Free and legal MP3: Annie Dressner (UK-based expat singer/songwriter)

Annie Dressner has one of those plainspoken voices that sounds like she’s singing and not singing at the same time. It works especially well with a song like “Falter,” which itself is simultaneously simple and maybe not so simple.

Annie Dressner

“Falter” – Annie Dressner

Annie Dressner has one of those plainspoken voices that sounds like she’s singing and not singing at the same time. It works especially well with a song like “Falter,” which itself is simultaneously simple and maybe not so simple. An obvious complication is the time signature hiccup that Dressner employs in the intro and the verse, before allowing the song to slide into a more familiar groove.

Less obvious is the push/pull of the lyrical content. The song reads to me as a poignant testament to our imperfect lives. What might initially sound like a pep talk to the self (“Stop wasting time! Get to the finish line!”), comes across to my ears as a bittersweet recognition that there’s something inevitable to our falling short of our dreams, and that we go on anyway. The wisdom we gain through aging and perseverance may be more valuable than what we thought we wanted as young dreamers. Perhaps I’m reading more into it than is there? I’d like to think not. The hints I see suggesting the more complex reading are sprinkled throughout; if I try to explain in detail this would get too long, and potentially embarrassing, as I could well be off base. Let me just note that the title is, in fact, “Falter”: the apparent weakness itself, not the pep talk. Also, the chorus launches off the plaintive question “Can’t you get it right?”; expressed with the implicit negative, it becomes rhetorical: no, we can’t get it right. We’re human.

More to my usual concerns—I don’t often get caught up in lyrics but it could be that distinctive quality in her voice that focused me in this direction—the chorus is propelled by a wonderful feeling of musical inevitability, having to do with the unresolved chord at the outset, and the series of chords that bring it invincibly to resolution. I like too the unhurried, almost mournful guitar solo (starting at 1:58) that inserts itself between two iterations of the bridge, delaying the payoff of one last chorus, and (perhaps) adding subtle irony to the words “almost at the finish line,” since she ends up singing that twice.

Annie Dressner was born and raised in New York City; she moved to the UK in the early 2010s. Her new album, Broken Into Pieces, was released last week. You can both listen to it and buy it via Bandcamp. Thanks to Annie for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Juana Molina (spritely, rhythmic parade of sound)

Leave it to the mistress of mysteriously appealing electro-acoustic experimentation to find such a lovely, hypnotic groove in 7/4 time.

Juana Molina

“Cosoco” – Juana Molina

The world would be a plainer, paler place without odd time signatures. Leave it to the mistress of mysteriously appealing electro-acoustic experimentation to find such a lovely, hypnotic groove in 7/4 time. Propelled by some of the most softly satisfying percussive sounds I have ever heard, “Cosoco” is a sprightly off-kilter dance that blossoms, at 1:40, into an even tighter, richer, more intriguing parade of sound and rhythm, led by Molina’s charming, multi-tracked vocals. The effect is of something at once complex and free-spirited, intricately woven and yet easy to follow. On the one hand, we get a “solo” from the sort of loopy electronic sound that is her ongoing signature (2:20) (even as each song seems to present us with a different variation). But then, straight away, arrives a short, plump bass solo (2:42), pretty much its ambient opposite. The bass stays front and center through the next section of the song before steering us into one more iteration of our main musical setting.

Then, at around 3:48, a magical mystical coda begins, with the entrance of a swirly, wind-like effect that emerges in tandem with the drumming that now sounds more and more organic. “Cosoco”‘s closing minute is as engaging as it is amorphous: there are no particular melodies, or even any chord progressions, just the ever-energetic pulse of the 7/4 rhythmic riff that has provided us with the song’s foundational characteristic from beginning to end, accompanied by the curious synthetic squiggles that Molina manages to rope into pop coherence.

Once upon a time a sitcom star in Argentina, Molina, long ensconced on the Fingertips “Most Often Featured” list, has been written about here three previous times: in June 2003, May 2006, and September 2008.

