Free and legal MP3: Angharad Drake (simple setting, potent singing & songwriting)

Via the song’s soft, triplet-based accompaniment, you can just about sense the leg-pumping momentum, the giddy semi-dizziness of leaning straight back into the pendulum energy of an actual swing.

Angharad Drake

“Swing” – Angharad Drake

Lovely and unassuming, “Swing” acquires gentle power from its soft, triplet-based accompaniment, which as the song unfolds does indeed give the listener the sensation of being on a swing—you can just about sense the leg-pumping momentum, the giddy semi-dizziness of leaning straight back into the pendulum energy. Listen to the swing of the chorus—“If I could be anything/I’d be your darling”—in which Drake achieves the almost impossible trick of employing an awkward scan for both musical and metaphorical purpose: the “incorrect” emphasis amplifies the swinging sensation while also capturing the ambiguous command of one on a swing, where you are in control but also not really. And you are by necessity alone.

Through it all, “Swing” carries with it the force of Angharad Drake’s clear, tranquil voice, combining an intimate tone with unexpected potency when the moment calls for it. Young singer/songwriters don’t often write and sing with this much authority, and compound the problem by too obviously attempting to compensate. Drake glides easily into her simple sonic landscape of guitar and voice, drawing only as much attention to herself as is required, leaving us with the satisfying sense of having been visited more by a great song than a particular personality. This will serve her well in the long run. We grow far more easily weary of personalities than songs.

Drake is from Brisbane; her first name is not as difficult as it looks—accentuate the second syllable and it becomes pleasantly easy to say. “Swing” is the title track from an eight-song EP, her second, that she released in September. You can listen to and and buy it via Bandcamp. Thanks to Insomnia Radio for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Ward White (art-y & stylish but very approachable)

“Sabbath” is as arch and distinctive as a rock song can hope to be in the year 2014 without sounding fey or contrived.

Ward White

“Sabbath” – Ward White

With sly hints of the old Hot Chocolate nugget “Every 1’s a Winner,” “Sabbath” chugs off the launch pad with delicious authority, featuring the splendid songwriting trick of beginning your lyric with the word “And.” I’m kind of a sucker for that one. And Ward White’s rounded, art-y tenor, a less adenoidal version of someone like David Byrne, it turns out I’m kind of a sucker for that too.

“Sabbath” is as arch and distinctive as a rock song can hope to be in the year 2014 without sounding fey or contrived. The verses feel like we’re already in the middle of the song, and lead us into a section (0:47) that bridges us without hurry to the chorus, accumulating lyrical lines while not quite coalescing musically; and the chorus, when it arrives (1:02), turns out to be less a chorus than a single sentence, rendered memorable by a vivid chord change in the middle (on the words “in front of my face,” at 1:08). The lyrics, meanwhile, feel rich and involving without easily forming a narrative. But any song that can include these lines—

And what of all these women?
They come and go but mostly go
And when they come believe me I’m the last to know

—is surely doing something right. And then, as word-oriented as White appears to be, he unexpectedly closes the song out with an increasingly scintillating minute-and-a-half of droning guitars and bashing drums. Fun!

The Brooklyn-based White has been releasing stylish, accomplished recordings since the late ’90s, floating around the edges of the NYC music scene without quite breaking through, even to the blogosphere. Which may also mean the man is doing something right. “Sabbath” is a song from his eighth solo album, Ward White is the Matador, released earlier this month. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Tele Novella (melodic, intricate, deeply appealing)

A lopey, quirky, walk-in-the-meadow kind of tune, “No Excalibur” is all meandering melody and intriguing metaphor and if by the end you haven’t been charmed out of your socks you probably just aren’t wearing socks.

Tele Novella

“No Excalibur” – Tele Novella

A lopey, quirky, walk-in-the-meadow kind of tune, “No Excalibur” is all meandering melody and intriguing metaphor and if by the end you haven’t been charmed out of your socks you probably just aren’t wearing socks.

