Free and legal MP3: Smug Brothers (Charming, GBV-adjacent indie rock)

Although still lo-fi, the mix is a bit cleaner, the melodies super-agreeable; this is the sound of a band inviting you very happily down its rabbit hole rather than seeming indifferent to whether you’ve dropped in or not.

“Every One is Really Five” – Smug Brothers

They are probably tired of Guided By Voices comparisons, but what the heck: here is a scruffy indie-rock band from Dayton who specialize in inscrutable yet melodic lo-fi compositions, many not even two minutes long (sample song titles here: “Antenna Chariot Quarterfinals,” “Fuel for the Maypole Osmosis”). Oh and the drummer used to be in Guided By Voices. So, you can’t blame me for using GBV as at least a point of reference.

That said, if Smug Brothers are inspired by Guided By Voices, they also seem somewhat more interested in recording songs you don’t have to try quite so hard to like (or feel like a failure if you don’t). Although still lo-fi, the mix is a bit cleaner, the melodies super-agreeable; this is the sound of a band inviting you very happily down its rabbit hole rather than seeming indifferent to whether you’ve dropped in or not. Charming from beginning to end, “Every One is Really Five” launches off rock’n’roll’s primal backbeat, yet puts us from the start in the middle of a mundane but intriguing scenario: “I recall/You were heading the other way/I recall/I was just starting my day.” You might wonder just what is going on here, and you probably won’t really find out—by the time the chorus gives us the titular assertion that “every one is really five,” I’m not sure that will make any more or less sense than the rest of it. But the completed couplet—“We’re all just lucky to be alive”—is sung with such poignant good humor that you can let the whole thing make sense in that way that has nothing to do with how unintelligible the words mostly are. This is one of music’s super powers and these guys have it going. The song chugs along with a general sense of band noise in the background until around 1:30, when a couple of nonchalant guitars decide to speak up, just a bit—clanging out some measured melody lines before fading back into the good-natured swirl of sound.

Smug Brothers have existed in one form or another since 2004, at that point consisting of Kyle Melton and Daryl Robbins. Drummer Don Thrasher (great name for a drummer!) came on board in 2008. The lineup went through a major turnover in the 2017-2018 time frame; Melton and Thrasher remain, the others are new to the party. Because these guys love their sub-2:00 songs, their discography presents a challenge in determining what’s an album versus what’s an EP; they can put 11 songs on a 20-minute record. In any case, they’ve released 15 different stand-alone recordings, six or seven of which seem to be full-length endeavors, including their most recent, Serve a Thirsty Moon, which was released earlier this month via Gas Daddy Go Records. You can check it, and the entire Smug Brothers catalog, out via Bandcamp. “Every One is Really Five” is the 21st track on the 21-track album.

Free and legal MP3: The Spectacular Fantastic (folk rock meets power pop, & then some)

Like a mutant folk-rock/power-pop amalgam from 1974’s re-imagined version of 1991, “Wasting All My Time” takes off seemingly in mid-riff, all forward motion and melodic processed guitar.

specfan

“Wasting All My Time” – The Spectacular Fantastic

Like a mutant folk-rock/power-pop amalgam from 1974’s re-imagined version of 1991, “Wasting All My Time” takes off seemingly in mid-riff, all forward motion and melodic processed guitar. And is it just me or is it both weird and comforting how the song on the one hand rocks reasonably hard but on the other hand seems only casually to display a rhythm section? I mean, there’s drumming, for sure, and there’s a bass (if you listen carefully!; I think), but they seem elusive for such an upbeat song—the percussion presents as almost an aural illusion, perhaps willed into existence by the guitars and the fact that of course a rock’n’roll song needs percussion (it’s got a backbeat; you can’t lose it). Intentional or not I’m finding the effect oddly ingratiating. Not that drumming is overrated by any means. But maybe a little.

And talk about an oddly ingratiating effect: listen as well (actually the two phenomena are connected) to how the duo of Mike Detmer and Jonathan Williams, doing musical business as The Spectacular Fantastic, manage somehow to turn the rhythm guitar into its own kind of lead guitar. All those crunchy-ringy accompanying chords you hear after the actual lead guitar moves out of the way seem not only to anchor the song percussively (thus allowing the drums to take a bit of a backseat; see above) but to my ears, give the song uplifting direction more forwardly than typical rhythm guitar work. Perhaps Detmer’s mixed-down vocal style contributes to the circumstance but it’s a fun ride and I have now over-analyzed it far more thoroughly than necessary. The song is a scruffy, well-crafted delight.

