Free and legal MP3: Shayfer James (theatrical, w/ bounce and menace)

Like a soundtrack to a malevolent carnival, “Weight of the World” is part bounce, part menace.

Shayfer James

“Weight of the World” – Shayfer James

Like a soundtrack to a malevolent carnival, “Weight of the World” is part bounce, part menace. Shayfer James has a theatrical baritone—rich and emotive, with a flair for phrasing; to enjoy this one you’ll have to be okay with a singer you can hear breathe and just about can see spit. But what the song may lack in subtlety it makes up for, I think, in exuberant catchiness. The swinging, syncopated chorus is all but irresistible, with its cavorting melody, inexorable chord progression, and those ghostly moans in the background.

Underneath it all James blends the cabaret and the barrelhouse with his vampy piano work. Even after all these years, tinkling authentic ivories remains a rare skill in rock’n’roll, and almost always lends a bit of show biz to the proceedings. Which I mean as a compliment, just to be clear.

James is a New Jersey-based singer/songwriter who actively cultivates the charismatic/mysterious rogue image—a kind of Tom Waits for the new millennium, complete with fedora. (His online bio labels him “the portrait of vagabond royalty.”) It’s a tricky posture for a youngster from the suburbs but he does have both unconventional family history (his oldest sibling is six years younger than his mother; long story) and impressive stage presence; there’s a good chance that if he sticks with it, he’ll grow into the part.

“Weight of the World” is the lead track on Counterfeit Arcade, an album James self-released at the end of November, his second full-length release. You can both listen to it and buy it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Barry Adamson (post-punk refugee w/ melodic grace)

A refugee from the heart of the U.K. post-punk scene, Adamson has a deep, reverberant voice but refuses to wallow in his own richness.

Barry Adamson

“Destination” – Barry Adamson

Melody has a built-in grace. This is why it works so well with allies—such as volume and density and drive—that do not have any inherent grace at all. Not to say that there is anything wrong with a song that is simply and only beautiful. But in the long run I believe we are enhanced by juxtapositions, blends, syntheses. Note for instance in your own lives how the most interesting people you know are likely those willing to roam beyond the comforts of one well-worn path. Songs can be the same way.

“Destination” is thick and gnarly from the get-go, and Adamson, a refugee from the heart of the U.K. post-punk scene, initially adds his portentous baritone in a speak-singing mode that magnifies the overall murk. But: you can hear the croon in his voice aching to get out at the end of each line, can’t you? And he unfurls it at last at 0:49; and now, without being quite sure how we got here, we are in the middle of a fabulous melody. Adamson has a deep, reverberant voice but he keeps things moving, avoiding the trap voices such as his often fall into in which they kind of wallow in their own richness. The vibe is brisk and crisp; we lose now the buzzing guitar and get a rollicking piano in its place. The piano, half-crazed, kind of steals the show shortly thereafter. It’s not where I expected the song to go but I like it. A lead guitar wrestles the spotlight the next time the chorus sweeps through but the piano returns to accompany the dense instrumental coda that closes out this oddly satisfying composition.

Adamson was bass player in the seminal British band Magazine through both its four original years and also in the 21st-century reunion (although he left the band before it recorded its long-awaited fifth album, this year). He played briefly in the Buzzcocks as well, and landed in the Bad Seeds with Nick Cave for a few years in the mid-’80s. Adamson released the first of eight smokey, adventurous solo albums in 1988 and has also worked since then on a number of film soundtracks. “Destination” is the first available track for an as-yet unnamed album set for release in 2012. MP3 once again via the resourceful Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Dark Dark Dark (warm & wistful, w/ captivating piano line)

With its tender, ear-opening piano motif and graceful, ruminative momentum, “Daydreaming” is fully engaging throughout its almost five-minute length, which is a relative rarity in 21st-century rock’n’roll.

Dark Dark Dark

“Daydreaming” – Dark Dark Dark

With its tender, ear-opening piano motif and graceful, ruminative momentum, “Daydreaming” is fully engaging throughout its almost five-minute length, which is a relative rarity in 21st-century rock’n’roll. (When aiming for some kind of pop, few songs of this length manage without some dead spots.) Singer/pianist Nona Marie Invie is front and center from the start, her haunted voice offering up plaintive phrases, surrounded by warm acoustic instrumentation.

