Free and legal MP3: Mr. Gnome (offbeat & mood-swinging)

I’m not exactly sure what one would expect a band named Mr. Gnome to sound like, but I’m pretty sure it’s not like this.

Mr. Gnome

“Bit of Tongue” – Mr. Gnome

I’m not exactly sure what one would expect a band named Mr. Gnome to sound like, but I’m pretty sure it’s not like this. The beginning, maybe, with its winsome clickiness, but as soon as Nicole Barille opens her mouth, smoky and flirty as she wants to be, I’m getting a disconnect between the name and the vibe—which is no doubt part of the point, it eventually occurs to me.

Look at how the song itself changes course rather drastically, more than once. While generally the song is divided into the quiet first half and the noisy second half, “Bit of Tongue” actually has at least four distinct sections, depending on how you parse it, each of which repeats a certain number of times before moving to the next section. The opening vocal section, beginning at 0:26, is unaccountably beguiling, its thoughtful melody and purposeful momentum interrupted at the end of each extended lyrical line, only to head back and do it again, four times in all. The subsequent shift at 1:38 however is nothing compared to the rearrangement at 1:57, when pretty much all hell breaks loose. From there on we’re in the “noisy half,” as Barille, the duo’s guitarist, joins with drummer Sam Meister (who also plays piano) in a feisty, good-natured bash for about 20 seconds or so. The mood swings don’t stop there, by any means. These guys are either relentlessly creative or have very short attention spans. Or both. In any case they appear to enjoy confounding expectations at every turn. Mr. Gnome it is.

“Bit of Tongue” will be found on the Cleveland-based band’s forthcoming album, Madness in Miniature, not due out till late October, on El Marko Records.

Free and legal MP3: Gabriel Kahane (challenging, fulfilling art pop)

This is one of the more challenging songs I’m likely to post here on Fingertips, where the emphasis is typically on easy-to-love immediacy.

Gabriel Kahane

“Last Dance” – Gabriel Kahane

This is one of the more challenging songs I’m likely to post here on Fingertips, where the emphasis is typically on easy-to-love immediacy. This time, I’m asking you to sit through a minute and a half of prickly, unsettled music—first a meandering melody, voice and electric guitar in a kind of convoluted fugue, next (0:48) a glitchy, horn-backed section with an equally uncentered melody, marked by brisk, blurty vocal runs. The lyrics are somewhat difficult to follow but appear to be about a woman whose husband has died and now finds herself back on the dating scene; the agitated music—far more resembling composer music than singer/songwriter music—exists, I’m guessing, to reflect her state of mind.

But then the character excuses herself from her date, locks herself in a bathroom stall, and starts singing. The music (1:35) breathes itself into different place, into something that seems like a chorus, and a deeply satisfying one at that. You the listener can relax now; the song is accessible from this point onward. This chorus-like element repeats five times through the remainder of the piece, and while still a tad complex—I, for one, can’t quite discern the time signatures in play here—this is seriously wonderful stuff, a sign of just what can become of pop music when someone equally schooled in classical music gets his or her hands on it. The hook—and there is one, in my mind—happens with the alternate melody line delivered at the end of each chorus repetition, when Kahane jumps from “All I want is your face” to “All I want is a last dance.” His is a warm, pliable voice—“untrained,” in classical parlance—and the repeated falsetto leaps happen easily and expressively, but with repetition gain an edge of desperation, suggesting the imagined but unreceived (because impossible) release the song’s lead character seeks.

Kahane writes stuff like this because he is not your everyday rock’n’roller. Son of acclaimed concert pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane, Kahane the younger has taking his classical training in a variety of post-postmodern directions, trafficking in art songs, musical theater, jazz, and something partially but not entirely resembling indie singer/songwriter fare, among other things. He was previously featured on Fingertips in August 2008, when his first, self-titled album of (perhaps a better label) singer/composer songs was about to be released. “Last Dance” is from his second such effort, entitled Where Are The Arms, which is arriving in September on 2nd Story Sound Records.

Free and legal MP3: Hospital Ships (fuzzy bedroom pop)

Woozy bedroom pop with a fuzzy heart and a Beatlesque soul.

