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.

Free and legal MP3: Kait Lawson (backwoods shuffle w/ NOLA flourishes)

A backwoods shuffle with an immediate if unexpected dash of New Orleans-y instrumentation, “Place in the Ground” is an object lesson in durable songwriting.

Kait Lawson

“Place in the Ground” – Kait Lawson

A backwoods shuffle with an immediate if unexpected dash of New Orleans-y instrumentation, “Place in the Ground” is an object lesson in durable songwriting. Inspired by her grandparents, Lawson has written a song both pure and driven; it is a song that is not only about something but is okay letting you in on it. I like elusive lyrics as much as the next guy (well, maybe not quite as much), but there comes a time as a listener when I want clear context and direct meaning. On the other path lies the potential both for great artistry and for great fakery. Sometimes the line is thin indeed. Often over there in Elusiveland it seems to come down to the songwriter simply declaring “This is art,” because otherwise who can tell.

Lawson, on the other hand, doesn’t mess around. At her grandmother’s funeral 13 years ago, she overheard her grandfather, paying his last respects, talk out loud to his departed wife, telling her that she wasn’t supposed to be the one to go first. This song fleshes out that incisive moment. It could easily have gone sappy but Lawson stays disciplined on all counts. Musically, she gives us a minor key, appropriate to lamentation, but pushes it to a swinging beat, with fluid clarinet and trombine and tuba playing that evokes the “second line” style music at a traditional New Orleans funeral. The words grab us so firmly—opening line: “Her clothes still hang in the closet”—that it’s easy to overlook the melodic aptitude on display: the 16-measure melody of the verse, and a chorus so incisive and un-showy you almost don’t notice how it grips the heart. Lyrically, Lawson gives us concrete lyrical details, keep us in a narrative, but surprises us with nuance and emotion. Repeatedly she lets specificities imply both logistical and emotional content—for instance, how “She finally took your hand” tells us a lot more about the relationship then had she simply said that they got married.

Lawson is from Memphis, has spent time in both Nashville and NYC, but returned home to record her debut album. “Place in the Ground” is track number four on that album, which is called Until We Drown, and is slated for release in March on Madjack Records.

photo credit: Lisa Bertagna

Free and legal MP3: The Reflections (brisk, well-crafted, minor-key)

Brisk and engaging; keep this on repeat for a while and it just about hypnotizes you.

The Reflections

“Disconnected” – The Reflections

Sometimes the wisdom and splendor of a song can be hidden and/or encapsulated in the smallest gesture. Case in point: the second line in the opening verse of “Disconnected,” which begins at 0:41. And it’s not even the line itself but the rhythm of the delivery that I’m talking about. Front man Darian Zahedi sings, “Lost your grip on what you’ve been holding,” and the words skip out with casual, percussive cogency—“what you’ve been” is colloquialized to “wha’cha been,” and it’s the hurrying of the “what” and the in-between-beat swallowing of the “you” that makes the line inexplicably delightful. We had been delivered, following a ghostly pre-introduction, into a driving, minor-key rock song of uncertain lineage—there’s something early-’80s about it and also something early-’00s—but it’s this skippy little delivery that told me that this band was making its own, smartly-executed contribution to whatever you want to call the genre in which this brisk, engaging song is housed. I vote for “rock’n’roll.”

A similarly effective small-but-large gesture follows when the song leaves a lyrical blank at 0:53, after “disconnected and mishandled,” and fills it with a brief, plaintive piano chord. All the better that that same phrase emerges one line later to be employed in (and as) the chorus. It all seems so nonchalant and yet fully engineered. Another little detail to notice: in the second verse, the second line is sung minus the “skip” we heard in the first verse, but with the same kind of conversational phrasing (so easy to aim for and difficult to affect), and now (a bonus) with an ear-catching internal rhyme (1:28): “From a voice so near you almost hear it in your mind.” There are of course some larger good things going on too, here—the repeating ghostly “voice” (synthesized?) that propels and unifies the song, the centrality of an unadorned piano, the feeling of discrete aural space in an age in which mixes too often turn to DIY mush. Most of all I love how unfussy everything seems; the song proceeds in a “just so” kind of way; even the guitar solo (2:56) seems to float in with a fetching combination of diffidence and authority. Keep this on repeat for a while and it just about hypnotizes you.

