Free and legal MP3: Emily Jane White (hypnotic, acoustic, reverbed)

The insistent yet elusive “Black Silk” pulls you into a magical past that somehow blends the Victorian and the medieval.

Emily Jane White

“Black Silk” – Emily Jane White

At once insistent and elusive, “Black Silk” unfolds in a reverbed acoustic setting that evokes a sense of bygone remoteness; we feel immediately pulled into a magical past that somehow blends the Victorian and the medieval. And yet this sound is likewise very 2010s. Go figure.

At the center of the song is White’s spacious, slightly smoky alto. She sings as if to hypnotize you. The music assists, as she backs her soothing, folk-like melody with a river of double-time finger-picked arpeggios that lull us so with their diligence that we almost don’t notice the rather threatening entrance of the electric guitar about midway through. The song’s very structure, in fact, leads us along as if spellbound, lacking a true chorus while flowing through a mostly unrepeated series of interrelated pieces. The listener can feel both lost and dizzy by the time we get to the climactic clearing. At which point, all White has to say is “oh oh oh,” as you’ll see.

Born in California, White ended up launching her solo music career while living in France in the ’00s, and still has a larger following overseas than in the U.S. “Black Silk” is from Ode To Sentience, her third album, which was released on the Talitres label in France last year. The American release is slated for May on Antenna Farm Records. White was previously featured on Fingertips last March.

Free and legal MP3: Cass McCombs (potent, determined, minimally arranged)

There is over the long haul an emerging sense of Cass McCombs-iness about what the man does—a spectral mix of melody and atmosphere, eloquence and elusiveness.

Cass McCombs

“The Same Thing” – Cass McCombs

Cass McCombs is one mysterious dude. He grew up in Northern California but since then hasn’t managed to live in any one place in particular. He doesn’t do interviews. His web site uses a font that’s a 1/2-inch tall; you can only see about eight lines on the screen at a time. Maybe strangest of all, he has now released two albums this year.

The music he makes doesn’t sound entirely the same from album to album. (He has been featured here twice previously, in 2005 and 2007.) And yet there is over the longer haul an emerging sense of Cass McCombs-iness about what he does—a spectral mix of melody and atmosphere, eloquence and elusiveness. His doggedly echoed voice, alternating between a buzzy whisper and an adenoidal croon, has been with us long enough to be its own thing by just about now, although it won’t sound entirely unfamiliar to fans of either Lloyd Cole or T Bone Burnett. And “The Same Thing,” surely, is a potent song, the determined gait of its minimally-arranged verse underscoring the repeating thematic observation about pain and love being indeed “the same thing.” McCombs draws you in with his words but also dodges your inquiries, as he commonly sings just below the level of aural comprehension, a fact aggravated by his tendency here to sing lyrical lines that don’t scan well with the music. Normally I’m not thrilled with that but when a real wordsmith does it I feel there must be some good reason involved and in this case I suspect further elusiveness.

As for the unexpected, keyboard-induced jauntiness of the song’s bridge-like chorus, I will simply note that those are some of the least happy-go-lucky “la-la-las” in rock’n’roll history. From the enigmatic Mr. McCombs, it seems a satisfying par for the course.

“The Same Thing” is from Humor Risk, the aforementioned second 2011 release for the 34-year-old singer/songwriter, which came out earlier this month; Wit’s End was delivered back in April. These are his fifth and sixth full-length albums, and both arrived via Domino Records. Thanks to Seattle’s mighty KEXP for the MP3, as part of the KEXP blog “Song of the Day” series.

Free and legal MP3: A. A. Bondy (muted, weary beauty)

“Surfer King” sways and hesitates; it seems already to sit in your memory, blurred by reverb and bending under the quaver of a pedal steel.

A. A. Bondy

“Surfer King” – A. A. Bondy

Almost achingly beautiful in a muted and weary kind of way, “Surfer King” finds A. A. Bondy exploring the same sort of atmospheric singer/songwriter sound as he was the last time he was here, in 2009, for the brilliant “When the Devil’s Loose.” No reason to mess with a good thing.

