The Roseline

“How To Be Kind” – The Roseline

So immediate is this song’s command that it feels familiar and fresh simultaneously, right from the opening bars.

Launched off a sneaky, descending riff, “How To Be Kind” exploits the underutilized tool of the interrupted verse. Check it out: the first verse begins with an amiable echo of the intro’s riff, and proceeds melodically through a standard four measures. At 0:24-0:25, the vocals resolve the first section and launch directly into what sounds like a repeat trip through the same melody with new lyrics—standard operating procedure in a rock song, or pretty much any song for that matter.

Only here, after two measures, the verse melody is interrupted (0:29) as we transition without fuss into what appears, upon reflection, to be the chorus, although when you first hear it it sounds like an intriguing augmentation to the verse. And here is where “How To Be Kind”‘s low-key Wilco-ness turns up a notch. Front man Colin Halliburton doesn’t sound like Jeff Tweedy per se but projects a charming Tweedy-like aura as the song ambles its way along, all soft piano fills and drumming that finds an edge between gentle and bashy.

In the end, that edge speaks for the song as a whole, as it achieves through vibe and craft an appealing balance between geniality and purpose. It was, again, Wilco that most notably pioneered the use of the language of Americana to transcend the genre. These guys aren’t going that far, necessarily, and there’s no saying that they have to or need to. But I am feeling something of that nonchalant vigor in the air, of music with a depth that belies its laid-back surface.

The Roseline is a five-man band from Kansas. “How To Be Kind” is a song from their fifth album, entitled Blood, which is coming out in this week.


photo credit: Stevie Jackson

Work Drugs

“Alternative Facts” – Work Drugs

A splendid marriage of vibe and craft, “Alternative Facts” is not the latest release from Philadelphia’s prolific Work Drugs, but is the one that has stuck with me most thoroughly.

All smooth electronics on the surface, the song creates an understated urgency in a few ways. First, there’s the recurrence of a simple, descending, two-note motif: it’s the notes the vocals start on, with the phrase “Get away,” and it’s repeated in four incarnations in the first 16 seconds. The song goes on to offer neither the comfort of an identifiable chorus nor an obvious resolution. Notice too the rhythmic structure: while the emphasis is the “on” beat (one and three) versus the backbeat (two and four), the beat is driven by a syncopated triplet rhythm with an accented second (oneTWOthree), which keeps the ear unbalanced and forward leaning. The place to hear this most clearly is right in the intro, before the vocals start, but that basic syncopated pulse continues throughout.

One last destabilizing point is how the recurring refrain is a repeat of the phrase “I’m not your happy ending,” articulated so the word “ending” is, ironically, all but inaudible—you have to realize it’s there to hear it. And when you do hear it, you may also notice that it is an echo of the repeated two-note motif previously discussed.

I do hope my efforts to bring some analytical concepts to the aural reality of a song don’t end up sounding pedantic. I’m just fascinated, in a lifelong way, by what makes music good, and refuse to believe it’s all a subjective matter, any more than are facts themselves, to bring us back to the subtle theme.

Work Drugs have been here before, featured on Fingertips in both March 2015 and September 2016. They are the duo of Thomas Crystal and Benjamin Louisiana and, as noted, they put out a rather ridiculous amount of music, as you can see if you wander over to their Bandcamp page. Additionally, if you head to SoundCloud page, you’ll find a nice assortment of their songs available for free download.

Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Baula

“Nova” – Baula

“Nova” grows in potency with repeated listens. Sly echoes of ’60s spy-movie music are just a part of the charm, and are woven into something that feels at once innovative and organic. This is music to sink into, music to remind us that the world remains a beautiful place, even when you find yourself living in a country with leaders who are fucked up beyond all repair, and where innocent people pay the dreadful price, over and over.

I digress. Listen to Karolina Thunberg’s sweet, clear-throated voice, with its understated vibrato, and then listen to how snugly Ísak Ásgeirsson’s blends in. Listen to the lonely, resonant guitar tones, redolent of empty spaces and purple skies. Listen to the evocative drumming, with its preference for rumbling over crashing. This is marvelous new music, from beginning to end, using an aural palette that evokes classic rock without sounding tired or derivative in any way. One of my favorite moments, small but impactful, is the guitar line in the middle of the chorus (first heard at 1:01-1:03), tracing a nifty chord progression without showing off. And this moment comes directly on the heels of another favorite moment, which is the way Thunberg has lyrics that repeat themselves (“In the end, no one will know”: beginning at 0:54), via musical notes that repeat themselves, but she alters the phrasing the second time through, pausing this time on the word “end.” It’s a soft change, but a suggestive one.