Jordan Geiger

“Love or Death” – Hospital Ships

Woozy bedroom pop with a fuzzy heart and a Beatlesque soul. Without introduction, “Love or Death” dives directly into the eight-measure melody that becomes its backbone. The sound is buzzy and semi-distorted without ever losing its sense of sharpness and movement. There’s a big difference between fuzz and mud, and Jordan Geiger, Hospital Ships’ one-man band, embraces the former without getting stuck in the latter. Listen, for example, to how he processes and reverbs and layers his high-ranging tenor so that it becomes an important textured element of the music without at all losing its humanity. Listen too to that deep, cello-like synthesizer that provides a melodic bass line for the song, comingling as the song unfolds with a buzzing organ (maybe?) that manages to add both to the distortion and to the musicality.

The song’s brisk spirit is reinforced by its irregular structure. The eight-measure melody cycles through five times, each time with different lyrics; there is a break after the fourth iteration for something that might be a chorus except we hear it only once. The lyrics seem to rise and fall out of earshot, with certain phrases calling more attention to themselves than others. “Like a mirror just reflects his lonely twin” is one such line, ripe with sudden poignancy and deeper meaning—so much so that in this case, Geiger pulls the name of the whole album from this lyric: Lonely Twin.

The album is the second for Geiger as Hospital Ships, and is due out next month on Graveface Records. Geiger, from Lawrence, Kansas, was formerly in both Shearwater and the Appleseed Cast, and was front man for Minus Story. Thanks to Consequence of Sound for the lead here.

Free and legal MP3: Golden Bloom (affable, Wilco-y rocker w/ structural depth)

“You Go On (& On)” has a comforting, familiar sound—think Tweedy in his Golden Smog phase; can the name in fact be a complete coincidence?—and if you don’t listen carefully you wouldn’t notice that the multi-instrumentalist doing business as Golden Bloom is up to anything curious.

Shawn Fogel

“You Go On (& On)” – Golden Bloom”

Shawn Fogel didn’t get the memo about verse-chorus-verse. How it’s supposed to go is this: sing the verse, repeat it with some new words, sing the chorus, go back to the verse, perhaps with some new words, and so forth. Maybe throw an extra section in about two-thirds of the way through and call it a bridge. That’s it, there’s your song, no need to fiddle with a proven formula.

Except maybe why not. “You Go On (& On)” has a comforting, familiar sound—think Tweedy in his Golden Smog phase; can the name in fact be a complete coincidence?—and if you don’t listen carefully you wouldn’t notice that the multi-instrumentalist doing business as Golden Bloom is up to anything curious. But check it out: after the intro, we get a verse (0:18), then we get something with a bridge-like feel and perhaps the song’s best hook (the “Look away from all that’s surrounding you” part, at 0:34), then we get something that feels like the bridge’s bridge, if there could be such a thing (0:50); and then we cycle through these same three melodically distinct sections—all with different lyrics this time—before we arrive at something that at least partially resembles a chorus (1:54), if for no other reason than that it delivers us the titular phrase at its conclusion.

And, actually, don’t overlook the introduction either: its stringed melody is a separate theme, independent of the four aforementioned melodic sections (verse, two maybe-bridges, chorus), and when it returns as a guitar solo at 2:06, you may then more fully appreciate its ELO-meets-George Harrison demeanor.

So this turns out to be pretty complicated and yet Fogel’s easy-going, ’70s-like sense of melody and unforced vocal style offer affable misdirection. Nicely played. “You Go On (& On)” will appear on Golden Bloom’s forthcoming EP March to the Drums, due in August. Fogel has one previous full-length Golden Bloom album, released in 2009.

Free and legal MP3: Leverage Models (synth-driven beat, inscrutable allure)

“Dreaming of Accidents” moves with a brisk, ’80s-pop dancebeat, offers up a glistening, hook-like synth line, throws in some falsetto vocals and a sax solo, and generally engages the ear from start to finish.

