Free and legal MP3: Alvvays (sweet, jangly, off-kilter)

“Archie, Marry Me” has a sweet, sweeping relentlessness about it, and if the whole thing is partially buried in mud and fuzz, this somehow makes its insistence all the more poignant

Alvvays

“Archie, Marry Me” – Alvvays

“Archie, Marry Me” has a sweet, sweeping relentlessness about it, and if the whole thing is partially buried in mud and fuzz, this somehow makes its insistence all the more poignant, makes its gorgeousness all the more down to earth. This is a song that rhymes “matrimony” and “alimony,” not to mention “Atlantic” and “panic,” “papers” and “makers.” This is a song with a woman singing to a character named Archie. This is a band called Always that spells their name Alvvays. The off-kilter appears to be their territory.

At the seeming center of this eddy of off-center goodness is front woman Molly Rankin, who sings with an enticing blend of composed abandon. Her voice veers now too close, now too far. As the band pounds and jangles along, Rankin sounds like someone at once assured and bewildered; her repeated “Hey hey”s resonate off imaginary canyons of hope and despair. But at the true center of the proceedings is the song itself, which etches melodic glory from the simplest of components, and burrows into a listener’s warmest places through the timeless, heartfelt force of guitars and drums. If you don’t concentrate you’ll miss the guitars’ wild, second-verse excursion, buried nearly beyond earshot, but all the wilder for its lack of neediness. In much the way the singer’s simple plea seems almost necessarily concealing some thornier reality, so too does the music’s apparent plainness appear to couch some more complicated sentiment. Remember, they could merely have spelled their name the way it sounds.

Alvvays is a quintet based in Toronto. Molly Rankin is the daughter of the late John Morris Rankin, of the popular and (in Canada) well-known Celtic/folk group The Rankin Family. Among band members is guitarist Alec O’Hanley, formerly of the Charlottetown-based band Two Hours Traffic, who were featured here back in 2010. “Archie, Marry Me” is from the debut, self-titled Alvvays album, released on Polyvinyl Records back in July. The song has been floating around the internet even longer than that, but only last month emerged in free and legal MP3 form over on the long-standing free and legal MP3 blog 3hive. So thanks, very much, to the 3hivers for this one. And note that you can listen to the album and buy it in various formats via the Polyvinyl web site. I encourage it.

Free and legal MP3: Dawn Landes (sweet, gentle, sad)

Sweet and gentle and ineffably sad, “Love Song” creates bittersweet mystery from a string of simple words, set to a sing-along rhythm.

Dawn Landes

“Love Song” – Dawn Landes

Sweet and gentle and ineffably sad, “Love Song” creates bittersweet mystery from a string of simple words, set to a sing-along rhythm. The melody is plain and sturdy, with an elegant balance of upward and downward motion, while the song is structured around verses that end, Dylanishly, with a repeating lyrical conceit that serves as a truncated chorus. The recurring line—“I want to write you a love song/With my life”—is itself achingly elusive, both a profound intention and an implicit confession (of what, is not clear). Landes sings with a tenderness that seems equal parts reflection and regret; when she sings, strikingly, of “the technicolor of a loving soul dimmed to black and white” I find it impossible to know whether she is talking about her own or her ex-lover’s or (most likely) both.

I would be remiss if I did not, now, point out that Landes was married to fellow singer/songwriter Josh Ritter for a portentously short 18 months earlier this decade, and that Ritter was the first of the two to release the so-called “divorce album” (2013’s The Beast in its Tracks). Landes’s upcoming Bluebird, arriving next month on Western Vinyl, is hers. Disliking both gossip and speculation, I leave it at that.

Landes was born in Kentucky, moved to New York City to attend NYU in 1999, dropped out after two years, and, as a self-professed studio geek, finagled her way into recording studio jobs while also working on her own music. Based in Brooklyn, she owns a studio there with two partners which has been up and running since 2008. Bluebird was co-produced by Landes and Thomas Bartlett (Doveman); among the album’s performers are Bartlett, Rob Moose, and Norah Jones. Landes was previously featured on Fingertips in February ’08 for the beguiling “Bodyguard.” Bluebird is her fifth full-length album; she also has released two EPs, including 2012’s charming but largely disregarded Mal Habillée, a French-language tribute to the yé-yé music of the early ’60s.

Free and legal MP3: Camera Obscura (sweet, sad, swaying)

“Fifth in Line to the Throne” swings with a stately, downcast manner, slowing the band’s characteristic early-’60s melodies to a torchy sway.

Camera Obscura

“Fifth In Line To The Throne” – Camera Obscura

Masters of sweet sad pop, Camera Obscura are back after a four-year absence; all those melted without delay by Tracyanne Campbell’s voice prepare to be quickly puddled once more.

