“Smile” – Whoop

Charming, charged indie rock

“Smile” – Whoop

Right away the intro hints at this song’s crooked charm: what kind of guitar tone is that, and is it even in tune or on the beat? We don’t have long to ponder these inscrutable questions, as the song is overtaken, at 0:08, by the distinctive presence of Fal, the band’s one-named leader. With a voice that sounds at once like a whisper and a shout, she massages words and syllables into enjoyable new shapes, lyrical lines running into and over each other, enthusiasm bleeding into urgency and back again. The song is worth a listen for Fal alone.

At the same time let’s not give the fellows here short shrift. Playing together only since the fall of 2020, the band seems quickly to have fused into one of those units that can sound like they’re flying apart precisely as they’re pulling tightly together. A tell-tale sign of Whoop’s sharp musicianship is the space they leave for themselves in the mix—often here we get not much more than drum and bass; and when the guitar shows up it’s more to blurt and wobble into the texture than to steal the spotlight. Even the solo (1:58) is a woozy affair, half off the beat, grabbing only 15 seconds of your time, but not before nailing a brief vivid lick, heretofore unheard, into the onrushing tumble of Fal’s narration.

Whoop is based in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Smile” is a track from the band’s exclamatory, self-titled album, Whoop!, which was released in November. You can check out the whole thing, and buy it, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Gross Ghost (reverby/jangly power-poppy garage rock)

“Leslie” stomps along with the complex buoyancy of any dark tale told to a toe-tapping beat and sing-songy melody.

Gross Ghost

“Leslie” – Gross Ghost

Delightful yet purposeful, “Leslie” is a short shot of reverby/jangly power-poppy garage rock, or maybe garage-rocky power pop. This one stomps along with the complex buoyancy of any somber tale told to a toe-tapping beat and sing-songy melody; the song’s narrator is talking to his father’s wife (not, clearly, his own mother and yes it is about his own mother, my mistake; misunderstood the lyrics), formerly and maybe still currently a drug addict. The story’s curious, even random-seeming specificity is an intermittent indie-rock songwriting trait that can either intrigue or irritate, depending entirely on the strength of the music. A lot of times—as here—you can’t really follow the lyrics anyway; when the music is this melodic and insistent, if the lyrics are more sound than story, there’s no loss to the listener, from my point of view. It’s enough for phrases to emerge—in this case, the song coheres nicely around the chorus’s poignant line: “Feels like I’m watching you but no one’s watching me.” Or at least I think it’s the chorus, in that it sounds like a chorus musically, and yet we only hear it once. I’m assuming if the song were any longer than 2:26 we would have heard it again.

Gross Ghost is a band based in Durham, North Carolina. While details are sketchy, they appear to have started life as the duo of guitarist Mike Dillon and bassist William “Tre” Acklen, but at this point their Facebook page lists four members. The debut Gross Ghost album, Brer Rabbit, was released back in March on the Chapel Hill label Grip Tapes; a second vinyl pressing will be shipping next month. In the meantime, the band has since signed with Odessa Records, also based in Chapel Hill, which plans to release the follow-up album this coming spring. Thanks to the MP3 blog Faronheit for the head’s up.

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: Lost in the Trees

Poignant indie melodrama

Lost in the Trees

“Walk Around the Lake” – Lost in the Trees

Melodramatic noises and rhythms greet us, without hesitation: an ominous chorus of wordless singing over bass-drum-heavy three-beated measures, the minor, steadily descending melody like some mini-opera exorcising specters and despair. A fourth beat sneaks in on the fourth and eighth measures and then we’re at a clearing, and front man Ari Picker (great name for a guitarist) starts singing. He’s got a pressing, Thom Yorke-ish tenor, the voice of a man who thinks too much, and then thinks he can think his way out of thinking that way.

Makes for a messy life but potentially powerful songs. “Walk Around the Lake” tricks out its epic ambiance with a poignant hesitancy, never staying too long in one time signature, and never giving us those operatic bashings for too long before retreating to the sound of one acoustic guitar. This is after all an introspective song—“Some times all it takes/Is a walk around the lake/To ease your mind”—and so the back and forth between the hubbub and the repose during the first two-thirds of the song seems to evoke the way a tender psyche can feel battered by the world, along with its efforts to find solace. The last third might be seen as an effort to more fully integrate the inner and outer worlds, which makes the short section near the middle (1:15) the linchpin upon which the song turns. This is when the ensemble swings into 2/4 for a focused, Pink Floydian seven seconds or so, staving off the foreboding 3/4 soundscape for the first time. We will hear that just once more, after which we finish out in balanced 4/4 time, Picker singing now about how his heart has grown and he’s moving on. And this a song not quite three minutes long.

Lost in the Trees, from Chapel Hill, began life as a solo project for the Berklee-educated Picker; now a seven-piece ensemble, the band lists some 20 extra people as part of its “extended family.” “Walk Around the Lake” is from the album All Alone in an Empty House, which was initially released on Trekky Records in 2008, but has been reworked and enhanced by producer Scott Solter for a new version, which is due out next month on Anti- Records.

Free and legal MP3: Jar-e (old-fashioned soul with an indie slant)

“3 Leaf” – Jar-e

With a genuine groove, the likes of which we don’t often hear in the indie rock world, “3 Leaf” slithers its way into my brain and then kind of just stays there. This song does not have hooks as much as moments: the big-voiced way Jar-e (real name: Jon Reid) sings at the outset of the verse; the sudden—perfect—appearance of horn charts in the chorus; the casual build-up to the song’s central metaphor (a “three-leaf clover”; not good luck, in other words).

Embodying an unabashed, old-fashioned sound (heck, it’s even got a saxophone solo), “3 Leaf” is something of an anomaly—a big-hearted blast from the past, seeking to be nothing if not accessible, that nonetheless has the spunky, independently-produced spirit of the ’00s. Take those horns, for instance: while bringing to mind the horns you might hear on a soul record from the ’60s, they’re actually kind of edgy and intricate–they don’t offer punch as much as ongoing counterpoint.

You’ll find “3 Leaf” on Jar-e’s second album, Chicas Malas, which was released in February on Exotic Recordings, based in the decidedly unexotic town of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Reid grew up in Norfolk, Virginia and is currently based in Asheville, NC. Thanks to the hard-working Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: The Rosebuds (ominous groove, easy-going melody)

“Life Like” – the Rosebuds

The Rosebuds, a Raleigh-based duo, are an elusive band, rather willfully avoiding a defining sound over the course of three CDs released between 2003 and 2007 (they were a trio until last year). As such, I’ve managed neither to get a strong grip on them musically nor to latch onto one particular song to feature. Until now.

With an insistent, somewhat ominous groove and easy-going melody, “Life Like” has plenty to recommend it. Such as, for instance, that very juxtaposition: ominous groove and easy-going melody. When pop music succeeds, it often does so through this type of aural paradox, the combining of contradictory elements into a cohesive whole. (A pop song by definition doesn’t have a lot of time to work with, so if it’s shooting for depth, it has to work with layers within the time frame.) You may not know why a song is sticking, why it’s affecting you, and many times it’s because of this sort of maneuver. With the Rosebuds, the vocal pairing of Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp is a sort of mirror of the effect: two very different vocal vibes, blending, alternating, and weaving in and around each other. Their work as dual lead vocalists has in fact been the one consistent element to the band’s music and it works glowingly well here; I love how Crisp keeps herself at a distance in the verses, harmonizing around the edges, but injects herself into the center of the mix in the chorus.

“Life Like” is the title track to the Rosebuds’ fourth CD, which is scheduled for release next month on Merge Records. MP3 via Merge.