Free and legal MP3:Mattiel (irresistible, retro-current indie rock)

“Keep the Change” is a high-energy stomper that has the air of an instant classic about it, straddling with flair and sly humor that often fine line between where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Keep the Change” – Mattiel

Featured here previously last April, Mattiel is back with another irresistible slice of retro-current indie rock. “Keep the Change” is a high-energy stomper that has the air of an instant classic about it, straddling with flair and sly humor that often fine line between where we’ve been and where we’re going.

The recurring, six-note motif that launches the song through the intro is an apt aural symbol of the slightly off-kilter fun to come: on the one hand it’s got a Springsteen-esque grandeur, on the other hand it’s being plinked out on what sounds like a xylophone. When the drums join in at 0:14, the momentum is literally unstoppable, the drummer hitting every beat equally through the entire song except for a brief deviation in the pre-chorus, as lead singer Mattiel Brown sings, “When I throw my weight/I never throw it crooked/I always throw it straight” (itself an obliquely amusing thing to say). Another curveball arrives via the decision to call the song “Keep the Change,” in defiance of standard practice, which would derive the title from the song’s most often heard phrase (in this case that would be “Wasted all my time”). “Keep the change,” on the other hand, is a lyric we hear just twice (starting at 2:53) in the song’s late-arriving bridge.

And don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing laugh-out-loud funny going on here; the humor is more of that special, smile-inducing kind that music alone can create. If anything, Mattiel herself appears to favor humor of a particularly dry kind. The video for “Keep the Change” is a good example, featuring her setting about, blank-faced, on a series of inscrutable tasks, by herself, in an industrial site that has no recognizable purpose. The biggest clue that she’s having fun comes from the title she’s given the album where you’ll find “Keep the Change”—that title being Satis Factory. It took me a moment to register that. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy it in a variety of formats, via Bandcamp.

The album, her second, was released in June. She still seems to be employing Mattiel as a band name, even as her Facebook site doesn’t list band members. She/they is/are based in Atlanta. MP3 via The Current.



(Note that MP3s from The Current are available in files that are 128kbps, which is below the iTunes standard of 192kbps, not to mention the higher-def standard of 320kbps. I personally don’t hear much difference on standard-quality equipment but if you are into high-end sound you’ll probably notice something. In any case I always encourage you to download the MP3 for the purposes of getting to know a song via a few listens; if you like it I still urge you to buy the music. It’s the right thing to do.)

Free and legal MP3: Perry Serpa (feat. Scott McCaughey) (sharp, creative rocker w/ back story)

Seeking to create from scratch an album from 1986 gives Serpa all the artistic license he needs to willfully ignore that the 21st century ever happened to rock’n’roll; not always a bad thing, says me.

“And You Are?” – Perry Serpa (feat. Scott McCaughey)

So this is a crazy-great concept, but also a crazy-challenging one: take an imaginary album, laid out track by track in a popular novel, and actually write it and record it. This is what Perry Serpa decided to do with the fictional album Juliet, from Nick Hornby’s popular and affecting book Juliet, Naked. The book involves a deep dive into music fandom, among other things, and centers around a reclusive singer/songwriter of Hornby’s invention named Tucker Crowe. Near the beginning of the novel, Hornby invents for us the Wikipedia entry for Crowe’s 1986 masterpiece, Juliet, which includes a track listing for the album. These are the songs that Serpa set about to write.

Not too intimidating a project, huh? Write music good enough to stand in for a fictional masterpiece? Plus there’s already been a movie made of the album, which came out earlier this year. (The movie, however, only created two of Juliet‘s ten songs.) “For better or for worse, I led a fifteen-plus piece band for almost twenty years, so I’m no neophyte when it comes to foolish, time-consuming, lofty creative pursuits,” Serpa told me via email. So here we go: “And You Are?” is the opening track on the imaginary album, so likewise opens Serpa’s. And what a wonderful, evocative piece of retro, semi-baroque folk rock it is. Seeking to create from scratch an album from 1986 gives Serpa all the artistic license he needs to willfully ignore that the 21st century ever happened to rock’n’roll; not always a bad thing, says me. Half Dylanesque harangue, half R.E.M.-like invocation, “And You Are?” swirls around an ascending string motif that adds a textured hook without taking away from the song’s electric edge; I especially like it when the guitar gains ground in the second half of the song, eventually mingling its own lead in and around the recurrent strings.