What exactly we are hearing in the background becomes a bit of a mystery, however, as the song progresses. Beyond the piano and the percussion there’s an accordion involved, and, according to promotional material, a banjo (that could be what we hear briefly at around 0:20); band members are also known to play clarinet and trumpet, but I’m not sure either of those account for that sound we get for a moment or two at 1:17. Invie’s repeating piano refrain, with its recurring blue notes, remains at the song’s backbone, but listen to how the accompaniment grows increasingly tense and solid after the three-minute mark. Her singing is nearly overwhelmed by the ghostly wash of noise—a clamor that is tamed only by the second round of her incisive, swooping “oo-oo”s as the song draws to its wistful close with one more half-iteration of the captivating piano line.

“Daydreaming” is not a new song, but it has arrived newly in my inbox. It comes from the Minneapolis ensemble’s second full-length album, Wild Go, which was released on Supply and Demand Records in October 2010, and then in Europe and the UK in April 2011 on Melodic Records. Featuring as many as seven members at certain times, Dark Dark Dark is currently touring in a five-person format.

Free and legal MP3: Liam Singer (elegiac, piano-based, canon-like)

Solemn, piano-based composition with a whiff of the Renaissance about it. Liam Singer has a plaintive, Elliott Smith-like tenor, and pairs himself vocally here with Wendy Allen, of Boxharp, who sings an intricate counter-melody with the airy, earnest bearing of a traditional folk singer.

Liam Singer

“Winter Weeds” – Liam Singer

Solemn, piano-based composition with a whiff of the Renaissance about it. Liam Singer has a plaintive, Elliott Smith-like tenor, and pairs himself vocally here with Wendy Allen, of Boxharp, who sings an intricate counter-melody with the airy, earnest bearing of a traditional folk singer. The song they create together is both deliberate and hypnotic, with a canon-like melody that climbs and descends and circles and fits back together with itself without any apparent starting or end point, and no sense of chorus or verse.

The overall feel is elegiac; the lyrics are inscrutable but there is a strong sense of lament here, accentuated by the centuries-old sensibility working its way through this contemporary recording. The ear is not necessarily surprised, then, when a harpsichord joins in at 1:54. But my ear, in any case, is delighted by the wondrous series of slightly cockeyed ascending lines the instrument plays. The dusty, tinkly sound Baroque composers demanded of the instrument is summarily dismissed, and the world breathes a sigh of relief.

Born in Portland, Oregon and now living in Brooklyn, Singer studied musical composition at Kenyon College; his primary instrument was, yes, the harpsichord. He plays in a band called Devil Be Gone with Rob Hampton (formerly of Band of Horses) and also tours on keyboards with the Brooklyn-based Slow Six. “Winter Weeds” is from Singer’s third album, Dislocatia, to be released next month on Hidden Shoal Recordings, based in Perth, Australia. MP3 via Hidden Shoal.

Free and legal MP3: Saadi (hazy electro-pop w/ piano)

Saadi

“Pollen Seeking Bees” – Saadi

Sweet yet surprisingly sturdy bit of piano-driven electronic pop. The piano line is a two-finger special—I mean quite literally it sounds like two index fingers going at it—that is instantly likable because its seeming simplicity still generates a complex rhythmic bed. Or, alternatively, because it’s the same two notes that open “Friday On My Mind“—you decide.

Born in Syria, raised in Pittsburgh and Manhattan, Boshra AlSaadi got her rock’n’roll start in the band Looker, which was featured in January 2007 (strangely enough, the same week, again, as Arcade Fire). In that incarnation she was cooking in a punk-pop mode; here, on her own, with her name abridged, she simmers in a hazier, electro-ish setting, but her potent soprano keeps this from getting too noodly. She sings in the midst of a smeary, reverberant bath that kind of spreads her voice out but does not touch the rest of the aural space, which is kind of an interesting effect. Note how she keeps the lyrics close to the edge of comprehensibility except for the third verse (1:08), beginning (hmm) with “Images in pixels” and ending (hmm again) with “the fog is knee deep.” Mixing lyrics down is a common trick but I don’t know that I’ve often heard them come and go within one song. It surely pulls the ear in, like getting a suddenly clear clue on an obscure puzzle.

“Pollen Seeking Bees” is from a 12-inch vinyl EP entitled Bad Days that came out in March on Serious Business Records. The link to the free and legal MP3 only recently emerged on Largehearted Boy, which is where I first heard it. MP3 via Serious Business.