“Surfer King” sways and hesitates; it seems already to sit in your memory, blurred by reverb and bending under the quaver of a pedal steel played for its own sake, rather than to align with the cliched notion of what a pedal steel should sound like. And can I stop for a moment to register the minor but persistent pet peeve of how music bloggers so often hear a pedal steel and call the song country-ish or country-flavored or some such thing? This song has nothing to do with country music (not that there’s anything wrong with that, either). It’s got a pedal steel. But I digress. Bondy in any case seems to have found his sweet spot, having gone from lead singer in a grunge band to a stripped down, early-Dylan-esque troubadour before settling into this pensive, purposeful setting featuring a few well-placed instruments and his reflective baritone. This song is so sturdy, its melody so delicate and true, that the chorus slays us while focusing almost exclusively on two notes, one whole step apart.

“Surfer King” is from Believers, Bondy’s third album as a solo artist, released this month on Fat Possum Records. Bondy was born in Alabama and works from upstate New York. For the excessively curious, A. A. stands for Auguste Arthur.

Free and legal MP3: Papercuts (reverbed nostalgia, w/ something extra)

For all its diaphanous reverb and sweet nostalgia, “Do You Really Wanna Know” has a tough little core that pushes the song, for me, past some of my built-in “twee” alarms.

Papercuts

“Do You Really Wanna Know” – Papercuts

I have recently discovered that not everyone here realizes that the three songs selected each week are not merely handpicked for inclusion but also packaged together in a particular order, intended ideally to be listened to in little sets of three. Well it’s true. And if you don’t have time for that this week, at the very least check out the segue between They Might Be Giants and Papercuts this time around. Is that pretty cool or what?

For all its diaphanous reverb and sweet nostalgia, “Do You Really Wanna Know” has a tough little core that pushes the song, for me, past some of my built-in “twee” alarms. Some of the latent toughness I attribute to its assertive beat, some to the emphatic double-time bass at the bottom of the mix. But in the end it’s probably Papercuts front man/master mind Jason Robert Quever himself who unexpectedly sells the song’s clout. For all of his whispery tenor-ness, Quever finds an extra edge in the chorus; that’s where I really bought in to what’s going on here. The melody gets all girl-group-y while his voice loses the whisper (sort of) and gains traction. The quivery guitar-solo thing he then does before the next verse is actually odder than it sounds if you’re not paying attention.

Papercuts is a band with just one permanent member—the San Francisco-based Quever—and four albums now under their/his belt. “Do You Really Wanna Know”—no question mark—is from Fading Parade, which was released last month, on Sub Pop Records. MP3 via Sub Pop.

Free and legal MP3: Steve Halliday (haunted, well-crafted acoustic ballad)

The voice is pure, haunted, and dramatic, the guitar playing crisp and stark—a recipe, for me, often, to hit the “next” button. Call me grumpy but I don’t usually like this sort of thing. So what is London’s Steve Halliday doing here that lifts the music out of the realm of overly earnest singer/songwriter fare and into something pretty wonderful?

Steve Halliday

“Alive Anywhere” – Steve Halliday

The voice is pure, haunted, and dramatic, the guitar playing crisp and stark—a recipe, for me, often, to hit the “next” button. Call me grumpy but I don’t usually like this sort of thing. So what is London’s Steve Halliday doing here that lifts the music out of the realm of overly earnest singer/songwriter fare and into something pretty wonderful?

A few things, I’d suggest. I like, right away, the major-key start to the minor-key song—always a nice and knowing touch. I like, too, the way the opening arpeggios operate at their own pace, slowing down and speeding up based on an expressive rather than a rhythmic imperative. Halliday continues this tempo variation—what in classical music might be called rubato—to great effect throughout the song. Paradoxically, the key to its success is that you don’t even necessarily notice it unless it’s pointed out.

