Pop and Obachan

“I Bet High” – Pop & Obachan

At once woozy and perky, “I Bet High” presents us with a brief but much-needed shot of good spirit and motion to counter the tar pit of despair many of us have fallen into since 11/9. But blink and you’ll miss this one: no sooner does the listener feel fully embraced by the chunky, freewheeling vibe then the song plunks to a close.

So while I like this a lot there is no hiding the fact that “I Bet High” is an odd song, with an ad hoc feeling to both structure and texture. The tinkly electric guitar sounds like some kind of far-away-in-time instrument; Emma Tringali sings with a tone mixing come-hither-ness and a playful shove, awash in reverb; and the entire song bounces along without much of a rudder—the verses melt into a charming if woolly indistinctness, while the chorus glides through our awareness before we even realize that’s what we just heard. In the end, the song’s playful, “look-at-what-I-just-found” sensibility is central to its appeal. Put it on repeat and enjoy.

Pop & Obachan is a studio duo and a six-piece live band, led by Tringali and Jake Smisloff and based in upstate New York. “I Bet High” is a track from their debut album, entitled Misc. Excellence, which was recorded in their apartment on a tape deck and released last month. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

The Blessed Isles

“Confession” – The Blessed Isles

Brisk, skittish, and still rather lovely, “Confession” presents as a knowing homage to ’80s electro-pop while sparkling with an energy that feels current rather than nostalgic. The effortless, sing-song-y melodicism evokes Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, without perhaps that band’s knob-twiddly thickness, while the unusually effective mix of synthesizer and guitar calls New Order to mind.

Only here, notice, the guitar doesn’t loom heavily at the bottom of the mix but provides a lilting, melodic counterpoint to the song’s electronic pulse. In the extended introduction, the guitar at first works with its own variation of a heartbeat, but later on (0:45) finds its upper register and snuggles a precise and concise melodic line into the rubbery electronic milieu. Listen in particular to when it returns, between verses, at 1:37, all glide and grace, and a seductive counterpoint to singer Aaron Closson’s sweet but substantive tenor.

The Blessed Isles is the duo of Closson and Nolan Thies. Based in Brooklyn, the band self-released an EP in 2011, and was signed to Saint Marie Records the following year. “Confession” is a track off their debut full-length album, Straining Hard Against the Strength of Night, released by Saint Marie back in May. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Case Conrad

“The Swim” – Case Conrad

Modest and controlled at the outset, with an ever-so-subtle swing, “The Swim” develops organically into a muscular bit of rootsy rock, timeless in its approach and vibe. A lot here rests in the capable singing voice of Gustav Haggren, the veteran Swede who is one of three lead vocalists in Case Conrad. Haggren’s is a burnished baritone, a voice that sounds like a friend and a stranger, a plea and a bargain, a dream and a disappointment. It’s a rich, human voice, unshowy and entirely at home in this easy-going composition, with its major-minor alternations and satisfying melodic resolutions (the sturdy run first heard from 0:51 to 0:58 is especially pleasurable, if you happen to be a chord progression fan).

One of the song’s agreeable touches is this odd little sidestep it takes after the second two choruses, when it deconstructs itself into 6/8 time, with a slightly loopy, Tom Waitsian flair. There’s no particular reason for it, but that’s where the magic in songwriting often lies.

Case Conrad was formed by Haggren in the wake of the 2009 breakup of his band Gustav and the Seasick Sailors, who were a notable Fingertips favorite back in the day (featured in 2005 and 2008, if you’re curious, and aren’t you, a little?). Four of the band members are from Sweden and one is from Portugal; residence-wise they are now split between Malmö and Barcelona.

“The Swim” is a track from A Tightrope Wish, the band’s third album, released last month on Stargazer Records/This Is Forte.

