Free and legal MP3: Almanac Mountain (ambling vibe, classic rock undertones)

There’s something wonderfully out of time about the ambling vibe of “Harborside”; it has the feel of a lost classic-rock nugget while not really sounding all that classic-rock-y.

Almanac Mountain

“Harborside” – Almanac Mountain

There’s something wonderfully out of time about the ambling vibe of “Harborside”; it has the feel of a lost classic-rock nugget while not really sounding all that classic-rock-y. I think it’s the unhurried, three-note sampled-strings synthesizer riff that we hear in the intro and which anchors us throughout that brings the joy here—it’s got a bit of cartoon loony-bin about it, in maybe a Pink Floyd- or Supertramp-ish way. (And those are two groups that didn’t have much to do with each other, I realize, except for being British and thriving in the ’70s but in retrospect, here we are.)

The riff, traveling from the home tone to the major third to the augmented fourth, has an inherent majesty, which throughout the song plays engagingly against the loopier touches (the opening, standalone flourish; the jaunty, bridge-like chorus; the intermittent interjection of warbles and odd sounds; the abrupt, oceanic ending). The subtle mirth here also for vague reasons brings some of classic rock’s better efforts to mind, as underneath the rock’n’roll mindset, however dressed in frills and gilding, has been an understanding that we can’t be taking it all too too seriously. I have long contended that when music can make you smile, independent of lyrics, there’s something substantive going on.

Almanac Mountain is the name that New Hampshire-based Chris Cote has given to his work as singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer. “Harborside” is the closing track on his latest album, Cryptoseismology, released last week. It’s the third full-length Almanac Mountain album, and note that Cote’s sound with the project tends to have a heavier, ’80s-ish sound to it (Depeche Mode this time more than the Smiths), which makes “Harborside” all the more curious and lovable. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy it either digitally or physically, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Shiv Hurrah (gentle, stately DIY)

Shiv Hurrah mastermind David Bechle has a hint of songwriting genius about him, as far as I can tell.

Shiv Hurrah

“Girl in the Snow” – Shiv Hurrah

So this one is gentle in a grounded way that most quiet lo-fi songs don’t tend to be; too often gentle in lo-fi land tends towards the inordinately twee. And not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I am super impressed with the poise and sense of purpose on display here. And most of all with the melodic wallop. Shiv Hurrah mastermind David Bechle has a hint of songwriting genius about him, as far as I can tell. (His song “Oh Oh Oh,” featured here in 2010, was a brilliant diamond in the rough, offering up one of the best melodies I’ve yet encountered here on Fingertips.)

“Girl in the Snow”‘s simple, palpable power is reinforced by the odd but decisive choice to bring a clarinet into the mix. Even more oddly, it’s an instrument that Bechle himself had never played but in this case borrowed an instrument, learned the part, and played it himself anyway. I am far more in awe of that than I will ever be by a beat someone makes, but that’s just me being old-school again.

When last we left the Rochester, NY-based Shiv Hurrah in 2010 they were kind-of/sort-of a band, but in the years since the project has become Bechle’s baby, even as his former band mates remain good friends and are intermittently available for ideas and input. The new Shiv Hurrah album is Bechle’s second; it’s called Antiquarios and is available to listen to and purchase via Bandcamp. And, if you must know, because I needed to, the project name is a play on the renowned Bollywood songwriting tandem of Shivkumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia, who are known as Shiv-Hari.

Thanks to the band (i.e., David) for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Static In Verona (one man band, big bashy power pop)

More gratifying evidence of power pop’s unanticipated third life in the 21st century.

Static In Verona

“Blindfold” – Static In Verona

Blessed with heroic chord progressions, wall-of-sound fuzz, background chimes, and a sweet-voiced singer, “Blindfold” offers up more evidence of power pop’s unanticipated third life in the 21st century. A genre all but genetically resistant to overt electronic manipulations, power pop does however seem to seduce any number of good-hearted bedroom rockers with guitars, laptops, and a decent microphone. As in this case: its big bashy extraversion notwithstanding, “Blindfold” is the product of Chicago-based Rob Merz, doing musical business as Static In Verona, and playing every last instrument his own self.

