Free and legal MP3: Ya Minko

Contemplative, textured ballad

“Chambres Vides” – Ya Minko

A gentle series of piano chords lays the groundwork for this contemplative, textured ballad from the bilingual Washington, D.C. rapper/singer Ya Minko, himself not above throwing a bit of Beatles into the downbeat mix (note in particular the beginning and the end). I am admittedly a sucker for major-to-minor chord transitions, and “Chambres Vides” (translated: “empty rooms”) gives us such moments both in the verse and the chorus. An additional, more unusual transition is also employed here, which is some alternating between French and English lyrics. (Okay I guess I’m kind of a sucker for French lyrics as well.)

Born in Gabon, Ya Minko moved to the U.S. after high school. He is self-taught on ProTools, and I give him a lot of credit for (I know this is one of my key words here) the restraint he employs throughout, resisting unnecessary vocal effects and beat augmentations. Listen, as an example, to how effective that one wood-block-y percussive sound is that he injects in the chorus (first heard at 0:51): it just does its steady thing, once per measure, on the third beat, as the music tracks through its lovely chord progressions underneath the recycling melody, with its repeated, melancholy triplets . I would go as far as to say that that one percussive sound, nearly a musical note but not quite, is what gives the song’s primary major-to-minor moment (launching from 0:57) extra impact, as that sound becomes a constant against which the switch is performed.

Another nice moment comes during the second half of the chorus, which is by and large a repeat of the first run: if you listen carefully, you’ll hear, with increasing volume, a sort of string-like bass line that mimics at the bottom of the mix the melody Ya Minko is singing (it becomes more apparent starting around 1:17). Small touches, to my ear, are so much more effective than gaudy sound effects and pop-production clichés.  As for the “Strawberry Fields Forever” callback in the coda (starting at 2:30), it functions as icing on the serene and melancholy cake that the song serves up. Ya Minko tells me the instrumentation for the track was conceived by a Las Vegas producer named Mantra, so props to him here as well.

“Chambres Vides” is the lead track from Ya Minko’s four-song EP, Catharsis, which you can listen to and download, for free, via SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Dot Dash (hard-edged power pop, w/ melodic lead guitar)

Concise, hard-edged power pop that puts the humble electric guitar at the center of the melodic action.

Dot Dash

“Rainclouds” – Dot Dash

Concise, hard-edged power pop that puts the humble electric guitar at the center of the melodic action. It’s rare enough to hear an electric guitar front and center here in the 2010s, never mind a guitar playing an actual melody, and really never mind a guitar playing a melody that does not echo or mirror any of vocal melodies otherwise in the song. Songs that manage this are usually well-built and worthwhile.

So there’s a good amount going on in this punchy nugget of a tune, which clocks in at a nifty 2:43 (the same clock time as Big Star’s “Thirteen” and ABBA’s “Waterloo,” among other pithy classics). One way that “Rainclouds” saves time is by only employing one verse: it opens the song, after the intro, and is never heard from again. The chorus, meanwhile, is an intricate construct featuring one sweetly satisfying melody (the part culminating in “…put the blame on me,” heard first at 0:45) that seems to have been planted in the song just so you’ll wait for it to come back. Which it then doesn’t do quite as often as you want it to. Speaking of which, when the verse is scheduled to return, it doesn’t, and instead we get the aforementioned guitar melody in full force—at 1:09, and repeated on the spot at 1:23. The hint we get that this has replaced the verse comes from the unexpected return of the verse’s wordless backing vocals during the repeat (1:29). This strikes me as kind of unusual, hearing “ah-ah-ahs” underneath a guitar melody rather than a vocal melody. Someone has surely done it somewhere before but I can’t bring anything to mind.