Lacking an introduction, the song opens with front woman Natalie Gordon singing a teetering tune over a purposefully clunky, vaguely old-fashioned backbeat. The first hint of the robust adventure to come is in the unexpected chord progression that accompanies the end of the opening lyric (“crying so softly in this quiet,” 0:16). And then, when a normal song would go into a standard second verse, we get a variation and an offbeat hook on a new, repeating lyric (“Oh, I have known so many nights like this,” 0:18), after which arrives a series of linked motifs, one more interesting than the next, leading to the song’s central metaphor (“I’m no Excalibur/I’ll get out on my own”), which serves as the titular phrase but is not a chorus—we don’t hear it again.

The song’s first 50 seconds repeat musically, but not lyrically. And now Tele Novella is only getting started. The increasing melodic richness of what follows from here is matched by its intricacy—there are all sorts of juicy but not sing-along-y passages, sold with snowballing certainty by Gordon’s plainspoken, ever so slightly husky voice. I was hooked for good when she gets to the lyric “I can feel it rise/It brings tears to my eyes” (2:03), which, when it reemerges triumphantly at 2:56, after a second Excalibur reference, feels almost goosebumpy in its lyrical and musical rightness. That Gordon rhymes rhododendrons with tendons somewhere along the way is icing on the cake.

Tele Novella is a new band from Austin, with a personnel chart only somewhat less intricate than their music. In addition to singer/guitarist Gordon, formerly of Agent Ribbons, the band consists of ex-Voxtrot members Jason Chronis (bass) and Matt Simon (drums), and keyboardist Cari Palazollo, of the band Belaire, which also includes Chronis and Simon. “No Excalibur” is one of the first two songs the band has recorded and released. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Liam Singer (beautiful, intelligent, unusual, accessible)

A complex, expertly composed pop song, as artful as it is accessible.

Liam Singer

“Stranger I Know” – Liam Singer

Gifted and accessible, Liam Singer is the kind of musician for whom Fingertips exists. We are assaulted by endless sound, we are inundated by generic, laptop-fueled creations, we have abandoned meaning for virality and melody for sensation, and yet even here, in this crazed inferno, exist some (hat tip to old friend Italo Calvino) who are not inferno. I try to find these folks every week or so, to give them space and help them endure, and Liam Singer pretty much epitomizes the mission.

Here’s a guy who can begin with a keyboard refrain all but Bachian in its playful convolution (in what appears to be 6/4 time no less), find a melody to sing on top of the refrain, add a chorus too severely syncopated ever to sing along with, float woodwinds and angelic backing vocals through the artfully conceived soundscape, use a cello without showing off, and wrap the whole enterprise up in less than three minutes. And it’s seriously beautiful. As the lyrics glide in and out of comprehension, there’s an air of something out of time here. The title refers not to a “stranger I know” but is the beginning of a sentence addressing this stranger, and as such conveys the flavor of some centuries-old ballad (an impression reinforced by the apparent use of the pronoun “thy”). At the same time there’s something not only modern but brand-new seeming in the song’s sprightly lift and distinctive construction. A winner start to finish.

“Stranger I Know” is the first track made available from the album Arc Iris, which is scheduled for release in July by Hidden Shoal Recordings. Singer was born in Oregon and is based in Queens, NY; this will be his fourth album. He was previously featured on Fingertips in September 2010. MP3 via Hidden Shoal.

Free and legal MP3: Clare and the Reasons (introspective, w/ mysterious power)

Introspective and artfully composed, with a chorus both subtle and majestic.

Clare and the Reasons

“The Lake” – Clare and the Reasons

Introspective and artfully composed, “The Lake” is I guess pretty much the opposite of a headbanger, and seems a perfect rejoinder to the previous song, for those who listen to each week’s update as a three-song set (which in fact I recommend!).

