Free and legal MP3: Perry Serpa (feat. Scott McCaughey) (sharp, creative rocker w/ back story)

Seeking to create from scratch an album from 1986 gives Serpa all the artistic license he needs to willfully ignore that the 21st century ever happened to rock’n’roll; not always a bad thing, says me.

“And You Are?” – Perry Serpa (feat. Scott McCaughey)

So this is a crazy-great concept, but also a crazy-challenging one: take an imaginary album, laid out track by track in a popular novel, and actually write it and record it. This is what Perry Serpa decided to do with the fictional album Juliet, from Nick Hornby’s popular and affecting book Juliet, Naked. The book involves a deep dive into music fandom, among other things, and centers around a reclusive singer/songwriter of Hornby’s invention named Tucker Crowe. Near the beginning of the novel, Hornby invents for us the Wikipedia entry for Crowe’s 1986 masterpiece, Juliet, which includes a track listing for the album. These are the songs that Serpa set about to write.

Not too intimidating a project, huh? Write music good enough to stand in for a fictional masterpiece? Plus there’s already been a movie made of the album, which came out earlier this year. (The movie, however, only created two of Juliet‘s ten songs.) “For better or for worse, I led a fifteen-plus piece band for almost twenty years, so I’m no neophyte when it comes to foolish, time-consuming, lofty creative pursuits,” Serpa told me via email. So here we go: “And You Are?” is the opening track on the imaginary album, so likewise opens Serpa’s. And what a wonderful, evocative piece of retro, semi-baroque folk rock it is. Seeking to create from scratch an album from 1986 gives Serpa all the artistic license he needs to willfully ignore that the 21st century ever happened to rock’n’roll; not always a bad thing, says me. Half Dylanesque harangue, half R.E.M.-like invocation, “And You Are?” swirls around an ascending string motif that adds a textured hook without taking away from the song’s electric edge; I especially like it when the guitar gains ground in the second half of the song, eventually mingling its own lead in and around the recurrent strings.

Not all the tracks from Juliet are specifically discussed in Hornby’s book, but some not only are described in one way or another, they are given a lyric or two. For instance, the first line of “And You Are?” was straight from the novel: “They told me talking to you would be like chewing barbed wire with a mouth ulcer.” The next line, however, is Serpa’s: “But you never once hurt me like that.” Serpa says this kind of writing was “fun as shit to do.”

The real album that Serpa has made based on Hornby’s imaginary one is, cleverly enough, entitled Wherefore Art Thou?: Songs Inspired by Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked. And it’s even cleverer than you might think; the imaginary Wikipedia entry mentions a 2002 tribute album to Juliet that was called, yes, Wherefore Art Thou?—which was not merely a Shakespeare allusion but a reference to the fact that in this fictional world, Tucker Crowe had disappeared after he released Juliet, and more or less hadn’t been heard from since. One final, meta twist relevant to Serpa’s project: Scott McCaughey, who sings lead on the song I have for you here, was founder of the Minus Five, one of the bands Hornby mentions as recording a song for the imaginary tribute LP.

For the record, Hornby himself has said, of Serpa’s smartly-hewn creation, “I’m happy to think that my book has somehow produced work this good.” Serpa has announced that a portion of the sales of the album will go to the UK-based charity Ambitious About Autism, which was co-founded by Hornby. Wherefore Art Thou? comes out October 5; streaming and purchase links are here.

Lastly: Serpa’s aforementioned 15-plus-piece ensemble, The Sharp Things, have been twice previously featured on Fingertips, in 2013 and 2014. Continue reading “Free and legal MP3: Perry Serpa (feat. Scott McCaughey) (sharp, creative rocker w/ back story)”

Free and legal MP3: Papercuts (rich, delicate, orchestral)

The richly delicate “Life Among the Savages” hints at what Brian Wilson might sound like if he were a 21st-century indie rocker.

