Free and legal MP3: Muralismo (complex, engaging chamber pop)

“Wild Eyed Friend” is the mysterious out-of-towner you see across the room at a party of familiar faces and invent intriguing stories about. When you finally meet him, he turns out to be less quirky and cryptic than anticipated, but also deeper and more sincere.

Muralismo

“Wild Eyed Friend” – Muralismo

More a multi-faceted adventure than a simple song, “Wild Eyed Friend” is the mysterious out-of-towner you see across the room at a party of familiar faces and invent intriguing stories about. When you finally meet him, he turns out to be less quirky and cryptic than anticipated, but also deeper and more sincere. You are glad he exists, even if you will never see him again.

The good thing, of course, is that you can go and listen to “Wild Eyed Friend” as often as you’d like. And I do recommend a number of repeats; there’s a lot to take in here—the slow, slowly developing pre-introduction, with its gentle, semi-dissonant air of an awakening meadow; the subtly wonderful blend of guitar and orchestral elements in the brisker “true” introduction (1:12); the engaging, concise verse (1:38), with its drum-driven appeal and no-nonsense segue into the non-chorus-y chorus (2:05), which grabs the ear with abrupt ease. It helps that front man Mark David Ashworth has a welcoming, semi-theatrical tone, his high-ranging baritone slightly roughened and rounded by something husky and knowing. It helps too that the ensemble doesn’t throw its orchestrality (a word?) in your face; I like how the winds and flutes and strings and such kind of just weave and evanesce through the landscape here without making a big deal of their presence; best of all, they let the most interesting instrument in the room be the drums—not typical of most things that have been labeled “chamber pop” to date. Drummer Shaun Lowecki (last seen around these parts in the band The Lawlands, in January) has an up-front way of staying in the background, of guiding the music through interesting places often because of his own patterns, without ever doing things that say “Hey, look at me! I’m the drummer!” Good stuff, repeatedly.

Muralismo is based in San Francisco. Ashworth has released a few solo albums previously; Muralismo coalesced as a group project in the 2007 to 2010 time frame, as players came on board, often synchronistically, and aligned themselves into the quintet they are today. “Wild Eyed Friend” is the lead track from the group’s self-titled, eight-song debut album, which the band self-released in LP, CD, and digital formats last month. The above Dropbox MP3 link comes directly from the band. You can listen to the whole album and buy it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Cliff Dweller (archetypal American sound, slightly unhinged)

With its classically American sound, “Peace in the Valley” all but force images of prairies and big skies and dusky campfires into your brain.

Cliff Dweller

“Peace in the Valley” – Cliff Dweller

I am not sure how or when there developed music that innately sounds “American” but it happened. And if the composer Aaron Copeland didn’t himself invent the sound he surely perfected it. Note that this has little if anything to do with the genre of music that has been called Americana; in fact, I believe the only songwriter in the rock’n’roll world who has tapped into that quintessential American-music vein with regularity and brilliance has been Randy Newman (see “Louisiana 1927,” see “Dixie Flyer,” see “My Country,” et al). “Peace in the Valley” immediately aligns itself with this sound; the opening melody and chord progression all but force images of prairies and big skies and dusky campfires into your brain. A cumulative sense of homespun gospel adds to the pioneer sensibility.

Where “Peace in the Valley” veers from this archetypal sound is in the details, which register as somewhere between subtly disheveled and overtly unhinged. Orchestral instruments play (sometimes squeak, as per 1:10), but with ramshackle discipline. You kind of wait for the whole thing to unravel, but it doesn’t. This adds to the power. The vocals, when they come, via Alex Jacob (who does musical business as Therapies Son) and Ella Hatamian, are whispery-fragile (him) and sturdy but plain-spoken (her). Soon they are backed by a swelling choir, in which context Jacob suddenly begins to sound—intentionally or not—a bit like Randy Newman himself. After one verse and one visit to the chorus, the instrumental ensemble reasserts control, takes the rhythm up a notch, and culminates in a violin solo that out-ass-kicks most electric guitar solos in our electric-guitar-deprived day and age. All in all I’m not exactly sure what I just sat through but I enjoyed it.

