Free and legal MP3: Shelby Earl (sad, strong, slowly swinging)

Shelby Earl is a new singer/songwriter who sounds like an old one. I mean that in the best of ways.

Shelby Earl

“Under Evergreen” – Shelby Earl

Some songs, to paraphrase William Shakespeare (badly), are born great; others have greatness thrust upon them. “Under Evergreen” as a song is simple and torchy, a song to fade into the background or rise to the foreground based less on its intrinsic qualities than on the strength and spirit the singer brings to it.

Earl enters the piece on her own, singing the words “I look around” before the instruments begin playing. This itself is a wonderful, subtle statement, alerting us before we can fully register it that we are dealing with a singer of arresting power and poise. And let’s hear it for how poise tempers power; while “X Factor” histrionics on the one hand and runaway robotics on the other have overrun pop singing at the mass-market level, Earl single-handedly confirms the heart-breaking effect of vocal strength and tone when used with discipline and without fetishistic techno-fads. She is a new singer/songwriter who sounds like an old one. I mean that in the best of ways. (Even her god-given name sounds like an old singer/songwriter.) Under her guidance, “Under Evergreen” becomes three minutes and forty-three seconds of sad, strong, slowly swinging greatness.

The song is part of Earl’s debut album, Burn the Boats, set for release at the beginning of November on Local 638 Records, the Seattle-based label owned by Rachel Flotard. Earl by the way spent many years working at relatively high-level music-industry day jobs, trying to get the musician thing going at night. Late in 2009, she made the leap, working as a waitress to pay the rent but otherwise focusing on following her musical bliss. Lord knows how this will work out for her as a lifestyle decision but as an artistic decision it was a no-brainer. I’ve been listening to the whole album and she is without question the real thing.

Free and legal MP3: Gold Leaves (’60s pop meets indie pop, w/ Spectorian nod)

A fetching blend of melodramatic ’60s pop and muddy ’10s indie something-or-other, “The Ornament” matches a brisk bashy pace to an introspective melody and evocative if inscrutable lyrics.

Gold Leaves

“The Ornament” – Gold Leaves

A fetching blend of melodramatic ’60s pop and muddy ’10s indie something-or-other, “The Ornament” matches a brisk bashy pace to an introspective melody and evocative if inscrutable lyrics. There’s something Phil Spectory in the air—here an ambiguous echo of the classic Spector beat, there a reverb-enhanced ambiance that knowingly evokes the famous wall of sound. But Grant Olsen—Gold Leaves is his baby, pretty much a solo project—is not merely in retro mode. The song usurps Spectorian elements for its own idiosyncratic purposes. Listen for example to how “The Ornament” strips itself down to its drumbeat in and around the two-minute mark. Spector-produced songs are filled with dramatic drumbeats but nothing like this. The drums here, further, introduce an off-kilter section of the song that seems neither bridge nor verse and which culminates in a dramatic pause before rejoining our regularly scheduled programming.

And that’s another intriguing thing about this song. Even as it nods to a simpler sort of pop, it will not itself be pinned down to either a verse or a chorus that obviously sticks in the head. The verse seems to be divided into three sections, and the lovely turn of melody we hear in the opening lines (0:07-0:20) is never quite returned to—the next two times the song revisits that place, the main melody has been shifted up. I think what happens in a song like this is that you keep unconsciously waiting for that great early moment to return and when it never quite does you are instead led through a journey that seems at once familiar and unsettling. Olsen’s voice—a droopy tenor that’s one part Robin Pecknold, one part Ron Sexsmith—guides us through the song’s lyrical and melodic quirks most endearingly.

Olsen has previously been known to the indie world as half of the duo Arthur & Yu, which released its one album, to date, back in 2007. “The Ornament” is the title track to his debut as Gold Leaves, which will arrive on Hardly Art Records in August. MP3 via Hardly Art. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Free and legal MP3: Rusty Willoughby (sad & gentle, like a lullaby)

A gentle 3/4-time lullaby, “C’mon C’mon” sways with wistful momentum, down but not out. “How many times must a broken heart still break?” Willoughby sings, in his old-fashioned, Nick Lowe-ian voice.

Cobirds Unite

“C’mon C’mon” – Rusty Willoughby

A gentle 3/4-time lullaby, “C’mon C’mon” sways with wistful momentum, down but not out. “How many times must a broken heart still break?” Willoughby sings, in his old-fashioned, Nick Lowe-ian voice. Cue the mournful cello. Keep the background sweet and clean. Pair Willoughby with a singer so in sync—Rachel Flotard, of Visqueen—that her harmonies feel like they’re also coming out of his mouth. This is one sweet sad humble centered song. This is a value judgment against neither gentleman, but consider Rusty Willoughby the anti-Kanye West.

The New York-born Willoughby has operated from Seattle since the ’80s, having fronted a series of well-regarded, left-of-center bands over the years, including Pure Joy, Flop, and Llama. “C’mon C’mon” is from the new album Cobirds Unite, released last week on the Seattle label Local 638.

