Free and legal MP3: Orion Sun (dreamy, minimalist)

From the carefully plucked guitar through the smeary background wash and methodical drumming, the song delivers a vibe at once vague and precise, and pulls you along on its short and sultry journey as if in a comfy, if minimalist, dream.

“Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me)” – Orion Sun

And while some songs succeed via melody, there are those that establish a place in your head via atmosphere, like Orion Sun’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me).” From the carefully plucked guitar through the smeary background wash and methodical drumming, the song delivers a vibe at once vague and precise, and pulls you along on its short and sultry journey as if in a comfy, if minimalist, dream.

Orion Sun—the performing name for the Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter Tiffany Majette—favors melodies that bounce up and down, lending a rapping rhythm to her singing, or, for you truly old-school folks, bring recitative, from the opera world, to mind. The effect is at once conversational and intimate, and is accentuated by the plainspoken feelings on display, with the repeated chorus of “It feels so good to know you,” augmented by a blurry proffering of “so good”s.

The texture is so carefully established that I find myself fascinated by the way the primary guitar line sounds at once central to the song and yet spends most of the time not playing. It only finishes its full phrase at the very beginning (0:04) and then again near the very end (2:34); and it literally sounds like someone pulls the plug on the instrument halfway through the introduction (0:10). Yes, if you listen closely you will in fact hear the guitar underneath the chorus but it seems to be there all but subliminally, to give you a vague memory of something you aren’t fully experiencing.

As for the title, if there’s a reason Majette co-opted the title from a Jacques Brel classic (not to mention Regina Spektor’s more recent and much perkier song of the same name), it’s not immediately apparent. “Ne Me Quitte Pas” is from the debut Orion Sun album, Hold Space For Me, released back in March on the Mom + Pop record label. You can listen and purchase via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP. You might also be interested in a newer track of hers, “Mama’s Baby,” which was written in response to Majette having been attacked and injured by police during a protest in Philadelphia in May. Track is here; a newspaper account of the incident and resulting song is here.

Free and legal MP3: Joe Marson (soulful, w/ great restraint)

“Love You Safely” is an unexpected shot of pure soul music: deep, heartfelt, and effortlessly melodic.

Joe Marson

“Love You Safely” – Joe Marson

“Love You Safely” is an unexpected shot of pure soul music: deep, heartfelt, and beautifully crafted. This last bit is extremely important, at least to me. It’s one thing to set up a soulful groove and emote in a rich and convincing way, it’s another to do it while you happen to be singing a song that is itself rich and convincing.

The minimal but evocative introduction grabs attention immediately, with its muted, percussive guitar lick and terse, strategic organ fill. The verse begins before anything else kicks in, and Marson clearly doesn’t need much more than his voice to command the stage. (That the first word he sings is the name “Sara” sounds like a nice hat-tip to his blue-eyed soul progenitors, Daryl and John.) And yet he keeps the reins on his voice at nearly every moment, understanding how much more powerful understatement is than overstatement. Likewise the song’s accompaniment, which consistently dials itself back in the service of greater power and persuasion. And so the 10 or 12 seconds in the song where Marson cuts loose vocally (beginning around 2:50)—and still, probably, just a hint of what he might be capable of—is all the more moving and effective. Even the song’s title is a sort of understatement, breaking as it does the usual rule of deriving from a song’s most repeated phrase.

All the while the heart of “Love Your Safely” is its sturdy chorus, which unearths great power (not to mention a killer hook) in a simple, down-stepping melody. In music you don’t usually have to reinvent the wheel, you just have to take it for a good ride.

Born in San Diego, the itinerant Marson has ended up (where else?) in Brooklyn. “Love You Safely” is the first song made available from his EP Electric Soul Magic, due out in July. He has previously released one EP and one full-length album. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Meg Mac (retro soul w/ old-school flair)

Songs that can make you clap and move while fiddling with time signatures are generally songs to be admired.

Meg Mac

“Known Better” – Meg Mac

Just too damn charming to quibble about anything that might, here, be so quibbled. Is Meg Mac aiming to split the difference between Adele and Amy Winehouse? Could be. And why not? There’s a real musical sweet spot to be found there, and here, in this knowing piece of first-rate retro-soul. What lights this on fire to me is the song’s stompy, asymmetrically-placed piano riff, which plunks itself down between beats, creating a powerful stutter, both tripping the song up and launching it further at the same time. Songs that can make you clap and move while fiddling with time signatures are generally songs to be admired.

From its old-school intro—not instrumental vamping, but a slow, otherwise unused vocal melody—“Known Better” oozes both ardor and aptitude. There are knowing chord changes (not just the dramatic one at 0:39 but the subtler set-up, after the words “back someday” at 0:34), there are skillful production effects, such as the shot of processed vocals at 0:50, and most of all there are the songwriting chops that put this all together so spiffily, with that piano riff ever at the center of things. For a short piece of pop, the song is not satisfied standing still. The second iteration of the verse uses a somewhat different melody, and there seem to be not one but two different bridges, including that one in the middle with the hand-claps and an ear-catching switch to 6/4 time. The use of a refrain line instead of a full-fledged chorus helps keep things moving, and never underestimate the effectiveness of expertly placed “ah-ah-ah”s.

