Free and legal MP3: The Joy Formidable

Dream pop w/ a triplet-based swing

“Into The Blue” – The Joy Formidable

Thum-pi-da, THUM-pi-da, thum-pi-da, THUM-pi-da: The swinging, triplet-based backbeat that launches “Into the Blue,” offset by scratchy and thoughtful guitar arpeggios, evokes something deep and disregarded in the history of rock’n’roll. What I think we’re hearing here is the ghost of doo-wop, and while doo-wop has never been my thing (I’m old but I’m not quite that old!), it feels invigorating to hear in the context of a song so otherwise rooted in the 21st century.

Layered on top of the backbeat comes a marvelous mixture of light and shadow, melody and noise, liberation and complication. The song takes a terrific turn early on, at 1:08, when front woman Ritzy Bryan is displaced for a verse on vocals by bassist Rhydian Dafydd, who sings an alternate but related melody that strikes the ears as newly urgent. Even if—this again—it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on in the lyrics, the introduction of the other person’s point of view in what sounds like a relationship-centric song intensifies the circumstances, adroitly signaling the communication issue the song seems to be about.

Through it all keep your ears on Bryan’s guitar work—the discrete notes she slips in here and there, the occasionally heard squeak of fingers on strings, and in particular how she sometimes just starts playing her own thing (example at 1:56) as a sort of combination counter-melody/counter-rhythm to the song’s determined drive forward.

The Joy Formidable is a trio founded in Wales, although Dafydd and Bryan have been living in Utah, of all places, in recent years. (The band’s third member is drummer Matthew James.) “Into The Blue” as a single has been out since March, but is soon to emerge as the title track to the fifth Joy Formidable album, arriving later this month. MP3 via KEXP. You can buy the album in a variety of formats on Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: The Great Emu War Casualties

Crafty songwriting, dynamic arrangements

“I’m a Yes Man” – The Great Emu War Casualties

For all its loose, swinging atmosphere, “I’m a Yes Man” is a highly disciplined exercise in catchy late-period rock’n’roll. The swing comes from melodies consistently centered off the first beat of the measure, while the sense of looseness is propelled by a dynamic bass line down below and wailing electric guitars up top. The discipline, meanwhile, can be felt in the tightness of the performances (random example: that tiny dead-air pause in the proceedings at 0:19), including the disaffected, precise vocal stylings of front man Joe Jackson (yup that’s his name). His rhythmically astute phrasing is impressive, maybe nowhere clearer than on the standout line “I’ve got half a mind to half-remember half the time” (1:14). The song is written to encourage his careful, clever singing, which doubles back to highlight the crafty songwriting. I like, as an example, how the line “And could you offer in a helping hand?” at 1:24 extends beyond the confines of its musical phrase, which strikes me as a confident bit of composition.

The arrangements, with their intertwining guitars and savvy dynamics, reinforce the air of a band in complete control. This might have a fair amount to do with producer Alex Newport, who has worked with a number of heavy-hitting outfits, among them Death Cab for Cutie and Bloc Party; in any case, the song is continually enlivened by not only the particular instrumental mix in use at any given time but the push and pull of volume and accompaniment. One small example: not only does the swell of sound drop away at the start of the verse (0:40), but we also get a guitar playing notes that imply chords that do not match the melody in the vocal–an enticing bit of passing dissonance. This is one of those songs that you can take a slice of at pretty much any moment and find something interesting going on. I suggest you try it.

The Great Emu War Casualties is a trio from Melbourne. “I’m a Yes Man” is a track from their five-song EP, Vanity Project, which was released at the end of February. You can check out the whole thing, and buy it, via Bandcamp. Oh and in case you’re interested: the Great Emu War was actually a thing, involving the Australian government employing the military to control a runaway emu population in 1932. You can read more here. Executive summary: the emus won.

Free and legal MP3: Loma

Steady and dramatic

“Half Silences” – Loma

Loma is a band that seems to enjoy giving us space as much as sound. Don’t let the pulse-like beat that you’re first hearing distract you from the song’s more idiosyncratic attributes. Listen, for instance, to how the beat is soon neutralized by a synthesizer rhythm that slows the effective pace of the song by a factor of eight. And it’s kind of a stuttering, science-fiction-y synthesizer sound at that. Creating space, as it were.

