Free and legal MP3: Orion Sun (dreamy, minimalist)

From the carefully plucked guitar through the smeary background wash and methodical drumming, the song delivers a vibe at once vague and precise, and pulls you along on its short and sultry journey as if in a comfy, if minimalist, dream.

“Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me)” – Orion Sun

And while some songs succeed via melody, there are those that establish a place in your head via atmosphere, like Orion Sun’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me).” From the carefully plucked guitar through the smeary background wash and methodical drumming, the song delivers a vibe at once vague and precise, and pulls you along on its short and sultry journey as if in a comfy, if minimalist, dream.

Orion Sun—the performing name for the Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter Tiffany Majette—favors melodies that bounce up and down, lending a rapping rhythm to her singing, or, for you truly old-school folks, bring recitative, from the opera world, to mind. The effect is at once conversational and intimate, and is accentuated by the plainspoken feelings on display, with the repeated chorus of “It feels so good to know you,” augmented by a blurry proffering of “so good”s.

The texture is so carefully established that I find myself fascinated by the way the primary guitar line sounds at once central to the song and yet spends most of the time not playing. It only finishes its full phrase at the very beginning (0:04) and then again near the very end (2:34); and it literally sounds like someone pulls the plug on the instrument halfway through the introduction (0:10). Yes, if you listen closely you will in fact hear the guitar underneath the chorus but it seems to be there all but subliminally, to give you a vague memory of something you aren’t fully experiencing.

As for the title, if there’s a reason Majette co-opted the title from a Jacques Brel classic (not to mention Regina Spektor’s more recent and much perkier song of the same name), it’s not immediately apparent. “Ne Me Quitte Pas” is from the debut Orion Sun album, Hold Space For Me, released back in March on the Mom + Pop record label. You can listen and purchase via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP. You might also be interested in a newer track of hers, “Mama’s Baby,” which was written in response to Majette having been attacked and injured by police during a protest in Philadelphia in May. Track is here; a newspaper account of the incident and resulting song is here.

Free and legal MP3: Theater Kids (Enticing groove, accomplished debut)

Musicians that have enough confidence in their material so that they don’t have to fill our ears with sounds in every moment are usually worth paying attention to.

“Pratfall” – Theater Kids

Delectably groovy and smoothly melodic, “Pratfall” is an accomplished debut single from Philadelphia duo Theater Kids, fronted by Benny Williams. Call me a sucker for a classic chord progression, but here we have a well-known harmonic pattern wrapped in a wonderful sort of DIY sleekness (an oxymoron? actually not) which is right in my wheelhouse.

There’s something wonderfully old-school in how the introduction slowly builds the song’s soulful sound-world in way in which each addition seems inevitable, and with Williams’ vocal entrance, at 0:32, feeling as much like a resolution as an opening salvo. The lyrics are set against the back end of each measure, creating that enticing little space at the end of each line where the new measure starts musically but not lyrically. A lot of presence is created here without a lot of sonic embellishment; one of the beautiful things this song does is allow a certain amount of space around the notes being played (the bass offers a particularly lithe example). Musicians that have enough confidence in their material so that they don’t have to fill our ears with sounds in every moment are usually worth paying attention to.

I would like to articulate why this sort of chill but steady groove, these sorts of carefully laid-together textures, combined with a sterling melody, affect my ears so much much more positively than the beat-centric, effects-heavy tunes, so often about the most surface-oriented subjects, that dominate both the hipster blogs and the pop charts. (This has been an unprecedented alliance; that’s food for a separate post.) But there’s probably no useful way to put this into words. It all would appear to come down to individual taste; but, what I guess I’m always on guard against is when individual tastes have been unduly shaped and warped by larger, profit-oriented interests. Paul Weller said it most incisively a generation ago, in a song in which the lyrics initially say “The public gets what the public wants,” only to have the line flipped later, as a conclusion: “The public wants what the public gets.” The internet has made this an all the more unwieldy and complicated situation, combining technology that can make and record music without regard to an individual’s actual musical talents, with algorithms that amplify surreptitiously, and with an audience now trained to respect and notice quantity more than quality at every turn.

