Free and legal MP3: Kauf (hypnotic, groove-based melancholy)

“Through the Yard” exists at a nexus we might not otherwise have noticed, joining world music to 21st-century electronica to late-era Roxy Music.


“Through the Yard” – Kauf

And now, as if to prove that neither conciseness nor organic details are the only tools in a performer’s toolbox, here is the nearly seven-minute-long “Through the Yard,” buttering your ears with its smooth hypnotic charm and groove-based melancholy. Music is more than ever a wide world, easily discerned when commercial radio stations are turned down.

Existing at a nexus we might not otherwise have noticed, joining world music to 21st-century electronica to late-era Roxy Music, “Through the Yard” launches off an ascending pentatonic scale, affected via synthesized woodwinds. Pentatonic scales, with five notes versus the usual seven, produce intervals with a far-away, vaguely non-Western feeling. And if the riff’s persistence here grounds the song in an open-ended inquiry, the lyrics further the effect, with Kauf mastermind Ronald Kaufman singing a series of clipped phrases rendered mysterious via beginnings and endings that are swallowed or otherwise indecipherable—we pick out words but not concrete meaning. It seems no accident that the song’s most-repeated lyric, “If you make a little noise,” is inherently unresolved: if you make a little noise, THEN what? I don’t think we find out.

The song, nevertheless, delivers a certain kind of arc. At first, “Through the Yard” is held together by its riff, its smartly assembled percussive sounds, and the layered allure of Kauf’s half-rich/half-disaffected vocals. A fuller-fledged electronic beat emerges at the three-minute mark. And while the first half of the song revolves around what feel like verses, the second half, after the underlying beat comes forward, employs subtler, higher-register melodies, with an upward-floating feel, and matches them against more insistent sounds below (for instance, that off-kilter line repeated by a trumpet-like synth first around 3:40, and more insistently again around 4:30). Through it all I feel drawn to how Kauf presents as both disconsolate and upbeat at the same time. I identify that as the Bryan Ferry element here.

“Through the Yard” is slated to be the final track on Kauf’s debut album, Regrowth, slated for release later this year. In the meantime, you can check out two other tracks at his Bandcamp page. Kaufman is based in Los Angeles. Thanks to the artist for the MP3.

MP3 no longer available as of August 2016.

photo credit: Daniel Trese

Free and legal MP3: Astronauts, etc. (electronic pop, w/ warmth & texture)

An object lesson in how the delicate variations in computer-generated sound can be used for good instead of evil.

Astronauts etc

“Mystery Colors” – Astronauts, etc.

I enjoy my share of electronic-based music but I will admit I sometimes get weirded out by the immateriality of it all. Knowing that the sounds are all generated by the inscrutable insides of laptops and rectangular boxes with keyboards on them, if nothing else, makes my job here kind of hinky. It’s one thing to talk about the guitar and its aural character, and then maybe the bass, and the drums; it’s another thing to try to talk merely about sounds, the differences between which sometimes are so subtle that the line separating, even, beats and notes seems all but hallucinatory.

If the specific sounds in “Mystery Colors” are, therefore, difficult to identify and/or distinguish, the collective result is nevertheless an introspective pleasure. Anthony Ferraro, the solo mastermind behind Astronauts, etc., is uncommonly adept at creating warmth and texture from the delicate variations in computer-generated sound—and then, double the achievement, turning this warmth and texture into tuneful pop. In physical-instrument-based rock’n’roll, a rapid procession of notes and rhythms typically creates drive or tension; but listen here to how a tranquil vibe is maintained over and above the brisk arpeggios and fidgety beats. A lot of this has to do with Ferraro’s soothing tenor and the silky melody he’s singing. Note in particular the vocal effect during the chorus (first heard at 1:41), when he layers his vocals in two different registers, which creates a kind of whisper effect that feels cozy and personal. The choral break at 2:11 is another nice touch; human voices cut through artifice like nothing else.

Ferraro is a Berkeley-based musician who was on a classical piano performance track until beset by arthritis. Electronic music saved his career, pretty much. I look forward to seeing where he takes it all. “Mystery Colors” is from his first EP, entitled Supermelodic Pulp, which was released last month. You can listen to it as well as buy it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3 Joywave (well-crafted, retro-y synth pop)

“True Grit” is slick and stylized even as it likewise feels heartfelt and handmade.


“True Grit” – Joywave

A delightful splash of retro-y synth pop, “True Grit” is slick and stylized even as it likewise feels heartfelt and handmade. With its well-crafted blend of electronic sounds—pulse-like, percolating, plucky; wooshy and shimmering—the song floats in the airiest of spaces yet remains grounded and determined. First we get a fully-developed, Eurythmics-like instrumental melody; then comes Dan Armbruster, singing with New Romantic aplomb, cool and hot at the same time, telling us far less with his words than with his tone. The song appears to pivot on the melodramatic, non-sequitur-ish “Sometimes the English countryside remembers war”; yeah, I’m not sure what that’s about either but it glides by with marvelous ease.