Not all the tracks from Juliet are specifically discussed in Hornby’s book, but some not only are described in one way or another, they are given a lyric or two. For instance, the first line of “And You Are?” was straight from the novel: “They told me talking to you would be like chewing barbed wire with a mouth ulcer.” The next line, however, is Serpa’s: “But you never once hurt me like that.” Serpa says this kind of writing was “fun as shit to do.”

The real album that Serpa has made based on Hornby’s imaginary one is, cleverly enough, entitled Wherefore Art Thou?: Songs Inspired by Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked. And it’s even cleverer than you might think; the imaginary Wikipedia entry mentions a 2002 tribute album to Juliet that was called, yes, Wherefore Art Thou?—which was not merely a Shakespeare allusion but a reference to the fact that in this fictional world, Tucker Crowe had disappeared after he released Juliet, and more or less hadn’t been heard from since. One final, meta twist relevant to Serpa’s project: Scott McCaughey, who sings lead on the song I have for you here, was founder of the Minus Five, one of the bands Hornby mentions as recording a song for the imaginary tribute LP.

For the record, Hornby himself has said, of Serpa’s smartly-hewn creation, “I’m happy to think that my book has somehow produced work this good.” Serpa has announced that a portion of the sales of the album will go to the UK-based charity Ambitious About Autism, which was co-founded by Hornby. Wherefore Art Thou? comes out October 5; streaming and purchase links are here.

Lastly: Serpa’s aforementioned 15-plus-piece ensemble, The Sharp Things, have been twice previously featured on Fingertips, in 2013 and 2014. Continue reading “Free and legal MP3: Perry Serpa (feat. Scott McCaughey) (sharp, creative rocker w/ back story)”

Free and legal MP3:The Clear (slinky, minor-key, retro)

Retro orchestral pop, of the minor-key, slinky variety.

The Clear

“The Planets” – The Clear

Retro orchestral pop, of the minor-key, slinky variety, “The Planets” launches off an off-kilter four-note ascending melody, a variety of which provides the ongoing motif for this nicely crafted tune. Any sonic element your ear can discern as the song develops will reward the attention, from the well-placed chimes to the space-age electronic squiggles to the subtle contributions of the electric guitar, strings, and muted horns (or some synthesized version thereof). Best of all I will point you to the major chord that glides gracefully in and then out of the song’s aural foundation (an early example is on the phrase “mine collide” at 0:35). It’s not a hook per se but it’s definitely a defining moment. I can’t get enough of that kind of thing.

For all of its rather particular musical trappings, “The Planets” has an amiable air about it; it’s going after a vibe but it doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard or belaboring the point with slavish devotion. The effort is greatly assisted by Jules Buffey’s creamy voice; she sounds like a spy-movie version of Karen Carpenter, which is a better thing than you might imagine.

From Sheffield, The Clear are Buffey, Chris Damms, and Bryan Day. “The Planets” was originally on the band’s debut album, Patchwork, which was released in March 2016. It seems to be having a new life this year as a single. You can listen to (and purchase) the entire album via Bandcamp. It’s a melodic, evocative outing, with a groovy, Mamas-and-Papas vibe, definitely worth checking out.

Free and legal MP3: Meg Mac (retro soul w/ old-school flair)

Songs that can make you clap and move while fiddling with time signatures are generally songs to be admired.

Meg Mac

“Known Better” – Meg Mac

Just too damn charming to quibble about anything that might, here, be so quibbled. Is Meg Mac aiming to split the difference between Adele and Amy Winehouse? Could be. And why not? There’s a real musical sweet spot to be found there, and here, in this knowing piece of first-rate retro-soul. What lights this on fire to me is the song’s stompy, asymmetrically-placed piano riff, which plunks itself down between beats, creating a powerful stutter, both tripping the song up and launching it further at the same time. Songs that can make you clap and move while fiddling with time signatures are generally songs to be admired.

From its old-school intro—not instrumental vamping, but a slow, otherwise unused vocal melody—“Known Better” oozes both ardor and aptitude. There are knowing chord changes (not just the dramatic one at 0:39 but the subtler set-up, after the words “back someday” at 0:34), there are skillful production effects, such as the shot of processed vocals at 0:50, and most of all there are the songwriting chops that put this all together so spiffily, with that piano riff ever at the center of things. For a short piece of pop, the song is not satisfied standing still. The second iteration of the verse uses a somewhat different melody, and there seem to be not one but two different bridges, including that one in the middle with the hand-claps and an ear-catching switch to 6/4 time. The use of a refrain line instead of a full-fledged chorus helps keep things moving, and never underestimate the effectiveness of expertly placed “ah-ah-ah”s.

