Free and legal MP3: Quilt (fidgety, ’60s-inspired quasi-neo-psychedelia)

For a minute and a half, “Tired & Buttered” pounds away with a fidgety, psychedelic claustrophobia that seems counter-intuitively liberating.

Quilt

“Tired & Buttered” – Quilt

For a minute and a half, “Tired & Buttered” pounds away with a fidgety, psychedelic claustrophobia that seems counter-intuitively liberating. I don’t think we’re hearing more than two chords here, and the section that seems to be the chorus appears to be getting by with just one. Notice too that a lot of urgency is created without, actually, that much noise. No wailing or bashing, just a steady beat, some atmospheric vocal effects, an elusively non-Western guitar line, and two chords. Keep an ear on the harmonies, which are casually trippy.

At the precise halfway point, things change (1:30). The song slows and quiets, the woozy vocals get a bit woozier, the drumming gets careful and winsome. Soon an electric guitar snakes to the foreground with an informed ’60s flair for the pop-exotic, and leads us with an abrupt lack of fuss back to the opening tempo and ambiance. Now the guitar seems more clearly in charge, its background flourishes suddenly keys to the entire song. Having no clear idea what “tired and buttered” means will not detract from the song’s charms.

Quilt is a trio from Boston. “Tired & Buttered” has been floating around online since the fall, finally to emerge on the band’s second album, Held in Splendor, in late January, on the Mexican Summer label. MP3 via NPR’s fine selection of free and legal downloads from 2014 SXSW acts.

(As a P.S., the band had a bad accident in their van recently. They are all okay but their van, upon which they rely to tour, is not. You can read more details at http://quiltmusic.org/quiltmusic/HOME.html and contribute some amount, big or small, if you are so inclined.)

Free and legal MP3: Gringo Star (woozy, melodic neo-psychedelia)

From its chirpy, distorted intro to its abbreviated yet definitive coda, “Find a Love” packs a lot of off-kilter goodness into its archetypal pop song length of 2:45.

Gringo Star

“Find a Love” – Gringo Star

From its chirpy, distorted intro to its abbreviated yet definitive coda, “Find a Love” packs a lot of off-kilter goodness into its archetypal pop song length of 2:45. This is achieved in part through uncommon succinctness—less than 30 seconds total, for instance, are spent delivering the song’s verses, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen or heard that before. At the same time, the song’s woozy, melodic neo-psychedelia gives off a feeling of warmth and expansion; the song lopes along, backbeat converted into a clattery shuffle, and we appear to have plenty of time for lagniappe like a hidden-in-plain-sight “Penny Lane” riff smack in the middle of things (first heard at 1:36), or that science-fiction-y end to the instrumental break at 1:56, or, for that matter, a chorus so laid-back it almost doesn’t bother with lyrics.

Gringo Star is a band from Atlanta led by brothers Peter and Nicholas Furgiuele. Founded as a foursome in 2001, with the name A Fir-Ju Well, they took the name Gringo Star in 2006; after two full-length albums, they became a trio. “Find a Love” is from the band’s third release, Floating Out to See, which was recorded at home and self-produced, unlike the first two albums. Gringo Star was previously featured on Fingertips in August 2011. MP3 via the good folks at KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Dark for Dark (upbeat yet melancholy)

Upbeat yet melancholy, “Sweetwater”‘s power is cemented by its ear-grabbing if bittersweet chorus.

Dark for Dark

“Sweetwater” – Dark for Dark

Lap steel, banjo, and tenor guitar: this here is a country song. Sort of. The instrumentation suggests it, but as soon as Rebecca Zolkower opens her mouth, the song veers in a somewhat different direction. Zolkower sings with the unadorned charm of a dorm-room folksinger; for me, her plain and pretty tone brings Suzzy Roche to mind, a connection reinforced by the band’s composition—Dark for Dark features three women, and three female voices in confident and determined harmony with one another.