And can I say that among the smaller but still important reasons to love and admire the Scandinavian countries is their commitment to rock’n’roll as an ongoing, vibrant, multi-faceted genre. As corporate America continues to foster a marketplace that squashes heart and expression in favor of fad and compression, I for one heartily support cultures that recognize that humanity comprises far more than commercial concerns.

Based in Gothenburg, Sweden, the half-Swedish, half-Icelandic duo Baula formed in 2015. This is their third single; I look forward to more. Check out their stuff on SoundCloud. Thanks to the band for the MP3.


photo credit: Greta Maria Asgeirsdottir

Rules are not necessarily “meant to be broken,” as the odd saying goes; but, sometimes, a rule might be meaningfully circumvented. And so this month, I give you two songs from one artist as we open and close with Steely Dan, in honor of the recently departed Walter Becker. A hat tip along the way to obscure soul songs resuscitated by the internet, to the unhinged and brilliant “Twin Peaks” revival, and to a handful of well-known artists who wandered into the list this month with some lesser-known material. I should note that the Skip Drake song is as of yet unplaceable chronologically–it surely sounds like the ’60s but nowhere can I find confirmation. What year is this, indeed?


Full playlist below the widget.

“Kid Charlemagne” – Steely Dan (The Royal Scam, 1976)
“Nvr Surrender” – Rumble (Rumble ep.1, 2015)
“Wrapped Around Your Finger” – Skip Drake (Eccentric Soul: The Cash Label, 2014; originally 196_?)
“Laura” – Billy Joel (The Nylon Curtain, 1982)
“Hot Blood” – Lucinda Williams (Sweet Old World, 1992)
“Maybe After He’s Gone” – The Zombies (Odessey and Oracle, 1968)
“Blood and Chalk” – EMA (Exile in the Outer Ring, 2017)
“Slow Motion” – Blondie (Eat to the Beat, 1979)
“Felicidade” – Astrud Gilberto (Look to the Rainbow, 1966)
“Understanding Jane” – The Icicle Works (If You Want to Defeat Your Enemy, Sing His Song, 1986)
“I Have Laid in the Darkness of Doubt” – Mazes (Mazes, 2009)
“Water Song” – Hot Tuna (Burgers, 1972)
“Shiny” – The Decemberists (Five Songs EP, 2003)
“Falling” – Julee Cruise (Floating Into The Night, 1990)
“Can’t Live Without Your Love” – Janelle Monáe (The Electric Lady, 2013)
“L’Accord Parfait” – Autour de Lucie (L’Échappée belle, 1994)
“Southern Girls” – Cheap Trick (In Color, 1977)
“You Got Me” – The Roots (Things Fall Apart, 2004)
“The Hymn of Acxiom” – Vienna Tang (Aims, 2013)
“Third World Man” – Steely Dan (Gaucho, 1980)

Alvvays

“In Undertow” – Alvvays

All music fans, I’m pretty sure, have certain sounds that are so irresistible to them that bands who manage to hit that aural sweet spot have a more or less limitless appeal—just about anything they record sounds terrific. The Toronto-based quartet Alvvays (pronounced “Always”) is one of those bands for me. Some alchemical mixture of voice, texture, and melody puts me in my happy place when I hear them.

It all begins with Molly Rankin’s voice, with its enchanting blend of purity and depth, her honeyed tones retouched by the flawless application of reverb. Add in the band’s knack for finding contemporary homes for nostalgic melodies and I am smitten. Beyond these immediate characteristics, the band delivers likewise at a deeper level. Check out the juxtaposition of the staccato bass line with the ongoing wash of guitar noise, the bass guiding the ear through the indeterminate din that floats just beyond the surface prettiness; “ice cream truck jangle collides with prismatic noise pop” is how the band describes the general ambiance and sure, why not.

Then we have Alvvays’ ongoing attentiveness to the words employed within their sonic environment of choice. Despite the reverb and the noise, Rankin is rarely mixed beyond comprehension, which allows us to appreciate her heedful language. Note the way the words in the second part of the second verse mirror the words in the same position in the first verse, but altered into slant rhymes: “metaphorically” for “rhetorically,” “psychology” for “astrology,” “mood” for “moon.” Another sign of attention to language is the title selection—rather than rely on the most repeated phrase, which would be “no turning back,” the band names the song after a phrase heard (just barely) once. And speaking of “no turning back,” one of the few places in which Rankin muffles her words is here. With its delivery broken this way—“No turning/There’s no turning/There’s no turning back”—the phrase, at first, to my ears, sounded like “There’s no teddy bears.” Whether she did this on purpose or not, and I suspect she did, it adds poignancy to a tale of a love that’s disappeared.

Alvvays was previously featured on Fingertips in November 2014, some months after their debut release. The band’s second album, Antisocialites, comes out in early September on Polyvinyl Records. You can check out one other song from the new album, and purhase it, on Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.