I digress. This is all to say that underneath “Pratfall” I sense human and musical intelligence, and I want to remember to applaud that as often as possible. I am happy to know there are individuals out there who can absorb today’s inputs and influences and still create something that feels removed from the thoughtless hubbub of SoundCloud uploads and Spotify links.

“Pratfall” was released in September. Theater Kids have released a second song, “Echoes,” earlier this month. Check everything out via Bandcamp. Thanks to the band for the download.

Free and legal MP3: Strand of Oaks (anthemic indie rock)

This may be a slow build, but it’s not just a tedious beat; there are expressive lyrics, and, best of all, an impressively well-built melody.

Strand of Oaks

“Weird Ways” – Strand of Oaks

I am not often a fan of the slow build, I will admit that up front. In particular I usually run screaming from songs that have introductions that are both slow and long; bonus (negative) points for being overly repetitious. I’m always thinking, “This is a friggin’ pop song! Get to the point!”

But what we have here with “Weird Ways” is a slow build I’m down with. For one thing, the singing starts right away. This may be a slow build, but it’s not just a tedious beat; there are expressive lyrics, and, best of all, an impressively well-built melody. Things may not entirely cohere in your ear during this slow introductory section, but when the song opens up at 1:30, abetted now by riff and backbeat, we soon get re-introduced to the opening melody and can hear it now in all its anthemic glory. This is the kind of melody that feels classic as soon as you hear it in this setting.

A minute later, the song veers into misty reverie, but with enough texture and pulse to keep things interesting. A minute after that, a head-bobbing bridge, with layered vocals, leads into a big-time guitar solo. The bridge returns nearly a minute later, with additional drama in the vocal layers, culminating in a portentous sustain that closes things out. So much going on! But wait a minute. What happened to that anthemic melody? We hear the last of it at around the two-and-a-half-minute mark of a nearly six-minute song. As a listener, this is maybe slightly frustrating but also slyly engaging. Look, Strand of Oaks mastermind Timothy Showalter could have easily given us more of that haunting refrain but consciously decided not to. Part of it relates to the wise dictum of “Always leave them wanting more.” But he could have done that with, simply, a short song. “Weird Ways” is a long song, but only about a minute of it delivers its rousing, straightforward hook. Given that the lyrics, as much as I can follow them, talk about leaving something established behind while finding an unanticipated new path, I’m surmising that the music here is intended as thematic corroboration. Maybe ear-pleasing melodies come too easily for Showalter; maybe his soul is calling him in another direction. Or, maybe I’m reading too much into what is no more or less than an excellent 21st-century rock song.

Born in Indiana and based in Philadelphia, Showalter has now recorded five studio albums as Strand of Oaks, plus an adjunct album of demos, b-sides, and alternate takes. “Weird Ways” is the opening track on his most recent album, Eraserland, released earlier this year. MP3 via KEXP. You can buy Eraserland (digital, CD, vinyl) at Bandcamp. (Thanks to Glorious Noise for the screen cap!)

Free and legal MP3: Work Drugs (smooth electronics, understated urgency)

All smooth electronics on the surface, the song creates an understated urgency in a few ways.

Work Drugs

“Alternative Facts” – Work Drugs

A splendid marriage of vibe and craft, “Alternative Facts” is not the latest release from Philadelphia’s prolific Work Drugs, but is the one that has stuck with me most thoroughly.

All smooth electronics on the surface, the song creates an understated urgency in a few ways. First, there’s the recurrence of a simple, descending, two-note motif: it’s the notes the vocals start on, with the phrase “Get away,” and it’s repeated in four incarnations in the first 16 seconds. The song goes on to offer neither the comfort of an identifiable chorus nor an obvious resolution. Notice too the rhythmic structure: while the emphasis is the “on” beat (one and three) versus the backbeat (two and four), the beat is driven by a syncopated triplet rhythm with an accented second (oneTWOthree), which keeps the ear unbalanced and forward leaning. The place to hear this most clearly is right in the intro, before the vocals start, but that basic syncopated pulse continues throughout.

One last destabilizing point is how the recurring refrain is a repeat of the phrase “I’m not your happy ending,” articulated so the word “ending” is, ironically, all but inaudible—you have to realize it’s there to hear it. And when you do hear it, you may also notice that it is an echo of the repeated two-note motif previously discussed.

