Free and legal MP3: Johnny Marr (irresistible minor-key goodness)

Do you sometimes want to hear somebody just make music? Somebody who’s been around and knows what he or she is doing? Do you want to listen to someone who isn’t trying to be the latest sensation, who isn’t after clicks and follows?

Johnny Marr

“Hi Hello” – Johnny Marr

Do you sometimes want to hear somebody just make music? Somebody who’s been around and knows what he or she is doing? Do you want to listen to someone who isn’t trying to be the latest sensation, who isn’t after clicks and follows? If so, try this one. It’s Johnny Marr, it glides along in a lovely and slightly dark way, it’s got guitars, it’s in a minor key. What more do you need?

Johnny Marr as I assume you know used to be in the Smiths, and as such was the architect of their distinctive, minor-key-jangly-chimey sound. “Hi Hello” works a bit of that ground, but here the ground is knowingly smoothed over—mellowed with age, perhaps, and/or not as concerned with sounding so rigorously different as the Smiths were. But hell, by now, Marr has spent a whole lot more time not being in the Smiths than he spent being in them. A good amount of that time found him landing as a guitarist in a series of previously existing bands (The Pretenders, The The, Modest Mouse, et al.); outside of a 2003 album credited to Johnny Marr & The Healers, the solo efforts have only recently been sprouting up—one in 2013, one in 2014, and this new one in 2018. Which is all to say he’s still relatively new to the front-man role, still finding his I’m-the-center-of-attention voice. He does a good job here expanding his vocal range with an effortless leap into and out of falsetto that kind of slyly turns into the song’s principal hook. And I could be entirely imagining this, but the short instrumental motif we hear at 1:48 sounds like an oblique reference to the old hymn “Hey Ho Nobody Home,” which itself might not be completely irrelevant to the title and lyrics here. Or I could be entirely imagining this.

“Hi Hello” is the fourth track from Marr’s album Call the Comet, which was released in June. MP3 via The Current.

(Note that MP3s from The Current are available in files that are 128kbps, which is below the iTunes standard of 192kbps, not to mention the higher-def standard of 320kbps. I personally don’t hear much difference on standard-quality equipment but if you are into high-end sound you’ll probably notice something. In any case I always encourage you to get the MP3 for the purposes of getting to know a song via a few listens; if you like it I still urge you to buy the music. It’s only right.)

Free and legal MP3: The Holiday Crowd (brisk & jangly, w/ killer chorus)

The chorus is a recurringly climactic gem, with a shiny-catchy feeling that marvelously transmutes the song’s influences into something all its own.

The Holiday Crowd

“Anything Anything” – The Holiday Crowd

If you have any long-term knowledge of rock’n’roll history, when you listen to “Anything Anything” you are likely going to be put in the mind of the Smiths. This is not a bad thing; the Smiths were a seminal band, trafficking in a sound so unique as to be sui generis. Pretty much anyone influenced by the Mancunian quartet at all ends up kind of sounding like them in certain unmistakable ways.

But I will quickly note that “Anything Anything” is not Smiths 2.0; it’s quite a wonderful piece of pop on its own terms. If it manifests shared characteristics with Morrissey-Marr compositions—from the fade-in intro through lead singer Imran Haniff’s discontented lilt to the chiming guitar arpeggios—the song at the same time has an underlying energy that feels warmer and brighter, and a structure less willfully idiosyncratic. And boy oh boy this chorus, which feels almost goose-bumpily climactic every time it recurs, with a shiny-catchy feeling that marvelously transmutes the song’s influences into something all its own.

