Free and legal MP3: Dear Euphoria (delicate musing on love and loss)

Over a peaceful, arpeggiated bed of boops and bips, “Our Time” unfolds as a graceful, melancholy ballad, celebrating love in the face of loss.

Dear Euphoria

“Our Time” – Dear Euphoria

Over a peaceful, arpeggiated bed of boops and bips, “Our Time” unfolds as a graceful and melancholy ballad, celebrating love in the face of loss. Singer Elina Johannsen processes her voice in a way that strikes the ear as both slippery and central, with the elusiveness of the effect mirroring the ambivalent emotional circumstance the song presents.

And yes, for the record, I do not reject all vocal processing, by any means; what I’ve always objected to was the combination of faddishness and thoughtlessness propelling the technique (epitomized by Auto-Tune) for so many years. What should be obvious but, it seems, hasn’t been, is this: be human, be compassionate, be inventive, and all manner of musical and technological expression is open to you. Someone like Björk has known this for years. Prop up shallow idiocies with formulaic songwriting and production methods in pursuit of big streaming numbers and okay, have fun, but I’m not interested.

Meanwhile, Johannsen is tackling the big subject here, with a directness leavened by the sweetness of her tone, the delicacy of her declarations, and the soothing melody. I am assuming the loss she is singing about is a loss occasioned by death, and she seems to be singing from the perspective of the dying person; but, it works if the subject is a less permanent loss as well. She employs simple, mostly one-syllable words throughout, which has the subtle effect of amplifying both the gravity and the sublimity of the situation. The vibe is at once uncomplicated and stimulating, with a number of engaging touches along the way, from the life-support electronic pulse that accompanies two-thirds of the song (listen to how it decamps at 1:52), to the brief but wonderful guitar or guitar-like distortion at 1:03, to the all-out false ending at 2:29. And, a trait not to be underestimated, the song doesn’t overstay its welcome, wrapping up in a concise 3:06, easily inviting repeat listens.

Johannsen is based in Stockholm. Dear Euphoria was previously featured on Fingertips all the way back in 2007; the MP3 to that track, “Falling Behind,” is no longer available. “Our Time” is the second single released to date from an album due out in the spring. Thanks to Johannsen for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: The Ampersands (buzzy, stompy indie pop)

Our week of incisive songs (all under 3:35) wraps up with this buzzy, stompy bit of off-kilter indie pop.

The Ampersands

“Try This” – The Ampersands

Our week of incisive songs (all under 3:35) wraps up with this buzzy, stompy bit of off-kilter indie pop. The sing-songy, Nintendo-y keyboard riff that opens things up is no mistake—it is based, says the group, on a mis-memory of an old video game musical theme (Munchlax’s Berry Bonanza, if you must know, which is a mini-game within the Pokemon universe). And the song indeed seems at one level to be about playing video games. The processed vocals add a Game Boy-like ambiance to be sure. But there is a larger point as well, having to do not only with the repeated chorus (“Why don’t you try this or you’ll never know”) but with the key lyrical line—which the band uses as their album title—“This is your adventure too.” We must stay open-minded, and present, and perhaps, somehow, even video games can help us get there. Or, also, not.

Meanwhile, the music has a smartly-built air about it, not to mention a sneaky undercurrent of Fountains of Wayne-like power pop. (Listen to the transition from the first to the second line—from “…observing the maze” to “Keep a close eye…”; that’s a lovely, FOW-like progression.) Funny thing about the Fountains—they’re still out there making good records, but they’ve also been around long enough to be a foundational band for a new generation of indie rockers. I don’t know if that’s the case here but I’ve been hearing their influence in a few places recently so I’m floating it as a theory.

The Ampersands (clever name for a twosome, no?) are multi-instrumentalist Aaron McQuade and guitarist Jim Pace. Both sing and write the songs. They have employed some “satellite members” both in the studio and in live performance, including vocalist Evie Nagy, whom you hear here in the chorus, but the band is officially just the two of them. Aaron is based in NYC, Jim in Providence, where they originally started. This Is Your Adventure Too is the band’s second album, and is slated for release at the end of October. Do yourself a favor and check out the album’s web site, where you can not only hear the whole thing, but get a lot of engaging, liner-note-like information and graphics.

Free and legal MP3: Jesca Hoop (not all vocal processing is evil)

The song’s dizzy momentum is bewitching, and for all the electronic processing, its human core is both obvious and dazzling.

Jesca Hoop

“Born To” – Jesca Hoop

With all of the vexation I’ve been feeling these last couple of years regarding Auto-Tune, I’ve forgotten something important: I’ve never had anything against vocal distortion per se. There is absolutely nothing wrong, to me, with the artful use of filters, effects, and so forth. Any number of favored musicians and wonderful songs have employed such tools. In its proper place, Auto-Tune may offer a new range of possibilities for artful vocal distortion as well. (Hint: its over-use by and domination of today’s top 40 does not qualify as “its proper place.”)

I’m not sure whether Jesca Hoop is here using Auto-Tune or some other processing system (probably the latter; perhaps a vocoder), but the main point to my ears is that you can hear, viscerally, the quality of her singing voice (not to mention her songwriting voice), regardless of what she’s doing to process the sound. And this blending of the natural and the man-made appears to be part of the song’s purpose from the very start. The opening riff—brisk and complex and almost thrilling—is played on acoustic guitar and yet set in a hazily processed soundscape. Her voice arrives in a similar brew, full of both spirit and artifice. The song’s dizzy momentum is bewitching, and for all the electronic processing, its human core is both obvious and dazzling. Contrast this to the cynical, sheep-like use of Auto-Tune in the pop world, effecting little more than the addition of a metallic/robotic edge to the vocal that will sound fad-like and pointless once we emerge culturally from our trance-like attachment to it.

Hoop is an adventurous singer/songwriter who was born in Northern California, grew up Mormon, lived as a homesteader in Western wilderness areas, worked for five years as the nanny for Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s children (no, really), and picked up and moved to Manchester, England in 2009 at the encouragement of Elbow’s Guy Garvey. “Born To” is a song from her forthcoming album, The House That Jack Built, scheduled for release in June on Bella Union. Hoop was previously featured here in 2007.