Free and legal MP3: Dungeonesse (gauzy integration of robotic & organic)

“Nightlight” combines a sweeping, Annie Lennox-like sheen with a compressed, laptop-rock sensibility, and lives to tell about it.

Dungeonesse

“Nightlight” – Dungeonesse

“Nightlight” combines a sweeping, Annie Lennox-like sheen with a compressed, laptop-rock sensibility, and lives to tell about it. An explicit verse-chorus structure is surrendered in favor of an interwoven A/B/sort-of-A structure and a succinct, recurring, cumulatively magnetic melodic hook: that five-interval leap we hear right near the beginning (0:06), and repeatedly throughout. Singer Jenn Wasner—well-known in indie circles as half of the Baltimore duo Wye Oak—sets free her inner blue-eyed-soul singer, giving voice in this side project to a fuller, deeper, more melismatic vocal style than employed in her home band, in which she has typically sounded duskier and reverb-ier.

I find the song’s integration of the robotic and the organic continually compelling. At the beginning, Wasner croons over a dry, snapping electronic beat. The percussion disappears in section two (0:45), which is driven instead by a double-time melody and reverberating, fairy-tale synths. Some programmed rat-a-tats transition us into a hazy third section (0:57) that is a close relative to section one but featuring wily keyboard runs that emerge so seamlessly from the electronics as almost to manifest unnoticed. The few measures of piano-like presence that follow seem both natural and dreamlike before melting back into electronics as the first section is reintroduced—although this time (1:19) minus the aforementioned snapping beat, which lends an elusive softness to this gauzy yet substantive composition. More clearly electronic percussion returns for a final iteration of the third section, the piano work now replaced by a rich interlacing of harmonies and wordless backing vocal lines. The song might have faded out here; instead, the double-time second section is brought back as a kind of coda, and when Wasner takes its final words up an octave, we arrive at a suddenly satisfying and unprogrammed conclusion.

Dungeonesse is a collaboration between Wasner and singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer Jon Ehrens, who has been involved in a number of bands, including White Life and the Art Department. Wasner and Ehrens composed the songs for Dungeonesse remotely, with the originally Baltimore-based Ehrens relocated to L.A. and Wasner on tour with Wye Oak. The duo’s self-titled album was released in May on the Bloomington, Indiana-based label Secretly Canadian. MP3 via Secretly Canadian.

Free and legal MP3: Francis and the Lights (soulful postmodern funk)

One must be a gifted vocalist and songwriter both to evoke Marvin Gaye and Brian Wilson within the span of one musical breath.

Francis and the Lights

“ETC” – Francis and the Lights

Wow, just listen to how little is required to create a deeply satisfying groove: keyboard, bass, drum. It helps that the keyboard is tracing a series of elegant, Stevie Wonder-ish chords and that the bass and drum are so tightly locked as to sound like one mysterious instrument, but still, I would send anyone who thinks music is about “making beats” to the first 22 seconds of “ETC.” Music is about making music.

That said, Francis and the Lights are a special case to begin with—an elusive ensemble trafficking in soulful postmodern minimalist funk, masterminded by Francis Farewell Starlite, about which not much more is known. Lots of musicians say they want their music to speak for itself but Starlite walks the walk. He doesn’t aim to be mysterious as much as straightforward, influenced, he has been happy to admit, by the classic writer’s guide The Elements of Style; in the spirit of “omitting needless words,” Starlite does not offer an online bio nor talk much about himself because he feels it comes across as “begging.”

Of course if more artists could manage Starlite’s singular style of succinct, emotive, genre-bending music, they too might find promotional talk unnecessary. As in previous visits here in 2008, Francis and the Lights spin a compelling song out of odd, ambiguous elements: verses like overheard inner arguments, hypnotic and diaphanous; a two-part, unresolved chorus linking a throaty question (“What will we do from here?”) with a soaring, inconclusive Beach Boys reference (“And will we be happy?”). One must be a gifted vocalist and songwriter to evoke Marvin Gaye and Brian Wilson within the span of one musical breath.

