Free and legal MP3: Cat Power (peppy, fierce, w/ faux-Latin backbone)

Even in this upbeat, quasi-pop-like setting, Cat Power can’t take the smoke and fire from her voice; as a matter of a fact, one might argue that the voice is all the more effective in this new (for her) environment.

Cat Power

“Ruin” – Cat Power

With a measured, faux-Latin piano riff, “Ruin” offers up an expressive mix of the peppy and the fierce. Even in this upbeat, quasi-pop-like setting, Cat Power can’t take the smoke and fire from her voice; as a matter of a fact, one might argue that the voice is all the more effective in this new (for her) environment. The elusive lyrics augment her voice’s capacity to haunt—in particular the chorus’s incantation of far-flung cities and countries.

The music, meanwhile, is frisky but not frivolous. Grounded in that rhythmic riff, Power spends a lot of time in between the beat; even the emphatic choral climax only aligns with the beat for the conclusion, the words “sitting on a ruin”—which is what gives it its intriguing oomph. And for me, at least, that scratchy, slashing guitar sound is a revelation. That may be my own issue, as I have a personal disinclination for the slow, reverby, blues-guitar-y sound to which she previously defaulted. And yeah, I know, everyone was supposed to have loved that. I like this better.

Power—born Charlyn Marshall; known as Chan; pronounced “Shawn”—has not released an album of original material since her indie “mainstream” breakthrough, The Greatest, ten years into her recording career, in 2006. (There was a covers album in 2008 and a covers EP the following year.) Her backstory involves far too much angst and difficulty for me to get into here. You can look it up if interested. “Ruin” is the first song made available from her long-awaited new album, Sun, which is scheduled for a September release on Matador Records. MP3 via Matador. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

photo credit: Nils Bernstein (via http://www.thestoolpigeon.co.uk)

Free and legal MP3: Sea of Bees (sweet and powerful)

Julie Bee

“Broke” – Sea of Bees

At once sweet and powerful, “Broke” appears the picture of simplicity: straightforward melodies, one ear-catching effect in an otherwise uncomplicated arrangement, matter-of-fact singing. But there is strength and mastery on display here if you listen for it.

The song is built upon two related but slightly different verse melodies and an extended chorus that comes with a sort of addendum to it. This is how it manages to have the feel of accessible clarity and gratifying complexity at the same time—that is, it’s on the one hand just a verse and a chorus but on the other hand not really. The moment that seals it for me is the wonderful chord change we hear in the chorus (first time at 0:45, along with the words “somebody hear me out”). It’s especially effective because the chorus has just started, and had already engaged us with the textural change delivered when the swirly electric guitar is replaced by a richly strummed acoustic just as the drummer kicks all the way in. And so the chord change at 0:45—taking us into momentarily into a minor key—was not “required” by the ear. And is all the more persuasive as a result. This is neither rocket science nor avant-garde music theory. But it’s a great moment, which anchors the song as it recurs in each iteration of the chorus.

“Broke” is one of 11 songs on the forthcoming Sea of Bees album Orangefarben (Team Love Records), all of them with one-word titles. (If the web is to be trusted, “orangefarben” appears to mean “orange” as an adjective in German, as in “orange-colored.”) This is the second album that Sacramento-based Julie Ann Bee (birth name Baenzinger) has recorded as Sea of Bees. This one arrives with a pretty heavy-duty personal back story (conservative upbringing, coming out, first same-sex relationship, and then break-up), and yet also, as is apparent here, with great musical joy and know-how. MP3 via Team Love. Sea of Bees was previously featured on Fingertips in June 2010.

Free and legal MP3: Alina Simone (sparse but powerful)

Prickly and haunting, “Beautiful Machine” depends for its potency, first, upon Simone’s unadorned, almost homely electric guitar, alternately picked and strummed, with a slightly fuzzy tone but without the slightest bit of fuss or drama.

Alina Simone

“Beautiful Machine” – Alina Simone

Prickly and haunting, “Beautiful Machine” depends for its potency, first, upon Simone’s unadorned, almost homely electric guitar, alternately picked and strummed, with a slightly fuzzy tone but without the slightest bit of fuss or drama. I realize as I listen how inherently histrionic so much rock’n’roll guitar playing is. This moodier, more shadowy sound is deep and enticing.

And then there’s Simone’s singing voice, the other clear source of the song’s power. She blends a breathy intimacy with an assertive upper range in a way that recalls Sinead O’Connor; like O’Connor, Simone has something of the force of nature about her. And yet still the operative word remains restraint. While there is a second guitar and a bass in the mix, they are in service of the primary guitar and the drums, in a setting that’s full enough to feel textured yet sparse enough to let us hear each instrument distinctly. Nothing feels automatic, not even the drumbeat, which rumbles and stutters, all tom and bass, no snare or cymbal. A cello arrives as if through the back door, finding its mournful place. The song feels at once primitive and elegant.

Simone is a Ukraine-born, Boston-bred musician now ensconced in Brooklyn. Her parents were political refugees, but Simone went back in 2004 to live in Siberia for six months. Her second full-length album, released in 2008, was in Russian, covering the songs of the underground punk-poet Yanka Dyagileva. “Beautiful Machine” is the lead track to her self-released third album, Make Your Own Danger, which came out at the end of May. Simone is now a published writer as well—her book of essays, You Must Go and Win, came out in June on Faber & Faber, and is in part about the travails of the indie musician in the 21st century. MP3 via Simone’s site.

Free and legal MP3: Cold Cave (dense, powerful, memorable)

Combining dense, pummeling energy and palpable ache, “The Great Pan Is Dead” is four minutes of stunning 21st-century rock’n’roll. Wowee. I hardly knew at first how to unpack what I was hearing—the buzzing-guitar wall of sound, the orchestral synth lines, the relentless sonic drive, the sense of furious poignancy suffusing this whirl of sheer electrical power.

Cold Cave

“The Great Pan Is Dead” – Cold Cave

Combining dense, pummeling energy and palpable ache, “The Great Pan Is Dead” is four minutes of stunning 21st-century rock’n’roll. Wowee. I hardly knew at first how to unpack what I was hearing—the buzzing-guitar wall of sound, the orchestral synth lines, the relentless sonic drive, the sense of furious poignancy suffusing this whirl of sheer electrical power. In the center of it we get the full-throated emoting of front man Wes Eisold. Eisold has a history as a screamer in hard-core bands, and you can hear it at the edge of his singing, even as the singing is genuinely sensitive, even moving.

So I let it cycle on repeat for a long time and I finally began to hear, maybe, what was happening. In the tradition of modern classical minimalists more than any pop song I’ve heard, “The Great Pan Is Dead” spends long periods of time anchored in one chord—the music moves energetically and rhythmically while staying unusually rooted harmonically. We do not, for instance, hear a chord change in the song until 51 seconds in. That is not normally done. This lack of harmonic motion adds immeasurably to the pent-up fury of the aural landscape. Eisold, in the middle of this, sounds like someone throwing his battered body against a bolted door. “I know people without substance,” he sings; you can hear the thud of exclamation points in his phrasing.

And then, later in the song (2:33), we arrive at an opposite place: Eisold singing a largely one-note melody against a shifting series of chords—another kind of subtle, claustrophobic tension to contend with. This is one crazy cool song, and my first shoe-in for a place on the 2011 favorite song list.

Cold Cave is a trio based in NYC. “The Great Pan Is Dead” is from the band’s second album, Cherish the Light Years, due in April on good old Matador Records. MP3 via Matador.