Free and legal MP3: Juan Torregoza (instrumental with personality)

“Amber Eyes” – Juan Torregoza

Rock’n’roll instrumentals vaguely intimidate me; it’s like my mind doesn’t know what to do without words guiding the way. Which is kind of weird on the one hand, as I don’t usually listen too closely to the words of a song in the first place. I guess it’s that I like the sound of words with music versus music without a human voice in the mix. This is all to say that when it comes to instrumentals, I have even less of a thought process for selecting something to feature than usual. Occasionally, for reasons I can’t explain, one breaks through my awareness and says “Pick me,” and so I do.

And so here is “Amber Eyes,” from the NYC-based guitarist Juan Torregoza, which launches without fanfare into a deliberately plucked, 11-note electric guitar melody line, repeated with one variation on the final three notes, set against an itchy drumbeat. The personality and intention seem immediately appealing. After this settles in, some scrunchy guitar noises interject, with additional personality. This turns out to be the warm-up for the second lead guitar to add its counter-melody to the persistent 11-note through-line, beginning around 0:47.

If I had to guess what hooked me for good I’d say it’s probably that interval described when the second guitar kicks in, which sounds like a 7th (always an attractive interval). That 7th interval becomes a persistent thorn in the side of the first melody, in an aurally satisfying way. This goes on for a minute and a half or so, at which point (2:29) the second guitar retreats into 20 seconds of the scrunchy stuff, before returning undaunted to the opening interval. After 20 more seconds, the enterprise shuts itself down, having gone on long enough to register its ideas, and then knowing when it’s time to go.

“Amber Eyes” is one of six tracks on Torregoza’s EP Agimat, which was created and produced in April under quarantine conditions. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy it (for $4) via Bandcamp. The guitarist is currently part of two different musical projects in New York—the experimental ambient duo Dovie Beams Love Child and the band Subtropico Militia, which self-identifies its genres as reggae/dub/metal/hardcore. MP3 via the artist.

Free and legal MP3: Hamilton Leithauser (Irresistible melancholy)

“Here They Come” – Hamilton Leithauser

If you happen to know that Hamilton Leithauser is the lead singer for the perpetually underrated New York City band The Walkmen, you may also happen to know that he doesn’t usually sound like what you hear when “Here They Come” starts. Typically Leithauser presses against the upper range of his vocal register, with a scuffed-up sort of zeal that does battle with the band’s bashy atmospherics.

This starts as another thing entirely: we hear a growly baritone, accompanying a finger-picked guitar. This goes on for 35-some-odd seconds, at which point, if you listen carefully, something in the background lightens up—you can kind of hear a higher vocal harmony in the distance, and the elusive sound of maybe a melodica? Then, just after his voice turns growliest, on the lines “all my candy’s gone” (1:02), bang: Leithauser converts to his familiar upper register, the music acquires a ramshackle beat, and off we go into the epitome of a sing-along chorus. This is, I feel, impossible not to like, but maybe that’s just me.

The verse returns at 1:26, now swinging along in the song’s revised setting. Leithauser’s transformed voice, just this side of hoarse, is for me the source of the song’s deepest charms—despite the tale of woe recorded here, something about a friend who can’t cope with the messy realities of life, the music’s effervescence coaxes a smile. Maybe that’s the point.

From the album The Loves of Your Life, released last month. MP3 again via KEXP. Note that the Walkmen have been on hiatus since 2014 but have not officially broken up. Old-timers may remember that that the band have been featured twice on Fingertips, in 2004 and 2008.

Free and legal MP3: Kate Davis (bass-led indie rock charmer)

Fittingly enough, “Open Heart” has its central aesthetic attribute hiding in plain sight: a bass guitar more or less playing lead.

“Open Heart” – Kate Davis

Fittingly enough, “Open Heart” has its central aesthetic attribute hiding in plain sight: a bass guitar more or less playing lead. Which makes sense when you are hip to Kate Davis’s unusual background: she came to the fore musically as a teenage bass prodigy. Jazz was her thing, but as it turned out she also played the internet pretty well—an impromptu, breezily recorded version of “All About That Bass,” with Davis singing and playing the upright bass, uploaded in 2014, now has more than 18 million views.