In a subtly related matter of song craft, the lyrics themselves are asymmetrical, using little direct rhyme and in some cases, such as in the opening verse, no rhyme at all:

You were so long ago
You were driving me back
You’re crying, what’s so wrong?
Keep your hand on the wheel

There’s something simultaneously jarring and lovely in this. Whether consciously done or not, the musical and lyrical nonconformity jointly offset the “earnestness” factor rather well. I’m on board.

“Alive Anywhere” is the title track to Halliday’s debut album, which he home-recorded and self-released back in 2009; more recently it made its iTunes debut in January of this year. Thanks to the artist himself for the MP3, which I have permission to share here.

Free and legal MP3: Marissa Nadler (torchy & reverbed, but also sharp & immediate)

Marissa Nadler

“Baby, I Will Leave You in the Morning” – Marissa Nadler

Torchy, reverby, and nostalgic, but also sharp, disciplined, and genuinely dramatic. Not to mention gorgeous.

Pay attention to how the reverb in Nadler’s creamy voice blends seamlessly with the spacey, Pink Floyd-ish guitars which soar in the distance below. This is why the song doesn’t get bogged down in echoey mud—there’s a lot going on outside the reverb that keeps the ear grounded in immediacy. The crisp acoustic guitar that emerges with a tinkling chord every now and then is a case in point; it is recorded so immaculately that you can sometimes hear fingers on strings (check out 0:58 if you don’t believe it).

Meanwhile, the composition’s abiding drama is built on a structure that has the song modulate upward with each return to the home melody, a musical fact that gains sly lyrical support near the end as Nadler sings “I am getting higher by the moment” (2:55).

“Baby, I Will Leave You in the Morning” is a track from her forthcoming self-titled album, which was funded via Kickstarter. This will be the fifth full-length release for the Boston-based singer/songwriter, who turns 30 in early April. She was previously featured here in 2007 and 2009.

Free and legal MP3: Roman Ruins (electro pop w/ bashy beat & odd beauty)

Spacious, stately electro pop with a bashy beat and a swirly sensibility. The vocals land in that nether space between reverb and mud, lending a DIY-ishness to a song that is nonetheless precisely if mysteriously crafted.

Roman Ruins

“The Comedown” – Roman Ruins

Spacious, stately electro pop with a bashy beat and a swirly sensibility. The vocals land in that nether space between reverb and mud, lending a DIY-ishness to a song that is nonetheless precisely if mysteriously crafted. The long instrumental section that begins at 2:25 and pretty much closes the song out seems on the one hand the kind of meandering mush I steer clear of and yet on the other hand is a weird kind of compelling, unfolding into something oddly beautiful. For instance, there’s something in the layering of synthesizer and noise that goes on between 2:53 and 3:00 that feels careful and deep. And then there’s the casual return of those heavenly vocals (3:14) that we heard previously but then had disappeared. Take beauty where you can find it, my friends.

Roman Ruins is a side project for Graham Hill, who at this point is better known as the touring drummer for the bands Beach House and Papercuts. “The Comedown” was released as a 7-inch single in July on the Oakland-based label Gold Robot Records. The single actually began as a Kickstarter project, a collaboration between Hill and an artist named Hunter Mack, delivering both a vinyl record and a limited art print to fans who funded it. MP3 via Gold Robot. Thanks to the blog My Eyes Are Diamonds for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Emily Neveu(lo-fi, reverb-drenched, lovely vocals)

Not many lo-fi, reverb-drenched songs sneak through the Fingertips filter (certainly not as many as are out there) but this one struck my ears as a keeper, for at least a couple of reasons.

“My Cosmonaut” – Emily Neveu

Not many lo-fi, reverb-drenched songs sneak through the Fingertips filter (certainly not as many as are out there) but this one struck my ears as a keeper, for at least a couple of reasons. To begin with, there’s that appealing acoustic guitar riff in the introduction–appealing because it moves musically (many lesser songs will use an acoustic guitar as a kind of place-keeper, via monotonous strums) and because the chords themselves are refreshing (i.e. not just basic chords, but inversions, which are played higher up the neck). Second, there’s Neveu’s cloud-like voice and the layered way she’s recorded it; such soft tones she sings with, but that doesn’t keep her from experimenting with some intriguing harmonic intervals. Third and maybe best of all, this is one sturdy melody, from the ancient undertones of the folk-like verse to the distilled beauty of a chorus that hinges, poignantly, on a suspended chord.

