Free and legal MP3: Sarah Lee Langford (authentic country goodness)

It’s gorgeous stuff, grounded in a melody as stern and lustrous as a sermon, all minor chords and heart-rending turns.

“Growing Up” – Sarah Lee Langford

I’d like to think I’d have noticed the beauty and strength of this song no matter when I first listened. But as it turned out, “Growing Up” crossed my desk while I was in the middle of watching the Ken Burns documentary on country music that recently aired on PBS. Were my ears therefore more open to the backwoods twang of the song more than they might previously have been? Quite possibly. The documentary, an extraordinary work, demonstrates two things: one, that you don’t have to think you like country music to be absorbed by the film; two, that understanding the history and the context of music can profoundly impact your reaction to it. And so while I might not go and listen to a bunch of George Jones records now (although maybe I might!), I find myself with an unprecedented (for me) regard for a lot of the music that has been conveniently if often simplistically labeled “country.”

And “Growing Up” surely has the earmarks of something you’d likely want to give this label to, complete with brisk Mother Maybelle guitar work, ghostly pedal steel lines, a shuffling front-porch beat, and vocals stripped of all gloss and pretense. It’s gorgeous stuff, grounded in a melody as stern and lustrous as a sermon, all minor chords and heart-rending turns. Langford lets the melodic descent do a lot of the work for her, but listen to how potently she wields standard country melisma (stereotypically employed in yelpy little yodels) to beautiful effect (e.g., “pill” at 0:52, “pocket” at 1:45, “up” at 2:04, and many others). As fine a singer as she is, she also lets the music breathe around her, allowing her top-notch backing band to stretch out in and around the verses, with restrained honky-tonk spirit and that steel guitar floating through the atmosphere.

“Growing Up” is a track from Two Hearted Rounder, Langford’s debut album, coming out next week on Cornelius Chapel Records.

Free and legal MP3: Denver (country roots, both laid back & incisive)

With its ambling backbeat and lonesome pedal steel guitar,”The Way It Is” has the spacious, laid-back authority of some ’70s piece of pre-Americana.

Denver

“The Way It Is” – Denver

With its ambling backbeat and lonesome pedal steel guitar,”The Way It Is” has the spacious, laid-back authority of some ’70s piece of pre-Americana. Which we might as well just call country. At the same time, it manages an incisiveness that is almost unsettling; you just don’t expect a song with this kind of scruffy, dirty-booted ambiance to be focused enough to finish up under three minutes. Denver pulls off this magic trick by forsaking the instrumental break, and just sticking to the musical facts: melody, accompaniment, and weary, achy-hearted singing.

“The Way It Is” launches off an smooth, two-chord vamp, Neil Young-ish in character. As with the Hermit Crabs song above, the verse is a succinct two lines; in this case, however, it leads into a chorus that is fat with resolution, using a descending bass line to anchor a determined series of classic chords. The melody takes one solid step up and tumbles incrementally down a satisfying perfect fifth. The lyrics, meanwhile, blaze with unpretentious majesty, if I haven’t managed to coin a double or triple oxymoron: “There’s things in the world that I know nothing about,” laments the song’s narrator, without pity, “And that’s just the way it is.” You and me both, pal.

Denver is named more for feeling than geography; the six-man band is actually based in Portland, and features three guys from Alela Diane’s band Wild Divine, including Diane’s husband Tom Bevitori and two from Blitzen Trapper. (Diane and band were featured together here in March 2011.) Five others are said to “rotate” through the lineup. The band’s debut album was recorded and engineered at the home of a friend’s mother—“Drums in the living room, singer in the bedroom, four-track cassette recorder, cases of beer, whiskey, sandwiches and a sunny porch,” is how band co-founder Birger Olsen has described it. The self-titled album was released in mid-August on Portland-based Mama Bird Recording Co.

Free and legal MP3: A. A. Bondy (muted, weary beauty)

“Surfer King” sways and hesitates; it seems already to sit in your memory, blurred by reverb and bending under the quaver of a pedal steel.

A. A. Bondy

“Surfer King” – A. A. Bondy

Almost achingly beautiful in a muted and weary kind of way, “Surfer King” finds A. A. Bondy exploring the same sort of atmospheric singer/songwriter sound as he was the last time he was here, in 2009, for the brilliant “When the Devil’s Loose.” No reason to mess with a good thing.

“Surfer King” sways and hesitates; it seems already to sit in your memory, blurred by reverb and bending under the quaver of a pedal steel played for its own sake, rather than to align with the cliched notion of what a pedal steel should sound like. And can I stop for a moment to register the minor but persistent pet peeve of how music bloggers so often hear a pedal steel and call the song country-ish or country-flavored or some such thing? This song has nothing to do with country music (not that there’s anything wrong with that, either). It’s got a pedal steel. But I digress. Bondy in any case seems to have found his sweet spot, having gone from lead singer in a grunge band to a stripped down, early-Dylan-esque troubadour before settling into this pensive, purposeful setting featuring a few well-placed instruments and his reflective baritone. This song is so sturdy, its melody so delicate and true, that the chorus slays us while focusing almost exclusively on two notes, one whole step apart.

“Surfer King” is from Believers, Bondy’s third album as a solo artist, released this month on Fat Possum Records. Bondy was born in Alabama and works from upstate New York. For the excessively curious, A. A. stands for Auguste Arthur.

Free and legal MP3: Maggie Björklund (with Mark Lanegan) (warm, dreamy, bittersweet waltz)

I always forget how much I like the sound of a pedal steel guitar. It’s easy to forget because the instrument has been all but hijacked by the cheesiest of cheesy country songs. “Intertwined, ” rest assured, is no cheesy country song; it is, rather, a warm and dreamy if vaguely bittersweet waltz, a cozy meditation with a vein of melancholy.

Maggie Bjorklund

“Intertwined” – Maggie Björklund (with Mark Lanegan)

I always forget how much I like the sound of a pedal steel guitar. It’s easy to forget because the instrument has been all but hijacked by cheesy country songs. “Intertwined,” rest assured, is no cheesy country song; it is, rather, a warm and dreamy if vaguely bittersweet waltz, a cozy meditation with a vein of melancholy.

Björklund, a pedal steel specialist from Denmark, is primarily an instrumentalist, so she has brought on board a number of guest vocalists, including Rachel Flotard (last seen collaborating with Rusty Willoughby), members of Calexico, and here, of course, the gruff but lovable Mark Lanegan, who growls comfortingly through “Intertwined.” Lanegan’s rumbly, ever-so-slightly vulnerable baritone pretty much embodies the spirit of this easy-weary tune. Björklund does sing in addition to play, and what her voice may lack in viscosity it makes up for with sweetness; there may be no one Lanegan doesn’t sound good with, but add Björklund to the list of striking duet partners.

In the end, however, it may be her instrument that most impressively intertwines with Lanegan’s deep quaver, the pedal steel’s intrinsic sound of yearning complementing him with dignity and nuance. Don’t miss how gracefully the pedal steel enters (0:27), barely scratching the aural surface, only gradually moving towards the center of the song. Björklund plays with almost unheard of subtlety, opting often for singly articulated notes, resolutely avoiding the overstated slurring/sliding that pedal steel players are often incapable of resisting. This makes the moments in which she does specifically utilize the instrument’s capacity for sliding through blurred notes all the more poignant and effective.

Björklund has played with bands and as a backing musician in both Europe and the U.S. “Intertwining” is a song from her debut album, Coming Home, which was released in March on Bloodshot Records. MP3 via Bloodshot. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.