Note that many older songs are no longer available as free and legal MP3s; when a no longer free and legal MP3 is, however, available via Amazon, a buy link (in orange) is provided should you want to purchase it. Amazon MP3s are usually either 89 or 99 cents each.


week of August 31-Sept. 6

"At the Seams" - Wendy Ip  NO LONGER AVAILABLE
A young Canadian singer-songwriter who worshipped Paul McCartney as a nine-year-old tomboy, Wendy Ip has an unexpected knack for old-fashioned hook-laden pop. Are we starved for this sort of thing nowadays or what? Perhaps not great, but a breath of fresh air nonetheless.

"Kathleen" - Josh Ritter
Some people sing a simple song and it sounds just that: simple, forgettable, not much. Josh Ritter takes a simple song like "Kathleen" and makes it sound like a lost classic. Ritter has way too much depth for someone so young. How'd he get like that? Maybe it comes from having two neuroscientists as parents, or from being from Idaho.

"Jerk" - Buzzcocks  NO LONGER AVAILABLE  [buy MP3 via Amazon]
Straight from the heart of the original power-punk revolution (England, the late '70s), here are the Buzzcocks, same as they ever were, just about. "Jerk" is two minutes, twenty-one seconds of driving yet oddly melodic frenzy. Sound quality on this one is AM-radio level, but this is the sort of song that sounds pretty darned good that way. The song comes from their fourth studio CD made since reforming in 1989, released earlier this year and called, merely, Buzzcocks.

week of Sept. 7-13

"Dirty Life and Times" - Warren Zevon  NO LONGER AVAILABLE
And now he's gone. Sad. And of course inevitable. And true for every single one of us, which is far more worth focusing on than turning all grandiloquent about his long if fitful career and his crazy brilliance. This new album of his, already highly praised, may well, now, go on to be his best-selling; it's an uncomfortable reality in the world of pop culture and celebrity. Why can't the Warren Zevons of the world get their due while still in a position to have their souls warmed by the appreciation? Then again, maybe his soul is still in a position to be warmed by the recognition. Maybe, as Tom Waits once said, "That's the beauty of show business. It's the only business you can have a career in when you're dead." He will be missed.

"Clubland" - Elvis Costello  NO LONGER AVAILABLE  [buy MP3 via Amazon]
This is the first full-length free-and-legal Elvis Costello download I've found, so how can I not let you know? This is the Elvis who is king here on Fingertips. Anyway, it looks like the good folks at Rhino Records are just about to release the "deluxe edition" of 1981's Trust, which means a re-mastered CD of the original album plus an extra CD of bonus tracks, bonus liner notes (written by EC himself), and bonus lyrics (he had yet to put lyrics on records back when Trust first came out). I like the first sentence about the CD on the Rhino site: "The arrival of Trust meant that Elvis hadn’t written a bad note for his first five albums." Sounds like an exaggeration but it was basically true. This was the first track on the CD. Take a stroll down memory lane and have a listen...

"Are We Ever Going to Have Sex Again?" - Amy Rigby
While this song veers uncomfortably close to "novelty song" status (at least for aging baby boomers it does), I think it's certainly worth listening to. The appeal may fade over time, but then again, maybe not, given the general strength of Rigby's output. She manages often to strike this very agreeable balance between self-pity and self-effacement, aided greatly by her wit and intelligence.

week of Sept. 14-20

"Suitcase" - Over the Rhine  NO LONGER AVAILABLE  [buy MP3 via Amazon]
So I lived in Cincinnati, where Over the Rhine is from, for six years, and barely paid any attention to them. They'd play intermittent hometown concerts for adoring crowds, and I didn't have the time or inclination to figure out what they were about. East coast snobbery at work, perhaps. Go figure: only after I moved back East did I buy a CD of theirs, the completely engaging and largely overlooked Films for Radio. And wow. Karin Bergquist's voice is an ongoing revelation; the music she and Linford Detweiler create together is so heartfelt and literate it makes me glow sometimes, I swear it does. The lesson here is not the usual "You don't appreciate what you have until it's gone" as much as something like "Sometimes you have to move to a new place to appreciate fully where you were." Over the Rhine's new CD is called Ohio. I'm definitely buying it.

