Free and legal MP3: Stornoway (buoyant w/ melody & innocence)

Stornoway

“Zorbing” – Stornoway

As invigorating as a bright blue puffy-clouded day, “Zorbing” bursts with melody and innocence, but gets there on its own terms. For the first 35 seconds, we hear only the light, idiosyncratic voice of Brian Briggs and a one-note bass line. Maybe you’ll notice it’s a wonderful melody he’s singing, or maybe you’ll be a bit distracted by the minimalist presentation. Just wait.

His band mates join in vocally at 0:36 and wow that can’t be what anyone was expecting—an almost barbershop quartet-like burst of harmony, baritone and bass voices with little precedent in rock’n’roll after the doo-wop era ended. The bass guitar player at the same time frees himself from his one-note prison and I am completely engaged now. A simple drumbeat and a faintly-played acoustic guitar come on board at 0:54, but with the emancipation of the bass the song now feels both fleshed out and buoyant; when the vocal harmonies return in this setting (1:19), they sound even more striking. Later on we get trumpets and a freewheeling keyboard—so freewheeling, in fact, it not only shifts the feel of the song’s chords but sometimes sounds like it’s floated in from a different song. This is perhaps an unintended consequence of the recording, which was done by the band in non-studio locations like dorm rooms and garages. But it furthers the song’s fancy-free vibe, as does the knowledge of what “zorbing” actually is: “the recreation of rolling downhill in an orb, generally made of transparent plastic” (thanks, Wikipedia!).

Stornoway is a quartet from Oxford, named after a small island town in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. “Zorbing” was originally self-released as a single last summer. The band was signed to 4AD this spring, and the label released Beachcomber’s Windowsill in May in the UK. The band had planned to release their debut themselves, and the label liked it enough to put it out pretty much in its original, demo-like form. A US release is set for August. MP3 via 4AD One Track Mind, with a thank you to Frank at Chromewaves for the tip.

Free and legal MP3: The Futureheads (neo-New Wave, and then some)

The Futureheads, a Sunderland (UK) quartet with three albums now under their belt, have a couple of extra things going than most 21st-century neo-New Wave bands. First, to their spiky retro sound they bring an intriguing outside element: walls of harmony. It’s an attractive addition to my ears, a kind of Devo-meets-Queen vibe that works unexpectedly well.

“Struck Dumb” – the Futureheads

The 21st century has not been lacking in New Wave revival bands, with their metallic guitars, punchy rhythms, and clipped British-sounding vocals (whether actually British or not). When bands fall flat in the effort it’s when they get the sound right but forget to give us a worthy song in the process. So-called angularity is a notably two-dimensional quality. The ear needs more to feel satisfied.

The Futureheads, a Sunderland (UK) quartet with three albums now under their belt, have a couple of extra things going here. First, to their spiky neo-New Wave sound they bring an intriguing outside element: walls of harmony. It’s an attractive addition to my ears, a kind of Devo-meets-Queen vibe that works unexpectedly well. Second, the song moves musically in a way a lot of similar-sounding songs–some by the Futureheads themselves, I might add–do not. Yes, that Jam-like introduction is fun and effective, but it succeeds, to my ears, precisely because the song isn’t content to stay put. Sometimes this can be a simple matter of finding the right chord at the right time. The first place I hear the song open up is at 0:31, on the line “Stop living in the clouds”–it’s subtle, but the chord they move through there has a wonderful theatricality to it, and it foreshadows what we’ll hear in the chorus moments later. Listen in particular to the line “Negativity is controlling your dreams,” beginning at 0:44, and how the chorus takes a left turn from there. We remain on the one hand within the tight sonic world of the neo-New Wave and yet also we’ve been launched out of it. Everything still wraps up in under three minutes, which is another triumphant gesture.

“Struck Dumb” is from the Futureheads’ upcoming album, as yet without a title or a release date, although some time in 2010 is a safe bet. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3: Rollercoaster Project (robotic electro-goth with a heart of pop)

“Hoods Up” – Rollercoaster Project

Churning, robotic electro-goth, with a heart of pure pop. I’m oddly entranced by the buried, electronic vocals, which hint only intermittently, only ever so slightly, at their human origin; it’s kind of like “Kid A” funneled through a lush carnival of soaring synth pop, on a bed of electronic nails. The wistful, almost heartbreaking melody of the chorus is icing on the electro-cake. Note how the electronic artifice fades into nature noises for the last minute of the track. It’s not a half hour of crickets (see Neko Case) but it’s pretty eco-ambient, and kind of a spooky coda to all the previous machinations.

