Free and legal MP3: Soltero (swift, slinky, quirky & engaging)

As slyly engaging and unsettling as a song entitled “Western Medicine Blues” rightfully should be, this one is three minutes and forty-one seconds of quirky goodness.

Soltero

“Western Medicine Blues” – Soltero

As slyly engaging and unsettling as a song entitled “Western Medicine Blues” rightfully should be, this one is three minutes and forty-one seconds of quirky goodness. One of my longstanding sweet spots is music that straddles that elusive line between odd and familiar and that’s definitely part of what’s happening here. The oddness comes in a variety of flavors, from Tim Howard’s quavery voice, which commands through its unwillingness to command, to lyrics which weave in and out of comprehensibility, to a brisk, sparse arrangement that welcomes a subtle variety of sounds into the mix, from stray guitar blips and bass runs to piano fills and what might even be a saxophone blurt or two. And, one of my favorite offbeat moments: the stopping point we hear at 1:59 and the offbeat, almost church-like instrumental break that follows.

All of this works, mind you, based on the underlying strength of the song itself. “Western Medicine Blues” takes the classic rock’n’roll backbeat and unpacks it into a swift, slinky skeleton of its usual self. There is a verse, a chorus that you don’t realize is the chorus until it repeats later, and then an ear-grabbing middle section, with lyrics that open incisively (“Everything I’ve ever done/Is out of fear of medicine”) and lead quickly down a series of elliptical pathways, ending with the music and lyrics all but deconstructing. Cue then the church-like instrumental break, then the chorus comes back, and this curious but compelling song either completely wins you over or you’re just not listening.

Soltero is the performing name used by Tim Howard. He’s been featured here three previous times, starting all the way back in 2004, and reappearing in four-year intervals after that. “Western Medicine Blues” is the title track from the new Soltero album, which was released in November. You can listen to the whole thing and purchase it via Bandcamp for whatever price you’d like to pay.

In his non-musical life, Howard is the executive producer and editor of the very smart and appealing podcast Reply All. He is based in Brooklyn.

Free and legal MP3: Pop & Obachan (charming, freewheeling, good-spirited)

At once woozy and perky, “I Bet High” presents us with a brief but much-needed shot of good spirit and motion to counter the tar pit of despair many of us have fallen into since 11/9.

Pop and Obachan

“I Bet High” – Pop & Obachan

At once woozy and perky, “I Bet High” presents us with a brief but much-needed shot of good spirit and motion to counter the tar pit of despair many of us have fallen into since 11/9. But blink and you’ll miss this one: no sooner does the listener feel fully embraced by the chunky, freewheeling vibe then the song plunks to a close.

So while I like this a lot there is no hiding the fact that “I Bet High” is an odd song, with an ad hoc feeling to both structure and texture. The tinkly electric guitar sounds like some kind of far-away-in-time instrument; Emma Tringali sings with a tone mixing come-hither-ness and a playful shove, awash in reverb; and the entire song bounces along without much of a rudder—the verses melt into a charming if woolly indistinctness, while the chorus glides through our awareness before we even realize that’s what we just heard. In the end, the song’s playful, “look-at-what-I-just-found” sensibility is central to its appeal. Put it on repeat and enjoy.

Pop & Obachan is a studio duo and a six-piece live band, led by Tringali and Jake Smisloff and based in upstate New York. “I Bet High” is a track from their debut album, entitled Misc. Excellence, which was recorded in their apartment on a tape deck and released last month. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp. Thanks to the band for the MP3. [MP3 no longer available.]

Free and legal MP3: The Tins(quirky and anthemic)

Whatever musical amalgam this is, whatever sub-sub-genre today’s musical classifiers want to slot this into, I like rock’n’roll that sounds like this and am grateful there are still bands out there doing whatever this happens to be.

The Tins

“Let It Go” – The Tins

An offbeat blend of the quirky and the anthemic, “Let It Go” has a stop-starty vibe that fidgets against its 4/4 time signature in an appealing way. Add some tasty suspended chords into the framework, augment with synth sounds hijacked from the ’80s, and finish off with an impossible-to-resist shouty group-singing chorus and the song sends me into a very happy place. Whatever musical amalgam this is, whatever sub-sub-genre it falls into, I like rock’n’roll that sounds like this and am grateful there are still bands out there doing whatever this happens to be.