All through, Mac (neé McInerney) sings with panache, perhaps a bit thinly, but I hear someone who is still finding her voice. She’s 22, from Melbourne, and this appears to be her first release of any kind. MP3 via TripleJ, the Australian music site.

photo credit: Tanaya Harper

Free and legal MP3: The Big Pink (fat glitchy groove, w/ a heart of pop)

Answering the question no one was probably otherwise asking: “What would Tears for Fears sound like had hip hop existed in the early ’80s?”

The Big Pink

“Give It Up” – The Big Pink

With a groove slow and fat enough to lose yourself in and glitchy enough to sound of the moment, “Give It Up” manages to answer the question no one was probably otherwise asking, which is, “What would Tears for Fears sound like had hip hop existed in the early ’80s?”

And if that sounds facetious I don’t mean it to be. First of all, I kind of like Tears for Fears. Second of all, while I like authentic artistic expression as much as the next guy, I also like a good pop song (in the traditional sense of the word, not necessarily meaning that I like what is currently played on Top 40 stations). And at the risk of pointing out the obvious, there is almost nothing about a good pop song that can be rightly called “authentic.” Good pop songs have always been shrewd constructions, built from any given era’s available materials. (This is no excuse for Auto-Tune, by the way, but that’s a separate post.) So, here we have a British duo that blends sampled and/or synthesized strings and horns and all sorts of elusive electronic effects into something that sounds both super constructed and super attractive. And also—I like this part a lot—connected to its own history. When Robbie Furze sings, “It doesn’t have to be/So hard,” switching from falsetto to normal register for that last phrase, I feel myself in the presence of a huge interconnected wave of pop that arrows back not only through the early ’80s but straight into the birth of pop music with a groove, which happened on soul records some time in the late ’60s to early ’70s. The sample here—apparently taken from Memphis soul singer Ann Peebles—is telling. I’m not sure precisely what’s been sampled—horns? strings? vocals?—but that never seems to be the point here in century 21. It’s all about the final collage, and if the collage pulls me in this smartly, I’ll happily go along. Just steer clear of that Auto-Tune.

“Give It Up” is from Future This, the band’s second album, which was released in January on 4AD Records. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: New Shouts (neo-’60s garage-soul, retro-y & proud)

Here we have a splendid garage-soul groove harkening astutely back to the proto-white-boy-soul of a group like the Soul Survivors (best known for “Expressway To Your Heart,” non-coincidentally enough).

New Shouts

“The Reins To Your Heart” – New Shouts

Above and beyond the financial problems introduced by the digital distribution of music, many hands have been wrung over cultural problems unleashed at the same time. A flood of virtual ink has been spilled this year, as an example, on a complaint voiced by the critic Simon Reynolds, in his book Retromania, which among other things is about how the relentless presence of the past, digitally speaking, has led to a state in which we don’t allegedly have a genuine, current-day culture, just an ongoing regurgitation of bygone stylings.

There are so many things that strike me as wrong with this complaint; probably time for an essay. In the meantime, I go back to one of Fingertips’ founding mottoes: listen with your ears, not your mind. The idea that music has to be stylistically “different” is a mental construct. To my ears, music can be different by simply being good. So, is a song like “The Reins To Your Heart” representative of some kind of new, 2010-ish musical style? Not a bit. Does this mean it can’t be good or that we are somehow culturally poorer because the Pittsburgh foursome New Shouts recorded it? Of course not. It’s a good song! Yes, its garage-soul groove harkens back to the proto-white-boy-soul of a group like the Soul Survivors (best known for “Expressway To Your Heart,” non-coincidentally enough). Why can’t a good song sound familiar? Why can’t it remind you of another good song?

To harp on stylistic similarities is to overlook other factors that make music both pleasing and emotionally resonant. I always start with melody, because that’s me. “The Reins To Your Heart” is one of those lucky songs that begins with its hook—a smartly constructed melody (beginning at 0:11, right out of that pleasantly clangy introduction) in which the first half traces a descending B minor chord, the second an ascending A minor chord. Comprised only of the three notes from these two adjacent chords, the melody has a natural swing, running down and up those third intervals, while likewise feeling solid and primal, the aural equivalent of a three-legged stool. And the chorus is no slouch either, affording the song a second and maybe even third hook (this is also one of the those lucky songs with more than one solid hook), via the “Baby, please believe me” segment, with its group lead vocal and classic-soul vibe, leading up to that unerring, off-the-beat response line, “I want you back.” We’ve heard all of this before. So what? It gives me that deep inner smile I get when I know the music is working. Retromania has nothing to tell me, or you, about that.

“The Reins To Your Heart” is the lead track from New Shouts’ first non-single release, the seven-song EP Sing New Shouts, which was self-released in September via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: The Mynabirds (L. Burhenn returns w/ more great retro pop)

Laura Burhenn takes the standard blues progression and shapes it into a fiery piece of retro pop. Every last detail is exquisite, and yet the thing just plain stomps too. Right away, I love how the song starts in such a hurry it feels as if we’re joining in midstream and then oops it stops at that place four seconds in for that great, conflicted “Oh!” from Burhenn.