The larger context is unhelpful. Cliff Dweller has been identified in its press material as a “sonic and visual project” by an LA-based artist named Ari Balouzian, himself a classically-trained violist and composer, as well as a film scorer. He is also (there’s more?) a seventh-generation master shoemaker, working for the Burbank-based company Cydwoq, founded by his father. Cliff Dweller, as an art project, has something to do with Cydwoq but at this point—a personal short-coming, I’ll confess—my intellectual eyes glaze over. I remain unconvinced by projects with aims both large-scale and obscure, and have not as yet mustered the musical patience to listen to the 19 mostly instrumental songs that comprise Emerald City, the album on which you’ll find “Peace in the Valley.” Feel free to sample the whole thing yourself, however, via Bandcamp; your mileage may very well vary.

Free and legal MP3: San Fermin (intriguing, energetic chamber pop)

A smoother, poppier version of “Stillness is the Move” by the Dirty Projectors, “Sonsick” succeeds both because of and in spite of its debt to the earlier song.

San Fermin

“Sonsick” – San Fermin

A smoother, poppier version of “Stillness is the Move” by the Dirty Projectors, “Sonsick” succeeds both because of and in spite of its debt to the earlier song. The similarities are enough to be disconcerting, and yet San Fermin mastermind Ellis Ludwig-Leone seems less interested than Dave Longstreth in being difficult. I consider this a good thing. I liked “Stillness is the Move” quite a lot, but noted at the time that it was one of the more approachable things Dirty Projectors had recorded, and even so was still pretty thorny. “Sonsick” is the work of someone who doesn’t shy from accessibility.

Maybe it’s because Ludwig-Leone is a full-fledged contemporary classical composer as well that he approaches pop for what it is, or can be: a chance to make music people can listen to without an advanced degree. Not that “Sonsick” isn’t its own kind of interesting. (Take note, hipsters of all persuasions: music can be rich and approachable at the same time!) I’m entirely enjoying the more fluent melodic choices Ludwig-Leone makes in the verse than did Longstreth, and find the appearance of an honest-to-goodness sing-along chorus all but intoxicating. Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe, who sing together in the duo Lucius, add energy at once lovely and intense to a story that feels elusive but emotional, not purposefully nonsensical (as was “Stillness”). And do yourself a favor and keep your ears on the arrangement. Ludwig-Leone’s use of horns is novel if not unique in a pop setting; they sneak in via sustained background notes, and are used throughout in a flowing, textural way rather than in “horn chart” flares and bursts. Woodwinds glide in too as some point, creating the feel of a pocket orchestra by the end of the piece.

Officially, San Fermin is a “band” of three singers and one composer; the music on the album is all performed by hired guests. The third singer is Allen Tate, Ludwig-Leone’s friend and long-time collaborator; they met at 16 in rock’n’roll camp and were previously performed as a duo called Gets the Girl. Ludwig-Leone, 23, studied composition at Yale and has worked as an assistant to composer Nico Muhly. “Sonsick” is a song from the group’s self-titled debut album, to be self-released next month. Judging from the imposing bull adorning the album cover, I’m guessing that the band took its name from Pamplona’s famous annual festival. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3: Fanfarlo (tense, unusual chamber pop)

Unusual song lacking any rock-band instruments, but which keeps me coming back for more.

Fanfarlo

“Replicate” – Fanfarlo

Keep your ears on the synthesizer here. It has a wonderfully goofy-fiendish sound to it, half haunted house, half vintage sci-fi. It is also the only instrument on display in this song that you might otherwise normally find in a rock band. Everything else here is a string, a woodwind, or a piece of percussion of the sort on display on the percussionist’s table in the back of the orchestra.

I’m not sure what prompted the unusual instrument choice here. But the strangest thing is how you almost don’t register it. You notice the song’s odd sense of tension, and sparseness, and slow unfolding-ness, but not its wholesale acoustic/orchestral foundation. But check it out: no guitars, no bass, no drums. The focus is on Simon Balthazar, a Swede fronting a British band, whose Bryan Ferry-ish warble has a sneaky depth even as he spends half the song singing in stuttery slivers. His band mates meanwhile get to sing primarily in howling, wordless bursts. Okay so “Replicate” is pretty much weird beyond all explanation. And yet there is alluring muscle here, particular in the chorus, with its striking, string-voiced counter-melody and those aforementioned vocal bursts. This is the kind of song that is hard to know what to make of after only a listen or two, but that seems to prompt repeated listenings.

