Free and legal MP3: The Sweet Serenades (both anthemic and understated)

One of the things I love most here is the ongoing tension on display between this song’s anthemic inclinations and front man Martin Nordvall’s palpable restraint in presentation.

“Out of Time” – The Sweet Serenades

Opening with a nostalgic electronic flourish, “Out of Time” pulses into an appealing synth rocker with a driving backbeat and a seductive sense of understated drama. In fact one of the things I love most here is the ongoing tension on display between this song’s anthemic inclinations and front man Martin Nordvall’s palpable restraint in presentation. The chorus, first heard at 0:31, has all the makings of an emotive earworm, but listen to how delicately Nordvall uses his baritone here—he’s all but whispering. He’s also setting you up: when the chorus returns (1:24), we get the same melody, but Nordvall now sings it an octave higher. See for yourself what a difference this makes. With that staccato bass line, revolving synthesizer riff, and now-majestic chorus, I’m getting a strong scent of the New Romantic movement here, which sounds oddly refreshing in 2020.

At the same time: this no mere ’80s retread. The Sweet Serenades have been at it since 2002, for many years as a duo; by now, Nordvall brings his own gravitas to the table. I’m always amused—and sometimes even entertained—by young musicians sporting some sort of throwback ’70s or ’80s look and sound. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that sort of homage; all musicians worth their salt are inspired by sounds that came before them. But I feel much more convinced when someone with an ear for a bygone time proceeds to sit with it, live with it, develop it. Musicians who learn to let their influences breathe in new ways often end up having the most, themselves, to say.

Nordvall hails from the village of Timrå, some four hours north of Stockholm. “Out of Time” is a track from the band’s forthcoming album, City Lights, which was recorded last year in Stockholm and due out in March. The Sweet Serenades were featured once before on Fingertips, in May 2009; the band was a duo back then.

Free and legal MP3: Marti West (gauzy surface, robust depth)

Underneath the gauzy surface lies a robust and rewarding composition.

“Give Me Light” – Marti West

It might nearly be its own genre: music featuring delicate male vocals in an acoustic setting. I am not inherently a fan of this sound—which can get too whispery-slight for my ears—but it turns out I’m a big fan of “Give Me Light,” because underneath its gauzy surface lies a robust and rewarding composition.

The song launches with urgent finger-picking, strings held relatively high up on the guitar neck; the aura is of reverberant glass. West adds vocals at 0:17, in a tenor register mirroring the spangly guitar line. The verse melody is concise and potent, circling towards a solid but unresolved end point, which leads in turn to a chorus (0:49) pitched around the same melodic space, with now the added sway of percussion. And listen here to how carefully the lines this time build one by one into a firm resolution (the steps proceed from 0:55 to 0:59 to 1:03), so satisfying in its payoff precisely because of the subtle uncertainty propagated by the earlier unresolved melodies.

Another thing I appreciate here are the careful harmonies West provides for himself, which begin in the chorus. Note how they start as same-note harmonies, then separate into beautiful, affecting intervals as the phrase “Give me light” unfolds, twice. Note too how the harmonies then draw back into the melody on the closing phrase (first at 1:03 and then, as the chorus repeats melodically, at 1:17). In an elegantly crafted song like this, these harmonies provide their own gorgeous hook. Yet more elegant craft: the electric guitar that floats in, twice, as structural support (1:24, 2:45)—and, all the better, each guitar break is its own construction, not just one solo repeated.

Born in England, West lives in Göteborg, Sweden. He has previously released two EPs and one eight-song mini-album. “Give Me Light” is the first single to be released off his next EP, coming later this year. You can listen to everything, and buy what you like, on Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Dear Euphoria (delicate musing on love and loss)

Over a peaceful, arpeggiated bed of boops and bips, “Our Time” unfolds as a graceful, melancholy ballad, celebrating love in the face of loss.

