The Clear

“The Planets” – The Clear

Retro orchestral pop, of the minor-key, slinky variety, “The Planets” launches off an off-kilter four-note ascending melody, a variety of which provides the ongoing motif for this nicely crafted tune. Any sonic element your ear can discern as the song develops will reward the attention, from the well-placed chimes to the space-age electronic squiggles to the subtle contributions of the electric guitar, strings, and muted horns (or some synthesized version thereof). Best of all I will point you to the major chord that glides gracefully in and then out of the song’s aural foundation (an early example is on the phrase “mine collide” at 0:35). It’s not a hook per se but it’s definitely a defining moment. I can’t get enough of that kind of thing.

For all of its rather particular musical trappings, “The Planets” has an amiable air about it; it’s going after a vibe but it doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard or belaboring the point with slavish devotion. The effort is greatly assisted by Jules Buffey’s creamy voice; she sounds like a spy-movie version of Karen Carpenter, which is a better thing than you might imagine.

From Sheffield, The Clear are Buffey, Chris Damms, and Bryan Day. “The Planets” was originally on the band’s debut album, Patchwork, which was released in March 2016. It seems to be having a new life this year as a single. You can listen to (and purchase) the entire album via Bandcamp. It’s a melodic, evocative outing, with a groovy, Mamas-and-Papas vibe, definitely worth checking out.


“Charm Assault” – Ride

Once the youthful leaders of Britain’s burgeoning early-’90s shoegaze movement, the band Ride went dark in 1996, thanks to compounding acrimony between their two guitarist/vocalists, Andy Bell and Mark Gardener. But with age, often, comes perspective; in 2014, the band began playing together again. And now arrives the first recorded material from Ride in 21 years.

“Charm Assault” is a keen bit of melodic, reverb-y rock’n’roll, the noise inherent to Ride’s signature sound hinting at itself around the edges, but adroitly restrained. The verses are guided by a chiming, flowing guitar line; the chorus, punctuated by time-signature shifts, acquires a psychedelic vibe. At 2:37 we veer into an extended if unsettled break—50 seconds of subdued, droning guitar over an impatient high-hat that hadn’t otherwise made its presence known.

The song is also an unexpectedly pointed piece of political protest. The band is addressing the noxious pandering that led to Brexit but may as well be talking on behalf of caring and tolerant people the world over:

Your charm assault
Has scarred the world
It looks so ugly
As your lies begin to unfurl

That’s a somewhat optimistic take, of course; so far in this country, anyway, the people taken in by the “charm assault” (which hasn’t really been too charming) seem incapable of seeing either ugliness or lies when it comes to the words and behaviors exhibited by their preferred leader. But there has been much unfurling in any case.

“Charm Assault” is from the forthcoming album Weather Diaries, the band’s fifth, due out in June. MP3 courtesy of KEXP.

A certain number of big names and kinda-big names made their way onto this month’s list, and yet it still feels quirky and off-center to me somehow. And just so it’s clear: I have nothing against big, “popular” names; I just feel they should arrive in sprinkles rather than floods. I would have little interest in listening to a playlist that was all Led Zeppelin but getting one well-chosen Led Zep song in a multi-decade mix? That’s what I’m here for. You too?

And I have to say, while I obviously have no objective perspective at all here, this playlist makes me particularly happy in some elusive way. A few of the segues are inadvertently awesome (Snider to Radiohead, Ace Spectrum to Poliça, to name two), and it always seems to be a bit special when They Might Be Giants show up, especially the disconcertingly metaphysical “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go,” a perennial personal favorite.

But what do I know? I keep making these very humanly curated lists, and if a few of you kind folks show up and listen, I’m happy. In some elusive way.

Other random notes:

* “The Lotus Eaters”: As gorgeous and effecting an amalgam of contemporary classical and non-classical music as I have heard.
* “Pyramid Song”: Forget all the internet explanations as to this song’s time signature. My ears tell me there is precisely no time signature at all for this song, which adds to its subtle miraculousness.
* “Don’t Send Nobody Else”: The half a hit from the one-half-hit wonder Ace Spectrum, this song was written by Ashford and Simpson, for those keeping score at home. Never all that popular during their recorded lifespan (1974-1976), Ace Spectrum have had a second life in the world of Northern Soul, which has rescued untold numbers of great songs from semi- and/or complete obscurity.
* “Troubles Won’t Stay”: The great Sam Phillips remains great.
* “St Agnes and the Burning Train”: This is a Sting song, so allow me briefly to defend Sting against his many and varied detractors. Whatever his personal and interpersonal flaws might (or might not) be, there is a talented musician and composer at least sometimes alive in this man. I think he has often let lazy Sting do the work but when he’s on his game he can be brilliant. Thanks to Radio Paradise for alerting me to this particular version, which isn’t that different from the original, but the strings add some oomph, and the cover version will allow me to offer up the Stingster himself later in the year here if I so choose.

