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 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.

Free and legal MP3: Alela Diane (sharply-written, sung with poise, presence, and melisma, plus plaintive fiddle)

“White as Diamonds” – Alela Diane

Alela Diane (born Alela Diane Menig) is associated with the so-called “psych folk” and/or “New Weird America” movements, but as with the previously featured Marissa Nadler, similarly associated, there is nothing freakish or discomfitingly idiosyncratic about this young California-raised, Oregon-based singer/songwriter. On the contrary, “White as Diamonds” strikes me as solid as a genuine folk song, with the added benefit of a great—if offbeat—hook. This hook isn’t part of the chorus (there is in fact no chorus), it’s not even a particular turn of phrase or melody; instead, it’s her ongoing use of what is officially called melisma, which is when a singer uses several notes to sing one syllable of a lyric.

Rooted in ancient, sacred music, utilized in classical music, and rendered histrionic by most American Idol contestants, melisma can be not only aurally engaging but emotionally powerful in the hands of the right singer. Diane nails it so well that, as noted, the melismatic recurrence is, really, the song’s great hook. Listening to her singing “white as diamonds” (0:16) or “I was sifting through the piles” (0:51) (melismas on “sifting” and “piles”) or “a tangled thread” (1:01) (check out that upward flutter as she stretched the second syllable of “tangled” out, briefly but indelibly), something inside me opens to her, completely. The song has both a homespun feel, accentuated by the plaintive fiddle accompaniment, and a solemn rhythmic throughline, almost like an old Civil War song, but—in part because of the repeated melisma—is buoyed by a curious sense of the unexpected, which comes to the fore during the bridge (2:04), when the song’s beat is overtly disrupted by a shift in the drumming.

“White as Diamonds” will be found on Diane’s To Be Still CD, coming out on Rough Trade in February. MP3 courtesy of the Beggars Group web site.

Free and legal MP3: Chris Flew (Glaswegian Americana with a killer melody)

“R + J” – Chris Flew

Does the world need another song about Romeo and Juliet? I wouldn’t have thought so. (Chris Flew himself probably didn’t think so; note the sly non-reference of the title.) And yet when a songwriter hits melodic pay dirt like Flew does with this stripped-down beauty, well, what the heck, one more musical Romeo and Juliet reference can’t hurt.

So maybe I’m a sucker for a simple melody but tell me this one doesn’t reach deep inside you also. And it comes at us right at the beginning: “I tried to understand as I touched your hand/What went wrong today?” A couple of ascending lines, describing a third interval, then the descending line that heads one further note down (to the word “wrong”), setting up the four-interval upward leap (from “wrong” to “today”). Simple, but awesome—it tugs at the heart, and sticks in the head. Building upon that rock-solid start, “R + J” proceeds from there with grace and inevitability. While the acoustic guitar strum remains at its core, Flew adds an evocative violin (probably better called a fiddle in this environment) and a distant lap steel guitar. No percussion used, or required. The lyrics may veer occasionally towards the obvious but Flew means well, and that affecting melody keeps returning and reaffirming the song’s strength.

Chris Flew is a Glaswegian singer/songwriter—that is, from Glasgow, Scotland, but don’t you like the word Glaswegian? More cities should have singular words for their residents, I say. “R + J” is from Flew’s most recent CD Kingston Bridge, self-released in 2006 and scheduled for a re-release this winter. Flew is currently working on a new CD. MP3 via Flew’s web site.

Free and legal MP3: Angela Desveaux (Kathleen Edwards meets Jane Siberry?)

“Sure Enough” – Angela Desveaux

Am I imagining it or does Angela Desveaux here sound like a delightful and rather precise mix between two of my all-time favorite Canadian singer/songwriters, Jane Siberry and Kathleen Edwards? (Yes, Desveaux is Canadian too; it’s Canada week, it seems.) I suppose there’s a chance my mind is being deceived by its own deep-seated personal preferences, but hey, I’m not arguing with it. This is irresistible stuff, to my ears.

