“Receiver” – Firestations

Lord knows I am not going to single-handedly upend the 21st century’s predilection for unabated idiocy, whether on the airwaves or in the White House, but as long as I can I will stand up here for music that is well-crafted, both catchy and interesting, and sonically fresh without pandering to mindless trends and/or soulless technology.

Which is I guess a somewhat grumpy way of saying I love this song. With its propulsive (but not head-banging) beat, “Receiver” launches off a riff that repeats itself from 0:04 through to when the verse starts at 0:32, yet feels regenerative via the off-kilter interval leaps and syncopated shuffle it makes in the second of its two measures. And while you almost don’t notice the wordless backing vocals that accompany the resolute riff they’re also what keeps the ear gratified as the song builds a subtle nervous energy.

Once the lyrics arrive, it’s never quite clear where we are, structure-wise. There’s something that seems like a verse at 0:32, which repeats musically at 0:47; the vocals here are multi-tracked and wonderfully processed (one layer sounds like a whisper, the other like a megaphone). We are led through this to a stand-alone lyric (“I won’t be fine”? hard to decipher), at which point the opening riff and wordless vocals return. The tension is even higher now, and it breaks, at least somewhat, at 1:16, with what feels like a chorus (“You are the receiver/You get the message”), even if, musically, it’s not too far from the opening verse. Note the staccato synth line that bops and boops in the background, adding texture and oomph; it’s around now that the song for me goes from good to great. The electronics later come to the foreground (1:58) to introduce and accompany a satisfying guitar solo, constructed out of chords rather than pyrotechnics. Still later (3:04), the electronics and guitar collide and disintegrate and then land in a coda that first revisits the introduction then dissolves on a radio-receiver-like flourish.

Firestations is a London-based five-piece with a straightforward mission statement: “We write simple alt-pop songs and then mess them up.” That’s pretty much what took me two long paragraphs to say. “Receiver” is a track from their their second full-length album The Year Dot, coming out in April on Lost Map Records. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Hollie Cook

“Stay Alive” – Hollie Cook

The smooth-as-silk “Stay Alive,” from British singer/keyboardist Hollie Cook, undulates to a reggae beat, and manages at the same time to feel unshackled from genre conventions. There’s something in the character of her voice, in the nature of the melody she’s singing, and in the texture of the mix that together lend a bewitching vibe to the dubby proceedings.

So, look, it’s 2018, and reggae elements have obviously been roaming far and wide in the musical world for decades. Often it comes across as pastiche but so strong is the underlying premise that, to me, it works in just about any setting anyway. What I love here, though, is how fully committed to the sound Cook remains even while bringing genuine individuality to it. I’m not explaining this well but even as, to my ears, the song sounds fully ready to be filed under “reggae” (or “lovers rock,” for you sub-genre fans), there seems a contemporary charm and mystique infusing the music that transcends a pat label. I’m especially taken in by the melodies, which somehow combine a slinky nod to spy-movie music with a girl-group insouciance, while being supported by an acrobatic bass line (that would be Jah Wobble doing his thing), a haunted-house organ, and a creative, organic horn section (sax, trumpet, trombone, in the house).

Credit here to Youth, who produced (and who by the way is now 57), and to Cook herself, whose personal lineage has landed her among some notable musical friends and relations: she is the daughter of Paul Cook, drummer for the Sex Pistols, and Jeni Cook, who sang with Boy George in Culture Club. Here on “Stay Alive” we not only get Wobble, a one-time bandmate of John Lydon in Public Image Ltd, but Keith Levene on guitar, himself a founding member of both the Clash and PiL, as well as part of the semi-legendary band Cowboys International, and many other projects since then. Cook, meanwhile, cut her own musical teeth as part of Ari Up’s re-boot of the seminal British punk band The Slits from 2005 to 2010.

“Stay Alive” is the second track on Cook’s third album, Vessel of Love, released in January on Merge Records. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp. MP3 from the tasteful folks at KEXP.


“Black Willow” – Loma

With its deep, deliberate beat and hushed group vocals, “Black Willow” floats into my ears like a visitation from a different, unsettling, yet somehow more benevolent dimension.

Listen to how the almost uncomfortable slowness of the groove is soon counteracted by the solace of the humming voices that rise up at 0:14. When the words start, 10 or so seconds later, they engage us with one of the most tantalizing words with which to begin a song: “Because.” The opening verse, in fact, delivers a series of “Because…” statements, which deftly engage the ear for the mystery implicit in an answer delivered without a question.

And talk about implicit mystery!: listen to what the sound of voices singing the same note brings up for you. It may take a while for this to register but there are no harmonies here, just a group of voices (two, maybe three) singing directly on the melody, all the way through. To me, this feels counter-intuitively enigmatic. Another moment of satisfying elusiveness is the soupçon of time-signature shifting that happens a couple of times (first at 1:20), which registers as a subtle hiccup, a passing “what was that?” moment in a song otherwise measured and resolute.

The song is grounded musically by the bass and the drums, with well-placed keyboard fills offering some counter-balancing brightness. A windswept synth sound is added at a lyrically opportune time (“I make a home inside the wind”; 2:28). And then check out how the voices themselves transmute into something wind-like at around 3:13. This leads us to the song’s delayed, haunting chorus, featuring the title repeated over and over, while the voices, at the end of each repetition, morph increasingly into the echoey, windy soundscape.

