Demo this

Forget Nelly and Nas! Here's music you can download -- for free -- before it's even featured on an album, and a singer who channels Leonard Cohen. Plus: German bossa nova? What a hoot!

Published June 23, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

Well, it's happened before and it will happen again: I couldn't find anything worth paying for this week, so all the tracks are free. I briefly considered the new singles by Nelly and Nas, but found them lacking. The Nelly track, "Flap Your Wings," has some interesting production (with a few instances of that exceedingly rare hip-hop event, the chord change), but Nelly's rapping is dull, dull, dull and monotonous. Nas' "Thief's Theme" suffers from the opposite problem -- we know the man can rap, but do we really want to hear him rapping over the groove from "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"?

"I Summon You," Spoon, demo
A recent trend, and one I'm excited about, is of musicians posting demos or early working versions of songs on their Web sites. Ted Leo, Travis Morrison, Einstürzende Neubauten and many others have done it, and now Spoon is joining the party with this demo of a song that will appear on their upcoming, as-yet-unnamed LP. It's often the case that demos have more life to them than finished studio products do, but I doubt that will be the case with this song, as Spoon's stark, streamlined studio arrangements are so brilliant. But no matter -- a Spoon demo is still better than anything most of their supposed peers can manage. This demo is just Spoon frontman Britt Daniels and his guitar, with his voice, as usual, double-tracked. And what a voice it is, a classic rock 'n' roll bark, swaggering and confident, but with the heart and warmth of a true romantic. Daniels keeps getting better as a writer -- this song ventures into more complex, shifting harmonic terrain than he has explored in the past, but without losing any of the ease and effortlessness. Free download: "I Summon You"

"Sie Sagt," Camping, from "Suburban Shore"
Ah, German bossa nova, what a strange beast you are. Camping is the work of one Henning Fritzenwalder, and while his reconstruction of bossa nova is meticulous in its stylistic accuracy, there's still something jarring about hearing it sung in German -- like country music in Japanese, industrial rock in French, or opera in English. Language aside, there's also a stereotypically Germanic quality to this track. There is a core precision to bossa nova -- it's music that requires immense control and exactitude to really work -- but one of its essential pleasures is the way all that precision, those finicky guitar parts, those twisty melodies, magically add up to languor. There is no languor here. It's fully automated bossa nova, clockwork bossa nova -- German bossa nova. And it's a hoot. Free download: "Sie Sagt"

"Blue," Simon Joyner, from "Lost With the Lights On"
Leonard Cohen's influence pops up everywhere -- morose, soporific vocal stylings, droning three- or four-note melodies, tasteless backup vocals (I realize that all sounds quite negative, but I love Leonard Cohen) -- but I've rarely heard his music so directly copied, referenced or reverenced as it is on this song. Everything about Joyner's tone, his phrasing, his melodic choices and especially the spooky ambiguity between major and minor thirds, is borrowed from Cohen. Joyner is, sadly, not nearly the poet that Cohen is -- this track is best when he's singing oohs rather than words -- but oh, if only Cohen, whose production aesthetic is as tacky as his melodic and poetic aesthetic is austere, would make a record this beautifully produced, or hire a band this good. The best of the bunch is Jim White of the Dirty Three, the drunken master of the drums, and one of the more distinctive and brilliant musicians I know of. I love how this song disintegrates into improvisation at the end -- it's something that many bands do during live shows, but few have the conviction to try in the studio. Free download: "Blue"

"Let's Talk About Spaceships," Say Hi to Your Mom, from "Numbers & Mumbles"
I almost hate this band, the work of Brooklynite Eric Elbogen. The cheap pop sheen, the unimaginative stiffness of the playing and arrangements, the emo-lite vocal style, and lines in the band bio like "Say Hi to Your Mom simultaneously defies and enforces physics" are all a little hard to take. It's Elbogen's sharply articulate writing that saves this music from utter obnoxiousness -- listen to the beautifully counterintuitive phrasing of this song's opening line ("And what's that saying again/ they're only words and words can't hurt me"), nervously intricate and perfectly timed, like a phrase sung by the Dismemberment Plan's Travis Morrison. But mostly it's the chorus' glorious, Stephin Merritt-worthy hook, "Let's talk about spaceships/ or anything but you and me, OK?" Free download: "Let's Talk About Spaceships"

"So to Speak," Nico Muhly, live performance
Frustrated by how little I know about contemporary classical music beyond a few favorite composers (Ligeti, Pärt, Reich, Volans), I've been asking around about young composers to watch, but then I realized that I know a young composer to watch. I was at Columbia University at the same time as Nico, where he was enrolled in the life-threatening Columbia-Juilliard dual-degree program, famed for turning healthy, happy young men and women into pitiful shadows of their former selves. It didn't touch Nico, though -- having a conversation with him is a bit like reading "Finnegans Wake." You grasp at whatever nuggets of brilliance and humor you're quick enough to catch, and smile and nod as the rest go flying by undeciphered. His compositions display that same speed of thought and also reflect that Nico is something of a sonic magpie -- he loves harp, celesta, anything shiny, and his pieces have a glittering, resplendent sonic sheen. Nico says that "So to Speak" is "an extended meditation on an anthem for the Pentecost by Thomas Tallis entitled 'Loquebantur variis linguis' (they spoke in many tongues)." The New Yorker's Alex Ross praised the piece in a recent article, saying "the music spins away in a kind of gritty ecstasy." I would just add that this piece sounds as though someone is fast-forwarding through it (a spectacular effect, with some of the visceral thrill of an orchestra tuning up), pausing occasionally to enjoy a particularly beautiful melodic section and then speeding on. The recording quality is, sadly, poor (I recommend turning down the treble), but it's difficult enough for young composers to get their work performed, let alone properly recorded, that we'll just have to make do. Nico has a number of other free MP3s available on his Web page, all worth hearing. Free download: "So to Speak"

By Thomas Bartlett

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

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