Dear Euphoria

“Our Time” – Dear Euphoria

Over a peaceful, arpeggiated bed of boops and bips, “Our Time” unfolds as a graceful and melancholy ballad, celebrating love in the face of loss. Singer Elina Johannsen processes her voice in a way that strikes the ear as both slippery and central, with the elusiveness of the effect mirroring the ambivalent emotional circumstance the song presents.

And yes, for the record, I do not reject all vocal processing, by any means; what I’ve always objected to was the combination of faddishness and thoughtlessness propelling the technique (epitomized by Auto-Tune) for so many years. What should be obvious but, it seems, hasn’t been, is this: be human, be compassionate, be inventive, and all manner of musical and technological expression is open to you. Someone like Björk has known this for years. Prop up shallow idiocies with formulaic songwriting and production methods in pursuit of big streaming numbers and okay, have fun, but I’m not interested.

Meanwhile, Johannsen is tackling the big subject here, with a directness leavened by the sweetness of her tone, the delicacy of her declarations, and the soothing melody. I am assuming the loss she is singing about is a loss occasioned by death, and she seems to be singing from the perspective of the dying person; but, it works if the subject is a less permanent loss as well. She employs simple, mostly one-syllable words throughout, which has the subtle effect of amplifying both the gravity and the sublimity of the situation. The vibe is at once uncomplicated and stimulating, with a number of engaging touches along the way, from the life-support electronic pulse that accompanies two-thirds of the song (listen to how it decamps at 1:52), to the brief but wonderful guitar or guitar-like distortion at 1:03, to the all-out false ending at 2:29. And, a trait not to be underestimated, the song doesn’t overstay its welcome, wrapping up in a concise 3:06, easily inviting repeat listens.

Johannsen is based in Stockholm. Dear Euphoria was previously featured on Fingertips all the way back in 2007; the MP3 to that track, “Falling Behind,” is no longer available. “Our Time” is the second single released to date from an album due out in the spring. Thanks to Johannsen for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Baula (potent Scandinavian rock’n’roll)

Echoes of ’60s spy-movie music are just a part of the charm, and are woven into something that feels different and organic.

Baula

“Nova” – Baula

“Nova” grows in potency with repeated listens. Sly echoes of ’60s spy-movie music are just a part of the charm, and are woven into something that feels at once innovative and organic. This is music to sink into, music to remind us that the world remains a beautiful place, even when you find yourself living in a country with leaders who are fucked up beyond all repair, and where innocent people pay the dreadful price, over and over.

I digress. Listen to Karolina Thunberg’s sweet, clear-throated voice, with its understated vibrato, and then listen to how snugly Ísak Ásgeirsson’s blends in. Listen to the lonely, resonant guitar tones, redolent of empty spaces and purple skies. Listen to the evocative drumming, with its preference for rumbling over crashing. This is marvelous new music, from beginning to end, using an aural palette that evokes classic rock without sounding tired or derivative in any way. One of my favorite moments, small but impactful, is the guitar line in the middle of the chorus (first heard at 1:01-1:03), tracing a nifty chord progression without showing off. And this moment comes directly on the heels of another favorite moment, which is the way Thunberg has lyrics that repeat themselves (“In the end, no one will know”: beginning at 0:54), via musical notes that repeat themselves, but she alters the phrasing the second time through, pausing this time on the word “end.” It’s a soft change, but a suggestive one.

And can I say that among the smaller but still important reasons to love and admire the Scandinavian countries is their commitment to rock’n’roll as an ongoing, vibrant, multi-faceted genre. As corporate America continues to foster a marketplace that squashes heart and expression in favor of fad and compression, I for one heartily support cultures that recognize that humanity comprises far more than commercial concerns.

Based in Gothenburg, Sweden, the half-Swedish, half-Icelandic duo Baula formed in 2015. This is their third single; I look forward to more. Check out their stuff on SoundCloud. Thanks to the band for the MP3.


photo credit: Greta Maria Asgeirsdottir

Free and legal MP3: Shout Out Louds (satisfying, full-bodied indie rock)

A sparkling nugget of melodic, full-bodied rock’n’roll, 2017 style, “Oh Oh” is a good example of a song where my ear is caught more by a “moment” than an all-out hook.

