Free and legal MP3: Diesel Park West (classic sound, smartly crafted)

Want to know just how instantly assured and well-built “Pictures in the Hall” is? Check out the way that Diesel Park West employs a mere two-second, slashing guitar riff for an intro.

“Pictures in the Hall” – Diesel Park West

Well here’s a terrific song from a veteran band I had previously managed not to know about, despite a history dating back to the ’80s. There’s always a world of music out there awaiting discovery, and it’s not always going to come to you via algorithm.

Want to know just how instantly assured and well-built “Pictures in the Hall” is? Check out the way that Diesel Park West employs a mere two-second, slashing guitar riff for an intro; it harkens back to something the Who or the Kinks might have done in the British Invasion days, and leads to an equally classic-sounding sing-song verse. This, in turn, is the kind of thing bands tend to pound into oblivion, but these guys keep the song moving; at 0:18, the music shifts tonally into a chorus tinged with Kinks-ian melancholy, before ending with an exclamatory upturn (0:30-0:36).

A lot of ground has been covered in less than 40 seconds, at which point we head back to where we started. This time around notice the barreling guitar line down below that links the lyrics together (e.g. 0:44). It was there in the first verse as well, but now that we’re settled in it’s somehow more noticeable, as part of a general sense of mischief in the air, which is reinforced by a few other goings-on, including an early bridge section (at 1:12, before the song is even half over), an abrupt key change (1:46), and, throughout, by front man John Butler’s ever-so-slightly unrestrained vocal style. The last bit of fun comes in the guise of that original guitar lick, the aforemenioned one linking the verses together earlier, now reimagined as a repeating, melodramatic descent (e.g. 2:10). That didn’t need to happen but the end result is meatier for touches like that.

“Pictures in the Hall” is the first single from Diesel Park West’s forthcoming album, Let It Melt, to be released at the end of the week on Palo Santo Records. This is the Leicester-based band’s ninth album; three of its four members were in the lineup all the way back to the ’80s.

Free and legal MP3: Marti West (gauzy surface, robust depth)

Underneath the gauzy surface lies a robust and rewarding composition.

“Give Me Light” – Marti West

It might nearly be its own genre: music featuring delicate male vocals in an acoustic setting. I am not inherently a fan of this sound—which can get too whispery-slight for my ears—but it turns out I’m a big fan of “Give Me Light,” because underneath its gauzy surface lies a robust and rewarding composition.

The song launches with urgent finger-picking, strings held relatively high up on the guitar neck; the aura is of reverberant glass. West adds vocals at 0:17, in a tenor register mirroring the spangly guitar line. The verse melody is concise and potent, circling towards a solid but unresolved end point, which leads in turn to a chorus (0:49) pitched around the same melodic space, with now the added sway of percussion. And listen here to how carefully the lines this time build one by one into a firm resolution (the steps proceed from 0:55 to 0:59 to 1:03), so satisfying in its payoff precisely because of the subtle uncertainty propagated by the earlier unresolved melodies.

Another thing I appreciate here are the careful harmonies West provides for himself, which begin in the chorus. Note how they start as same-note harmonies, then separate into beautiful, affecting intervals as the phrase “Give me light” unfolds, twice. Note too how the harmonies then draw back into the melody on the closing phrase (first at 1:03 and then, as the chorus repeats melodically, at 1:17). In an elegantly crafted song like this, these harmonies provide their own gorgeous hook. Yet more elegant craft: the electric guitar that floats in, twice, as structural support (1:24, 2:45)—and, all the better, each guitar break is its own construction, not just one solo repeated.

Born in England, West lives in Göteborg, Sweden. He has previously released two EPs and one eight-song mini-album. “Give Me Light” is the first single to be released off his next EP, coming later this year. You can listen to everything, and buy what you like, on Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Becca Richardson (delightful, confident debut)

“Wanted” is a cool delight from start to finish, smartly crafted and produced in a most matter-of-fact way.

