Free and legal MP3: Heidi Gluck (rapid-pulsed acoustic confessional)

A breath of frictionless fresh air, “One of Us Should Go” is a rapid-pulsed acoustic confessional, and if it initially sounds like just another “girl with a guitar” song I invite you to listen more carefully.

Heidi Gluck

“One of Us Should Go” – Heidi Gluck

A breath of frictionless fresh air, “One of Us Should Go” is a rapid-pulsed acoustic confessional, and if it initially sounds like just another “girl with a guitar” song I invite you to listen more carefully. The instrumentation is simple but rich: in fact, there’s not a moment in this three-minute heart-breaker that doesn’t reveal itself to be exquisitely conceived and executed, from thoughtful electric guitar contributions to well-timed piano accents and creative electronics. Gluck’s plain-spoken vocals, which achieve the difficult trick of sounding like talking even while singing, add to the subtle interpersonal drama on display.

And the extra awesome part is how beautifully the song’s sound and structure intertwines with its content: this is a stunning breakup song, in which the music’s very feel echoes the inertia of a relationship that has outlived its spark, and the words of the chorus betray the difficulty of breaking the passivity with actual action:

I’m sure it’s nice out there
I’m sure there’s beauty everywhere
A wide open road
And one of us should go

Gluck is Canadian by birth, but has been living and working in the US midwest for a length of time that eludes internet research; I do know that she spent some years in Indiana, and has been in Lawrence, Kansas for about the past eight. Careful readers of liner notes (yes, such people still exist!; I have faith) may recognize her name from her session work with Juliana Hatfield and Margot & The Nuclear So and Sos, among others; she was also a member of the well-regarded Indiana band The Pieces in the early ’00s. “One of Us Should Go” is a track from Gluck’s first release as a solo artist, an EP called The Only Girl in the Room, which was released at the end of April on Lotuspool Records. You can stream the whole thing via SoundCloud. MP3 via Magnet Magazine. The EP is the first of a planned series of four; work begins on the next one this summer.

Free and legal MP3: Kacey Johansing (mellow surface masks complex composition)

The song is rooted in the silky-deep tone of the guitar but nothing is really as easy-breezy as the mellow sound implies.

Kacey Johansing

“Enemy” – Kacey Johansing

Fluent and assured, “Enemy” casts a compelling spell with minimal fuss—a deftly picked electric guitar, a smoky soprano (perhaps mezzo?), and artfully arranged backing vocals are just about all we get. The song is rooted in the silky-deep tone of the guitar but nothing is really as easy-breezy as the mellow sound implies. Listen to how the opening riff starts away from the tonic—a subtle jar to the ear—and then to that tiny rhythmic hiccup it offers at 0:06.

The whole song is like that, its mellifluous surface masking twists and misdirections. The central melody—languid, descending, black-note-dominated—recycles equivocally through a song that doesn’t seem to have either verses or a chorus. Lyrical lines are typically repeated, and long stretches of wordless vocals are employed, enhanced by silvery choral layers. And then, approaching the song’s midpoint, a new lyric starts, without repeats this time, which has the effect of making the lines stand out more rather than less. It feels like we’ve arrived at the song’s unexpectedly powerful nucleus (“You don’t trust/You won’t love/Nothing will ever be good enough”), the backing vocals now emerging in the worded section too, and before the mind can quite absorb this development, Johansing glides back into a repeating line (“You can find a balance, achieve a balance”), the echoey but disciplined backing vocals now get to sing their first actual word (“balance!”), and the effect is almost startling. Soon after, the opening riff returns but with the guitar’s tone rubbed raw and harsh (2:11). There is more going on in this song than a casual listen will uncloak.