Shout Out Louds

“Oh Oh” – Shout Out Louds

A sparkling nugget of melodic, full-bodied rock’n’roll, 2017 style, “Oh Oh” is a good example of a song in which my ear is caught more by a “moment” than an all-out hook. For me, it happens in the pre-chorus, first heard at 0:47. After the long descending melody of the verse, the music here feels inordinately satisfying, an effect boosted by lyrics that shine with both denotation and connotation: front man Adam Olenius sings “Don’t say that it’s over/’Cause nothing ever is,” and it pops with both energy and poignancy in this setting.

As for actual hooks, “Oh Oh” has them, but they’re sneaky. We actually get the main one in the introduction—it’s the guitar riff/”Oh oh” combination heard at 0:15—but, interestingly, it doesn’t come across as a hook right there; the guitars are subtle, deeper down in the mix than your classic guitar riffs tend to be. This hook requires context, it seems. When the riff returns (1:03), it feels closer to completion. When it finally gets reassembled, with the “Oh oh”s on top (1:57), well what do you know? I think we have ourselves a hook.

All that is semantic, of course: hooks, moments, riffs, whatever—I’m just trying as ever to put words onto what is going on in a piece of music, trying to translate the listening experience into writing. Dancing about architecture, in other words. As usual.

From Stockholm, Shout Out Louds have been together since 2001. The band was featured previously on Fingertips in 2009, for the dramatic, slow-building “Walls.” “Oh Oh” is the first single from the band’s upcoming album Ease My Mind, their fifth, due out on Merge Records in September. MP3, one more time, via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Echo Ladies (muddy, soaring Swedish shoegaze)

“Nothing Ever Lasts” starts cranked to 10 (or maybe 11), equal parts commotion and grace, and never lets up.

Echo Ladies

“Nothing Ever Lasts” – Echo Ladies

“Nothing Ever Lasts” starts cranked to 10 (or maybe 11), equal parts commotion and grace, and never lets up. I like how much the song accomplishes, dynamically, despite the sonic onslaught. In and around the foundational wall of sound, there is freight-train percussion below, a minimal, anthemic synth line above, and Matilda Bogren’s buried but endearing vocals.

Even with her voice mixed down, as the genre usually demands, Bogren steals the show for me, with a few astute moves. First, note the unexpected deviation in the verse—the way the she finishes the first two lyrical lines with an unresolved upturn (first heard around 0:24). In my experience, this kind of shoegaze or dream pop or whatever we might call it is happy enough enshrouding a sing-song-y melody in mud and volume, pushing aside the need for any further songwriting tricks. So that caught my attention. And check out, too, how crisply she manages to enunciate the last syllables of each line in the verse, despite how muffled the words. I may be easily amused but that’s kind of fun.

And then, one more subtle device arrives, first at 0:46: the repeated use of a wordless vocal tag (that is, the “ah-ah-ahh/oh-oh-ohh” part). This, again, strikes me as unusual for the genre. Normally, when a band opts for noise on top, melody below, there are actual words it seems to want you to strain to hear, or not hear. I find the “ah-ah-ahh”s in this context not only charming but a little cheeky.

Echo Ladies is a trio from Malmö. “Nothing Ever Lasts” appears to be their second single, and arrived as a 7-inch last week via the Swedish label Hybris. Thanks to indefatigable Powerpopulist blog for the head’s up.


photo credit: Ebba Ågren

Free and legal MP3: Billy the Zombie Kid (unabashed pop, ear-pleasing craft)

Every now and then a song comes along that’s as shiny and pop-saturated as can be and, somehow, all the things that bug the shit out of me when it comes to a lot of 21st-century pop just melt away.