Dot Dash is a D.C.-based quartet that took its name from a song by the seminal British punk/art band Wire (dot dash is the letter “A” in Morse code). Front man Terry Banks and bassist Hunter Bennett were previously together in the band Julie Ocean. “Rainclouds” is from the album Earthquakes & Tidal Waves, the band’s fourth, released last month by The Beautiful Music, a label in Ottawa. The album was produced by the semi-legendary Mitch Easter, best known for his work on R.E.M.’s early albums, at his studio in North Carolina. You can listen to it as well as purchase it via Bandcamp. MP3 once again via Insomnia Radio.

Free and legal MP3: Dead Meadow (assured, midtempo psychedelia)

Sometimes, against all reason, ploddy muddy songs just sound so good—the blurry vocals, the minor-key prudence, it’s all communicating something, all the more so when you don’t actually know what the singer is singing about, which you usually don’t in these kinds of songs.

Dead Meadow

“Yesterday’s Blowin’ Back” – Dead Meadow

Sometimes, against all reason, ploddy muddy songs just sound so good—the blurry vocals, the minor-key prudence, it’s all communicating something, all the more so when you don’t actually know what the singer is singing about, which you usually don’t in these kinds of songs.

And because I don’t know what the singer is singing about, and because today is October 1, a day smart people someday will look back on with incredulity (provided there are any smart people left someday), I’m going to hear “Yesterday’s Blowin’ Back,” without any actual evidence, as a blistering indictment of the dangerous idiocy of extremist politicians. Just because I can. And just because we should.

“All your dark thoughts, they bring this on…” Indeed. So: you don’t like a law, you represent at best 18 percent of the U.S. population, and you shut down the government? Contrary to many reports, this is not a partisan issue. No reasonable person in a democratic country believes that hijacking the government is a valid oppositional strategy. Perhaps we will at some point begin the climb back towards civilization by reintroducing ourselves to the idea that news coverage is supposed to help us discover facts and truth, not simply report on what people say. People say all kinds of stupid shit nowadays, and in the strangest places (the Senate floor, for instance). And hm I guess by day’s end I am not in much mood for music analysis, which is too bad, since this assured piece of midtempo psychedelia by the veteran D.C. trio Dead Meadow is rich with musical pleasure. If only the dignified ache of the chorus—or, perhaps, the extended, intertwining guitar solos that begin at 3:22—could make me forget the despicable egotism of the cowards who shamefully scuttle the integrity of our fine country; but, alas, they don’t quite. Maybe if I just keep listening…

“Yesterday’s Blowin’ Back” is from Warble Womb, Dead Meadow’s seventh studio album, arriving later this month. This album features the return of drummer Mark Laughlin after 11 years away from band mates Jason Simon and Steve Kille. Dead Meadow was previously featured on Fingertips in December 2004. MP3 via Rolling Stone.

Free and legal MP3: Vandaveer (old-timey acoustic shuffle)

“Turpentine” – Vandaveer

An almost hypnotic, quiet-but-intense number that seems perfect for a late afternoon on a late summer day. Featuring pretty much all acoustic instruments and shuffling along on the frame of a gentle, forward-moving keyboard riff, “Turpentine” has an old-timey flair but a sharp present-day vibe. (And it fades in; you don’t hear many songs fade in.)

The singing performances bring this one to particular life, both the craggy, soulful lead effort by Mark Charles Heidinger and the beautifully attuned, vibrato-laced harmonies offered by Heidinger’s sister, Rose Guerin. Heidinger sounds as if he’s singing on your old vinyl turntable, Guerin as if she never opens her eyes while making unconsciously portentous arm gestures. Towards the beginning of the song, she picks and chooses where to inject her fierce accompaniment; when she at long last stays on stage with him for one last verse in this chorus-free song, redemption feels close at hand.

“Turpentine” can be found on Divide and Conquer, Vandaveer’s second album, released last week on Supply & Demand Records. Vandaveer is the name the Washington, D.C.-based Heidinger uses for performance; it’s a family name that he found on the back of a watch passed down to him on his father’s side.