Above and beyond the general coolness of the song, allow me to draw your attention to the instrumental break that begins at 2:02. On top of a chugging bass line we first hear a rather homely synthesizer sketching out a pleasant, alternative melody over a minimized background in a one-finger-plunking kind of way. The way the interval-happy melody perseveres through eight measures, and nearly 20 seconds, is almost notable by itself but check out what happens next: the melody repeats with a fuller, more driven accompaniment and with the synth line fleshed out with two hands. The melody is transformed from pleasant to essential, and the song is given an unexpected, interstitial-based climax. Leading into one more chorus, this moment is then bookended by another unforeseen move as the song withdraws in size and volume, fading out with a delightful lesson in the value of less over more.

“Let It Go” is from Young Blame, an EP the Tins released in July. The Buffalo-based trio has one full-length and another EP previously to their name. You can listen to and purchase the EP
via Bandcamp. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Son Lux (dramatic, oddly arranged)

This is a 21st-century tone poem, in a rather literal sense, as the song unfolds as an intersecting of tones: deep tones and high tones, tinkly tones and wobbly tones, soft tones and hard tones, musical tones and mechanical tones, vocal tones and instrumental tones.

Son Lux

“Easy” – Son Lux

Slow and sparse, “Easy” is likewise dramatic and oddly arranged, creating a sense of organic space despite (or, maybe, somehow, because of) the disconcerting, palpable electronic ambiance. This is a 21st-century tone poem, in a rather literal sense, as the song unfolds as an intersecting of tones: deep tones and high tones, tinkly tones and wobbly tones, soft tones and hard tones, musical tones and mechanical tones, vocal tones and instrumental tones. The most apparently natural tones in the song—the voice, the horn sounds, the hand claps—feel processed and edgy, while the most artificial of the tones—some of the machine-like background washes, for instance—come across as intimate and three-dimensional.

Nothing moves too fast to avoid scrutiny. Often there is little more than one sound going on at a time. Yet there remains something consistently evasive about the whole endeavor, probably epitomized by the unwieldy yet compelling “horns” (I assume not actual horns) that barge in at 0:57 to oppose the very idea of “easy” even as they offer an ongoing rejoinder to that lyric. Repeat listenings seem more to augment the mystery rather than resolve it, while continuing to yield moments that the ear missed during earlier plays, such as the weird, occult-ish vocal effect at 1:38, or, of all things, the perfectly normal-sounding guitar that glides in at 3:07.

Son Lux is the performing name of Ryan Lott, a composer and producer who has worked across an impressive range of genres, from indie rock to hip hop to contemporary classical. Among his past collaborators are Sufjan Stevens, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), Peter Silberman (The Antlers), Nico Muhly, and the quartet ETHEL. “Easy” comes from the third full-length Son Lux album, Lanterns, coming later this month on Joyful Noise Recordings.

Free and legal MP3: Tele Novella (melodic, intricate, deeply appealing)

A lopey, quirky, walk-in-the-meadow kind of tune, “No Excalibur” is all meandering melody and intriguing metaphor and if by the end you haven’t been charmed out of your socks you probably just aren’t wearing socks.

Tele Novella

“No Excalibur” – Tele Novella

A lopey, quirky, walk-in-the-meadow kind of tune, “No Excalibur” is all meandering melody and intriguing metaphor and if by the end you haven’t been charmed out of your socks you probably just aren’t wearing socks.

Lacking an introduction, the song opens with front woman Natalie Gordon singing a teetering tune over a purposefully clunky, vaguely old-fashioned backbeat. The first hint of the robust adventure to come is in the unexpected chord progression that accompanies the end of the opening lyric (“crying so softly in this quiet,” 0:16). And then, when a normal song would go into a standard second verse, we get a variation and an offbeat hook on a new, repeating lyric (“Oh, I have known so many nights like this,” 0:18), after which arrives a series of linked motifs, one more interesting than the next, leading to the song’s central metaphor (“I’m no Excalibur/I’ll get out on my own”), which serves as the titular phrase but is not a chorus—we don’t hear it again.

