Free and legal MP3: Julius (indie pop, w/ graceful nuance)


“Oh Baby” – Julius

I have many issues with what passes for pop music in the year 2014: the brazen artifice of it, the lack of lyrical and melodic imagination typically on display, and the shrunken aural context (pop music in the ’10s more or less refuses to mix well with anything but other pop music from the ’10s), to name a few pet peeves. On top of this, I remain gobsmacked by the unironic embrace of pop sheen and flow by a significant segment of ’10s hipsters. Perhaps this is the ultimate consequence of shifting from ownership to (mostly) free access: the audience is so little invested in the end product that the impetus for listening becomes merely to locate something familiar and diverting, for just those three or four minutes, rather than something to stake the depth of your identity on.

Well, there’s no settling any of this while we’re still in the middle of our grand digital transition. But, in the meantime, here: “Oh Baby” is unabashed pop. It even, I think, features, albeit briefly, some Auto-Tune. And yet there is something in here, musically, that I don’t think you hear in standard-issue 2014 pop music. On the one hand it’s a texture thing—the way the musician who calls himself Julius lets his song unspool with a rich sense of space and time. Rather than the flat, compressed sound of music that’s been processed and layered within inches of its life, “Oh Baby” offers up something that appears, aurally, to straddle the digital and analog worlds. The unhurried drumbeats that provide the song’s backbone may be electronic, may be organic, may be a mix of both, but in any case they feel musical rather than logistical, with a sense of three-dimensional space rather than manipulated puzzle pieces. Likewise the backing vocals that press into the mix at 1:40: regardless of how manipulated, or not, they feel fueled by breath, they too seem to be taking up organic space.

But the thing that really won me over are the chords. However many times I listen I am in thrall to the grace of the flowing chord pattern that Julius introduces when the song first moves beyond the percussive accompaniment (beginning at 0:44). These are not showy, anthemic chords, but the elusive progression from 0:44 to 0:47 to 0:49 moves with a quiet grandeur one might usefully describe as orchestral. And here is where it merits mention that Julius is himself a refugee from the classical academy, a self-professed “weirdo classical prodigy” who only recently began listening to pop music. Once upon a time, pop stars veered into classical music to give their careers cultural heft; nowadays we may be seeing the opposite. Yes, Julius now chooses to operate in the seemingly constrained world of fluffy pop (could there be a title with any less contextual weight than “Oh Baby”?), but the song seems also, somehow, to be straining at a new way of mining depth in the musical language many if not most coming-of-age adults prefer to be speaking right now. Even lyrically the song may be presenting a bit more than it lets on; the recurring line “I’d give the world/To believe what I thought I felt” is no mere throwaway, as one example.

Released last month, “Oh Baby” is the second song Julius has recorded; it was produced by Benny Cassette, who has worked with Kanye West. You can download above, as usual, or visit his SoundCloud page, where you can also hear his first song, along with a more recently posted remix/mashup.

Free and legal MP3: Dive Index (gentle-assertive electro-acoustic composition)

Music that combines the acoustic and the electronic offers a lot of potential enticements (as well as some potential pitfalls) but one of the nice things it can do is create a sonic environment at once gentle and assertive.

Dive Index

“Pattern Pieces” – Dive Index

Music that combines the acoustic and the electronic offers a lot of potential enticements (as well as some potential pitfalls) but one of the nice things it can do is create a sonic environment at once gentle and assertive. Which is hard for either the purely acoustic or the purely electronic to do on their own, and which is pretty much what “Pattern Pieces” has going here, aided handsomely by singer Simone White’s intimate whisper of a voice and some breezy finger picking.

But the big “acoustic” secret here—acoustic in quotes because I may not even be right about this—is the central role played by percussion that sounds very organic and natural. Lord knows that technology has long since transcended my capacity to tease apart electronic from three-dimensional beats, but the larger point is the nature of the sound achieved. Central to the percussive heartbeat in “Pattern Pieces” are sounds that feel very close to the ear and belly in the way that drumming in actual physical space feels.

The other thing this song does is cycle us adroitly through a series of shifting electronic sounds. Towards the beginning, with the organic (maybe) drumming and natural vocals, the electronics we hear are generally subtle background gestures, the type of which come a bit more to the fore in the instrumental break at 1:00. Note how these are quickly followed by the entrance of a pure acoustic guitar, to keep the electro-acoustic balance flowing. A similar break at 1:50, meanwhile, leads to a more diffuse vocal section than previously which in turn migrates us to a new sonic palette (beginning at 2:30) featuring heavier electronic sounds and processed vocals. This heavier section registers as both a definitive shift and a natural-seeming progression, especially given how easily, a minute later, we are delivered back to the earlier vibe.

The Los Angeles-based Dive Index is less a band than a self-described “collaborative project”; the mastermind is songwriter/producer Will Thomas, who earlier in the millennium was recording electronic music as Plumbline. The first Dive Index album emerged in 2007. “Pattern Pieces” is from Lost in the Pressure, the third Dive Index release, out this week on Neutral Music.

(If you go to the SoundCloud page you can download this file in higher-quality .wav format.)

Free and legal MP3: Poor Moon (Fleet Foxes side project, w/ beauty & heft)

Dreamy song with with an intriguing sonic palette, elusive roots, lovely melodies, and an uncanny arrangement.

Poor Moon

“Birds” – Poor Moon

Last week I featured a song from the band Time Travelers, and noted its resemblance to music made by Fleet Foxes. This week, at the risk of redundancy, I offer up a song from the band Poor Moon and will likewise note its resemblance to music made by Fleet Foxes, with this additional footnote: Christian Wargo and Casey Wescott, two of the four gentlemen in Poor Moon, are themselves also in Fleet Foxes. So that explains that.