“Cosoco” can be found on Halo, Molina’s seventh album, released in May on Crammed Discs. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp. Thanks again to KEXP for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Patrick Boutwell (crunchy, complex power pop)

Rhythmic imbalance is central to the crunchy charm of “Scotch the Snake”; the melody wants to soar but is repeatedly hemmed in by the offbeat beat.

Patrick Boutwell

“Scotch The Snake” – Patrick Boutwell

We get un-clap-along-able hand claps in song one, and extended bits of 7/4 time in song two. 6/4 too. It’s my lucky week.

Of course there’s more to the crunchy, incisive “Scotch the Snake” than an asymmetrical time signature, but the rhythmic imbalance remains central, and keeps straight-ahead catchiness at bay—the melody wants to soar but is repeatedly hemmed in by the offbeat beat. And it’s kind of a good thing: we get the big guitar riffs and plaintive tenor lead of classic power pop without, quite, that genre’s simplicity (or over-simplicity). Another wrinkle here: what appears to be the verse delivers the big melodic hook, as soon as the singing starts; and what appears to be the chorus feels more bridge-like, connecting the payoff delivered each time by the verses. It’s an extra way that “Scotch the Snake” keeps the ear pleasantly off-balance.

As it turns out this is the second song heard here in recent months that offers up the aural vocabulary of power pop while undermining the genre’s tendency to be ear-candily catchy (see, previously, Cotton Mather). I’m not saying this is a national trend (if only) but I like it in any case.

Boutwell is front man for the Rhode Island-based band The Brother Kite, which one or two Fingertips veteran followers might (possibly?) remember from the early early days—they were not only featured here in 2004 but the following year the band’s song appeared on the one and only Fingertips compilation CD (Fingertips: Unwebbed, of which I still have a batch in my closet). (Anyone want one?)

“Scotch the Snake” is a track from Boutwell’s album Hi, Heaviness, which was released at the beginning of March. The phrase is Shakespearean, from Macbeth, where it refers to temporarily debilitating but not actually destroying something dangerous. You can hear the whole thing on Bandcamp, and choose to pay for it whatever you’d like. Thanks to the valiant Powerpopulist blog for the head’s up on this one. And thanks to Patrick himself for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: The Whales (short, enticing, well-crafted)

Over repeated listens, I’m getting more and more of a Kinks vibe, but in the very best way—not a slavish homage but an intriguing contemporizing of the band’s mid-’60s drive, some elusive amalgam of horsepower and brainpower that gives, in my mind, the best rock’n’roll from any era its appeal and staying power.

The Whales

“Marguerite” – The Whales

Short and enticing, “Marguerite” chugs along in a semi-garage-y world of droning sound with the enticing addition of some time signature complication: the song’s 4/4 momentum is given knowing little tugs by some well-placed 6/4 measures. A little of this goes a long way to my ears, as it indicates first and foremost that someone is paying attention, that there is some vivid musical creativity at work. No offense to groove-oriented music (maybe) but personally I am less convinced of musical artistry via what are essentially decorations (i.e., interesting sounds layered on top of a beat); I am more impressed with a creative intelligence that can work at the structural level. I mean, there’s choosing a paint color or two and there’s architecture, right? Not everyone operates at the same depth and that’s completely fine. I’m just saying…well, what am I saying? I seem to have digressed.

Oh and then there’s the subject matter, which is offbeat and refreshing, as “Marguerite” turns out to be about the French writer Marguerite Yourcenar, the first woman elected to the Académie française. (In the U.S. Yourcenar is probably best known for the 1951 novel Mémoires d’Hadrien.) As I sit with this song over repeated listens, I’m getting more and more of a Kinks vibe, but in the very best way—not a slavish homage but an intriguing contemporizing of the band’s mid-’60s drive, some elusive amalgam of horsepower and brainpower that gives, in my mind, the best rock’n’roll from any era its appeal and staying power.

