Free and legal MP3: Caged Animals (bass-driven blend of old & new)

Front man Vincent Cacchione manages to blend a knowing, 21st-century approach to beats and lyrics with a grander vision of popular music, evoking ’50s doo-wop groups as surely as he does anything current.

Caged Animals

“Teflon Heart” – Caged Animals

Okay, so after that, perhaps you’d like to balance things out with a superbly constructed song and a highly disciplined production? No problem. “Teflon Heart” is slinky and deliberate, written with care and performed with controlled New York City cool. I love the way front man Vincent Cacchione manages to blend a knowing, 21st-century approach to beats and lyrics with a grander vision of popular music, evoking ’50s doo-wop groups as surely as he does anything current. His words have hip-hop flair, but the mood is more reflective, the rhythm leisurely, the beat dominated by actual bass playing, the singing hinting at inner ache more than outer bravado:

I know you know I’m not bourgeois
You act like I’m a replica
A ghost inside your retina
That only you can see

Another highlight is Cacchione’s prickly guitar work, offering up almost-but-not-quite dissonant solos in between verses, deconstructing both melody and rhythm as the beat, literally, goes on. And do not overlook the effectiveness of the central metaphor, which might seem too slick for its own good but for the subtext conveyed by the singer’s plaintive conclusion “I want one too,” regarding the teflon heart in question.

Caged Animals began as a solo project for the Brooklyn-based Cacchione but has blossomed into a foursome. “Teflon Heart” is from the album Eat Their Own, released in late September on Lucky Number Music. MP3 via Lucky Number. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

NOTE: Far sooner than usual, this MP3 has been taken down by the record company, and is no longer available.

Free and legal MP3: Bon Iver (indie icon returns, powerfully)

“Calgary” opens as a benediction, Vernon blessing us with that aching falsetto, layered on top of itself, in a cathedral-like setting, with only an organ-like synthesizer as accompaniment.

Bon Iver

“Calgary” – Bon Iver

When last seen around here, in October 2007, Bon Iver was the obscure, self-released solo project for a guy best known as a member of a band called DeYarmond Edison. Yeah, not many people had heard of them, either. The album was released by Jagjaguwar Records in February ’08 and then in Europe by 4AD in May. Let’s say it strikes a chord with a lot of people. Within a couple of years, the guy is in the studio with Kanye West. I can’t claim to have seen that coming.

“Calgary” opens as a benediction, Vernon blessing us with that aching falsetto, layered on top of itself, in a cathedral-like setting, with only an organ-like synthesizer as accompaniment. Percussion joins in around 1:14, centered on some rumbly tom-toms, along with an extra, twangy keyboard and some hints of a fuller band. The main melody, which repeats throughout the song, acquires a beat and a momentum that it did not hint at in the church-ish opening section. This to me is the power and delight of the song—that seamless, “how’d-he-do-that?” transition from prayer to proclamation, achieved by the very careful, if casual-seeming, entering and exiting of instruments and sounds. By the time the full band arrives in earnest around 1:53, the repeating melody has acquired a whole new kind of solemnity, a solemnity based on movement and rhythm rather than incantation. The electric guitar comes out of its shell for an itchy sort of solo at 2:23, leading into a bridge during which—don’t miss it—Vernon drops the falsetto. The song ends over an acoustic guitar that was previously hidden in the mix, giving both Vernon’s voice and the song’s melody one last iteration.

“Calgary” is the first single from the long-awaited second Bon Iver album, which is self-titled, and slated for release next week on Jagjaguwar. MP3 via the record company.

Free and legal MP3: The Heavenly States (smartly crafted, smile-inducing)

Even though thumpy and clappy and light-hearted, “Model Son” also unfolds deliberately, with an exquisite sense of sound and accompaniment.

The Heavenly States

“Model Son” – The Heavenly States

Even though thumpy and clappy and light-hearted, “Model Son” also unfolds deliberately, with an exquisite sense of sound and accompaniment. The precisely-picked acoustic guitar line that we hear in the introduction lays the slightly-skewed groundwork for this smartly-made song. Without ever quite knowing what’s going on lyrically, you are likely to find a smile on your face through the cumulative force of happy music. This sounds like XTC and CCR joining forces to enter a Modest Mouse songwriting competition.

