Free and legal MP3: Shana Cleveland (lonesome western vibe)

When Cleveland begins the verse, her reverbed voice mimicking the slide guitar, she luxuriates in the deliberate pace of the melody, and in the general lonesome-western vibe, even as the acoustic guitar continues its tense support.

Shana Cleveland

“Face of the Sun” – Shana Cleveland

So one thing I’ve learned after reviewing songs here for the past (now) 16 years is that one of my signature sweet spots is when contradictory elements coexist in one piece of music. An easy example of this from the realm of pop music is a song that sounds happy but has sad lyrics.

Another example: songs with slow melodies and fast accompaniments—such as this one, from Shana Cleveland. Note that musical juxtapositions such as this often happen a bit below conscious recognition. For instance, only after sitting down to write this, a process that involves a lot of close listening, did I actively notice what was going on musically beyond a basic “Hey! I like this!” Once I was paying closer attention, however, I found that the song announces itself right from the start, with that leisurely slide guitar motif working against a rapid-fire acoustic guitar, mixed far enough down that the ear picks it up more as rhythm than notes or chords. When Cleveland begins the verse (0:18), her reverbed voice mimicking the slide guitar, she luxuriates in the deliberate pace of the melody, and in the general lonesome-western vibe, even as the acoustic guitar continues its tense support. Once you notice it it’s not subtle at all, but because a piece of music by necessity presents itself as a whole—the ear is forced to listen in real time—separate elements are easy to overlook, whether in isolation or in conjunction with other elements. This is in fact precisely what I make an effort to listen for in doing these reviews; my intention all along has been less to say “I like this” (anyone can do that) than to try to tease out as precisely as possible what it is I’m liking about it.

Another enjoyable bit of subtlety in “Face of the Sun” is how the verse and the chorus are differentiated more by choices in accompaniment than in melody or structure—first, the introduction of backing harmonies (0:56); and second, the insertion of a conspicuous chord change in between the two sections of lyrics (1:10-1:13). This is surely as nuanced a way to say “Here’s the chorus” as you are usually likely to hear. Even in its closing moment, the song offers us a subtle gesture: that descending guitar line starting at 3:21, four notes long, strongly implies one last resolving note that it pulls up short of delivering. And yet as that last note is held for a few seconds, the ear manages to hear resolution in that unresolved. This is a very subtle effect, which I may be entirely imagining, but it feels aligned with the song’s sense of playful mystery, so there you are.

Shana Cleveland, based in Seattle, is the lead guitarist and vocalist for the group La Luz (who have been featured here previously, in February 2013). “Face of the Sun” is a track from her recently released second solo album, Night of the Worm Moon. You can listen to a few more songs from the album, and buy it (digital, CD, vinyl, cassette) on Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Old 97’s (feat. Brandi Carlile) (bang-up collaboration)

Maybe it takes a musical force of nature like Brandi Carlisle to shove the amiable Dallas band out of its comfort zone for four minutes.

Old 97s

“Good With God” – Old 97’s (featuring Brandi Carlile)

Rhett Miller is either blessed or cursed—not sure which—with such a distinctive musical sound that Old 97’s have been writing and recording songs for years that hew to a familiar vibe. This is a nice way of saying that their songs tend to sound the same. I will quickly add that this is a feature not a bug if you are a fan of this sound.

But maybe it takes a musical force of nature like Brandi Carlile to shove the amiable Dallas band out of its comfort zone for four minutes. To be sure, “Good With God” still adheres to one of Old 97’s two basic musical formats—there are the shuffly head-bopping songs, and the chugging, train-rhythm songs, with tempos that can vary slightly in each camp; this one’s a chugger. But the discordant guitar noise that introduces the song alerts us right away that we may here be breaking the mold a bit. And sure enough, even when it settles into the familiar rhythm, the echoey Western guitar line feels instantly self-possessed, and Miller dives into the eight-measure melody with headlong restraint, if that contradiction makes sense. (I like the little hiccup the song makes at 0:35, as if bracing itself for what is still to come.)

So the first verse is Miller singing as some smug pretty boy who imagines that his earthly transgressions aren’t that bad in the scheme of things, that his lip service to the almighty keeps him on the good side of the heavenly register. Cue furious guitar solo. On its heels comes Carlile, a bundle of sharpened fury, voice distorted in a subtly uncanny way. She’s not so nice, she tells him. Watch out. Now then, Miller did signal the plot twist (i.e., female God) in the last lyric of the song’s narrator, who sings, “All’s I know’s I’m good with God/I wonder how she feels about me,” and at first I’m thinking, hm, is this joker the kind to even conceive of a female Creator, never mind employ such a casual reference? But then I’m thinking yes maybe he is precisely that kind of joker. All the worse for him when Brandi Carlile shows up. I’d forgotten what an impressive singer she is. Stick around for the guitar coda, which acquires a grim-reaper-y kind of glee as it climbs up the neck.

“Good With God” is from Graveyard Whistling, the band’s eleventh studio album, recorded at the same rural Texas studio as its 1997 debut, and released back in February. The MP3 comes, yet again, from KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: The Fresh and Onlys (R.E.M. meets the National, out West)

An inscrutable blend of the retro and the up to date, “Waterfall” combines a galloping, lonesome-Western feel with a bit of garage-rock psychedelia, a touch of present-day indie-rock eartnestness, and the tumbly muddiness of an early R.E.M. song (aided by “Waterfall”‘s “Driver 8”-like bassline; and we’re in the same key here too).

The Fresh and Onlys

“Waterfall” – The Fresh and Onlys

An inscrutable blend of the retro and the up to date, “Waterfall” combines a galloping, lonesome-Western feel with a bit of garage-rock psychedelia, a touch of present-day indie-rock earnestness, and the tumbly muddiness of an early R.E.M. song (aided by “Waterfall”‘s “Driver 8”-like bassline; and we’re in the same key here too). And yet those influences/attributes aren’t really as separate as listing them out makes them seem, because here in rock’n’roll-land, all the good and true musical strains intermingle and cross-breed and overlap as bands continue to combine them in interesting ways.

Singer Tim Cohen sells this one with his portentous baritone, bringing the National’s Matt Berninger at least a little to mind. And I think the words he sings, almost incants, have a lot to do with this song’s appeal, even as they are rather deliberately unfathomable—an unstoppable torrent of pronouncements playing the words “TV” and “radio” off one another in a way that makes more sense aurally than literally. But in the midst of the semi-nonsensical flow there is one central, striking comment, smack in the middle of the song: “The TV said that you can’t believe every little thing that you see/But you and I know from the radio that’s what we believe.” Suddenly we’re talking politics again (see above); so never mind.

The Fresh and Onlys are a quartet from San Francisco, together in one form or another since 2004. “Waterfall” is from the band’s third full-length album Play It Strange, due out next month on In The Red Records.