And hey are there any long-time Fingertips followers long-time enough to remember The Spectacular Fantastic from way back in the day? Two of the Cincinnati-based band’s songs were featured here in 2005, in June and in October. The band was a bit more of a band back then but not necessarily that much; it’s always been Detmer’s baby and I’m pretty sure Williams has been around for most if not all of it as well. Since 2002, The Spectacular Fantastic has recorded seven full-length albums and four EPs. The new one, Circling the Sun, released February 29th, is the first TSF recording since 2009. You can buy the CD via 75orless Records; the band is also distributing the digital files for free—you can listen and/or download the album here.

Free and legal MP3: Lydia Loveless (hard-edged, alt-country-flavored)

Twenty-two-year-old rabble-rouser Lydia Loveless returns with another mercurial slice of hard-edged, smartly sung alt-country-flavored rock’n’roll.

Lydia Loveless

“Boy Crazy” – Lydia Loveless

Twenty-two-year-old rabble-rouser Lydia Loveless returns with another mercurial slice of hard-edged, smartly sung alt-country-flavored rock’n’roll. A talent to be reckoned with, Loveless knows how to put a song together from top to bottom, showing an accomplished grasp of structure and texture that renders her impressive vocal skills all the more striking. And while I don’t know how directly involved she is in production decisions, the fact that she in any case knows enough to end up in this setting speaks well for her vision. I am particularly taken with the combination we get here of limber bass work and droning guitar lines, which lies at the center of the song’s vigorous blend of bash and agility. I like loud stuff best when performed by folks who still seem to be paying attention to what’s going on around them.

Loveless was previously featured here in April 2012, and you should definitely check out that review if you want to learn a bit about her somewhat unusual past. The bottom line is whatever she’s been through and whatever combination of nature and nurture gave her her musical know-how, she’s a live wire who sings from somewhere deep inside; sparks fly from her smallest, instinctive shifts. Listen, for instance, to the end of the first time through the chorus, where one moment she tosses off a guttural “Uhh!” (1:58) only to swing seamlessly into a measure of lovely “oo-oo”-ing. I’m not sure you can teach that or even plan for it. And then, at the same place, the second time we hear the chorus, check out how she at once belts and breathes out the words “hit a home run” (3:15), somehow wrapping desire and frustration into one evanescent package.

“Boy Crazy” is the title track to a five-song EP released earlier this month on Bloodshot Records. The EP is currently streaming at American Songwriter. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Connections (stellar lo-fi power pop)

“Mall Lights” is one of a series of lo-fi power pop gems on the band’s debut album, Private Airplane.

Connections

“Mall Lights” – Connections

In classic science fiction, everything in the future was always new. Even though the present moment of our actual experience always incorporates sights and sounds and objects and ideas from generations, even centuries, gone by, that reality was typically overlooked by writers and directors creating imaginary futures in science fiction novels and movies. Blade Runner notably shattered that perspective, and things have been a little better since. But the idea that the future must somehow be purely new, jettisoned of all previous history, remains a resolute mindset among a certain type of cyber zealot—the one who likes to stomp around calling anyone with any interest in attitudes and artifacts from the pre-digital age a “dinosaur,” a “Luddite,” or “afraid of change.” This person is a buffoon. Real-life human society does not discard its past whole-hog; the only way we truly grow, collectively, in fact, is to learn from our past, and, quite often, to preserve helpful ways of being and doing precisely because they will help us even in the face of changing circumstances.