“Sweetwater” is upbeat yet melancholy, with brisk, poetic verses and a power cemented by an ear-grabbing chorus, in which, first, a jaunty melody (tracing a B major chord in a I-V-III pattern) is matched to what may be our language’s most desolate phrase (“And when I die”). But then: both the lyrics and melody slide almost out of hearing, and background singers Jess Lewis and Mel Stone proceed to echo words we didn’t quite hear when Zolkower first sang them. It’s an odd but engaging few moments. The front woman comes back to the foreground on the last phrase (“in the ground”) in a catching-up-from-behind manner that provides almost as endearing a closure as the follow-up surely does: the wordless “bah-bah” exchange between lead and backup singers through one more melodic run-through of the chorus, minus the elusive sections.

And, as often happens here, reading about it is more complicated than listening to it. Hell, the song is only two minutes twenty-eight seconds. I suggest listening.

Dark for Dark was founded in 2012, but all three members are veterans of the Halifax music scene, and Zolkower and Stone were previously together in the band The Prospector’s Union. Zolkower got the name for the band while reading The Hobbit a few years ago, and kind of laughs now at how inapposite the name is for the kind of lovely music the eventual band eventually created. “Sweetwater” is the second track on the group’s debut album, Warboats, which was self-released last month. You can listen to the whole thing, and purchase it, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Monophona (acoustic electronica, w/ elusive melodies)

Claudine Muno sings with persuasive sweetness, providing a strong handhold for the song’s inconstant melody lines.

Monophona

“Give Up” – Monophona

With an acoustic heart and a blippy-trippy soul, “Give Up” moves with a purposeful stammer, creating dynamic momentum out of some intimate, creative percussion and an evasive, uneven melody. I am enchanted for reasons which remain unclear.

Things begin in a gentle swing, with singer Claudine Muno emerging out of muffled distortion. At 0:38, the track slides into place, but remains noncommittal, blurry in intent however crisp and engaging the sound. Muno sings with persuasive sweetness, providing a strong handhold for the song’s inconstant melody lines, which are abetted by her overlapping vocals. The layered percussion pounds and twitters as she purrs and mumbles, coming occasionally to the forefront with a trenchant phrase—when she sings, now in harmony and unison, “Stop pulling at yourself” (1:21), the song locks in with unexpected force, one of those moments you long to hear again, suspecting however that it’s not coming back (it doesn’t).

Monophona is a Portishead-ish trio from Luxembourg featuring Muno, DJ/producer Phillippe Shirrer (who goes by Chook), and drummer Jorsch Kass. Muno previously fronted a folk-pop band called Claudine Muno & the Luna Boots, which released five albums between 2004 and 2011. Muno is also an author (she has published seven books to date, in four different languages) and a teacher. Schirrer has previously released one album, called The Cocoon, in 2010; a subsequent single called “You Are All You Have,” released two years ago, featured Muno on vocals—if you listen you can sense what Muno brought to the table for the collaboration on Monophona. Kass was previously in a Luxembourg band called Zap Zoo. “Give Up” is from Monophona debut album, The Spy, which was released in Europe in November. You can download the song as usual by right-clicking the title above, or by going to the SoundCloud page. And while you’re at it, you can listen to the whole album, and buy it, via Bandcamp.

photo credit: Joël Nepper

Free and legal MP3: Mincer Ray (multinational trio, crunchy neo-alt-rock)

The sound is rough and dirty, with that air of tumbled-together crunchiness and ramshackle singing that we often get in this particular sonic arena.

Mincer Ray

“Franki Jo” – Mincer Ray

One of the coolest things the original “alternative rock” movement of the middle ’80s did was link the DIY ethics and lo-fi sound of garage rock with hi-fi artistic pretensions introduced to rock’n’roll by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and (let’s not leave them out, as too many do) the Kinks. It’s a tricky balancing act—music of this nature can become too precious and/or too muddy for its own good—but an engaging enough aspiration to remain alive lo these 30 years later. At its best, this lineage has given birth to bands with an impressive, maybe even unprecedented breadth to their sound (think Yo La Tengo, perhaps the proto-band of whatever you actually want to call this stuff), because the foundational idea was never about one particular kind of song in the first place, and the attachment to sonic basics never actually required shoddy recording standards.

