came out last year. “Franki Jo” is the lead track on the EP A Magnate’s Reach, officially coming out at the end of May. You can listen and purchase via Bandcamp. Note also that if you download the song via SoundCloud, you can have the song as a .wav file, if you like higher-quality downloads.

Free and legal MP3: Amor de Días (Clientele-like breeziness, w/ some crunch)

Evocative of bygone days and hopeful futures simultaneously.

Amor de Dias

“Jean’s Waving” – Amor de Días

There’s a gratifying solidity about “Jean’s Waving,” something that evokes bygone days and hopeful futures simultaneously. The feeling is nostalgic, to be sure, but not incurably so. The song is shot through with suspended chords, which tend to have a lovely irresoluteness about them—they haven’t quite committed to a full-fledged chord, but they’re ever charming in their indecision. And did I say solidity? Maybe I meant fluidity, as those uncommitted chords do flow so nicely into other chords, not to mention each other. (The most prominent example in this song is during the bridge, starting at 0:54, which seems to be built pretty much entirely from suspended chords.)

Well, solid or fluid, I like. Amor de Días is the twosome of Alasdair MacLean, best known as front man for the Clientele (currently on hiatus), and Lupe Núñez-Fernández, who is half of the multinational duo Pipas. When last we heard the band here, in March 2011, Lupe Núñez-Fernández was out in front, and the song, while still flowy, had a Continental flair to its brisk chamber poppy vibe. With MacLean on lead this time, the Clientele connection becomes (much) more obvious, for anyone familiar with that evocative band. But even with our friends the suspended chords, the sound here is less gauzy and more, maybe, crunchy than Clientele tunes tend to be. (Listen to “Somebody Changed,” from God Save the Clientele, for a reasonably close comparison.) So maybe we’re back to solidity after all. And I do believe that it’s Núñez-Fernández’s presence in the chorus that keeps the mood from getting too mopey, as it kind of helps the listener, however subtly, see or feel Jean’s departure from both points of view.

“Jean’s Waving” is a song from the second Amor de Días album, The House at Sea, which is coming from the fine folks at Merge Records in January. You can download the MP3 via the song link above or on SoundCloud via Merge.

Free and legal MP3: Lonely Drifter Karen

Prickly-smooth allure, in 6/4 time

Lonely Drifter Karen

“Comet” – Lonely Drifter Karen

A peculiar allure is in the air here. “Comet” is at once prickly and smooth, at once funky and not-funky, at once familiar and unfamiliar. Small details matter. It’s not just the spidery guitar line in the introduction that creates the mood but the squeaky, metallic echoes in the background; it’s not just the fitful piano fills in the verse (note that the keyboard spends more time not playing than playing) but the eerie synthesizer flourishes underneath (half ghost, half singing saw).

Larger details matter too, most of all the song’s 6/4 time. I am something of an uncommon-time-signature devotee, always appreciative of bands willing to trot something other than 4/4 time out for our ears. 6/4 is a particularly attractive option, as it both allows a consistent beat and contributes to a subtle sense of oddness, if only because our ears–whether naturally or by training, who knows–default towards a feeling of four-ness. Six-ness is still regular, you can still dance to it, but something slightly interesting and unexpected is happening. And then there is the matter of singer/guitarist Tanja Frinta, who commands attention with her flexible, vaguely Kate Bush-like soprano–earthy and keen in the verse, breathy-airy in the multi-layered but mostly one-word chorus.

Begun as a solo project for the Austrian-born Frinta while she was living in Sweden in 2003, Lonely Drifter Karen has been through a variety of incarnations, locations, and band-member nationalities over the years. Now based in Brussels, Lonely Drifter Karen currently features Frinta, Spanish keyboardist/arranger Marc Melià Sobrevias, and French guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Clément Marionare (France). “Comet” is a song from the album Poles, the band’s third, released on the Belgian label Crammed Discs, either in February, March, April, or June of this year, depending on which online source one consults.

Free and legal MP3: Vadoinmessico (easy-going, assured multi-national pop)

There’s something in the vibe here, at once relaxed and kinetic, and the instrumental mix (note the lack of a rock-style drum kit), that feels like nothing a purely American or British band would create or deliver.