That all said, a visit to the band’s Facebook page informs us that they may not be in love with the Smiths comparisons. Oops! But then again, not. Because look, it’s my (self-appointed) job to put new songs I’m enjoying into their musical contexts. I compare new bands to older bands regularly. I try to do so creatively and sensitively but to act as if an obvious aural correlate doesn’t exist, or to feel it is somehow taboo to point it out, is silly. I mean, were I to write about this song and not mention the Smiths, most of you would wonder how I managed to miss that. Online commenters love to rail against “lazy” reviewers who use comparisons rather than descriptors, but this isn’t a zero-sum game. I believe in comparisons and descriptors, and anything else that assists with the eternally thorny problem of dancing about architecture, as it were. It is no more a crime to be influenced by a major musical antecedent than it is to point out this influence. End of soapbox.

The Holiday Crowd is a quartet from Toronto. They formed in 2010, and released their first album in 2013, which you can listen to on Bandcamp. “Anything Anything” is a song from their forthcoming self-titled album, due out in January. Thanks to Magnet Magazine for the MP3.

Free and legal MP Nap Eyes (guitar-driven groove, w/ simple charm)

It takes a special kind of song to manage to be so charming while stuck so pointedly in one groove, one melody, and, all too often, one repeated phrase.

Nap Eyes

“No Man Needs to Care” – Nap Eyes

Like a wayward Smiths song dismissed from the catalogue for being too good-natured, “No Man Needs to Care” has a determined jangly jauntiness to it and more going on with the guitars then its seemingly two-chord framework might suggest. And if “No man needs to care/About another man’s hair” is not a Smiths lyric it’s only because Morrissey never thought of it.

It takes a special kind of song to manage to be so charming while stuck so pointedly in one groove, one melody, and, all too often, one repeated phrase. I’m not sure even why I like this so much, except that I completely do. On the one hand it shows you what a strong beginning and a strong closing in a three-minute, fifty-second song can do for you: the opening lyric is an unexpected delight (“Well I was reading my book/Just so that everyone would come take a look”), the closing guitar freakout 24 seconds of noisy joy. In between, well, we get that personable, recycling guitar line, and front man Nigel Chapman’s insistent yet somehow still soft-spoken presence. He’s in our face but his face is reading his book. And if you pay attention you may see that he is hiding a much more involved story in his simple, repetitive lyrics. And can I say what a good strong so-retro-it’s-up-to-date rocker name that is, Nigel Chapman? Buy his records just because his name is Nigel Chapman.

Nap Eyes is a foursome from Halifax. They’ve been around a couple of years, and have two previous EPs to their name. “No Man Needs to Care” is a track from the waggishly titled Whine of the Mystics, their debut full-length, released on Plastic Factory Records in March. You can listen to the whole record on Bandcamp, and buy it there too, at a price of your choosing.

Free and legal MP3: Fé (graceful, melodic, brilliant)

Now this is the kind of graceful, melodic, idiosyncratic-yet-accessible music that hits me right in my sweet spot—the kind of song Fingertips pretty much exists for.

Fé

“She Came – Fé

Now this is the kind of graceful, melodic, idiosyncratic-yet-accessible music that hits me right in my sweet spot—the kind of song Fingertips pretty much exists for. I instantly love the sense of movement and the distant ringing guitars in the introduction. And then the lyrics!; in which we are treated to a new classic opening line:

West London women have no passion
Sadness to them is just another word

Surely there is something Smiths-like in “She Came”‘s fluid, minor-key lamentation, but this is no knock-off; it bursts with a rigorous core of its own device. The melody’s brilliant development, combined with the sly harmonic and rhythmic jiggles that give it continual life, actually bring Steely Dan to mind, and that’s kind of an odd thing because this doesn’t sound at all like Steely Dan. But maybe a few of you will hear what I’m hearing. And if the opening lyrical salvo isn’t enough, there’s the chorus’s closing lines to ponder, which not only nail some kind of beautiful, aphoristic ambiguity, but arrive with an offhanded musical resolution that sneaks in and knocks my socks off:

A weaker man may not have tried
A stronger man may have survived

Fé is the London-based duo of Ben Moorhouse and Leo Duncan, new enough to the scene that they still, apparently, ride the Underground and regale commuters with skiffle-like takes on early rock’n’roll songs. These guys may well be going places that you have to get out of the Tube to arrive at.