Becca Richardson

“Wanted” – Becca Richardson

“Wanted” is a cool delight from start to finish, smartly crafted and produced in a most matter-of-fact way. What begins as a bass-driven groove expands fluidly into a succinct, three-part song, with strong hooks in all three sections—verse (first heard at 0:13), pre-chorus (0:47), and chorus (1:03)—with each part nestled snugly against the next, while also offering nuanced additions to the soundscape. The climax at the chorus is sneaky-great, featuring a sly two-step reveal: the central question “Doesn’t it feel good?” sounds like a stand-alone as it’s asked three times in a row, only then to show itself as incomplete—the full question turns out to be “Doesn’t it feel good to be wanted?” The shift is subtle but affecting.

I’m impressed throughout by the clean and dexterous mix. Calling on a judicious bag of aural building blocks, “Wanted” feels all the richer for how nonchalantly the blend works. Bass and drum get us going, synths and guitars join in, each entrance at once precise and casual. I like, as an example, the guitar chords that slash in as background accents starting at 0:32, and especially appreciate the dissonant chord we get at 0:34, first of a series of quietly off-kilter accents. The pre-chorus follows, highlighted by swelling backing vocals and an underwater-y synth line deep below. The chorus then anchors us with psychedelic guitar blurts.

Not to be overlooked through it all is the enticing suppleness of Becca Richardson’s voice. She sings in slightly different registers in each of the song’s three sections—subtly shy and sultry in the verse, open-voiced and full strength in the middle part, and in the third a higher-register version of sultry, minus the shy. Among Richardson’s strengths here as both singer and songwriter is how little she strains to call attention to how good she is. It’s an unorthodox stance in our YouTuber age, and that may be at least part of what lends an old-school vibe to a song that otherwise zings along with solid 21st-century chops.

Richardson is based in Nashville. “Wanted” is the opening track from her debut album, We Are Gathered Here, which was self-released in October. You can sample it and buy it on iTunes. MP3 via the artist.

Free and legal MP3: The Minders (artisanal indie rock, w/ intrigue)

Launching off a concise, Buddy-Holly-ish acoustic-guitar riff, “Boiling the Ocean” bottles an elusive variety of bygone rock’n’roll sounds into an artisanal blend that feels at once comfy and idiosyncratic.

Minders

“Boiling the Ocean” – The Minders

Launching off a concise, Buddy-Holly-ish acoustic-guitar riff, “Boiling the Ocean” bottles an elusive variety of bygone rock’n’roll sounds into an artisanal blend that feels at once comfy and idiosyncratic. It’s a simple-sounding, toe-tappy song, it’s under three minutes, and yet there’s all this movement and depth about it, due to at least two elements I’ve uncovered with repeated listens.

First, the overall song structure seems normal at first (verse/chorus/verse) but bewilders (in a good way) upon closer inspection. The verses operate with two distinct and unequal parts, and after we spend time with the chorus (about more in a moment), we only revisit “part two”—part one, which opened the song, is never heard from again. The second complicating feature is the chorus itself (starting at 1:17), also in (at least) two parts, which feels like its own mini-adventure: advancing from the punchy, titular phrase and an indecipherable descending-line lyric that follows, it seems to keep receding from view, grounding itself in a notably unresolved moment (the minor chord that arrives first at 1:28 and the percussive episode that follows) before revisiting that chord (1:37) and sliding out the back door. What kind of chorus was that, exactly? No time to wonder: an assertive, repeating series of four guitar chords, with bashy drumming, provides aural slight of hand and brings us back to where we started. But not really. From here the song repeats in a truncated fashion, as we get only part two of the verse and then only part one of the chorus, with one strategic addition (the “I walk” line at 2:31) brought in from the otherwise complicated part two.

And that’s a lot of structural gobbledygook simply to say that the Minders have put together a dynamic little song here that feels both old and new, both catchy and ambiguous. And this is all a good thing.