Vadoinmessico

“Teeo” – Vadoinmessico

An Italian, a Mexican, and an Austrian walk into a bar…well, okay, not a bar, but a music school, in London. And so this is not the beginning of a joke but the beginning of the band Vadoinmessico, a multi-national quintet that remains based in the UK. And you can really hear the non-English-speaking sensibility here, even as front man Giorgio Poti (the aforementioned Italian) sings in English. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something in either the vibe, at once relaxed and kinetic, or the instrumental mix (note the lack of a rock-style drum kit), or both, that feels like nothing a purely American or British band would create or deliver.

And wow I’ve been bumping into these songs with banjos and/or pedal steel guitars in them lately and here’s another one, this time with both, and if some blogger somewhere calls this a country song I shall emit an electronic scream. Vadoinmessico offers up the self-description of “mediterranean alternative folk,” and sure, why not? I love the easy-going assurance of the melody, which is at once amorphous and ear-grabbing. There’s not a clear hook, there’s no immediately obvious verse/chorus division, and what does in the end amount to the chorus (heard just twice, the first time from 1:00 to 1:15) slips by without fuss and without resolution. What’s more, the verses themselves are hard to differentiate, and seem to center upon a repeated melody that is launched off the second beat of the measure with a string of repeated notes. The wonderful allure of the piece has first of all to do with the slight variations this melody undergoes after the consistency of the opening two measures, and then to do with the cumulative, almost hypnotic effect of this not-quite-repetition.

Note in particular the new melodic upturn we hear first at around 1:17, with a match at 1:25. We take it in as pleasant enough at that point, but when this particular variation returns as Poti sings (2:38) “Everybody please wait for me here by the river,” with the half-step ascent on the words “here by the,” we seem somehow to have arrived at the muted epicenter of the song. It feels like a payoff as long as you don’t concentrate too much, like something you can see only with peripheral vision.

“Teeo” is the third single released by the band, which has yet to put out an official album or EP.

Free and legal MP3: The Idle Hands (casually brilliant neo-Britpop)

“Loaded” – The Idle Hands

Simple, driving, and evocative, “Loaded” has the cool dry makings of an underground anthem about it. Embodying a musical vector that starts in the late ’60s with the Velvets (Loaded, in fact, was the name of the last true Velvet Underground album) and runs through ’70s Bowie, ’80s Smiths, and ’90s Oasis, The Idle Hands here deliver a casually brilliant, sharply-produced bit of neo-Britpop that’s positively resplendent in its matter-of-fact-ness, if that makes sense. Surely it outshines the majority of the either under- or over-thought-out indie rock music that’s all but strangling the internet (not to mention, this week, the city of Austin, Texas) by decade’s end. Almost always the amount of naiveté or frippery on display in a song is inversely proportional to the underlying musical solidity of the enterprise. “Loaded” is nothing if not sleek and to the point, even if the point is a world-weary one.

The ongoing trick for quality rock’n’roll, however, is how to keep the simple from being, simply, boring. “Loaded” catches and holds the ear in a number of ways. I like the rubbery synth line that traces a satisfying upward and downward path in the intro; I like the forceful but blasé baritone of singer Ciaran (no last name given), a voice at home with lyrics alternately cultivated and dissipated—bringing Morrissey (no first name given) to mind yet without sounding like a mindless acolyte. I like the somewhat unusual (in indie rock) use of internal rhyme—there’s nothing too strict going on here, but if you pay attention you’ll hear words being rhymed that do not always end a lyrical line. I like the perfect balance of fuzz and jangle in the guitar sound, and how neither sound overwhelms the song. And most of all I like the direct but vivid chorus, built upon the most basic three notes in the musical scale, just do re mi, but it’s all about putting them in the right order, to the right rhythm, with the right chords.

Featuring two Irish brothers and three Americans, the Idle Hands are based in Minneapolis and are readying their full-length debut for an American release this year. “Loaded” was originally on an EP released only in the U.K. in 2006; it will appear on the new CD as well. MP3 via One Track Mind.