The Whales are a six-piece band from the UK formed in 2013, about which not a lot of information is readily discoverable (blame in part the generic name). “Marguerite” is available via an admirable project: the British label Fat Cat Records has an ongoing SoundCloud page where it makes available as free downloads the best demos it receives, acknowledging that they simply don’t have the resources to sign every band that sends in a good song. You can visit the Fat Cat demo page here. Thanks to the Powerpopulist blog for the head’s up on the song.

Free and legal MP3: Ralfe Band (jaunty, off-kilter piano tale)

Calling upon neither gimmickry nor condescension, the music, while not necessarily Beatle-esque, is positively Beatle-like in its straightforward inventiveness.

Oly Ralfe

“Cold Chicago Morning” – Ralfe Band

Does the inexorable sound shift that’s been made right before our eyes and ears on the pop music front in the 2010s render music that feels more organic, hand-made, and melodically inclined entirely obsolete by this oh-so-futuristic year of 2014? On the one hand, rock’n’roll does seem really most sincerely dead in many different quarters here in the mid-’10s, replaced in the hearts and minds of today’s mainstream by sounds far more polished and formulaic and beat-driven. On the other hand, against all odds, plenty of organic, hand-made, and melodically inclined music is in fact still being created and recorded and not just by the oldsters of my generation but by good-hearted folks in their 20s and 30s as well.

A marvelous case in point is the off-kilter, Randy-Newman-meets-Tom-Waits jaunt of “Cold Chicago Morning,” from the British singer/songwriter/artist/filmmaker Oly Ralfe, who performs as Ralfe Band. The opposite of glossy and beat-driven, “Cold Chicago Morning” is launched by a clever, extended piano melody that mixes time signatures and advances unexpected chords even as it keeps your head bobbing nicely along. Ralfe sings with a smoother croon than his older progenitors, while still conveying a scuffed-up sensibility. Stick around (why wouldn’t you?) and see how the piano returns (first at 1:27) to deliver the song’s singular musical moment: an ear-catching line that ascends up a non-traditional scale only to tumble back, as if down a staircase. Calling upon neither gimmickry nor condescension, the music, while not necessarily Beatle-esque, is positively Beatle-like in its straightforward inventiveness.

“Cold Chicago Morning,” from the 2013 album Son Be Wise (Highline Records), was recently released as a single; my attention was drawn to it via the ever-excellent Lauren Laverne over on BBC Radio 6.

Free and legal MP3: Time Travelers (clean, invigorating rock, w/ time tricks)

In little more than three minutes, “Stormalong” propels us through a clean, invigorating piece of accessible but complex pop.

Time Travelers

“Stormalong” – Time Travelers

A minor hobby of mine as a listener is deciphering unorthodox time signatures. Of course, the more unorthodox they are, the less I can usually figure them out. “Stormalong” is one of those songs that seemed to resist precise mapping; outside of my suspecting that the rhythmic engagement of the introduction is based on alternating 6/4 and 7/4 measures, this one eluded me.

Turns out it was a trick of the ear. Vocalist Edward Sturtevant assures me that outside of the introduction, the rest of the song actually is in 4/4 time after all. What they did was place a lot of the accents on the off-beats—“to keep things interesting,” he says. It sounds so unassuming that way, but it’s worth noting that obscuring a song’s time signature has become an all but dying art in an age of digitized beats and laptop composition. “Keeping things interesting” is a modest way of acknowledging that one has enough craft and mastery to conceive of fiddling with rhythmic structure in the first place, never mind the talent to write and perform the end result. In little more than three minutes, “Stormalong” propels us through a clean, invigorating piece of accessible but complex pop. In addition to the rhythmic uncertainty, the song offers an eccentric two-part verse, a chorus that is unusually succinct and melodic (typically a chorus may be one or the other, or neither), and then an extended bridge section that is the only part that presents itself clearly in 4/4 time. Often either difficult to discern or difficult to interpret, the lyrics glide by without etching a firm picture in the mind’s eye, but the chorus’s central, allusive observation about the fine line between hope and despair is, combined with the musical bounty, strong enough to keep me eager to tease more meaning from the rest of the words as I continue to listen.