“Replicate” is the first song made available from Fanfarlo’s forthcoming, as-yet-untitled second album. The band’s debut, Reservoir, was released to much acclaim in 2009, when Balthazar was still going by his birth name of Aurell and the London-based five-piece was a sextet. The wonderful song “Harold T. Wilkins,” from that album, was featured here in March of that year. The MP3 comes via Pretty Much Amazing. Perhaps the video will help illuminate the song? You be the judge:

Free and legal MP3: Sarah Kirkland Snider (Shara Worden-sung orchestral drama)

Part of a song cycle inspired by the Odyssey, “This Is What You’re Like” is an adroitly constructed composition for female voice, chamber orchestra, and electronics that treads the sometimes blurry line (in New York City, anyway) between indie pop and art song.

Shara Worden, performing "Penelope"

“This Is What You’re Like” – Sarah Kirkland Snider (featuring Shara Worden and Signal)

Part of a song cycle inspired by the Odyssey (let’s hear it for the classics! anyone?), “This Is What You’re Like” is an adroitly constructed composition for female voice, chamber orchestra, and electronics that treads the sometimes blurry line (in New York City, anyway) between indie pop and classical ensemble piece.

For all its stringed drama, layered presentation, dynamic changes, and uncertain chords, however, this is a song that does not forget that it is in fact a song—an impressive accomplishment for a classically trained composer, who would be excused if she had had all semblance of recognizable melody and structure knocked out of her in graduate school. But no: the Yale School of Music-educated Snider anchors the intermittently dense proceedings with a recurring, bittersweet melodic refrain that I’d call a chorus except that she plays with it each time so it’s never quite the same twice. It’s a lovely and affecting melody, with an enticing added beat in the second half, as the lyrics change (the first time we hear it) from “This is what you’re like,” to “This is what you once were like.” I especially like the refrain’s second visitation, when the lyrics change and the melody is almost but not quite swallowed by surging, dissonant orchestration. The song benefits greatly from Shara Worden’s dusky, charismatic presence; her eclectic background makes the My Brightest Diamond singer a natural for the project.

The overall work is called Penelope and debuted as a multimedia theater piece with music by Snider and lyrics by the playwright Ellen McLaughlin back in February ’08. It’s progressed through a number of revisions and performances since then; the song cycle version, featuring the ensemble Signal, premiered in May ’09 but even this was altered once Worden got involved. The first performance of the work in its current form came in April of this year; the long-awaited album will be released in October on New Amsterdam Records, a NYC-based label co-founded by Snider and dedicated to presenting the works of composers and performers “whose music slips through the cracks between genres,” says the web site.

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: Sambassadeur (shiny, cinematic Swedish pop)

At first (aural) glance, “I Can Try” succeeds nicely as a sweeping piece of orchestrated twee pop. Which is almost just fine. Except for the fact that each time I go back to listen, things get more complicated and unusual-sounding.

Sambassadeur

“I Can Try” – Sambassadeur

At first (aural) glance, “I Can Try” succeeds nicely as a sweeping piece of orchestrated twee pop. Which is almost just fine. Except for the fact that each time I go back to listen, things get more complicated and unusual-sounding. To begin with, what’s with the drumming? You’ve got the snare going full-blast, but delivering that shuffled up third beat—especially pronounced in the chorus, it happens throughout the song, and, in combination with that unrelenting double-time high-hat, creates a chugging rhythm that simultaneously barrels forward and hesitates.

Then there’s the melody, which is certainly as sweet-sad as the genre requires, and yet there’s something more to it. The melody in both the verse and the chorus is a nice long line, the verse melody resolving with an upward tilt while the chorus offers a steady downward release. But here’s an odd thing: the melody in the chorus extends for nine measures, which is not only unusual but difficult. Typically pop songs are constructed around sets of four measures or eight measures. It’s what the music often demands and our ears almost always expect. Here an extra measure sneaks in without causing the slightest fuss. And yet somewhere deep down we sense something’s off balance. That’s not very twee. The orchestration likewise isn’t quite what it seems. We hear strings near the beginning and think, “Oh, of course.” But it’s a string quartet, not a string section, and they spend more time stabbing staccato riffs than bowing maudlin flourishes. And when the horns arrive—the horns must always arrive—it’s a saxophone. Whatever became of the saxophone, anyway?

“I Can Try” is from the third Sambassadeur album, Europeans, released on Labrador Records in February. The Gothenburg-based quartet has been previously featured on Fingertips twice, once for each of its first two albums, in 2005 and in 2007. MP3 via Labrador.