And so, you see, for all of the new sounds and innovative devices that have flooded the music world over the last 15 years, and for all the new micro-genres they have generated, there will always, in our lifetime at least, be people somewhere making music like this—people who plug their guitars into their amps and have a go at it. A lot of these people will produce music too redundant or too derivative or too uninspired to be worthy of attention. But then there will be the occasional band like Connections, a quintet from Columbus, Ohio, who plug their guitars into their amps, set up their drum kits, and wowee—the ears smile, the heart gladdens, and for two minutes or so at a time, all is right with the world. “Mall Lights” is one of a series of lo-fi power pop gems on the band’s debut album, Private Airplane. What makes this one work particularly well above and beyond the jangly guitars, resolute backbeat, and fuzzy ambiance is the song’s all but unending hookiness. The verse grabs me immediately with its grounded, NRBQ-ish musicality, its major-minor shifts, and its adroitly employed power chords. And yet this is mere set-up for the sublime chorus, which artfully skips the first beat of each measure until (0:45) its tail section wraps the tune up with a brilliant bow.

Connections didn’t invent any of this stuff; I’m guessing that fans of Guided by Voices in particular will hear a lot of that Ohio institution’s work in the lo-fi poppiness on display here. Note that Connections features two guys from 84 Nash, a defunct Columbus-based band whose 1997 debut was released by GBV patriarch Robert Pollard’s Rockathon record label, as well as one guy from the band Times New Viking. But as with any good music, however influenced by past masters, the end product transcends its roots. This is time-tested music produced by time-tested musicians, and the world is a better place for it.

Private Airplane was released in January on Columbus-based Anyway Records. Thanks to the band for the MP3, which is a Fingertips exclusive at this point.

Free and legal MP3: Mr. Gnome (offbeat & mood-swinging)

I’m not exactly sure what one would expect a band named Mr. Gnome to sound like, but I’m pretty sure it’s not like this.

Mr. Gnome

“Bit of Tongue” – Mr. Gnome

I’m not exactly sure what one would expect a band named Mr. Gnome to sound like, but I’m pretty sure it’s not like this. The beginning, maybe, with its winsome clickiness, but as soon as Nicole Barille opens her mouth, smoky and flirty as she wants to be, I’m getting a disconnect between the name and the vibe—which is no doubt part of the point, it eventually occurs to me.

Look at how the song itself changes course rather drastically, more than once. While generally the song is divided into the quiet first half and the noisy second half, “Bit of Tongue” actually has at least four distinct sections, depending on how you parse it, each of which repeats a certain number of times before moving to the next section. The opening vocal section, beginning at 0:26, is unaccountably beguiling, its thoughtful melody and purposeful momentum interrupted at the end of each extended lyrical line, only to head back and do it again, four times in all. The subsequent shift at 1:38 however is nothing compared to the rearrangement at 1:57, when pretty much all hell breaks loose. From there on we’re in the “noisy half,” as Barille, the duo’s guitarist, joins with drummer Sam Meister (who also plays piano) in a feisty, good-natured bash for about 20 seconds or so. The mood swings don’t stop there, by any means. These guys are either relentlessly creative or have very short attention spans. Or both. In any case they appear to enjoy confounding expectations at every turn. Mr. Gnome it is.

“Bit of Tongue” will be found on the Cleveland-based band’s forthcoming album, Madness in Miniature, not due out till late October, on El Marko Records.

Free & legal MP3: The Minor Leagues (briskly-rendered nostalgia)

With a melodic bass line, atmospheric piano refrain, and well-placed, chimed accents, “Ghost Maps” sweeps us without resistance into its briskly-rendered nostalgia before a word is even uttered.

The Minor Leagues

“Ghost Maps” – The Minor Leagues

With a melodic bass line, atmospheric piano refrain, and well-placed, chimed accents, “Ghost Maps” sweeps us without resistance into its briskly-rendered nostalgia before a word is even uttered. Once the singing starts, Ben Walpole, with his soft-spoken, Stuart Murdoch-y croon, manages the keen trick of being both front man and band member, his voice finding its central but not over-bearing place among the guitars and chimes and female harmonies and indistinct wash of background sound, all coursing along at a near-breathless pace. On the one hand this does make the lyrics somewhat harder to discern, but on the other hand, it renders the often wistful phrases that come to the foreground all the more redolent. The whole thing feels like someone rifling through a photo album too quickly to see anything but a Kodachromatic blur of oranges and yellows at once bleached and vibrant.