The Reflections are a duo based in Los Angeles. Their debut full-length album is to be called Limerence and is scheduled some time in the first few months of 2013.

photo credit: Adam Goldberg

Free and legal MP3: Everest (mellow facade hides sharply constructed song)

Can a song be immediately engaging and sustainably appealing with neither a hook nor a discernible story? Apparently, yes.


“Raking Me Over the Coals” – Everest

Can a song be immediately engaging and sustainably appealing with neither a hook nor a discernible story? Apparently, yes.

With the lazy-brisk gait of a soft-rock classic, “Raking Me Over the Coals” has a winsome, timeless feeling. Russell Pollard’s easy-going tenor adds to the bygone vibe. And yet there’s a crispness in the air as well; beneath the mellow facade is a sharply constructed song, with persistent melody lines, an elusive chorus, and one well-placed, off-kilter chord change. That change—first heard at 0:43—leads both into and out of the expansive, unusual chorus section, which is comprised of two verse-like segments and finishes with a minor turn on the stand-alone title phrase. The chorus has a protracted, narrative-like feeling, so even as it does come up twice in the three-minute song, it’s hard to get a sense of repetition. This is no sing-along. A typical pop song gains its title from the most repeated word or phrase in the song, and that’s true here, but obliquely: we hear it first, idiosyncratically, at the end of the first section of the first verse (I kind of liked that, for some reason), and then the two more times in the chorus. Just three times in the whole song.

I said “narrative-like,” and I meant it: while the song has the ambling feel of a tale being told, I can decipher no through-line or event descriptions. Truth be told, the smooth and effortless-seeming music belies the title’s implication, and that’s part of the charm here too. Whomever or whatever is raking the narrator over the proverbial coals, he sounds pretty philosophical about it.

Pollard is a L.A.-based musician who has played with a number of notable indie bands over the years, including Sebadoh and Earlimart. “Raking Me Over the Coals” is a song from the band’s third album, Ownerless, which was released in June on ATO Records.

photo credit: Zoran Orlic

Free and legal MP3: Pure Bathing Culture (sweet & unhurried, w/ sneaky depth)

“Ivory Coast” floats along on a gentle bed of guitar and percussion, in an atmosphere at once muddy and lucid.

Pure Bathing Culture

“Ivory Coast” – Pure Bathing Culture

Sweet, unhurried, and reverby, “Ivory Coast” floats along on a gentle bed of guitar and percussion, its purposeful melody sung with an engaging mix of muddiness and clarity. The verse opens with singer Sarah Versprille sounding a bit far back in the mix, but harmonies added in the second half of the line (0:17) seem to sharpen her presence even as the vocal layers remain kind of blurry and indistinct. That’s kind of a cool trick, actually.

Another cool trick: the verse’s opening melody is seven measures long, an unusual and ear-catching length. The melody then repeats, this time in ten measures, another unusual length. This isn’t anything you will necessarily be aware of, but it adds to the song’s depth and character. In the chorus, we get a twist not only on length of melody (five measures this time) but with time signature, as one measure of six beats is inserted, coinciding with the song’s defining chord change (first heard at 0:54-0:56). With the elusive air of a major-minor alternation, the chord change is concise and melodramatic, and yet comes and goes with an insouciance that almost makes you feel as if you didn’t hear it right. And speaking of chord changes, another signature moment is a chord change added to the second line in the second verse, at 1:33. It comes and goes quickly, but leaves a penetrating aftertaste. This is one artful song.