And all of this, clearly, we should know by 2009, is the result of one guy fiddling with computers in a shed. The one guy this time is a Brit named Johnny White, who otherwise teaches guitar to elementary school students. White has apparently thought a lot about how our recording devices impact our memories, pondering questions such as “Has technology made us nostalgic voyeurs of our own existence?,” according to the press material. “Hoods Up” is a song from the second Rollercoaster Project album, Revenge, scheduled for release later this month on Absolutely Kosher Records. MP3 via Absolutely Kosher.

Free and legal MP3: The Mummers (orchestral pop w/ retro touches)

“Wonderland” – the Mummers

A waltzing, carnivalesque intro segues into some smooth, orchestral retro-pop that owes a bit to Burt Bacharach, a bit to Kurt Weill, and a bit to our century’s relentless urge to mix and mash sounds into ear-catching concoctions. To me, “Wonderland” separates itself from a lot of the more disposable contrivances crowding the internet in our music-happy day and age via its rare combination of sweetness and sturdiness. The melodies are expansive and velvety, the arrangements unexpectedly thoughtful, even articulate. The bright-toned singer and multi-cultural multi-instrumentalist Raissa Khan-Panni, who flitted through a semi-successful solo career in the UK at the outset of the millennium, here manages at once to command center stage and to work as merely one of an idiosyncratic ensemble of musicians bowing and pumping out this breezy but slightly mysterious keeper. A whole different kind of summer song, this one is, from the Wheels On Fire track above, but a delightful summer song it nonetheless remains.

The Mummers are an ever-changing array of 20-some-odd musicians, based in Brighton. “Wonderland” is a song from the band’s debut full-length disc, Tale to Tell (Republic of Music/Universal), which was released in either April or June. (The internet is sometimes a contradictory place, information-wise.) MP3 via Fresh Deer Meat.

Free and legal MP3: Blue Roses (brisk acoustic/electronic blend)

“I Am Leaving” – Blue Roses

So-called folktronica often seeks to blend the acoustic and the electronic, but typically in a moody, glitchy ambiance; what Laura Groves introduces us to with “I Am Leaving”–Blue Roses is the name the multi-instrumentalist Groves uses for recording–is an acoustic/electronic blend that is at once bright and dreamy, the brisk folky guitar almost but not quite overwhelmed by a glistening synth that sounds like what a harpsichord might sound like if it could sustain. Soon we hear her harmonizing wordlessly, swoopingly, with herself; the (beguiling) effect is Kate Bush doing an imitation of the Roches, if you’ll excuse the old-school references. When she first begins to sing actual words (at 0:40), her unadorned singing voice seems almost too…I don’t know, too something: too raw, too high, too present and unfiltered. But give it a little time, and when the harmonies return, wow, check out some of those intervals–I can’t even begin to guess what notes she’s putting together at 0:59, on the second syllable of “silent.” My goodness.

I’ll tell you exactly where it all began to make sense to me: at 1:12, when the swooping, wordless harmonies come back once more, and the melody makes that gratifying descent through an octave (first as she sings “Oh give me a clue somehow”). She repeats it, then resolves it with one extra melody line, then we go back into the verse–and we never hear this section again. But its existence haunts the song, renders it deeper and more complex. Everything sounds different from here on in, and not only because of the shift in instrumentation.

“I Am Leaving” is from the debut, eponymous Blue Roses album, which was released in April in the U.K. and is scheduled for a July release on Beggars Banquet Records in the U.S. MP3 via the Beggars Group web site.

