Free and legal MP3: Becca Richardson (delightful, confident debut)

“Wanted” is a cool delight from start to finish, smartly crafted and produced in a most matter-of-fact way.

Becca Richardson

“Wanted” – Becca Richardson

“Wanted” is a cool delight from start to finish, smartly crafted and produced in a most matter-of-fact way. What begins as a bass-driven groove expands fluidly into a succinct, three-part song, with strong hooks in all three sections—verse (first heard at 0:13), pre-chorus (0:47), and chorus (1:03)—with each part nestled snugly against the next, while also offering nuanced additions to the soundscape. The climax at the chorus is sneaky-great, featuring a sly two-step reveal: the central question “Doesn’t it feel good?” sounds like a stand-alone as it’s asked three times in a row, only then to show itself as incomplete—the full question turns out to be “Doesn’t it feel good to be wanted?” The shift is subtle but affecting.

I’m impressed throughout by the clean and dexterous mix. Calling on a judicious bag of aural building blocks, “Wanted” feels all the richer for how nonchalantly the blend works. Bass and drum get us going, synths and guitars join in, each entrance at once precise and casual. I like, as an example, the guitar chords that slash in as background accents starting at 0:32, and especially appreciate the dissonant chord we get at 0:34, first of a series of quietly off-kilter accents. The pre-chorus follows, highlighted by swelling backing vocals and an underwater-y synth line deep below. The chorus then anchors us with psychedelic guitar blurts.

Not to be overlooked through it all is the enticing suppleness of Becca Richardson’s voice. She sings in slightly different registers in each of the song’s three sections—subtly shy and sultry in the verse, open-voiced and full strength in the middle part, and in the third a higher-register version of sultry, minus the shy. Among Richardson’s strengths here as both singer and songwriter is how little she strains to call attention to how good she is. It’s an unorthodox stance in our YouTuber age, and that may be at least part of what lends an old-school vibe to a song that otherwise zings along with solid 21st-century chops.

Richardson is based in Nashville. “Wanted” is the opening track from her debut album, We Are Gathered Here, which was self-released in October. You can sample it and buy it on iTunes. MP3 via the artist.

Free and legal MP3: Tristen (graceful, well-crafted rock’n’roll)

From its opening instrumental gestures, “Glass Jar” reveals itself to be exactly the sort of graceful, well-crafted rock’n’roll that I, personally, need right now.

Tristen

“Glass Jar” – Tristen

From its opening instrumental gestures, “Glass Jar” reveals itself to be exactly the sort of graceful, well-crafted rock’n’roll that I, personally, need right now. No posturing and no processing here. We get instead a straight-ahead blend of organ and guitar, and an infectious groove led by an agile bass line. And then, on top, we get Tristen Gaspadarek’s lovely, decisive voice, singing unflappable melodies that lead adroitly to the chorus’s simple, subtle brilliance:

You put me in a glass jar and tap, tap, tap
To see how I move

These lines work with a musical and lyrical synergy not often seen. First, the lyric presents us with an incisive relationship metaphor, with built-in layers of meaning that I feel I will only detract from if I attempt to unpack. Just think about it for a while, noting how beautifully the music reinforces the lyrical strata, boosted by Jenny Lewis’s backing vocals, and coalescing around the hammering conveyed by the on-the-beat clockwork of the “tap tap tap” line. And then note the music’s refusal to resolve at the end of the lyrical line; it takes that chugging little organ line in the background to bring us to some kind of end point. That organ line in fact has been an understated star of the show since we first heard it answering the lyric “They’re all assassins” in the first verse (0:32)—it’s just the kind of instrumental motif that a good song will volunteer effortlessly.

The Nashville-based Tristen (she uses her first name only) is a singer/songwriter who makes me simultaneously hopeful and despondent about the state of music. Hopeful for the realization that smart, nimble rock’n’roll is yet possible here in this “barbaric slaughterhouse known as humanity” (as per Wes Anderson); despondent for how easily something this good can slip past any kind of widespread recognition. “Glass Jar” has been out for months. It’s been posted by exactly four other blogs on Hype Machine before this post. And this a song enhanced further by the vocal presence of the aforementioned Lewis.

The sad truth is that in this viral-sensation-oriented online culture we’ve aided and abetted collectively for the past 15 years or so, smart and graceful doesn’t tend to generate the clicks. Draw your own conclusions but me I’m fucking fed up with the whole thing. Nothing good comes of mob action, whether in the physical world or the digital one. And nothing attracts a mob quite like viral attractions. And the web has been calibrated to foster viral attractions.