All through, Mac (neé McInerney) sings with panache, perhaps a bit thinly, but I hear someone who is still finding her voice. She’s 22, from Melbourne, and this appears to be her first release of any kind. MP3 via TripleJ, the Australian music site.

photo credit: Tanaya Harper

Free and legal MP3: Elin Ruth (assured, retro-y soulful pop)

The big world out there goes nuts for the flamboyant belters but in the small world of Fingertips, I love best the singers who might cut loose but don’t. The artistry is in the restraint.

Elin Ruth

“Bang” – Elin Ruth

So even as I have, for the sake of a pithy heading, described “Bang” as “assured, retro-y soulful pop,” let me quickly note that this is not as easy to do as it probably sounds. First you need a good song (difficult to come by!); then you also need all the right touches. I hear an impressive supply of them here: the background “oo-oohs,” the horn charts, the prickly guitar strum, that little wooden-sounding percussion flourish (first heard at 0:24), and best of all those three extra beats in the first measure of the chorus. I love songs that know how to do that kind of thing.

And—let us not forget—you need an able singer. Elin Ruth starts out kind of speak-y and casual. She is holding back. Compare the end of the first lyrical line (“until we’re dead,” at 0:19) to the end of the second (“around your wing,” 0:34). She holds her note maybe a half second longer, but it’s a delicious little half second. Here is a singer with a big voice, but it’s not “X Factor” showy. It actually has an unexpected grit to it (listen to how she sings “There’s nothing I can do about it” at 0:50), but even that she refuses to flaunt. The big world out there goes nuts for the flamboyant belters but in the small world of Fingertips, I love best the singers who might cut loose but don’t. The artistry is in the restraint.

Elin Ruth began recording, in 2003, as Elin Ruth Sigvardsson. She just released her fifth album in her native Sweden, but in 2010 fell in love with a New Yorker and last year they were married. She now lives in Queens, and is readying her first album to be released in the United States, which will be called simply Elin Ruth. It’s slated for release in January on her own label, Divers Avenue Music. In the meantime, she has put together a four-song EP for the U.S., featuring “Bang” as the title track. She is now offering it as a free download via her Facebook page. All songs on the EP were originally featured on her previous Swedish albums, “Bang” coming from her 2009 album Cookatoo Friends.

Free and legal MP3: New Shouts (neo-’60s garage-soul, retro-y & proud)

Here we have a splendid garage-soul groove harkening astutely back to the proto-white-boy-soul of a group like the Soul Survivors (best known for “Expressway To Your Heart,” non-coincidentally enough).

New Shouts

“The Reins To Your Heart” – New Shouts

Above and beyond the financial problems introduced by the digital distribution of music, many hands have been wrung over cultural problems unleashed at the same time. A flood of virtual ink has been spilled this year, as an example, on a complaint voiced by the critic Simon Reynolds, in his book Retromania, which among other things is about how the relentless presence of the past, digitally speaking, has led to a state in which we don’t allegedly have a genuine, current-day culture, just an ongoing regurgitation of bygone stylings.

There are so many things that strike me as wrong with this complaint; probably time for an essay. In the meantime, I go back to one of Fingertips’ founding mottoes: listen with your ears, not your mind. The idea that music has to be stylistically “different” is a mental construct. To my ears, music can be different by simply being good. So, is a song like “The Reins To Your Heart” representative of some kind of new, 2010-ish musical style? Not a bit. Does this mean it can’t be good or that we are somehow culturally poorer because the Pittsburgh foursome New Shouts recorded it? Of course not. It’s a good song! Yes, its garage-soul groove harkens back to the proto-white-boy-soul of a group like the Soul Survivors (best known for “Expressway To Your Heart,” non-coincidentally enough). Why can’t a good song sound familiar? Why can’t it remind you of another good song?

