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.

Free and legal MP3: Work Drugs (irresistible chillwave, w/ guitar solo)

Just about as irresistible as chillwave comes.

Work Drugs

“Chase the Night” – Work Drugs

Recycling the slick grooves of the late ’70s and early ’80s through 21st-century digital noodling has given birth to an entire (sort of) genre which has in recent years been as cutting-edge hip in pop music circles as the original music had been deemed hopelessly passé for a good 20 years or more. Funny that.

But there’s no denying the allure of this stuff, and “Chase the Night” strikes me just about as irresistible as chillwave comes. Equal parts sultry beat and soaring melody, the song transcends the genre’s robotic drift via some canny songwriting chops: both the verse and the chorus have two distinct sections, the second in each case building on the first in subtle but ear-grabbing ways. In the case of the verse, the melody changes from ascending to descending at the midway point and now comes at us in double time (0:30); the chorus, meanwhile, likewise goes double-time about halfway through, adding a lower-register counter-melody (1:03) after opening more anthemically.

And the boys of Work Drugs aren’t done there. We get a short, foggy bridge that floats near a kind of vocal manipulation that tips its hat towards commercial pop, but fades as quickly and curiously as it arose, and then leads into the song’s last two, disarming sections: first (2:35), the chorus, now presented in a new, minimal setting that accentuates the appeal of both the melody and of the human voices singing it; second (2:55), an out-of-the-blue, honest-to-goodness guitar solo, which sounds beautifully in context even as it was the last thing I might have expected. (Repeat listens to the song have since revealed a guitar hiding in plain sight in the back of the mix in the chorus, but without the closing solo, I’d never have picked it out.)

Work Drugs is the bizarrely prolific Philadelphia-based duo of Thomas Crystal and Ben Louisiana. They have been recording since 2011, and their forthcoming album, Louisa, will be their seventh full-length. I’m not even sure how that happens. The band performs live as a five-piece. “Chase the Night” is from Louisa, and can be downloaded as an MP3 in the usual method, above, or you can visit the band’s SoundCloud page and grab it there as a higher-definition .wav file. Lots of other songs available there as well. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Folklore (clattery, melodic lo-fi rocker, w/ a back story)

With its Neutral Milk Hotel echoes, “The Party” is a squeaky bouncy clattery lo-fi rocker, full of momentum and noise, and an appealing melodic through-line.

Folklore

“The Party” – Folklore

There is a hyper-obscure element that has been unleashed upon the musical landscape by the internet. It’s not often commented upon because by nature, the hyper-obscure is either ignored or it’s totally embraced, and the two groups involved—the many who ignore it, the few who embrace it—never much talk to each other. By hyper-obscure I mean music that is so far down its own hole musically or lyrically (or both) that it doesn’t begin to try to explain itself to an outsider. Pre-internet record labels, whether major or independent, were rarely in the business of releasing the hyper-obscure, if only because such projects never look to be brisk sellers. Now that a) traditional gatekeepers are no longer needed to produce and distribute music, and b) musicians aren’t even necessarily trying to sell anything, the ground is fertile for the hyper-obscure. To which I say: yikes.

On the one hand, I admire musicians so committed to their own visions that they just create this stuff, independent of efforts to explain themselves. On the other hand, far too often, either the music or the lyrics (or both) frustrate any outside effort to approach it. Which is a nice way of saying this stuff is typically unlistenable. The payoff can be big—look to the (pre-MP3) brilliance of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea for a powerful example. But, I fear, most musicians drawn down that path are not quite so brilliant.