“ETC” is a single, as yet unconnected to a larger release. Thanks to Francis for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Hockey (bass-heavy electro-pop, w/ character)

Inside of a rubbery, minimalist soundscape front man Ben Wyeth offers a sad and soulful tune with a recycling kind of momentum.

Hockey

“Defeat on the Double Bass Line” – Hockey

So we’ve hit the indie-rock geographical trifecta this week, hopping from Melbourne to Göteborg to, now, Brooklyn in a matter of screen-inches. Bonus points for the fact that the two guys in the band Hockey are originally from Portland.

Under the spotlight this time is a bass-heavy slab of melancholy electro pop. Inside of a rubbery, minimalist soundscape front man Ben Wyeth offers a sad and soulful tune with a recycling kind of momentum. Two related things, I think, help to create the song’s wistful flow. First, we are in the unrelenting presence of the mighty I-V-vi-IV chord progression, one of pop’s most inevitable-sounding patterns. The verse melody may be slightly differentiated from the chorus melody (although not much), but the I-V-vi-IV structure remains rock solid, bordering on hypnotic, from beginning to end. But: then, the second thing about the song’s alluring movement is that even while working with this most steadfast of chord patterns, the band keeps things twitchy and unsettled, mostly via Jerm Reynolds’ acrobatic bass work. We keep anticipating the right chords in our heads, while often bumping into what feels false or incomplete resolutions; and this, I’m thinking, drives the piece more memorably than a more straightforward unfolding might have. One final thing to notice are those lyrical “echoes” that Wyeth begins offering at 2:19, the last word of each line repeated, in lockstep; the effect is at once edgy and comforting.

Although expanded to a quartet for a time, Hockey has reverted to its roots as a duo, featuring
Wyeth (previously known by his given name, Grubin) and Reynolds. “Defeat on the Double Bass Line” is from the band’s forthcoming album, the curiously named Wyeth IS, which will be self-released digitally in May. As with the other songs this week, you can download the MP3 via the link above, or via SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Elin Ruth (assured, retro-y soulful pop)

The big world out there goes nuts for the flamboyant belters but in the small world of Fingertips, I love best the singers who might cut loose but don’t. The artistry is in the restraint.

Elin Ruth

“Bang” – Elin Ruth

So even as I have, for the sake of a pithy heading, described “Bang” as “assured, retro-y soulful pop,” let me quickly note that this is not as easy to do as it probably sounds. First you need a good song (difficult to come by!); then you also need all the right touches. I hear an impressive supply of them here: the background “oo-oohs,” the horn charts, the prickly guitar strum, that little wooden-sounding percussion flourish (first heard at 0:24), and best of all those three extra beats in the first measure of the chorus. I love songs that know how to do that kind of thing.

And—let us not forget—you need an able singer. Elin Ruth starts out kind of speak-y and casual. She is holding back. Compare the end of the first lyrical line (“until we’re dead,” at 0:19) to the end of the second (“around your wing,” 0:34). She holds her note maybe a half second longer, but it’s a delicious little half second. Here is a singer with a big voice, but it’s not “X Factor” showy. It actually has an unexpected grit to it (listen to how she sings “There’s nothing I can do about it” at 0:50), but even that she refuses to flaunt. The big world out there goes nuts for the flamboyant belters but in the small world of Fingertips, I love best the singers who might cut loose but don’t. The artistry is in the restraint.

Elin Ruth began recording, in 2003, as Elin Ruth Sigvardsson. She just released her fifth album in her native Sweden, but in 2010 fell in love with a New Yorker and last year they were married. She now lives in Queens, and is readying her first album to be released in the United States, which will be called simply Elin Ruth. It’s slated for release in January on her own label, Divers Avenue Music. In the meantime, she has put together a four-song EP for the U.S., featuring “Bang” as the title track. She is now offering it as a free download via her Facebook page. All songs on the EP were originally featured on her previous Swedish albums, “Bang” coming from her 2009 album Cookatoo Friends.

