Free and legal MP3: Denver (country roots, both laid back & incisive)

With its ambling backbeat and lonesome pedal steel guitar,”The Way It Is” has the spacious, laid-back authority of some ’70s piece of pre-Americana.

Denver

“The Way It Is” – Denver

With its ambling backbeat and lonesome pedal steel guitar,”The Way It Is” has the spacious, laid-back authority of some ’70s piece of pre-Americana. Which we might as well just call country. At the same time, it manages an incisiveness that is almost unsettling; you just don’t expect a song with this kind of scruffy, dirty-booted ambiance to be focused enough to finish up under three minutes. Denver pulls off this magic trick by forsaking the instrumental break, and just sticking to the musical facts: melody, accompaniment, and weary, achy-hearted singing.

“The Way It Is” launches off an smooth, two-chord vamp, Neil Young-ish in character. As with the Hermit Crabs song above, the verse is a succinct two lines; in this case, however, it leads into a chorus that is fat with resolution, using a descending bass line to anchor a determined series of classic chords. The melody takes one solid step up and tumbles incrementally down a satisfying perfect fifth. The lyrics, meanwhile, blaze with unpretentious majesty, if I haven’t managed to coin a double or triple oxymoron: “There’s things in the world that I know nothing about,” laments the song’s narrator, without pity, “And that’s just the way it is.” You and me both, pal.

Denver is named more for feeling than geography; the six-man band is actually based in Portland, and features three guys from Alela Diane’s band Wild Divine, including Diane’s husband Tom Bevitori and two from Blitzen Trapper. (Diane and band were featured together here in March 2011.) Five others are said to “rotate” through the lineup. The band’s debut album was recorded and engineered at the home of a friend’s mother—“Drums in the living room, singer in the bedroom, four-track cassette recorder, cases of beer, whiskey, sandwiches and a sunny porch,” is how band co-founder Birger Olsen has described it. The self-titled album was released in mid-August on Portland-based Mama Bird Recording Co.

Free and legal MP3: Pure Bathing Culture (sweet & unhurried, w/ sneaky depth)

“Ivory Coast” floats along on a gentle bed of guitar and percussion, in an atmosphere at once muddy and lucid.

Pure Bathing Culture

“Ivory Coast” – Pure Bathing Culture

Sweet, unhurried, and reverby, “Ivory Coast” floats along on a gentle bed of guitar and percussion, its purposeful melody sung with an engaging mix of muddiness and clarity. The verse opens with singer Sarah Versprille sounding a bit far back in the mix, but harmonies added in the second half of the line (0:17) seem to sharpen her presence even as the vocal layers remain kind of blurry and indistinct. That’s kind of a cool trick, actually.

Another cool trick: the verse’s opening melody is seven measures long, an unusual and ear-catching length. The melody then repeats, this time in ten measures, another unusual length. This isn’t anything you will necessarily be aware of, but it adds to the song’s depth and character. In the chorus, we get a twist not only on length of melody (five measures this time) but with time signature, as one measure of six beats is inserted, coinciding with the song’s defining chord change (first heard at 0:54-0:56). With the elusive air of a major-minor alternation, the chord change is concise and melodramatic, and yet comes and goes with an insouciance that almost makes you feel as if you didn’t hear it right. And speaking of chord changes, another signature moment is a chord change added to the second line in the second verse, at 1:33. It comes and goes quickly, but leaves a penetrating aftertaste. This is one artful song.

Versprille and band mate Daniel Hindman became Pure Bathing Culture upon moving from New York City to Portland in early 2011. They played their first show in January 2012. “Ivory Coast” is from the duo’s debut, self-titled EP, which was released this week on Father/Daughter Records. And to show you how well-crafted this song is, check out the simple, acoustic, un-reverby version the two of them perform for the music site Natural Beardy:

Free and legal MP3: Laura Gibson (galloping, mysterious old-timey shuffle)

An old-timey shuffle, all whip and ghost and gallop, rendered yet old-timier by Gibson’s throwback voice and a variety of sounds and effects that conjure a 78 RPM vibe.

Laura Gibson

“La Grande” – Laura Gibson

An old-timey shuffle, all whip and ghost and gallop, rendered yet old-timier by Gibson’s throwback voice and a variety of sounds and effects that conjure a 78 RPM vibe.