The song’s first 50 seconds repeat musically, but not lyrically. And now Tele Novella is only getting started. The increasing melodic richness of what follows from here is matched by its intricacy—there are all sorts of juicy but not sing-along-y passages, sold with snowballing certainty by Gordon’s plainspoken, ever so slightly husky voice. I was hooked for good when she gets to the lyric “I can feel it rise/It brings tears to my eyes” (2:03), which, when it reemerges triumphantly at 2:56, after a second Excalibur reference, feels almost goosebumpy in its lyrical and musical rightness. That Gordon rhymes rhododendrons with tendons somewhere along the way is icing on the cake.

Tele Novella is a new band from Austin, with a personnel chart only somewhat less intricate than their music. In addition to singer/guitarist Gordon, formerly of Agent Ribbons, the band consists of ex-Voxtrot members Jason Chronis (bass) and Matt Simon (drums), and keyboardist Cari Palazollo, of the band Belaire, which also includes Chronis and Simon. “No Excalibur” is one of the first two songs the band has recorded and released. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Mr. Jenkins (slow, odd, endearing)

As quirky and rumpled as a song can be while still possessing genuine pop spirit.

Mr. Jenkins

“Suddenly, I Don’t Feel So Afraid” – Mr. Jenkins

As quirky and rumpled as a song can be while still possessing genuine pop spirit. The unusual combination of being both slow-moving and short is but one of its oddnesses, as well as one of its charms. Note how the slowness feels almost unnatural, more trippy slow-motion than merely downtempo.

After a sparse, deliberate introduction, the song opens with its chorus—good move in a sub-two-minute number, I’d say—and the melody, though sluggish, is playful. Listen to that little speeded-up phrase (around 0:21), the second iteration of “I don’t feel so”: there’s something Bacharachian in there, and yet it almost creates cognitive dissonance in this swimming-through-jello vibe. The lyrics are incomprehensible globally, but pregnant phrases register, and it could be that the chorus’s use of repeating, understandable lyrical phrases matched against asymmetrical musical phrases is what lends such force to the tune:

Suddenly I don’t
I don’t feel so strange
I don’t feel so afraid anymore
You surely feel it too

First comes the immediately repeated “I don’t”s, and then that third one fitting now into the syncopated double-time flourish, leading next into the completely artificial way the “afraid anymore/You” break scans, and as much as I am by and large a proponent of lyrics that scan naturally, in this case, I find myself delighted.

Nick Jenkins is an experimental drummer-composer-illustrator who has been involved in a wide range of musical projects—alternative rock, jazz, alt-country, contemporary classical, you name it. As a solo performer he has been recording as Mr. Jenkins since 2006—32 releases and counting. Most have been EPs, and while the total includes a seven-volume series (Samples) each release of which presents simply and only the 12 notes of the standard chromatic scale as represented by one particular type of sound producer (wine bottles, cell phones, et al), the rest of them feature full-fledged songs, usually instrumentals, and often with endearing tiles such as “Love is Not Thinking” and “It Would Be So Much Easier If I Could Just Swim Across.” “Suddenly, I Don’t Feel So Afraid Anymore” is from the album of the same name, released in November 2012 (although this is a remixed version of the original); you can check the whole unusual thing out on Bandcamp. This new verseion came to my attention via a free and legal sampler just released by the record company, Hearts and Plugs, on whose roster you’ll also find the Fingertips-featured bands Elim Bolt and Brave Baby (not to be confused, conversely, with Grave Babies!).

Free and legal MP3: Mark Mallman (approachable tune from eccentric rocker)

Approachable helping of anthemic rock’n’roll, as 21st-century sounds mix with old-school touches.

