“Undertow” – Katy Vernon

December approaches, which means that it’s time here to take stock of those songs I’ve been listening to for a good part of the year but which somehow never broke through to a feature. This can happen for any number of random reasons, often just because a song doesn’t seem to want to fit in with the other songs being presented in a given month. (No one else might, but I always listen to each group of featured songs as a linked set; I like them to work well when heard, in order, one after the other.) Needless to say this is all an idiosyncratic mess, but it’s my mess.

So, here at long last is Katy Vernon, a London-born singer/songwriter/ukulele player who has been living in Minneapolis since the late ’00s. “Undertow” has a casual but distinctive grandeur about it; listen, for instance, to the lap steel intro: sure, a standard motif in country or Americana music, but the tone here is both keening and a little whimsical. It sets your ears up for something wonderful, somehow. Maybe this has something to do with the lap steel’s partner here, which is Vernon’s omnipresent ukulele, a less standard companion. When she starts singing (0:12), her voice traces a stately verse melody bookended by two half-interval descents; this feels grounded and inevitable but, after the second pass through, primes us for something grander, which we receive in the chorus.

Now then, the chorus. First, that lap steel swell that brings you in is pretty great. Second, you are not imagining it if you hear a strong melodic echo of June Carter’s “Ring of Fire” here—it’s not only that upward leap by thirds, tracing a D chord, on “Took me down” (0:36), but also the follow-up descent (“way along the shore”); the melody is quite similar to the chorus melody in the Carter classic but the altered rhythm and feel transform it into something distinct. And, whether intentional or not, the way Vernon veers off into new territory in the resolution (starting with the words “till you” at 0:52) keeps sounding like a deft and welcome surprise. I can attest that the song is definitely a grower; I’ve been listening since March, when the Current featured the download in the “Song of the Day” feature. Something about it kept it hanging around, prompted me eventually to investigate the rest of the album (which is good!), and now, finally, here you go.

“Undertow” is the ninth of 12 tracks on Vernon’s third album, Suit of Hearts, which was also released in March. But, to make things nominally current, the last track on the album is called “Christmas Wish,” and has just been put online as a single. Visit Vernon’s Bandcamp page to listen to everything, and buy what you’d like.

(MP3s from The Current are available in files that are 128kbps, which is below the established 192kbps standard, not to mention the higher-def standard of 320kbps. I personally don’t hear much difference on ordinary equipment but if you are into high-end sound you’ll probably notice something. In any case I always encourage you to download the MP3 for the purposes of getting to know a song via a few listens; if you like it I still urge you to buy the music. It’s still the right thing to do.)