But the song moves, and the words spill out, concrete and inscrutable, and we seem to be nowhere as much as in last night’s dream—fresh and spirited and beyond the reach of conscious scrutiny. Maybe it’s the rolling tom-tom beat, which has the air of something at once visceral and hypnotic; we feel both out on a dusty plain and somewhere beyond literal sight. Gibson is singing about “the old sugar mill” and the “bone-white clay” and boots and spurs and burning sage and somehow the more nouns with which she constructs her songscape the less we have to grab onto. It’s a marvelous effect I’ve never been able to figure out whenever encountering songwriters who employ it, and this may be less because it is literally mysterious than figuratively so. That is to say, I could probably stop and puzzle the song out but it really doesn’t seem to want us to. At its best, music enters us through our non-thinking centers, and occasionally we meet songs that remind us, via sidelong glances and echoey absences, that we do not have to understand them.

Gibson is a singer/songwriter from Portland, Oregon. “La Grande” is the title track to her fifth album, due out in January on Barsuk Records. La Grande is also the name of a small town in northeastern Oregon, along I-84, and which for inscrutable reasons seems to have served as an inspiration for the album. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3: Sunbeam (assured ensemble pop from Portland septet)

Sunbeam is a six-person ensemble, and you can hear the depth of musical contribution in the song’s assured, layered flow.

Sunbeam

“Bulldogs” – Sunbeam

By all appearances breezy and unassuming, “Bulldogs” has a rock-solid core. A new band from Portland, Sunbeam is a six-person ensemble, and you can hear the depth of musical contribution in the song’s assured, layered flow. Six people in a band sounds like a lot on the one hand, but many rock songs do indeed feature at least six distinct instrumental sounds: electric guitar, acoustic guitar, keyboard, bass, drums, and percussion. For practical and logistical reasons, most bands make do with three to five members, doubling up on instruments (typically of course the drummer plays percussion too) and/or bringing in outside players.

So the larger band does not require a larger or more complicated sound, but it does change the vibe in elusive but meaningful ways. A song can, as here, feel at once brisk and relaxed, as it makes room not simply for its sounds but for the people who make the sounds. Separating the drummer from the percussionist has a notable impact. I also like the purposeful way the electric guitar is used—not as a background noise producer but as quiet foreground texture. And then there are horns (oops! a seventh sound, and eighth: two horns), which blend into the fabric of the song without any “now listen to the cool horn part” posturing. (Horns are both played here by an outsider, but the band has since added a trumpet player to the fold.) In the end, for all the extraverted appearance of being played by a larger ensemble, “Bulldogs” has an appealing introversion about it, which is embodied in Brian Hall’s sweetly yearning vocal style but plays out too in the restraint of the arrangement and, even, in the recurring wordless vocal/keyboard hook that in the intro sounded like a throwaway but as it returns acquires a lovely centrality, and will probably be the thing that sticks in your head most of all.

“Bulldogs” is fifth on the band’s 10-track debut album, Sunbeam & the Lovely Ghost, which was self-released earlier this month. You can buy it for a price of your choosing at Sunbeam’s Bandcamp page. MP3 via the band.

Free and legal MP3: Firs of Prey (odd but lovable)

Eccentric vocalizing, offbeat song structure, unorthodox instrumentation—“What You Say” has it going on, oddball-wise.

Firs of Prey

“What You Say” – Firs of Prey

Eccentric vocalizing, offbeat song structure, unorthodox instrumentation—“What You Say” has it going on, oddball-wise. Long before the trombones descend (that would be around 1:53), this song has little that might be identifiable as “normal,” little that sounds like a hook, and yet, go figure, it manages to grab the ear quickly and hangs on for dear life. There really is, even after all these years, much more that people might be doing with what is loosely called rock’n’roll than people tend to do.

Of course it’s easy enough simply to be odd. I hear plenty of odd, day to day. To my particular kind of musical preference, oddness, however potentially enticing, is never enough by itself; as a matter of fact, oddness is a special kind of attractive characteristic in that it is inherently not attractive at all. Once committing to being odd, a song has to double back on actual goodness to be worth one’s time as a listener, it seems to me. Andrew Miller, the low-profile mastermind behind Firs of Prey, doubles back and then some. The minimalist soundscape he creates sets the stage—a deep, unadorned tribal drumbeat combining with a wordless vocal melody, layered in wacky harmony is not your everyday intro. New elements are eventually woven in: the aforementioned trombones, delightfully off the beat; a layer of lower-register vocal harmonies; a pulsing, bubbling keyboard down below; and a suddenly appearing electric guitar, speaking with splendid clarity in this otherwise guitar-free zone.

