Free and legal MP3: High Places (jittery & propulsive, yet introspective)

High Places is one technopop duo which is clearly not in it just to twiddle knobs or to woo the dance crowd.

High Places

“Year Off” – High Places

We are greeted by what sounds like a heavily synthesized beat, but right away there are clues that things are not what they may seem. There’s something spacious about the sound itself, even as the clipped precision of the beat speaks of serious computer manipulation. And then there’s the odd fact that the beat unfolds for all of seven seconds before the vocals start. Wow—a technopop/electronica song without a mindless, overlong introduction. Bonus points to High Places, a duo which is clearly not in it just to twiddle knobs or to woo the dance crowd.

And then there are the words themselves: “The brackish water/Swirling around/In a basin I left in the yard”—a stark, organic image, spoke-sung by Mary Pearson with, now, a new element in the mix: a chime-like keyboard tracing a C minor octave in a repeating pattern. Keep your ear on that, as it becomes the backbone of multi-instrumentalist Rob Barber’s jittery, multifaceted soundscape, which takes shape before our ears between 0:32 and 0:48 as new elements are layered in. Pearson doesn’t begin fully singing until 1:20 (and a lovely, careful voice she has, too), at which point she settles mostly on a motif that echoes the melody given us by the C minor synthesizer. Nothing about this song is very song-like in any pop sort of way, but likewise does it rise above typical club fodder in the sculpted precision of its sound and the dreamy introspection of Pearson’s vocals. Barber’s sounds often originate in organic instruments (Pearson has a degree in bassoon performance, of all things), and if that isn’t necessarily clear to the casual listener what is noticeable, and notable, is the striking texture he creates—a propulsive yet elusive setting that sounds on the one hand like little more than a beat and yet on the other hand feels fully like music. In what amounts to a bit of aural sleight of hand, the song makes do with only two chords, as far as I can detect. I for one don’t even miss a third.

High Places was founded in Brooklyn in 2006, but has since relocated to Los Angeles. “Year Off” is from the album Original Colors, the band’s third, set for release in October on Thrill Jockey Records. MP3 via Pitchfork. A duo with a definite visual flair, the band has a blog featuring photographs from their travels, which is well worth a visit. They were previously featured on Fingertips in January 2010.

Free and legal MP3: Electric President (warm & precise electronic/acoustic combo)

“Safe and Sound” – Electric President

Here we have another duo, but that’s about all “Safe and Sound” has in common with “Hung Out.” Instead of sculpted noise and a simple verse-chorus-verse structure we here get a carefully conceived instrumental palette, a sweet-voiced singer, and a three-sectioned song linked by a chorus we hear only twice. This song sounds at once very relaxed and very precise, which is an engaging combination; every sound carries the weight of purpose, from the reverberant tom-tom of the intro to the acoustic rhythm guitar that is given a quiet 10 seconds of playing by itself in the middle of the song, to the gentle, clap-driven gospel swing that drives the song but below the level of conscious awareness until the keyboard joins it halfway through. While electronica is at the root of the band’s approach, this song replaces overt glitchiness with something that seems very much like organic warmth and is no worse for the wear.

Jacksonville is home base for Ben Cooper and Alex Kane, who have been doing business as Electric President since 2003. (Their first album, released in 2006, was called S/T: “Self-Titled.”) They do most of what they do jointly and electronically, while Ben is the aforementioned sweet-voiced singer. Their third full-length, The Violent Blue, was released this week on the small New Haven, Conn.-based label Fake Four Inc.

Free and legal MP3: Ancient Free Gardeners (distinctive, meandering yet meticulous rock)

“Innards Out” – Ancient Free Gardeners

I’m attracted to the meandering feeling of this song–the way it starts as if already in the middle (note: no introduction), and unfolds in an off-kilter way–because underneath I sense a meticulous purpose and drive. Vague and precise is a compelling juxtaposition. Because of the mysterious lyrical phrases, the desultory guitar lines, the stops and starts, and the oddball chords, I’m picking up something of a Steely Dan-ish vibe, by way of the Blue Nile; nothing, in any case, seems to be happening by accident. And when the song finally delivers us to an unabashed–if still eccentric–chorus, I feel as if some sort of salvation is at hand. And yet listen to how the song pulls away from an uncomplicated resolution: when front man James Milsom sings the words “the spider and the fly,” by rights the word “fly” would come accompanied with a clear, satisfying, resolving chord. No such luck, however–we are taken to the brink and then everything scoots out the side door: Milsom dismembers the last line “We are both of these, you and I,” dragging out the word “are,” then offering the last two phrases as a kind of quizzical afterthought.

And when the song is over, it ends. This is entirely refreshing.

Ancient Free Gardeners are a quartet from Melbourne that has only been up and running since 2006. They released their debut EP last year and have put out two singles since; “Innards Out” is the latest, released in May. A full-length CD is expected later this year.