I don’t equate “The Party” to Aeroplane (although NMH fans will hear some resonance here), but its squeaky bouncy clattery presence, full of lo-fi momentum and noise, combines with a melodic through-line that proves irresistible to me. So irresistible, in fact, that I ignored/didn’t hear lyrics such as “There’s someone at the party getting everyone pregnant/Then mutating his shape and being impregnated.” “The Party,” it turns out, is from a concept album called Home Church Road, which, according to press material, tells “the epic story of a future Earth after human extinction.” We are urged to listen to it in its entirety but here’s an abiding conundrum of hyper-obscure music: it requires a commitment of time and attention prior to the musician having proved him- or herself worthy of said time and attention. Front man and Folklore mastermind Jimmy Hughes—more well-known as a member of the Elephant 6-rooted Athens band Elf Power—has a fertile imagination to be sure, but so do a lot of us. I’m more sold on his musical muscle than his storytelling but I will admit I have yet to listen to the album straight through. That’s another conundrum of the age: all of this music unleashed upon us and still (last I checked) only 24 hours in a day.

This song, however, is definitely worth three minutes or so of your time. Home Church Road was released in June on Single Girl Married Girl Records. Folklore, by the way, while born in Athens, has become a Philadelphia-based “mini-orchestra,” with seven joining Hughes in its northern iteration, and six others still on the roster down in Georgia.

Free and legal MP3: The Extraordinaires (wry rocker w/ old-timey, theatrical feel)

With the oompah feel of a music-hall standard, “The Big Show” dresses its quizzical take on 21st-century life in a ramshackle aural stew as musically charming as it is lyrically caustic.

The Extraordinaires

“The Big Show” – The Extraordinaires

With the oompah feel of a music-hall standard, “The Big Show” dresses its quizzical take on 21st-century life in a ramshackle aural stew as musically charming as it is lyrically caustic. Look no further than the opening salvo to see what we’re in for:

We say it like it’s true then watch it put down its roots
And blossom from the gossip into truth
We’re in the weeds up to our knees
It’s hard to tell the poison from the fruit

The chorus, meanwhile, has an uncomfortable resonance with the news we’ve been watching this week:

Look out below
The whole damn thing’s about to blow
Gone are all the good days but hey
At least we get to watch the show

We’ve got here a corollary to the happy music/sad lyrics phenomenon that pop can handle like no other kind of music—this is more like comic music/tragic lyrics but the underlying incongruity is the same, as well as the appeal. Singer Jay Purdy has the air of a mischievous master of ceremonies, and a voice somewhat resembling John Linnell from They Might Be Giants. Which adds to the whimsical vibe. Oh and be sure not to miss the last 40 seconds, which sounds as if we have landed in a cartoon. All we need to top it off is Porky Pig saying “Th-th-th-at’s all, folks!”

The Extraordinaires began as a duo in South Philly in 2004. They had expanded to a quartet by 2007, and in 2010 solidified into a five-man band. They have previously released albums that were produced as books bound in masonite (think of what a clipboard is made of; that’s it). “The Big Show” is a song from the band’s new three-song EP, Postcards, released on the Philadelphia-based label Punk Rock Payroll.

Free and legal MP3: Arches (spacious music, w/ swing & hesitation)

One more twosome in what has inadvertently turned out to be “duo week” here. Of the three, Philadelphia’s Arches may be the least-likely-sounding band-that’s-only-two-people of all, because of how spacious this music is.

Arches

“This Isn’t a Good Night For Walking” – Arches

One more twosome in what has inadvertently turned out to be “duo week” here. Of the three, Philadelphia’s Arches may be the least-likely-sounding band-that’s-only-two-people of all, because of how spacious this music is. The song is long by Fingertips’ standards—six and a half minutes—but hang with it. The length is part of the space. So of course is the reverb. But there’s more to it than that; the time the song takes to unfold and the echoey ambiance don’t create the space as much as model it. There’s something large and unhurried in the air here, a sense that the music needs the time it’s taking, if that makes any sense.

A concrete symbol of this need for space is the band’s use of hesitation throughout the song, both figuratively and literally. What I mean by “figurative” hesitation you can hear right away in the back-and-forth guitar chords employed in the introduction (and throughout), which pivot on one whole-step interval. On a piano this would be played by your index and middle finger, alternating in an even rhythm—which, if you think about what that looks like, is a gesture of waiting (the idle, or sometimes impatient, tapping of those two fingers). The sound sounds like it. Literal hesitation otherwise suffuses “This Isn’t A Good Night For Walking,” in everything from how the keyboards swing slightly behind the beat to the subtle way the back-and-forth chords get microscopically delayed as the song develops (say, at around 1:38), to how the five-note keyboard motif we hear in the foreground at 4:07 gets held up maybe a split second with each recurring statement. And then there’s the grandest hesitation of all: the way the lyrics disappear just past the halfway point, only after which the song takes us to its musical climax: a dramatic, strangely satisfying guitar-led iteration of the song’s verse.