Firs of Prey, based in Portland, has released one EP to date, 2009’s Keep the Lions Asleep. “He is known for doing things like being tall, speaking really loud and hugging people too hard,” Miller says, of himself, on the sparsely informative Firs of Prey site. “He hopes to one day live in a Lighthouse.” Miller is also in the band Datura Blues, which has a marginally better web presence than his solo project. “What You Say” is a song from a compilation album with the fetching title of Well, I Don’t See Why Not Vol. 3, featuring independent musicians from the Northwest. It is indeed the third in a series, all of which have been offered up by Ms. Valerie Park Distro, a self-described “small distributor of independently-created things,” based in Olympia. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead, and thanks to MVPD for permission to host the MP3 here.

Free and legal MP3: Ages and Ages (sing-along w/ accumulated intensity)

While it has an unmistakable Grateful Dead meets Neil Young kind of hippie-dippie orientation (and not that there’s anything wrong with that!), there’s also something grounded and purposeful in the air here.

Ages and Ages

“Navy Parade” – Ages and Ages

With the head-bobbing backbeat and the guitar-based, sing-along vibe of a hippie anthem from 1970, “Navy Parade” is something of an antidote to the synthesized gravity of “Year Off.” Instead of two-person, California-cool digital manipulation we get a Portland-based septet recording live, singing into one microphone. But hey: the fact that each kind of song exists makes the other all the more powerful and appealing. That’s something that the diversity-averse among us never seem to understand.

But I digress. As for “Navy Parade,” while it has that Grateful Dead meets Neil Young kind of hippie-dippie orientation (and not that there’s anything wrong with that!), there’s also something grounded and purposeful in the air here. Actually, as falsetto-y front guys go, Tim Perry oozes more Thom Yorke than Neil Young; he’s got that kind of edge if you listen for it, and the song, without abandoning the central shuffle, builds in intensity. This is not merely a question of volume; the structure here is built to acquire potency as it progresses. Part of this has to do with the verse’s melody line, which extends a full 16 measures and includes a nice modulation away from resolution halfway through (first heard with the words “hour finally came” at 0:25; it’s even more satisfying the second time, when Perry sings “and that’s the worst thing that you could do,” at 1:00). The rest has to do with the song’s overall framework: there are two distinct halves, and once we arrive at the second half, featuring an accumulating repetition of ensemble singing, we do not return to the first. The linear movement can heighten a sense of climax. All those voices singing together in real time don’t hurt either.

“Navy Parade”—which carries the parenthetical words “(Escape From the Black River Bluffs)”—is from the debut Ages and Ages album, Alright You Restless, which was released back in February on Knitting Factory Records. (Okay, so the album was sitting on my desk for a little while. Better late than never.) And while “Navy Parade” was not the first single from the album, it was in fact the first video. As often noted, I’m not a great video fan but this one I’m fond of, both for the storyline and for the authentic Portland imagery, with the splendid St. Johns Bridge serving as a backdrop for the song’s climactic second half.


Free and legal MP3: Radiation City (DIY sensibility, solid pop chops)

This one hits the sweet spot in which DIY sensibility and serious pop know-how—not to mention the 20th and 21st centuries—magically blend.

Radiation City

“The Color of Industry”

This one hits the sweet spot in which DIY sensibility and serious pop know-how—not to mention the 20th and 21st centuries—magically blend. Even as the vocals are processed into an AM-radio-ish and/or ’40s-cartoon-ish kind of tinny chipperness, the music feels stout and committed, with its precise, multifaceted groove, its purposefully constructed vibe, and the accumulated grandeur of what the band throws at us over the course of four minutes.

I call your particular attention to the interplay we hear between the rather cheesy organ and a swaying, swelling chorus of trombones beginning at 2:23—an entirely unnatural pairing that is made to sound entirely natural. When this gives way at 2:57 to, of all things, the warm strum of a simple acoustic guitar, the surprise might blow the mind except that it also strikes the ear as exactly what was then required.

Radiation City is a quartet from Portland, Oregon. “The Color of Industry” is a song from the album The Hands That Take You, originally self-released on cassette in February, coming out in a more standard release in September on Tender Loving Empire, the Portland-based arts collective/record label/retail store run by Jared Mees, last seen around these parts back in February.

Free and legal MP3: Jared Mees & the Grown Children (exuberant, Portland-infused idiosyncrasy)

Converted last week into a big fan of IFC’s daffy sketch comedy Portlandia, it’s only natural, I guess, to find myself gravitating this week to the exuberant, Portland-infused idiosyncrasy of Jared Mees and the Grown Children.