Free and legal MP3: The Veils (engaging, well-conceived rock’n’roll)

“The Letter” – the Veils

Finn Andrews and company return with an assured piece of rock’n’roll theater: engaging, well-performed, and rewardingly dramatic, featuring a full-fledged, recurring instrumental motif the likes of which has all but disappeared from the 21st-century rock scene. I’m talking about the ringing guitar line that opens the song; at least, I think that’s a guitar—the sound is slippery and intriguing, and even though you can sing the melody easily back to yourself, you can’t quite tell what’s making it. When the theme returns later, braided into that sleek, idiosyncratic chorus, I can’t help but smile with a wordless sort of delight at the vivid economy on display. “She wrote the letter down” is all Andrews sings, twice, and—via that delay between “letter” and “down,” and the delicious melodic sidestep he takes on the second “down”—yet manages to open up a world of struggle and drama. I can’t figure out what else he’s singing about but, as is often the case (see above) when a gifted singer gets hold of a good song, it doesn’t seem to matter.

As noted last time around, Andrews is the son of Barry Andrews, once a sideman in XTC, later frontman for Shriekback. The Veils have gone through a variety of incarnations since their 2002 inception; the current, multinational quartet features two from New Zealand (including Andrews), a German, and a Brit. “The Letter” is from the band’s new CD, Sun Gangs, released last week on Rough Trade Records. MP3 via the Beggars Group web site.

Free and legal MP3: Fanfarlo (sparkly and quirky, a la Talking Heads 77)

“Harold T. Wilkins” – Fanfarlo

Sparkly and quirky-poppy in a way that harkens back to early Talking Heads, “Harold T. Wilkins” shows off this London-based sextet’s capacity to turn its interest in historical obscurities into offbeat but engaging pop. (The band named itself after the poet Baudelaire’s one novella, so they’re serious about this stuff.) Wilkins was a British journalist who wrote on a number of subjects, including the paranormal; one specialty of his was researching ancient flying-saucer sightings. You won’t catch any of that from the song, however, in part because David Byrne-ish singer Simon Aurell sings in that way that lets you hear individual words more than complete sentences. You might wonder why a band would use specific, obscure references only to present in such a way as to keep them obscure, but it’s no different, really, from any song in which you can’t fully understand the lyrics. And I for one would rather encounter unintelligible lyrics about an obscure British writer (he also, it seems, reported on early TV experiments) than about another relationship gone bad.

The song’s full name is actually “Harold T. Wilkins, Or How To Wait For A Very Long Time,” and I’m feeling a strong sense of expectation throughout the song, produced first and foremost by that recurring mandolin motif in the verse–a short, cycling figure that doesn’t resolve as much as set us up for endless repetition. The chorus loses the mandolin and picks up an authoritative beat and some appealing melodic twists, and yet in the end fosters a renewed sense of anticipation via its unusual structure: it features six lyrical lines, following a rough AABBCC rhyme scheme, while the music offers an ABCDCD pattern. Which is to say it would have sounded finished after four lines; the extra two leave us less resolved as we glide back into waiting mode.

You’ll find this one on Reservoir, the band’s first full-length CD, which was self-released last month. MP3 via SXSW, where the band is playing this week, along with 700,000 others.

Free and legal MP3: Ed Laurie (Leonard Cohen meets Jacques Brel, with Spanish guitar)

“Albert” – Ed Laurie

Wow. Warm and wondrous neo-folk from a young British singer/songwriter. Listen to the stirring tension in the verse–the song is quiet, but with a restless heartbeat–and then how it resolves in that gorgeous chorus with its shy, unexpected melody. Oh my. For me, this is goosebump material, and I don’t say that lightly, or very often.

Although he is basically a guy with a guitar, Laurie does not sound like a typical singer/songwriter, both because of his husky baritone, with its air of bygone days about it, and because the guitar he plays is nylon-stringed, like a flamenco guitar, which he plays with a gentle but urgent flow, full of intimations of far-away times and cultures. He plays, also, with an ear for his accompaniment, which is a quiet and knowing mix of acoustic instruments, including a clarinet, which in particular feels both unexpected and ideal.

Laurie claims influences from a variety of musical traditions–born in London, he has extended family in Eastern Europe, Germany, Spain, and Brazil, and grew up listening to classical music. His press material offers comparisons to the likes of Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, and Jacques Brel, which sounds about right to me. “Albert” is from Laurie’s debut EP, Meanwhile in the Park, which was previously released on iTunes only and is slated for a full U.S. release on Dangerbird Records in October. Laurie is currently working on his first full-length album, to be called Small Boat Big Sea.