Leverage  Models

“Dreaming of Accidents” – Leverage Models

“Dreaming of Accidents” moves with a brisk, ’80s-pop dancebeat, offers up a glistening, hook-like synth line, throws in some falsetto vocals and a sax solo, and generally engages the ear from start to finish. It does so without any recognizable song structure, or any abiding hooks (the synth line is merely hook-like). There does seem to be a chorus, sort of (the “We dream ourselves to sleep” part), but it’s nothing you’re likely to pick out without repeated listens. Oh and then there’s the opening vocal section (from 0:09 through 0:36), with its portentous, mostly-one-note melody: it’s more or less a fake verse, since we never hear it again. The song glides effortlessly along from there, guided by Shannon Fields’ elastic voice, that bright, recurring synth line, and—wait for it—one particularly authoritative chord change, which I think we hear twice (first at 1:52), but it really helps the whole thing fall into place, if inscrutably so. Mostly we never really know where in the song we are; or, maybe at any point it seems we could be anywhere—verse, chorus, bridge, or some mysterious other place entirely.

“Dreaming of Accidents” is the first song released by Fields as the Leverage Models. Fields has previously been known as a prime mover behind the idiosyncratic Brooklyn ensemble Stars Like Fleas. He has apparently moved to some undisclosed location in upstate NY to record as Leverage Models. No precise word yet on an album release. MP3 via Hometapes.

Free and legal MP3: Warpaint (hypnotic fever dream)

Hypnotic and blurry, “Undertow” feels like something of a fever dream, the dual vocals of Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman floating over a pulse-like beat in a way that feels unmoored and amorphous but is actually tightly controlled. Words glide, circle back, repeat, but without the firm sensation of verses and a chorus.

Warpaint

“Undertow” – Warpaint

Hypnotic and blurry, “Undertow” feels like something of a fever dream, the dual vocals of Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman floating over a pulse-like beat in a way that feels unmoored and amorphous but is actually tightly controlled. Words glide, circle back, repeat, but without the firm sensation of verses and a chorus. Occasionally the jazz-like guitar sound that served as the intro re-emerges but instrumentally it’s mostly bass and percussion, registering more in your gut than your brain, which accentuates the oceanic flow of the lyrics—once the singing starts it doesn’t really stop. This is a strange song, and I recommend listening to it a number of times because there’s a larger effect going on than its initial four minutes suggests.

I find that the song, for me, turns on the guitar that enters at 2:32—a bright, trebly, Talking Heads-like line, previously unheard, that, it turns out, was set up by the drummer, who kicked into a different groove back at 2:13, only maybe we hadn’t noticed. There’s something in how this new sound is brought into the existing landscape, and how the landscape is subtly but firmly changed, that feels deep and affecting. And then, at around 2:30, we get what we hadn’t gotten until right now, and maybe hadn’t realized was missing: the band playing together, putting its collective sound in front of our ears, the blurry-fevered narrative set aside for the better part of 20 seconds. While some of that returns at 2:50, now I can sense the band waiting, I can sense the weight of something larger looming, and when it comes back (3:27), the song roars to a truly satisfying if still mysterious conclusion.

Warpaint is a quartet from Los Angeles. They self-released an EP last year and caused enough of a stir that the band, on the verge of the release of their debut full-length, is a bit wary of getting churned through the blogosphere. As drummer Stella Mozgawa recently told Spinner: “We’re just dorks. I’d like to be a dork for as long as possible instead of being cool for like, a day.”

The Fool comes out later this month on Rough Trade Records. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Surfer Blood(instantly engaging, unusually constructed)

“Floating Vibes” – Surfer Blood

“Floating Vibes” has that deep guitar thing going right away, which I always find gratifying. And which always makes me wonder why rock’n’roll has so consistently (and, to my ears, stupidly) glorified the sound of a wailing guitar played so high up on the neck that there’s no room left for the guitarist’s fingers. I’ll take the robust, thoughtful tremor of the lowest register over screechy wails any day. And check out the countervailing seventh notes that begin appearing at 0:20, floating with offhand precision above the darker sound, the quasi-dissonance of that interval perking the ear up in a most welcome and curious way. This song is pretty great before singer John Paul Pitts–known merely as JP–opens his mouth.