Mark Mallman

“Double Silhouette” – Mark Mallman

Scratch below the surface of the well-known players on the one hand and the clamoring wannabes on the other and rock’n’roll remains, to this day, a universe peopled by any number of obscure toilers, many of whom have found a way of making it work for years on end. There are far more fully-formed characters out there on American stages than seems possible, or maybe even advisable.

Thirty-nine-year-old Mark Mallman is one of them. Emerging on the Minneapolis music scene in the late ’90s as part of a short-lived glam-rock parody band called The Odd, Mallman has been an eccentric and persistent presence there ever since, complete with wacky stage antics (playing keyboard solos in mid-air) and shticky concepts (onstage alter-ego: werewolf). Through the ’00s, he achieved a bit of notoriety for a series of unnaturally long concerts/performances he has given—so-called “Marathons” that have ranged in length from 26 to 78 hours. His most recent Marathon, number four, was done on the road in a van last month, involving 150 hours of non-stop music. I get press releases about such things and toss them in my “gimmick” folder. Ho hum. Then I actually thought to listen to the song. And well now. “Double Silhouette” is an easily approachable helping of anthemic rock’n’roll, mixing 21st-century sounds with some ineffable old-school touches—those deep chimes in the background feel inexplicably nostalgic, as do some of his vocal quirks (he’s channeling somebody there when he sings “Where everything is black and white” at 0:45, I just can’t put my finger on whom). I’m enjoying too his penchant for epigrammatic lyrics (“Nobody dies in nightmares/So I guess I must be living the dream”; “Won’t you join me on my road to ruin/’Cause it’s the only thing left worth pursuin'”; etc.); contemporary indie rock can surely do with a bit less obscurantism than we’ve been getting over the last decade.

“Double Silhouette” is the title track to Mallman’s new album, which will be released next week on Eagle’s Golden Tooth Records. It’s his seventh solo release; he has also recorded two albums with a band called Ruby Isle, in 2008 and 2010. In addition to “Double Sihoulette,” Mallman currently has five other songs of his available for download on his web site.

Free and legal MP3: Ezra Furman (quirky acoustic strummer, w/ woodwinds)

Quirky and intense, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” has the core of something weathered and true. Then adds a bunch of woodwinds.

Ezra Furman

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” – Ezra Furman

Quirky and intense, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” has the core of something weathered and true—an old Dylan song, perhaps, or maybe even Woody Guthrie. (Or maybe simply the Indigo Girls; cf., “Three Hits.”) In any case, if the melody is tried and true, it is offered with such an unrelenting edge—Furman is let us say an unhinged singer—as to blossom into something as yet unheard, not to mention powerful and inexplicably moving.

The arrangement provides an able assist, as an elusive array of instruments deliver commentary and motifs in and around the acoustic-guitar backbone. I hear at the very least a variety of woodwinds, each playing careful, intriguing parts. Often when the “chamber pop” begins, indie-rockers veer towards kitchen-sink arrangements. Here we get the unusual combination of complex and restrained; Furman, in his first foray as a solo artist, has figured out a way to welcome his unorthodox background players without giving them the run of the store. If anything, he has unexpectedly expanded the sonic palette of the impassioned folk singer.

Furman has fronted his band the Harpoons since they were students at Tufts University in 2006; with three albums under their belts, they remain a going concern, even with this upcoming solo record, entitled The Year of No Returning. Previously based in Chicago, post-Boston, Furman has recently moved to San Francisco. His album will be self-released next month. It was funded via Kickstarter. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up. MP3 via Consequence of Sound.

Free and legal MP3: Art Brut (arch & catchy guitar rock)

Art Brut continues to develop its Cake-meets-Franz-Ferdinand sound in capable and fetching directions.

Art Brut

“Lost Weekend” – Art Brut

Art Brut continues to develop its Cake-meets-Franz-Ferdinand sound in capable and fetching directions. Arch as can be, the British quintet sprang to life in the middle ’00s in the midst of a semi-movement of catchy, post-punk-inspired guitar rock (think Bloc Party, think Franz Ferdinand), but was just somehow weirder than the rest of them. And it was a weird kind of weird, as front man Eddie Argos—not a singer as much as a reciter—proved himself the master of a certain kind of post-postmodern, meta-ironic songwriting, in which his dry, concrete, and often very funny descriptions of things and circumstances themselves become tangled up in the story he tells, somehow. The band’s first single was “Formed A Band,” and the lyrics began: “Formed a band/We formed a band/Look at us/We formed a band.” And didn’t say too much more than that.

