Ages & Ages

“How It Feels” – Ages and Ages

A lovely strain of uplift runs through “How It Feels,” the latest offering from a band with currents of melodicism and humanity consistently twinning through their music. Maybe it’s there in the plinky, upturning synth line that, recycling, impels us forward, or in the inscrutable, airy, Lindsay Buckingham-ish declarations of the verses (“Feel the noise add up under my skin/Look around as if I only just noticed,” et al.). And then, the thing that really grips the heart: the chorus, which only subtly alters the verse melody, but with the incisive entry of a female singing partner, joining only for the phrase “But I wanted to tell you” (it’s “And I wanted to tell you” the second time, sung the same way). Notice the delightful little leap on the word “tell,” and the guileless conversion of “you” to “ya,” which itself feels like the hug the song is benevolently aspiring to offer via words and music.

“How It Feels” opens itself to us as it goes. Listen for the synth insertions—ambling, flute-like, nearly dissonant—that begin between verses (around 1:19) and proceed to work themselves into the mix. A later instrumental break finds a guitar infiltrating with neither warning nor fuss (2:23), like a long-lost relative at a family reunion. The lyrics, meanwhile, are awash with the empathy currently struggling to re-establish itself in a world seemingly gone vicious and unreflective. This too shall pass, and in the meantime, we hold onto each other, those of us who believe in good hearts.

“How It Feels” is a single offered up by Ages and Ages back in October. It was recently featured as a free and legal download via KEXP, which is my source here. The band is from Portland, Oregon; they have released three full-length LPs to date, the most recent, Something to Ruin, in 2016. They have been previously featured on Fingertips in 2011 and 2014. The band lists five members in its core, but with a couple of dozen others in its “extended family.” There are six people in this photo because I’m not sure.

Jason Matuskiewicz

“Battle Born” – Jason Matuskiewicz

A chugging acoustic rhythm pitches us straight into a composition combining old-school know-how with a 21st-century, artisanal vibe. “Battle Born” is built upon a procession of careful, heartfelt chords and a melody at once deep and understated. The song sounds tough and tender at the same time; Matuskiewicz’s unassuming vocals recall a long-lost classic-rock troubadour, pushing us forward with a sort of weary tenacity suiting well the titular phrase. There’s a bit of processing involved but mostly it’s just the Joe Walsh-ian grain of his voice that convinces.

The song has a backstory, and I will quickly note that as songs go I’m not a backstory person. I mean, it’s fine if a song has one but I don’t feel it too often benefits me as a listener to be distracted by concrete details of one particular situation. Given the inherent notionality of music—absent words, a song can only ever suggest—I’m usually on board with songwriters who, even with their words, remain at the doorstep of suggestion. So, I appreciate here that Matuskiewicz, however specific (and difficult) the circumstance that inspired the song, has spun an elusive tale rather than anything on the nose. (And, okay, not to be a tease, the backstory here is that Matuskiewicz had been watching his girlfriend going through debilitating chemotherapy, and wrote the song as an outlet for this difficult experience.) I’m even more on board with songwriters with an unwavering sense of syllabic integrity, and Matuskiewicz’s lyrics scan impeccably. I might indeed argue that it’s proper scanning that can most effectively elevate lyrics; phrases that hold tight to the rhythm can soar with the freedom of musical imagination (see: “An angel came while I was drinking lemonade” [1:06]), while clunky phrasing does just that—brings a narrative clunking down to the uninteresting earth.

Matuskiewicz is a Brooklyn-based musician who is currently in the trio Shapes on Tape, and previously in the Lexington, Kentucky-based band Candidate. “Battle Born” was released as a single in November; it will appear on a forthcoming solo EP. Thanks to Jason for the MP3, and for his patient answering of my pestering questions.

Jane Weaver

“Modern Kosmology” – Jane Weaver

The wondrous, hypnotic “Modern Kosmology” rolls over the psyche like an extended magic spell, with sounds from many decades commingling in a most contemporary rock’n’roll stew. Even as the opening drums lope to a human beat (one, I’ll admit, that thrills an ear over-accustomed to digital knob-twiddles), electronics soon thread nimbly through the aural fabric, from droning synths and roughed-up bass lines to space-age twizzles and the masterful use of reverb (truly reverberant, never muddy). The word “psychedelic” is typically thrown around during discussions of Weaver’s music, and while I have not historically been drawn to music of that ilk (whatever that ilk actually entails), Weaver brings such aptitude to the swirl of sound that I surrender without hesitation.

Through this five-minute journey, the single-line chorus of “And now I’m changing my world” presides over the 3/4 swing like an incantation. Weaver’s voice, an arresting mix of sweetness and certainty, is a flawless guide through territory that feels both familiar and unprecedented. I could listen to this song all night. I basically did while writing this.

