Free and legal MP3: The Very Most

Sprightly and sad

“That Thing You Like About Yourself (Is Hurting You)” – The Very Most (feat. Melanie whittle)

Clean, welcoming, and lively, “That Thing You Like About Yourself (Is Hurting You)” performs the neat trick of sounding at once sprightly and sad. We all know that one of pop music’s superpowers is its ability to set sad lyrics to happy music, but how about this artful corollary: composing fleet, toe-tapping music that itself, somehow, independent of the words, sounds bittersweet? I guess this is one thing that so-called twee pop often specialized in. But here we get the end result stripped of preciousness. It’s sincere, yes, there’s a flute, yes, but there’s also something refreshingly solid happening here . The song unfolds with both lilt and backbone; the drumbeat means business, the lead guitar in the intro arrives from a distant time and place, with a tone I can only describe as grown-up (a compliment).

The singing means business too: once it starts, words take over the song with barely a breath taken.  We find ourselves once again in the land of indecipherable lyrics–but this time note that the band draws you in by allowing you to understand the words in the opening section:

Everything feels off
Maybe we should take a trip
My everyday places are making me so sad
Intractable problems
We only make them worse and worse
By doing the things we do as often as we do
Trying harder always trying harder
You can get a disorder
And you’ll never know why

How can you not love that, especially as voiced by guest vocalist Melanie Whittle, the captivating lead singer of the Hermit Crabs (see Fingertips, 6 Sept 12)?  The music here, light and wistful in the background, surely reinforces her Glaswegian tendencies. And, go figure, even as I am normally a listener who craves and all but demands lyrics that scan properly with the music, in this case I find the un-synced moments fetching rather than frustrating. Listen in particular to the way the word “intractable” is (purposefully?) forced into service in an inadequate space (0:47). It’s very charming somehow.

After this, the words fade into a blur of language–it’s as if they want you to get the general gist but then float yourself more freely into the vibe, to receive the message at more of an intuitive than literal level. You may notice that the only words that seem to rise above indistinctness is the phrase “Trying harder, always trying harder.” Intended or not there’s a message in this. The words, however out of focus, arrive and arrive, always trying harder, with one break taken for the flute (2:11) that had slipped unnoticed into the background a minute or so earlier. Also very charming.

The Very Most is a band based in Boise and fronted by Jeremy Jensen. Drummer Jim Rivas is the only other permanent member. The band’s latest album is called Needs Help in part because Jensen brought in a lot of guests to make the record, utilizing 13 different singers on both lead and backing vocals, including the aforementioned Whittle on this song. The Very Most was previously featured on Fingertips in July 2008. Thanks to Jeremy for the MP3. You can listen to the whole album, and buy it, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Steve Goldberg and the Arch Enemies (’60s-inspired summer nostalgia)

Philadelphia’s Steve Goldberg has become the indie bard of summer nostalgia.

Steve Goldberg and the Arch Enemies

“July” – Steve Goldberg and the Arch Enemies

Philadelphia’s Steve Goldberg has become the indie bard of summer nostalgia. We first heard him here on Fingertips in September 2007, brooding sweetly and chamber-pop-ishly about summer’s end. He returned in 2010 for a bittersweet, horn-festooned ode to suburban living that was not specifically summer oriented but trafficked in a similar watching-your-life-go-by brand of pensiveness. He returns in full summer mode here in 2011 with “July,” which, despite its title, works as a soundtrack to August as well.

What begins like the Beach Boys gone twee, via Fountains of Wayne, develops a resilient core beneath its veneer of exuberant nostalgia. Despite its backward glancing—the verse in particular sports a perky, early-’60s complexion—the music seems very present, very real, thanks in no small part to Goldberg’s wholesome, somewhat nerdy (in a good way!) tenor, which complements the innocent imagery but likewise seems to comment on it. His ability to meet the music on its own terms is what makes this more than kitsch or pastiche. I like in particular how his seamless falsetto veers in the second half of each verse into the harmony line even though no one else is singing the melody. He’s kind of inviting us to sing along; and then the chorus, taking a turn towards the power pop, pretty much demands it. Do not by the way miss the grand, old-fashioned guitar solo (1:58)—a thoughtful, retro-y creation stretching out the length of an entire verse, articulated against an increasingly insistent string section (three violins, viola, and cello, for the record).

“July” is the first song to be ready and available from a five-song EP, entitled The Flood, that Goldberg is readying for release. He in fact requires a bit more capital to get the thing produced and distributed, and is in the middle of a fundraising effort towards that end, via IndieGoGo.

Free and legal MP3: Strawberry Whiplash (reverby, jangly holiday sweetness)

“Santa Needs a Holiday” – Strawberry Whiplash

Candy-coated holiday fare from the Glaswegian (that is to say, from Glasgow; but one must not miss the opportunity to use the word “Glaswegian”) duo Strawberry Lemonade, itself a syrupy-sweet side-project from Bubblegum Lemonade front man Laz McLuskey. (Call it twee if you must, but only if you must.)

Long-time Fingertips followers may remember that I don’t go crazy with the Christmas tunes in December–not because I have anything against Christmas tunes (not at all!; I love them only as much as a Christmas-music-deprived nice Jewish boy can) but because, truthfully, and alas, not much of what the genre offers year to year, new-musically-speaking, is very good. Trust me when I say I’m performing a public service by keeping most of what I hear out of your browser/inbox/hard drive/smart phone/whatever-the-hell-you-listen-to-music-in-or-on.

But this one is lovely in a jangly, lo-fi kind of way, full of melodic nostalgia and 21st-century indie-pop blurriness. Vocalist Sandra sings with a lightness befitting someone who operates resolutely without a last name, but listen closely and you’ll also hear a breathy roundness to her tone that brings (sigh) the late great Kirsty MacColl to mind. Perhaps best of all, the song traffics in its Christmasiness with graceful restraint. The one musical element that flavors the song seasonally is the descending guitar riff we hear at the end of the chorus, which smartly echoes the familiar descending bell motif delivered by any number of holiday standards.

“Santa Needs a Holiday” is found on the latest incarnation of annual holiday goodness put out by Santa Barbara-based Matinée Recordings. This year’s offering is an EP called Matinée Holiday Soiree, which also includes a song from Champagne Riot, a band featured here in 2008. MP3 via Matinée.

Free and legal MP3: Sambassadeur (shiny, cinematic Swedish pop)

At first (aural) glance, “I Can Try” succeeds nicely as a sweeping piece of orchestrated twee pop. Which is almost just fine. Except for the fact that each time I go back to listen, things get more complicated and unusual-sounding.


“I Can Try” – Sambassadeur

At first (aural) glance, “I Can Try” succeeds nicely as a sweeping piece of orchestrated twee pop. Which is almost just fine. Except for the fact that each time I go back to listen, things get more complicated and unusual-sounding. To begin with, what’s with the drumming? You’ve got the snare going full-blast, but delivering that shuffled up third beat—especially pronounced in the chorus, it happens throughout the song, and, in combination with that unrelenting double-time high-hat, creates a chugging rhythm that simultaneously barrels forward and hesitates.

Then there’s the melody, which is certainly as sweet-sad as the genre requires, and yet there’s something more to it. The melody in both the verse and the chorus is a nice long line, the verse melody resolving with an upward tilt while the chorus offers a steady downward release. But here’s an odd thing: the melody in the chorus extends for nine measures, which is not only unusual but difficult. Typically pop songs are constructed around sets of four measures or eight measures. It’s what the music often demands and our ears almost always expect. Here an extra measure sneaks in without causing the slightest fuss. And yet somewhere deep down we sense something’s off balance. That’s not very twee. The orchestration likewise isn’t quite what it seems. We hear strings near the beginning and think, “Oh, of course.” But it’s a string quartet, not a string section, and they spend more time stabbing staccato riffs than bowing maudlin flourishes. And when the horns arrive—the horns must always arrive—it’s a saxophone. Whatever became of the saxophone, anyway?

“I Can Try” is from the third Sambassadeur album, Europeans, released on Labrador Records in February. The Gothenburg-based quartet has been previously featured on Fingertips twice, once for each of its first two albums, in 2005 and in 2007. MP3 via Labrador.