Free and legal MP3: Dawn Landes (sweet, gentle, sad)

Sweet and gentle and ineffably sad, “Love Song” creates bittersweet mystery from a string of simple words, set to a sing-along rhythm.

Dawn Landes

“Love Song” – Dawn Landes

Sweet and gentle and ineffably sad, “Love Song” creates bittersweet mystery from a string of simple words, set to a sing-along rhythm. The melody is plain and sturdy, with an elegant balance of upward and downward motion, while the song is structured around verses that end, Dylanishly, with a repeating lyrical conceit that serves as a truncated chorus. The recurring line—“I want to write you a love song/With my life”—is itself achingly elusive, both a profound intention and an implicit confession (of what, is not clear). Landes sings with a tenderness that seems equal parts reflection and regret; when she sings, strikingly, of “the technicolor of a loving soul dimmed to black and white” I find it impossible to know whether she is talking about her own or her ex-lover’s or (most likely) both.

I would be remiss if I did not, now, point out that Landes was married to fellow singer/songwriter Josh Ritter for a portentously short 18 months earlier this decade, and that Ritter was the first of the two to release the so-called “divorce album” (2013’s The Beast in its Tracks). Landes’s upcoming Bluebird, arriving next month on Western Vinyl, is hers. Disliking both gossip and speculation, I leave it at that.

Landes was born in Kentucky, moved to New York City to attend NYU in 1999, dropped out after two years, and, as a self-professed studio geek, finagled her way into recording studio jobs while also working on her own music. Based in Brooklyn, she owns a studio there with two partners which has been up and running since 2008. Bluebird was co-produced by Landes and Thomas Bartlett (Doveman); among the album’s performers are Bartlett, Rob Moose, and Norah Jones. Landes was previously featured on Fingertips in February ’08 for the beguiling “Bodyguard.” Bluebird is her fifth full-length album; she also has released two EPs, including 2012’s charming but largely disregarded Mal Habillée, a French-language tribute to the yé-yé music of the early ’60s.

Free and legal MP3: Camera Obscura (sweet, sad, swaying)

“Fifth in Line to the Throne” swings with a stately, downcast manner, slowing the band’s characteristic early-’60s melodies to a torchy sway.

Camera Obscura

“Fifth In Line To The Throne” – Camera Obscura

Masters of sweet sad pop, Camera Obscura are back after a four-year absence; all those melted without delay by Tracyanne Campbell’s voice prepare to be quickly puddled once more.

“Fifth in Line to the Throne” swings with a stately, downcast manner, slowing the band’s characteristic early-’60s melodies to a torchy sway. It’s a simple song, with no pretenses—and, previous CO adherents should note, not a whole lot of reverb. The band traveled from Glasgow to Portland, Oregon for this new album, to work with producer Tucker Martine, a studio whiz who seems to have figured out an intriguing way to maintain the band’s signature vibe without quite so much echoey ambiance as usual. The reverb is still there, to be sure, but the central tones of both Campbell’s voice and Kenny McKeeve’s lead guitar (check out the sly, leisurely solo, beginning at 2:44) are given more clarity than has been previously typical. Guest backing vocalist Neko Case, however, gets the full drench, her distinctive voice often diffused in a reverberant cloud.

The four years that have passed since My Maudlin Career have not been uneventful for the Scottish quintet. Keyboard player Carey Lander was diagnosed with cancer; she has apparently responded well to treatments and is not inclined to talk about it. Guitarist McKeeve, a new parent himself, lost his mother unexpectedly. And Campbell is now pregnant. But, hiatus now behind them, seventeen years into their lives together as a band, Camera Obscura forges onward with their fifth album, Desire Lines, arriving early next month on 4AD Records. MP3 via 4AD; thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up. And for a taste of one of the album’s upbeat numbers, check out “Do It Again,” via YouTube.

The band has been previously featured on Fingertips in 2006 (when I was already extolling their veteran prowess) and 2009.

Free and legal MP3: Emily Jane White (lovely, stark, textured, and sad)

“It’s not my job to create happy music,” says Emily Jane White, a San Francisco-based singer/songwriter. “I’m okay with that.” This may be a tricky stance to maintain for a long career, but you and I can be okay with that too for now if the end result is something as lovely, stark, and textured as “Liza.” Sure, there’s surface-level sadness in the air, but the music, while reasonably simple, offers an enticing depth of sound and spirit right from the outset.

“Liza” – Emily Jane White

“It’s not my job to create happy music,” says Emily Jane White, a San Francisco-based singer/songwriter. “I’m okay with that.” This may be a tricky stance to maintain for a long career, but you and I can be okay with that too for now if the end result is something as lovely, stark, and textured as “Liza.” Sure, there’s surface-level sadness in the air, but the music, while reasonably simple, offers an enticing depth of sound and spirit right from the outset. The introduction alone is mysteriously satisfying, with its evocative blend of picked electric guitar and violin, and that repeat musical line at the finish, which makes me feel like I’ve just heard an entire story in 24 seconds.

Certainly White’s subtly toasted alto is well-suited to the “not happy” vibe, but I’m actually enjoying more her phrasing and delivery than her tone. It’s not too hard to sound gloomy; it’s hard to sound interesting while also sounding gloomy. I like her off-handed delivery, the way she manages to sound like she’s just deciding what to sing as she sings it, rather than reciting lyrics committed to memory–a particular feat in a song featuring not many lyrics in the first place. And why does the abrupt entrance of the drumming, at 1:51, sound like precisely the thing that needed to be there? Curious. The first verse, re-sung, is transformed by that insistent drum beat, which soon drives the violins into a double-time swirl, creating the feeling of a chase through the woods. The subsequent slowdown (2:56) is likewise sudden but somehow wonderful. We hear the first verse yet again. And that repeat finishing line from the introduction gets an extra repeat at the end of the song, exactly as required.