This is one of those songs with mysterious power—a power based on small rather than large gestures. Built on a sparse, pulse-like riff (initially played on acoustic guitar, later on keyboard), the delicate verse is augmented by complex vocal countermelodies and deft orchestration. Clare Manchon sings with a rounded, whispery tone, spiced with old-fashioned flutters and an unplaceable almost-accent. She tells a tale of inscrutable departure, vaguely narrated but sharply observed. The chorus nails it all together, at once majestic and subtle, a grand hook built out of nearly nothing: a repeating phrase, different lyrically at the beginning of each line, sung in a lazy, irregular, repeating triplet pattern. It’s intoxicating stuff, especially the second time through (beginning at 2:35), when the chorus extends and extends, the musical repetition highlighting the bottled-up emotion of the melancholy circumstance.

Clare and the Reasons is a Brooklyn-based band led by Clare and Olivier Manchon. Clare is the daughter of veteran musician Geoff Muldaur and sister of singer/songwriter Jenni Muldaur. The band, a shape-shifting ensemble, was previously featured here in 2007. “The Lake” is from the third C&TR album, KR-51, to be released next month on Frog Stand Records. The album was recorded after an eight-month stay in Berlin, much of which time was apparently spent on moped—specifically on a 1968 Schwalbe model KR-51. Thus the name.

Free and legal MP3: Husky (buoyant neo-folk-rock)

Cross Love with America and you’re in the ballpark.

Husky

“The Woods” – Husky

Although it has more than a touch of ’60s/’70s West Coast folk-rock earnestness about it, “The Woods” feels somehow more approachable than this might imply. The overall tone is buoyant, not weighty. Cross Love with America and you’re in the ballpark.

A lot is going on here for a song that’s not much more than three minutes long. The crisp acoustic intro—yes, it kind of sounds like “Hotel California” for a moment—starts in one key then switches us to another. The song proper opens with a verse melody that descends via a series of alternating up and down intervals, a particularly engaging melody because it begins with seven distinct, non-repeating notes. This an nifty feat, drawing the listener without effort into the song’s universe. The dramatic drum accents don’t hurt. Moving forward, we get: a rhythmic shift with the chorus (0:44), itself featuring a yearning, briefly-sing-along melody; a revisit of the verse in light of the new rhythm (1:21) (and keep your ear on the lovely piano fills); a bridge that slows the song nearly to a halt (2:14); and a haunting, falsetto-driven coda inspired by the song’s first line (2:44).

Named for front man Husky Gawenda, the band coalesced as a foursome in Melbourne in 2008. Its debut album, Forever So, was released in Australia last fall, and is coming on in the US on Sub Pop in July. They are in fact the first Australian band signed to the landmark indie label. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

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: Kinch (swings with verve & power)

At once jaunty and powerful, loose-limbed and anthemic, “Once, I Was a Mainsail” holds many charms within its concise, pop-perfect 3:46 time frame.

Kinch

“Once, I Was a Mainsail” – Kinch

At once jaunty and powerful, loose-limbed and anthemic, “Once, I Was a Mainsail” holds many charms within its concise, pop-perfect 3:46 time frame. Right away, there’s the brief but ear-catching introduction, which establishes the song’s swaying 2/4 swing with some crafty interval jumps, as the guitar lopes from the first to the fourth to the sixth, via those slurred half-steps. It’s an attention-grabbing way to lead back into the first again, albeit an octave higher. The song is five seconds old at this point.

Then there’s swing itself, which after the guitar-based intro is articulated only by bass and drum in the first verse, the bass playing with the same intervals as the introduction, but with the sixth below rather than above the tonic. Establishing the melody only against the rhythm section serves to focus us on the imaginative lyrics, introducing the titular metaphor, with this lyrical payoff, sung as the rhythm abruptly breaks down: “You were the only thing that I would tie myself to.” And then, just when you might begin to wonder where exactly this is swinging us to, the band, literally, breaks into song: those gang vocals at 0:48 nailed this one for me, they were just too unexpected and perfect. (For those keeping score at home, this part yet again ends on that original sixth note that haunts and anchors the entire song.)

