Free and legal MP3: Josh Rouse (sprightly faux Latin pop w/ P. Simon feel)

“I Will Live On Islands” – Josh Rouse

I’ve had this song in the listening pile for a few weeks and maybe it’s the (finally) receding snow that has allowed me to open my ears and enjoy this merry, warm-weather-inflected bit of lovingly crafted faux Latin pop. Perhaps I didn’t quite realize how aggravating the song was previously making me, its breezy narrator imagining his imminent escape to island living. No matter the narrator is literally in prison; the metaphor hit home (Seriously: “I want to see some green/Get me out of this place”).

But spring appears to be springing, however slowly. It’ll be May before all the parking lot piles melt around here but grass is at long last visible and this week I’m charmed by Rouse’s bright, Paul Simonesque romp. And I at long last listened closely enough to understand that the point is the guy’s infectious optimism, not his present confines. Should’ve featured the tune weeks ago. Anyway, musically, yes, the echoes of Simon are clear and, even, are emphasized by the singing voice Rouse adopts. (Listen to the way he sings the word “convicted” at 0:35–that’s an homage, no way it’s not.) But let’s of course remember that Paul Simon himself was borrowing existing styles and rhythms, and Rouse, a transplanted American who has lived in Spain for five years, knows the original sources very well by now himself. If you want to see just how well, check out the Spanish-sung “Valencia,” which has been quietly available as a free and legal download via Vanity Fair since the fall.

Both songs are from the album El Turista, which is set for release next week on Yep Roc Records. The “I Will Live On Islands” MP3 is via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3: Aidan Knight(able country-tinged sing-along)

“Jasper” – Aidan Knight

When a song comes along as effortlessly gladdening as “Jasper” I actually get a little suspicious. “That’s it?” I think. “It’s that easy to write a really good song? A sing-along even? Anybody could do that!”

But of course as it turns out anybody can’t. Otherwise we’d have a lot more of this around, which we clearly do not. There’s something ramrod solid about this song, even as it glides so easily through its three and a half minutes. Perched squarely on the shoulders of Aidan Knight’s comfortable, boy-next-door baritone, “Jasper,” for all its laid-back, singer/songwriter-y vibe, shines with the melodic assurance of an old Elton John song. (This is, to be clear, a compliment, and anyone who doesn’t realize that would do well to go revisit some of the songs Sir Reg recorded between 1970 and 1974.) The song sounds channeled more than written, and everything about its presentation–from the delightfully restrained steel-guitar licks to the climactic group-sung chorus–rings true and right, as if no one had to decide any of this, as if it sprung to life of its will alone.

Knight is from the lovely city of Victoria, B.C.; “Jasper” is from Versicolour, his first album, which is due out early next month. It is also the first release for the record label Adventure Boys Club, a label started by Knight along with Tyler Bancroft, of the Vancouver band Said the Whale.

Free and legal MP3: Lay Low (twangy Icelandic toe-tapper)

“By and By” – Lay Low

Doing musical business as Lay Low, Icelandic singer/songwriter Lovísa Elísabet Sigrúnardóttir combines a genuine feel for–of all things–classic country and western with the ability, consistently shared by musicians in her home country, to tap into something marvelous and otherworldly.

On the surface, yes, the song is an upbeat, twangy little thing, but me, I am for some reason paying extra attention to how Lovísa meanders away from the regimen of the sprightly beat that appears at first to define the song. In the verses, only the first two words of each line are firmly on the beat; by the end of the verse, she willfully ignores the momentum of the song, her voice all but purring with an unusual blend of intimacy and puckishness. The chorus, meanwhile, sounds like a return to alignment (0:59) but for the life of me even when the melody appears to be in lockstep with the beat I swear she sounds like she’s laying off ever so slightly. And then soon enough (1:04) she lets it go entirely. Listen to how she manages the transition between the words “before” and “I”; I cannot describe it. And behind her it’s all just perky country playing, as if nothing is awry, as if it’s maybe just a big guy in a cowboy hat who’s on stage and we’re group-imagining this (marvelous, otherworldly) Nordic visitation.

“By and By” will be found on Lay Low’s second album, Farewell Good Night’s Sleep, due out in March on Lovísa’s own Loo label.

Free and legal MP3: Amy Cook (exquisite song from Austin-based singer/songwriter)

“Hotel Lights” – Amy Cook

And here’s a real new year’s treat—a song as good as anything you’re likely to hear over the coming 12 months. On the one hand, it’s a quiet bit of singer/songwriter fare; on the other hand, oh my, what an exquisite tune. Cook plays an electric guitar here—the old-fashioned kind, with f-holes—not an acoustic one, and its rich, rounded tones lend an immediate depth to the song, and nicely complements her ever-so-slightly-dusky voice.