Free and legal MP3: Steve Goldberg & the Arch Enemies (wistful-cheerful, horn-peppered)

Wistful-cheerful blast of horn-peppered indie pop.

“The Ballad of Cherry Hill” – Steve Goldberg and the Arch Enemies

Wistful-cheerful blast of horn-peppered indie pop. When last we left Steve Goldberg, in 2007, he was a graduating college senior in Pittsburgh who recorded an album as a senior project with a revolving-door cast of fellow students. He has since come east to Philadelphia, pared the basic outfit down to four, and continues doing business as the Arch Enemies.

While the basic sound remains intact—he comes across as a more extroverted version of Sufjan Stevens—the production value has improved, which has given his voice more depth and the music more oomph. I like that he has bothered to create two complete musical themes that are independent of the song’s eventual melodies—these are the first two things we hear in the introduction (the pizzicato strings theme, then the horn section theme). One of the pleasing things about the song, then, becomes listening for how and when these themes recur, woven back into or between the primary melodies. (Even if you don’t realize this is pleasing your ear, honest, it is.) Another perhaps unconsciously pleasing characteristic is the juxtaposition of downcast lyrics (here painting a scene of suburban alienation) and upbeat music. This itself is not an uncommon trick in pop music, but I like how Goldberg manages to bleed the two moods into each other a bit, thus further complicating the song’s complexion—the lively music somehow lifting the words beyond mere despair even as the words simultaneously lend a bittersweet air to the music.

“The Ballad of Cherry Hill” is from the band’s four-song EP Labyrinths, which was self-released in January. Inspired by stories by Jorge Luis Borges, the EP is available for a price of your choosing, with no minimum, via the band’s site. Thanks to Steve personally for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: The Mummers (orchestral pop w/ retro touches)

“Wonderland” – the Mummers

A waltzing, carnivalesque intro segues into some smooth, orchestral retro-pop that owes a bit to Burt Bacharach, a bit to Kurt Weill, and a bit to our century’s relentless urge to mix and mash sounds into ear-catching concoctions. To me, “Wonderland” separates itself from a lot of the more disposable contrivances crowding the internet in our music-happy day and age via its rare combination of sweetness and sturdiness. The melodies are expansive and velvety, the arrangements unexpectedly thoughtful, even articulate. The bright-toned singer and multi-cultural multi-instrumentalist Raissa Khan-Panni, who flitted through a semi-successful solo career in the UK at the outset of the millennium, here manages at once to command center stage and to work as merely one of an idiosyncratic ensemble of musicians bowing and pumping out this breezy but slightly mysterious keeper. A whole different kind of summer song, this one is, from the Wheels On Fire track above, but a delightful summer song it nonetheless remains.

The Mummers are an ever-changing array of 20-some-odd musicians, based in Brighton. “Wonderland” is a song from the band’s debut full-length disc, Tale to Tell (Republic of Music/Universal), which was released in either April or June. (The internet is sometimes a contradictory place, information-wise.) MP3 via Fresh Deer Meat.

Free and legal MP3: A Camp (shimmering, bittersweet pop)

“Love Has Left the Room” – A Camp

At once expansive and intimate, “Love Has Left the Room” shimmers with the large yet delicate pop energy of something from the ’60s that didn’t rock, with Cardigans front woman Nina Persson here playing the part of Lesley Gore, maybe, or even Vicki Carr. We get the orchestral flourishes, the lyrical and melodic melodrama, and the engaging pattern of verse-tension and chorus-release that gave that sort of music its radio-friendly kick.

As with “Airplane Blues” (above), this song likewise has one particular moment that makes the whole thing come together, for me: it’s the elongated “you” in the chorus, in the line “I’ll let go if you just tell me”—a note that pretty much epitomizes the bittersweet interpersonal stalemate the song describes. The “you” is offered just one whole step down from the “I” but in a separate, disconsolate harmonic context; even the way the note is held, a half breath more than seems seemly, speaks as well as the words do about the pangs associated with a relationship that disintegrates without closure.

Persson launched A Camp way back in 1997, to be a sort of experimental side project from her regular work fronting the Cardigans, but at this point the Cardigans are on hold and A Camp has had the more recent success—its self-titled 2001 debut won four Grammys in Sweden. “Love Has Left the Room” is from the trio’s second album, Colonia, which was released last month on Nettwerk Records. MP3 via Spin.com.