Free and legal MP3: Steve Halliday (haunted, well-crafted acoustic ballad)

The voice is pure, haunted, and dramatic, the guitar playing crisp and stark—a recipe, for me, often, to hit the “next” button. Call me grumpy but I don’t usually like this sort of thing. So what is London’s Steve Halliday doing here that lifts the music out of the realm of overly earnest singer/songwriter fare and into something pretty wonderful?

Steve Halliday

“Alive Anywhere” – Steve Halliday

The voice is pure, haunted, and dramatic, the guitar playing crisp and stark—a recipe, for me, often, to hit the “next” button. Call me grumpy but I don’t usually like this sort of thing. So what is London’s Steve Halliday doing here that lifts the music out of the realm of overly earnest singer/songwriter fare and into something pretty wonderful?

A few things, I’d suggest. I like, right away, the major-key start to the minor-key song—always a nice and knowing touch. I like, too, the way the opening arpeggios operate at their own pace, slowing down and speeding up based on an expressive rather than a rhythmic imperative. Halliday continues this tempo variation—what in classical music might be called rubato—to great effect throughout the song. Paradoxically, the key to its success is that you don’t even necessarily notice it unless it’s pointed out.

In a subtly related matter of song craft, the lyrics themselves are asymmetrical, using little direct rhyme and in some cases, such as in the opening verse, no rhyme at all:

You were so long ago
You were driving me back
You’re crying, what’s so wrong?
Keep your hand on the wheel

There’s something simultaneously jarring and lovely in this. Whether consciously done or not, the musical and lyrical nonconformity jointly offset the “earnestness” factor rather well. I’m on board.

“Alive Anywhere” is the title track to Halliday’s debut album, which he home-recorded and self-released back in 2009; more recently it made its iTunes debut in January of this year. Thanks to the artist himself for the MP3, which I have permission to share here.

Free and legal MP3: Radical Face (quietly portentous, w/ minor-major alternation)

He seems to be telling quite a story with that expressive tenor of his—and yes I get the basic gist from the title alone—but there’s something about the music, each time, that pulls me away from the words.

Radical Face

“The Deserter’s Song” – Radical Face

I like good lyrics, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t tend to default to lyric-listening. I get distracted by the music. Drawn in and swept away. Even when I start out actively trying to listen to lyrics, I often lose my way. This one, wow, I’ve been listening over and over and I can’t seem to focus on the lyrics for very long at all. He seems to be telling quite a story with that expressive tenor of his—and yes I get the basic gist from the title alone—but there’s something about the music, each time, that pulls me away from the words.

I consider this a good thing. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I think a songwriter has done quite an impressive job if you, as a listener, know that the song works and yet can’t manage quite to follow what he or she is saying. Or okay maybe it’s just me as a listener. But I hear that deep tom-tom, I hear the hushed interplay between rhythm sticks and one-handed piano playing, I hear the always effective alternation of minor and major keys, never mind the thunder and rain (not always effective, but it works here, for me), and the words disintegrate into the song itself. I absorb the portentous atmosphere with no firm idea of what the song is specifically recounting. I consider this a good thing.

Radical Face is the name Ben Cooper has given to his solo recording project. Cooper is otherwise known, to some, as half of the duo Electric President, themselves featured here last February. “The Deserter’s Song” can be found on the EP Touch the Sky, released in November on the Berlin label Morr Music. A previous Radical Face album, Ghost, came out in November 2007. MP3 via Better Propaganda. This one I have known about since its release; it just took a while to grow into something I wanted to feature. Some music works like that. I hope you guys out there don’t always dismiss a new song with too quick a hit of the “next” button. Some songs need a bit of air and space.

Free and legal MP3: Matt Longo

Sweet, melancholy, concise

Matt Longo

“The Night” – Matt Longo

Sweet, melancholy, and concise, “The Night” is half ballad, half lullaby, with a lovely, organic melody that links the verse and chorus so seamlessly that it sounds like one long outpouring of thought, breath, desire, regret. Longo’s light, expressive tenor works equally well with the simple guitar accompaniment that begins the piece and the string- and drum-enhanced arrangement in the middle.

The song sounds like something you might stumble upon at a late-night party, where a guy with a guitar breaks into an easy, heartfelt tune, is joined by a couple of other friends with instruments, while a quiet roomful of people nod their heads in musical sympathy. There’s nothing complicated about it except its power to move you without being complicated. To kind of go meta on you for a moment.