And I may be a sucker for this kind of thing, but the result here pretty much takes my breath away—some elusive combination of melodic invention, sturdy structure, and masterly conciseness (the song clocks in at a wonderful 3:33) that leaves me with little choice but to hit the repeat button, repeatedly. My music theory abandons me pretty quickly, so I can’t identify the type of chord that recurs here with great success (you can hear it at 1:13, 1:28, 2:30, et al.), but I can report that it is a Beatlesque/Brian-Wilson-y gesture that is well-known too for its memorable appearance in the extended piano coda to “Layla.” One of the greatest but most ineffable things about effective power pop is how the great exemplars, for all their straight-ahead catchiness, often weave some slight oddness or deviation into the fabric of the song. And so here: in addition to the chord in question, “Blindfold” also works with a shifty pre-chorus/chorus arrangement (the pre-chorus itself, first heard at 0:47, provides us with arguably the song’s strongest hook) and, further, sets off the chorus with an unusual, rhythmically separated mini-introduction—the “Be with you” part, which sounds maybe more normal than it actually is.

Rob Merz has been on the Chicago music scene for 18 years, most recently as a member of the band Ash Avenue. He has been recording by himself as Static In Verona since 2009. “Blindfold” is a track from the second Static In Verona full-length, Everything You Knew Before You Knew Everything, which has actually been out for almost a year. I just found out about it via a 2015 post on the Insomnia Radio blog. You can listen to the whole album via Bandcamp, where you can also buy it for any price you choose. Thanks to Merz himself for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Record/Start (crunchy, melodic, smartly-crafted)

“Rock From Afar” manages to funnel nostalgia through a contemporary filter, conjuring the past without wallowing in it.

Record/Start

“Rock From Afar” – Start/Record

Crunchy, melodic, smartly-crafted rock’n’roll, “Rock From Afar” is one of those rare one-man-band home recordings that sounds spacious and outgoing. (In that way it brings to mind the work of Devin Davis, for those with long Fingertips memories.) And while full of elusive homages to great moments in rock history, this song is likewise a rare bird for managing to funnel nostalgia through a contemporary filter: conjuring the past without wallowing in it, without losing the recognition that we live in the here and now and that that’s okay too.

So—stay with me on this one—I’m thinking now that what sounds like a catchy, well-paced song is actually much more than that. With “Rock From Afar,” Simon Cowan, doing business as Record/Start, offers us a much-needed (not to mention delightful) way out of the dead-end technophilia of the early 21st century. Enough with having to pretend there is nothing of value to be had from the past, enough with entrepreneurs and venture capitalists so smug and myopic that they can’t credit or recognize anything they didn’t invent or fund. Life existed before us and life (if we don’t go all Interstellar on ourselves) will go on after us and the smartest and most valuable (not to mention most fun) people are those who partake of the whole buffet. Use the past to inform the present and aim towards the future.

That’s what “Rock From Afar” does and it’s a breath of fresh air in a musical age suffocating from the addictive beats and compressed mightiness required to keep the kids dancing and the fingers clicking. Cowan finds a brisk pace and rich texture far removed from the stifling dictates of today’s pop, with guitars that bleed into a kind of 2015 Wall of Sound, and melodies that sweep you pretty close to power pop heaven. One of my favorite moments is the abrupt break for a “woo-oo-oo” vocal that happens at 2:41, because of how precisely this moment embodies the seamless melding of past and present: this kind of “woo-oo-oo” is pure Beach Boys, but Cowan augments it with an ear-popping 21st-century affect that Brian Wilson probably wishes he could have invented 50 years ago but most certainly did not.

Cowan fronted the Manchester band Carlis Star during the latter ’00s. Record/Start, a solo project, came into being in 2014. “Rock From Afar” has been bumping around the internet for a few weeks, in advance of its official double-sided single (on cassette) release next month, via Post/Pop Records. Thanks to Insomnia Radio for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Papercuts (rich, delicate, orchestral)

The richly delicate “Life Among the Savages” hints at what Brian Wilson might sound like if he were a 21st-century indie rocker.