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Free and legal MP3: Efterklang (affecting blend of pop and classical)

“Modern Drift” – Efterklang

Beginning with compelling, quasi-minimalist piano lines, structured around two related melodic motifs, and brilliantly integrating strings and horns with electronics and percussion, “Modern Drift” is more composition than song. Consider this a good thing–a way of bringing some of classical music’s attractive complexity into pop music’s attractive brevity. Everybody wins. We just have to work on the fact that they only seem to be able to do this sort of thing in Scandinavia.

I suggest listening to this song four or five times in a row just to let it begin to make sense in a wordless way. But if you want some handholds through the process, I recommend keeping an ear on each instrument that makes an entrance after the original piano lines–the percussion, guitar, strings, horns, and electronics. Each interacts with the underlying piano spine in a particular way, and each will come front and center in the piece at a particular time–for instance, the way the guitar begins a complementary echo of the piano at 1:28, or the very satisfying horn punctuation we begin to hear at 1:47. And listen how the strings step forward at 2:27 and create an unexpected bridge to the electronics that start at 2:45, which in turn offer a beepier version of original piano line, but now it sounds like this is home, this is where it was leading. And then the electronics withdraw and leave the unusual–but, somehow, quite natural-sounding–combination of strings and drums to bring this dexterous and affecting piece to a close. Pay attention and you’ll also hear the guitar and piano return with background support.

Efterklang is a quartet from Copenhagen that has been active since 2001. The name is a Danish word that means both “reverberation” and “remembrance.” (Grieg, a Norwegian, once wrote a lyric piece for the piano called “Efterklang.”) “Modern Drift” is the opening track from the band’s third full-length album, Magic Chairs, which was released last month on the British label 4AD. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Shout Out Louds (unusually structured power pop)

Musically astute and thematically cohesive, “Walls” features an odd, almost discomfiting build-up. First, we get front man Adam Olenius singing over stark bass and drums accompaniment, the melody hard to discern. After the sparse, foreboding opening verse, a piano riff arrives to mix things up a bit but listen to how the bass note persists, and keeps the ear from sensing any resolution.

“Walls” – Shout Out Louds

Musically astute and thematically cohesive, “Walls” features an odd, almost discomfiting build-up. First, we get front man Adam Olenius singing over stark bass and drums accompaniment, the melody hard to discern. (I suggest paying attention to that bass note–a D, I believe–because it is not going away for a while.) After the sparse, foreboding opening verse, a piano riff arrives to mix things up a bit but listen to how the bass note persists, and keeps the ear from sensing any resolution.

The full band kicks in with a second verse, followed by the piano riff again, and then a third verse, and all the while, sure enough, the bass pounds that one same note. If you’re feeling a bit claustrophobic by now that’s why. Because of the intervening piano riff we may not quite realize we haven’t heard a chorus yet, but here we are, two minutes into the song, and nope, we haven’t. It feels as if the song has stayed in one chord this whole time. Then, at 2:15, we are released: the chorus arrives, almost transcendently, using the piano riff melody but now set free from the one-note bass anchor. The forcefully sung lyrics seem especially consequential in this setting, and we hear them now three times running because there are no more verses left. By 3:15, the song is done and it’s like we don’t really know what hit us. But it was good.

Shout Out Louds are a quintet from Sweden; “Walls” will be found on the album Work, their third, due out on Merge Records in February. MP3 via Merge.

Free and legal MP3: Soulsavers (Oldham channels Lanegan)

“Sunrise” began life as a real song–it was written by Mark Lanegan and was first heard back on his 1994 album Whiskey For The Holy Ghost–and in this incarnation features new performances by, among others, Will Oldham, who does the singing here.

“Sunrise” – Soulsavers

I’ll admit I have something of a mental block against music that emerges from so-called production and remix teams. Maybe it’s because I dislike remixes with such a pointless passion. But that’s just me and my bias towards song–I find music that’s so blatantly constructed (and re-constructed) to be odd and artificial at its core. And yet, here are Soulsavers, a production and remix duo from England, and I like this one quite a lot.

