MP3s first began to appear on the internet in 1994. They were at that point a kind of geek-oriented novelty. When the first widely-used audio player came online---Winamp, in 1997---the popularity of the format grew.
When Napster was launched in 1999, well, we all know what happened after that. MP3s flooded the internet, thanks (uh oh) to a user's newfound ability to turn physical CDs into electronic files.
And so it came to be that the very idea of the MP3 has been tied up with the existence of illegally distributed music pretty much from the get-go. People do like things for free, even (uh oh) when they weren't originally supposed to be free.
But illegally distributed MP3s are only part of the MP3 story. Within the first few years of the new millennium, a large and ever-growing collection of completely legal MP3s were making their way online, also available for free.
The existence of MP3s that are both free and legal has never gotten a lot of mainstream attention. Part of the problem has been that the media have always liked the snazzier, conflict-strewn story of illegally distributed music, especially when the major record companies decided that the best way to deal with the situation was to sue end users.
The other thing that has kept free and legal MP3s off the mainstream radar has been the fact that so many of the songs that have routinely been made available this way are, for lack of a better word, unlistenable. The internet has fueled an incredible surge of hobbyist musicians making home recordings and then---this distinguishes the 21st-century hobbyist from his or her compatriots of the past---sharing them with the wide world.
By 2003, two things had become clear to me. First, there were a whole lot of worthwhile free and legal MP3s online; second, these worthwhile free and legal MP3s were damnably difficult to find. This is what motivated me to launch Fingertips, a web site that has been dedicated for nine years now to locating high-quality free and legal MP3s and attempting to say something intelligent about them.
I have also been moved over the years to write the occasional essay, based on my participation in and observation of the still-unfolding digital music scene.
I make no bones about the fact that the music I write about is music that I personally like. My taste is informed, however, by a long history of listening to and writing about music. I like putting present-day rock'n'roll into a broader context than you might encounter in a typical music blog; my references extend a good deal further back than, say, 2007. I also try to talk as specifically as possible about what I'm hearing and why it may be worth listening to.
I've been doing this weekly since 2003 and have by now accumulated a decent-sized back catalog, as it were. These are a few personal favourites: reviews of three free and legal MP3s which I featured at various times in the past and remain available online.
So it begins with this jaunty little piano line, the kind of vampy thing that most guys would work for at least eight measures, maybe even 12. Not Vanderslice; this talented indie rocker doesn't even fully repeat the line once before he brings in a tweaky sort of electric guitar tone as a one-note counterpoint; and then, on the next repeat, in comes an unexpected, mournful string melody descending on top. Geez, the song grips you before he's even opened his mouth.
And when he does, he hooks you all the more with his reedy, early'-70s-Bowie-but-American voice and that sturdy melody and its alternating major and minor chords. But he's saved the best for last: the odd but compelling way he breaks the titular phrase so that he starts it in the middle, singing, "And my 424, me/And my 424
There are probably layers of reasons he made this decision, not the least of which might be the fact that the song comes from a concept album Vanderslice released in 2002 called The Life and Death of an American Fourtracker---all about a young man rather too fond of home recording. So the quirky way the chorus works might be seen as a nod to the editing process. Or it's just an intuitively wonderful songwriting trick.
As some of you may well know, by the way, the 424 in question is a Tascam 424, which was a multitrack cassette recorder commonly used by musicians with home studios before digital recording took over the world.
(Review originally featured in August 2003)
On the one hand this appears to be simply a quiet bit of singer/songwriter fare; on the other hand, oh my, what an exquisite song. Cook plays an electric guitar here---the old-fashioned kind, with f-holes---not an acoustic one, and its rich, rounded tones lend an immediate depth to the song, and nicely complements her ever-so-slightly-dusky voice.
But it's sheer songwriting prowess that makes this one shine. Cook, based in Austin, works wonders in particular with asymmetry. Listen, first of all, to the melody at the beginning of the verse (0:12), and how those three words ("All the girls") are set apart, separated by a measure and a half from the rest of the line, which then streams out without a break through the lyric's end.
There's great power in that lack of regularity, and Cook uses it again, in a different way, at the opposite end of the structure. After the first two lines of the chorus, in which her words emerge in two-syllable clusters at the beginning of each measure, she proceeds to extend the second line three extra measures (starting first at 0:53). This partially mirrors the two-syllable clustering at the outset of the chorus but now she fills in the empty space with an uneven but luscious melody. And this is much more delightful to listen to than to read about.
"Hotel Lights" is from Cook's album Let The Light In, which was produced by Alejandro Esovedo and was released in March 2010. This was her third and to date still most recent album, although a new one appears to be in the works.
(Review originally featured in January 2010)
You may know this one, which is from a current and well-regarded release. But you may not realize it is available as a free and legal MP3.
Tough and controlled but also ever so slightly unhinged, "Serpents" slays me from start to finish. The intro is all guitars, an ideal combination of drone and drive, with an unresolved chord at the center. Keep a particular ear on the lonesome slide guitar (played by Aaron Dessner, of the National) that leads directly into the verse at 0:22 with a slurred, two-note refrain. The refrain recurs throughout the song as a kind of bittersweet anchor, a classic-rock gesture boiled and condensed into an indie-rock leitmotif.
And then Van Etten enters and she hasn't opened her mouth for more than five seconds and she's nailing everything. Listen to how she sings the first line, "It was a close call," dragging the word "call" in the subtlest way, not through different notes as much as through different shapes. And then, in the next line, the way the melody jerks unexpectedly upward and forward twice in the phrase "back of the room" is another "wow" moment disguised in nonchalance.
Likewise the casual, nearly haphazard (but not really) harmonies that play out in the next line (beginning at 0:37), in and around our friend the guitar refrain, and how they---the harmonies, and the guitar refrain---lead us somehow into a sort of non-chorus chorus of surprising (but not really) intensity. With barely a moment to breathe we have been taken into a sizzling, guitar-driven drama, a kind of "Layla" for the smartphone set, the guitar riff shaved to its most essential two seconds, the sex more directly alluded to and yet, still, cleverly veiled. "You enjoy sucking on dreams," the song's narrator snarls, with a bit of hesitation before the word "dreams"; she shortly thereafter finishes the line "You would take me" with the word "seriously," also after a meaningful delay. Soon the upward-gliding guitar refrain has found a new home one octave up, where it's more of a wail, but still hasn't found what it's looking for.
"Serpents" is from the album Tramp, Van Etten's third, which came out in February of this year. Note that Van Etten is backed here by some serious talent, including another Dessner (Bryce) on guitar, Matt Barrick (The Walkmen) on drums, and Wye Oak's mighty Jenn Wasner on vocals.
(Review originally featured in December 2011)