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)

Spider

“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 Last.fm, 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.

Free and legal MP3: A. A. Bondy (rootsy, atmospheric singer/songwriter fare)

“When the Devil’s Loose” – A. A. Bondy

Thick with atmosphere and aching with the majesty of something timeless and true, “When the Devil’s Loose” has me at hello, as it were. I love those guitars, at once fuzzy and bell-like, and the casual authority they immediately establish. The song, which refers at the outset to a river, itself flows with a river-like depth and grandeur, its potent melody sung with a rough-edged nonchalance at once sultry and defiant. I like how the guitars sometimes float off into a bit of dissonance, adding to the impression that some deep sort of force of nature was involved in the creation of this song.

Bondy is an Alabama-born singer/songwriter now based in upstate New York. He fronted a loud, Nirvana-like band in the late ’90s and early ’00s called Verbena, then using the first name Scott. His solo debut, American Hearts (2008), presented him in a folk-like, early-Dylan-ish setting, backed largely by acoustic guitar and the occasional harmonica. And yet the one or two songs featuring a bit more of a band sounded to me like the stronger cuts–in particular, “Lovers’ Waltz,” which “When the Devil’s Loose” resembles somewhat. To me, therefore, the news that his forthcoming album finds him more often playing with a band is promising. I look forward to hearing more of it.

This song is the title track to that second solo album, which is due out in September on Fat Possum Records. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3: Blue Roses (brisk acoustic/electronic blend)

“I Am Leaving” – Blue Roses

So-called folktronica often seeks to blend the acoustic and the electronic, but typically in a moody, glitchy ambiance; what Laura Groves introduces us to with “I Am Leaving”–Blue Roses is the name the multi-instrumentalist Groves uses for recording–is an acoustic/electronic blend that is at once bright and dreamy, the brisk folky guitar almost but not quite overwhelmed by a glistening synth that sounds like what a harpsichord might sound like if it could sustain. Soon we hear her harmonizing wordlessly, swoopingly, with herself; the (beguiling) effect is Kate Bush doing an imitation of the Roches, if you’ll excuse the old-school references. When she first begins to sing actual words (at 0:40), her unadorned singing voice seems almost too…I don’t know, too something: too raw, too high, too present and unfiltered. But give it a little time, and when the harmonies return, wow, check out some of those intervals–I can’t even begin to guess what notes she’s putting together at 0:59, on the second syllable of “silent.” My goodness.

I’ll tell you exactly where it all began to make sense to me: at 1:12, when the swooping, wordless harmonies come back once more, and the melody makes that gratifying descent through an octave (first as she sings “Oh give me a clue somehow”). She repeats it, then resolves it with one extra melody line, then we go back into the verse–and we never hear this section again. But its existence haunts the song, renders it deeper and more complex. Everything sounds different from here on in, and not only because of the shift in instrumentation.

“I Am Leaving” is from the debut, eponymous Blue Roses album, which was released in April in the U.K. and is scheduled for a July release on Beggars Banquet Records in the U.S. MP3 via the Beggars Group web site.

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.

Free and legal MP3: Marissa Nadler (beautiful, mysterious, atmospheric toe-tapper)

“River of Dirt” – Marissa Nadler

A master of atmosphere, Marissa Nadler can maintain her delicate, otherworldly vibe even when she adds percussion and electric guitar to her spidery sound, and even when the music chugs along at a toe-tapping pace. A lot of the aura has to do with that spooky voice of hers, encased in reverb, and the words that voice is singing–weird words, full of romance, escape, and sorrow (the titular metaphor appears to be referring to death itself). The echoey, keening lap steel that hovers in the background heightens the familiar strangeness of it all.

Nadler may be adding band-like instrumentation to her sound, but it’s hardly a standard sort of rock band she’s got going here. Listen, first, to the drumming, which moves forward with an idiosyncratic blending of rims and toms, and a most judicious use of cymbals–what you hear in the intro from about :06 onward is what propels the entire song; it’s a subtly peculiar sound, seeming at once mechanical and homespun. Then check out the aforementioned lap steel guitar, which howls and sings with uncanny luminosity, mixing in and around an electric guitar and also Nadler’s own backing vocal tracks, often stressing notes that set it apart from the melody and harmony and yet join everything mysteriously together. Beautiful, compelling music we have here.

Fingertips regulars may recall Nadler from the oddly gorgeous 2007 song “Diamond Heart,” which ended that year among the top 10 favorite free and legal MP3s here that year. “River of Dirt” is from her forthcoming (and fourth) CD, Little Hells, which is slated for release next month on Kemado Records. MP3 originally via Kemado, but no longer available there. You can still grab a free and legal download of it via Stereogum, but it’s no longer a direct link, so you can’t sample it in the player here.