The level of detail at nearly any moment is splendid and endearing (example? that penny-whistle sound that wiggles oh-so-briefly to the forefront at 0:58). In the hands of the Heavenly States, a section of the song that might otherwise be like treading water—some wordless backing vocals over a steady beat, tying the end of the chorus to the beginning of the next verse (beginning around 1:00)—becomes its own charming adventure. Violinist Genevieve Gagon is another matter entirely, shredding everything in her path when her solo arrives (2:19).

Currently a trio (although the picture on the Oakland-based band’s home page still shows four; see above), the Heavenly States have been recently in the news because they are, somehow, and bizarrely, the only American band ever to have played in Libya, which they did in 2005; Gagon and front man Ted Nesseth were interviewed on CNN about the experience earlier this month. She and Nesseth, by the way, are married; her brother Jeremy is the band’s drummer.

“Model Son” is from the EP Oui Camera Oui, due out next month on Hippies Are Dead Records, a label founded last year as an offshoot of the blog of the same name. MP3 via HAD.

Free and legal MP3: Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion (old-fashioned feel, rock-solid songwriting)

A rollicking, low-key stomper with an old-fashioned feel and rock-solid songwriting chops.

Guthrie/Irion

“Speed of Light” – Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion

A rollicking, low-key stomper with an old-fashioned feel, a gut-kicking beat, and rock-solid songwriting chops. The husband-wife duo of Guthrie and Irion don’t sound like they’re breaking a sweat here as they let the song do the work for them, with its three strong sections (verse, pre-chorus, chorus), its echoes of some vague lost soul classic, and an incisive lyrical payoff—almost a punchline, except it’s insightful rather than funny—at the end of the chorus that pivots the whole song into place. And I won’t give it away because you should hear it in context. And don’t miss the lyric’s musical punctuation, that vintage instrumental accent first heard at 0:54. An essential and exquisite touch.

“Speed of Light” is a song from the pair’s second full-length Bright Examples, due out in February on Ninth Street Opus. And yes, Sarah Lee is a genuine Guthrie: daughter of Arlo, granddaughter of Woody. Although she sang at age 12 on one of her father’s albums, she hadn’t necessarily planned on a musical career but eventually found collaboration with her husband too fruitful to resist.

MP3 via Ninth Street Opus. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Free and legal MP3: Orchestraville (very nicely crafted, in 3/4-time)

There’s an appealing, homespun rigor to this song, something in the way it laces its 3/4 time gallop with a rock-band oomph that you don’t typically hear, come to think of it, in 3/4-time songs.

Orchestraville

“Half and Half” – Orchestraville

There’s an appealing, homespun rigor to this song, something in the way it laces its 3/4 time gallop with a rock-band oomph that you don’t typically hear, come to think of it, in 3/4-time songs. (For the record, “Manic Depression” is a relative rarity, and in that case Hendrix all but deconstructs the time signature. ) I think it’s the organ that really launches things at the beginning; even though it refuses to move to the center of the mix, it plays its swaying, off-melody lines with haunted-house abandon. The ear is officially engaged.

And the song delivers, especially if you listen carefully. The craft is subtle but exquisite. For instance, listen to the way the melody shifts slightly but unmistakably from the first to the second line of the verse: while the words, nearly repeating (“Why did you smile?/Why did you laugh?”), set us up for a straight repeat of the melodic line, the last note of the line veers up a step. This is ever-so-subtly unsettling, and the exact kind of thing that creates interest, because our ears, bless their hearts (?), like nothing better than to guess where the melody is going and then be proven wrong. It also deftly sets up the resolving turn taken in the third line (from 0:29 to 0:31), which soon, even more deftly, glides us into the sly chorus at 0:40, when Christopher Forbes sings “And the same goes for you” in descending half-steps. It’s sly because this the introverted rather than extroverted part of the song (a chorus by nature is a song’s most extroverted part); we seem to stumble upon the titular phrase as if by accident. And then check back the next time the chorus comes around (1:13) and notice both the lyrical (“And the same goes for me”) and musical changes, as we get a sort of post-chorus—three additional lines that finally deliver the contradictory message to the recurring idea that the you and I in the song are “a perfect match,” an idea never, in fact, borne out by the music.