Free and legal MP3: Erin Costelo (minimalist retro-soul from Canada)

At the center of this satisfying, reimagined retro-soul nugget is Costelo’s voice, a forceful instrument with both a booming timbre and a delicate vibrato.

Erin Costelo

“Oh Me Oh My” – Erin Costelo

At once short and expansive, “Oh Me Oh My” flaunts the open spaces offered up by both its downtempo flair and its minimalist arrangement. A firm, slow beat is established with neither fuss nor volume. Then see how the classic, early-’60s melody is partially deconstructed by the sparse setting—note, for instance, the unexpected harmony the first wordless backing vocals provide at 0:20. And then note how stingily this fetching backing vocal is used in the whole song.

At the center of this satisfying, reimagined retro-soul nugget is Costelo’s voice, a forceful instrument with both a booming timbre and a delicate vibrato. She struts through the slow, economically presented verse, expands with the double-time melody in the chorus, and never over-sings. In her upper range, her voice acquires a silvery power that smartly recalls bygone soul singers in some inscrutable—or, at least, indescribable—way. Music is difficult enough to turn into concrete description, but describing voices is pretty much impossible. I keep thinking, next time, next time I’ll nail it. But the point, ultimately, is to say: listen, listen to this voice, you’ll hear something potent in it. Your soul will be stirred.

“Oh Me Oh My” is the lead track on Costelo’s third album, We Can Get Over, which is set to arrive in early October. The album represents a stylistic culmination for the Halifax-based singer/songwriter. On The Trouble and the Truth, her 2008 debut, she presented herself as a relatively straightforward jazz singer. For her second album, 2009’s Fire and Fuss, Costelo moved more towards pop, while retaining some of her jazz-oriented inclinations. This time around, from the sound of it, she’s left overt jazz behind while exploring the elusive place at which ’60s soul and girl-group music commingles. Seems like a good idea to me.

Free and legal MP3: Over the Rhine (great slinky soulful musicianship)

An exquisitely musical duo, and a married couple to boot, Over the Rhine seems to leave no little detail unregarded, even in a song as loose and slinky as “The King Knows How.”

Over the Rhine

“The King Knows How” – Over the Rhine

An exquisitely musical duo, and a married couple to boot, Over the Rhine seems to leave no little detail unregarded, even in a song as loose and slinky as “The King Knows How.” Grounded in Linford Detweiler’s sly, atmospheric piano playing and some marvelously well-thought-out percussion, this song shimmies like an old soul classic, while rewarding careful attention at every turn. Even the casual-seeming introduction, barely more than the sounds of instruments getting warmed up, is elusively wonderful, with Detweiler’s offhand (but perfect) piano fills and what surely sounds like an elephant trumpeting. Or take the seven or so seconds we get between the words “take me all the way” and “to Memphis” at 1:47: listen carefully and hear the subtle smorgasbord of sounds employed during a moment most bands might tread water, which this time includes something that sounds a bit like sheep.

And then of course there’s the front and center reality of Karin Bergquist’s distinctive voice, which operates so much with its own idea of tone and phrasing that whatever combination of human and robot is responsible for the content on internet lyrics sites hasn’t been able to figure out that the first lyric in this song is, simply, “I feel as lonely as anybody/who’s crying on a Friday night.” Her singing may be an acquired taste but it is one I think worth acquiring—as warm and rich as it is idiosyncratic. I like that she’s sharing the stage this time with some strong backing vocals, their explosive, roomful-of-soul sound adding rather than detracting from her own vocal potency.

If there were a Fingertips Hall of Fame, this Cincinnati band, along with John Vanderslice, would be charter members; this is now OTR’s sixth song featured here, but the first since 2007 (check the Artist Index for details). “The King Knows How” is the first available track from the band’s upcoming album, The Long Surrender, due out in February on their own Great Speckled Dog label. MP3 via Each Note Secure.