"12:51" - the Strokes  NO LONGER AVAILABLE
If you loved the Strokes' debut, Is This It?, I think you'll eat this up also. "12:51" is another short, driving, effortlessly melodic yet world-weary tune featuring the Strokes' characteristic sound: filtered lead vocals dueting with a ringing, synthed-up guitar line. As before, the Strokes bring their '70s NYC rock scene forebears to mind, tossing a bit of Blondie in the mix this time along with the usual whiff of Velvet Underground and Television. "12:51" comes from the upcoming album Room On Fire, to be released in October.

"Everybody Dies" - John Easdale  NO LONGER AVAILABLE
Remember Dramarama? Okay, if you're not from New Jersey, or a Vin Scelsa fan, you probably don't. From the mid-'80s through the early '90s, Dramarama had their run at alternative rock'n'roll glory, gained fans in pockets here and there, but broke up after 11 years, never quite breaking through to the big time. Although, hey, the folks at Rhino Records thought highly enough of them to put a "best of" CD out in 1996. And now the band's leader, vocalist, and songwriter John Easdale is back with a free "online EP," featuring this song and two others. The song is sort of cute, and sort of catchy, and his voice sounds like an old friend's somehow, but the real reason I'm picking it this week is because of what Easdale writes about free downloads, which is this:

"Speaking of business, I've decided (against the advice of my friend Hilary Rosen and the RIAA and many other lobbying groups who insist that free downloading is hurting the music industry...actually, I think it may be the one of the only hopes the music biz has for a bright future) to release these songs as free downloads,...please share them freely with as many people as possible...all I ask is that nobody charge anybody else for them..."

Ah! Somebody gets it. Check him out and see what you think. The link, by the way, takes you to the page, where you can listen to all three songs if you'd like. Well, all things must pass, I suppose. At some point Easdale pulled his MP3s.

week of Sept. 21-27

"It's All Good" - Sinead O'Connor NO LONGER AVAILABLE
After years in which she was known for being either bald, or sacrilegious, or just plain crazy, perhaps now, finally, Sinead O'Connor can be known best for what she is: a supremely talented singer and songwriter. I'm beginning to think she's actually pretty underrated. And yet, alas, she appears to be retiring from the business. It's the music world's loss, to be sure. When she gets a hold of a song, she takes both the song and you into a place of great mystery. Her voice is a deep marvel, and keeps this song--despite some noodly electronic frippery--sounding true and strong. This comes from her new, double-CD album (apparently her last) entitled (take a deep breath) She Who Dwells in the Secret Place of the Most High Shall Abide Under the Shadow of the Almighty. Resist, out of simple respect if nothing else, the inclination to snigger at the name. (Most so-called music critics won't be able to, I assure you.)

"A Man Like Me" - Beulah  NO LONGER AVAILABLE  [buy MP3 via Amazon]
Big-bodied and Beatlesque in a Wilco-ish sort of way, this is from the recent Yoko CD, the fourth from the San Francisco-based Beulah. I readily admit to being under-informed about this group; I more or less stumbled across them online, and, lo and behold, there appear to be any number of folks who've been following them for years now. Such is life in the alternative universe of alternative rock. I get the feeling that this song, while somewhat engaging, is not nearly the best thing on the album.

week of Sept. 28-Oct. 4

"14 Shades of Green" - Chris Stamey  NO LONGER AVAILABLE  [buy MP3 via Amazon]
Four minutes of heaven, at least for a certain kind of music fan. Stamey is one of rock's unsung heroes, dating back to his time with the dB's in the '80s. Sorely under-appreciated both then and now, the dB's played a bristling sort of skewed, jangly-guitar-oriented pop that quite literally paved the way for the monster success of R.E.M. a few years down the road. Stamey has been floating around the music scene ever since, as intermittent solo artist, background musician, and producer. He will apparently be releasing a new solo album some time soon on Yep Roc Records, to be called Travels In The South, from which comes this stunning little song. I, for one, can't wait.

"I Guess I Get A Little Emotional Sometimes" - Paul Kelly NO LONGER AVAILABLE
It's great to hear this guy's voice after a long, long time. Paul Kelly is a much bigger deal in Australia, where he's from, than he's ever become here in the U.S.; his records don't even always come out here, and not on major labels any more. (Although his three on A&M, released back in the late '80s, are worth buying if you see them in the bargain bin somewhere.) This song is stripped-down and dirge-like, written this summer in response to a political situation in Australia concerning the government's treatment of immigrants seeking political asylum there. Kelly's always had something of Graham Parker in him, and that attribute (a good one!) comes to the fore in this affecting piece.