Papercuts

“Life Among the Savages” – Papercuts

The richly delicate “Life Among the Savages” hints at what Brian Wilson might sound like if he were a 21st-century indie rocker. Not that Papercuts front man and general mastermind Jason Robert Quever has quite as many idiosyncratic tools at his disposal as Wilson, but surely there is something Pet Sounds-y in the orchestral-minded, melodic yearning on display.

The opening verse melody, to begin with, is a concise gem of descending sweetness (0:06-0:09), and is itself part of a beautifully constructed eight-measure melody that seems simultaneously to resolve and retain suspense two or three different times. The melody is so well-developed that the song does without full-fledged instrumentation until the first iteration of the chorus at 1:08, and while the pulsing string arrangement distracts us from missing the band, when the sound does kick in, something in the ear relaxes. Combine that with a subtle uptick in vocal urgency here (listen to all the hard “c” sounds Quever hits between 1:16 and 1:22), and “Life Among the Savages” is pretty much all delight from this point onward—the verse the second time through now fully accompanied, the chorus getting an unexpected instrumental lead-in and an extra repetition, and the whole thing capped off by a tidy, dramatic coda.

The San Francisco-based Quever has been recording as Papercuts since 2004. “Life Among the Savages” is the title track to his fifth album, released earlier this month on the new L.A. label Easy Sound in the U.S., and via the London-based Memphis Industries label in the U.K. Papercuts was previously featured on Fingertips in 2011. Thanks again to Lauren Laverne at BBC 6 for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Magic Arm (string-enhanced pop from Manchester)

Singer/songwriter Marc Rigelsford plays all the instruments, and while our 21st-century ears are fine with that in a setting of layered electronics and guitars, a one-person project is somehow the last thing one suspects when hearing two stringed instruments playing together.

Magic Arm

“Put Your Collar Up” – Magic Arm

As a violin and cello play a mournful duet for 30 seconds, we are lifted out of time and context: what type of music this may be and when in the last 120 years or so it was written both seem up for grabs. This is pretty charming in and of itself; here’s a musician willing either to trust that listeners can hang in there for a half-minute of uncertainty or to be uninterested in those who can’t—a friend of mine in either case. The other nifty thing this pre-introduction string duet does is deflect attention away from the reality that Magic Arm is a one-man band. Singer/songwriter Marc Rigelsford plays all the instruments, and while our 21st-century ears are fine with that in a setting of layered electronics and guitars, a one-person project is somehow the last thing one suspects when hearing two stringed instruments playing together.

Following the string pre-introduction, the song acquires a nostalgic pulse when the piano and percussion join in at 0:30 (you may hear some “Eleanor Rigby” in this, and maybe some “Alone Again Or”), and achieves liftoff with the arrival of the bass at 0:51 (a textbook example of how significant the bottom that the bass provides can be in a rock song). Rigelsford sings the verse with a thin, slightly processed voice, somewhere in that gray area pop singers have staked out between tenor and baritone. The melody moves at half the song’s rate and feels snippetty as it tracks generally downward. With the chorus (1:17), things change subtly but resolutely—the melody doubles its pace and Rigelsford’s voice, at a slightly higher register, seems rounder and warmer (as he sings “Is this the right way now?”). I can’t really describe it or explain it, can’t put my finger exactly on the hook, but it’s definitely in here; this is where the song fully sells itself to me. Listen to how the strings nuzzle their way back into the mix at this point; listen too to the synthesizer loops and see if you can figure out exactly how Rigelsford has so deftly combined acoustic and electronic sounds here. Hat tip also to the Herb Alpert-y trumpet lines (1:49), which take a turn towards the Bacharachian when they reemerge in the instrumental coda (4:00).

“Put Your Collar Up” originally came out on an EP Magic Arm released in August, but is making the rounds as a free and legal download now in advance of the album Images Rolling, Magic Arm’s second full-length release, due out in June. You can download it here, or go to the SoundCloud page and spare me a wee bit of bandwidth.