When singer Emily Cross checks in, at 0:31, she delivers a long and careful melody line, half-time to the underlying pulse, which further works to draw the ear to the alluring expanse in which the piece unfolds. The aforementioned synth accents seem slowly to be morphing into wordless vocals by around 0:55; and by 1:16 this background vocalizing, nearly medieval in vibe, becomes the song’s signature accompaniment. Cross, meanwhile, holds the center with her unhurried, slightly smoky mezzo. I love how much drama the song creates without Cross herself having to do anything dramatic–the tension of the beat, the solemnity of the vibe, and a variety of subtle musical flourishes do the work for her. It seems a corollary of Charlie Chaplin’s famous (and effective) acting advice: if the thing you’re doing is funny, you don’t need to try to “act funny” while you’re doing it; here, the song itself is dramatic, and so Cross doesn’t need to sing dramatically to serve the music. Perhaps more singers should figure this out.

Loma is the trio of Cross, Jonathan Meiburg (front man of the band Shearwater), and Dan Duszynski.  Cross and Duszynski had been a duo together, opening for Shearwater; Meiburg was taken with their sound and attracted to the idea of relinquishing the spotlight for a while. They got together for what was to be a one-off project, resulting in a self-titled 2018 album. A second album was not in the original plan, but the three of them found themselves drawn back together, perhaps partially due to some supportive words on BBC Radio 6 from none other than Brian Eno that made their way back to the band.

“Half Silences” is the third track of 11 on Loma’s second LP, Don’t Shy Away, which was released on Sub Pop Records back in October. (Note that Eno was eventually invited to contribute to the album; he is credited with “additional synths and drum programming” on the album’s closing song, “Homing.”) The band was previously featured on Fingertips in March 2018, around the time of their debut. MP3 via KEXP. You can listen to the whole album, and buy it, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Middle Kids

Terrific new song from top-notch band

“Real Thing” – Middle Kids

The gifted Australian trio Middle Kids is back with a follow-up release to its superb 2018 album, Lost Friends; we remain in excellent hands.

“Real Thing” pulses with an off-kilter rhythm section, navigated with nonchalance by smoky-voiced frontwoman/guitarist Hannah Joy. The melody starts casually, on the second beat of the measure, much of it double-time, comprising a lot of words but only a couple of different notes. I get from this a sense of escalation, which gets suspended by a verse extension in which the melody slows down and expands, right on the resonant phrases “hopeless romantics, anxiety magnets” (0:25). We retreat briefly into the opening melody before advancing into what we’ve been waiting for: the killer chorus. Middle Kids are in fact masters of the killer chorus; for evidence look no further than the song “Mistake,” from Lost Friends (and featured here on at the beginning of the year on EPS 6.01), which still gives me goose bumps.

What makes the chorus here work so well feels like a magic trick. It neither attempts to pound a simplified musical phrase into your head nor relies on a flagrantly memorable chord change. The most noticeable thing it does is alternate double- and single-time lines; the other prominent feature is its asymmetry: the way the third line doesn’t directly mirror the first line, as the ear expects, but extends an extra measure. And right there, somehow, is the hook, when Joy sings, “Are you like me, do you lie awake thinking?” (0:44) The line illustrates an ongoing feature of Joy’s presentation, which subtly fluctuates between phrases that seem slightly slurred or indistinct and those that jump out with precision. The chorus finishes with some wordless vocal leaps that now show how much more elastic Joy’s range is than you might initially expect (0:50-1:00). Somehow, altogether, the effect is brilliant.

Lastly, note the guitar work throughout. The band presents as a trio but uses an extra guitar in the mix, and when performing live. As you listen, it’s worth reminding yourself that this is a completely guitar-based band; all the heft and drive of their sound on top of the rhythm section comes from guitars. They’re kind of a glorious anomaly that way here in 2019, with no laptop twiddling or sampling going on. And look, I’ve got nothing against technology per se but dislike when sounds become fads and in any case look to music as something requiring intellectual, emotional, and physical skill, generated by vibrations arising from three-dimensional reality (plucked or hammered strings; breath disturbing the air). These guys, to quote their own song, are the real thing.