The song hinges on that lyric largely because it’s one of the few lines that emerges from Armbruster’s mouth with purposeful clarity. For most of the song, he obfuscates with elegant panache, singing words that you can only almost understand. It’s an underrated pop song trick, not unlike pairing sad words with happy music: pairing a smooth-as-silk sound with not-quite-intelligible lyrics. The ear is captivated and, perhaps, happier this way than if it also has to process a storyline. Works for me, anyway.

Joywave is a quintet from Rochester that formed in 2010. “True Grit” is one of seven songs on the band’s debut EP, Koda Vista, a work indirectly inspired by the rise and fall of hometown behemoth Eastman Kodak. You an stream the album on Joywave’s Bandcamp page, which also offers a variety of corporate-themed purchase options, one of which includes credit towards the purchase of Eastman Kodak Company stock.

Free and legal MP3: Marie Lalá (smoothly integrated Spector beat)

A splendid little song, incorporating the seminal Spector beat, that’s somehow both more and less quirky than it might at first seem. Yeah I don’t know how that works either.

Marie Lala

“Mrs. Sleepyhead” – Marie Lalá

I must first confess, or re-confess, that I am an absolute sucker for the Phil Spector beat, in just about any way it can sneak into a song. As is often the case, we hear it here right away, as the drum and bass in unison begin “Mrs. Sleepyhead” with that unmistakable rhythm: DUM! dum-dum; BOOM (or however one can best write that out; just think of the opening to “Be My Baby” and you’re there). It’s a mystery, where it came from, why it’s so perpetually affecting, and what on earth the world must have been like without it. All those thousands of years, without that beat. Staggers the imagination.

Anyway, so here we go again (DUM! dum-dum; BOOM) and in this case not ensconced in echoey melodrama, and therefore more intriguingly absorbed and defused as the song requires. The first shift happens at 0:20 when the bass breaks rank from the drumbeat, going on a little run that leads straight into the entrance of the electric guitar, the distinctively picked arpeggios of which distract the ear from the precise moment when the Spector beat gives way. As it clearly has by the chorus. The prickly guitar line remains but now the song around it swings and sways in a most luscious way, thanks to how the melody keeps waiting for the fourth beat in the measure to complete itself. The chorus is a marvel of smooth motion—me, I can’t keep my body still when I’m listening to it. All in all a splendid little song that’s somehow both more and less quirky than it might at first seem. Yeah I don’t know how that works either.

Marie Lalá (unused last name: Nilsson) is a Swedish singer/songwriter pretty much brand new to the world at large. According to her bio, she “is a former aerialist who now works with rope access on oil rigs in the North Sea.” Could be true, could be parody; we have so often rubbed out the fine line separating the two that I mostly give up trying to differentiate. “Mrs. Sleepyhead” is a track from her forthcoming debut EP, Search of Sound, which will be released next month via Platform of Joy.

Free and legal MP3: Snailhouse (smooth, swanky, melancholy)

Best of all, I do believe that this song offers up an as good if not better use of the “sentimental”/”gentle” rhyme than the familiar, if rather forced, one we got oh so long ago in the Bob Welch-penned classic that this song is a winning homage to.

Mike Feuerstack

“Sentimental Gentleman” – Snailhouse

Smooth and swanky and melancholy, this wise/weary homage to the old Fleetwood Mac/Bob Welch chestnut “Sentimental Lady” is a sneakily wonderful work in its own right. I love its rubbery, lazy-afternoon vibe, sprinkled with unresolved lead-guitar chords, unhurried horns (or horn-like sounds), and some built-in applause that one can truly call a smattering. Best of all, I do believe that this song offers up an as good if not better use of the “sentimental”/”gentle” rhyme than the familiar, if rather forced, one we got oh so long ago in the Welch-penned classic.

The voice and guitar we are hearing here belongs to Mike Feuerstack, of the veteran Canadian band Wooden Stars; Snailhouse has been his lo-fi-ish side project since pretty much the same time Wooden Stars got off the ground, back in 1994. With both a slight tremble and a pleasing richness, Feuerstack’s voice emerges from his throat so effortlessly he seems merely to be talking, an effect accentuated by his wry, conversational lyrics, which seem at least in part to deal with what it’s like to be an experienced but still pretty much unknown rock’n’roller. “We lied to the promoter/Said we’re packing them in,” he asserts, dryly, along the way.

“Sentimental Gentleman” is the title track to the sixth Snailhouse album, which was released in April in Europe on Mi Amante Records, and then in May in Canada through White Whale Records and Forward Music. MP3 via Mi Amante.