Johansing is a San Francisco-based singer/songwriter who has been involved in a number of Bay Area projects, including the bands Geographer and Honeycomb; she is currently, also, half of the experimental folk duo Yesway. “Enemy” is from Johansing’s second solo album Grand Ghosts, which was self-released at the end of February. You can stream the whole thing, and purchase it, via Bandcamp. Meanwhile, over on her SoundCloud page, two other songs from the album are available for free and legal download. Thanks to the artist for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Madeline (electric guitar + voice, but it works)

Stripped down to electric guitar and voice, “30 Days” simmers with the drama of an unreliable narrator.

Madeline

“30 Days” – Madeline

We go from a song marked by unexpected instrumentation to a song all but devoid of instrumentation. And yet it still registers as unexpected, because all we have here is electric guitar, bass, and voice. In my experience, it’s very difficult to pull off a song in which electric guitar and voice are the primary elements, way more difficult than if the guitar is acoustic. (I will resist sidetracking onto why this is so but trust me on this one, it’s so. That’s why you don’t hear a lot of people even trying to do this.)

But wow, it works to extraordinary effect here. Madeline (last name Adams, but she doesn’t use it) exploits the electric guitar’s ringing quality, and gives it to us in a manner we don’t often hear it—slow and deliberate, as the guitar is used mostly to describe a series of minor-key arpeggios. I like that this is very clearly designed for electric guitar, not simply a refried acoustic pattern. The bass, meanwhile, after its solo in the unhurried introduction, offers a simple, repeated, five-note line; you barely know it’s there but its punctuation anchors this slow and willful song. Lyrically, “30 Days” simmers with the drama of an unreliable narrator, a woman who seems only partially aware of her troubles, whose sad and seductive declarations sometimes lack connective tissue: “I had a good man who loved me all the same/And lord knows waking is the saddest thing of all.”

Madeline is from Athens, Georgia, although she left there as a teenager, landing in Bloomington, Indiana to record for the punk-oriented Plan-It-X label. She made her first album at 17, in 2002. By 2005 she was back in Athens, releasing multi-faceted albums for Orange Twin Records and working with the Elephant 6 Collective. “30 Days” is from the album B-Sides, which gathers a number of unreleased tracks from her previous albums into one package. B-Sides was released digitally this month by the Athens-based This Will Be Our Summer Records, which was founded just last year.

Free and legal MP3: Alina Simone (sparse but powerful)

Prickly and haunting, “Beautiful Machine” depends for its potency, first, upon Simone’s unadorned, almost homely electric guitar, alternately picked and strummed, with a slightly fuzzy tone but without the slightest bit of fuss or drama.

Alina Simone

“Beautiful Machine” – Alina Simone

Prickly and haunting, “Beautiful Machine” depends for its potency, first, upon Simone’s unadorned, almost homely electric guitar, alternately picked and strummed, with a slightly fuzzy tone but without the slightest bit of fuss or drama. I realize as I listen how inherently histrionic so much rock’n’roll guitar playing is. This moodier, more shadowy sound is deep and enticing.

And then there’s Simone’s singing voice, the other clear source of the song’s power. She blends a breathy intimacy with an assertive upper range in a way that recalls Sinead O’Connor; like O’Connor, Simone has something of the force of nature about her. And yet still the operative word remains restraint. While there is a second guitar and a bass in the mix, they are in service of the primary guitar and the drums, in a setting that’s full enough to feel textured yet sparse enough to let us hear each instrument distinctly. Nothing feels automatic, not even the drumbeat, which rumbles and stutters, all tom and bass, no snare or cymbal. A cello arrives as if through the back door, finding its mournful place. The song feels at once primitive and elegant.

Simone is a Ukraine-born, Boston-bred musician now ensconced in Brooklyn. Her parents were political refugees, but Simone went back in 2004 to live in Siberia for six months. Her second full-length album, released in 2008, was in Russian, covering the songs of the underground punk-poet Yanka Dyagileva. “Beautiful Machine” is the lead track to her self-released third album, Make Your Own Danger, which came out at the end of May. Simone is now a published writer as well—her book of essays, You Must Go and Win, came out in June on Faber & Faber, and is in part about the travails of the indie musician in the 21st century. MP3 via Simone’s site.