A quartet when previously featured here in March 2009, Kinch is now a five-man band, still based in Phoenix, still with that James Joyce-inspired name of theirs. “Once, I Was a Mainsail” is a new single, also available via the band’s web site. The song will eventually appear on the band’s next album, The Incandenza—and if the band’s Ulysses-based name isn’t enough, this next album is named after the family in Infinite Jest. It’s hard not to be fond of a band that is repeatedly inspired by long, impenetrable books.

Free and legal MP3: The Middle East (slowly unfolding, deeply engaging)

“Blood” – The Middle East

Over a stately acoustic guitar noodle that wouldn’t sound out of place on a mid-career Genesis album, “Blood” unfolds slowly yet engages the ear instantly. (That’s an advanced maneuver in the rock’n’roll style book, by the way.) The anticipation is delicious; the song doesn’t fully cook until 2:55 but I don’t think you’ll be bored. Engaging musicianship, sensitive and creative arrangement, affecting vocals, intriguing and well-crafted lyrics, short-term melodies, long-term structure: this six-piece from northern Queensland offers a full arsenal, even–what the heck–a children’s chorus before the thing is through.

I read somewhere that this song tells the story of three different relationships, two ended by death, one by divorce, but don’t expect to pick that up easily; the band’s singer has a lovely, Bon Iver-esque tenor that functions more like an instrument than a tale-teller. We pick up the occasional sonorous phrase–“She woke up in a cold sweat on the floor”; “Burned by the sun too often when she was young”–but as the song develops musically, the words fade into the fabric of the composition, eventually to be left aside entirely once the central musical motif–a refrain first heard as a whistled melody at 2:01–rises in climactic, wordless, choral repetition two-thirds of the way through (the aforementioned children’s chorus).

Formed in 2005 in a quiet village near the Great Barrier Reef, the Middle East self-released an album entitled The Recordings of the Middle East in 2008. And then decided to break up. And eight months later decided to re-form, with some personnel changes. The original album was then given an Australia-wide re-release in abridged form as an EP by Spunk Records, an Australian label that happens also to release a lot of big-time American indie rock (Spoon, the Shins, Joanna Newsom, Okkervil River, et al). The EP made it to the U.S. late in 2009, and the band itself arrived for the first time this spring and is currently touring here. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3: Matt Pond PA (stellar effort from indie-pop stalwart)

“Starting” – Matt Pond PA

All these years and personnel changes later and Matt Pond PA, founded in 1998, still holds it own on the strength of its front man’s voices–both his singing voice and his writing voice, that is, each of which is indelible.

Vocally, Pond trades on a pensive graininess of tone and an elusive range that gives him the sound of neither–or both–a baritone and a tenor. Once you’ve heard his singing voice it is thereafter unmistakable, which is a splendid, if probably random, characteristic. And yet his true strength is the means by which he gives himself something to sing: the staunch, well-crafted songs that he writes, full of concrete words to draw us in (dead bolts, gasoline, hips, knees), parallel structures (i.e. lyrical lines that share a certain construction) to display offhand authority, inaudible lyrics to make us listen harder next time, and bright turns of melody that in fact make us want to listen any number of other times. I especially like how, in a largely inscrutable song, he manages to slip in a conclusion as pithy and suasive as: “Make no mistake/There’s no love/When the words are gone.”

Matt Pond PA was one of the first bands whose sound and depth impressed me as Fingertips was first getting going back in the ’03-’04 time frame, and indeed became one of the first 21st-century indie bands to hit some semblance of the big time via exposure on broadcast TV soundtracks. But the ’00s showed us that there is indeed a fine line between up-and-coming and down-and-going. I feel sorry for quality bands stuck navigating their careers through a fickle and fragmented culture that hews to a shallow and imaginary view of good and bad, but I am happy that Matt Pond and company persevere. “Starting” will appear on the album The Dark Leaves, the band’s eighth full-length, slated for an April release on Altitude Records. MP3 via Paste Magazine. Note that this is not a direct link; click on the song title here and you will be taken to a page from which you can then download the song.