And it gets better. The basic guitar refrain of the introduction becomes the verse melody, with the seventh-note question marks now removed, giving the melody a newly grounded sense of certainty. The harmonies that accompany the melody the second time through (1:00) are subtle and ingenious–the harmony voice is pretty much singing one note–and solidify the melodic construction so firmly that the song never returns to it. It turns out that for all its easy-going tunefulness, “Floating Vibes” is subversive with respect to form: there is no standard chorus and no verse that repeats throughout the song. Rather, there are three different verse melodies, separated by instrumental breaks. The first is the one rooted in the introduction, the second is introduced at an instrumental break at 1:16, and the third (2:35) is a kind of mash-up of the first two. The final instrumental section moves onto yet another melody and features a violin, as unexpected as it is effective.

Surfer Blood is a quintet of non-surfers from West Palm Beach. “Floating Vibes” is the lead track from Astro Coast, the band’s debut, slated for released in January on Brooklyn-based Kanine Records. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3: Foreign Born (satisfyingly complex indie pop)

“Vacationing People” – Foreign Born

At once ambling and deceptively precise, “Vacationing People” has the satisfying pop complexity of a late-era Beatles song, without being otherwise Beatlesque in any obvious way (though come to think of it, singer Matt Popieluch has a buzzy voice that can sometimes bring George Harrison to mind). While the song does have verses and a chorus, it also employs a repeating bridge, which results—unusually—in the bridge getting more air time than the somewhat elusive verses do. This kind of thing is subtle but effective: structural intricacy, when there still is structure (versus complete free-formedness), gives a pop song an ineffable sort of richness that charms the ears.

And what I think I like best here is how the song makes a hook out of something that is not inherently hooky. And let’s see if I can explain that. I’m talking about the chorus, which we hear the first time at 1:06. It’s a sort of call and response, with Popieluch singing a simple melody that meanders, ascendingly, around a shuffly beat that is surely influenced by one sort of world music or another (the press material says benga, which is from Kenya, but I don’t know enough to corroborate that); the answering vocals offer the same four-note response each time, three of the notes simply repeating before closing with one whole-step descent. The fuzzed-up bass and some tinkling guitar lines mesh with the shifty rhythms and the whole thing far exceeds the sum of its parts, forging a hook out of not one particular thing you can point to. By the second time it comes around, it sounds like an old friend.

Foreign Born is a quartet from Los Angeles. “Vacationing People” is a song from the band’s debut CD, Person to Person, scheduled for a June release on Secretly Canadian. MP3 via Secretly Canadian.

Free and legal MP3: Annuals (intricate, satisfying, melodic)

“Confessor” – Annuals

Annuals prove yet again their capacity for producing intricate pop songs that defy standard structures while still offering catchy refrains and a satisfying sense of firm ground. “Confessor” develops upon two disparate rhythmic conceits: a stuttering, almost syncopated rhythm, which we hear for the first 26 seconds or so, accompanied by a melody featuring small intervals and drawn-out syllables; and a smoother, swaying beat, which you’ll hear for roughly the next 26 seconds. That second part features full-bodied vocal harmonies, a distinctive string section, and the song’s most prominent and inviting hook, starting around 0:30, which is the melody associated with the words “Through the windows in the chapel.” So the song’s a half-minute old, we’ve already experienced a how’d-that-happen? musical shift, and have come to a wonderful, old friend of a hook without quite knowing where we even are–verse? chorus? some mysterious other thing?

The somewhat XTC-like journey we’re on continues as the syncopation returns, the background music swells, and then–neat trick, around 1:21–we get the melodic hook overlaid onto the syncopated beat, aided and abetted by tight harmonies and a concise instrumental accompaniment, which feels full but not overcrowded. I like, after this, the swirling, climaxing instrumental section, and how it all but crashes ashore, wave-like, receding before the triumphant return of the “windows in the chapel” section. And with a few more swirly, wave-like swooshes, the song ends, less than three minutes after it has begun.

“Confessor” opens the new Annuals CD, Such Fun, which will be released next week on Canvasback Music, which is a Columbia Records spin-off. MP3 via Stereogum.