“This Isn’t A Good Night For Walking” is the first available song from a forthcoming, yet-untitled album that Arches hopes to release before year’s end. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3: N’T (concise & chuggy electro-glam[?])

A concise, chuggy piece of electro-glam (or some such thing), “Good Karma” is one of those songs with a moment—a precise juncture at which the ear surrenders to the music, and everything is okay with the world.

N'T

“Good Karma” – N’T

A concise, chuggy piece of electro-glam (or some such thing), “Good Karma” is one of those songs with a moment—a precise juncture at which the ear surrenders to the music, and everything is okay with the world. An effective moment, repeated each time it comes up (typically in a chorus but not always), extends its blessing both forward and backward, granting a kind of giddy grace to an entire song.

The (now that I think about it) appropriately titled “Good Karma” has its moment beginning at around 1:01, in the second half of the chorus, when Scott French, N’T’s mastermind, sings, “Don’t freak out,” with the “out” stretched to three syllables, describing a descending line equivalent to sol-fa-mi in the familiar do-re-mi scale. This is a basic and eminently satisfying progression, but any effort I attempted (and now edited out) to explain why became quickly labored and complicated. Music is much simpler than words. Listen and smile.

French drums and writes songs for the Philadelphia band the Swimmers; as N’T—apparently we are to say “N apostrophe T”—he has issued an album called The Color Code, which he wrote, recorded, mixed, mastered, etc., by himself. It was self-released last month. You can download the album via his bandcamp page, for whatever price you’d like to pay. Thanks to Scott for letting me host this one.

Free and legal MP3: Buried Beds (upbeat, off-kilter, semi-Beatlesque)

Buried Beds

“Breadcrumb Trail” – Buried Beds

So we already knew that Eliza Jones (nee Hardy) has one sweet voice. Buried Beds was featured here in 2006 for the gorgeous, melancholy “Camellia,” and her pure-toned but lived-in presence gave a beautiful song extra depth and meaning.

This time, the band cranks and swings and bashes around a bit, orchestrally speaking, all in the service of some upbeat but slightly off-kilter, semi-Beatlesque pop. It’s less obvious than last time but I think the song still revolves around Jones; she’s a powerful singer, without having to belt or bray to demonstrate command. Her prowess is on display instead in subtle moments, like the way she drags the phrase “He can’t find the man he was” behind the peppy beat (0:14) or the abruptly delicate manner in which she delivers the song’s interesting punchline at 2:29.

Buried Beds is a five-piece from Philadelphia, where the band stays active on stage even as the recordings have been few and far between. “Breadcrumb Trail” is from the band’s just-released second album, Tremble the Sails. MP3 via the band’s site. Thanks to Bruce at Some Velvet Blog for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: The Roots (terrific reworking of MOF tune)

The Roots

“Dear God 2.0” – the Roots

That’s Jim James (ok, Yim Yames) at the beginning and it’s the same “Dear God” as appeared on the Monsters of Folk album—that is, until the Roots’ Black Thought takes over. (I like, by the way, how long he waits. This is a confident band. And check out that great “Uh-huh” with which he starts his rap after James, both times.) I don’t think you have to be a big hip-hop fan (lord knows I have no expertise in the area) to sense the glory in this performance. The voice rumbles more with weariness than anger, or even pain; words tumble out but with great discipline; thoughts pile onto thoughts almost haphazardly but stark themes emerge; and—nimble trick, this—words that don’t really rhyme are made to sound better than if they did. (e.g. “Why is the world ugly when you made it in your image?/And why is living life such a fight to the finish?”) And everything floating on top of a jazz-informed soul groove, soft but persuasive, with some really sweet chord progressions, if you wait and listen for them.