Anyway: “Glass Jar” is a song from Tristen’s album Sneaker Waves, which was released in July. The MP3 is via KEXP. Tristen was previously featured here on Fingertips way back in 2010, for the irresistible song “Baby Drugs.” And if you’re in the holiday mood, here’s a bonus stream, from 2011: Tristen doing a lovely, Spector-esque cover of “Frosty the Snowman.”

Free and legal MP3: Jessica Lea Mayfield (Haunting and resolute)

From the opening riff, a casual but purposeful series of descending notes on a fuzzed-out guitar, “Sorry is Gone” has a haunting presence, from its mantra-like chorus to the engrossing, unresolved melodies of the verse.

Jessica Lea Mayfield

“Sorry Is Gone” – Jessica Lea Mayfield

Powerhouse song from the talented Nashville-based singer/songwriter, and merely one track on a fierce new album. From the opening riff, a casual but purposeful series of descending notes on a fuzzed-out guitar, “Sorry is Gone” has a haunting presence, from its mantra-like chorus to the engrossing, unresolved melodies of the verse. Gliding by in a subtle, velvety cloak of reverb, the song wraps up in a concise 3:21, and if Mayfield didn’t consciously select the launch-like run time, let’s call it serendipity.

It’s painful to review the circumstances of both this song and album—Mayfield’s art here is rooted in a frightful experience of ongoing domestic abuse during her three-year marriage that she has had the courage to speak about publicly. In other places, the album doesn’t flinch from some of the graphic details; the almost light-hearted “Sorry is Gone” presents more of a blanket statement of liberation and self-assertion. Make of this lyrical nugget what you will:

It’s nice to have a guy around
For lifting heavy things and opening jars
Should we really let them in on the beds?
Chain ’em to a little house outside

“Sorry is Gone” is the title track to Mayfield’s fourth solo release, and was produced by John Agnello (Sonic Youth, The Hold Steady, Dinosaur Jr.). MP3 via KEXP. But buy the album, either via ATO Records (where you can also get vinyl or cassette) or Bandcamp (digital only). It’s terrific. Hat tip to Glorious Noise for the video capture.

Free and legal MP3: Jessie Baylin (languorous vibe, sharply written)

A sharp little song presented in a thin, lo-fi setting.

Jessie Baylin

“I Couldn’t Say It To Your Face” – Jessie Baylin

A sharp little song presented in a thin, lo-fi setting, “I Couldn’t Say It To Your Face” has a languorous feel that disguises its solid musical chops. Let’s start with the lack of an introduction. Now then, I’ve got nothing against introductions, at all, but songs that manage without them are often pretty cool; it’s a ballsy move as a songwriter to just say “Here it is, folks,” without any throat-clearing to smooth the way.

And Baylin here doesn’t just start right in, she starts right in with the chorus—another unusual, forthright move. And funny, too, if you relate it to the song’s context: the central, repeated lyrical line is: “I couldn’t say it to your face/But I won’t be around any more.” She can’t talk to the person she’s talking to, but she can jump right in and tell us. The chorus itself, furthermore, has an unusual feel and structure. The main lyric is repeated twice at the beginning and once more at the end, sandwiching a separate line that initially feels like it’s going to be the verse but somehow gets wrapped into the chorus. Time signatures toggle back and forth between 4/4 and 6/4 in the process of this sleight of hand, and continue to do so when we glide into and through the verse. It becomes difficult to locate the beat even as the basic, languid movement feels sustained and unwavering, bolstered by the friendly depth of Baylin’s scuffed alto. We get to the end quickly; the song has no fat, and the home recording keeps the sound simple, flattened, and oddly satisfying.

“I Couldn’t Say It To Your Face” is one of five songs on Baylin’s new Pleasure Center EP, available for free via SoundCloud. She made it in her Nashville living room on a four-track recorder with singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer Richard Swift. A full-length album, Little Spark, is coming in January. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead. Baylin was here once before, in 2008. Trivia buffs note that since then, Baylin was married to Kings of Leon drummer Nathan Followill.

Free and legal MP3: Tristen (fresh, snappy, carefree)

Exactly the kind of fresh, snappy, catchy, carefree, spirited romp that anyone with a smile in his or her heart would want in a music collection, on a hard drive, in a playlist, coming out of speakers or ear buds, on a bright blue day or a blowy rainy day or anything in between (consult a nearby window to see which applies).