Enter “Franki Jo,” from the trio Mincer Ray, whose very name clues us in to the band’s ancestry (“Mincer Ray” is a song from Guided By Voices’ alt-rock classic Bee Thousand). The sound is rough and dirty, with that air of tumbled-together crunchiness and ramshackle singing that we often get in this particular sonic arena. But the song is hardly as slapdash as the vibe suggests. This is in truth a well-crafted song, with touches that are engaging and, often, slyly humorous—from the the heard-only-once pre-chorus (0:45) to the shifting verse melody (i.e., the second verse is not precisely the same as the first) to the extended “oo”-ing in the background in the second verse to the satisfying, two-part coda (2:48, 3:11). The song’s underlying riff (what we hear first at 0:04) is at once primal and slightly complicated, with its rushed, four-note descent, climaxing off the main beat; and after it asserts itself, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, if only because there is so much more going on from start to finish. (Think how different those old garage-rock songs were, which were often all riff, and little song.) Don’t miss as well the appearance of some spiffy chords and unexpected chord changes along the way.

Mincer Ray is a Berlin-based band of expats, comprised of Americans Graham McCarthy and Sean Anderson and Brazilian Acácio Do Conto, known as Cate (pronounced Ka-Chee). Ray Mincer, the debut full-length, came out last year. “Franki Jo” is the lead track on the EP A Magnate’s Reach, officially coming out at the end of May. You can listen and purchase via Bandcamp. Note also that if you download the song via SoundCloud, you can have the song as a .wav file, if you like higher-quality downloads.

Free and legal MP3: Low (not slow this time but quite, actually, low)

With a prominent, recycling major-to-minor key modulation adding to the momentum, the song does not even stop to acquire a separated chorus.

Low

“Just Make It Stop” – Low

Built on a creamy, low-end, guitar-driven groove, “Just Make It Stop” immediately contradicts itself with music that sounds like it could pretty much keep going forever. With a prominent, recycling major-to-minor key modulation adding to the momentum, the song does not even stop to acquire a separated chorus—one melody services both chorus and verse (“I could tell the whole world/To get out of the way” indeed.)

There is something seductive here in this rich, brisk song that revels in its lower-register grace. Not only does Mimi Parker’s dusty alto dominate, but the entire piece seems to rest down below where most rock songs want to live. Rock’n’roll catharsis stereotypically happens at the shrieky end of things: guitar solos so far up the neck the fingers are really on the body; singers throwing their heads back to emit glass-shattering howls. Since its beginnings as an inadvertent “slowcore” pioneer, Low has never been about such flagrant drama, preferring to find a different kind of thrill in spaciousness of various kinds—slow tempos, thoughtful structures, uncrowded arrangements. Even as they’ve broadened their sound over the years, there remains an alluring awareness of space in the band’s music, even when the tempo in this case has us tapping our toes rather than closing our eyes. Not too many other bands would think of, never mind get away with, the skeletal instrumental break we get here after the song’s opening chorus (1:00), in which the instrumentalists play as if each waits for someone else to take the lead. The second time we get to this break (2:17), there’s what we waited for: a piano pounding out a gut-satisfying left-hand melody, grounding the song down in that deep place it’s been in the whole time. (They don’t call themselves Low for nothing.)

“Just Make It Stop” is from the album The Invisible Way, coming out next week on Sub Pop Records. Produced by Jeff Tweedy and recorded in Wilco’s Chicago studio, it is the band’s tenth album; the Duluth trio is now in their 20th year together. Longtime Low fans note that Mimi sings lead on five of 11 songs this time around—welcome news for most, as she’s usually up front for just one or two per album. MP3 via Sub Pop. If you go to Low’s page on the record label site, you’ll find eight other free and legal MP3s to download, including two that were previously featured here (in April 2011 and in February 2005).

