Free and legal MP3: Balthrop, Alabama (incisive storytelling from 11-piece ensemble)

“Electricity” offers us a refreshing break from 21st-century indie-rock’s inclination towards obscurantism. And you can dance to it.

Balthrop, Alabama

“Electricity” – Balthrop, Alabama

“Electricity” offers us a refreshing break from 21st-century indie-rock’s inclination towards obscurantism. And you can dance to it.

I’ve got nothing against a certain amount of lyrical mystery, mind you, but I think today’s exceedingly well-educated rockers often overdo it in the “what are they talking about?” category. There’s something to be said for narrative clarity and matter-of-fact insight, and “Electricity,” the dryly related story of a small town and its first long-ago Saturday night with electricity, has both. The storytelling is musical as much as lyrical here. You’ll obviously notice the noodly, sci-fi synth that is immediate aural code for “ooh! electricity!” But note too the perfect electric guitar sound, right there in the intro—that buzzy but vibrant tone, which, combined with a fuzzed-out drumbeat, feels shot through with current. When the opening riff returns in an instrumental break at 2:47, the guitar sounds even more thematically aligned; I can’t describe it but it feels to my ears like the sound an electrified fence would make if you could play it like an instrument.

As for the story itself, I like how it extends beyond the Saturday night into Sunday morning, when no one could get up because they had all been up so late. This, we are being told indirectly, is really how “things will never be the same in this city.” It’s an incisive twist.

Brooklyn-based Balthrop, Alabama was founded by Alabama-born siblings Pascal and Lauren Balthrop, who have named the band as they did for their idea that the band itself, with 11 members, is a kind of small town. “Electricity” is the semi-title-track from the ensemble’s new album, We Have Electricity, released last month on the not-for-profit End Up Records, also located in Brooklyn. After a double-album debut in 2007 and four subsequent EPs, this is the band’s first regular-length album. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: John Vanderslice (brisk, concise, minor-key tale)

John Vanderslice songs often resemble dark, elusive short stories; something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is. We’re typically in the middle of something very specific, but with the large-scale details omitted in favor of tiny observations that simultaneously add atmosphere and blur the narrative.

Green Grow the Rushes

“I’ll Never Live Up to You” – John Vanderslice

John Vanderslice songs often resemble dark, elusive short stories; something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is. We’re typically in the middle of something very specific, but with the large-scale details omitted in favor of tiny observations that simultaneously add atmosphere and blur the narrative.

Even when JV gives us the premise with an explanatory note ahead of the lyrics this time (“A father so domineering and imperious, he’s even intimidating on the embalming slab”), we get history only hinted at, emotional short-cuts that bypass the details of what this father wanted and why the son didn’t or couldn’t do what was expected of him. “If they would believe me/I would tell them all the truth about you,” the son sings. What truth? Who are “they”?

The lyrics are, as usual, supported by music as concise as possible; check out, right away, that eight-second intro, and how even there, the instrumental line is a melody, not a vamp. “I’ll Never Live Up to You” offers, generally, a brisk, minor-key setting but also an ongoing font of specific moments that contribute to the whole—it’s almost as if you could take a slice of any point along the way, an aural biopsy if you will, and discern the song’s larger intent and meaning. And how on earth did he decide to use saxophones here? Anchored at the bottom of the mix, they emerge only as the song unfolds, grounding it in an organic foundation, despite the synthesized ambiance, representing the almost-buried nature of the narrator’s referenced but unspoken truth. And it was surely a conscious choice for Vanderslice to sing the song mostly in vocal layers with himself, with the melody led by an almost whispery upper register voice. We only hear his regular singing voice at one specific time in the chorus, when he repeats the words “about you” (first heard at 0:56)—a subtle but telling way to illustrate how this unfortunate son remains bound and tied to his long-dead father.

“I’ll Never Live Up to You” is one of six songs on a new, free digital EP, released last week. You can download the whole thing at his web site, complete with artwork, lyrics, and credits, or you can download individual songs.

Free and legal MP3: Princeton (orchestrated pop, w/ boy-girl duet)

“Sadie and Andy” – Princeton

From its faux classical intro to its jaunty doo-wop melody and deadpan storytelling, “Sadie and Andy” is all craft and artifice. And pretty much irresistible. “I stock the milk and all the eggs there,” Andy sings, catching Sadie up on his daily doings in the grocery store, “And all the herbal tea.” Sadie is radically uninterested. It’s been ten years. “I haven’t thought of you at all,” she says. “And I don’t wish to know.”

It’s the standard boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy’s-love-grows-with-loss, girl-could-care-less story, and it’s found its musical apotheosis in this cheerful-wistful piece of precisely orchestrated pop, with its swirling strings, diligent trumpet, elusive oboe, and martial snare. That it’s much ado about nothing–did she mention she hasn’t thought of him at all?–is part of the thematic point. Matt Kivel’s Andy sings with great nasal earnestness, a wannabe crooner with neither quite the voice nor the charisma to pull it off. Guest vocalist Meredith Metcalf, for her part, is a breathy ice queen, a Sadie not in any obvious way worthy of Andy’s obsession, but that’s always the underlying irony of this story.

Princeton is a quartet from L.A. featuring the twins Jesse and Matt Kivel. (The name comes from the street they grew up on street in Santa Monica.) “Sadie and Andy” is the lead track on the band’s debut album, Cocoon of Love, released in late September on Brooklyn-based Kanine Records.