The Ohio-based Orchestraville seems a poster child for a certain kind of spirited, persevering 21st-century indie band. They have a long and convoluted history (personnel changes, relocations, disbanding, reuniting; sadly, there is also a death involved), they worked hard at what they did, and the fact that they have little in the way of widespread recognition to show for it is obviously no reason to think any less of them. It is indeed what we are all in the process of getting used to in the age of musical over-abundance. “Half and Half” is from the band’s last album, Poison Berries, which was recorded in the first half of the ’00s but never released because the band broke up in ’05. This year, however, they began to make their existing albums available as digital downloads, and in the process put Poison Berries out both as a vinyl album and in MP3 format in September. MP3 for the song via the band’s site.

Free and legal MP3: Elsinore (well-crafted & melodic, w/ strings)

“Lines” offers a sense of the richness about to unfold before, even, the melody begins, in a flowing introduction that features a leisurely but nimble progression of eight chords. This song is clearly going places.

Elsinore

“Lines” – Elsinore

In a photography class I took some years ago, I learned that a satisfying black-and-white photograph is very likely to include the full range of the black-to-white spectrum, from the blackest black to the whitest white but also including many different in-between grays. I suspect, lacking of course any empirical evidence, that something similar is involved with music. For me, anyway, melodies that manage to hit the top and the bottom of the octave, while also employing most of the in-between notes, feel richer and often more meaningful to me than stingy tunes that stay within a more constrained range of notes.

“Lines” offers a sense of the richness about to unfold before, even, its full-spectrum melody begins, in a flowing introduction that features a leisurely but nimble progression of eight chords. This song is clearly going places. Ryan Groff has a crooner’s timbre and engages that ambling, string-festooned melody with a dreamy, charming nonchalance. (For the record, I’m hearing seven of the eight notes in the scale, many used more than once.) There’s that nifty chord shift in the middle of the verse (first heard at 0:15) that each time snaps the ear to attention even as nothing in particular announces it; it is not attached to either melody or lyric; and Groff lets it slide right under him, every time, most casually. The strings grow insistent, the guitars take the song back at 2:28, and the harmonies, suddenly all Brian Wilson-like, sing us up to the pensive coda. This is not some song someone dashed off on the back of a napkin in a bar.

Elsinore is a quartet from Champaign, up and running since 2004. The connection to Denmark and/or Hamlet is unaddressed by any promo material I could find. “Lines” is from Yes Yes Yes, the band’s third full-length album, released last week on Parasol Records.

Free and legal MP3: Sea of Bees (rumbly, minor-key goodness)

Rich, deep, and flowing, “Marmalade” has the rumble of some muddy, alt-rock classic, complete with rubbed-out vocals and a battery of guitar sounds, from fuzzy-growly to acoustic-strummy to lonesome-seering. For all the ground-level noise and minor-key darkness, however, the song lifts and soars most wonderfully. It’s an intriguing effect.

Julie Ann Bee

“Marmalade” – Sea of Bees

Rich, deep, and flowing, “Marmalade” has the rumble of some muddy, alt-rock classic, complete with rubbed-out vocals and a battery of guitar sounds, from fuzzy-growly to acoustic-strummy to lonesome-seering. For all the ground-level noise and minor-key darkness, however, the song lifts and soars most wonderfully. It’s an intriguing effect.

Julie Ann Bee’s voice is central to “Marmalade”‘s appeal. Even as she buries the brighter and quirkier aspects of her singing under the song’s portentous textures, she doesn’t give in to cliched howling–an impressive feat especially as the song features plenty of wordless “oh-oh”-ing, which lord knows could’ve been howled. Instead she plays to a dusky quality in her voice that you almost don’t hear here but in almost not hearing it’s all the more engaging. I think. Meanwhile, listen to how the various guitars combine into an almost orchestral unity of purpose. Not a sound is wasted; propelled by a swift, unstinting rhythm and its plaintive minor key, the song is a fast, involving ride, ending, each time I listen, before I quite expect it.

“Marmalade” is from Sea of Bees’ debut full-length CD, Songs For The Ravens, released last month on Crossbill Records. Sea of Bees is a musical project masterminded and performed by the Sacramento-based Bee (nee Baenzinger), with an assist from producer John Baccigaluppi and a few guests.