Free and legal MP3: Boris (kitchen-sinky chunk of sped-up dream pop)

A kitchen-sinky chunk of sped-up dream pop, “Spoon” is instantly likable even as it presents more to the ear than the ear initially can absorb.

Boris

“Spoon” – Boris

A kitchen-sinky chunk of sped-up dream pop, “Spoon” is instantly likable even as it presents more to the ear than the ear initially can absorb. Which actually isn’t easy to do, I don’t think: package sonic overload into something brisk and immediate.

Here’s maybe the key to how Boris does it: for all the aural exuberance, “Spoon” hews to the conventional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus design. This is why we can kind of “get” the song even when it’s offering more musical information in any given slice than we can consciously process. There are so many things to listen for here, from intermittent concrete sounds like breaking glass and cracking whips and children’s voices to ongoing threads like the singular rhythm section, which combines a stuttery drumbeat with a fluid, hyperactive bassline. That bursty drum sound does everything it can to break the song into disjointed moments, while the bass works hard to stitch it all together. Throughout, the slightly breathy lead vocal from guitarist Wata gives us something delightful to stay focused on when all else fails.

And never mind the difficult-to-absorb song—Boris itself is a difficult-to-absorb band. Together since 1992, a trio since 1996, this veteran Japanese outfit has a complex history of experimentation and genre-blending and -hopping. (The band has been identified with ambient, doom metal, drone metal, industrial, minimalist, noise rock, and punk, among quite a few others.) Its members all go by single names, which is just as well—slightly less information to process. They tour a lot and are reportedly more well known in North America than they are in Japan, having done things like open for Nine Inch Nails and appear on avant-garde film soundtracks, including one for Jim Jarmusch. The band’s 2006 album Pink was listed among the year’s best by Pitchfork, SPIN, and Blender. “Spoon” is a song from Boris’s new album called (finally, someone did it) New Album. New Album is actually (more complications) the band’s third release of 2011, this one a dream-pop-ish reworking of songs that were on the other two albums, with some new songs as well. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3: Low (simmering & hymn-like, w/ a heartbeat pulse)

Something is being partially explained, partially released, something still is left unsaid, and the grave weight of a relationship seems to hang in the balance. I don’t need to know exactly what’s going on; the words and the music in combination convey emotion beyond pure narrative.

Low

“Especially Me” – Low

Given that this is Low, a band with a longstanding predilection for, shall we say, leisurely-paced songs (don’t call it slowcore, at the band’s request), nothing unfolds too suddenly here. But I’m immediately engaged by the heartbeat pulse that wanders in at :07 and stays with us the rest of the way (with a five or six second break late in the song; listen for it)—it gives us both the tempo and the tension upon which “Especially Me” is constructed.

But note how that pulse is accompanied by a triplet rhythm, each beat of the measure divided swayingly into three. This complicates the tension nicely, and contributes to the hymn-like nature of the deliberate melody drummer Mimi Parker intones. The song simmers; a cello is incorporated beautifully into the apprehensive flow. The cumulative effect of the succinct, thrice-repeated chorus (note the lyrical change in the third iteration), with its gathering harmony, is at once hypnotic and cathartic; the titular phrase, with its casual (but not) addition (“and probably you”), sits at the musical center of the song. Something is being partially explained, partially released, something still is left unsaid, and the grave weight of a relationship seems to hang in the balance. I don’t need to know exactly what’s going on; the words and the music in combination convey emotion beyond pure narrative.

Low was here back in 2005 for the terrific song “California” (it’s still online, check it out) from The Great Destroyer. The trio has a new bass player since then—Steve Garrington, who joined the husband-wife team of Parker and Alan Sparhawk in 2008, the year after the Duluth band’s last release, Drums and Guns. “Especially Me” is from C’mon, which was released this week on (them again) Sub Pop. MP3 once more via Sub Pop.

Free and legal MP3: Papertwin (brisk, alluring electro-pop)

The combination of brisk, dance-club movement with precisely conceived instrumental lines is alluring, and the understated chorus—with a half-time melody that floats behind the beat—is both gorgeous and elusive.

Papertwin

“Coma” – Papertwin

Electro-pop, by its programmable nature, too often breezes into the world in a digitized rush of symmetrical beats and swooping synth lines. How much happier the ear is, however, when it hears a song that begins like “Coma” does, with its well-constructed intro, full of purpose and asymmetrical motifs. There are three basic sections—the opening, bass synthesizer section, a shorter section with a guitar, and then the last, longest section, with the deeper-sounding guitar that brings New Order clearly to mind. None of these sections is the same length. And within each one, the melody lines are strong but irregular—they hook your ear but without telegraphing where they are going, each, also, lasting different lengths of time.

This is a long-winded way of saying they had me at hello. When vocalist Max Decker opens his mouth and that haunted, slightly roughed-up, slightly reverbed tenor comes out, there’s no stopping this song. New Order, yes, is a big influence, but Papertwin emerges with its own take on that formidable sound. The combination of brisk, dance-club movement with precisely conceived instrumental lines is alluring, and the understated chorus—with a half-time melody that floats behind the beat—is both gorgeous and elusive. So elusive, in fact, that the band fiddles with it the second time through, so we only really hear it twice in the four-minute song. Another example of this song’s hidden good work is the new synth melody introduced in the song’s coda (3:05). Most songs are coasting by then. It’s a subtle touch that makes the subsequent return of melody lines from the introduction all the more satisfying.

“Coma” is one of two songs on Papertwin’s debut digital single, released last month, and both available as free downloads on the band’s Bandcamp page. Thanks to the band for letting me host the MP3 here.

Free and legal MP3: Cold Cave (dense, powerful, memorable)

Combining dense, pummeling energy and palpable ache, “The Great Pan Is Dead” is four minutes of stunning 21st-century rock’n’roll. Wowee. I hardly knew at first how to unpack what I was hearing—the buzzing-guitar wall of sound, the orchestral synth lines, the relentless sonic drive, the sense of furious poignancy suffusing this whirl of sheer electrical power.

Cold Cave

“The Great Pan Is Dead” – Cold Cave

Combining dense, pummeling energy and palpable ache, “The Great Pan Is Dead” is four minutes of stunning 21st-century rock’n’roll. Wowee. I hardly knew at first how to unpack what I was hearing—the buzzing-guitar wall of sound, the orchestral synth lines, the relentless sonic drive, the sense of furious poignancy suffusing this whirl of sheer electrical power. In the center of it we get the full-throated emoting of front man Wes Eisold. Eisold has a history as a screamer in hard-core bands, and you can hear it at the edge of his singing, even as the singing is genuinely sensitive, even moving.

So I let it cycle on repeat for a long time and I finally began to hear, maybe, what was happening. In the tradition of modern classical minimalists more than any pop song I’ve heard, “The Great Pan Is Dead” spends long periods of time anchored in one chord—the music moves energetically and rhythmically while staying unusually rooted harmonically. We do not, for instance, hear a chord change in the song until 51 seconds in. That is not normally done. This lack of harmonic motion adds immeasurably to the pent-up fury of the aural landscape. Eisold, in the middle of this, sounds like someone throwing his battered body against a bolted door. “I know people without substance,” he sings; you can hear the thud of exclamation points in his phrasing.

And then, later in the song (2:33), we arrive at an opposite place: Eisold singing a largely one-note melody against a shifting series of chords—another kind of subtle, claustrophobic tension to contend with. This is one crazy cool song, and my first shoe-in for a place on the 2011 favorite song list.

Cold Cave is a trio based in NYC. “The Great Pan Is Dead” is from the band’s second album, Cherish the Light Years, due in April on good old Matador Records. MP3 via Matador.