“The Night” is one of seven songs on Longo’s debut album, Alexandria, which was released in November and available for free via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Two Hours Traffic (crackling power pop from Canada)

Two Hours Traffic

“Noisemaker” – Two Hours Traffic

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming: sharp, catchy, summertime pop from our impressively talented musical neighbors to the north. That’s more like it, eh?

This song has many things to love, and right away. First, the brisk, ringing guitar intro, which is not merely a persuasive opening salvo, but sounds brilliant following just about any other song on a playlist. Try it at home, you’ll see. Second, the way the voices join in, singing wordlessly, with the brisk, ringing guitars. Subtle and wonderful. Third, the fleet, wonderful sidestep taken from that guitar riff into the “oooooh” that opens the verse. Nifty, effortless little chord progression there. And then, oh boy, what about that “oooooh” itself? Straight out of the power pop handbook (Shoes, anyone?) and yet also a surprise coming right at the beginning like that. If they didn’t have me at hello, they surely had me at “oooooh.” The song is now about 23 seconds old. (And lasts 3:41–also as per the power pop handbook.)

Singer Liam Corcoran has just the right kind of spirited tenor required to make this crackle and resonate. It’s about energy, not content, as the thing about great power pop is that no one has to be singing about anything that is in itself all that powerful or intriguing; rather, there’s something in the music and presentation that makes whatever is being sung pretty much besides the point. It’s all deep and mysterious when the melody’s there, and the chords, and the unflagging energy of a band that knows it’s onto something. Songs like this often push that extra bit harder to knock your socks off, and I hear that here in the second half of the chorus, which uses a bit of unanticipated repetition to add an almost giddily satisfying resolution beyond the basic hook.

Two Hours Traffic is a foursome from Prince Edward Island. “Noisemaker” is the lead track (of course) from the band’s third album, Territory, which was released last year in Canada, and is due out in the U.S. in September via Bumstead Productions.

Free and legal MP3: Tahiti 80 (carefree English-speaking French pop)

“Unpredictable” – Tahiti 80

Carefree English-speaking French pop from a band doing it before it was a genre. There’s something not only charming but truly satisfying about a song that works quite so well both for people who are barely paying attention and for people paying close attention. This is no small feat. For the first group, a jaunty, smoothly sung tune is all that’s required. Great background music. The second group is trickier to please, as the music has to display a sort of depth that jaunty, smoothly sung tunes by their nature often lack.

The depth here, for me, is rooted in the song’s offhanded musicality. “Unpredictable” is full of interesting moments that whisper rather than shout as they unfold. Listen, for instance, to the very start: we hear a basic drumbeat that the ear expects to be established through four standard measures but instead–there for us to notice, or not–it’s interrupted after three seconds, in the second measure, which grounds the song in a sort of percussive pre-introduction. Only after that comes the standard four-measure intro. Listen, as another example, to the subtle adjustments the melody makes in the verse and how seductively singer Xavier Boyle wraps his faintly textured tenor around them: the way the melody mimics the keyboard riff at 0:23; the slow then fast pacing in the phrase “knock me down” at 0:31; the way the verse line is shortened and turned on the unresolved phrase “on the wall” at 0:35; and that’s just in the first verse. I give the band points, too, for an entirely different kind of craftiness–how the song title comes not from the chorus but from the verse. That’s rare in a chipper number like this one; anyone seeking only the inattentive audience will place the title where it repeats most obviously.

Bouncing along since 1993, Tahiti 80 is quartet from Rouen, France. “Unpredictable” is from the album Activity Center, the band’s fourth, which has been out for a year in Europe; its U.S. release comes, at last, later this month.

Free and legal MP3: Bear in Heaven (driven yet spacey indie rock)

“Lovesick Teenagers” – Bear in Heaven

Can a song be spacey and determined at the same time? “Lovesick Teenagers” seems to manage this unusual effect. Determination is heard through the relentless pulse of the snare-free beat along with front man Jon Philpot’s purposeful tenor, which sounds like someone with a wavery voice trying not to waver. And the melody itself seems also to possess an endearing sort of tenaciousness in the way it keeps leaping up a fourth on every syllable it seeks to emphasize.