Versprille and band mate Daniel Hindman became Pure Bathing Culture upon moving from New York City to Portland in early 2011. They played their first show in January 2012. “Ivory Coast” is from the duo’s debut, self-titled EP, which was released this week on Father/Daughter Records. And to show you how well-crafted this song is, check out the simple, acoustic, un-reverby version the two of them perform for the music site Natural Beardy:

Free and legal MP3: Mirror Lady (luminous lo-fi)

This is one of those songs that you can take a slice of at any point and find all sorts of interesting and wonderful things happening.

Mirror Lady

“Hands Are Tied” – Mirror Lady

Careful readers will know that lo-fi music makes an occasional appearance here, but it’s more accident than statement. I am not a fan of lo-fi for the sake of its lo-fi-ness; I am a fan of good songs, and when they happen to be constructed in a lo-fi environment, hooray for that, because it’s another worthy three or four minutes of music unleashed in the world.

“Hands Are Tied” is a particular marvel, a song both superbly crafted and distinctly attuned to its lo-fi setting—so attuned in fact that you almost don’t notice how lo-fi it is. That, to me, is a brilliant accomplishment. The key is the warmth of the sound. Bathed in reverb, the song still feels lucid and distinct. The keyboard, guitar, and the bass all but melt together, sketching lazy joint melodies over a drum beat at once urgent and welcoming. This is one of those songs that you can take a slice of at any point and find all sorts of interesting and wonderful things happening. I particularly like the woodwind-y synth melody that chimes in after the phrase “always the same,” first heard at 1:45. I am charmed as well by the very end of the song, how you can hear the bass turn off, which in that one sound/gesture embodies the song’s lo-fi warmth.

Now based in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, the three men calling themselves Mirror Lady first started playing together while students at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “Hands Are Tied” is from the band’s debut recording, an EP entitled Roman Candles, which was self-released last month and is available via Bandcamp on a “name your price” basis.

Free and legal MP3 Joywave (well-crafted, retro-y synth pop)

“True Grit” is slick and stylized even as it likewise feels heartfelt and handmade.


“True Grit” – Joywave

A delightful splash of retro-y synth pop, “True Grit” is slick and stylized even as it likewise feels heartfelt and handmade. With its well-crafted blend of electronic sounds—pulse-like, percolating, plucky; wooshy and shimmering—the song floats in the airiest of spaces yet remains grounded and determined. First we get a fully-developed, Eurythmics-like instrumental melody; then comes Dan Armbruster, singing with New Romantic aplomb, cool and hot at the same time, telling us far less with his words than with his tone. The song appears to pivot on the melodramatic, non-sequitur-ish “Sometimes the English countryside remembers war”; yeah, I’m not sure what that’s about either but it glides by with marvelous ease.

The song hinges on that lyric largely because it’s one of the few lines that emerges from Armbruster’s mouth with purposeful clarity. For most of the song, he obfuscates with elegant panache, singing words that you can only almost understand. It’s an underrated pop song trick, not unlike pairing sad words with happy music: pairing a smooth-as-silk sound with not-quite-intelligible lyrics. The ear is captivated and, perhaps, happier this way than if it also has to process a storyline. Works for me, anyway.

Joywave is a quintet from Rochester that formed in 2010. “True Grit” is one of seven songs on the band’s debut EP, Koda Vista, a work indirectly inspired by the rise and fall of hometown behemoth Eastman Kodak. You an stream the album on Joywave’s Bandcamp page, which also offers a variety of corporate-themed purchase options, one of which includes credit towards the purchase of Eastman Kodak Company stock.

Free and legal MP3: Coast Jumper (engaging, unhurried drama)

An engaging, unhurried adventure in two minutes and forty seconds.