The music is bright and clear, the tempo upbeat, but Desveaux has something beautifully bittersweet lodged in her vocal tone, which is probably what conjures Siberry here (though Jane fans should be sure too to check out how Desveaux sings the bridge, in a speak-sing-y sort of way, from 2:46 to 3:00). And while we’re talking about choruses, listen for those wonderful, down-shifting chords at the outset of the chorus, which accompany each return to the same melodic note (on the first syllable of “even,” on “though,” and on “know”). Note too the bittersweet metaphysics at play in the lyrics: “Even though I know I’m not sure where I’m going/But I’m going/I’m sure enough to know/It’ll stay this way forever/Stay this way for everyone.” The title itself in this context is nothing short of a life philosophy: no one can be sure; we can only be sure enough.

Desveaux was born in Montreal, grew up in the Maritimes, later returning to Montreal, which remains her home base. “Sure Enough” is a song from her second album, The Mighty Ship, slated for a September release on Thrill Jockey Records<. (Note that the new album was recorded by Dave Draves, who co-produced Kathleen Edwards' brilliant debut, Failer, with Edwards herself.) MP3 via Thrill Jockey.

Free and legal MP3: Haley Bonar (bittersweet, textured singer/songwriter pop)

“Big Star” – Haley Bonar

Rock’n’roll history is littered with singers dreaming of hitting the big time. That fame is in fact a double-edged sword is not something people usually apprehend until after they’ve been there (and then it’s kind of too late). Here, however, is a song that captures, in anticipation, the bittersweet repercussions of “big stardom,” both lyrically and–more memorably, to me–musically. My ears are struck throughout by an insistent sense of yearning, thanks to the major-minor chord shifts, the terrific and evocative instrumentation, and something achy and knowing in Bonar’s clear, sad-eyed voice.

Pay attention to what’s going on in the background throughout the song. Electric and acoustic guitars, backing vocals, and Bonar’s mellotron are woven together with a complex and rather dazzling deftness, and yet remain subtle enough that often you have to think to hear them. The ridiculously experienced Tchad Blake (Elvis Costello, Pearl Jam, Peter Gabriel, Crowded House, et al) is credited at the mixing board here, and no doubt he had something to do with the mysterious yet vivid texture that transforms this from a simple singer/songwriter tune into something deeper and richer.

Born in South Dakota, Bonar is based in Minneapolis. “Big Star” is the title track to her third CD, which was released in May on Afternoon Records. MP3 via the Afternoon web site.

Free and legal MP3: Jessie Baylin (smartly put together singer/songwriter pop)

Jessie Baylin

“Was I On Your Mind” – Jessie Baylin

“Was I On Your Mind” has the hallmarks of a great pop hit—hooks, craft, canny performance—and yet is unlikely to be anything of the sort here in 2008, just because who the hell knows anymore. The music market is as unhinged as the oil market. History teaches us, however, that craziness is always an aberration in the long run. There is no reason to assume that a song as crisp, well put together, and engagingly sung as this one won’t again find favor with the general public, but, alas, it’ll probably be too late for Ms. Baylin.

Fingertips, of course, exists in a sort of alternative universe in which what matters is the song, the spirit, the intelligence, the ineffable spark of human-to-human connection. So as far as I’m concerned this song is already a hit—an incisive example of how it’s really really okay to apply polish and know-how to songwriting, at least when such things avoid cliché and are grounded in a voice, both lyrically and musically, that’s feels real, solid, true. With her dusky alto and nimble delivery, the New Jersey-born, L.A.-based Baylin sounds to me, fetchingly, like Shawn Colvin doing a Sam Phillips impression; to the insistently upward, yearning melody of the chorus, she adds a textured presence that pretty much melts me. I like too how even in the context of this smartly produced number, little quirks can be found, including how the end note she hits repeatedly on the word “wrong” strikes the ear as unresolved, and how she breaks the songwriter “rule” of making the title the most repeated phrase in the song (which in this case would be “Tell Me I’m Wrong”).

You’ll find this one on Baylin’s new CD, Firesight, released this week on Verve Forecast. Produced by Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney), this is the 24-year-old’s second album; the first, You, was an iTunes-only self-release.