But it’s sheer songwriting prowess that makes this one shine. Cook, based in Austin, works wonders in particular with asymmetricality. Listen, first of all, to the melody line at the beginning of the verse (0:12), and how those three words (“All the girls”) are set apart, separated by a measure and a half from the rest of the line, which then streams out without a break through the lyric’s end. There’s great power in that quiet lack of regularity, and Cook uses it again, in a different way, at the opposite end of the structure. After the first two lines of the chorus, in which her words emerge in two-syllable clusters at the beginning of each measure, she proceeds to extend the second line four extra measures, partially mirroring the two-syllable clustering but now filling in the empty spaces with an uneven but luscious melody. Much more delightful to listen to than to read about.

“Hotel Lights” is from Cook’s album Let The Light In, produced by Alejandro Escovedo and slated for an early March release. This appears to be her third album but details are sketchy. Thanks to Bruce at Some Velvet Blog for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Laura Veirs

Evocative, idiosyncratic singer/songwriter

“Wide-Eyed, Legless” – Laura Veirs

Long-time Fingertips favorite Laura Veirs has a plainspoken presence, a gift for evocative lyrics, and the capacity to weave magical melodies into unassuming songs. “Wide-Eyed, Legless”–and that’s quite a title, eh?–begins with a plucky, fairy-tale sort of ambiance, its sing-song-y verse rooted in an ancient, semi-pentatonic refrain (mostly but not all black notes) and set against gull-like synthesizer lines.

And that would just about be cool enough, but then comes the chorus and one of those brilliant little melodies of hers. “Will you ever more tie up my hair with velvet bows?” she sings (0:50), delivering, in the midst of that bouncy, spiky tune a moment of poignant melodic resolution. Complete with that old-fashioned wording, it’s quite lovely, but she doesn’t dwell on it; even as the melody repeats for a second line in the chorus it changes a bit, and ends without the resolution, plunking us back into the “hornet rain” both lyrically and musically. Something, certainly, is going on here, having something to do with ships and storms and lost love, perhaps, but I can’t really be sure, and that mystery is part of the song’s quirky allure.

“Wide-Eyed, Legless” will be found on the album July Flame, Veirs’ seventh, scheduled for release in January on her Raven Marching Band label. MP3 via her site.

Free and legal MP3: Will Stratton (gorgeous, reverb-laced)

I like the sonic interplay between the crisply strummed acoustic guitar at the front of the mix and that big dark open space underneath–space created seemingly by just a lonesome-prairie guitar and Stratton’s voice, each enhanced as they are by a steady, stately reverb.

“Who Will” – Will Stratton

Gorgeous and swaying, but with a deep-down sense of gravity. (Anyone remember the old Fleetwood Mac instrumental “Albatross”? This evokes that, pleasantly.) I like the sonic interplay between the crisply strummed acoustic guitar at the front of the mix and that big dark open space underneath–space created seemingly by just a lonesome-prairie guitar and Stratton’s voice, each enhanced as they are by a steady, stately reverb. The acoustic guitar offers naked immediacy, the reverbed layers lend a shadowy, contemplative air. Somewhere in the middle someone is sitting at a piano and playing a few chords every so often, adding to the engaging three-dimensionality. Later we get female harmonies, violins, even a trumpet, all of which contribute further to the song’s gentle dream.

But this song has a haunting quality that seems to be larger than the sum of its parts. In a weird way it’s as if the reverb itself, independent of what’s reverb-ing (the drums get it too, and the trumpet, and the female backing singers), is a visceral part of the intimate yet spacious landscape, is itself somehow its own presence in the music.

The 22-year-old Stratton recorded his first album, What the Night Said, the summer after he graduated from high school, and it was released two years later, in 2007. Two years further on, he’s out the other side of college, and along comes his second album, No Wonder, released last week on Stunning Models on Display. MP3 via the record company.

Free and legal MP3: Audra Mae (singer/songwriter w/ big voice)

“The River” – Audra Mae

With clear roots in country and folk, two very structured genres, “The River” hooks the ear with a series of surprising melodic and harmonic shifts. We hear this first at 0:15, when Mae follows the opening two traditional-sounding lines with a third (“The river’s gonna wash my sins away”) that runs unexpectedly up through a diminished chord. How did we get here? Suddenly the music is unresolved, and remains so until one more surprising shift, at 0:26, on the words “make me forget.” Resolution comes on the succeeding phrase, “my sorrow.” That’s some nifty songwriting–uncomplicated but subtly startling–and Mae uses it all to set up her bittersweet chorus. It begins with one more musical shift: that heartbreaking half-step she takes in the phrase “I can’t swim” (1:02), which starts the major-key chorus with a minor-key twist. Even the lyrics provide a subtle shock here, aurally–when she gets to the phrase “even if I could,” the lack of rhyme isn’t what the ear expects. But she has slyly shifted the rhyme scheme, which the listener catches onto as the chorus continues. More niftiness.