Time Travelers are a four-man band based in Brooklyn. As reported last time they were here, in August 2012, they got together in 2008 as sophomores at Bates College in Maine. “Stormalong” is the title track from the band’s soon-to-be-released EP, which will be their third to date.

Free and legal MP3: Lindsey Buckingham (gentle melody, fierce fingerpicking)

A beauty and a grower, “Seeds We Sow” is all bittersweet wisdom and musical depth. Put it on repeat and soak it in.

Lindsey Buckingham

“Seeds We Sow” – Lindsey Buckingham

“Seeds We Sow” couples lullaby calm with instrumental ferocity as bona fide rock legend/guitar hero Buckingham supports his gentle, whispered melody with some vigorous fingerpicking. The guitar work is so fluid that you might miss how likewise maniacal it is, working alternately with and against the complex time signature (12/8, maybe?) to soothe and unsettle in equal parts. The lyrics appear to serve a similar purpose.

And for whatever reason, the thing that nails this down for me is the wordless addendum to the chorus that he employs (first at 0:58)—the “ahhhh, ta ta ta,” part, which seems at once curious and perfect. Why “ta” versus the standard “la”? How would that even occur to someone? This is also the moment at which Buckingham unleashes his most characteristic vocal sound; it’s like an old friend abruptly appearing at a party you hadn’t known he was invited to. In any case, the song is a beauty and a grower, all bittersweet wisdom and musical depth. Put it on repeat and soak it in.

“Seeds We Sow” is the title track to Buckingham’s new album, his sixth as a solo artist, which he self-released (using the imprint Mind Kit Records) earlier this month. MP3 via Magnet Magazine. Note that Amazon is selling the MP3 album for $4.99 right now if you’re interested.

Free and legal MP3: Caveman (sweet & driven, w/ accoutrements)

The song moves along in 4/4 time, at a brisk clip, and then in the chorus, the drive remains but something’s awry, extra beats sneak in and then out in a way that creates a kind of hiccup in the rhythm.

Caveman

“Old Friend” – Caveman

Sweet and dreamy, but with a sense of drive and purpose, not to mention a playful sense of time, “Old Friend” starts in the middle of the story (“And I sat down on the wall…”). I like that. I also like the haunted-house organ and those ghostly harmonies and those scary synthesizer washes and how Matthew Iwanusa offers up his sugary tenor as if he doesn’t hear any of that. He’s not scared, not him.

Most of all I like the time-signature-based hook in the chorus. The song moves along in 4/4 time, at a brisk clip, and then in the chorus, the drive remains but something’s awry, extra beats sneak in and then out in a way that creates a kind of hiccup in the rhythm. Two things seem to be happening. First, the melody line has been skewed even further away from the beginning of the measure than it already had been in the verse; in the chorus, each new line starts two beats before the next measure starts, rather than a beat and a half in front. Okay, doesn’t sound like much, but trust me, it’s different. Second, the chorus begins with two measures of 6/4 before proceeding as previously in 4/4. The 6/4 measures start at 0:47, around the word “around,” and then bump back into the 4/4 stream at the lyrical seam between the words “right on time” and “it was just an old friend.” As usual with this kind of stuff, it sounds clunky and hard to follow as I describe it, but what you’ll hear is delightful and engaging.

Caveman is a five-piece from Brooklyn that formed in January 2010. (Yes, we are getting there, folks: listening to bands that did not exist even in the ’00s. Time flies, whether you’re having fun or not.) “Old Friend” will be found on band’s debut album, CoCo Beware, coming out next month.

Free and legal MP3: Apex Manor (chunky, peppy rocker, w/ rhythm shifts)

A chunky, peppy rocker, “Under the Gun” hooks the ear initially with some insouciant time signature manipulation. (Yes, there’s nothing like some insouciant time signature manipulation to brighten the day!)