To harp on stylistic similarities is to overlook other factors that make music both pleasing and emotionally resonant. I always start with melody, because that’s me. “The Reins To Your Heart” is one of those lucky songs that begins with its hook—a smartly constructed melody (beginning at 0:11, right out of that pleasantly clangy introduction) in which the first half traces a descending B minor chord, the second an ascending A minor chord. Comprised only of the three notes from these two adjacent chords, the melody has a natural swing, running down and up those third intervals, while likewise feeling solid and primal, the aural equivalent of a three-legged stool. And the chorus is no slouch either, affording the song a second and maybe even third hook (this is also one of the those lucky songs with more than one solid hook), via the “Baby, please believe me” segment, with its group lead vocal and classic-soul vibe, leading up to that unerring, off-the-beat response line, “I want you back.” We’ve heard all of this before. So what? It gives me that deep inner smile I get when I know the music is working. Retromania has nothing to tell me, or you, about that.

“The Reins To Your Heart” is the lead track from New Shouts’ first non-single release, the seven-song EP Sing New Shouts, which was self-released in September via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: The Mynabirds (L. Burhenn returns w/ more great retro pop)

Laura Burhenn takes the standard blues progression and shapes it into a fiery piece of retro pop. Every last detail is exquisite, and yet the thing just plain stomps too. Right away, I love how the song starts in such a hurry it feels as if we’re joining in midstream and then oops it stops at that place four seconds in for that great, conflicted “Oh!” from Burhenn.

“Let the Record Go” – the Mynabirds

I cannot resist a repeat visit to the Mynabirds album, with this second free and legal MP3 now available (and also given what a great little set of music this comprises with the previous two selections). I just mainline this kind of sound–open my veins and inject it straight in. Laura Burhenn takes the standard blues progression and shapes it into a fiery piece of retro pop. Every last detail is exquisite, and yet the thing just plain stomps too. Right away, I love how the song starts in such a hurry it feels as if we’re joining in midstream and then oops it stops at that place four seconds in for that great, conflicted “Oh!” from Burhenn.

So many parts to like in such a short song!: the extended, melismatic “Oh” that functions as something between a verse and a chorus at 0:26; the repeated way the music stops or slows at just the right moments, without ever giving us the feeling of being interrupted; the fleeting bit of theatrical singing we hear at 1:04, as if maybe Lene Lovich has made a brief cameo; and then oh man when that opening “Oh!” comes back a third time right near the end (2:15) it completely melts my heart.

So if you missed it the first time, please rush back and listen as well to “Numbers Don’t Lie,” the first Mynabirds MP3 featured back in January. And then do yourself an even greater favor and buy What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood, which was released just last week on Saddle Creek; it’s a strong strong effort from a gifted musician.

Free and legal MP3: The Mynabirds (splendid neo-retro-gospel-pop)

“Numbers Don’t Lie” – the Mynabirds

A simple stuttering stomp of a keyboard vamp lies at the center of this nifty piece of neo-retro-gospel-pop (or some such thing; hey, I make this up as I go). While there are clearly a lot of nods to bygone times in the aural landscape of “Numbers Don’t Lie,” what charms me the most is the subtle but sure sense of currency that likewise defines this song. It is a song that belongs here in 2010 (numbers don’t lie, after all), and I think what gives me that impression has to do with clarity of presentation. From the plainly articulated keyboard notes to Laura Burhenn’s double-tracked vocals to the instantly enticing melody (note the hook-y chord change comes right in the second measure), all the pieces of the song ring with presence, with a “thereness” that separates a song that transcends its influences from a song that is smothered by them. (And, okay, those telephone-button blips in the bridge are a fun present-day touch too.)

Another point of clarity involves the song’s use of reverb, which is effective in its restraint. While the choral-like backing vocals get a reverb rinse, and the rhythm section also maybe a dose of it, Burhenn keeps her lead vocals clean. It makes an understated but incisive difference in the overall sound, and even though reverb is popular in present-day indie rock, this song’s judicious use of it makes it seem more real, more its own new thing as a result.

Laura Burhenn is known to some as half of the D.C. duo Georgie James, which played together for three years and released one album on Saddle Creek Records before breaking up in 2008. “Numbers Don’t Lie” is the first song made available from What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood, her first release as the Mynabirds, slated for an April release on Saddle Creek. Burhenn by the way named her project after the Mynah Birds, a Canadian R&B band in the ’60s that signed to Motown but never released any albums and at one point, impossibly enough, featured both Neil Young and Rick James in its lineup. MP3 via Saddle Creek.