“Ghost Maps” is one of two singles the band has released in advance of its next album—you can download this one here, or both of them together via a .zip file on the band’s site. The album is to be entitled North College Hill and is slated for a release some time this fall on Datawaslost Records. It’s the Cincinnati-based septet’s sixth full-length album and their first since 2009’s This Story Is Old, I Know, But It Goes On. The band has been featured on Fingertips both in 2009 and in 2006. MP3 via Datawaslost.

Free and legal MP3: Robert Pollard (pretty & inscrutable, over triplets)

“In a Circle” is unexpectedly pretty, as Pollard’s songs sometimes are, and incomprehensible, as his songs pretty much always are.

Robert Pollard

“In a Circle” – Robert Pollard

Inscrutable, indefatigable Robert Pollard returns with his 157th solo album in June and the thing with Mr. Pollard is you just have to remind yourself he is not here to be fathomed. There is no understanding what he’s up to, pretty much ever, at the level either of individual song lyrics or of larger career trajectory. Semi-famous, to some, for founding and fronting the Dayton-based band Guided By Voices way back in 1983, he also remains pretty much completely obscure, and growing more so by the ticking of our 21st-century clock. Such is the fate of anyone touted as an indie legend. The fragmentation of the marketplace leaves no legacies in its wake. (Current indie legends, take note.)

(And okay this is not really his 157th album, but it is his second, already, of 2011; and he has written more than 1,300 songs all told.)

This new album, Lord of the Birdcage, was created around poems he had already written and later decided to set to music. I can’t begin to claim enough expertise in Pollardiana to be able to note any resulting differences between “In a Circle” and Pollard’s previous work. All I know is this one is unexpectedly pretty, as his songs sometimes are, and (you were forewarned) incomprehensible, as his songs pretty much always are. Words flow by over a triplet-centric rhythm, the verses slipping past before you can quite catch them, the chorus marked by a series of phrases at once floodlit by emphasis and lacking any obvious through-line: “routine exercise,” “constant reverie,” “makeshift comfort suites,” and, the one which becomes its own sort of offbeat hook based on its location, “nine o’clock meetings.” He is clearly up to something here, and if he keeps putting this much material out, maybe someday I’ll figure out what it is.

Lord of the Birdcage is due out in June, on Pollard’s Rockathan Records label. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3: Orchestraville (very nicely crafted, in 3/4-time)

There’s an appealing, homespun rigor to this song, something in the way it laces its 3/4 time gallop with a rock-band oomph that you don’t typically hear, come to think of it, in 3/4-time songs.

Orchestraville

“Half and Half” – Orchestraville

There’s an appealing, homespun rigor to this song, something in the way it laces its 3/4 time gallop with a rock-band oomph that you don’t typically hear, come to think of it, in 3/4-time songs. (For the record, “Manic Depression” is a relative rarity, and in that case Hendrix all but deconstructs the time signature. ) I think it’s the organ that really launches things at the beginning; even though it refuses to move to the center of the mix, it plays its swaying, off-melody lines with haunted-house abandon. The ear is officially engaged.

And the song delivers, especially if you listen carefully. The craft is subtle but exquisite. For instance, listen to the way the melody shifts slightly but unmistakably from the first to the second line of the verse: while the words, nearly repeating (“Why did you smile?/Why did you laugh?”), set us up for a straight repeat of the melodic line, the last note of the line veers up a step. This is ever-so-subtly unsettling, and the exact kind of thing that creates interest, because our ears, bless their hearts (?), like nothing better than to guess where the melody is going and then be proven wrong. It also deftly sets up the resolving turn taken in the third line (from 0:29 to 0:31), which soon, even more deftly, glides us into the sly chorus at 0:40, when Christopher Forbes sings “And the same goes for you” in descending half-steps. It’s sly because this the introverted rather than extroverted part of the song (a chorus by nature is a song’s most extroverted part); we seem to stumble upon the titular phrase as if by accident. And then check back the next time the chorus comes around (1:13) and notice both the lyrical (“And the same goes for me”) and musical changes, as we get a sort of post-chorus—three additional lines that finally deliver the contradictory message to the recurring idea that the you and I in the song are “a perfect match,” an idea never, in fact, borne out by the music.

