Free soul

The best -- (nearly) legal -- MP3 blogs out there. Plus: An exclusive free download of an "eccentric soul" song from the '70s you've probably never heard of -- but definitely should have!

Published July 28, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

MP3 blogs seem to be the hot new thing on the Internet (or am I already a few months late in saying that?), but the vast majority of them don't bother getting permission to post the songs. The ethics of downloading are entirely ambiguous to me, and I suspect it will take years for them to really come into focus, so until they do, here are two superior, (nearly) legal MP3 blogs:

Largehearted Boy is a wonderful resource in the search for free music online. I'm amazed by the amount of free music this guy tracks down every day, and while not all of it is worth hearing, this Web site is a great way to start exploring.

My favorite of all the MP3 blogs is Lacunae, maintained by the excellent music critic Douglas Wolk. He posts songs from his collection of 7-inch records from the '80s and '90s, always getting permission from the original artist. The range of music he's drawing from is relatively small, but it's obscure stuff that I'd never encounter otherwise, and Wolk's comments on the tracks are always interesting and entertaining.

Note that both these blogs do fudge on legality a bit -- Largehearted Boy by posting many live tracks, Lacunae by getting permission from the artist but not the label -- but I think that ethics, if not the law, are on their side in those instances.

"You Can't Blame Me," Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr, from "Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label"
This song was recorded in 1971 for Capsoul, a small label based in Columbus, Ohio, by the awkwardly named Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr. (Capsoul's owner, Bill Moss, apparently thought it would roll off the tongue like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.) "You Can't Blame Me" was a regional hit, but soon after soon after its release the band split up, the label folded, and it was just another out-of-print 45, of interest only to collectors. That's unfortunate, because this is a spectacular song, of searing intensity. The moody introduction is beautifully orchestrated: first just the bass and a hollow, thumping drum sound, immediately joined by a whispery guitar; all three stop and the vibes player enters with a slightly out-of-time arpeggio that rings in the air as the band continues to play; then the backup singers join with an eerie "ooh"-ing, and then ... well, then Irving Johnson's lead vocal comes in, and that's when things get really amazing.

Johnson sounds young, a little inexperienced, sometimes nearly out of control -- as if he's not used to singing in a recording studio and is overcompensating for his discomfort by over-singing. But it's electrifying and frightening and strange, that voice, and the combination of strength and fear in it is quite astounding (think Janis Joplin). There's an especially thrilling moment when Johnson jumps unexpectedly into a phrase of tantalizing, perfectly clear falsetto -- this man had the makings of a star, but sadly, he only ever recorded a few songs.

Luckily we're able to hear this song now, thanks to a beautifully packaged compilation of 19 Capsoul singles by the Numero Group, my vote for the most exciting new label of the year. Numero was kind enough to allow Salon to host the song as a free download. I hope Salon readers will return the favor by visiting the label's Web page and perhaps buying the full CD, which is a gem. Salon Exclusive Free Download: "You Can't Blame Me"

"Wasp Nest," the National, from "Cherry Tree" EP
This song is built around a beautiful, harmonically static guitar part, simplicity itself aside from a subtle but crucial anticipation of the beat, which gives a disjointed, fragmentary feel, never allowing any momentum to build up. Matt Berninger's singing is similarly fragmentary, the phrasing as clipped and stiff as possible. Somehow, it adds up to an extraordinary lyricism -- the driest lyricism imaginable, rusty and arid, with none of the gloss or polish of sentimentality. I heard this song for the first time a little more than a week ago, and I've been listening to it obsessively ever since, finding it more powerfully moving on each repeat play. The rest of the National's "Cherry Tree," released on the excellent Brassland label, is just as good, some of the best stuff I've heard this year. Free Download: "Wasp Nest"

"Mass Destruction," Faithless, from "No Roots"
It's been noted many times that the war in which we are embroiled has lacked for memorable or, more to the point, popular protest songs. So it's with a certain amount of glee that I watch Jadakiss' "Why" climb up the charts -- it's not an antiwar song so much as it is a protest against all of life's injustices, but it does contain one potent sucker punch. It seems like a minor miracle every time I tune to Hot 97 here in New York City and hear Jadakiss say, "Why did Bush knock down the towers?"

There's nothing quite that inflammatory in Faithless' "Mass Destruction," but it does contain a measured, logical and humane response to the current global crisis -- set, happily, to a propulsive, radio-friendly beat. The song has already been a hit in the U.K., and if you close your eyes and pretend that Clear Channel doesn't exist, you can almost imagine its being a hit here as well. Wouldn't it be nice to hear "Whether long-range weapon or suicide bomb/ A wicked mind is a weapon of mass destruction" and "Inaction is a weapon of mass destruction" blasting out of radios everywhere? Unfortunately, listening to the song does mean suffering through some of Faithless frontman Maxi Jazz's more inept offerings, which include repeatedly rhyming "Caucasian" with "poor Asian," and the wince-worthy line "You ain't going to Nirvana or Far-vana." But all is forgiven for the relaxed, Tricky-like cadence of his rapping. I haven't heard the rest of Faithless' new record, but I'm intrigued by the news that all the songs on it are in the key of C. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)

"Smash & Grab," Macha, from "Forget Tomorrow"
Most of the reviews I've read of Athens, Ga.-based Macha's upcoming "Forget Tomorrow" have been of the "I liked their old stuff better" variety. Never having heard the band's other records, I had no expectations for this one and found it enjoyable, if not particularly unusual. Apparently, their earlier work was heavy on Indonesian gamelan instruments and other Asian flavors, but only trace elements remain: The main thrust here is fairly straightforward dance-punk, as popularized recently by bands like the Rapture and !!!. Of course if something is potent enough, a trace is all it takes, and enough of the droning, multi-textured wall of sound that makes gamelan music so mesmerizing remains to set Macha apart from its peers. "Smash & Grab," the only track that's been made available for free download, is actually one of the least gamelan-like on the record, but it reminds me of some of Gomez's electronic experiments on "In Our Gun," which is always a good thing. Free Download: "Smash & Grab"

"The Lengths," Black Keys, from "Rubber Factory"
The guitar sound on the Black Keys' upcoming "Rubber Factory" is spectacular: a filthy, seething keen that's always, ominously, just on the edge of feeding back. Despite my distinct aversion to blues-rock of the "Yeah man, this f---ing rocks so hard!" variety, it's hard not to appreciate the visceral energy of this music and to admit that maybe it does kind of f---ing rock so hard, man. Still, I like it best when the Black Keys pull back somewhat, as they do on this beautiful song. The slide guitar playing here is amazing, and also very strange -- it's almost impossible, at times, to believe that it's not an electric violin. But however great Dan Auerbach's guitar playing may be, the real attraction here is his singing: On this song, he's traded in his usual (fairly convincing) blues-rock swagger for deep restraint, sounding spent and resigned but not the least bit pitiful. His singing here reminds me of the dignity of the late, great Lowell George. Free Download: "The Lengths"

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Have an opinion about this week's downloads? Check out the Wednesday Morning Download thread on Table Talk.

By Thomas Bartlett

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

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