“Boiling the Ocean” is a track that became available this spring as a download from the annual PDX Pop Now! Compilation; the song opens disc two of the 42-song offering, about which you can read more here. The album is released each year in conjunction with the PDX Pop Now! music festival, which happened last month. Note that the Minders are 20-year rock’n’roll veterans, initially springing from the renowned Elephant 6 collective. They have been based in Portland since 1998, and have a new album themselves due out next month, called Into the River. You can download a free and legal MP3 from that album, “Summer Song,” on SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Cotton Mather (lost-lost Texas power pop band returns)

Here’s Cotton Mather’s front man Robert Harrison asking the musical question: is it still power pop when the hooks are this subtle and/or convoluted?

Cotton Mather

“The Book of Too Late Changes” – Cotton Mather

As regular readers of Fingertips know, I have an eternal musical soft spot for the elusive genre of power pop. My devotion is rooted in the genre’s unabashed melodicism, drive, and, for lack of a better word, song-iness—which is to say power pop doesn’t strain against the conventions of songwriting, it embraces them. As such, power pop has long offered me a safe space from which to observe forces at work on our musical culture that are far beyond any one person’s control. As I see it, music’s long-term destiny as a mass medium has involved a concurrent movement towards compositional simplification on the one hand (think Brahms to Beatles to Bieber) and movement away from beauty on the other (think of classical music’s embrace of atonality, and rock’n’roll’s evolution into beat-driven performance—which can of course be wonderful and compelling but does not usually care about or aim for the value of loveliness). Power pop, of all genres, seems to me to say: “This may not be complicated but it’s still gorgeous.” Oh and you can often dance to it.

But now here’s Cotton Mather’s front man Robert Harrison asking the musical question: is it still power pop when the hooks are this subtle and/or convoluted? Normally power pop is a brisk swatch of ear candy, buoyed by an ineffable sense of depth and yearning. “The Book of Too Late Changes” appears at first to be all angles and incompletions; follow the drumming alone and your head may spin a bit. You will in any case be hard-pressed to sing along. But, I say power pop nonetheless. In fact, I believe “The Book of Too Late Changes” represents an attentive reinvigoration of the genre, with as much punch and drive and melody as your grandfather’s power pop, and yet now with all sorts of tangential twists and turns, with glorious moments and motifs replacing sing-along choruses, all the while embracing the general jangly vibe the genre almost always celebrates. See if you hear what I hear.

Cotton Mather is a Texas band with a semi-legendary history; their 1997 album Kontiki was called “the best album the Beatles never recorded” by The Guardian, in the UK. But the band called it quits without fuss in 2003 (and were featured here on Fingertips that same year). Harrison re-emerged in 2007 at the head of a project called Future Clouds and Radar (likewise featured on Fingertips, in 2008). Prompted by a Kickstarter-funded deluxe re-issue of Kontiki in 2011, Cotton Mather re-formed and played some live gigs, first to support the album then just because. Eventually, Harrison was struck with the improbable idea of recording a 64-song cycle based on the I Ching. “The Book of Too Late Changes” is the first song to emerge from what is envisioned as a multi-record vinyl recording. For the time being, the songs will be released individually as they are recorded.

MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: TW Walsh (fuzzy, well-crafted rocker)

TW Walsh

“Young Rebels” – TW Walsh

I needed to hear little more than the distorted drumbeat of the song’s opening seconds to suspect impending goodness; by the time a chimey synth line is added on top (0:04) and a fuzzy bass underneath (0:12), I am all on board. On the one hand yes the intro is just 20 instrumental seconds, the song hasn’t really even started yet; on the other hand, sometimes, damn it all, you can judge the book by the cover. No one who puts together this effortlessly terrific an introduction is going to attach it to a mediocre song. It would unbalance the universe.

Ok so the introduction also lays the table for the first of the song’s two principle compositional enticements, which is the melody’s ongoing de-emphasis of the downbeat (i.e., the first beat of the measure). Check it out: the chimey synth starts up a half beat in front of the first beat, while the verse melody starts a half beat after the first beat, and later lines pick up a half beat before the measure’s last beat. And never mind whether any of this registers as a thing to you as a word description, the larger point is that all this shiftiness around the beat makes for a compelling listen, and renders the chorus (which at last begins right on the first beat; e.g., 0:56) all the more satisfying.