Papercuts

“Life Among the Savages” – Papercuts

The richly delicate “Life Among the Savages” hints at what Brian Wilson might sound like if he were a 21st-century indie rocker. Not that Papercuts front man and general mastermind Jason Robert Quever has quite as many idiosyncratic tools at his disposal as Wilson, but surely there is something Pet Sounds-y in the orchestral-minded, melodic yearning on display.

The opening verse melody, to begin with, is a concise gem of descending sweetness (0:06-0:09), and is itself part of a beautifully constructed eight-measure melody that seems simultaneously to resolve and retain suspense two or three different times. The melody is so well-developed that the song does without full-fledged instrumentation until the first iteration of the chorus at 1:08, and while the pulsing string arrangement distracts us from missing the band, when the sound does kick in, something in the ear relaxes. Combine that with a subtle uptick in vocal urgency here (listen to all the hard “c” sounds Quever hits between 1:16 and 1:22), and “Life Among the Savages” is pretty much all delight from this point onward—the verse the second time through now fully accompanied, the chorus getting an unexpected instrumental lead-in and an extra repetition, and the whole thing capped off by a tidy, dramatic coda.

The San Francisco-based Quever has been recording as Papercuts since 2004. “Life Among the Savages” is the title track to his fifth album, released earlier this month on the new L.A. label Easy Sound in the U.S., and via the London-based Memphis Industries label in the U.K. Papercuts was previously featured on Fingertips in 2011. Thanks again to Lauren Laverne at BBC 6 for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Magic Arm (string-enhanced pop from Manchester)

Singer/songwriter Marc Rigelsford plays all the instruments, and while our 21st-century ears are fine with that in a setting of layered electronics and guitars, a one-person project is somehow the last thing one suspects when hearing two stringed instruments playing together.

Magic Arm

“Put Your Collar Up” – Magic Arm

As a violin and cello play a mournful duet for 30 seconds, we are lifted out of time and context: what type of music this may be and when in the last 120 years or so it was written both seem up for grabs. This is pretty charming in and of itself; here’s a musician willing either to trust that listeners can hang in there for a half-minute of uncertainty or to be uninterested in those who can’t—a friend of mine in either case. The other nifty thing this pre-introduction string duet does is deflect attention away from the reality that Magic Arm is a one-man band. Singer/songwriter Marc Rigelsford plays all the instruments, and while our 21st-century ears are fine with that in a setting of layered electronics and guitars, a one-person project is somehow the last thing one suspects when hearing two stringed instruments playing together.

Following the string pre-introduction, the song acquires a nostalgic pulse when the piano and percussion join in at 0:30 (you may hear some “Eleanor Rigby” in this, and maybe some “Alone Again Or”), and achieves liftoff with the arrival of the bass at 0:51 (a textbook example of how significant the bottom that the bass provides can be in a rock song). Rigelsford sings the verse with a thin, slightly processed voice, somewhere in that gray area pop singers have staked out between tenor and baritone. The melody moves at half the song’s rate and feels snippetty as it tracks generally downward. With the chorus (1:17), things change subtly but resolutely—the melody doubles its pace and Rigelsford’s voice, at a slightly higher register, seems rounder and warmer (as he sings “Is this the right way now?”). I can’t really describe it or explain it, can’t put my finger exactly on the hook, but it’s definitely in here; this is where the song fully sells itself to me. Listen to how the strings nuzzle their way back into the mix at this point; listen too to the synthesizer loops and see if you can figure out exactly how Rigelsford has so deftly combined acoustic and electronic sounds here. Hat tip also to the Herb Alpert-y trumpet lines (1:49), which take a turn towards the Bacharachian when they reemerge in the instrumental coda (4:00).

“Put Your Collar Up” originally came out on an EP Magic Arm released in August, but is making the rounds as a free and legal download now in advance of the album Images Rolling, Magic Arm’s second full-length release, due out in June. You can download it here, or go to the SoundCloud page and spare me a wee bit of bandwidth.