Free and legal MP3: Port O’Brien (instantly likable but still slightly unusual)

“Sour Milk/Salt Water” – Port O’Brien

Strummy, lyrically insistent verses, with double-tracked vocals, alternate with a plaintive chorus, lyrics now moving at half the pace of the music, vocals still double-tracked but now in an almost Neil Young-like upper register. And while the whole thing is pretty simple sounding at one level it’s mysteriously compelling at another–both instantly likable and slightly unusual.

Or maybe it’s not so mysterious, just well-crafted. Even as the lyrics topple out in the mode of a one-note harangue (a la “Subterranean Homesick Blues”), the music actually shifts between two notes, one-half step apart–it starts on a B, goes up to C, then back to B. Check it out and try to focus on how the underlying chords, which go back and forth from major to minor, shift each time just ahead of when the note itself changes. The end result is a wonderful sort of musical sleight of hand, delivering at once the intensity of a one-note verse and the involvement of a melody. The effect is enhanced by the way the song takes advantage of how aurally distinct two chords can be that are built around notes separated by just a half step.

Port O’Brien is a quintet from northern California with roots in Alaska as well–founders Van Pierszalowski and Cambria Goodwin spend summers on Kodiak Island, Pierszalowski working on a commercial fishing boat with his father, Goodwin as the town baker. Suddenly the title of the song makes a bit more sense, eh? “Sour Milk/Salt Water” will be found on the album Threadbare, the band’s second full-length, due out in October on TBD Records. MP3 via City Slang, a Berlin-based label that releases a lot of American indie rock in Europe. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Deer Tick (gruff but lovable quasi-Americana)

“Easy” – Deer Tick

For a band with roots in Rhode Island, this one has something of the big, lonesome prairie about it, provided that you put a garage somewhere in the middle of that prairie and plugged a guitar or two into it. We’ll need a drum kit too. And a carton of cigarettes.

After the spaghetti western surf rock of the rumbly introduction, the immediate thing that will impress you (or, not) about “Easy” is the roughened—well, okay, strangled—tone of front man John Joseph McCauley III. Perhaps an acquired taste, or perhaps something you won’t want to hear for more than three or four minutes at a time, but I urge you to ride this one out because the thing that ultimately gives this song its power is, I think, the juxtaposition of McCauley’s sore-throated rasp and the urgent poise of its simple, well-crafted music. Listen to how the galloping verses leave you aching for resolution and how well the rock-solid chorus delivers it: an uncomplicated melody perched upon a flowing guitar line, everything shot through with the deep-seated authenticity of folk music, along with a shot of un-self-conscious ’70s southern rock.

Deer Tick began in 2004 as pretty much just McCauley, supported by a variety of side musicians. The band became a duo in ’07, and has evolved since then to a full-fledged quartet, now based in Brooklyn, like everybody else. “Easy” is the lead track off Deer Tick’s second album, Born on Flag Day, which will be released next month on Partisan Records, also based in Brooklyn. MP3 originally via Partisan, now via Better Propaganda.

Free and legal MP3: Chester French (the Zombies meet Fountains of Wayne at the disco)

“She Loves Everybody” – Chester French

Up-to-date pop pastiche-ism from a Harvard-educated, L.A.-based twosome, underscored by an affable, Fountains of Wayne-like mixture of irony, pathos, and craft. “Well she craves affection/So I use protection” could be a line straight from the Adam and Chris songbook, while the music offers up an intriguing, FoW-like blend of the ’60s, ’80s, and ’00s, and maybe a few other decades besides.

From the start, this one’s a mutt: seven seconds of string quartet tension mashes into a disco-y echo of “Time of the Season,” with sleigh bells and surf guitar. The verses strip down to a beat-driven duo-friendly groove; a melodramatic piano appears, out of the blue, to usher us into a two-part chorus that is half laptop, half pounding ’80s album rock, with lyrics simultaneously goofy and meaningful. An offbeat instrumental interlude then brings us back to the original groove. In the middle of the musical parade, note the unintentional (by the narrator) intentional (by the songwriter) irony of the central, seemingly breezy lyrical conceit: “And I know she loves me/She loves everybody.”

“She Loves Everybody” is the title track to the duo’s debut EP, released digitally this week, and on CD next week, on Star Trak/Interscope. The song first made a splash last summer when it was featured on the HBO series Entourage. The band takes its name from the sculptor Daniel Chester French, who designed the statue of John Harvard in Harvard Yard, as well as the Lincoln statue in the Lincoln Memorial.