And listen, I know the distance I tend to keep from hip-hop is a generational thing. I find it hard to warm to music without melody and (often) without a lot of actual instruments, and hard to warm to vocalists who seem to all want to sound the same, not to mention lyrical content that often seems so bleak and short-sighted. But never mind all that right now. This song’s the real deal, and so is this band.

“Dear God 2.0” is from the Roots’ new album How I Got Over, due out next week on Def Jam. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3: Adam Arcuragi (quirky acoustic strummer, w/ trumpets)

“She Comes to Me” – Adam Arcuragi

At once relaxed and intent, “She Comes to Me” is an instantly likable, subtly quirky acoustic strummer. And you should know that I don’t have a lot of patience for run-of-the-mill acoustic strummers, which strike me by and large as a little, shall we say, boring. Despite what you might hear being aired on those they-mean-well-but-they’re-really-sometimes-kind-of-dreadful “triple A” radio stations, songs are not good or wise or sensitive just because someone’s playing an acoustic guitar and has an evocative voice.

“She Comes to Me” is good and wise and sensitive because it has movement and energy, because it’s easy to listen to but difficult to pin down, because it is both aurally and structurally complex without being messy or silly. Unlike countless writers of run-of-the-mill acoustic strummers, Arcuragi here gives us a continually interesting melody, based on refreshing chord changes that don’t seem to follow a predictable pattern. The melody is in fact somewhat hard to follow at first, but not in the least off-putting or strained. The typical acoustic strummer is a more lockstep affair, with easy to digest, regularly repeating chords and a plain–if not outright predictable–melody. Another worthy point of differentiation is Arcuragi’s willingness to expand the instrumental palette beyond acoustic guitar, even as the acoustic guitar remains at the song’s aural center. I particularly like the choir-like harmonies and the high-profile trumpets that are at once unexpected and exactly right.

Adam Arcuragi is a singer-songwriter born in Atlanta, now based in Philadelphia. “She Comes to Me” is from his second full-length CD, I Am Become Joy, released in June on High Two Records. MP3 via High Two. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Free and legal MP3: Evening Magazine (a big ensemble w/ capacity to stay quiet)

“Apple Eye” – Evening Magazine

Marrying an old-fashioned “sound of Philadelphia” sweep to 21st-century electronics and indie-rock flavorings, Evening Magazine makes music that shouldn’t probably work but in this case does, however idiosyncratically. A nine-piece collective from (yes) Philadelphia, the band is led by guitarist/vocalist David Disbrow (formerly of the band BC Camplight) and engineer Kevin Francis (who plays synths too), and features a trumpeter, trombonist, flutist, and harpist, among others. For all the colorful instrumentation, the band doesn’t feel the need to fill in all the aural blanks. As a singer, Disbrow has a somewhat fragile presence, and the music gives him space to establish this presence; in fact, he usually isn’t singing on top of much more here than an acoustic guitar and a drumbeat. The arrangement is reminiscent of classical music, which is more willing than rock to explore dynamics via having instruments just stop playing for a while. Rock musicians, if they’re holding an instrument, they want to play it pretty much constantly.

What makes it all work for me is nothing more complicated than a pleasing melodic interval. Actually, a relationship of intervals. After the relaxed, horn-driven intro, the melody in the verse, itchier, finds Disbrow singing a rapid-fire series of tones. Staying on the first note for six or seven iterations, he slips down just a half-step for four syllables and then up five steps of the scale for the last three. Disbrow sounds particularly fragile at the top of the leap—so much so that the note, while actually the tonic of the scale, the home base, sounds unresolved, just a bit off, adding to the muted urgency of the ambiance fostered by that half-step-down, big-leap-up combination.
     “Apple Eye” is the lead track off the band’s debut EP, The Ride Across Lake Constance, released this month on Ohso Records, which appears to be the band’s own imprint. Thanks to the band for the MP3.