I do hope my efforts to bring some analytical concepts to the aural reality of a song don’t end up sounding pedantic. I’m just fascinated, in a lifelong way, by what makes music good, and refuse to believe it’s all a subjective matter, any more than are facts themselves, to bring us back to the subtle theme.

Work Drugs have been here before, featured on Fingertips in both March 2015 and September 2016. They are the duo of Thomas Crystal and Benjamin Louisiana and, as noted, they put out a rather ridiculous amount of music, as you can see if you wander over to their Bandcamp page. Additionally, if you head to SoundCloud page, you’ll find a nice assortment of their songs available for free download.

Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Waxahatchee (simple tune, understated power)

A simple tune that reverberates with understated power.

Waxahatchee

“Silver” – Waxahatchee

Not that you have to be middle-aged to put out accomplished music, by the way (see previous review). Katie Crutchfield, 28, has, up till now, recorded three albums’ worth of smart, lo-fi rock’n’roll as Waxahatchee. (And this overlooks the many independent recordings she made—both solo and with bands—dating back to age 14, often with her twin sister Allison.) You sometimes have to slow down to appreciate her penchant for introspective, drum-free electric guitar pieces. But she’ll take it up a notch or two also, and in “Silver” we get Waxahatchee at its drummiest and catchiest.

A relatively simple tune, with a verse that employs but three notes, “Silver” reverberates with understated power. Some of this comes from the relentless fuzz of the guitar, some from the simple sound of a human being at a drum kit, some from the ineffable purity of Crutchfield’s unaffected voice. Also, I am getting a particular thrill out of lyrics that manage both to puzzle and to flow, as the striking preponderance of one-syllable words lends a comfortable solidity to a song that does not reveal much direct meaning. Because of the unorthodox title choice, I can’t help hearing the line “My skin all turns silver” with extra attention, but then what? Lacking comprehensible narrative message, the phrase highlights mystery on the one hand, while feeling precise and gratifying on the other—the colloquial construction of skin “all turning [x]” is lovely in the way a candid photo can be lovely: capturing something familiar and yet never quite recorded before.

Katie Crutchfield was born in Alabama—which explains, at least peripherally, Waxahatchee—but has been based (sometimes loosely) in Philadelphia since the early 2010s. “Silver” is a track from the fourth Waxahatchee album, Out in the Storm, which is coming in July on Merge Records. MP3 available, again, via the fine folks at KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Minka (angular post-punk-ish dance music)

There’s great precision here, but also a looseness around the edges that speaks of a band delighted to be playing actual instruments in a room full of actual people, as opposed to twiddling knobs in a booth.

Minka

“Josephine” – Minka

Electronic dance music will come and go (might we be ready for the “go” part just about now?), but vigorous, jump-around-the-dance-floor music will always exist. And the beauty is that, compared to the fundamental stylistic monotony of EDM, there are in fact a lot of ways to make dance music, a lot of styles one might employ. I myself am partial to a sound pioneered in the late ’70s by the likes of Talking Heads and David Bowie, a kind of angular white-guy funk I could, as a white guy, relate to. I especially loved this odd type of dance music’s emphasis on the electric guitar; I’m a particular sucker for that squonky metallic tone you hear at its most compelling on an album like Scary Monsters.

Some of that is going on here with the Philadelphia band Minka and I am all for it. Even before we get to full squonk (that would start at 2:14), these guys have brought post-punk dance music, or some such thing, into the 21st century, complete with scratchy rhythm guitars and a lead singer, one Ari Rubin, whose edgy croon and theatrical vibrato give us a sense of what a young David Byrne might have sounded like had he smiled once in a while.

A palpable humanity underpins this kind of sound—there’s great precision here (there has to be, with any kind of dance music) but also a looseness in the air that speaks of a band delighted to be playing actual instruments in a room full of actual people, as opposed to twiddling knobs in a booth. Now then, not every band that hypnotizes you into buying their album at the gig has the songwriting chops required to deliver both in the club and in the iPhone. And Minka is most definitely an in-person phenomenon, renowned for their shall we say uninhibited performances. But “Josephine” transcends the requirement of being in the same room with these guys, and to me, that’s about the best kind of dance music there is.