Jared Mees and the Grown Children

“Hungry Like a Tiger” – Jared Mees & the Grown Children

Converted last week into a big fan of IFC’s loopy sketch comedy Portlandia, I supposed it’s only natural to find myself gravitating this week to the exuberant, Portland-infused idiosyncrasy of Jared Mees and the Grown Children. We’ve been there before, you and I, just this past September, when Mees & Co. were in between albums. The previously fluid ensemble has since solidified into a line-up of five, and has a new album on the horizon, for which “Hungry Like a Tiger” is the lead track.

And quite a lead track it is, with its toe-tapping drive, its effortless melodic hook, its ear-worthy lyrics, and—hail, Portlandia!—its intermittent tendency to unravel the momentum with pensive interludes, not to mention its meta awareness of itself as a song. This rollicking tune hints at the crazy energy the band surely offers its live audiences; yet for all its loosey-goosey ambiance, the song is likewise a study in discipline and restraint. With a seemingly endless number of instruments up their sleeves, Mees and the gang nevertheless refrain from barraging us with kitchen-sink assemblage, pulling out the cello, the trumpet, the Hammond organ just exactly when they are required and no more. The Hammond in fact waits to come out till the end (4:04), at which point it gets a kicking little solo. Note that it’s hard for an instrument you haven’t otherwise heard to enter late in the game and not sound out of place or distracting. Note that the Hammond sounds perfect here.

The album Only Good Thoughts Can Stay, the band’s second, is coming in May via the Portland, Ore.-based media and arts collective/record label/comics imprint/consignment store/gallery/other things Tender Loving Empire, which Mees runs with his wife Brianne. How PDX of him.

Free and legal MP3: Jonah (reverberant, nicely written indie pop)

On the one hand, a peaceful, reverberant pop song, on the other hand, a rousing sing-along of near anthemic proportions. How do they do it?

Jonah

“Bees” – Jonah

On the one hand, a peaceful, reverberant pop song, on the other hand, a rousing sing-along of near anthemic proportions. How do they do it? I’m guessing it has something to do with being from Portland. It seems they know how to do just about anything out there.

One thing that catches my ear towards the beginning is that double drum beat (0:10) that launches us from the introduction into the first verse. Kind of snaps you to attention, counteracting the “Strawberry Fields”-ish tranquility of the opening measures. The verse features an almost nursery-rhyme-like pattern of overlapping descending lines that are reinforced by a wordless vocal section with a different melody built onto the same simple chord progression as the verse. In the second verse, note how the lyrics scan with gratifying precision—listen, for instance, to how the rhythm of the melody on the phrase “destroy all the evidence” (0:40) aligns with how one would speak those same words. The incisive chorus, in turn, gives us a melody that at once slows down and stretches out (expanding through the entire octave, in fact), which creates that sing-along feeling. And yet after that stirring refrain, listen to how we are left on an unresolved note (1:17)—a sly and effective trick that adds depth and pushes our ear to “require” the next verse. Which of course Jonah is happy to provide.

“Bees” is a song from the album The Wonder and the Thrill, the quartet’s third, set for release next month.

Free and legal MP3: Wow & Flutter (endearing, squonky rocker)

Pleasantly crunchy and semi-dissonant, “Scars” opens with a yin-yang-y guitar riff—three parts ringing and harmonic-laced, one part fuzzy and purposeful, as if the band were still deciding what kind of song this was going to be even after they already started recording.

Wow and Flutter

“Scars” – Wow & Flutter

Pleasantly crunchy and semi-dissonant, “Scars” opens with a yin-yang-y guitar riff—three parts ringing and harmonic-laced, one part fuzzy and purposeful, as if the band were still deciding what kind of song this was going to be even after they already started recording. What they ended up with is a deft blend of the opening riff’s two attributes, as a drony, unresolved sensibility courses through a brisk guitar rocker otherwise mixing the offhanded brio of an Exile On Main Street outtake with the squonky quirkiness of the Pixies. Translation: it’s curiously engaging, and it rocks.

And because I haven’t gotten on my “value of experience” soapbox in quite a while, I’ll take this opportunity to point out that Cord Amato has been in front of a band called Wow & Flutter, in one incarnation or another, since 1998. But here we are living through a musical day and age that seems to be about the opposite of letting musicians breath and grow and (dare I suggest it) learn their craft over an extended period of time. No, we’re much too focused here online on being sure to find everything first, and really fast, and then on to the next, even first-er and faster thing.

Tiring it is. I’m really happy to hear musicians who sound like they’ve been around a little while. Wow & Flutter, a trio at this point, will release its seventh album, Equilibrio!, next week on Mt. Fuji Records. MP3 via Mt. Fuji.