The second enticement is the melody’s relentless downward motion. After the melody at the beginning of the verse repeats once, to catch your attention, all melodic movement in the verse is downward from there. The chorus, likewise, is a descending melody, repeated once. This has a kind of primal appeal, much the same as the satisfaction of watching a ball you toss up in the air return back to your waiting hands.

TW Walsh is a musician and audio engineer who was last featured on Fingertips in 2011; you can read that entry for more biographical background. But know too that since then he suffered for a year and a half with a debilitating disease that was diagnosed inconclusively as chronic fatigue syndrome. Then, when he began to feel somewhat better, he broke his elbow. His 2011 album had been called Songs of Pain and Leisure. “Young Rebels” is the third track on his new album Fruitless Research, which arrives next month via Graveface Records, and was produced in collaboration with the Shins’ Yuuki Matthews (who has worked previously with Sufjan Stevens, Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier, and David Bazan, among others).

Free and legal MP3:Fort Lean (strong & nuanced rock’n’roll)

A well-crafted, astutely-produced song that feels almost like an anachronism here in our compressed, blinky-boopy mid-’10s musical landscape.

Fort Lean

“Cut to the Chase” – Fort Lean

Transcending the sing-song-y swing of its 12/8 rhythm, “Cut to the Chase” pays dividends with a chorus of unexpected heft and resolve. Although I’m not sure how, the chorus’s arresting, bottom-heavy power doubles back and sheds new light on a verse I might otherwise have heard as lightweight and vaguely generic; in its second iteration the verse, to my ears, now seems altered, deepened, without changing in any significant way. It’s almost like the aural equivalent of an optical illusion, effected by a band with an uncommon capacity for both strength and nuance.

The subtleties are what add up for me here. For one, there’s this appealing percussive sound that launches the song and weaves itself through the mix; I have no idea what it is but it has the sound of an electronic beat that someone is somehow playing acoustically. It’s very engaging. Then there’s the ever-so-slight instrumental addition in the verse the second time through, another elusive sound, this one landing on the ear halfway between a guitar and a keyboard. This addition is less obviously engaging but surely adds to the song’s developing allure. The best nuanced change of all, to my ears, is the bass line that gets added to the song’s opening guitar riff when it recurs at the end—a mysteriously fabulous supplement all the more fabulous because it was so theoretically unnecessary. The end result is a well-crafted, astutely-produced song that spreads out and breathes and feels almost like an anachronism here in our compressed, blinky-boopy mid-’10s musical landscape.

Fort Lean is a five-piece band from Brooklyn. “Cut to the Chase” has been floating around the internet for the better part of a year; the group’s debut LP, Quiet Day, was originally slated for a spring 2015 release, but just ended up coming out here in October, on the Brooklyn-based label Ooh La La Records. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: The Rosebuds (relaxed yet meticulous rocker)

The veteran Raleigh, NC duo of Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp have long had a gift for brisk, minor-key compositions—attentively crafted songs with a subtle insistence to them, songs that expand and deepen with repeated listens.

The Rosebuds

“In My Teeth” – The Rosebuds

The veteran Raleigh, NC duo of Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp have long had a gift for brisk, minor-key compositions—attentively crafted songs with a subtle insistence to them, songs that expand and deepen with repeated listens.

True to past Rosebuds form, “In My Teeth” feels at once relaxed and meticulous, a song full of moments that read as simultaneously casual and exquisitely wrought. Everything from the placement of guitar riffs to the use of harmonies (here but not here) speaks to effortless know-how. To my ears, even the way the titular phrase scans—with accents on both “my” and “teeth”—abounds with implication.

“In My Teeth” is from the forthcoming album Sand + Silence, the band’s sixth. The album was recorded at Justin Vernon’s April Base Studio, in Wisconsin, and was recorded live. It is also something of a reunion project for Howard and Crisp, who had spent the previous two years working on solo projects. Formed back in 2001, the Rosebuds were featured previously on Fingertips in 2008 and 2010. Sand + Silence arrives next month on Western Vinyl.