Weaver is a British singer/songwriter who came onto the U.K. scene in the ’90s as part of the band Kill Laura. John Peel was a fan; the band released but five singles. She formed Misty Dixon in 2002, which lasted a couple of years. She had also begun making some solo recordings in the aftermath of Kill Laura, but did not release a full-length album until 2006’s Seven Day Smile. “Modern Kosmology” is the title track to her eighth solo album, released back in May 2017. The song was featured as a free and legal MP3 on KEXP in September. I don’t know why it took me so long to get this up here. Apologies all around.

That said, Modern Kosmology‘s opening track, H>A>K (a reference to the early modern Swedish artist and occultist Hilma af Klint) was, at least, featured in a Fingertips playlist in August 2017. The entire album is well worth your time and support.

Iron and Wine

“Call It Dreaming” – Iron and Wine

At his best, Sam Beam writes the sorts of songs that sound eternal—exquisite melodies fragile enough to break into rainbows, strong enough to support the universe. This is one of them. How could he have written this thing that must surely have already existed! And how much is yet left to be done with an acoustic guitar! (Who’d have thought, in this mean-spirited moment in our planet’s history? Or maybe that’s exactly why.) And not that this is a simple guitar-and-voice presentation; on the contrary, Beam has over the years developed a gift for enveloping his guitar within an ensemble of textures while neither overwhelming it nor over-relying on it. You never lose track of this as an acoustic song, but hear how well he places the bass, the piano, the percussion, all definitively in there yet never obviously or individually emphasized. Even the graceful backing harmonies enter gently, mixed exactly to where they will have impact and no higher. The lyrics, meanwhile, float through the air with elegant purity—phrases ebb and flow, creating emotion beyond the reach of reason.

Nothing further need be said. This song has been out since August, so you may have heard it already. If so, now you can have a free and legal MP3 of it (again, via KEXP); if not, waste no more time and by all means listen. The song is track six on the album Beast Epic, Beam’s sixth full-length studio album as Iron and Wine, not including collaborative projects. Iron and Wine has been twice previously featured on Fingertips, but not since 2007.

I’ve scattered some Christmas songs in with the usual unusual mix here, because I for one like hearing them in and around other non-seasonal offerings, rather than as part of an endless pile-up of holiday tunes somewhere in the middle of which inevitably lurk David Bowie and Bing Crosby. In our playlist era more than ever, we get the all-or-nothing Christmas song approach. Go for it if that’s your thing. Me, I’ll stay here fighting for nuance in a nuance-free culture. I’ll go further and announce my suspicion that digital reality aggravates the problem—that the necessity of reducing information to zeros and ones is decreasing our tolerance for and/or interest in gray areas. It’s just a theory at this point, mind you.

Random notes:

– Kim Weston is best known if at all for recording the original version of “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While).” She left Motown in a royalty dispute, and continued to record for many years but without a lot of widespread success. This is a great, underappreciated single, even if the explosive opening makes for a difficult segue.
– XTC make their second appearance on the Eclectic Playlist Series in one calendar year, which is against my own rules, but I allowed it for three reasons: they recorded this single as “The Three Wise Men”; I already inadvertently broke my rule earlier this year by accidentally featuring Sparks a second time (anyone notice that?); it’s a great song.
– More background on the charming “Seasons Greetings” can be found in a Fingertips entry here, from 2007.
– The Simon & Garfunkel segue into Jill Scott is an accidental beauty. Thanks to George from Between Two Islands for reacquainting me recently with this most excellent song.
– And yes, “Private Lives” really does have that car-wreck dead spot in the song. Some of my segues are stretches but I hope none sound quite that unfortunate.

Full playlist below the widget.

“Seasons Greetings” – Robbers on High Street (single, 2007)
“Something Warm” – Rick Derringer (Guitars and Women, 1979)
“I Got What You Need” – Kim Weston (single, 1967)
“Stop This Now” – The Hermit Crabs (Time Relentless EP, 2012)
“Thanks for Christmas” – The Three Wise Men [XTC] (single, 1983)
“Hindsight” – Built to Spill (There Is No Enemy, 2009)
“Still Believing” – Mary Black (Babes in the Wood, 1991)
“Doesn’t Make It Alright” – The Specials (The Specials, 1979)
“121 Bank Street” – George Russell (Stratusphunk, 1960)
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” – Los Straitjackets (‘Tis the Season For Los Straitjackets, 2002)
“Boyfriend” – Colleen Brown (Foot in Heart, 2010)
“The Lovecats” – The Cure (single, 1983)
“Prayer Wheel” – Eddi Reader (Angels & Electricity, 1998)
“Hard Candy Christmas” – Tracey Thorn (Tinsel and Lights, 2012)
“The Only Living Boy in New York” – Simon & Garfunkel (Bridge Over Troubled Water, 1969)
“A Long Walk” – Jill Scott (Who Is Jill Scott? – Words and Sounds, Vol. 1, 2000)
“Private Lives” – Ultravox (Vienna, 1980)
“Unravel” – Björk (Homogenic, 1993)
“Free Christmas” – Johnny Marr (single, 2011)
“Glad Tidings” – Van Morrison (Moondance, 1970)