And maybe niftiest of all is how everything is delivered by a young, big-voiced singer who seems anachronistically delighted to use her vocal substance in service of small musical moments. No “American Idol”-ish histrionics for this big voice. One example: listen to how differently she sings the word “I” the first two times she says it: first, the opening word of the song (“I done a bad thing, it’s okay”; 0:05) and second, the beginning of the second line, four seconds later (“I’m going down to the river today”). The first “I” is fast, easy, almost evasive; the second “I,” made resonant with the contracted “m,” feels deep, mighty, and mournful as it encompasses an extra half-beat in the singing. Words don’t do it justice so now I’ll be quiet.

“The River” is the lead track from Audra Mae’s debut EP, Haunt, released last week on SideOneDummy Records. The Oklahoma-born Mae is now based in L.A. and, speaking of big voices, happens to be Judy Garland’s grand niece.

Free and legal MP3: Cameron McGill & What Army (straightforward sound, wonderful song)

“Madeline, Every Girl” – Cameron McGill & What Army

A truly wonderful song from beginning to end. But a funny thing: every time the tempo falters, because of how the song is constructed, I find myself almost annoyed because of how much I was digging the forward-moving energy that’s now interrupted. And it happens in the chorus, just when I might be expecting more rather than less motion. But then each time the tempo picks back up with the new verse, I realize that maybe I’m enjoying the faster-paced section precisely because of the repeated way it pulls back. Life is like that too. Oh, and check out how, the second time we hear the chorus, McGill picks up the tempo before the end (2:00). Feels very satisfying somehow. But the third time is the best–he kicks it up for just a moment (3:22), and somehow that’s most satisfying of all.

While Cameron McGill & What Army often play music with a definite folk-rock or folk-pop feel, “Madeline, Every Girl” is, in this age of micro-genres, maybe too straightforward for any workable label: it’s just guitar and bass and drums playing together without any particular fuss or special flavor. Some songs depend upon their instrumentation and arrangement for their very existence, and other songs, like this one, exist so strongly as things unto themselves that you could probably play them on a toy xylophone and they would still shine through.

Cameron McGill is a Chicago-based singer/songwriter who released an album called Warm Songs for Cold Shoulders, his fourth, back in April on Parasol Records. “Madeline, Every Girl” is the a-side of a three-song digital single released last month called Two Hits and a Miss, which is available via iTunes. MP3 courtesy of Parasol.

Free and legal MP3: Spider(quiet, simmering)


“Petal Song” – Spider

This may not sound at first like a song that’s going to kick out with a minute-long Pink Floydian guitar solo, but how often, actually, are things exactly what they seem? (cf. “Things are not as they seem. Nor are they otherwise,” as per the Buddha.)

“Petal Song” may well begin quietly but there’s something simmering from the outset–most notably Jane Herships (aka Spider) herself. Some vocalists with quavering voices sing like it’s all they can do to make an audible sound, the quavering in this case being a sign of near exhaustion. The quaver in Herships’ voice, by contrast, has the feeling of someone holding back something mighty. She shakes from the effort of keeping contained. In that context, the electric outburst at the end is maybe even inevitable. Before you get there, however, be sure to sink into the subtly gorgeous melodies Herships has crafted along the way–in both the matter-of-fact verse and the swaying chorus–and the engaging, shifting ways she sings them.

“The Petal Song” is from Things We Liked To Hold, Spider’s new, self-released CD. MP3 via, where you can listen to the whole thing, and also download four other free and legal MP3s. Spider by the way was previously featured on Fingertips in 2006, and was also one of the stars of the late, lamented Fingertips: Unwebbed CD.

Free and legal MP3: Adam Arcuragi (quirky acoustic strummer, w/ trumpets)

“She Comes to Me” – Adam Arcuragi

At once relaxed and intent, “She Comes to Me” is an instantly likable, subtly quirky acoustic strummer. And you should know that I don’t have a lot of patience for run-of-the-mill acoustic strummers, which strike me by and large as a little, shall we say, boring. Despite what you might hear being aired on those they-mean-well-but-they’re-really-sometimes-kind-of-dreadful “triple A” radio stations, songs are not good or wise or sensitive just because someone’s playing an acoustic guitar and has an evocative voice.

“She Comes to Me” is good and wise and sensitive because it has movement and energy, because it’s easy to listen to but difficult to pin down, because it is both aurally and structurally complex without being messy or silly. Unlike countless writers of run-of-the-mill acoustic strummers, Arcuragi here gives us a continually interesting melody, based on refreshing chord changes that don’t seem to follow a predictable pattern. The melody is in fact somewhat hard to follow at first, but not in the least off-putting or strained. The typical acoustic strummer is a more lockstep affair, with easy to digest, regularly repeating chords and a plain–if not outright predictable–melody. Another worthy point of differentiation is Arcuragi’s willingness to expand the instrumental palette beyond acoustic guitar, even as the acoustic guitar remains at the song’s aural center. I particularly like the choir-like harmonies and the high-profile trumpets that are at once unexpected and exactly right.

Adam Arcuragi is a singer-songwriter born in Atlanta, now based in Philadelphia. “She Comes to Me” is from his second full-length CD, I Am Become Joy, released in June on High Two Records. MP3 via High Two. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.