Apex Manor

“Under the Gun” – Apex Manor

A chunky, peppy rocker, “Under the Gun” hooks the ear initially with some insouciant time signature manipulation. (Yes, there’s nothing like some insouciant time signature manipulation to brighten the day!) But okay, bear with me as I flail around in an effort to explain. So do you hear that spiraling guitar theme in the introduction (starts around 0:12)? This appears to be in 6/4 time, as does the entire introduction. The song itself, meanwhile, thumps along in standard 4/4 time (initial switchover at 0:23). As you can see, this isn’t a jarring change—the basic rhythmic unit is the same, and the number of beats remains even—but it’s kind of all the more wonderful as a result. You don’t even necessarily register it consciously, but the two extra beats create this ingenious tension because on the one hand it’s freeing and spacious while on the other hand it feels borrowed, evanescent, a passing fancy, maybe an aural illusion. The 6/4 theme recurs a couple of times, including an iteration at 1:53 that leads into an odd little bridge that doesn’t seem to have any time signature at all. Fun!

I don’t think a song that plays so casually and deftly with its rhythm can be anything but well-constructed and compelling. It helps that front man Ross Flournoy (recognize him from the Broken West? maybe?) has one of those comfortable catchy-song tenors, recalling the likes of McCartney and Tilbrook, to name two minor singing/songwriting heroes from days of yore. As with the Broken West, the appeal is in part how familiar the overall sound is, without coming across like a retread. While not as blatantly power poppy as the Broken West could be, “Under the Gun” employs the time-honored power-pop trick of delayed resolution—you want it but don’t get it, in the chorus, at 0:49, but hang on a bit longer and you get it all the more gratifyingly (wait for it) at 1:03 through 1:06.

The Broken West split up, without much chatter, in September 2009. Apex Manor was born as the Pasadena-based Flournoy’s response to an NPR songwriting contest, of all things. Bassist Brian Whelan, also from the Broken West, joins him in the new quartet, along with Adam Vine and Andy Creighton. “Under the Gun” will be on the debut Apex Manor album, The Year of Magical Drinking, slated for a January release on good old Merge Records.

Free and legal MP3: The Morning Benders(musically astute pop w/ crunch & charm)

“Promises” – The Morning Benders

Chunky, loping, and unaccountably engaging new song from a long-time Fingertips favorite. But never fear, I will try to account for it. First, note how the octave harmonies (I always love octave harmonies as you may know by now) set up the first kind-of-hook, which is at 0:25, when the melody shifts from something low and slinky to something higher and more forceful. The melodic shift hooks the attention precisely because of the octave harmonies: the first half of the melody naturally focuses your ear on the lower harmony voice but when the higher-register section starts the ear now latches onto the higher voice. So it’s like we hear a more pronounced displacement than is actually happening. It may not be a hook per se but it’s subtly compelling. You want to keep listening.

Next point on the tour: that crunchy, unresolved chord that both ends one verse and starts the next (0:31). And then, notice that as the second verse unfolds, it doesn’t play out like verse one, and now for the first time we get phrases that stand out both musically and lyrically. The first is when Chris Chu sings “They say it’s only natural,” and then, even better: the linchpin point to which the song has been building (0:58), at the lyric, “I can’t help thinking we grew up too fast.” Things deconstruct a bit after that, with shifting time signatures and accumulating noise. And round about now I’m noticing how thick with musical detail this song actually is–there are engaging guitar licks, hidden keyboard flourishes, unexpected percussive accents, stray sounds, and an ongoing parade of nifty chord changes. These guys know what they’re doing.

The Morning Benders, a quartet from Berkeley, are no strangers here, having been featured twice previously–in June ’08 and, for the sublime “Grain of Salt,” in December ’06. “Promises” is from the Big Echo, the band’s second full-length, and first for Rough Trade Records, due out next month. MP3 via the Beggars Group, of which Rough Trade is a part.