Free and legal MP3: Imperial Teen (perky & dancey, w/ ELO-ish flair)

Perky and concise, “Runaway” has an old-school feel about it, which I guess is not surprising, since Imperial Teen is one of those rare indie bands that has been around long enough to be legitimately old-school itself.

Imperial Teen

“Runaway” – Imperial Teen

Perky and concise, “Runaway” has an old-school feel about it, which I guess is not surprising, since Imperial Teen is one of those rare indie bands that has been around long enough to be legitimately old-school itself. Founded in San Francisco in 1994 by Roddy Bottum, then of the band Faith No More, this boy/girl, four-person side-project has now lasted longer than Faith No More did. Remember that whenever you try to predict the future.

“Runaway” is a simple song with vintage-sounding keyboards (Supertramp, anyone?), ELO-esque vocals and such a firm bounce that I can clearly imagine a throng of people on a dance floor (old-school-style, of course) all shouting along with the “Go in! Go out!” part. With arm gestures. Which I will leave to your imagination. The production here is at once big and contained—well put together, with a bright sound, but not bombastic. The melody is basic in a way that recalls children’s songs, but then there’s that unrelenting drumbeat that kind of opposes that impression. Pay attention, by the way, to the one time the drummer opens it up just a tiny bit, during the short instrumental break at 2:47: it feels like a mini-revelation. This also happens to be the first time we can hear the guitar on its own. A pithy moment, but to me it seals the song.

Albums have been intermittent for Imperial Teen over the years; Feel The Sound, coming out at the end of the month on Merge Records, is just the band’s fifth. “Runaway” is the lead track. MP3 via KEXP.

Photo credit: Marina Chavez

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: Like Pioneers (Americana-ish, from Chicago side project)

While many great songs catch your ear through an obvious hook, others employ something I’m inclined to think of as a “moment”—a time and place in the song that sticks with you, that you look forward to each time you hear it, but yet is not big and bold and catchy enough to think of as a hook.

Like Pioneers

“Gift From a Holiday” – Like Pioneers

While many great songs catch your ear through an obvious hook, others employ something I’m inclined to think of as a “moment”—a time and place in the song that sticks with you, that you look forward to each time you hear it, but yet is not big and bold and catchy enough to think of as a hook. Songs with moments rather than hooks can sometimes be even more alluring, because on the one hand the appeal is slightly more mysterious and on the other hand the end result can maybe seem more, I don’t know, organic—in that sometimes a big hook, however good it is, draws almost too much attention to itself. A moment, such as I’m trying to describe it, seems to flow straight from the energy of the song, whereas a hook, perhaps, flows sometimes too obviously from the mind of the songwriter, if that distinction even makes sense.

In any case, I hear the loose-limbed, Americana-tinged “A Gift From a Holiday” as a song with a moment, and that moment is in the casually delivered chorus, specifically that part of it when the rhythm of the lyrics changes, and orients for an extended line into three-syllable clumps (e.g. “wooden bench,” “left you on,” “crumbling”—and yes that last one is not strictly three syllables but is here pronounced that way). It’s an arresting moment, seeming to arise naturally from the story, and yet also with an air of oddness about it. What prompted that change, and how did this turn into the chorus? And what a strange chorus it is, lacking the sort of short, repeated phrase one expects, instead using two complete sets of lyrics with the same music, meaning we get another round of those syllable triplets (“picked me up,” “dragged me home,” et al), even more definitive-sounding this time. And not content for one good moment, “A Gift For a Holiday” offers another, beginning at 1:56, and it’s longer but still not really a hook. Here, the song shifts into a new section, neither chorus nor verse, with a sing-songy, declarative melody that repeats for 40 seconds before leading us into the extended instrumental section that becomes the song’s finale.

And maybe we can rightfully expect moment- rather than hook-songs from a project like this one, which gathered six musicians from a variety of Chicago-based bands (including Bound Stems and Chin Up Chin Up) over a couple of winter weekends just to make music, have fun, and see what happened. As it turned out, an album happened, which they called Piecemeal, reflecting the project’s makeshift origins. Released digitally this week via Abandoned Love Records, the album has also been available directly from the band via Bandcamp, where you can name your own price. MP3 via Abandoned Love.