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.

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.

Free and legal MP3: Yo La Tengo (churning, string-laden craftiness)

“Here to Fall” – Yo La Tengo

Half of the time I love what Yo La Tengo does, half the time I’m not sure I understand it. This falls squarely into the first half. After its odd, electro-echoey intro, “Here to Fall” simmers with that paradoxical low-level intensity that YLT consistently brings to the studio–a product, in part, of the juxtaposition of Ira Kaplan’s plainspoken, softspoken vocals and the churning noise the trio can produce. And yet the noise here isn’t really that noisy, featuring as it does, right in the middle of the mix, the unlikely but thoroughly agreeable addition of a small string section, which somehow brings to mind the sorts of strings we used to hear on old Elton John songs (Paul Buckmaster fans out there, anyone?).

But don’t overlook the guitar work, which is characteristically crazy brilliant without calling any attention to itself. And don’t overlook the additional crazy brilliance of the unadorned melody, barely differentiating verse and chorus, which, cycling inexorably forward, attains a dark grandeur as the guitars burn and the strings melodramatize around it.

“Here to Fall” is a song from the band’s forthcoming album, Popular Songs (their twelfth), which is slated for a September release on Matador Records. MP3 via Matador.

Free and legal MP3: Dirty Projectors (Bjork meets Prince via Capt. Beefheart)

“Stillness Is The Move” – Dirty Projectors

Not every pop song gets its lyrics by combining bits of dialogue from an enchanting foreign-language movie classic with phrases from an Excel spreadsheet of pop clichés, but the free-flowing, high-minded collective known as Dirty Projectors is hardly your everyday pop band.

An experimental group masterminded by Dave Longstreth, a music major from Yale, Dirty Projectors has been releasing mind-bending, genre-defying music for the better part of the decade. “Stillness Is The Move” is one of the more accessible songs in the band’s catalog—think Björk meets Prince—and it’s still pretty prickly (think Captain Beefheart), its fat groove semi-dismantled by the fidgety melody, complex harmonies, stuttering rhythms, needly guitar lines, and eventual encroachment by a classical string section. Amber Coffman sings acrobatically and precisely, but be sure to tune as well into the meandering, often thrilling countermelodies offered in the background by Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle. I recommend hitting the replay button at least six or seven times, after which you won’t need me to tell you to keep going. It gains mysterious traction from repeat listens.

“Stillness Is The Move” is from Bitte Orca, the band’s fifth full-length studio album, released this month by Domino Records. MP3 via Spin; thanks to Jonk Music for the head’s up.