Coast Jumper

“Lawless” – Coast Jumper

Let us stop right away and appreciate the introduction to “Lawless,” which fades in on the distinctive but difficult to identify sound of water being churned or pumped, on top of which soon arrives an unhurried, elastic electric guitar. It’s 20 seconds of sound that is both intriguing and engaging. (A lot of music made in the 21st century, across all genres, from pop to classical, nails the “intriguing” side without bothering with the “engaging” part.) The guitar offers up an actual melody, and the lazy ambiance carries with it a clear sense of impending change and movement. Lots of introductions traffic in pretty much the same tempo and dynamic range of the song to come; something like this merely lets us know we are heading into an adventure.

So the singing starts and we’re still in the same instrumental place, but notice now how the verse melody proceeds in double time, and ends with that quirky repetition that kind of comes out of nowhere but sticks in your head (“time for bed, time for bed, time for bed”). The lyrics, meanwhile, have just alluded to the baby game of “This little piggy,” and are heading who knows where. Drum kicks in. The song both develops and yet seems to stay in a state of unresolved ambiguity. No chorus emerges, just the verse three times over. And by the third time things have somehow gotten pretty intense, thanks in part to the re-emergence of the introduction’s guitar line, soon sounding less dreamy and more vehement; a really effective use of backing vocals also adds to the potency. More than halfway into it, we are still not sure where it’s heading: one moment we are led into an a capella oasis (1:29), the next into an extended guitar frenzy (1:42). The song has a minute to go but we’ll hear no more words, as it eventually finishes off with an instrumental recapitulation of the primary theme. Somehow this multi-faceted, unrushed drama has come and gone in two minutes and forty seconds.

Coast Jumper is four high-school friends from New York, now living in San Francisco (coast jumper, see?), with a fifth guy now in the band. “Lawless” is from Grand Opening, the band’s aptly-titled debut. The 10-song self-released album is available in “name your price” mode at Bandcamp, and will be physically released in May.

Free and legal MP3: Shearwater (exquisitely crafted drama)

Another dramatic, exquisitely crafted song from the Austin-based Shearwater, whose latest album will be released on Sub Pop next week.


“You As You Were” – Shearwater

When you have a voice like Jonathan Meiburg’s—a sad, echoed-out tenor that registers high but resonates deep—there is no sense avoiding drama. The voice announces it, needs it, revels in it. And his songs do tend effortlessly to convey drama, via a combination of careful unfolding, subtle evocation, and urgent unleashing.

“You As You Were” beings with one note—a D# on the keyboard, repeated rapidly by the right hand for 5 seconds before stepping down to a C# as the left hand begins to sketch out a thoughtful melody under the ongoing hammering of the dominant hand’s single note. A quiet bass drum has added a pulse but maybe you don’t even notice. The rest of the band lays back until past the 40-second point. Somewhere in here the singing has started. And yet the song doesn’t feel as if it has truly kicked in until 1:24, when the drums finally give us a backbeat. And even so there’s a sense of restraint, something being held back, and finally we see what it was when one of the earlier melodies returns with a variation that leads us to a previously unheard three-note descent starting at 2:28 that features the song’s highest notes and its clearest (if still vague) sense of climax. Note that the song seems all verse, with a couple of related melodies, each of which go through some variations; there is no obvious lyrical repetition even as some key words and images recur—river, blood, mountains, weather. The song seems to be about both the damage and the promise of a personal epiphany. The combination of music and poetry here is exquisite, and well worth close, repeated listens to get to the bottom of the drama.

“You As You Were” is a song from the album Animal Joy, coming out next week on Sub Pop Records. This is Shearwater’s seventh full-length (not counting the experimental, instrumental, self-released Shearwater Is Enron album from 2010). It is the band’s first album for Sub Pop; they have recorded previously for both Matador Records and Misra Records. The MP3 is available via Sub Pop, and note that if you click on the first Sub Pop mention in this paragraph, you’ll find another free and legal MP3 from the album that is also available, and also worth hearing.

Shearwater has been previously featured on Fingertips in May 2005, March 2008, and December 2009