Free and legal MP3: Elise Vatsvaag (sparse and elegiac, w/ strings)

After the real-life storm that affected so many people in the Eastern U.S. last week, we can all use a bit of restraint and sweetness.

Elise Vatsvaag

“After the Storm” – Elise Vatsvaag

This song was nearly featured last week, but it didn’t fit in the mix quite right so I put it aside for a week and now look.

Sparse and elegiac, “After the Storm” uses what sounds like a full-fledged string quartet to generate volume and intensity in a song that otherwise secures its power from restraint and sweetness. After the real-life storm that affected so many people in the Eastern U.S. last week, we can all use a bit of restraint and sweetness.

Nothing has ever been this clear before
After the storm I have no fear at all
No fear at all

Vatsvaag is Norwegian and while her lyrics occasionally betray a non-native-speaker’s tentative syntax, the overall effect, almost counter-intuitively, is one of poignant authenticity. She sings with a clear tone but also without much sustain (i.e., she doesn’t hold her sung notes for long), which lends a soft-spoken intimacy to her delivery. The song has a traditional structure—verse, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, repeat with bridge—but her tender, affecting melodies expand gently beyond the typical eight measures in the pre-chorus and again in the chorus, which then melts into the instrumental tumult provided by the strings. This shows yet again that a song cannot be reduced merely to its words, and that it’s almost always the subtle musical effects rather than simply a turn of phrase that sends the impact of a song from the head to the heart.

Vatsvaag has been releasing a series of free to download songs throughout 2012. The first four were then gathered, earlier this year, into an EP called This Is Not My Music #1; after the second four have been released (song number 8 arrives later this month), This Is Not My Music #2 will be released. “After the Storm” was the seventh song, released in October.

photo credit: Erik Sæter Jørgensen

Free and legal MP3: The Migrant (unhurried, nicely-textured)

This one starts in tentative, noodly mode—just a guy testing out some interesting acoustic guitar chords.

The Migrant

“2811 California Street” – The Migrant

This one starts in tentative, noodly mode—just a guy testing out some interesting acoustic guitar chords. The first time I heard this, I’m all “When’s the song starting?” Second time, too. When I finally absorbed the idea that okay, this one just isn’t in a hurry, it was almost a magical transformation. Rather than being impatient for the song to begin, I realized the song had in fact begun, right there in this deliberate, exquisitely recorded introduction. I have no idea how Bjarke Bendtsen, doing musical business as The Migrant, knew that “2811 California Street” had to start this way, but now I’m right there with him. This is how the song has to start.

Forty seconds or so in, he puts the chords he had tested out into a rhythmic strum, over some elusive background percussion. Volume builds, and tension. The cymbal swell around 1:20 is first the climax and then the release that delivers us into the body of the song, via an opening melodic motif that is both simple and riveting—a figure that climbs first up and then two-thirds of the way back down using mostly accidentals, or what on a keyboard would be the black keys. This unassuming melody, first heard between 1:25 and 1:30, part upward yearning, part downward reassessment, becomes the song’s recurring anchor. The structure is otherwise ambiguous, and entirely secondary to the sonic textures on which Bendtsen builds the song, blending guitar, strings, percussion, and voice into something rich and memorable. Listen, for instance, to the substance offered by the entry of the strings around 2:26, how they seem to lift the sound into a new place with their simple rhythmic momentum. Later on they give us a quartet-like interlude, leading us to the culminating iterations of the central melody, delivered this last time without any words at all.

Bendtsen recorded his first album as The Migrant in 2010, after spending a few years traveling around the U.S. with a guitar, with a home base in Texas. “2811 California Street” is a song from Amerika, album number two for The Migrant, self-released at the end of October. The Migrant
was previously featured on Fingertips in September 2010.

Free and legal MP3: Fanfarlo (tense, unusual chamber pop)

Unusual song lacking any rock-band instruments, but which keeps me coming back for more.