Free and legal MP3: Johnathan Rice (concise midtempo charmer)

Johnathan Rice is the rare 21st-century singer/songwriter who is making a career of it without gathering much in the way of blog buzz and hipster worship.

Johnathan Rice

“My Heart Belongs to You” – Johnathan Rice

There’s something unabashedly old-fashioned about “My Heart Belongs to You,” from its sentimental title to its easy-going, midtempo melodicism. There’s something old-fashioned about Johnathan Rice as well, being the rare 21st-century singer/songwriter who is making a career of it without gathering much in the way of blog buzz and hipster worship, relying instead on more, shall we say, professional tastemakers such as actual music publications and real-life music supervisors (his earliest marketplace breakthrough came via song placements on The OC and Grey’s Anatomy). Instead of worrying about his social media presence he has spent time doing things like playing Roy Orbison in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. (I will note however that Rice is indeed a dry and entertaining Twitterer, so it’s not like he’s living in 1974.)

In any case, this song is terrific. Check out how quickly it hooks us via solid songwriting chops—the verse adjoins four initial measures of pleasing, run-on melody lines with four follow-up measures of breath-catching, in which the melody is related, but different, and if anything, even catchier. It’s an easy step from there into a two-part, four-measure chorus, which resolves all melodies and leads us, with some gratifying “oo-oos,” back to the beginning. The conciseness of Rice’s craft is a joy to behold; he does not muddy a good thing with a tacked-on bridge, creating drama in the last third of the song instead via the rarely-used tool of a false ending.

Rice was born in Virginia but raised partially in Scotland, his parents’ native country. He moved from Virginia to New York City at the age of 18 on September 9, 2001; his first album, Trouble is Real, was released in 2005. A tour highlight for him that year was opening for R.E.M. in London’s Hyde Park in front of 80,000 people. In 2006, he joined Jenny Lewis’s touring band, and the two of them have had a close working (and personal) relationship ever since, including a lot of songwriting together. In 2010, the two formed the duo Jenny and Johnny, and released an album of the same name. “My Heart Belongs to You” is from Rice’s third solo album, Good Graces, which is coming in September on SQE Music. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Fingertips Flashback: Ryan Ferguson (from July 2007)

Returning to a previously featured song, it’s the Fingertips Flashback….

The songs did not quite get themselves together this week; expect three new ones early next week. In place of new material, how about a Flashback? Once again we return to the halcyon (?) days of 2007….

Ryan Ferguson

“Remission” – Ryan Ferguson

[from July 30, 2007]

Comfortably incisive from beginning to end, “Remission” is one of those blessed songs with a perfectly balanced feeling between the verse and the chorus. You know how a song can have a great chorus, but the verse is like treading water to get there; or conversely, some songs have a really interesting verse but then the chorus is flavorless. Here the verse is interesting and commanding, and yet leads to—rather than overpowers—the chorus, the brilliance of which is just subtle enough, in turn, not to overshadow the verse. The hidden trick behind all of this here, I think, is the strong working relationship between the words and the music. After that emphatic opening chord sequence—nicely textured with an added xylophone—listen carefully to the lyrics and note not merely the dramatic story line (this does not appear to be another tale of relationship woes, although it might work that way metaphorically) but how uncannily well the words scan with the music–that is, how the rhythm of the music allows the words to be sung exactly how they’re spoken, without putting any stress on odd syllables. All too many pop songwriters write without much sensitivity to how the words will scan; whether accidentally or purposefully, Ferguson—previously in the locally popular San Diego quartet No Knife—emerges in this song as a master. “Remission” is from his first full-length solo CD, Only Trying to Help, set for release next month on Better Looking Records. The MP3 is via the Better Looking site. Thanks to the guys at 3hive for the lead.

ADDENDUM: Ferguson has not released an album since this one. His web site, bearing a 2012 copyright, reports that he is working on a new solo project, to be called Brake Rider.