But the New York City-based Davis apparently had no interest in being painted into a corner of standards and retro recordings. As her personal tastes veered more and more towards indie rock bands such as Beach House and TV on the Radio, she eventually knew she had a whole other kind of music in her. “Open Heart” is a deft example of what can happen when someone with serious training and chops discovers the potential in the seemingly simplified landscape of a rock song. A surface listen may detect nothing obviously abnormal in “Open Heart,” but once you pay closer attention, you’ll realize, on the contrary, that there’s actually very little that is entirely normal here.

Davis singing over her lead-like bass playing is just the start of it. Then there’s what the bass is specifically doing, which entails a lot more fret work than a typical rock song necessitates. The lyrics, too, have a sort of surreal directness to them, as an imagined doctor’s visit, leading precipitously to a heart transplant, is conflated with a love gone astray, delivered in a deliciously matter-of-fact way (“Hold tight/Oh we’re taking your heart out now”). Musically, there is flawless movement from verse to pre-chorus to chorus; as “Open Heart” unfolds, Davis’s skill as a writer of melody and crafter of song becomes clearer and clearer. Notice in particular how the heartbeat pulse of the bass leads us effortlessly from the contemplative verse through to a chorus that opens in double time and concludes, over a wonderful chord progression, in half time—all without Davis seeming to break a sweat.

As for that heart-mimicking bass line, that turns out to be one of a number of adroit touches that feel satisfying and almost comic, in a musical way. Another is how the music extends and momentarily freezes—we might call it a sustain—at the end of the line “the injury you sustained” (2:02). There’s also how the recurring phrase “Deep breath” is articulated with more or less the opposite affect: more of a short gulp. I like too the removal of the omnipresent bass for the last iteration of the verse (starting at 2:22), which somehow creates a sensation of an angel passing through the hospital room, conferring the stark recognition that being alive involves accepting pain.

Davis’s career as an indie rocker was first launched with a high-profile credit she earned with Sharon Van Etten (they wrote “Seventeen” together); I’m anticipating a new level of acclaim when her debut album Trophy is released in November on Solitaire Recordings. “Open Heart” will be track two on the record; you can listen to three other songs in advance over on Bandcamp, and pre-order it there as well.

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And, even as Kate has moved past this, I’m offering up the Meghan Trainor cover because it’s really impressive. I love musicians who both know how to play their instruments and know how to perform—not always the same skill.

Free and legal MP3: Mascott (succinct pop rock, nicely sung)

“Cost/Amount” is a tight little package of a song, with a pop-rock heart that feels either anachronistic or timeless here in 2013 (it’s a fine line sometimes), but it is Kendall Jane Meade most assuredly who holds it together.

Kendall Jane Meade

“Cost/Amount” – Mascott

We begin with an emphatic one-two punch: an itchy guitar line borrowed from 1979 and a lead vocal of heart-melting purity. Kendall Jane Meade has one of those voices that makes me stop in my tracks—all the more so because she doesn’t stop in hers; she sings with a fetching matter-of-factness I much prefer to the vocal preening we often get from people who know they have a good voice.

The entire song is a wonderfully matter-of-fact exercise, in fact: verse-chorus-verse, with an instrumental break, all finished in little over two minutes. It’s a tight little package of a song, with a pop-rock heart that feels either anachronistic or timeless here in 2013 (it’s a fine line sometimes), but it is Meade most assuredly who holds it together. In the right frame of listening mind, small moments of phrasing can be thrilling; me, I love how Meade ever so slightly delays the word “pity” (0:21), I love how plumply she manages to sing the not-easily-singable word “cost” (first at 0:35), and I love the one time she lets her voice unleash a tiny bit, in the phrase “clearer to me” (0:51), and how that moment highlights the clarity of words to follow like “wrong” (0:59) and “song” (1:01). It can be the small, small moments that turn a small song into something deep and delightful.