The Ohio-based Orchestraville seems a poster child for a certain kind of spirited, persevering 21st-century indie band. They have a long and convoluted history (personnel changes, relocations, disbanding, reuniting; sadly, there is also a death involved), they worked hard at what they did, and the fact that they have little in the way of widespread recognition to show for it is obviously no reason to think any less of them. It is indeed what we are all in the process of getting used to in the age of musical over-abundance. “Half and Half” is from the band’s last album, Poison Berries, which was recorded in the first half of the ’00s but never released because the band broke up in ’05. This year, however, they began to make their existing albums available as digital downloads, and in the process put Poison Berries out both as a vinyl album and in MP3 format in September. MP3 for the song via the band’s site.

Free and legal MP3: Like Bells (musically adept trio from Oberlin)

Like Bells

“Sea Salt” – Like Bells

And this one, not so simple. But still pure, in its own way. “Sea Salt” begins with such an extended introduction that first time through you are excused if you think it’s an instrumental. This long opening section unfolds via a series of eight-measure riffs that, together, slowly develop and shift the feel and texture of the music. We begin with a nimble bass line plucking out a handsome, ambling groove over tapping cymbals. After eight measures of that, a rhythm guitar joins, lightly played, and off the beat. Pay particular attention to the goings-on in the third eight-measure set, beginning at 0:35, featuring the introduction of the violin, as it plays a melody that becomes important much later. Then the lead guitar steps in for an eight-measure answer.

The next two minutes explores the musical ground established by the first minute, with the violin and guitar each having a chance to to lead the way, each in turn moving steadily into louder and more involved playing. This ends up being quite a bit of fun, since the trio (guitar-drums-violin; bass playing is split between the guitarist and the violinist) met while students at the Oberlin Conservatory. Which means they are actual musicians. Which is a nice bonus in the indie rock world. I like that the instrumental section maintains a nice clip—it seems too easy here in 21st-century rock’n’roll-land for instrumentals to bog down in overly dramatic slowness—and I like the relatively unexpected but musically satisfying entrance of actual vocals three and a half minutes into the proceedings. Violinist Garrett Openshaw does the singing, and he hinted as much back at 0:35 when the first thing he played on his instrument was the melody he would eventually sing.

Like Bells’ self-titled 2009 debut was pretty much all instrumental, with just a hint of vocalizing from Openshaw. Palma, their 35-minute, seven-song new album, features more singing, but as you can see from “Sea Salt,” the singing does not necessarily dominate. The album was released digitally in April and is now out on vinyl as well, on Exit Stencil Recordings. MP3 via Exit Stencil.

Free and legal MP3: The Sun (a fuzzy blast of melodic noise)

“In Perfect Time” – the Sun

A fuzzy blast of melodic noise, “In Perfect Time” seems to want to be played really loud. As a matter of fact, it has a kind of sneaky effect going–the louder I turn it, the louder still I feel I need to hear it. This clearly has to do with how singer Chris Burney’s voice is mixed down, but it’s more than just that. Any number of other bands have done the mixed-down-vocals thing and it doesn’t always have my hand reaching for the volume dial (okay, not a dial anymore, but whatever). So what else is going on here?

Part of it has to do with the unerring melodicism on display. Songwriters with the talent to write this kind of strong, earnest pop melody–Matthew Sweet in his heyday had this kind of sound–typically give you the thing right out front. You don’t have to fight for it. I turn the volume up here because I’m trying to put the melody where I’m used to hearing it. But, of course, turning the volume up only turns all the background wash louder also. And the noise is not at all unpleasant, mind you. It’s bashy and tinny and crunchy. And when it gets louder, I need to turn the volume yet higher, again trying to raise the vocals to a more audible level. A losing battle in this case, especially since–strange but true–the wall of sound appears to get proportionally louder than the vocals as I increase the volume. Producer Mike McCarthy has some wacky magic going here, perhaps the after-effect of working with Spoon’s studied minimalism for so many years (he’s produced all their albums since 2001).

The Sun is a band from Columbus, Ohio that did not name themselves with Google in mind. “In Perfect Time” is the closing track on the album Don’t Let Your Baby Have All The Fun, released this week on Rock Proper. Rock Proper happens to be a so-called “netlabel,” which means that its releases are entirely digital and entirely free. You can download all the songs from the album as free and legal downloads here.