Free and legal MP3: Lapland (lush electronics)

Warm and blippy, “Unwise” floats in a gently pulsating womb of sound.

Lapland

“Unwise” – Lapland

Warm and blippy, “Unwise” floats in a gently pulsating womb of sound. There’s a ghostly wash in the background, a quivery layer of synthesizers in the middle, and a simple, gorgeous melody holding the piece together from the top. My ear at first was particularly drawn to the marimba-like synth that ambles its way into a recurring instrumental melody through the course of the introduction. In trying to follow its logic, I bumped into two aural peculiarities. First, there’s an actual guitar in here. Could be wrong about that, but there sure seems to be something scratchy-strummy going in in the middle of the mix. (After listening many different times I finally realized it’s most apparent right in the song’s opening seconds. Somehow I had missed that.) Second, for all the song’s rhythmic allure, there is little if any percussion. This is where electronic sounds can get so fascinatingly nebulous—that fine line between “beat” and “note” that we’ve been living with for the better part of 20 years. Somewhere in this song’s subtle pulse, sounds are rippling with percussive intent, but the amount of what might directly be called percussion is minimal.

Vocally, Josh Mease, the master mind behind Lapland, has borrowed from the Bon Iver school of whispery beauty, minus the claustrophobic edge of the excessively falsettoed. There is in fact a falsetto vocal line here but listen to how it dissolves into the upper end of the mix—as soon as you seek to nail it down, it seems almost to disappear in the woolly ambiance. The lyrics as well are mixed to dissolve upon reaching the ear; after the opening couplet—“I’ve been unwise/Fooled by your disguise”—the songwriter’s words seem subtly to float off into a kind of dream state. And note that this is the third song this week without a real chorus; here, we are hooked by the sturdy interaction of the two basic melody lines that alone support the entire enterprise. (The transition point, first heard at 1:00, is perhaps the song’s most prominent “moment.”)

Mease is a Houston-born, Brooklyn-based musician who put out a solo album in 2009 under his given name but here in 2013 reinvents himself as Lapland. The self-titled “debut” album arrives later this month on the artist-run Brooklyn label Hundred Pockets Records.

photo credit: Susan Pittard

Free and legal MP3: Ace Reporter (mesmerizing & melodic)

A paean to sheer melody, “Untouched and Arrived” is lean, shiny, and compelling.

Ace Reporter

“Untouched and Arrived” – Ace Reporter

A paean to sheer melody, “Untouched and Arrived” is lean, shiny, and mesmerizing. There is no fat here, no distracting complications. A straightforward rhythm guitar strum introduces the song, then disappears. There is one verse melody, repeated twice in each verse, and one chorus melody, repeated four times. A semi-bridge is constructed from the repetition of the title phrase, previously employed in the chorus. And that’s really all we’ve got here, and if it’s somehow enough, that tells you how strong these melodies are. The song engulfs me; it is pure pop at its most intoxicating.

“Untouched and Arrived”‘s silvery conciseness may be due to its unusual birth story: Ace Reporter mastermind Chris Snyder spent 2010 writing, recording, and posting one new song every day. He called it the threesixfive project, and however he managed to do it, he emerged at year’s end with an impressive cache of songs to mine for future recordings. “Untouched and Arrived” appeared on day 75. While the production has been altered from the original version, the song is pretty much intact. I can imagine if one is in the middle of writing a new song every single day, for an entire year, there would be limited inclination and/or energy for undue fuss and complication. Snyder had a killer tune at the end of the day, and he resisted the urge to mess with it.

You can hear a few dozen of the threesixfive songs on the project’s web site. They are surprisingly engaging, and I say that as someone suspicious of any kind of song-a-day gimmick. In 2011, Snyder made four EPs from the threesixfive material. The debut Ace Reporter full-length album, Yearling, likewise drawing from the 2010 mother lode, was recorded last year and will be released in February on the Brooklyn-based label Ooh La La Records. Thanks to Magnet Magazine for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Astronauts, etc. (electronic pop, w/ warmth & texture)

An object lesson in how the delicate variations in computer-generated sound can be used for good instead of evil.