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How Fabrizio De Andre sounds in the song “Il Testamento di Tito” is how I want to sound right now: weary but centered, soothing and heartbroken, resigned to the wickedness of the world while standing up to it. The narrator is Titus, one of the two thieves in the New Testament said to have died on the cross with Jesus, who here slyly annotates the Ten Commandments, one by one, by relating his personal experience with each. A rich, flowing, Italian-language narrative, “Il Testamento di Tito” is a subtle miracle of texture and pacing, and is well worth further investigation (you might start here; translation of the lyrics here). The other songs this month are all in English and speak (directly or indirectly) for themselves, haunted, as has everything been since 11/9, by the the deep shadow of lunacy, bigotry, and corruption spreading across our unhappy country, and by the resilience we are called upon to embody in its wake. Sorry to get heavy here but this is heavy shit and music does, somehow, help. Be careful out there.


Full playlist below the widget.

“Walk This World” – Heather Nova (Oyster, 1995)
“Inwards” – Big Country (The Crossing, 1983)
“The End of Our Love” – Nancy Wilson (b-side, 1968)
“I Don’t Want to Know” – Matthew Sweet (Kimi Ga Suki Raifu, 2003)
“Changes” – Stars (The Five Ghosts, 2015)
“Il Testamento di Tito” – Fabrizio De Andre (La Buona Novella, 1970)
“Flower Girl” – Joe Henry (Trampoline, 1996)
“Passerby” – Quilt (Plaza, 2016)
“Call It Something Nice” – The Small Faces (The Autumn Stone, 1969)
“Side of the Road” – Lucinda Williams (Lucinda Williams, 1988)
“Worn Me Down” – Rachael Yamagata (Happenstance, 2004)
“Play It Safe” – Iggy Pop (Soldier, 1980)
“Dawned on Me” – Wilco (The Whole Love, 2011)
“Kiss My Love Goodbye” – Bettye Swan (b-side, 1974)
“Into the Fire” – Sarah McLachlan (Solace, 1991)
“Out of the Blue” – The Band (The Last Waltz, 1978)
“My Mistakes Were Made For You” – The Last Shadow Puppets (The Age of
        the Understatement
, 2007)
“Trouble Down Here Below” – Lou Rawls (Carryin’ On!, 1966)
“Nightingale” – The Honey Trees (Bright Fire, 2014)
“Book of Days” – Enya (Shepherd Moons, 1991)

The Holiday Crowd

“Anything Anything” – The Holiday Crowd

If you have any long-term knowledge of rock’n’roll history, when you listen to “Anything Anything” you are likely going to be put in the mind of the Smiths. This is not a bad thing; the Smiths were a seminal band, trafficking in a sound so unique as to be sui generis. Pretty much anyone influenced by the Mancunian quartet at all ends up kind of sounding like them in certain unmistakable ways.

But I will quickly note that “Anything Anything” is not Smiths 2.0; it’s quite a wonderful piece of pop on its own terms. If it manifests shared characteristics with Morrissey-Marr compositions—from the fade-in intro through lead singer Imran Haniff’s discontented lilt to the chiming guitar arpeggios—the song at the same time has an underlying energy that feels warmer and brighter, and a structure less willfully idiosyncratic. And boy oh boy this chorus, which feels almost goose-bumpily climactic every time it recurs, with a shiny-catchy feeling that marvelously transmutes the song’s influences into something all its own.

That all said, a visit to the band’s Facebook page informs us that they may not be in love with the Smiths comparisons. Oops! But then again, not. Because look, it’s my (self-appointed) job to put new songs I’m enjoying into their musical contexts. I compare new bands to older bands regularly. I try to do so creatively and sensitively but to act as if an obvious aural correlate doesn’t exist, or to feel it is somehow taboo to point it out, is silly. I mean, were I to write about this song and not mention the Smiths, most of you would wonder how I managed to miss that. Online commenters love to rail against “lazy” reviewers who use comparisons rather than descriptors, but this isn’t a zero-sum game. I believe in comparisons and descriptors, and anything else that assists with the eternally thorny problem of dancing about architecture, as it were. It is no more a crime to be influenced by a major musical antecedent than it is to point out this influence. End of soapbox.

The Holiday Crowd is a quartet from Toronto. They formed in 2010, and released their first album in 2013, which you can listen to on Bandcamp. “Anything Anything” is a song from their forthcoming self-titled album, due out in January. Thanks to Magnet Magazine for the MP3.