“Let the Record Go” – the Mynabirds

I cannot resist a repeat visit to the Mynabirds album, with this second free and legal MP3 now available (and also given what a great little set of music this comprises with the previous two selections). I just mainline this kind of sound–open my veins and inject it straight in. Laura Burhenn takes the standard blues progression and shapes it into a fiery piece of retro pop. Every last detail is exquisite, and yet the thing just plain stomps too. Right away, I love how the song starts in such a hurry it feels as if we’re joining in midstream and then oops it stops at that place four seconds in for that great, conflicted “Oh!” from Burhenn.

So many parts to like in such a short song!: the extended, melismatic “Oh” that functions as something between a verse and a chorus at 0:26; the repeated way the music stops or slows at just the right moments, without ever giving us the feeling of being interrupted; the fleeting bit of theatrical singing we hear at 1:04, as if maybe Lene Lovich has made a brief cameo; and then oh man when that opening “Oh!” comes back a third time right near the end (2:15) it completely melts my heart.

So if you missed it the first time, please rush back and listen as well to “Numbers Don’t Lie,” the first Mynabirds MP3 featured back in January. And then do yourself an even greater favor and buy What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood, which was released just last week on Saddle Creek; it’s a strong strong effort from a gifted musician.

Free and legal MP3: The Silver Seas (buoyant pop w/ faux ’70s-soul sheen)

Effortlessly enjoyable pop with a faux ’70s-soul sheen. And I mean the faux part in a good way–after all, it’s not the ’70s anymore (by a long shot). It’s far more fun to hear a group of 21st-century popsters re-imagine this sound with a present-day oomph than to hear some slavish recreation of the distant past.

“The Best Things In Life” – The Silver Seas

Effortlessly enjoyable pop with a faux ’70s-soul sheen. And I mean the faux part in a good way–after all, it’s not the ’70s anymore (by a long shot). It’s far more fun to hear a group of 21st-century popsters re-imagine this sound with a present-day oomph than to hear some slavish recreation of the distant past.

But there’s no doubting that the ’70s are the musical mother lode for this Nashville-based trio. Last time we heard from them they were more in James Taylor/Jackson Browne mode; this time Daniel Tashian and company have swung, literally, into Hall & Oates territory, with a loving, twice-removed nod to the Philadelphia Sound that that duo themselves mined. It’s a breezy R&B groove poised brashly between Motown and disco, and the breeziness is exactly why slavish recreation would be self-defeating. You have to sound sharp but you can’t sound rigid, and these guys strut it just right, propelled by a melody that steadfastly refuses to align with the beat in a song filled with large and small pleasures. A favorite smaller moment comes with the third lead-in to the chorus (2:34). The previous two times, the chorus begins after two smooth H&O-like “oo-oos,” covering four brisk measures, which is exactly what the song appears to demand. The third time, they sing the two “oo-oos” once and then repeat them, which if you’re not listening carefully you might not even notice. But it’s one of those great songwriting tricks, giving us a subtle, unexpected, hang-on-what’s-not-quite-right delay before the final payoff.

“The Best Things In Life” is a song from the band’s new album Chateau Revenge, which was released digitally by the band this month; the physical album is due out in July. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3: The Mynabirds (splendid neo-retro-gospel-pop)

“Numbers Don’t Lie” – the Mynabirds

A simple stuttering stomp of a keyboard vamp lies at the center of this nifty piece of neo-retro-gospel-pop (or some such thing; hey, I make this up as I go). While there are clearly a lot of nods to bygone times in the aural landscape of “Numbers Don’t Lie,” what charms me the most is the subtle but sure sense of currency that likewise defines this song. It is a song that belongs here in 2010 (numbers don’t lie, after all), and I think what gives me that impression has to do with clarity of presentation. From the plainly articulated keyboard notes to Laura Burhenn’s double-tracked vocals to the instantly enticing melody (note the hook-y chord change comes right in the second measure), all the pieces of the song ring with presence, with a “thereness” that separates a song that transcends its influences from a song that is smothered by them. (And, okay, those telephone-button blips in the bridge are a fun present-day touch too.)

Another point of clarity involves the song’s use of reverb, which is effective in its restraint. While the choral-like backing vocals get a reverb rinse, and the rhythm section also maybe a dose of it, Burhenn keeps her lead vocals clean. It makes an understated but incisive difference in the overall sound, and even though reverb is popular in present-day indie rock, this song’s judicious use of it makes it seem more real, more its own new thing as a result.

Laura Burhenn is known to some as half of the D.C. duo Georgie James, which played together for three years and released one album on Saddle Creek Records before breaking up in 2008. “Numbers Don’t Lie” is the first song made available from What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood, her first release as the Mynabirds, slated for an April release on Saddle Creek. Burhenn by the way named her project after the Mynah Birds, a Canadian R&B band in the ’60s that signed to Motown but never released any albums and at one point, impossibly enough, featured both Neil Young and Rick James in its lineup. MP3 via Saddle Creek.