Free and legal MP3: The Van Allen Belt (off-kilter, extraterrestrial instrumental)

Cheery and off-kilter, a semi-angelic and vaguely extraterrestrial instrumental.

The Van Allen Belt

“Solar Crosses Stolen From Cemetery” – The Van Allen Belt

Why does this song attract me so? There seems a magnetic pull here. And there was me just a few weeks ago talking about how no one knows what to do with rock’n’roll instrumentals. This one is an entirely different animal than the Dirty Three song, arriving all cheery and off-kilter, semi-angelic and extraterrestrial (or at least Star Trekky), churning through the ether with its chimey, upturning melody. And yes, it’s not strictly speaking an instrumental in that there are vocals here, but they are wordless and choir-like. And so, to me, an instrumental. (Typically, the band does employ vocals with lyrics, via singer/multi-instrumentalist Tamar Kamin.)

The time signature—the ear-grabbing yet awkward 5/4—is central to its appeal. When the rare someone comes along who can harness 5/4’s freakishness into a flowing piece of music, we pay attention. And “Solar Crosses” does it without relying on any kind of swing or in-between beats that 5/4 and 7/4 songs often employ to sound agreeable. What we get instead is a straightforward five count and an open-ended chord progression that gives the melody an Escher-like sense of climbing ever upward. There is no time to catch one’s breath, the music just keeps piling on itself, with bonus flourishes and fluctuations along the way. I like the four-second, two-chord guitar burst at 1:37 and the factory-like drumbeat that takes over at 1:50, to name two.

The Van Allen Belt is a four-person experimental ensemble from Pittsburgh featuring music written and produced by Benjamin K. Ferris. Ferris began writing avant-garde material in the late ’90s and the band coalesced through the ’00s into its current lineup. Everything about the outfit’s background and music is too complicated to sum up succinctly; even their discography (two full-lengths and one EP to date) is muddled by the fact that the EP and their most recent album were released on the same day in January 2010. Their titles are generally too long to mention. “Solar Crosses” has a similarly involved back story, being a song featured on one of four seasonal compilations released in 2008 on the Vancouver label Peppermill Records. Bands participating had seven days to record a song, the title of which had to be taken from a headline in the news that week. (There’s more to it than that but I’m running out of space.) How it came to my attention here in 2012 is yet more complication, plus a dollop of serendipity. Let’s just be happy it did. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: New Shouts (neo-’60s garage-soul, retro-y & proud)

Here we have a splendid garage-soul groove harkening astutely back to the proto-white-boy-soul of a group like the Soul Survivors (best known for “Expressway To Your Heart,” non-coincidentally enough).

New Shouts

“The Reins To Your Heart” – New Shouts

Above and beyond the financial problems introduced by the digital distribution of music, many hands have been wrung over cultural problems unleashed at the same time. A flood of virtual ink has been spilled this year, as an example, on a complaint voiced by the critic Simon Reynolds, in his book Retromania, which among other things is about how the relentless presence of the past, digitally speaking, has led to a state in which we don’t allegedly have a genuine, current-day culture, just an ongoing regurgitation of bygone stylings.

There are so many things that strike me as wrong with this complaint; probably time for an essay. In the meantime, I go back to one of Fingertips’ founding mottoes: listen with your ears, not your mind. The idea that music has to be stylistically “different” is a mental construct. To my ears, music can be different by simply being good. So, is a song like “The Reins To Your Heart” representative of some kind of new, 2010-ish musical style? Not a bit. Does this mean it can’t be good or that we are somehow culturally poorer because the Pittsburgh foursome New Shouts recorded it? Of course not. It’s a good song! Yes, its garage-soul groove harkens back to the proto-white-boy-soul of a group like the Soul Survivors (best known for “Expressway To Your Heart,” non-coincidentally enough). Why can’t a good song sound familiar? Why can’t it remind you of another good song?

To harp on stylistic similarities is to overlook other factors that make music both pleasing and emotionally resonant. I always start with melody, because that’s me. “The Reins To Your Heart” is one of those lucky songs that begins with its hook—a smartly constructed melody (beginning at 0:11, right out of that pleasantly clangy introduction) in which the first half traces a descending B minor chord, the second an ascending A minor chord. Comprised only of the three notes from these two adjacent chords, the melody has a natural swing, running down and up those third intervals, while likewise feeling solid and primal, the aural equivalent of a three-legged stool. And the chorus is no slouch either, affording the song a second and maybe even third hook (this is also one of the those lucky songs with more than one solid hook), via the “Baby, please believe me” segment, with its group lead vocal and classic-soul vibe, leading up to that unerring, off-the-beat response line, “I want you back.” We’ve heard all of this before. So what? It gives me that deep inner smile I get when I know the music is working. Retromania has nothing to tell me, or you, about that.

“The Reins To Your Heart” is the lead track from New Shouts’ first non-single release, the seven-song EP Sing New Shouts, which was self-released in September via Bandcamp.