Free and legal MP3: Billy the Zombie Kid (unabashed pop, ear-pleasing craft)

Every now and then a song comes along that’s as shiny and pop-saturated as can be and, somehow, all the things that bug the shit out of me when it comes to a lot of 21st-century pop just melt away.

Billy the Zombie Kid

“Golden Rainbows/Diamonds in the Fire” – Billy the Zombie Kid

Every now and then a song comes along that’s as shiny and pop-saturated as can be and, somehow, all the things that bug the shit out of me when it comes to a lot of 21st-century pop just melt away. It’s often kind of a mystery but with “Golden Rainbows/Diamonds in the Fire” let’s see if we can puzzle out why.

To begin with, the cold a capella opening is not only a nice touch but quickly demonstrates some harmonic sophistication—take a listen to how that wordless countermelody snakes around the main melody, complicating what you’re hearing so that you are given the song’s central hook while also having it partially hidden. This allows it later to feel both familiar and new at the same time.

When the song kicks in (0:18), we get an upbeat dance vibe, but only sort of: there’s something patient and easygoing in the air, despite the beat, a feeling reinforced by those measured, four-note synth lines that we hear before the vocals start, with their sly three-notes-off-the-beat rhythm. The ongoing sensation that a little more is going on here than standard-issue pop is reaffirmed by that little wah-wah comment we first hear at 0:42—entirely unnecessary and as a result indicative of a guiding intelligence that isn’t just about formula and expectation.

Before we are led at last back to the big hook of the chorus, we are set up at 0:52 by a pre-chorus that adheres more or less to one note and stays almost completely on the beat. This, to my ears, makes all the more satisfying the incisive melodic leaps of the chorus, as well as its adroit alternation between two measures of singing on the beat and two off the beat. And I don’t mean to make too much of this on/off-the-beat distinction, but in the context of 21st-century pop music, which has been simplified and compressed into oblivion, I applaud any evidence of ear-pleasing songwriting craft. And applaud even further any pop song that saves room for a serious guitar solo (2:48, don’t miss it!).

Billy the Zombie Kid is a four-piece band from Borlänge, Sweden, an industrial town 130 or so miles north and west of Stockholm. The band began in 2013 as an unnamed solo project from singer/guitarist Stefan Altzar. Acquiring members and a name over the course of the year, Billy the Zombie Kid released four songs online in 2014, began playing locally, and started recording in earnest in the latter part of 2015. The end result is the album entitled We’re Always Right, which was released on the label Alternative Alien Baby in July 2016. You can listen to the whole thing and download it for free via SoundCloud. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Two Wounded Birds (brisk, unironic rock’n’roll, w/ pure pop appeal)

No electronic trickery, thematic gimmickry, or theatrical tomfoolery; rock’n’roll with an unironic heart of pure pop.

Two Wounded Birds

“To Be Young” – Two Wounded Birds

“To Be Young” is so insidiously appealing that anything that might cause some possible trouble here (copping half a melody from the Pretenders “Don’t Get Me Wrong”; intermittently affected vocal style) is neutralized by the soaring success of its pure pop songiness.

A deep-noted guitar lick both launches and anchors the piece. Note how swiftly the music moves even as the lyrics take their time; both in the verse and the chorus there are at least two brisk measures of music between every single lyrical line. This creates a built-in anticipation for each subsequent line—as listeners, we kind of lean in, waiting. This kind of structural delayed gratification is reinforced by melodies that deliver their payoff on the back end. For instance, the verse hook (or, maybe, not so much a hook as a “moment”) is the repeated melody at the end of the line (in the first verse (0:34), it’s the same lyric too: “My head don’t feel right”). In the chorus, as much as the ear is lured in by the opening salvo (“It’s too early”), the song, to my ears, triumphs by nailing the landing, as it were—with the lines “‘Cause we were young/And hopeless,” with that slightly hesitant melisma on the word “young,” the notes of which repeat on “hopeless,” and the music separating them out while we wait, and wait, for the resolution. This comes, actually, only with the transition back to the verse. The song moves on, briskly.

Two Wounded Birds are a quartet from Margate, in the UK. They have previously released an EP and a couple of singles. “To Be Young” is from the band’s self-titled debut album, set for release in June on the Holiday Friends Recording Co., a label co-founded by Jacob Graham of the Drums and now part of the French Kiss Records family. MP3 via Austin Town Hall.

Free and legal MP3: Kate Miller-Heidke (too pop for indie, too indie for pop)

With its classic chord progression, well-timed instrumental variation, and quick-witted lyrical salvos,”The Tiger Inside Will Eat the Child” is artfully designed for heavy rotation on radio stations that don’t exist.

Kate Miller-Heidke

“The Tiger Inside Will Eat the Child” – Kate Miller-Heidke

Unabashed pop, but pop in the old-fashioned sense of smartly-constructed, brightly produced, knowledgeably melodic music, sung by actual voices, rather than what pop has at least temporarily become on 21st-century Top 40 radio. With its classic chord progression, well-timed instrumental variation, and quick-witted lyrical salvos,”The Tiger Inside Will Eat the Child” is artfully designed for heavy rotation on radio stations that don’t exist.

That seems to be Kate Miller-Heidke’s niche, in fact. Her 2008 album Curiouser (not released in the U.S. until 2010) landed her likewise in a North American netherworld of being too pop for indie and too indie for pop—an album full of crisp, smart, entertaining nuggets of catchy-quirky goodness. In her native Australia, it went all the way up to number two on the album chart, but here it pretty much disappeared without a trace.

This time around, Miller-Heidke, working as always with husband/guitarist/collaborator Keir Nuttall, has veered into beat-heavy, electro-pop territory—a different-enough offering that in Australia this was released as a “side project” entitled Fatty Gets a Stylist. Here in the U.S. it’s being marketed as a Kate Miller-Heidke album called Liberty Bell, even though Nuttall is heard singing in the foreground more than previously. Miller-Heidke herself has adopted a more clipped, less idiosyncratic singing style than she’s used in the past. A conservatory-trained singer, she let her voice swoop and quaver most charmingly on Curiouser, when the song called for it. This time, she pretty much reigns that in, except maybe a bit in the album’s lead track, the ear-wormy “Are You Ready,” which New York residents may recognize from a widely seen commercial for the state lottery. (The commercial strikes me as a stretch, and successful largely because of the song itself, so for the curious, I offer up KMH’s official video rather than the ad; see below.) “Tiger Inside” isn’t as electro-poppy as some of the album’s other songs; there’s actually a nice assortment of guitar sounds to be had here. But also lots of electronic hand claps.

Miller-Heidke has been featured on Fingertips twice before—in March ’10 and in July ’05. Liberty Bell was released in the U.S. last month on the SIN/Sony Music Australia label.