You’ll find this track on Middle Kids’ brand-new six-track mini album New Songs For Old Problems, released last week. Grab it for just $5.99 at Bandcamp, where you’ll also want to buy Lost Friends if you don’t already have it. MP3 via The Current.

(Note that MP3s from The Current are available in files that are 128kbps, which is below the iTunes standard of 192kbps, not to mention the higher-def standard of 320kbps. I personally don’t hear much difference on standard-quality equipment but if you are into high-end sound you’ll probably notice something. In any case I always encourage you to download the MP3 for the purposes of getting to know a song via a few listens; if you like it I still urge you to buy the music. It’s the right thing to do.)

Free and legal MP3: Acapulco Lips (half-goofy half-serious surf-punk-pop)

With its lead vocals buried almost cartoonishly in reverb, “Awkward Waltz” displays a joyful zing greater than the sum of its garage-rock-y parts.

Acapulco Lips

“Awkward Waltz” – Acapulco Lips

With its lead vocals buried almost cartoonishly in reverb, “Awkward Waltz” displays a joyful zing greater than the sum of its garage-rock-y parts. This may have a lot to do with the old-school organ that floats through the mix, and it may have to do with the inherent appeal of a minor-key melody presented in a foot-tapping context. Or, maybe it has to do most of all with the irrepressible “oh-oh-oh” vocal descent we hear throughout the song from Austin-born singer Maria-Elena Juarez, each time delivering a frisson of catharsis, surf-punk style.

In any case, this is half-goofy half-serious fun, a song with a seeming simplicity belied by its unabashed devotion to an aural landscape that sounds more and more timeless as each new half-generation rediscovers it. Listen to drummer Davy Berruyer (who is from France, for goodness’ sake) and remind me again why electronic percussion exists. I know there’s a good reason but it’s slipped my mind in the presence of such precise and evocative pummeling. Listen to Christopher Garland and recall for a brief shining moment why we all used to love electric guitars so much—fingers on steel, sounds squealing and bending in direct relationship to sheer physical force. Juarez, meanwhile, mirroring the lead guitar with her bass, both grounds the song and frees it to splay towards its roiling conclusion. (Note that the crucial, aforementioned keyboards are supplied here by Yann Cracker, drummer Davy’s French pal.)

Acapulco Lips (coined to play coyly off the word “apocalypse”) is a trio based in Seattle. “Awkward Waltz” is the lead track off its self-titled debut album, which was released in mid-April on the brand new (?!) record label Killroom Records. You can listen to the album and purchase it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: The Casket Girls (bright, buzzy, unsettling)

Bright and buzzy cosmetics and solid pop instincts on top, something unsettling underneath.

The Casket Girls

“Western World” – The Casket Girls

Bright and buzzy cosmetics and solid pop instincts on top, something unsettling underneath. But what else to expect from a band called the Casket Girls, named for a group of poor but probably chaste young women sent by France to 18th-century New Orleans as prospective wives to the colonists there—and whom, over time, have been deemed by local legend to be vampires? Never mind that the band is from Savannah, and that the original casket girls got their name because they arrived with small suitcases that were called “casquettes.” Vampires make a better story for NOLA locals giving ghost tours, and Casket Girls has a disquieting ring for an indie rock band with two female lead singers.

In any case, “Western World” burbles with intent and strata, each sonic element—glitchy percussion, rubbery bass synth, blasé mirroring lead vocals, a smorgasbord of keyboards—adding fluently to the song’s overall sense of things at once coming together and falling apart. While many of the words flow past the ear in a portentous brew just beyond comprehension, one key, repeated lyric hits an insightful target: “But you know disease is like progress/You can’t escape the way it all shakes out.” The implications of this one simile give “Western World” extra oomph, while the carnival of accumulated sound gives you an excuse not to think too much about what they might actually be saying.

The Casket Girls is a band more or less spontaneously generated by the prolific and mysterious Ryan Graveface, best known as guitarist of Black Moth Super Rainbow but also in three other bands now, including Casket Girls. Graveface randomly came upon sisters Elsa and Phaedra Greene one day, singing odd songs in one of Savannah’s picturesque city squares, and pretty much decided on the spot that they would form a band, if only to help him continue to work through his obsession with the Shangri-Las, a girl group from the ’60s (“Leader of the Pack,” “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” et al.).