Minka is a four-man band and officially spell their name in all caps: MINKA. “Josephine” is a track from the band’s forthcoming EP, Born in the Viper Room.

Free and legal MP3: The Burgeoning (inventive and accessible rock’n’roll)

There’s something that almost doesn’t compute here, this sense that these four dudes from Philadelphia have figured out some new way to make old-fashioned rock’n’roll.

The Burgeoning

“Beautiful Rampage” – The Burgeoning

Instantly likeable, and it only gets better. Guitars like you haven’t heard in a long time, first of all: an adept, introductory one-two punch of scratchy atonal rhythm and keening lead. It’s a four-piece band and you can hear the four pieces, there’s space in the mix, and there’s order and authority, but expressed in the most casual manner. There’s something that almost doesn’t compute here, this sense that these four dudes from Philadelphia have figured out some new way to make old-fashioned rock’n’roll. There are hooks, there are the good chords, there’s a lead singer who takes charge without showing off, there are some squiggly moments nearly beyond earshot.

And those guitars, which get an invigorating chance to stretch out, as the lead guitar’s solo at 1:50 burns directly into the rhythm solo (2:07), now a lead in its own right, and what a searing and inventive and expansive solo this turns out to be, all the way to 2:40. So much territory we seem to cover in a song that still manages to wrap up at 3:25. And I mentioned hooks, didn’t I? Check out the chorus (which doesn’t sound like a chorus) sprung upon us, casually, at 0:55, with improbable, melodic leaps that stick in your head because maybe you’ve never heard them before, or maybe you have and have just forgotten because most pop songs use the same friggin’ chords over and over and over. And few operate with such a tight and creative rhythm section, because too many rhythm sections these days are digital afterthoughts. Music has been suffering. But not here.

Founded in 2011, The Burgeoning features brothers Logan (vocal, rhythm guitar) and Alex (bass) Thierjung, Mark Menkevich (lead guitar), and Brandon Bradley (drummer). “Beautiful Rampage” is a song from their debut EP, Loud Dreams, which is due out in late October. Check it out on Bandcamp when the time comes.

Free and legal MP3: Work Drugs (mellow groove w/ depth & distinction)

“Roll” tosses you onto a featherbed of chill without so much as mussing your hair.

Work Drugs

“Roll” – Work Drugs

“Roll” tosses you onto a featherbed of chill without so much as mussing your hair. And yet the song also quivers with a fidgety unease, and therein, to my ears, lies the depth and distinction. It’s easy enough (although not really) to lay down a smooth beat and offer up some whispery vocals and call it a day. “Roll” starts there but heads into more stimulating corners. An initial hint is found in the bass line, in the way its staccato bursts at the beginning of each measure melt into mellower iterations at the back end. It’s a nuanced, subtly unsettling effect.

Then there are lyrical phrases, which, when rising to the listener’s awareness, do not exactly say “Let’s party,” for instance, the opening salvo: “If you want to take me out, shoot to kill,
You better burn this city down.” And probably best of all, there’s a saxophone, and the kind that sounds like the player is standing underneath a streetlight on a moonless night. Notice how it slips all but unnoticed into the background at 0:42, initially providing only muted accents before, one-third of the way in, the signature riff is blown (1:15), instantly turning the song’s introductory motif, originally laid out on synth, into something nearly heroic. Of course this was made to be a sax riff. And yet who would have anticipated that at the beginning?

Work Drugs, previously featured on Fingertips in March 2015, is the duo of Tom Crystal and Ben Louisiana (although live the band expands to four or five). Based in Philadelphia (second Philly band of the month here; go Eagles), these guys are awfully hard-working for being so mellow: “Roll” is a song from their eighth full-length album, Method Acting, released in August. Their first album came out in 2011; you do the math.

You can check out their entire catalog on Bandcamp. Alternatively, you can listen to a whole bunch of Work Drugs songs on their SoundCloud page; many of them are available there as free and legal downloads.

Free and legal MP3: Manwomanchild (Peppy, sly, sing-song-y)

The lyrics scoot along with a lively sort of insouciance, matching the music’s peppy electronic vibe.