Loma is a band that seems to have begun inadvertently, when Shearwater front man Jonathan Meiburg was so taken with the music made by the Texas duo Cross Record (Emily Cross and Dan Duszynski), opening for Shearwater on a tour, that the three of them began playing together. Adding to the depth of the experience: Cross and Duszynski’s marriage was disintegrating when the three of them were writing and recording the music that would become Loma’s self-titled debut album. “Black Willow” is the tenth and last track on the record, which was released last month on Sub Pop. MP3 again via KEXP.

“I hate and I love. How do I do that, perhaps you ask?
I don’t know. But I feel it is happening and I am tormented.”

Those are what the words in the first song mean, translated from the Latin. They were written in the first century B.C. Here they are being sung by a computerized voice. It’s a piece by the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannson, who, sadly, died this month at the age of 48. I have not heard too much of his music but did stumble on this one back in 2006 and featured it here. It’s odd but compelling, and enduring; I urge you to listen with full attention.

From there, we’re off into another irregular journey through the decades. I’ve branched back into the ’50s this time, twice for good measure, and for whatever reason cleared out a little bit of an instrumental section in the middle. It just seemed to want to work out that way.

Random notes:
* Another song I urge your attention onto is “Muddy River,” from Shelley Short’s sadly overlooked 2017 release Pacific City. What a beautiful and powerful collection of acoustic songs; you can listen to it and buy it via Bandcamp.
* There’s actually one more “memorial” song in the mix: the very satisfying if semi-forgotten R&B hit “Don’t Look Any Further,” to honor Dennis Edwards, one-time front man of the Temptations, who also died this month. The song has not only an incisive, melodic bass line, but a surprisingly effective off-the-beat synth motif threading through. Props too to Siedah Garrett, who sings here with Edwards.
* I just stumbled upon the band Scars recently, and enjoy the authentic mid-new-wave vibe of “All About You.” Their album is somewhat hard to find (it’s not seemingly digitized), but I’m going to see if I can track it down, short of paying $35 for used vinyl.
* Favorite segue this time around probably goes to Johnny Cash into the Casket Girls, with R.E.M. into Elbow as honorable mention, if you’re keeping score at home. And note that while I never completely took to the Bill-Berry-less version of R.E.M., I find “Walk Unafraid” to be one of a handful of classic songs they managed without him.

Full playlist below the widget.

“Odi Et Amo” – Jóhann Jóhannson (Englabörn, 2002)
“Chequered Love” – Kim Wilde (Kim Wilde, 1981)
“She Came Along To Me” – Billy Bragg & Wilco (Mermaid Avenue, 1998)
“I Still Miss Someone” – Johnny Cash (The Fabulous Johnny Cash, 1958)
“24 Hours” – Casket Girls (The Night Machines, 2016)
“Don’t Look Any Further” – Dennis Edwards (single, 1984)
“Muddy River” – Shelley Short (Pacific City, 2017)
“American Garage” – Pat Metheny Group (American Garage, 1979)
“Baby That’s Me” – The Cake (The Cake, 1967)
“Days of Steam” – John Cale (The Academy in Peril, 1972)
“Penthouse Mambo” – Xavier Cugat (Bread, Love and Cha Cha Cha, 1957)
“Swapping Spit” – Big Deal (June Gloom, 2013)
“What Do You Think?” – The Sundays (Blind, 1992)
“You Keep Running Away” – The Four Tops (single, 1967)
“Portions for Foxes” – Rilo Kiley (More Adventurous, 2004)
“The Holdup” – David Bromberg (David Bromberg, 1971)
“All About You” – Scars (Author! Author!, 1981)
“Moonshine Freeze” – This is the Kit (Moonshine Freeze, 2017)
“Walk Unafraid” – R.E.M. (Up, 1998)
“Weather to Fly” – Elbow (The Seldom Seen Kid, 2008)


“Voices in the Field” – Calexico

Boy is there something to be said for experience. You wouldn’t know it from most of the emails I receive here, touting the latest sensations, accentuating how young someone is or how quickly this or that band has racked up video streams (or both). And of course there’s always room for new talent. But there will always be an untouchable quality to the talent that can (sometimes!) develop with years of playing, years of living, years of developing a craft and a voice.

Calexico, formed by the duo of Joey Burns and John Convertino, have been at their dusty blend of cross-cultural indie rock since 1995. There’s a world of musical know-how in the sounds they make; even the way the instruments in the introduction slide in and out of the 6/8 beat here strikes me as something you can’t do if you’re out there collecting likes for a living, and that’s just in the first 20 seconds. Twisting and swinging with a melancholy pang, “Voices in the Field” is propelled throughout by organic percussion, and rendered fiery by the paired guitars that blaze and gyrate with character and intensity. The lyrics tell a poetic tale of dislocation, with enough detail not to mystify, enough obliqueness to intrigue—yet another sign of a sure, experienced hand.

“Voices in the Field” is from the album The Thread That Keeps Us, released in January on Anti Records. MP3 via KEXP. It’s the band’s tenth release, not including live and collaborative recordings. Calexico was featured on Fingertips once previously, way back in April 2004.