"To Hell And Back" - Judith Owen  NO LONGER AVAILABLE
Simpsons fans might recognize this one, as a cartoon version of Judith Owen once played this song on the Fox show. I'm not sure what to make of Owen, as her promotional material rather too forcefully makes her out to be some sort of legend that we simply haven't managed to hear of yet; her insider connections (she's married to Harry Shearer) set off little alarms in my head as well, for whatever reason. And yet this song works, somehow, striking me as something Tori Amos might do if she had a more direct sense of melody. She may be worth knowing about after all.

week of Oct. 5-11

"Fragile" - Cassandra Wilson (STREAM)  [buy MP3 via Amazon]
Yes, this is the Sting song, and leave it to Wilson to affirm for all of us that this is no fluke, it's no mere cliche, it's truly one of the great songs of our time. I kid you not. Listen to her deliver the crucial line ("Nothing comes from violence, nothing ever could") and watch the goosebumps crawl up my arm (well, if you were here, you could). And then listen to how she plays with the chords along the way. She is a force of nature. Check out her unlikely version of "Lay Lady Lay," also on this new album of hers, Glamoured, and also available to stream on the Blue Note web site.

"Tiny Voices" - Joe Henry  NO LONGER AVAILABLE  [buy MP3 via Amazon]
It's a fine line, with Joe Henry, between hypnotic and soporific; this one lands in the former camp, I think. "Tiny Voices," the title track from his new album, chugs along with a loopy sort of spaciousness, created by a Beatle-ish kind of kitchen-sink production--you never know what you're going to hear in the background: clarinets, electric chimes, stray piano glissandos, who knows, and what the heck. Maybe I'll get sick of it soon, but it charms me at this point, all six minutes, three-seven seconds of it.

"Rush Around" - Edie Brickell  NO LONGER AVAILABLE   [buy MP3 via Amazon]
Well, it's more like half a song than a full song, and it's languidness threatens to kill it before it leaves a trace, but damn if she doesn't sound like an old friend after being gone for so long, and hey maybe she's being kind of playful come to think of it, having a song called "Rush Around" that kicks back and takes its time. Not mind-blowing, certainly, but nice, precise, and worth a listen. But do it soon--this one involves a big-time record label push, so apparently the MP3 will self-destruct on your hard drive after 30 days.

week of Oct. 12-18

"No Surprises" - Christopher O'Riley  NO LONGER AVAILABLE  [buy MP3 via Amazon]
And now for something completely different. Classical pianist Christopher O'Riley is an unexpected admirer of the music of Radiohead, and has spent a lot of time over the past couple of years transforming Radiohead songs into solo piano pieces. At their best, O'Riley's ingenious transcriptions are astonishing for what they reveal about both the musicality of the band and the sensitivity of the pianist. O'Riley released a whole CD of his Radiohead songs earlier this year, called True Love Waits. This download, his version of OK Computer's "No Surprises," is not on the CD but is available on O'Riley's web site (along with a version of "There There," from Hail to the Thief).

"Always You and Me" - the Rooks  NO LONGER AVAILABLE
Straightforward and tuneful, the Rooks are stuck in a time warp they will never emerge from, as they don't even exist anymore. But even when they did, in the '90s, they were pursuing a power pop sound from another time--there's some Rubber Soul-era Beatles in here, some Merseybeat, and some Byrds (perhaps the band's name emerged with a nod in Roger McGuinn's direction), not to mention echoes of later bands (such as Shoes, in the late '70s) seeking that same sort of pure pop bliss. This kind of thing isn't easy to pull off, and I can't tell how successful the Rooks are over a whole album's worth of songs--whether they can manage, as does a band like Fountains of Wayne, to cross-pollinate various moments of rock history into a vibrant sound of their own or whether their worship of the past is too slavish for comfort. But this giddily self-assured tune crosses well over the line of retro act into something very much present.

"To Washington" - John Mellencamp  NO LONGER AVAILABLE
Talk about retro--here we have the estimable Mr. Mellencamp chanelling Woody Guthrie, of all people. But my word, what an effective platform it turns out to be. There's something heroic in it, and in listening to the purposefully simple words set to throw-back music, one is struck anew by monumentality of what occurred here in 2000 as well as by how quiet so many with pens and microphones were in response.