Manwomanchild

“Change the Channel” – Manwomanchild

Longstanding and/or thorough readers of these virtual pages may have noticed that for all the details I cover in reviews, I don’t comment all that often on lyrics. There’s a simple reason: I don’t usually pay a lot of attention to the words in a song. Which may be strange, but I guess I just approach a song as sound, in which case the words too are more “sound” to me than “story.”

Every now and then, however, lyrics just start rising to the surface, without my making any effort to notice them. This is almost always a sign of a good song, and (oddly? logically?) it almost always happens with songs in which the words end up being pretty much inscrutable: i.e., I finally notice words and even so I don’t know what they mean.

Anyway: “Change the Channel” turned out to be that kind of song; as I kept listening, I began to notice the lyrics, which scoot along with a lively sort of insouciance, matching the music’s peppy, concise vibe. The sing-song-y landscape, full of descending melody lines and agile bass playing, is reminiscent to me of early Talking Heads, minus the nerdy anxiety. Manwomanchild’s master mind David Child is more 21st-century chill than new-wave angsty, but his words still push their way forward, many offering the bonus of perfect rhythmic scanning:

We are the workshop elves
The ones who went back to the scene of the crime

I’m at the end of my rope
Just like a joke that nobody wrote

I tried to make you a star, but it’s hard
And the project got the best of me

These lyrics offer the additional pleasure of monosyllabicism (to coin an awkward term): most are humble, one syllable words. This is harder to do than it looks. Completing an increasingly delightful package here are the backing vocals, which often involve same-note harmonizing but over time expand into appealingly lackadaiscal intervals, as if Child is making up his vocal chart along the way. When he breaks into what sounds for all the world like a Tom Petty imitation around 3:02, that seems even more likely.

“Change the Channel” is a song from the second Manwomanchild album, Awkward Island, which was released at the end of June. You can listen to the whole album via Bandcamp, and buy it there too, for just $5. Thanks to David for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Sea Span (glistening synth pop w/ a summery groove)

A glistening synth pop delight with a rock-solid core, “Tired of Winning” is one of those effortless-seeming songs that is not nearly as easy to put together as it looks, or sounds.

Sea Span

“Tired of Winning” – Sea Span

A glistening synth pop delight with a rock-solid core, “Tired of Winning” is one of those effortless-seeming songs that is not nearly as easy to put together as it looks, or sounds. It is also one of those songs that illustrates how central a singer’s voice is to the success or failure of the end result, a fact that is strangely overlooked at the indie rock level. By which I mean: there are way too many bands out there whose music I just can’t take seriously (sorry!) because the singer has a voice that I will simply call “unpleasant,” to cover an array of sins. And I don’t mean that a voice has to be as pretty as James Benjamin’s voice is here, with Sea Span, but I do mean that if you are singing in pursuit of some kind of public following your voice has to have some significant singerly qualities to it. Tom Waits is a great singer so, you know, I cast the net wide in terms of aural characteristics. Singers I can’t warm to are those without presence and/or without character and/or without a palpable sense of sonic purpose in their tone. More bands than you may realize disqualify themselves right there.

In the meantime, however, yes, Benjamin has a lovely voice used to lovely effect here, so much so that I can not only overlook the vocal manipulation I believe I’m hearing, I can (gasp) applaud its tasteful usage. And maybe that’s all I’ve been waiting for when it comes to auto-tune and related processing effects: for singers to learn to use them as honest sonic enhancements versus either cynical corrections or pandering nonsense. Here amid the summery groove and simple melodicism of “Tired of Winning,” whatever Benjamin is running his voice through adds to the ethereal momentum of the composition, furthering the song’s cause versus distracting from it. At least, to my ears.

“Tired of Winning” is the fifth of six singles that the Philadelphia-based Benjamin has released in 2016 under the name Sea Span. It came out in May. The first five singles are all available to listen to and purchase via Bandcamp; additionally, four of them, including the latest, “Refugees,” can be listened to and downloaded, for free, via SoundCloud. Thanks to the artist for the MP3. And note that the fact that I have previously been watching CSPAN all week and live here in Philadelphia has no bearing on my selection of this song at this exact time; and that rather than being tired of winning I am terrified of losing. But that’s probably another song.