Calexico

“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.

Becca Richardson

“Wanted” – Becca Richardson

“Wanted” is a cool delight from start to finish, smartly crafted and produced in a most matter-of-fact way. What begins as a bass-driven groove expands fluidly into a succinct, three-part song, with strong hooks in all three sections—verse (first heard at 0:13), pre-chorus (0:47), and chorus (1:03)—with each part nestled snugly against the next, while also offering nuanced additions to the soundscape. The climax at the chorus is sneaky-great, featuring a sly two-step reveal: the central question “Doesn’t it feel good?” sounds like a stand-alone as it’s asked three times in a row, only then to show itself as incomplete—the full question turns out to be “Doesn’t it feel good to be wanted?” The shift is subtle but affecting.

I’m impressed throughout by the clean and dexterous mix. Calling on a judicious bag of aural building blocks, “Wanted” feels all the richer for how nonchalantly the blend works. Bass and drum get us going, synths and guitars join in, each entrance at once precise and casual. I like, as an example, the guitar chords that slash in as background accents starting at 0:32, and especially appreciate the dissonant chord we get at 0:34, first of a series of quietly off-kilter accents. The pre-chorus follows, highlighted by swelling backing vocals and an underwater-y synth line deep below. The chorus then anchors us with psychedelic guitar blurts.

Not to be overlooked through it all is the enticing suppleness of Becca Richardson’s voice. She sings in slightly different registers in each of the song’s three sections—subtly shy and sultry in the verse, open-voiced and full strength in the middle part, and in the third a higher-register version of sultry, minus the shy. Among Richardson’s strengths here as both singer and songwriter is how little she strains to call attention to how good she is. It’s an unorthodox stance in our YouTuber age, and that may be at least part of what lends an old-school vibe to a song that otherwise zings along with solid 21st-century chops.

Richardson is based in Nashville. “Wanted” is the opening track from her debut album, We Are Gathered Here, which was self-released in October. You can sample it and buy it on iTunes. MP3 via the artist.

Lowpines

“Broken Wing” – Lowpines

Static and fuzz lead us counterintuitively into a smooth, minor-key strummer. The melody, at first, is lovely, but contained—the verse, in fact, concentrates on just two different notes. But emerging from the mouth of Oli Deakin, doing musical business as Lowpines, the song sounds, already, rich and wistful.

Then the chorus slays with pure beauty. Deakin’s already multi-tracked voice opens into a wash of vocal sound as the melody expands into gratifying intervals—note in particular the two different landing spots for the word “wing” on the chorus’s repeated end line, “Be my broken wing”: the first “wing” dips down below an expected descent and then the second one, also against expectation, finishes higher up, in an unresolved place, with Deakin’s phrasing lagging behind the beat in a way that somehow adds both lushness and regret to the palette.

After the first chorus the song feels transformed into something silvery and resolute. The background fills with a soft sort of loudness, buoying the song into grandeur. The return of the chorus, with its Moody Blues-like pathos, just about brings tears to the eyes. At one point a clarion synth line finds its way through the sumptuous forward-moving haze. At the end we get a slowed-down coda in which the song ends without resolution, as if in mid-thought. There is little to do now but go back and listen again.

Deakin, based in the UK, has been recording as Lowpines since 2012. Earlier Lowpines material, while still melodic, was characterized by a more whispery vocal style that brings the likes of Iron & Wine and Bon Iver and, grandfather of them all, Elliott Smith to mind: by now the almost cliched woodsy-folksy 21st-century troubadour sound. “Broken Wing” breaks past the claustrophobia often looming in that approach, and lands us in some new kind of folk-rock firmament. It’s the second track on the second Lowpines album, In Silver Halides, slated for release later this month. You can check out his previous discography—one other album, three EPs, two singles—over on Bandcamp.

So it’s been two years now since David Bowie died. Is this even possible? January brings the man inevitably to mind, this time via an incredible cover of a song that was never previously a particular favorite of mine. But boy does Jesca Hoop give herself over to “John I’m Only Dancing,” doing what any great cover should do: opening the ears to a song’s true power. It is no accident that I selected a female vocalist covering a Bowie song, and no accident that this month’s playlist is dominated by female performances. Keep it up out there.

Meanwhile, the Eclectic Playlist Series this month enters its fifth iteration. In January, I reset the accounts, and all artists become available again. (For newcomers: no artist appears more than once a year here.) Even so, I’m happy to report that 15 out of 20 artists on this month’s list have never been on one of my playlists before, including, inexplicably, John Vanderslice, who has otherwise a strong history as a Fingertips favorite, and Lou Reed, who has an inimitable presence in rock’n’roll history.

Random notes:
– Rita Wright is more authentically identified as Syreeta Wright, but this was her first single, and that’s the name she was given for it by Motown chairman Berry Gordy. She was an early collaborator with Stevie Wonder, co-writing many songs, and singing on his albums. They were married in 1970; it only lasted a few years, but they continued to work together into the ’90s. She recorded eight solo albums in the ’70s and ’80s. Wright died at age 58, in 2004, from complications stemming from a long battle with cancer.
– Thanks to the always enjoyable radio show/podcast “The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn” for the classic Serge Gainsbourg song, which some part of me knew from a buried and mysterious point in the past but I’d never have recovered otherwise.
– I don’t think Britta Phillips got enough attention for her wonderful Luck or Magic album from 2016, the first solo release of her acclaimed career (Luna, Dean & Britta). Pitchfork among other places took her to task for the album’s having five cover songs out of 10 tracks, which strikes me as a stupid critique of someone with such a strong interpretive flair. (And never mind the fact that so many of today’s revered pop performers don’t write their songs in the first place.) The album casts a spell; I recommend it.


Full playlist below the widget.

“Trick of the Light” – Matthew Sweet (Tomorrow Forever, 2017)
“Who Do You Love” – Pointer Sisters (Priority, 1979)
“Whirlwind” – Sam Rivers (Inspiration, 1999)
“Keep It Tight” – Single Bullet Theory (Sharp Cuts: New Music From American Bands, 1980)
“Arrow” – Beaches (Second of Spring, 2017)
“La Chanson De Prévert” – Serge Gainsbourg (L’Étonnant Serge Gainsbourg, 1961)
“Crazy Feeling” – Lou Reed (Coney Island Baby, 1976)
“John I’m Only Dancing” – Jesca Hoop (A Salute to the Thin White Duke, 2015)
“Stranger Than You” – Joe Jackson (Night and Day II, 2000)
“We’re Gonna Hate Ourselves in the Morning” – Nursery Rhymes (single, 1967)
“Same Old Scene” – Roxy Music (Flesh + Blood, 1980)
“Diving Woman” – Japanese Breakfast (Soft Sounds From Another Planet, 2017)
“White Plains” – John Vanderslice (Cellar Door, 2004)
“I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” – Rita Wright (single, 1968)
“Never Go Back” – Christine Lavin (Good Thing He Can’t Read My Mind, 1987)
“Nothing Has Been Proved” – Dusty Springfield (Reputation, 1990)
“Fallin’ in Love” – Britta Phillips (Luck or Magic, 2016)
“Forget About You” – The Motors (Approved By The Motors, 1978)
“The Storm” – The Hunters (single, 1962)
“Attagirl” – Bettie Serveert (Attagirl, 2004)

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.