Free and legal MP3: Johnny Marr & The Healers (gentle, substantive old-school instrumental)

An after-the-fact Christmas tune—a newly-minted instrumental with an old-school air, from Johnny Marr.

Johnny Marr & The Healers

“Free Christmas” – Johnny Marr & The Healers

This one came in too late to post prior to year’s end, but it’s also too good to let slip by. Download, tuck it away, and be pleasantly surprised to find it when you go looking for under-played holiday songs next time Christmas rolls around.

A newly-minted instrumental with an old-school air, “Free Christmas” offers a stately, lower-register electric guitar melody over a lilting acoustic guitar setting. Without any words beyond Marr’s whispered introduction, and without either blatant lifts from well-known tunes or sonic cliches, the music, almost magically, feels like Christmas. You can just about hear the sleigh bells, even as there aren’t any in the mix. I think what does the Noël-ish trick here is how the melody culminates in that five-note, choir-tinged descent (first heard at 0:58). Coming down the scale like that evokes Christmas music in the gentlest way, even as the song otherwise seems to operate with its own vibe. While there’s nothing here to directly recall Vince Guaraldi’s famous “Charlie Brown Christmas” music, what “Free Christmas” has in common with Guaraldi’s marvelous compositions is a willingness to be its own aural world first and foremost. It’s less “I’m writing Christmas music” and more “I’m writing music and I’m inviting Christmas into it.”

In any case, I’d definitely invite this one into your 2012 Christmas mix. You’ve got plenty of advance notice. As for Marr, this free and legal MP3 appears to be a sign that his reunion with the Healers, a band he fronted in the early ’00s, will remain a going concern. He had reassembled the group, with personnel changes, this past fall, for two shows in the UK and one in NYC. (Smiths songs were played, it should be noted.) Here’s hoping for some more Marr this year, as he seems to have left the other bands he was part of and perhaps aims, at last, for a bit of front man glory.

Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up on this.

Free and legal MP3: Cats On Fire (Smiths worshippers from Finland)

“The Borders of This Land” – Cats On Fire

Maybe you wouldn’t expect a band from Finland to sound quite so much like the Smiths, but such is musical life in this mashed-up century of ours. And yes I mean really a lot like them: check out the urgent yet lilting minor-key suspended chord strumming; check out the meandering, melancholy melody, and the way it feels as if we’re somehow joining it already in progress; check out (as if you could miss it) the Morrisseyan croon of singer Mattias Björkas. Turns out it is sometimes a very fine line indeed between transcending and re-transmitting one’s influences.

But the song charms me. I keep listening, I keep saying, “Okay, maybe too much,” and yet sure enough, by the time Björkas gets to that part about being lowered into the ground (0:48), the song–ironically enough–comes alive. In my book, sounding like someone else, even a lot, doesn’t prevent you from writing a good song. And if you’ve written a good song, then look at that: you’ve transcended your influences. (For the record, there’s a healthy dollop of Belle & Sebastian in here too.) I particularly like the changes that unfold through the chorus: how it starts as an extension of the verse but takes first a melodic twist (at “your friends will set up…”; 0:56), and then both a rhythmic and tempo shift (“supporting all the boys…”; 1:02), which is not only not particularly Smiths-like but is in fact nicely unusual. And then the chorus kind of lingers on beyond its natural ending point, which makes the return to the lilting, brisker, strummy section especially effective.

“The Borders of This Land” is the second “side” of an MP3 single the band released on the Swedish label Cosy Recordings in December. (Note that the song is labeled a “live demo” but doesn’t to my ears sound notably demo-ier than the A-side.) I found out about the band via a recent Contrast Podcast with the theme of “Borders”–specifically thanks to JC, who runs the Vinyl Villain blog. MP3 via Cosy Recordings.