Fanfarlo

“Replicate” – Fanfarlo

Keep your ears on the synthesizer here. It has a wonderfully goofy-fiendish sound to it, half haunted house, half vintage sci-fi. It is also the only instrument on display in this song that you might otherwise normally find in a rock band. Everything else here is a string, a woodwind, or a piece of percussion of the sort on display on the percussionist’s table in the back of the orchestra.

I’m not sure what prompted the unusual instrument choice here. But the strangest thing is how you almost don’t register it. You notice the song’s odd sense of tension, and sparseness, and slow unfolding-ness, but not its wholesale acoustic/orchestral foundation. But check it out: no guitars, no bass, no drums. The focus is on Simon Balthazar, a Swede fronting a British band, whose Bryan Ferry-ish warble has a sneaky depth even as he spends half the song singing in stuttery slivers. His band mates meanwhile get to sing primarily in howling, wordless bursts. Okay so “Replicate” is pretty much weird beyond all explanation. And yet there is alluring muscle here, particular in the chorus, with its striking, string-voiced counter-melody and those aforementioned vocal bursts. This is the kind of song that is hard to know what to make of after only a listen or two, but that seems to prompt repeated listenings.

“Replicate” is the first song made available from Fanfarlo’s forthcoming, as-yet-untitled second album. The band’s debut, Reservoir, was released to much acclaim in 2009, when Balthazar was still going by his birth name of Aurell and the London-based five-piece was a sextet. The wonderful song “Harold T. Wilkins,” from that album, was featured here in March of that year. The MP3 comes via Pretty Much Amazing. Perhaps the video will help illuminate the song? You be the judge:

Free and legal MP3: Elsinore (well-crafted & melodic, w/ strings)

“Lines” offers a sense of the richness about to unfold before, even, the melody begins, in a flowing introduction that features a leisurely but nimble progression of eight chords. This song is clearly going places.

Elsinore

“Lines” – Elsinore

In a photography class I took some years ago, I learned that a satisfying black-and-white photograph is very likely to include the full range of the black-to-white spectrum, from the blackest black to the whitest white but also including many different in-between grays. I suspect, lacking of course any empirical evidence, that something similar is involved with music. For me, anyway, melodies that manage to hit the top and the bottom of the octave, while also employing most of the in-between notes, feel richer and often more meaningful to me than stingy tunes that stay within a more constrained range of notes.

“Lines” offers a sense of the richness about to unfold before, even, its full-spectrum melody begins, in a flowing introduction that features a leisurely but nimble progression of eight chords. This song is clearly going places. Ryan Groff has a crooner’s timbre and engages that ambling, string-festooned melody with a dreamy, charming nonchalance. (For the record, I’m hearing seven of the eight notes in the scale, many used more than once.) There’s that nifty chord shift in the middle of the verse (first heard at 0:15) that each time snaps the ear to attention even as nothing in particular announces it; it is not attached to either melody or lyric; and Groff lets it slide right under him, every time, most casually. The strings grow insistent, the guitars take the song back at 2:28, and the harmonies, suddenly all Brian Wilson-like, sing us up to the pensive coda. This is not some song someone dashed off on the back of a napkin in a bar.

Elsinore is a quartet from Champaign, up and running since 2004. The connection to Denmark and/or Hamlet is unaddressed by any promo material I could find. “Lines” is from Yes Yes Yes, the band’s third full-length album, released last week on Parasol Records.

Free and legal MP3: Light Pollution (short, bashy, melodic)

“Oh Ivory!” – Light Pollution

While apparently muddier, mix-wise, than the usual Fingertips fare–the very-bashy drums are up front, the vocals buried halfway down–“Oh Ivory!” succeeds through the giddy force of its melodic energy and the quirky chemistry of its not-really-that-muddy-after-all production. There’s something old-school at work here, something that puts me in the mind of the ’60s, though I can’t put my finger on it. And anyway, by the time I think I’m getting it, the song is over. It’s nice and short.