The 26-year-old, Berkeley-based Neveu has played in the bands Calico Horse, Clock Work Army, and Indian Moon. She is currently preparing a solo album, on which “My Cosmonaut” is slated to appear. She offers a nice assortment of free and legal MP3s–both her unreleased solo stuff and band songs–on her web site. And Radiohead fans may also want to check out her charming, front-porch cover of “Idioteque,” via Lefse Records. When it emerges, the solo album will be out on Lefse.

Free and legal MP3: The Blueflowers (reverb-laced and twangy, w/ dreamy melody)

“I Wasn’t Her” – the Blueflowers

Relaxed, reverb-laced tale of woe from a Detroit-based quintet that’s new on the scene but features musicians with a lot of experience, including two–guitarist Tony Hamera and vocalist Kate Hinote (can that be her real name? “High note”?)–who had previously fronted Ether Aura, a dream pop band with a bit of a following in the ’90s. Not to sound like a broken record on the matter, but I continue not to understand music culture’s relentless focus on newcomers when music itself is so enriched by the background and experience of the players. I don’t think musicians can sound simultaneously so laid-back and so compelling without years of playing under their belts.

In any case, dream pop is ostensibly out the door this time in favor of an old-fashioned sort of Americana that offers echoes of hard-core country and western in its slo-mo twang and steel-pedal sorrow. And yet I’m hearing in the song’s central hook—when Hinote, silkily, sings “You weren’t everything that I wanted” in the chorus—something that comes from outside the genre in which the band appears to be operating. That is not by any means a country and western melody, and hearing it here makes me realize rather abruptly that there is in fact a musical place in which C&W and dream pop are not at all far apart, given both genres’ love of reverb and dolor. Being so personally against the over-genre-ization of music, I love when the borders grow foggy, and find myself drawn again and again to songs that can’t be given a simple genre tag.

“I Wasn’t Her” can be found on the band’s self-released debut album, Watercolor Ghost Town, released in June. MP3 via Last.fm; thanks to the blog Hits in the Car for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Ariel Abshire (young singer/songwriter with a Neko-like air)

“Exclamation Love” – Ariel Abshire

After listening to a few too many songs and/or bands that seek to grab listeners by the collar with their quirkiness or their histrionics or their sheer volume, I find “Exclamation Love” to be a balm to the spirit. There’s nothing here but a fine song and a confident but disciplined singer. Yeah, she lets a note or two rip now and then, but it’s much more Neko Case than “American Idol”: a sweet seasoning of reverb enhancing full-throated tones of startling purity. I keep waiting for her voice to wobble, vibrate, or crack with practiced emotion but she’s having none of it. The closest Abshire gets to an emotional “trick” is at 3:40 when she starts flitting up to falsetto as she drags out the first syllable in “exclamation”–she’s just moving one whole step up but the shift in tone gives it the effect of a dire leap. The song is already two-thirds through, and at that point it’s no trick at all but a natural culmination of the journey.

And who needs histrionics when there’s this: “Why don’t you love me like you used to?” she sings at 1:36, then follows it with “I still love you like I used to” and listen to how she just plain spits out that last to. Check out, also, how the electric guitar uncorks a bit here, for playful emphasis, only to retreat into the mix thenceforth. Sometimes a little quirkiness can go a long way.

Abshire is from Austin and maybe it’s time I mention that she’s 17 years old. Apparently she’s been singing around town since she was 11. “Exclamation Love” is the title track to her debut CD, released last year on Darla Records. MP3 via SXSW.com. Thanks to Bruce at Some Velvet Blog for the head’s up.