Free and legal MP3: Old 97’s (feat. Brandi Carlile) (bang-up collaboration)

Maybe it takes a musical force of nature like Brandi Carlisle to shove the amiable Dallas band out of its comfort zone for four minutes.

Old 97s

“Good With God” – Old 97’s (featuring Brandi Carlile)

Rhett Miller is either blessed or cursed—not sure which—with such a distinctive musical sound that Old 97’s have been writing and recording songs for years that hew to a familiar vibe. This is a nice way of saying that their songs tend to sound the same. I will quickly add that this is a feature not a bug if you are a fan of this sound.

But maybe it takes a musical force of nature like Brandi Carlile to shove the amiable Dallas band out of its comfort zone for four minutes. To be sure, “Good With God” still adheres to one of Old 97’s two basic musical formats—there are the shuffly head-bopping songs, and the chugging, train-rhythm songs, with tempos that can vary slightly in each camp; this one’s a chugger. But the discordant guitar noise that introduces the song alerts us right away that we may here be breaking the mold a bit. And sure enough, even when it settles into the familiar rhythm, the echoey Western guitar line feels instantly self-possessed, and Miller dives into the eight-measure melody with headlong restraint, if that contradiction makes sense. (I like the little hiccup the song makes at 0:35, as if bracing itself for what is still to come.)

So the first verse is Miller singing as some smug pretty boy who imagines that his earthly transgressions aren’t that bad in the scheme of things, that his lip service to the almighty keeps him on the good side of the heavenly register. Cue furious guitar solo. On its heels comes Carlile, a bundle of sharpened fury, voice distorted in a subtly uncanny way. She’s not so nice, she tells him. Watch out. Now then, Miller did signal the plot twist (i.e., female God) in the last lyric of the song’s narrator, who sings, “All’s I know’s I’m good with God/I wonder how she feels about me,” and at first I’m thinking, hm, is this joker the kind to even conceive of a female Creator, never mind employ such a casual reference? But then I’m thinking yes maybe he is precisely that kind of joker. All the worse for him when Brandi Carlile shows up. I’d forgotten what an impressive singer she is. Stick around for the guitar coda, which acquires a grim-reaper-y kind of glee as it climbs up the neck.

“Good With God” is from Graveyard Whistling, the band’s eleventh studio album, recorded at the same rural Texas studio as its 1997 debut, and released back in February. The MP3 comes, yet again, from KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Cotton Mather (lost-lost Texas power pop band returns)

Here’s Cotton Mather’s front man Robert Harrison asking the musical question: is it still power pop when the hooks are this subtle and/or convoluted?

Cotton Mather

“The Book of Too Late Changes” – Cotton Mather

As regular readers of Fingertips know, I have an eternal musical soft spot for the elusive genre of power pop. My devotion is rooted in the genre’s unabashed melodicism, drive, and, for lack of a better word, song-iness—which is to say power pop doesn’t strain against the conventions of songwriting, it embraces them. As such, power pop has long offered me a safe space from which to observe forces at work on our musical culture that are far beyond any one person’s control. As I see it, music’s long-term destiny as a mass medium has involved a concurrent movement towards compositional simplification on the one hand (think Brahms to Beatles to Bieber) and movement away from beauty on the other (think of classical music’s embrace of atonality, and rock’n’roll’s evolution into beat-driven performance—which can of course be wonderful and compelling but does not usually care about or aim for the value of loveliness). Power pop, of all genres, seems to me to say: “This may not be complicated but it’s still gorgeous.” Oh and you can often dance to it.

But now here’s Cotton Mather’s front man Robert Harrison asking the musical question: is it still power pop when the hooks are this subtle and/or convoluted? Normally power pop is a brisk swatch of ear candy, buoyed by an ineffable sense of depth and yearning. “The Book of Too Late Changes” appears at first to be all angles and incompletions; follow the drumming alone and your head may spin a bit. You will in any case be hard-pressed to sing along. But, I say power pop nonetheless. In fact, I believe “The Book of Too Late Changes” represents an attentive reinvigoration of the genre, with as much punch and drive and melody as your grandfather’s power pop, and yet now with all sorts of tangential twists and turns, with glorious moments and motifs replacing sing-along choruses, all the while embracing the general jangly vibe the genre almost always celebrates. See if you hear what I hear.

Cotton Mather is a Texas band with a semi-legendary history; their 1997 album Kontiki was called “the best album the Beatles never recorded” by The Guardian, in the UK. But the band called it quits without fuss in 2003 (and were featured here on Fingertips that same year). Harrison re-emerged in 2007 at the head of a project called Future Clouds and Radar (likewise featured on Fingertips, in 2008). Prompted by a Kickstarter-funded deluxe re-issue of Kontiki in 2011, Cotton Mather re-formed and played some live gigs, first to support the album then just because. Eventually, Harrison was struck with the improbable idea of recording a 64-song cycle based on the I Ching. “The Book of Too Late Changes” is the first song to emerge from what is envisioned as a multi-record vinyl recording. For the time being, the songs will be released individually as they are recorded.

MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Wild Moccasins (glistening, purposeful neo-’90s guitar rock)

Sure, it was cool when rock’n’roll was younger and new forms were emerging, but it is also cool now with nearly 60 years of rock’n’roll behind us for bands to comb through it all and decide what works as a platform for their own musical expression.

Wild Moccasins

“Gag Reflections” – Wild Moccasins

With its glistening union of purposeful guitar rock and a mellifluous soprano, “Gag Reflections” gives off a welcome aroma of ’90s alternative rock (Belly, anybody? Tanya Donelly?), and okay, here’s something that the Retromania crowd refuses to understand: how brilliant it is that today’s bands have such wide-ranging, decades-spanning musical language by which to be inspired. Sure, it was cool when rock’n’roll was younger and new forms were emerging, but it is also cool now with nearly 60 years of rock’n’roll behind us for bands to comb through it all and decide what works as a platform for their own musical expression. For laughs, browse the blogosphere and note how often writers disparage a band for “not breaking any ground.” By which they mean that a given piece of music doesn’t seem to sound “new.” And yet to judge “newness” based entirely on whether it’s a new form is not only short-sighted (there’s way more to music than form, and always has been) but entirely misses the point of rock’n’roll in 2012. End of rant.

Both solidly built and subtly quirky, “Gag Reflections” begins with an odd but incisive prelude—first we hear a double-time riff, with an air of Morse-code urgency about it, then Zahira Gutierrez enters singing only the song’s title, the riff continuing, building tension, and releasing, now, into a proper intro. And quite an intro it is, with a satisfying, all but anthemic guitar line (0:22), the kind of guitar line, indeed, that rock’n’roll songs were made to be built around. And yet here, this superb guitar line feels a bit hidden—less central than slightly left-of-central, and soon overshadowed by Gutierrez’s fetching, elastic voice, which is simultaneously inviting and mysterious. She is one of those singers who can appear to sing clearly while still concealing most of the words she’s saying. And so you lean closer in. The payoff arrives at the end of the chorus, when she abandons words entirely for that angelic “oo-oo-oo” we first hear at 1:12. I love that the song’s most powerful hook is a fleeting moment, almost an afterthought, after the lyrics have ended. I also love the even higher “oo-oo-oo” Gutierrez unleashes later on (2:44), and, then, the brief but compelling guitar noise the band puts out shortly thereafter.

Wild Moccasins are a Houston-based quintet founded in 2007. Their debut album, Skin Collision Past, was self-released in 2010, and then re-released nationally in 2011 on New West Records. “Gag Reflections” is a single released in mid-July on New West.

Free and legal MP3: The Royalty (horn-infused, w/ elements of bygone pop)

With horn charts and sass, “Alexander” walks that wonderful, fine line between earnest and goofy, from its purposefully rushed and over-eager intro to its throwback melody and an overall vibe blending of elusive strands of ’40s and ’50s pop into a 21st-century indie rock stew.

The Royalty

“Alexander” – The Royalty

Among its assorted charms, “Alexander” features honest to goodness horn charts—that is, a fully developed and arranged horn section. Good horn charts almost always walk the fine line between earnest and goofy and that is true here too, thank goodness. The whole song walks that line, in fact, from its purposefully rushed and over-eager intro to its throwback melody and an overall vibe blending elusive strands of ’40s and ’50s pop into a 21st-century indie rock stew. Nicole Smith sings with a fetching combination of velvet and sass that magnifies the bygone vibe; there have been a precious few female rock’n’roll singers over the years who have been able to channel the pre-rock’n’roll era with conviction. Add Smith to the list.

But it all comes back to those horns (tenor sax, trumpet, and trombone, to be precise), which we first hear as emphatic punctuation in the succinct and splendid chorus. But don’t miss how they ingratiate their way into the second verse—along, I should note, with some well-placed finger snaps and a nifty shot of ’40s-style harmonizing. And while our ears don’t necessarily pick them up directly, there are strings at work here too—two violins, a viola, and a cello. Keyboardist Dan Marin wrote the horn charts, while guitarist Jesus Apodaca—whose day job is as a public-school orchestra teacher—arranged the strings.

The Royalty is a five-piece band that has been playing around the El Paso area since 2005. “Alexander” is the lead track from the outfit’s debut album, self-released digitally via Bandcamp earlier this month. Thanks to the band for letting Fingertips host the MP3.