This is also an outfit that gained a bit of buzz a few years back for encouraging Art Brut “franchises”—new bands going out and being their own version of Art Brut, whatever that ended up meaning. There really weren’t any rules about the whole thing. But at one point in 2006, some 100 or so different Art Brut franchises were sprinkled around Europe and North America.

Yeah so it might be tempting to write the band off as some kind of balmy gimmick, but on the one hand they’re really too ahead of you for that: if there’s a gimmick, it’s that they flaunt the fact that they have a gimmick, which is then a different kind of gimmick, and so forth. (It’s like mirrors opposite each other, receding into infinity.) But more to the point, the music’s too good, too tightly conceived and performed. Their songs are marvelous little machines of rock’n’roll goodness, all slashing guitar lines, organic drumbeats, and quippy lyrics. “Lost Weekend” is sharp and engaging from beginning to end. And on this new album, Brilliant! Tragic!, Argos says he has actually learned to sing, thanks to producer Frank Black (or Black Francis, if you will), who taught him while they recorded the album. You can hear him test the waters here the second time through the chorus—I assume that’s his singing voice at 2:20, somewhat more tenor-y than this talk-singing voice. Worlds of new arch-opportunities open up for Art Brut moving forward.

Brilliant! Tragic! is the band’s fourth album, due out later this month on Cooking Vinyl. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: They Might Be Giants (classic melodic TMBG, w/ straight-ish lyrics)

I would be remiss not to draw attention, further, to what may be one of the most absurd internal rhymes in the history of song: “I’m not a monument to justice/Plus which I don’t forget a face.”

They Might Be Giants

“Can’t Keep Johnny Down” – They Might Be Giants

At first this may not seem like much more than a breezy TMBG ditty, with a sort of catchy chorus but maybe not in the really marvelous category of some of their older classics, because the hook maybe isn’t as instantly ear-catching as their songs have sometimes been.

Keep listening. It is a breezy TMBG ditty and it’s also really marvelous: an all-out love letter to the group’s classic sound, spotlighting melody devotee John Linnell’s delight in wide-ranging melodic lines which flow effortlessly from the top to the bottom of the scale. What it may lack in pure giddiness it makes up for with oomph and know-how. Plus, this change: rather than sporting the absurdist puzzle-lyrics the duo usually favors, “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” resembles one of their anomaly songs, “Your Racist Friend,” in both manner (straightforward-ish rather than head-scratching) and target (harmful ignorance). Their traditional goofiness (don’t worry!) remains intact, but maybe they have realized that in 2011 the world can use their intelligence and humanity more directly stated than “My name is blue canary/One note spelled ‘l-i-t-e'”; and so forth. Randy Newman-ishly, they sing here from the limited narrator’s point of view—in this case, a guy who, among other things, is annoyed because a tellingly described astronaut on the moon “thinks he’s better than me.” I like right after that how Linnell breaks the fourth wall (do songs have fourth walls? maybe not) when he sings: “I’m pointing a finger at my own face/They can’t know what’s in here.” The guy realizes we can’t see him so he tells us what he’s doing. Note he points at his “face,” which is the surface of his head, which of course has nothing “in here.”

I would be remiss not to draw attention, further, to what may be one of the most absurd internal rhymes in the history of song: “I’m not a monument to justice/Plus which I don’t forget a face.” Told you they’re still goofy.

“Can’t Keep Johnny Down” is a song from the band’s forthcoming album, Join Us, their first not-for-kids album since 2007’s The Else. It will be released digitally later this month, and available in physical form in July on Idlewild/Rounder Records. And hooray: this is They Might Be Giants’ long-awaited Fingertips debut. The site owes its name to the band; I’m glad to be able to feature them after all these years.