Astronauts etc

“Mystery Colors” – Astronauts, etc.

I enjoy my share of electronic-based music but I will admit I sometimes get weirded out by the immateriality of it all. Knowing that the sounds are all generated by the inscrutable insides of laptops and rectangular boxes with keyboards on them, if nothing else, makes my job here kind of hinky. It’s one thing to talk about the guitar and its aural character, and then maybe the bass, and the drums; it’s another thing to try to talk merely about sounds, the differences between which sometimes are so subtle that the line separating, even, beats and notes seems all but hallucinatory.

If the specific sounds in “Mystery Colors” are, therefore, difficult to identify and/or distinguish, the collective result is nevertheless an introspective pleasure. Anthony Ferraro, the solo mastermind behind Astronauts, etc., is uncommonly adept at creating warmth and texture from the delicate variations in computer-generated sound—and then, double the achievement, turning this warmth and texture into tuneful pop. In physical-instrument-based rock’n’roll, a rapid procession of notes and rhythms typically creates drive or tension; but listen here to how a tranquil vibe is maintained over and above the brisk arpeggios and fidgety beats. A lot of this has to do with Ferraro’s soothing tenor and the silky melody he’s singing. Note in particular the vocal effect during the chorus (first heard at 1:41), when he layers his vocals in two different registers, which creates a kind of whisper effect that feels cozy and personal. The choral break at 2:11 is another nice touch; human voices cut through artifice like nothing else.

Ferraro is a Berkeley-based musician who was on a classical piano performance track until beset by arthritis. Electronic music saved his career, pretty much. I look forward to seeing where he takes it all. “Mystery Colors” is from his first EP, entitled Supermelodic Pulp, which was released last month. You can listen to it as well as buy it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Sara Radle (winsome & involving, w/ Brill Building esprit)

Both winsome and involving, “The Pins” keeps things moving, with a deft series of melodic twists, chord changes, tempo shifts, and (wait for them) wacky guitar effects.

Sara Radle

“The Pins” – Sara Radle

When Sara Radle sings, here, repeatedly, “I’ll do this without you,” she means it. She plays all the instruments on all the songs on her new album, Same Sun Shines, and she likewise engineered and mixed the record herself. She says she did it basically as an incentive to learn Pro Tools, the powerful but challenging digital recording software program. Apparently she picked it up just fine.

And of course software skills may be necessary in 2012 but they are not sufficient. You need a good song, and “The Pins,” both winsome and involving, is very good indeed. Listen to how much Radle keeps things moving here, with a deft series of melodic twists, chord changes, tempo shifts, and, for the heck of it, wacky guitar effects (see the instrumental break, 2:42 onward). A sense of humor remains an underrated tool in the songwriter’s arsenal.

One particular way Radle surreptitiously generates movement is through a sort of “sub-sectioning” of the song—there’s not just a verse and a chorus, but both the verse and the chorus have two distinct melodic sections. Each interrelated segment is never much more than 15 seconds long throughout the first half of the song. (The second half of the chorus expands to 30 seconds the last two times we hear it.) This really grabs the ear and gives the sense of continual development. The melodies have a clean Brill-Building-y esprit, and the entire thing feels so effortless that one would never suspect the very real effort that Radle exerted—mastering the software, playing all the parts, mixing it all together; the breeziness of the end result is indeed a noteworthy aural illusion. And can I open the year with another mini-rant about those people who must always complain about nothing being “new” in music any more? What a constricted idea of “new” such folks have. “The Pins” is surely something new, something that could not have existed 10 years ago.

It is one of 10 tracks forthcoming on Same Sun Shines, which will be self-released next month. The Texas-born Radle has been based in Los Angeles since 2005, when she joined Matt Sharp’s band The Rentals for a few years. This is her fifth solo album.

(photo credit: Benjamin Hoste)