“Western World” is a song from a split EP the Casket Girls released (on Graveface Records; yes that’s him too) with the band Stardeath and White Dwarfs for Record Store Day back in November 2015. The band’s third full-length album is due out some time this year.

Free and legal MP3: Cousin Tony’s Brand New Firebird (evocative rocker w/ juxtaposed tempos)

Evocative rocker that manages to feel old-school and brand-new at the same time.

Cousin Tony's Brand New Firebird

“Soothsayer” – Cousin Tony’s Brand New Firebird

Evocative rocker that manages to feel old-school and brand-new at the same time. While you are probably first going to notice the emotive and elastic vocals of front man Lachlan Rose, the song itself, upon examination, is a more than worthy vehicle for his talents.

To me, “Soothsayer”‘s charms are rooted in the way that, tempo-wise, it moves at a good clip on the one hand while not seeming to be in any hurry on the other. Interesting juxtapositions like this are often fun and rewarding in a pop song; this one in particular is accomplished, I think, by three different means. The first is the double-time accompaniment: while the song appears to be written in a moderately-paced 4/4 time, the rhythm guitars and some of the percussion are moving at twice that pace. Another element that reinforces the faster/slower sensation is how spread out and unrepetitive the verses are; the lyrics are given musical space, while the music comprises three separate sections, each picking up pace from the previous one. The overall effect is a 45-second, 16-measure melody that draws you in to a compelling but ambiguous story.

The third and perhaps most obvious thing creating this fast/slow tension down is the chorus, which feels like it slows the song down although doesn’t—all that happens is we lose the double-time backing: front man Lachlan Rose now sings with minimal assistance, but the song’s pace never actually changes. Most choruses in pop songs aim to burst forth with volume and energy, the better to come across as “catchy.” “Soothsayer” instead gives us a chorus that all but brings the song to a halt. “Catchy” seems suddenly besides the point when “arresting” is happening. (Such thinking might also underscore the recalcitrant fact that what might be the song’s most fetching moment, when the lyrics speed up with the phrase “thinking about yourself,” at 1:02, is never repeated.)

Cousin Tony’s Brand New Firebird is a trio from Melbourne. “Soothsayer,” their first single, has been out for a number of months, but their debut EP, Queen of Hearts, on which you’ll find this song, was released just last month in Australia. You can listen via SoundCloud. Thanks to Triple J Unearthed and the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: The Rebel Light (astute, catchy, and assured)

“Strangers” opens with a burst of happy wordless vocals (choosing the especially giddy “ba-ba-ba” over the more noncommittal “la-la-la”), right away informing us of its good-natured intentions.

The Rebel Light

“Strangers” – The Rebel Light

Year by 21st-century year I am increasingly discouraged by our collective inability to discern good-catchy (based on effective/surprising melody) from bad-catchy (based on annoying, often shout-y repetition)—and, I suppose the greater affliction, our apparent preference for the bad-catchy. I do understand that bad-catchy is far easier to concoct and that today’s pop-oriented songwriters and producers, perceiving that virality is unrelated to quality, find bad-catchy better suited to their purposes.

Well, boo to all of them, but hooray for the astutely good-catchy “Strangers,” from the Los Angeles-based trio The Rebel Light. While sounding entirely of the 2014 moment, “Strangers” thrums with warmth and joy in a way that far too much of today’s indie pop has abandoned in favor of technology and analytics. As such, I’ll wager that this song will sound as fresh to future ears as most of 2014’s YouTube fodder will sound stale and uninteresting not that many years from now.