“Cost/Amount” is one of four songs on the Cost/Amount EP, released this week on Kiam Records, the New York-based label founded and run by singer/songwriter Jennifer O’Connor. Meade has been performing as Mascott since back in 1998, and has worked additionally with lots of other folks, including Sparklehorse, the Spinanes, and Helium. One interesting bit of music industry trivia is that Meade herself used to run Red Panda Records and once upon a time (okay, in 2005) released a Jennifer O’Connor album there. (Bonus trivia: a song from that album was featured here at the time; we come full circle, sort of.) The Cost/Amount EP by the way features three other songs, one of which is a fetching cover of “They Don’t Know,” one of Kirsty MacColl’s lasting gifts to the world.

photo credit: Debora Francis

Free and legal MP3: Gabriel & The Hounds (NYC rock, w/ strings & imponderables)

This is one of those mysterious little songs that works perfectly for no precise reason.

Gabriel Levine

“The World Unfolds” – Gabriel & The Hounds

This is one of those mysterious little songs that works perfectly for no precise reason. The music has a chuggy, sloppy-tight New York City sound but lacks both a discernible chorus and, even, any kind of proper hook; melodies, meanwhile, kind of slide around in an elusive way, when words aren’t being out-and-out spoken-sung. Meanwhile, the lyrics, often a series of imponderable questions, twinkle with aphoristic charm but don’t seem to add up to any bigger picture narrative or statement. Through it all, Gabriel Levine flaunts a singing style that veers towards the neighborhood of off-key.

And it’s all a wonderful thing. It starts with some serious string playing, and even as the strings take a quick back seat to that Sweet-Jane-ish guitar riff and reverberant bass line, they’re always in the background, and the occasionally-heard cello fill is an atmospheric bonanza. (As often as we encounter strings in rock songs, we don’t often find a real rock’n’roll sound blended adroitly with individual stringed instruments.) The song seems to turn on the linchpin of the one line that’s clearly spoken (0:56): “You’ve been asking everyone to get out of your way/But there never was anyone in your way.” We don’t know who is talking to whom here but this line just kind of zings you with its unexpected magnetism. From there on in, Levine has firm command of this slippery, winsome tune (which also clocks in, as the previous song did, at 2:40, for all your song-time fans), and we are all better off because of it.

Levine is front man for the Brooklyn-based band Takka Takka; Gabriel & The Hounds is essentially a solo project, but one in which he called on the services of any number of locally-sourced musician friends. The project’s name was inspired by the classic Kate Bush album Hounds of Love, which is as worth being inspired by as, pretty much, anything yet recorded, if I may say so. The Gabriel & The Hounds album is called Kiss Full of Teeth and it is coming out at the end of the month on the Ernest Jenning Record Co., based in Brooklyn.

Free and legal MP3: Jump Into The Gospel (21st-century NYC rock)

“Flagship” – Jump Into The Gospel

At once prickly and resounding, “Flagship” shows that even in 2010 there somehow remains a recognizable New York City rock-band sound. Certainly things have gotten more convoluted and diverse since the days you could trace a clear line from the Velvets to the New York Dolls to Television and the Ramones and Patti Smith, and the 21st-century alone has spawned a wide-ranging new generation of New York rockers (and note that “New York City band” does not equal “Brooklyn band,” even though Brooklyn is of course part of New York City; anyone from New York knows this intuitively). And yet, as Jump Into The Gospel demonstrates, New York City rock endures, has a distinct vibe, and will apparently survive until the day the internet, because there’s so much music here–and so much interaction and so much sharing and so much you-too-can-be-a-musician–kills music altogether. (And when that happens I suspect the New York bands will be the last to go.)

So what sounds like New York here? Front man Louis Epstein, for one, all nasally and insistent and yet also edgily vulnerable. Second, the tick-tock beat, which functions just as well during the minimalist verse as it does during the expansive chorus, and is the sound of Manhattan’s street grid, and timed traffic lights, and the unstoppable flow of pedestrians immune to the buses and taxis hurtling by. And then, New Yorkiest of all, for no reason I can articulate, that place in the chorus where the melody takes a further step down than you might initially anticipate (first heard at 0:29, on the third syllable of “situation.” (Bonus points: the drummer’s name is Chris Stein, the previous Chris Stein being Blondie’s co-founder/guitarist/songwriter. Such a good NYC rocker’s name it’s been recycled.)

“Flagship” is from the band’s debut, four-song digital EP; all four songs are available for free at the band’s site. Thanks to Some Velvet Blog for the head’s up.