But the spaciness too comes in various guises. Echoey, rocket-like synthesizers, sure. You’ll hear those right away. But it’s also there in the synth’s ongoing throb, which moves at twice the pace of the drumbeat, and lends a sci-fi-cartoon-iness to the proceedings. The chorus, when it arrives, arrives in a wash of psychedelic effects–soaring synths, fuzzed-up vocals, glitchy accents–even though, if you listen, you’ll see that the driving drumbeat persists underneath it all. And look how the song’s final moment pretty much encapsulates the underlying aural paradox, being at once the epitome of driving determination–a “sting,” as we used to call it in radio (meaning a sharp, abrupt ending)–and moony vagueness, since the sting echoes afterwards with the faintest of synthetic wind sounds.

Bear in Heaven is a quartet of Southerners who landed in Brooklyn and have been recording since 2003. “Lovesick Teenagers” is a song from Beast Rest Forth Mouth, the band’s third album, released this month on Hometapes Records.

Free and legal MP3: Headlights (breezy & memorable, a la NRBQ)

Consciously or not, “Get Going” offers up delightful echoes of a band few may remember, and fewer probably listen to anymore, NRBQ. During their late ’70s comeback years, in and around their goofier bar-band numbers, NRBQ let loose a bunch of simultaneously breezy and memorable pop songs a whole lot like this one in tone, vibe, and spirit.

“Get Going” – Headlights

Consciously or not, “Get Going” offers up delightful echoes of a band few may remember, and fewer probably listen to anymore, NRBQ. During their late ’70s comeback years, in and around their goofier bar-band numbers, NRBQ let loose a bunch of simultaneously breezy and memorable pop songs a whole lot like this one in tone, vibe, and spirit. The airy charm of Tristan Wraight’s tenor further recalls the unexpectedness sweetness infusing gems like “Ridin’ In My Car,” “I Want You Bad,” and “Me and the Boys.” Even the title sounds like something the ‘Q might have recorded.

But “Get Going” should likewise please the ear of the NRB-clueless. (Sorry; didn’t mean that as an insult, just couldn’t resist coining that phrase.) Listen to the way the melody in the verses keeps being drawn up: the lyrical lines each ending with an upward third interval, the middle of the line often pivoting on an upward fifth. Pop melodies much more typically lead in a general downward direction, the way water naturally heads towards lower ground. There’s something invigorating, if subtly off-kilter, in going against the norm in this way. The other thing I’m enjoying here is the guitar work, which engagingly interweaves an acoustic rhythm, an old-fashioned electric lead, and something unexpectedly drone-like. The way Erin Fein–normally the band’s lead vocalist–appears through a kind of underwater filter during the short bridge (1:36) is another whimsical highlight of this brief but emphatic song.

“Get Going” is from Wildlife, the Champaign-based quartet’s fourth album, released on Polyvinyl Records earlier this month. The band was previously featured on Fingertips for the wonderful song “Cherry Tulips” in January 2008. MP3 originally via Polyvinyl, but song lingers online on the music review site One Track Mind.

Free and legal MP3: Reed KD (like S&G w/ B. Folds on lead)

“Winding Roads” – Reed KD

Imagine Ben Folds singing lead for Simon & Garfunkel and you’ll have a fast idea of what “Winding Roads” sounds like. The melancholy guitar-picking and sweet vocalizing is definitely a throwback and/or homage to S&G in their heyday, but I also love that the tenor voice here feels rounded and confident (i.e. Foldsian) rather than wispy and introverted. Given how many 21st-century singer/songwriters seem birthed straight from the forehead of Elliott Smith, I for one am delighted to hear a guy who sounds like he could belt out a pop song if he wanted to, but doesn’t want to.

Another delight here is the exquisite and involving melody. Paul Simon’s melodic gift was crucial to the S&G vibe, and so to go after that vibe without a serious melody is a big mistake, to my ears. (When you pull out the acoustic guitar things can go downhill quickly without a melody to hang onto.) Reed KD (and no, I have no idea what to make of his name; is KD his last name? is Reed KD a two-part first name?) engages us by offering a complex melody within a song distilled to utmost simplicity: both the verse and the chorus are each an eight-measure melody; we hear each one twice, with some lovely guitar work in between. That’s it, and that’s all it needs to be.

“Winding Roads” is from Reed KD’s self-released new album In Case the Comet Comes, due out next week. The singer/songwriter is based in Santa Cruz.