Tristen

“Baby Drugs” – Tristen

The perpetual pop paradox is that we love fresh, snappy, catchy music and yet when it really really works, when it’s super-duper fresh and snappy and catchy, it can spread its joy maybe too widely, maybe even get caught up in a cultural moment, and then the fresh and snappy and catchy gets over-exposed, played to death, and sounds like our worst enemy rather than the best friend it used to be. Think K.T. Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See,” as one example. There are many others; feel free to discuss amongst yourselves.

“Baby Drugs,” from the one-named Nashville-based singer/songwriter Tristen, is exactly this kind of fresh, snappy, catchy, carefree, spirited romp that anyone with a smile in his or her heart would want in a music collection, on a hard drive, in a playlist, coming out of speakers or ear buds, on a bright blue day or a blowy rainy day or anything in between (consult a nearby window to see which applies). Those crisp guitars, that toe-tapping backbeat, those overlapping, descending melody lines in the non-chorus-like chorus. It’s not very complicated, which itself becomes another perpetual pop paradox: a song has to sound simple to stick with you, but if it’s too simple it can seem a waste of mind-space, basically. The trick, I think, is that not everything that sounds simple is actually all that simple. Good pop finds a way to channel sophistication through accessible gestures. Having a voice with a bell-like clarity, as Tristen does, doesn’t hurt. Neither does being two and a half minutes long.

“Baby Drugs” is the backing side of Tristen’s 7-inch single, “Eager For Your Love,” released last month on American Myth Recordings. Her full-length debut, Charlatans at the Gate, is due out in February. MP3 via American Myth.

Free and legal MP3: Tim Chad & Sherry (’70s funk homage, w/ spirit)

Tim Chad & Sherry

“The Love I Make” – Tim Chad & Sherry

A thick slice of faux-’70s white-boy funk, paying homage to a generous variety of that decade’s full- and part-time practitioners, from Atomic Rooster to the Average White Band to Hall and Oates to Talking Heads. Not to mention David Bowie and maybe even the Grateful Dead. And somehow it comes together, and somehow—an important point, to me—it sounds fresh without sounding ironic.

Part of it, I think, has to do with what I was talking about last week, about music that makes you smile. If a band is being ironic, they might make you smirk, or prompt a slow knowing smile; if a band is being genuine, any smile provoked is pure—it comes to the face without the brain getting in the way. I think the intro groove is just plain happy—funky, yes, but also spiffy and elaborate in the interplay between what sounds like a synthesizer (or two) and a bass, each playing a skittery, dance floor line. The next thing to listen to is the keyboard, which has a throwback organ sound, and is used once the singing starts with the lightest possible touch, deftly echoing the end of lyrical line. Just when the musical language has seemingly been established, two loud additions crash the party—the guitar, low-register and clangy, beginning at 0:49, and then the snare drum (1:02), which had been missing in the percussion until then. With the drummer now fully engaged (I like his sense of rumble and spirit) the song breathes with added fire. In the end, maybe, authenticity emerges through simple presence: through a sense that the musicians are engaged moment to moment, both individually and collectively. The trippy guitar solo (2:14 etc.) is an obvious highlight; less obvious, maybe, is the allure of the song’s sneaky lack of structure—it’s built on a series of clipped lyrical lines that use the underlying funk to rise and fall as if we are hearing verses and choruses but we probably aren’t, and give the song its ongoing feeling of play and inspiration.

Tim Chad & Sherry is a quartet (go figure) founded by Brian Kotzur, formerly of the Silver Jews. (There is no one named Tim, Chad, or Sherry in the band, by the way.) “The Love I Make” is from the group’s debut album, Baby We Can Work It Out, released this month on Cleft Records. MP3 via Cleft. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Tallest Trees (gleeful, skewed, clattery pop)

Tallest Trees

“Alouette!” – Tallest Trees

With a skewed pop sensibility, pastichey zing, and a toy piano, “Alouette!” wrings more good humor out of its electronics-oriented language than one might have thought possible, given the general humorlessness of most electronics-based music. Glad that Thomas Samuel and Dabney Morris ignored the memo on that one. “Alouette!” skips with glitch and glee.

Good humor is an underrated quality in music. And I don’t mean songs that are funny per se; I mean songs in which the music itself makes you smile. “Alouette!” does this repeatedly, in an ongoing variety of ways. There’s the toy piano, sure, but there are also the sounds coaxed from synthesizers—rubbery, reverberant, yippy, squeaky—that make me wonder, as I have in the past, why electronic music isn’t in fact more smile-inducing more often. Beyond that, the arrangement itself is great fun, adhering sounds in a clattery, rhythmic gallop from start to finish. Even the vocals are part of the merry-making, from the twinkly spirit of Morris’s high-pitched tenor to the purposeful use of offbeat harmonies— check out the way the phrase “I am no hero” is sung, at: 1:18, or how the harmony vocal lags behind the melody, starting at the beginning of the second verse (0:58).