And yet, although just 2:29, check out how the tune meanders for more than 40 seconds in an orchestrally interesting but melodically static interlude–featuring the not often used but always engaging combination of classical stringed instruments and rock percussion. On the one hand it goes on a little too long but on the other hand if it didn’t go on that long the payoff wouldn’t be quite so stirring. And stirring those final 30 seconds are, featuring now a shouted, one-note melody over an engaging parade of chords. In the end, this brief song has an offbeat but resonant structure, giving it the feeling of a much longer journey.

Light Pollution is a quartet from Chicago; “Oh, Ivory!” is a track from the band’s debut album, Apparitions, which is set for release next month on Carpark Records. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3: Efterklang (affecting blend of pop and classical)

“Modern Drift” – Efterklang

Beginning with compelling, quasi-minimalist piano lines, structured around two related melodic motifs, and brilliantly integrating strings and horns with electronics and percussion, “Modern Drift” is more composition than song. Consider this a good thing–a way of bringing some of classical music’s attractive complexity into pop music’s attractive brevity. Everybody wins. We just have to work on the fact that they only seem to be able to do this sort of thing in Scandinavia.

I suggest listening to this song four or five times in a row just to let it begin to make sense in a wordless way. But if you want some handholds through the process, I recommend keeping an ear on each instrument that makes an entrance after the original piano lines–the percussion, guitar, strings, horns, and electronics. Each interacts with the underlying piano spine in a particular way, and each will come front and center in the piece at a particular time–for instance, the way the guitar begins a complementary echo of the piano at 1:28, or the very satisfying horn punctuation we begin to hear at 1:47. And listen how the strings step forward at 2:27 and create an unexpected bridge to the electronics that start at 2:45, which in turn offer a beepier version of original piano line, but now it sounds like this is home, this is where it was leading. And then the electronics withdraw and leave the unusual–but, somehow, quite natural-sounding–combination of strings and drums to bring this dexterous and affecting piece to a close. Pay attention and you’ll also hear the guitar and piano return with background support.

Efterklang is a quartet from Copenhagen that has been active since 2001. The name is a Danish word that means both “reverberation” and “remembrance.” (Grieg, a Norwegian, once wrote a lyric piece for the piano called “Efterklang.”) “Modern Drift” is the opening track from the band’s third full-length album, Magic Chairs, which was released last month on the British label 4AD. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Steve Goldberg & the Arch Enemies (wistful-cheerful, horn-peppered)

Wistful-cheerful blast of horn-peppered indie pop.

“The Ballad of Cherry Hill” – Steve Goldberg and the Arch Enemies

Wistful-cheerful blast of horn-peppered indie pop. When last we left Steve Goldberg, in 2007, he was a graduating college senior in Pittsburgh who recorded an album as a senior project with a revolving-door cast of fellow students. He has since come east to Philadelphia, pared the basic outfit down to four, and continues doing business as the Arch Enemies.

While the basic sound remains intact—he comes across as a more extroverted version of Sufjan Stevens—the production value has improved, which has given his voice more depth and the music more oomph. I like that he has bothered to create two complete musical themes that are independent of the song’s eventual melodies—these are the first two things we hear in the introduction (the pizzicato strings theme, then the horn section theme). One of the pleasing things about the song, then, becomes listening for how and when these themes recur, woven back into or between the primary melodies. (Even if you don’t realize this is pleasing your ear, honest, it is.) Another perhaps unconsciously pleasing characteristic is the juxtaposition of downcast lyrics (here painting a scene of suburban alienation) and upbeat music. This itself is not an uncommon trick in pop music, but I like how Goldberg manages to bleed the two moods into each other a bit, thus further complicating the song’s complexion—the lively music somehow lifting the words beyond mere despair even as the words simultaneously lend a bittersweet air to the music.

“The Ballad of Cherry Hill” is from the band’s four-song EP Labyrinths, which was self-released in January. Inspired by stories by Jorge Luis Borges, the EP is available for a price of your choosing, with no minimum, via the band’s site. Thanks to Steve personally for the MP3.