With a thumpy, head-bobbing core, “Strangers” opens with a burst of happy wordless vocals (choosing the especially giddy “ba-ba-ba” over the more noncommittal “la-la-la”), right away informing us of its good-natured intentions. While displaying moments of near-minimal accompaniment, the song works almost surreptitiously to add layers of aural interest as things unfold—squally electronics, hand-claps, an undercover disco beat, cowbell, acoustic guitar, a capella break, we get a little bit of everything stitched ably together into a pop-perfect 3:25 length. And at the heart of this catchy song is (of course) a super catchy chorus, featuring one of those great, inevitable-sounding melodies that good-catchy songs so often have. While easy to learn and sing along with, the chorus’s melody delivers extra oomph via the way it slides seamlessly off and on the beat. Specifically, note how each line in the chorus starts off the beat (i.e., the words “you,” “standing,” “waving,” etc.) aligns onto the beat for the middle of the line, then slips back between the beat for its three emphatic closing syllables (for instance, on the words “live this way” beginning at 0:46). I especially like when seemingly straightforward songs give us subtle little treats like that along the way.

“Strangers” is a single released by the band last month. You can download as usual via the title above, or directly from the band via SoundCloud. The band has previously released one three-song EP and one other single, both in 2013.

Free and legal MP3: The Tins(quirky and anthemic)

Whatever musical amalgam this is, whatever sub-sub-genre today’s musical classifiers want to slot this into, I like rock’n’roll that sounds like this and am grateful there are still bands out there doing whatever this happens to be.

The Tins

“Let It Go” – The Tins

An offbeat blend of the quirky and the anthemic, “Let It Go” has a stop-starty vibe that fidgets against its 4/4 time signature in an appealing way. Add some tasty suspended chords into the framework, augment with synth sounds hijacked from the ’80s, and finish off with an impossible-to-resist shouty group-singing chorus and the song sends me into a very happy place. Whatever musical amalgam this is, whatever sub-sub-genre it falls into, I like rock’n’roll that sounds like this and am grateful there are still bands out there doing whatever this happens to be.

Above and beyond the general coolness of the song, allow me to draw your attention to the instrumental break that begins at 2:02. On top of a chugging bass line we first hear a rather homely synthesizer sketching out a pleasant, alternative melody over a minimized background in a one-finger-plunking kind of way. The way the interval-happy melody perseveres through eight measures, and nearly 20 seconds, is almost notable by itself but check out what happens next: the melody repeats with a fuller, more driven accompaniment and with the synth line fleshed out with two hands. The melody is transformed from pleasant to essential, and the song is given an unexpected, interstitial-based climax. Leading into one more chorus, this moment is then bookended by another unforeseen move as the song withdraws in size and volume, fading out with a delightful lesson in the value of less over more.

“Let It Go” is from Young Blame, an EP the Tins released in July. The Buffalo-based trio has one full-length and another EP previously to their name. You can listen to and purchase the EP
via Bandcamp. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Indianapolis Jones (part discipline, part freakout)

Despite its skittering bass line, centrally employed syncopation, and a smattering of funky guitar riffs, “Not Ghosts Yet” has a pleasing fluidity about it.

Indianapolis Jones

“Not Ghosts Yet” – Indianapolis Jones

Part disciplined indie rocker, part psychedelic freakout, “Not Ghosts Yet” is an accomplished amalgam; despite its skittering bass line, centrally employed syncopation, and a smattering of funky guitar riffs, the song has a pleasing fluidity about it. I’m thinking this has a lot to do with the decisiveness of its two-part verse and two-part chorus, which shift us through the song’s sung sections with energetic finesse. To my ears, the central moment here is the second part of the verse, with the falsetto voice and the delightfully syncopated melody line (first heard at 0:46). There’s something in this that sounds so smart and apt that it reminds me why I personally love leaving music to the professionals.

“Not Ghosts Yet” features two extended instrumental breaks, which might seem either aimless or hypnotic, depending on your mood. The first features spacey synthesizers and prerecorded voices, the second, which closes out the song, leaves off the voices and manages to evoke any number of ’70s bands in a rather pleasant and surprising way.

Indianapolis Jones is an Atlanta-based trio rather over-ambitiously being billed as a “supergroup” based on the various bands with which its members have been previously associated. I’ve only heard of two of the 10 “name” bands mentioned myself; your mileage may vary but I vote for gently withdrawing them from supergroup consideration and just enjoying the music they are now making together.

“Not Ghosts Yet” is from the debut Indianapolis Jones EP, self-titled, which was released at the end of April.