Then again, this is not just a laptop creation. “Sunrise” began life as a real song–it was written by Mark Lanegan and was first heard back on his 1994 album Whiskey For The Holy Ghost–and in this incarnation features new performances by, among others, Will Oldham, who does the singing here. (Lanegan, it should be noted, has been Soulsavers’ chief vocalist for the past two albums–2007’s It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Way You Land, and this year’s Broken.) In Soulsavers’ hands, “Sunrise” has become atmospheric in a gratifyingly swampy sort of way–we get a piano vamp, washes of cymbals, and a dirty-sounding harmonica, all rinsed through with reverb. And front and center we get Oldham singing with more rough-edged gravitas than he gives us in his more fragile Bonnie “Prince” Billy mode. He seems in fact to be doing an homage to Lanegan; this version of “Sunrise” sounds almost more Lanegan-y than the original, somehow, with its dark echoey groove and that killer harmonica, which replaces the sax heard in the original, to great effect.

Broken was released back in August, without a lot of fanfare, on Columbia. (Note how even now the big labels don’t know how to promote off-kilter projects.) “Sunrise” is actually a non-album single, released just prior to the CD.

Free and legal MP3: Land of Talk (powerful return of Fingertips fave)

“May You Never” – Land of Talk

Another song with an introduction that’s sparser and slower than the song it introduces, “May You Never” starts with spacey/chimey sounds, a semi-pentatonic piano riff, and some ultra echoey vocals from smudgy-voiced Lizzie Powell over a doleful kettle drum. It sounds all indie-mystical, but at 0:51 the beat kicks in, and the guitar grabs the piano’s motif so effectively that you see you’ve been set up all along. The song is sharp and powerful, and driven by Powell’s mysterious way with a melodic refrain.

This is Land of Talk’s third time on Fingertips, and it is apparently impossible for me to talk about them without mentioning Powell’s crazy-delicious guitar playing, so here I am again, telling you not only to tune in for the short but sizzling solo (at 2:00) but to keep your ears on what she’s up to in and around the rest of the song, including how she starts the coda with a literal bang (3:30) and ends it (if you listen carefully) with an echo of the song’s very first notes.

“May You Never” will be one of four tracks on the band’s forthcoming Fun and Laughter EP, slated to arrive next month via Saddle Creek. The band is meager with bio info, so I’m not sure how many people are playing with Powell at this point; the bigger news in any case is that she appears to be fully recovered from vocal cord surgery in January that sidelined her just when the band was geared up to promote their last CD. MP3 courtesy of Saddle Creek.

Free and legal MP3 from Amanda Palmer (Dresden Dolls’ singer goes solo, produced by Ben Folds)

“Astronaut” – Amanda Palmer

The smoky alto is back, likewise the melodramatic delivery and foreboding lyrics, but Amanda Palmer arrives this time without the Dresden Dolls, the self-proclaimed “Brechtian punk cabaret” duo of which she is half. The Dolls have a compelling sound, to be sure, but perhaps it was time to see what Palmer could do when freed of the band’s intriguing but restricted soundscape–an idea that so delighted Dresden Dolls’ fan Ben Folds that he actively sought the job of being Palmer’s producer for her solo debut.

And so the Foldsian piano pounding (by Palmer) that opens this, the album’s lead track, seems no accident, but neither does the Palmerian left turn the song takes after 20 seconds of it—with the strings still echoing off the soundboard, we dive into 40 seconds of brooding quiet, which announces that Palmer has not left her bravado in her “punk cabaret” kit bag. We lean in, we wonder exactly what she’s talking about (“Is it enough to have some love/Small enough to slip inside a book”), we get closer still and then bam, we get whacked on the head a second time, when the volume and beat return, at 1:02. “I am still not getting what I want,” she sings, a thematically charged line in Palmer’s oeuvre if ever there was one, as the song leaps back to life and soon picks up an unexpectedly welcoming bounce. When Palmer belts, her voice has this commanding way of sounding off-key and on the right note at the same time. She is in fact a very precise singer and writer; whether or not I get their meaning, her words are a rhythmic pleasure, scanning with a finesse not typically found in indie rock. And she even effects a musical climax based largely on the metric foot she employs, in the bridge that starts at 2:53, which sticks with a rat-a-tat trochaic meter (ONE-two, ONE-two, ONE-two etc.) until we are pretty much beaten into submission. It’s both an impressive display of lyrical discipline and a way of adding a driving anguish to the song below the level of consciousness.

The CD Who Killed Amanda Palmer was released earlier this fall on Roadrunner Records.