“Liza” is from White’s second full-length, Victorian America, set to be released next month on Milan Records. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3: Anaïs Mitchell(memorably sung, sadly swinging ballad)

Slow down and breathe with this one–it’s a burner and a keeper. And don’t be worried that the song is part of a so-called “folk opera” that reworks the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in Depression-era America. In fact, I probably shouldn’t even have mentioned that. Forget I said anything.

“Flowers (Eurydice’s Song)” – Anaïs Mitchell

Slow down and breathe with this one—it’s a burner and a keeper. And don’t be worried that the song is part of a so-called “folk opera” that reworks the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in Depression-era America. In fact, I probably shouldn’t even have mentioned that. Forget I said anything.

Instead, just listen: to Mitchell’s indelible voice—part pixie, part pop star—and her incandescent phrasing; to the unhurried viola which accompanies her so balefully (note to self: the viola is one underutilized instrument) and turns the song on one unexpected note (1:47); to the ache and pain that exists around this piece but never, completely, in it. In much the same way, the song unfolds with its simultaneously steady and hesitant gait and never quite coalesces into any solid verse or chorus structure. The mighty myth that underpins the music provides all the structure we need, and Mitchell’s lyrics, in service to it, can be stunning in their understatement. Here’s how Eurydice recalls what may have been her last living moment: “Walking in the sun, I remember someone/Someone by my side turned his face to mine/And then I turned away, into the shade.” By and large she uses short, concrete words and trusts her splendid voice to add layers of meaning. Listen, for one example, to how she sings the simple word “now” at 1:09. I don’t think you can teach that.

Hadestown is the name of the theatrical work that the Vermont-based Mitchell wrote in collaboration with composer Michael Chorney. It premiered in Vermont in December 2006, and went out on a partially fan-supported tour of New England in 2007. The recording, for Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records, features a variety of prominent indie music voices—including Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Petra Haden, and Ben Knox Miller (the Low Anthem)—along with grizzled folkie Greg Brown and Ms. DiFranco herself. The album, well worth checking out, will be released next month.

Free and legal MP3: Shearwater (sad grandeur, portentous rhythm section)

With his monumental voice, and taste for monumental subject matter, Jonathan Meiburg creates music with the sad grandeur of ruined palaces or Russian novels. But take your ear off Shearwater’s front man for a moment, if you can, and check out what else is happening here, or not happening.

“Castaways” – Shearwater

With his monumental voice, and taste for monumental subject matter, Jonathan Meiburg creates music with the sad grandeur of ruined palaces or Russian novels. But take your ear off Shearwater’s front man for a moment, if you can, and check out what else is happening here, or not happening.

The rumbly drama you’re listening to is all about the vigorous rhythm section, which seems to have changed places with the rest of the band: the pounding drums and agile bass line are front and center, they’re what Meiburg is singing with, they’re what forms the musical center of the song, while guitar and keyboard play with care and tenderness around the edges. Yes, you’ll hear the guitar and keys in the introduction, daintily, but once the drums kick in at 0:35, “Castaways” swings with its rhythm section’s portentous rumble. I may be imagining it, but I feel as if I am more often hearing the guitarist’s fingers moving on the strings than I am hearing the guitar itself. This is the type of tender detail that helps give the song its poignant depth, above and beyond its more obviously dramatic ambiance.

“Castaways” is the first available song from the band’s forthcoming album, The Golden Archipelago, slated for a February release on Matador Records. Note that Shearwater, from Austin, is a band that still very much believes in the album format. The CD will come with a 50-page booklet, and the vinyl LP is slightly reordered, with two additional songs, allowing for the difference in listening experiences. Note too that Shearwater has twice previously been featured on Fingertips: in March 2008 and May 2005. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3: the Sweet Serenades (happy/sad indie pop from Sweden)

“Die Young” – the Sweet Serenades

Despite the bright guitar line, winsome beat, perky synthesizer, and, even, bongos(!), this melodic toe-tapper is poignant through and through. (Sad lyrics to happy music is a perpetually satisfying pop music trick.) The band’s Martin Nordvall here trades vocals with guest Karolina Komstedt from Club 8, and the story is a wistful, disconnected one: smitten, he sings how he loves to linger in the morning and watch her breathe; she, forty seconds later, “not looking for love,” sings, “In the morning/You stay a little too long.” Ouch.

One of my favorite moments happens early, as the song is still setting itself up: when Nordvall sings “I haven’t been myself lately” (0:35), the words “been myself” form a sort of triplet, the second two syllables each coming ahead of the beat while—this is the cool thing—underneath, one of the guitars slashes three evocative chords precisely in rhythm with all three parts of the syncopated phrase. Okay, subtle, but it’s the kind of thing that to me signals a song of merit and purpose. I like too how one of Komstedt’s two heavy introductory sighs—before you actually hear her begin singing—come right ahead of that lyrical line.

Based in Stockholm, the Sweet Serenades are Nordvall and lead guitarist partner Mathias Näslund, who have apparently been inseparable since finding one another wearing the same then-hip Soviet CCCP hat and riding similar bikes as teens in 1991. “Die Young” is from the band’s full-length debut, Balcony Cigarettes, released last month on Leon Records.