Free and legal MP3: Telekinesis (buzzy power pop)

The Seattle-based one-man-band Telekinesis is back with more of that chunky, buzzy, power poppy goodness.

Telekinesis

“Car Crash” – Telekinesis

The Seattle-based one-man-band Telekinesis is back with more of that chunky, buzzy, power poppy goodness. “Car Crash” starts with a thin, AM-radio sound and a rich, NRBQ-ish melody. Roughly 30 seconds in, the full sound hits—and a bottom-heavy sound at that, all fuzzy bass and driving percussion—but hang on a second, what’s he actually singing about?: “Will I die alone?/You know, I’m so concerned/You know, I’m so confused/Like a lost child, a little lost child.” This is surely not what the music is telling us, so yeah, this is one of those “sad words/happy music” juxtapositions that can be so strangely appealing. Let’s not forget that this zippy, sing-along-y confection is called “Car Crash,” after all. And while it may be reasonable to imagine the end of love as a car crash, I think I’m hearing here the equation of a car crash to the random, uncontrollable, confusing beginning part, too: falling in love as car crash.

Telekinesis is the work of 24-year-old Seattle-based singer/songwriter/drummer Michael Benjamin Lerner. Like last year’s self-titled debut album, the new Telekinesis album was produced by Chris Walla (Death Cab For Cutie) and performed largely by Lerner. He is however taking two band mates on the road and has intimated that Telekinesis may be in the process of turning into an actual band (a “power trio,” in his words). The forthcoming album is called 12 Desperate Straight Lines and will be released on Merge Records in February. MP3 via Spin.com.

Free and legal MP3: Jupe Jupe (irresistible neo-New Romantic camp)

Treading that oh-so-fine line between camp and earnestness, “Add As Friend” is a melodramatic, irresistible slice of neo-New Romantic synth pop, complete with a crooning baritone, goofy synthesizer sounds, and an anthemic dance-floor melody.

Jupe Jupe

“Add As Friend” – Jupe Jupe

Treading that oh-so-fine line between camp and earnestness, “Add As Friend” is a melodramatic, irresistible slice of neo-New Romantic synth pop, complete with a crooning baritone, goofy synthesizer sounds, and an anthemic dance-floor melody. We know we’re in good hands when the intro builds rapidly from a bell-like synthesizer line through a pulsating (and smile-inducing) middle section into full-fledged melodic glory by 0:28—a simple, beautifully crafted instrumental theme that serves as the ongoing heart of the song. I find a song with a wordless hook difficult to get out of my head.

But make no mistake about the camp here. One giveaway is the overtly humorous synthesizer lines which pop up throughout the song—most noticeably at 0:22, 1:26. 2:44, and 3:12, if you’re keeping score at home. At its heart, camp is a joke—even if, often, a serious joke—so humor is always near the surface. Another is the song’s Erasure-esque vibe, and Erasure was nothing if not the camp champion of the New Romantic movement. But as Erasure themselves proved, a camp act can still create really good music. Jupe Jupe has hereby joined the club.

A foursome from Seattle, Jupe Jupe self-released their debut album, Invaders, this week. That’s where you’ll find “Add As Friend.”

Free and legal MP3: Hey Marseilles (rollicking 21st-century ensemble pop)

“Rio” – Hey Marseilles

Funny, if you think about it: the 21st-century to date has arguably contributed two abiding types of music to the rock’n’roll idiom, and they’re kind of the exact opposites of each other. One is the music played by a two-person band, with keyboards and synthetic sounds at the forefront; the other is the music played by a large-ish group of people (typically five or more) wielding an idiosyncratic assortment of often (but not exclusively) acoustic instruments. Not that each type of ensemble plays one precise kind of music, so I’m not really talking about two new music styles or genres as much as two new musical energies or platforms, both thriving over the last ten years or so.

Hey Marseilles, as you can almost guess from the name, is the second type–a seven-piece band from Seattle that plays things like accordion, cello, viola, mandolin, banjo, trumpet, and (wait for it) drumbourine. Now on the one hand, just putting a bunch of musicians with a bunch of instruments together is no guarantee for sonic success, and yet one could argue on the other hand that seven people who can play non-amplified instruments well enough together to make a coherent sound have an immediate leg up over a standard, four-person electric outfit. But then on the other other hand it also happens that larger ensembles can get so caught up in merely making the sound they make that the songs themselves–melodies, chords, structures–come up lacking. Not so with these guys, however. “Rio” is a joy from the opening hand claps, a sweetly rollicking neo sea shanty with terrific interplay between music and lyrics and delightfully rich instrumental layers. You never quite know which sounds are going to match up with which other sounds as the piece bounds along. It’s great fun, both light and deep.

“Rio” is a song from the band’s debut album, To Trunks and Travel, originally self-released in 2008, but which is getting a national re-release in June via Onto Entertainment. Thanks to the irrepressible Largehearted Boy for the head’s up. And if you want a sense of what this musical energy is like in person, check out this live performance of “Rio” from the band’s visit to KEXP: