Free and legal MP3: Heavy Heart (languorous dream pop)

“Bed Bug” is so approachable that you may not notice the slurry of indistinct noise that leavens this languorous tune.

Heavy Heart

“Bed Bug” – Heavy Heart

Ambling at a walking 4/4 pace, “Bed Bug” is so approachable that you may not notice the slurry of indistinct noise that leavens this languorous and crafty tune. There are instruments to discern, for sure—drums, guitar, bass: the traditional suspects—but there’s also that special dream-pop sauce of amorphous sound blurring the background into something that you hear and don’t hear at the same time. Note in particular how it rises in volume at the chorus (first iteration at 0:44), an indecipherable swirl underpinning the lovely melody, which by the way ends with a kind of unresolved resolution (1:06-1:11) (a neat trick in and of itself).

I’d also have you tune into the lead vocals here. Dream pop/shoegaze tends historically to lean on reverb, but it hasn’t here been allowed to nullify the rich, faraway tone of lead singer Anna Vincent. There’s a moment or two where she arches up to a high note (try 0:57, for one), and the way her voice just melts into it is super appealing to me, for mysterious reasons. Too much reverb there would have lost the nuance of it. I like too the song’s casual way with a guitar riff. It’s right there in the intro: a simple, one-step-down, two-note refrain, and from there it insinuates its way into the verse, at four-measure intervals, like a friendly face spied at a bit of a distance. One last, more general thing I appreciate is how “Bed Bug” keeps varying the landscape on us: not only is the verse presented in two different settings (the second time through—1:43—the sonic palette is stripped down and drum-forward) but so is the chorus, which offers us a hazier variant the second time we hear it (2:10).

Heavy Heart is a quartet from London. Released in January, “Bed Bug” was the first single the band put out since an experiment they ran in 2016 in which they wrote, recorded, and released one new song each month for the entire year; the results were then gathered into one full-length album in 2017, entitled Keepsake. You can check out all the band’s recordings and purchase them at Bandcamp. They also now have a brand-new single, “Dowsabel,” which you can listen to there or on SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Talkboy

Sparkly, melodic indie rock

Talkboy

“Someone Else For You” – Talkboy

With its sparkly veneer and heavy undercurrent, “Someone Else For You” is two minutes and twenty-eight seconds of uprushing melody and impressive craft. Time is saved from the get-go: the song launches with no introduction, which feels like walking into a movie that’s already started. Momentum continues via a verse that essentially fakes right and goes left—the way the first line ends, with the words “into the city” (0:02), leads the ear to expect a similar pause at the end of the next line (0:05-:06). But, instead, the melody flows through an unexpected chord change, on the words “things to say” (0:08), before resolving back in a place that satisfies musically even as the lyrics suggest conflict, referring to words that “always came out wrong” (0:11). Best of all, look where we are now: just 12 seconds in, already treated to an eight-measure verse melody and lyrical intrigue before most songs have emerged from their opening vamps.

And why not? When you have a lead singer with Katie Heap’s rich tones and easy assurance, there’s no point in delaying her entry. The second verse runs through the same territory but now with a wash of wordless backing vocals layered below. The chorus arrives with an extra bashing of drums at 0:25; with its repeating, descending conclusion, it’s more concise melodically than the verse. This provides a clearing for the guitars to emerge from the background, surging first below the lyrics (0:32) and then out into the open at 0:38. The song now carries a heaviness one might not have anticipated from the head-bobbing opening.

Deft touches dot the rest of the song, from the head-clearing acoustic blip at 0:52, to the quiet iteration of the chorus the second time through (1:07), the feedback-y bridge (1:25), and, maybe best of all, Heap’s effortless octave leap at 1:47, after which she finishes the song in her impressive upper register.

Talkboy is a six-person band from Leeds. “Someone Else For You” is their third single, released earlier this month. You can download this one, as usual, from the above link, and then check the other songs out over on SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Johnny Marr (irresistible minor-key goodness)

Do you sometimes want to hear somebody just make music? Somebody who’s been around and knows what he or she is doing? Do you want to listen to someone who isn’t trying to be the latest sensation, who isn’t after clicks and follows?

Johnny Marr

“Hi Hello” – Johnny Marr

Do you sometimes want to hear somebody just make music? Somebody who’s been around and knows what he or she is doing? Do you want to listen to someone who isn’t trying to be the latest sensation, who isn’t after clicks and follows? If so, try this one. It’s Johnny Marr, it glides along in a lovely and slightly dark way, it’s got guitars, it’s in a minor key. What more do you need?

Johnny Marr as I assume you know used to be in the Smiths, and as such was the architect of their distinctive, minor-key-jangly-chimey sound. “Hi Hello” works a bit of that ground, but here the ground is knowingly smoothed over—mellowed with age, perhaps, and/or not as concerned with sounding so rigorously different as the Smiths were. But hell, by now, Marr has spent a whole lot more time not being in the Smiths than he spent being in them. A good amount of that time found him landing as a guitarist in a series of previously existing bands (The Pretenders, The The, Modest Mouse, et al.); outside of a 2003 album credited to Johnny Marr & The Healers, the solo efforts have only recently been sprouting up—one in 2013, one in 2014, and this new one in 2018. Which is all to say he’s still relatively new to the front-man role, still finding his I’m-the-center-of-attention voice. He does a good job here expanding his vocal range with an effortless leap into and out of falsetto that kind of slyly turns into the song’s principal hook. And I could be entirely imagining this, but the short instrumental motif we hear at 1:48 sounds like an oblique reference to the old hymn “Hey Ho Nobody Home,” which itself might not be completely irrelevant to the title and lyrics here. Or I could be entirely imagining this.

“Hi Hello” is the fourth track from Marr’s album Call the Comet, which was released in June. 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 get 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 only right.)

Free and legal MP3: Calva Louise (ferocious & fantastic)

Concise and ferocious, “I Heard a Cry” is almost ridiculously appealing—two minutes and sixteen seconds of crunchy guitars, headlong momentum, and subtle craft.

Calva Louise

“I Heard a Cry” – Calva Louise

Concise and ferocious, “I Heard a Cry” is almost ridiculously appealing—two minutes and sixteen seconds of crunchy guitars, headlong momentum, and subtle craft that can reaffirm one’s faith in humankind, if that doesn’t sound too grandiose. But what the heck: we need it right about now. To my ears, there’s something Clash-like in the brash meeting of power and grace on display here, with the added bounty of Jess Allanic’s arresting vocals, in their varied guises, from garage-rock yelping to soaring “ooh-oohs” to sultry asides and smartly articulated pronouncements.

At the center of the proceedings are two things: first, a sing-song-y guitar riff, which we hear initially in a searing, almost bag-pipe-y rendering and then later, to keep us on our toes, in an acoustic translation; second, the demarcated five-note melodic descent that the verse coalesces around (first heard at 0:26)—a moment that each time seems nearly to stop the song in its tracks but instead launches it into further commotion. Keep listening and you’ll hear all sorts of other touches, including unexpected forays into interlocking melodies, sudden interjections (check out Allanic’s “Hey!” at 0:49), ear-bending guitar effects, and, even, a brilliant chord change in the middle of where you’d never think to find it (1:40).

Calva Louise is a new-ish band from London, and all but the definition of a 21st-century power trio. This is their second single. A debut full-length album is expected in early 2019.

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: Thyla (incisive, guitar-fueled)

“Blame” comes instantly alive via chunky guitar and bass interplay and front woman Millie Duthie’s way with a scattershot melody.

Thyla

“Blame” – Thyla

A burst of incisive, guitar-fueled rock’n’roll that takes various generations of harsh but melodic British rock (think Buzzcocks via Elastica) and funnels it into two minutes and fifty-six seconds of up-to-date SoundCloud streaming. “Blame” comes instantly alive via chunky guitar and bass interplay and front woman Millie Duthie’s way with a scattershot melody. The song keeps arriving and arriving, everything stitched ultimately together by the restrained but terrific guitar work that pushes melody through the cracks of Duthie’s assertive vocals.

Another thing to listen for: the bass solo, which the song clears itself out for at 1:28. And then best of all the guitar line that begins in the background and how it moves itself further into the front of the mix as the song develops, climaxing from 2:18 onward with a siren-like onslaught.

And look. Sometimes I get disheartened by the vacuousness of the songs that arrive in my inbox in all their beat-driven, viral-seeking glory (i.e., horror). You can’t make worthy music if you don’t know worthy music; even supposed subversives like the Sex Pistols and the New York Dolls had knowledgeable musicians in the band, even if they wanted you to think otherwise. And so a band like Thyla comes along and lights up my day—not because I require new music to sound like pre-existing music but because I do require music to be made with spirit and a greater purpose than a desire to accumulate Facebook likes. End of soapbox.

Thyla is a four-piece band from Brighton (UK). They formed in 2016 and are unsigned. “Blame” is their sixth single.

Free and legal MP3: Tracey Thorn (elegant electronic anthem)

What really renders this so potent is the gorgeous depth of the sound—a deft mix of a deep, subtly languorous disco beat, incisive percussive twizzles, and Thorn’s honeyed alto, arguably more commanding than ever.

Tracey Thorn

“Sister” – Tracey Thorn

Effortlessly brilliant, from the groove to the arrangement to the dusky authority of Tracey Thorn’s voice, “Sister” is as elegant and urgent an electronic anthem as you’re likely to hear this year (this decade?; ever?). That she even needs to write this here in 2018 is ridiculous, which she admits herself in the lyrics (“Oh, what year is it/Still arguing the same shit”), and yet with all the knuckleheads—real and fake—out there arguing in favor of white male supremacy, well, here she is, fighting (also from the lyrics) “like a girl,” which I take to be a powerful thing indeed.

And what really renders this so potent is the gorgeous depth of the sound—a deft mix of a subtly languorous disco beat, incisive percussive twizzles, and Thorn’s honeyed alto, arguably more commanding than ever. (One of many glorious vocal moments in this song comes right after the first “fight like a girl” line, where she first exhales the word “girl” into two syllables and then at 1:09 stretches the word with an extra sigh that penetrates the soul.)

Be warned that this is a long one, some eight-plus minutes, the last three or so committed to extending the groove rather than the content of the song. But none of it is mindless; there are shifts in sounds and effects, and a maintenance of the song’s nuanced tension that keeps my ear and mind engaged all the way through.

“Sister” is literally the centerpiece of Record, Thorn’s latest album—the fifth of nine songs, each a one-word title, mirroring the all but ironic simplicity of the album name itself. Record was released in March on Merge Records, and is her fourth post-Everything But The Girl solo release, her first since the wonderful 2012 Christmas album Tinsel and Lights. MP3 via KEXP. Thorn was previously featured on Fingertips in March 2010.

Free and legal MP3: Firestations (fresh, well-crafted British rock)

Firestations is a London-based five-piece with a straightforward mission statement: “We write simple alt-pop songs and then mess them up.”

Firestations

“Receiver” – Firestations

Lord knows I am not going to single-handedly upend the 21st century’s predilection for unabated idiocy, whether on the airwaves or in the White House, but as long as I can I will stand up here for music that is well-crafted, both catchy and interesting, and sonically fresh without pandering to mindless trends and/or soulless technology.

Which is I guess a somewhat grumpy way of saying I love this song. With its propulsive (but not head-banging) beat, “Receiver” launches off a riff that repeats itself from 0:04 through to when the verse starts at 0:32, yet feels regenerative via the off-kilter interval leaps and syncopated shuffle it makes in the second of its two measures. And while you almost don’t notice the wordless backing vocals that accompany the resolute riff they’re also what keeps the ear gratified as the song builds a subtle nervous energy.

Once the lyrics arrive, it’s never quite clear where we are, structure-wise. There’s something that seems like a verse at 0:32, which repeats musically at 0:47; the vocals here are multi-tracked and wonderfully processed (one layer sounds like a whisper, the other like a megaphone). We are led through this to a stand-alone lyric (“I won’t be fine”? hard to decipher), at which point the opening riff and wordless vocals return. The tension is even higher now, and it breaks, at least somewhat, at 1:16, with what feels like a chorus (“You are the receiver/You get the message”), even if, musically, it’s not too far from the opening verse. Note the staccato synth line that bops and boops in the background, adding texture and oomph; it’s around now that the song for me goes from good to great. The electronics later come to the foreground (1:58) to introduce and accompany a satisfying guitar solo, constructed out of chords rather than pyrotechnics. Still later (3:04), the electronics and guitar collide and disintegrate and then land in a coda that first revisits the introduction then dissolves on a radio-receiver-like flourish.

Firestations is a London-based five-piece with a straightforward mission statement: “We write simple alt-pop songs and then mess them up.” That’s pretty much what took me two long paragraphs to say. “Receiver” is a track from their their second full-length album The Year Dot, coming out in April on Lost Map Records. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Hollie Cook (reggae-inspired goodness)

There’s something in the character of her voice, in the nature of the melody she’s singing, and in the texture of the mix that together lend a bewitching vibe to the dubby proceedings.

Hollie Cook

“Stay Alive” – Hollie Cook

The smooth-as-silk “Stay Alive,” from British singer/keyboardist Hollie Cook, undulates to a reggae beat, and manages at the same time to feel unshackled from genre conventions. There’s something in the character of her voice, in the nature of the melody she’s singing, and in the texture of the mix that together lend a bewitching vibe to the dubby proceedings.

So, look, it’s 2018, and reggae elements have obviously been roaming far and wide in the musical world for decades. Often it comes across as pastiche but so strong is the underlying premise that, to me, it works in just about any setting anyway. What I love here, though, is how fully committed to the sound Cook remains even while bringing genuine individuality to it. I’m not explaining this well but even as, to my ears, the song sounds fully ready to be filed under “reggae” (or “lovers rock,” for you sub-genre fans), there seems a contemporary charm and mystique infusing the music that transcends a pat label. I’m especially taken in by the melodies, which somehow combine a slinky nod to spy-movie music with a girl-group insouciance, while being supported by an acrobatic bass line (that would be Jah Wobble doing his thing), a haunted-house organ, and a creative, organic horn section (sax, trumpet, trombone, in the house).

Credit here to Youth, who produced (and who by the way is now 57), and to Cook herself, whose personal lineage has landed her among some notable musical friends and relations: she is the daughter of Paul Cook, drummer for the Sex Pistols, and Jeni Cook, who sang with Boy George in Culture Club. Here on “Stay Alive” we not only get Wobble, a one-time bandmate of John Lydon in Public Image Ltd, but Keith Levene on guitar, himself a founding member of both the Clash and PiL, as well as part of the semi-legendary band Cowboys International, and many other projects since then. Cook, meanwhile, cut her own musical teeth as part of Ari Up’s re-boot of the seminal British punk band The Slits from 2005 to 2010.

“Stay Alive” is the second track on Cook’s third album, Vessel of Love, released in January on Merge Records. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp. MP3 from the tasteful folks at KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Lowpines (gorgeous 21st-century folk rock)

After the first chorus the song feels transformed into something silvery and resolute.

Lowpines

“Broken Wing” – Lowpines

Static and fuzz lead us counterintuitively into a smooth, minor-key strummer. The melody, at first, is lovely, but contained—the verse, in fact, concentrates on just two different notes. But emerging from the mouth of Oli Deakin, doing musical business as Lowpines, the song sounds, already, rich and wistful.

Then the chorus slays with pure beauty. Deakin’s already multi-tracked voice opens into a wash of vocal sound as the melody expands into gratifying intervals—note in particular the two different landing spots for the word “wing” on the chorus’s repeated end line, “Be my broken wing”: the first “wing” dips down below an expected descent and then the second one, also against expectation, finishes higher up, in an unresolved place, with Deakin’s phrasing lagging behind the beat in a way that somehow adds both lushness and regret to the palette.

After the first chorus the song feels transformed into something silvery and resolute. The background fills with a soft sort of loudness, buoying the song into grandeur. The return of the chorus, with its Moody Blues-like pathos, just about brings tears to the eyes. At one point a clarion synth line finds its way through the sumptuous forward-moving haze. At the end we get a slowed-down coda in which the song ends without resolution, as if in mid-thought. There is little to do now but go back and listen again.

Deakin, based in the UK, has been recording as Lowpines since 2012. Earlier Lowpines material, while still melodic, was characterized by a more whispery vocal style that brings the likes of Iron & Wine and Bon Iver and, grandfather of them all, Elliott Smith to mind: by now the almost cliched woodsy-folksy 21st-century troubadour sound. “Broken Wing” breaks past the claustrophobia often looming in that approach, and lands us in some new kind of folk-rock firmament. It’s the second track on the second Lowpines album, In Silver Halides, slated for release later this month. You can check out his previous discography—one other album, three EPs, two singles—over on Bandcamp.