      So a new man in the White House
      With a familiar name
      Said he had some fresh ideas
      But it's worse now since he came

Darn if this isn't an honest-to-goodness protest song. Turns out Guthrie himself wrote it; Mellencamp added some new lyrics for extra relevance. If memory serves me, history almost always shows that the people singing the protest songs were the ones with their eyes on more than their own self-interest.

week of Oct. 19-25

"The New Year" - Death Cab for Cutie  NO LONGER AVAILABLE [buy MP3 via Amazon]
The "inside joke" name (it comes from an old Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band song) implies a much harsher, more nihilistic sound than this earnest, yearning band has, by a long shot. Front man Ben Gibbard's refreshingly pure pop voice is a wonderful antidote for anyone whose ears have been pummeled by one David Matthews sound-alike too many set loose on the marketplace over the last few years. This one's alternative without being weird, thoughtful without being morose, and catchy in an offhand but assured way. "The New Year" comes from the band's new CD, Transatlanticism.

"Bessie Smith" - Norah Jones  NO LONGER AVAILABLE
Some artists use MP3s largely for live performances, which is great if you're already a fan but less useful if you're trying to get a feel for a song or album. On the other hand, for musicians who do interesting covers, live MP3s offer a potential wealth of worthy material. I don't know which I like more, Jones' performance here on this old nugget from the Band's catalog, or the fact that she thought to sing it in the first place. Okay, there's no out-doing the original, with Rick Danko's evocative falsetto harmonies and Garth Hudson's noodly organ-playing, but I always like when someone rescues a good song from oblivion, so I'll take Norah gladly.

"Linoleum" - Tweaker (featuring David Sylvian)
Tweaker is the name that drummer Chris Vrenna is performing under since leaving the band Nine Inch Nails. This song is a beepy-boopy-crunchy sort of thing, brought alive by David Sylvian's rich, atmospheric singing. (One-time leader of the group Japan, Sylvian himself is a hidden rock'n'roll treasure who does not surface often enough.) This song comes from the 2001 album The Attraction to All Things Uncertain, which is largely instrumental (Vrenna doesn't sing, but uses guest vocalists when he needs them). I'm not sure if his industrial-meets-electronica sound is up my alley, but "Linoleum" is a cool little find, putting me back in the mind of 1981, for its Bowie-meets-Ultravox vibe.

week of Oct. 26-Nov. 1

"Remember Me" - British Sea Power  NO LONGER AVAILABLE
David Bowie on speed? The Motors meet the Sex Pistols? Not sure what this ultimately reminds me of, but as I thrill to the unbridled melodic guitar-based frenzy on the loose here, it suddenly doesn't matter. Only in England do they do this, and I for one, am loving it. Apparently the band is quite the eccentric lot, complete with costumes, enigmatic album imagery, and an almost ferocious intensity in performance. Whether they end up an eccentric but forgotten U.K. flavor of the month or a memorably idiosyncratic institution within British pop history (like, say, the Smiths), it's too soon to tell. But I'm suspecting these guys aren't going to go away. The song comes from the band's album The Decline of British Sea Power, which came out last month.

"Marquee Moon" - Television  NO LONGER AVAILABLE
Much was made at the time, and ever since, of this band's compelling but unusual approach to rock'n'roll. One of rock's great two-lead-guitar bands, Television was the first, it seems, to feature jamming guitarists who didn't root themselves in the structure of the blues. The results were unpredictable, electric, mysteriously satisfying, and resoundingly influential. The ever-watchful folks at Rhino Records have recently released a re-mastered and expanded version of Marquee Moon, the album which was this band's memorable debut. And what the heck, Rhino's even letting you listen to the whole thing online, here.

"Field of Fire" - For Stars  NO LONGER AVAILABLE  [buy MP3 via Amazon]
Carlos Foster's voice is a heady amalgam of Neil Young's and Thom Yorke's; the sheer prettiness of this voice singing this melody is offset gratifyingly by a brisk but brooding rhythm section below and a minimalist, searing guitar line above. Nice stuff. It's from the band's first CD, released in 1999; they have made three albums so far, the most recent in 2001.

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