“Fifth in Line to the Throne” swings with a stately, downcast manner, slowing the band’s characteristic early-’60s melodies to a torchy sway. It’s a simple song, with no pretenses—and, previous CO adherents should note, not a whole lot of reverb. The band traveled from Glasgow to Portland, Oregon for this new album, to work with producer Tucker Martine, a studio whiz who seems to have figured out an intriguing way to maintain the band’s signature vibe without quite so much echoey ambiance as usual. The reverb is still there, to be sure, but the central tones of both Campbell’s voice and Kenny McKeeve’s lead guitar (check out the sly, leisurely solo, beginning at 2:44) are given more clarity than has been previously typical. Guest backing vocalist Neko Case, however, gets the full drench, her distinctive voice often diffused in a reverberant cloud.

The four years that have passed since My Maudlin Career have not been uneventful for the Scottish quintet. Keyboard player Carey Lander was diagnosed with cancer; she has apparently responded well to treatments and is not inclined to talk about it. Guitarist McKeeve, a new parent himself, lost his mother unexpectedly. And Campbell is now pregnant. But, hiatus now behind them, seventeen years into their lives together as a band, Camera Obscura forges onward with their fifth album, Desire Lines, arriving early next month on 4AD Records. MP3 via 4AD; thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up. And for a taste of one of the album’s upbeat numbers, check out “Do It Again,” via YouTube.

The band has been previously featured on Fingertips in 2006 (when I was already extolling their veteran prowess) and 2009.

Free and legal MP3: Sea of Bees (sweet and powerful)

Julie Bee

“Broke” – Sea of Bees

At once sweet and powerful, “Broke” appears the picture of simplicity: straightforward melodies, one ear-catching effect in an otherwise uncomplicated arrangement, matter-of-fact singing. But there is strength and mastery on display here if you listen for it.

The song is built upon two related but slightly different verse melodies and an extended chorus that comes with a sort of addendum to it. This is how it manages to have the feel of accessible clarity and gratifying complexity at the same time—that is, it’s on the one hand just a verse and a chorus but on the other hand not really. The moment that seals it for me is the wonderful chord change we hear in the chorus (first time at 0:45, along with the words “somebody hear me out”). It’s especially effective because the chorus has just started, and had already engaged us with the textural change delivered when the swirly electric guitar is replaced by a richly strummed acoustic just as the drummer kicks all the way in. And so the chord change at 0:45—taking us into momentarily into a minor key—was not “required” by the ear. And is all the more persuasive as a result. This is neither rocket science nor avant-garde music theory. But it’s a great moment, which anchors the song as it recurs in each iteration of the chorus.

“Broke” is one of 11 songs on the forthcoming Sea of Bees album Orangefarben (Team Love Records), all of them with one-word titles. (If the web is to be trusted, “orangefarben” appears to mean “orange” as an adjective in German, as in “orange-colored.”) This is the second album that Sacramento-based Julie Ann Bee (birth name Baenzinger) has recorded as Sea of Bees. This one arrives with a pretty heavy-duty personal back story (conservative upbringing, coming out, first same-sex relationship, and then break-up), and yet also, as is apparent here, with great musical joy and know-how. MP3 via Team Love. Sea of Bees was previously featured on Fingertips in June 2010.

Free and legal MP3: Color of Clouds (lovely blend of acoustic and electronic)

With a hint of glitch seasoning its spry intimacy, “Brother” is the work of a band with a gift for uncomplicated complexity, if that phrase makes any sense. Great pleasures await here in straightforward juxtapositions. For one immediate example, listen to how the beat glides seamlessly from a chime-like electronic stutter into a cozy 4/4 with a wistful bounce, driven by the gentlest of drumbeats. And then, without fuss, enters singer Kelli Scarr, arriving as if she’d been here all along, starting the story just about in mid-sentence, in tones of bittersweet honey. She has us at hello.

“Brother” – Color of Clouds

With a hint of glitch seasoning its spry intimacy, “Brother” is the work of a band with a gift for uncomplicated complexity, if that phrase makes any sense. Great pleasures await here in straightforward juxtapositions. For one immediate example, listen to how the beat glides seamlessly from a chime-like electronic stutter into a cozy 4/4 with a wistful bounce, driven by the gentlest of drumbeats. And then, without fuss, enters singer Kelli Scarr, arriving as if she’d been here all along, starting the story just about in mid-sentence, in tones of bittersweet honey. She has us at hello.

And things only get better from here in a song blending the acoustic and electronic in a most gracious manner–the instrumental palette here is nothing short of delightful–and building towards a brilliant, light-footed chorus. I still can’t tell if that’s some sort of steel guitar in there or a nuanced synthesizer, but those are definitely stringed instruments that arrive for a first visit at 0:57, returning with the chorus to mesh almost heart-breakingly with that steel-guitar-ish sound and, most nimbly, that subtle persistent electronic glitch in the beat. And yes I’m afraid this is one of those songs that’s far more trouble to describe than to listen to. Rest your eyes and reward your ears with repeated listens.

All three band members were previously in the electronic band Moonraker, and Scarr has also been a frequent collaborator with Moby. “Brother” is a song from the debut Color of Clouds album, Satellite of Love, released digitally this week via Stuhr Records. MP3 via One Track Mind.