Billy the Zombie Kid

“Golden Rainbows/Diamonds in the Fire” – Billy the Zombie Kid

Every now and then a song comes along that’s as shiny and pop-saturated as can be and, somehow, all the things that bug the shit out of me when it comes to a lot of 21st-century pop just melt away. It’s often kind of a mystery but with “Golden Rainbows/Diamonds in the Fire” let’s see if we can puzzle out why.

To begin with, the cold a capella opening is not only a nice touch but quickly demonstrates some harmonic sophistication—take a listen to how that wordless countermelody snakes around the main melody, complicating what you’re hearing so that you are given the song’s central hook while also having it partially hidden. This allows it later to feel both familiar and new at the same time.

When the song kicks in (0:18), we get an upbeat dance vibe, but only sort of: there’s something patient and easygoing in the air, despite the beat, a feeling reinforced by those measured, four-note synth lines that we hear before the vocals start, with their sly three-notes-off-the-beat rhythm. The ongoing sensation that a little more is going on here than standard-issue pop is reaffirmed by that little wah-wah comment we first hear at 0:42—entirely unnecessary and as a result indicative of a guiding intelligence that isn’t just about formula and expectation.

Before we are led at last back to the big hook of the chorus, we are set up at 0:52 by a pre-chorus that adheres more or less to one note and stays almost completely on the beat. This, to my ears, makes all the more satisfying the incisive melodic leaps of the chorus, as well as its adroit alternation between two measures of singing on the beat and two off the beat. And I don’t mean to make too much of this on/off-the-beat distinction, but in the context of 21st-century pop music, which has been simplified and compressed into oblivion, I applaud any evidence of ear-pleasing songwriting craft. And applaud even further any pop song that saves room for a serious guitar solo (2:48, don’t miss it!).

Billy the Zombie Kid is a four-piece band from Borlänge, Sweden, an industrial town 130 or so miles north and west of Stockholm. The band began in 2013 as an unnamed solo project from singer/guitarist Stefan Altzar. Acquiring members and a name over the course of the year, Billy the Zombie Kid released four songs online in 2014, began playing locally, and started recording in earnest in the latter part of 2015. The end result is the album entitled We’re Always Right, which was released on the label Alternative Alien Baby in July 2016. You can listen to the whole thing and download it for free via SoundCloud. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3:Case Conrad (muscular, concise rootsy rock)

Modest and controlled at the outset, with an ever-so-subtle swing, “The Swim” develops organically into a muscular bit of rootsy rock, timeless in its approach and vibe.

Case Conrad

“The Swim” – Case Conrad

Modest and controlled at the outset, with an ever-so-subtle swing, “The Swim” develops organically into a muscular bit of rootsy rock, timeless in its approach and vibe. A lot here rests in the capable singing voice of Gustav Haggren, the veteran Swede who is one of three lead vocalists in Case Conrad. Haggren’s is a burnished baritone, a voice that sounds like a friend and a stranger, a plea and a bargain, a dream and a disappointment. It’s a rich, human voice, unshowy and entirely at home in this easy-going composition, with its major-minor alternations and satisfying melodic resolutions (the sturdy run first heard from 0:51 to 0:58 is especially pleasurable, if you happen to be a chord progression fan).

One of the song’s agreeable touches is this odd little sidestep it takes after the second two choruses, when it deconstructs itself into 6/8 time, with a slightly loopy, Tom Waitsian flair. There’s no particular reason for it, but that’s where the magic in songwriting often lies.

Case Conrad was formed by Haggren in the wake of the 2009 breakup of his band Gustav and the Seasick Sailors, who were a notable Fingertips favorite back in the day (featured in 2005 and 2008, if you’re curious, and aren’t you, a little?). Four of the band members are from Sweden and one is from Portugal; residence-wise they are now split between Malmö and Barcelona.

“The Swim” is a track from A Tightrope Wish, the band’s third album, released last month on Stargazer Records/This Is Forte.