This is not Fleet Foxes 2.0, however. “Birds” is a dreamy song with with an intriguing sonic palette, elusive roots, lovely melodies, and an uncanny arrangement. There is something vaguely Mexican, or at least faux-Mexican, in the air here, both in the rhythm and the instrumentation, but that is merely an entry point into this music, not the end point. Sounds are used with great care, in particular those emanating from the marimba and the rest of the sensitive, idiosyncratic percussion section (tiny example: the random, exquisitely timed marimba note struck at 2:29). Chord progressions are lovingly crafted—don’t miss the heavenly, Brian Wilson-y end of the introduction (0:27-0:32), and the chorus’s lovely series of shifts (1:35-2:01, but check out 1:49 in particular). The group harmonies surely bring FF to mind, but Wargo’s lead vocal has a casual, dusky quality that blends beautifully with the warm, clackety arrangement. This is a winner that keeps on growing with repeated listens.

Wargo and Wescott have long been friends and musical associates; prior to Fleet Foxes, they played together in the bands Pedro the Lion and Crystal Skulls. The other two members are brothers Ian and Peter Murray, who otherwise play in a band called The Christmas Cards. “Birds” is the tenth of ten tracks on the band’s debut full-length release, self-titled, which will be out next week on Sub Pop Records. MP3 via Sub Pop. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Old Canes(drum-fueled folk rock)

“Little Bird Courage” – Old Canes

It’s unusual for a song that feels like some kind of folk rock to have this much percussive appeal, but “Little Bird Courage” is all about the drumming from the get-go–we pretty much don’t even hear anything else until almost 20 seconds in. And this is in fact how Old Canes front man and master mind Chris Crisci envisions his songs—he records the drum tracks first, and builds the songs up from there.

Everything ends up feeling rhythmic and propulsive as a result. With its vibrant but informal energy, spurred by relentlessly strummed acoustic guitars and accentuated by Crisci’s mixed-down vocals, “Little Bird Courage” has the vibe of a happier incarnation of Neutral Milk Hotel, an impression accentuated by the homely chorus of trumpets that appears halfway through, just when the whole thing seemed to be grinding to a halt. While it’s hard to pick up a lot of the lyrics, I get the impression of something transcendent and triumphant here; the title alone speaks volumes.

Chris Crisci is perhaps better known as a member of the Appleseed Cast, the Lawrence, Kansas-based band usually identified as being a “post-rock” pioneer; Old Canes has been a side project of his dating back to 2004. “Little Bird Courage” is from Feral Harmonic, the second Old Canes album, slated for release next week by Saddle Creek Records.

Free and legal MP3: Morningbell (spoke-sung verses, vigorous rhythms)

“Marching Off To War” – Morningbell

Equal parts character and commitment, “Marching Off To War” props itself on top of some seriously good-natured drumming and never looks back. The verses–all two of them–involve some smiley, spoke-sung lyrics that serve as gatekeepers to the body-shaking rhythmic attack of the chorus, in which singer/guitarist Travis Atria wails the repeated line “Marching off to war” in full Perry Farrell mode. Is there a disconnect here between the jolly sounds and the somber words? I’m guessing that’s the point. Note the way the chorus ends with a line that comes across as a throwaway–“I don’t care what you say anymore”–but may indeed be the fulcrum of the song.

Because that’s exactly what happens when human beings are rallied to act against their own better natures: they must be jollied up to the point where they don’t want to know there’s another way to look at the situation. Don’t bother me, I’m marching off to war. My head’s full of happy nonsense. Whatever the latest war is. (The war against health care reform will do.) “I don’t care what you think anymore,” is how the line goes later in the song.

Named after the Radiohead song (and why not; Radiohead too made a one-word name for themselves from another band’s two-word song title), Morningbell is a quartet from Gainesville. Travis’s brother Eric plays bass (and, Radiohead-ishly, theremin), and Eric’s wife Stacie plays keys. (The exhilarating drummer, not related, is named Chris Hillman, of all things.) The band was previously featured here in May 2007. “Marching Off To War” will be found on their fourth and forthcoming album, Sincerely, Severely, slated for release on the band’s own non-profit label, Orange Records, in December.

Free and legal MP3: Wildbirds & Peacedrums (quirky, affecting; voice & drums)

“My Heart” – Wildbirds & Peacedrums

For a voice and percussion duo, Mariam Wallentin and Andreas Werliin create music with great texture and charm. It’s still pretty idiosyncratic–okay, very idiosyncratic–but you don’t listen to “My Heart” and think, “Geez, where are all the real instruments?” because Werliin does a beautiful, canny job finding not just beats but notes and motifs in a variety of things that are struck with a stick or a mallet. Wallentin in fact sounds like she’s being accompanied by a small, quizzical orchestra, not just a drummer.

The song’s many and varied structural and compositional and artistic quirks may well be why a listener’s ear is distracted from the basic instrumental peculiarity at the core of the duo’s sound. There’s the stop-start-y melody (I dare you to sing along for very long); the shifting rhythmic foundation (the same melody happens over drastically different percussive backgrounds at different points in the song); the art-song-meets-pop-song sense of development (note for example that odd, extended interstitial moment–beginning at 0:49–of being neither in verse nor chorus); and, payoff, the unexpected but brilliant choral finish.

“My Heart” is a song from The Snake, the band’s second album, which came out in Sweden in 2008 and was released earlier this year in the UK on the Leaf Label, and finally also in the US last month by the Control Group. MP3 via NME.