“Alouette!” was first heard late last year one the Nashville duo’s self-released EP , Hey There Little Nebula. It will get a wider release next month when the Portland, Ore.-based label Other Electricities presents the band’s full-length debut, The Ostrich or the Lark (title phrase found within this song; and “alouette,” so you know, means lark in French). MP3 via the band’s site.

Free and legal MP3: David Vandervelde (catchy neo-Buckinghamian craziness)

“Learn How to Hang” – David Vandervelde

Bright, fast, and spacious, with compelling echoes of Lindsay Buckingham. And it’s not just because of the guitar licks and vocal characteristics, although that’s a start. Buckingham, especially outside of Fleetwood Mac, has often had an unravelled edge about him, has played and sung in a way that suggests that standard social constraints may not apply once he’s got a guitar in his hands. Likewise the Nashville-based Vandervelde, although he’s a multi-instrumentalist so you really have to watch out.

But the cool thing is that, like Buckingham before him, he seeks to funnel his borderline nuttiness into the relatively strict confines of a three-minute pop song, which creates a wonderful ongoing tension that drives the song both generally and specifically. Take the multi-tracked vocals he launches into at 0:41 to sing the lyric “You were talking shit”–there’s something just kind of crazy about that from top to bottom, but it’s also playful and winsome and, as a bonus, gets turned into a neat little back-door hook when he adds the next lyrical phrase “Didn’t know how to tighten your lip.” More broadly, notice how a song this open and flowing nevertheless stays grounded throughout in a quick, syncopated three-beat rhythm, which you can hear most prominently in the clipped chorus, where the three beats correspond to the words “learn,” “how,” and “hang.” This tells us subtly, all along, whether you notice or not, that this thing is not going to fly apart at the seams, however much you might hear that in Vandervelde’s hurtling voice.

“Learn How to Hang” is the title track to a digital EP released last week by Secretly Canadian Records. MP3 via Secretly Canadian.

Free and legal MP3: Paper Route (majestic, wistful, full-bodied rock w/ electronic fuzz)

“Thank God The Year Is Finally Over” – Paper Route

A bracing blend of majesty and wistfulness, from its direct and poignant title straight through to an unexpected appearance by a harmonica in the outro. (The harmonica is surely one of music’s most wistful instruments.) There’s enough fuzz and noise along the way for shoegaze fans to appreciate but not enough to overwhelm the song’s simple but effective melody (note how the long descending line of the chorus sounds nicely late-December-ish), not to mention the octave harmonies in the vocals. (I love me my octave harmonies–that is, when the harmony vocal is the same note but one octave higher or lower.)

This band surely aims for a big-hearted sound, and yet more than ever, it seems, there’s a fine line between a band with big heart and a band with a shallow heart. Somehow. The fact that these guys are touring with the curiously popular Owl City doesn’t help the “big heart” case but listening with my ears (a good practice), I find something splendid in this smartly-paced piece of expansive, electronic-tinged rock. And that harmonica surprises every time.

Paper Route is a quartet from Nashville; their debut full-length CD, Absence, was released on Universal Records in April 2009. “Thank God The Year Is Finally Over” is from a free Christmas EP the band released in December. MP3 via Spinner. (The entire EP is available as a zip file here.)

Free and legal MP3: The Medders (sweeping, melancholy C&W-ish ballad)

“Gunslinger” – the Medders

A sweeping, melancholy ballad with solid (but not annoying) country-western roots, “Gunslinger” tells a woeful tale with care, finesse, and canny harmonies. Constructed without a chorus, the song steadfastly repeats an eight-measure melody, with some instrumental breaks, all the while building in intensity both musically and lyrically. I like the great combination of deliberation and power on display, which gives this slower-paced song a vehemence normally achieved, in rock, through speed and volume. And the male-female harmonies are not just a boon but may well be the ultimate key to how well “Gunslinger” works, adding to the song’s pathos and musicality simultaneously. The all-male Medders employed singer Priscilla Jeschke for the job; note she is also lead singer Cheyenne Medders’ girlfriend.

The Medders are a quartet from Nashville featuring three brothers–Cheyenne, Carson, and Will–who themselves are the sons of singer/songwriter Jule Medders. Their self-titled, self-released, and self-assured debut album is scheduled for a September release.