Free and legal MP3: YAST (awesome mix of noise and melody)

Equal parts noise and melody, “I Don’t Think She Knows” is an awesome slice of 21st-century rock’n’roll, from a land (Sweden) that hasn’t given up on the genre quite as much as we have here, alas.

Yast

“I Don’t Think She Knows” – YAST

Equal parts noise and melody, “I Don’t Think She Knows” is an awesome slice of 21st-century rock’n’roll, from a land (Sweden) that hasn’t given up on the genre quite as much as we have here, alas. But with this kind of thing still crossing the border, I can yet find my happy place—until, at least, a future president sees fit to seal everything and everyone out and all of us left here just end up shouting each other to death. Did I say shouting? I meant shooting. Or, better, shouting and shooting: that’s the American way.

But I digress. And present “I Don’t Think She Knows” as the kind of song that can (maybe) take your mind off the parade of unmitigated lunacy currently passing as normal here in the ever-amazing (not necessarily meant in a good way) United States. Launched off a yearning, fuzzed-out two-note guitar riff, scuffed up by noise and reverb, “I Don’t Think She Knows” succeeds with a lovely, minor-key verse melody, a wordless chorus, stellar guitar work, and a healthy dose of impenetrable commotion. That juxtaposition of identifiable guitar lines and blurry hubbub is, to my ears, one of the things that gives the song its sharp appeal. And don’t lose sight of the nimble bass line either; even when all hell breaks loose (e.g., 3:06), the bass keeps us grounded structurally and sonically. We know we’re in a pop song, which every now and then is still a good place to be. Especially when the shouting and shooting starts.

YAST was formed by three musicians from the Swedish city of Sandviken in 2007, and became a quintet after moving to Malmö for its more music-oriented culture (although the two new members were also, as luck would have it, from Sandviken). The band released its first single in 2012, its first album in 2013, and a second album in September 2015, called My Dreams Did Finally Come True, which is where you’ll find this song. If you want a higher-quality .wav file, visit Adrian Recordings on SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Death in the Afternoon (crisp economical Swedish funk)

If “We Don’t Have to Go Out Tonight” doesn’t single-handedly rescue the electric guitar in our knob-twiddling age, then we may just have to give the thing up for dead once and for all.

Death in the Afternoon

“We Don’t Have to Go Out Tonight” – Death in the Afternoon

If “We Don’t Have to Go Out Tonight” doesn’t single-handedly rescue the electric guitar in our knob-twiddling age, then we may just have to give the thing up for dead once and for all. There are the well-placed, slightly wobbly chords of the introduction; the crisp, economical riff accompanying the verse; and then, watch out!: the intertwining of the lead and rhythm guitar lines (1:04), a veritable ballet of funky precision. I’m just about hypnotized by all this. What was your question again?

And okay I’m not expecting miracles here. This is the kind of song that stirs up a tiny bit of dust in a couple of quick weeks (when blogs that need to be first with everything spit their PR-filled words onto the internet), then pretty much disappears (because those same blogs rush on to the next thing, and the next). (Don’t get me started on this, please.) So yes “We Don’t Have to Go Out Tonight” has been out for a few months. Sometimes (maybe all the time) it pays to reflect. I first heard this and it seemed pleasant but I wasn’t sure. Maybe I wasn’t in a good mood that day, who knows. So it sat around and I kept listening. One day it hit me that this song was really good. Those kind of muted lead vocals in the verse, that initially made me wonder what was happening? Turns out they are smartly redeemed by the clarity of the vocals in the chorus, when Christian joins Linda—and note how he sings backing vocals on the same note as the lead vocal for the first two lines, then offers one line of harmony, then a final line back on the same note. It’s a lovely, unassuming construction.

Much as Death in the Afternoon seems to be a lovely, unassuming duo (the aforementioned Linda and Christian, surnames missing in action). They are based in Halmstad, Sweden and take their name, for unknown reasons, from Ernest Hemingway’s treatise on the glory of bullfighting. Their self-titled debut album came out in October on the Stockholm-based Sommarhjärta label.