Buck stops here

Don't waste a dollar on the current crop of buzzy singles (Cullum, Krall, Morrissey, I'm talking about you). Here are five free downloads worth your time.

By Thomas Bartlett

Published May 19, 2004 8:20PM (EDT)

This week, for the first time, all five downloads are free -- but that doesn't signal a change in policy, despite the many requests I've received from readers to feature only free downloads. It's just that I couldn't find any newly released music genuinely worth paying for this week. Jamie Cullum? Diana Krall? Those two standard-mauling, faux-jazz crooners (currently No. 1 and 6, respectively, on the iTunes album chart) make Norah Jones sound like an artist of startling depth and maturity. I don't know which is more heartbreaking to hear, Cullum's showy, insincere emoting on Jeff Buckley's "Lover, You Should Have Come Over," or Krall's neutered, gentrified cover of Tom Waits' "Temptation."

The Morrissey record? Stephin Merritt describes its problems perfectly in this week's New York Times Playlist. It's a pleasure to read, after Merritt's long absence from music criticism, and his humor and insightfulness stand out against the Times' generally dull, sometimes just plain incompetent (that's you, Ben Ratliff) non-classical-music critics. I particularly like "Maybe Delays and the Darkness will start a great castrati revival in England, and there will be a new golden age of music."

In other news, I'm regretting having ever recommended D12's "My Band." Two months later, and still in heavy rotation, this song has not aged well for me. I hope it dies soon.

And enough of you have written to ask why I didn't mention Modest Mouse's recent "Good News for People Who Love Bad News" that I should probably comment. I've never been fond of Modest Mouse, and I can't really explain why, except to say that Isaac Brock's voice doesn't appeal to me. But I'm being slowly worn down by my girlfriend's conviction that they're brilliant and that I'll love them, and starting to see that my prejudice against Modest Mouse has been a little misguided. Their new record is available at all the major online music stores, and the catchy single, "Float On," which has a very cool guitar line, can be streamed (but not downloaded) for free from Better Propaganda.

"Habite Em Mim," Arto Lindsay, from "Salt"
Given the fractured nature of Arto Lindsay's musical career -- from skronk guitar master leader of the seminal no-wave band DNA to '80s art-popster in the Ambitious Lovers; from legendary (in Japan, naturally) noise improviser to esteemed producer of Caetano Veloso, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson and more -- it's surprising that he's spent the last eight years essentially making the same album over and over again. Luckily, it's a great album. His delicate Brazilian pop is smoothly urbane, but all the energy and originality of his work with DNA is still there, just in a sublimated form. It's rare to hear song-based music in which so much attention is paid, and so effectively, to sonic minutiae. His latest, "Salt," doesn't quite measure up to his two best records, "Mundo Civilizado" and "Prize," but it's still predictably excellent. And "Habite Em Mim," sung half in Lindsay's oblique, poetic English, and half in languid Portuguese, is one of the record's best tracks. Free download: Habite Em Mim

"Old Fashioned Morphine," Jolie Holland, from "Escondida"
I'm actually not much of a fan of Jolie Holland, which is why I didn't cover this record when it was released three weeks ago. She has the Tom Waits seal of approval, so I keep expecting to like her, but I find that her music has the same faux-antique, artificially distressed patina that makes me so lukewarm about Norah Jones (although that's not to suggest that Holland isn't a far more spirited and imaginative vocalist and composer than Jones, because she is). But ever since listening to "Escondida" over a month ago, this song, "Old Fashioned Morphine," has intermittently popped into my head. On replay, this really is a fabulous song, with Holland's pinched, mannered voice and tightly controlled vibrato recalling Billie Holiday, and some tipsy horn playing conjuring a late-night, half-asleep jam session. Free download: "Old Fashioned Morphine"

"Stormy Weather," Nina Nastasia, from "Dogs"
Nina Nastasia is a young songwriter who is frequently compared to Jolie Holland, but gets far less attention (and deserves more). Her voice isn't as immediately striking as Holland's, and her songs don't have as quick a payoff, but I think she's a far more original, less facile writer. "Stormy Weather" is actually from her 1999 debut "Dogs" -- my excuse for featuring it is that Touch and Go is re-releasing it in June -- and is one of the record's standout tracks. The elliptical melody is lovely, but it's the string arrangement and those few breathtaking moments of musical saw (an instrument often tastelessly and ineffectively used to conjure an air of spookiness) that really make the song for me. And there are two more free Nina Nastasia downloads to grab: "This Is What It Is" from 2002's "The Blackened Air," and "Superstar" from 2003's "Run to Ruin." It's worth noting that both these songs feature brilliant drummers (Jay Bellerose and Jim White, respectively), and that all of Nastasia's records have been recorded by the legendary and generally non-demonstrative Steve Albini, who has been uncharacteristically outspoken in his support of her work. Free download: "Stormy Weather"

"Grave's Disease," matt pond PA, from "Emblems"
I had a feeling that I might like matt pond PA as soon as I read Pitchfork's scathing, 1.8 out of 10 review of "The Green Fury," because Pitchfork has such a long history of viciously slamming brilliant albums (Ryan Adams' "Love Is Hell" EPs, Gomez's "In Our Gun," Town and Country's "C'mon"). (I should note that I do read Pitchfork every day, and rely on its coverage of new music -- but I think they're a bunch of pretentious wankers, and their penchant for high-concept, low-content meta-reviews is obnoxious.) In truth, there's nothing really exceptional about the band's middle-of-the-road, wistful, orchestral indie pop. But their music is so sweetly straightforward, and the arrangements and performances so impeccable -- note the way Pond pauses briefly before the last note of the second phrase, making a banal melody into something special -- that I can't help liking them. Free download: "Grave's Disease"

"World's Away," Summer At Shatter Creek, from "Sink or Swim" EP Before this week I'd never heard of the awkwardly titled Summer At Shatter Creek, which is the work of one Craig Michael Gurwich, one-man-band extraordinaire. All four of the mp3's available for free on his Webpage are worth a listen, but "World's Away," from his new "Sink Or Swim" EP, which was released Tuesday, is the one that appeals to me most. As soon as I heard this song, it forcefully reminded me of something else--but for days I couldn't figure out what it was. That's enough to drive a person crazy, and I've been playing it for all my friends, hoping one of them could pinpoint the sound-a-like. Finally today I realized that the song it's reminding me of is Gary Jules' cover of Tears For Fears' "Mad World," which I've already written about in this column. Not that Craig Michael is ripping off "Mad World," but the voice, the melody, and the whole ambience of the song is very similar. "World's Away" isn't quite as slick, though--the piano is pure Cat Power, a few inexpertly played chords with the sustain pedal jammed down from start to finish, Chan Marshall-style, in a surprisingly effective ploy for atmosphere. Free Download: "World's Away"

Thomas Bartlett

Thomas Bartlett is a writer and musician in New York. He maintains a blog called doveman.

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