Full playlist below the widget.

“Quick Painless and Easy” – Ivy (Apartment Life, 1997)
“I Surrender” – Eddie Holman (b-side, 1969)
“Both Ends Burning” – Roxy Music (Siren, 1975)
“She Turns to Flowers” – The Salvation Army (The Salvation Army, 1982)
“The Lotus Eaters” – Sarah Kirkland Snider feat. Shara Worden (Penelope, 2010)
“Pyramid Song” – Radiohead (Amnesiac, 2001)
“La Dolce Vita” – Sparks (No. 1 in Heaven, 1979)
“Speed the Collapse” – Metric (Synthetica, 2012)
“See a Little Light” – Bob Mould (Workbook, 1989)
“Amanhã” – Luciana Souza (Brazilian Duos, 2002)
“Don’t Send Nobody Else” – Ace Spectrum (Inner Spectrum, 1974)
“Lime Habit” – Poliça (United Crushers, 2016)
“Where Your Eyes Don’t Go” – They Might Be Giants (Lincoln, 1988)
“Hard Lesson” – Suddenly, Tammy! (We Get There When We Do, 1995)
“I Got Love” – Viola Wills (single, 1966)
“All These Things That I’ve Done” – The Killers (Hot Fuss, 2004)
“Troubles Won’t Stay” – Sam Phillips (Human Contact is Never Easy EP, 2016)
“St Agnes and the Burning Train” – Soweto String Quartet (Zebra Crossing, 1994)
“D’yer Mak’er” – Led Zeppelin (Houses of the Holy, 1973)
“Tres Cosas” – Juana Molina (Tres Cosas, 2004)


“Going Nowhere” – Toma

For a while there in the late ’90s and early ’00s, until it more or less died as far as the hipsters are concerned, rock’n’roll was increasingly taken to task for not offering up anything “new” or “original,” as if this most derivative of musical genres was ever truly about being new or original. Lazy critics yawning that this band or that wasn’t doing anything you hadn’t heard before was always beside the point. Good rock’n’roll was never really about being new or original; it was about being good. Much of rock’s goodness has always been grounded in visceral impact: does a song grab you? Does it work precisely because you don’t need to analyze it or philosophize about it or fit it into this or that intellectual construct? If at the same time a rock song can integrate its influences in ear-catching ways, then, well, we’re moving beyond good to great.

And so here comes the Austin quartet Toma, doing precisely this: taking a variety existing aural elements, integrating them in engaging ways, and crafting a song that grabs the ear quite firmly. I might even partially contradict what I just said and note that a band can in fact sound if not original then at least semi-original if it manages to combine its influences in new-seeming ways—although this point is always going to be difficult to demonstrate conclusively. But with “Going Nowhere,” my ear hears a bracing amalgam of ’80s synth pop, up-to-date production, and classic rock’n’roll (“it’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it”). And the synth pop vibe is really more a feel than a particular sound, as you will no doubt notice that “Going Nowhere” ends up being anchored in solid guitar lines.

As for this so-called “up-to-date production,” I’m referring both to the vocal effects and the background electronics the band works into the fabric of the presentation without unduly disrupting things. There is no particular way to describe this with any specificity, but it could be the thing that makes me happiest about “Going Nowhere.” The ability to use tools as tools rather than gimmicks is one that just might organically arise here in the later ’10s, as a kind of natural corrective to the overkill with which digital tools have been used by the mainstream music industry. Or, it might not. Lord knows I’ve been wrong before.

“Going Nowhere” is a song from the band’s debut album, Aroma, which is due out this week. MP3 via Magnet Magazine

Echo Ladies

“Nothing Ever Lasts” – Echo Ladies

“Nothing Ever Lasts” starts cranked to 10 (or maybe 11), equal parts commotion and grace, and never lets up. I like how much the song accomplishes, dynamically, despite the sonic onslaught. In and around the foundational wall of sound, there is freight-train percussion below, a minimal, anthemic synth line above, and Matilda Bogren’s buried but endearing vocals.

Even with her voice mixed down, as the genre usually demands, Bogren steals the show for me, with a few astute moves. First, note the unexpected deviation in the verse—the way the she finishes the first two lyrical lines with an unresolved upturn (first heard around 0:24). In my experience, this kind of shoegaze or dream pop or whatever we might call it is happy enough enshrouding a sing-song-y melody in mud and volume, pushing aside the need for any further songwriting tricks. So that caught my attention. And check out, too, how crisply she manages to enunciate the last syllables of each line in the verse, despite how muffled the words. I may be easily amused but that’s kind of fun.

And then, one more subtle device arrives, first at 0:46: the repeated use of a wordless vocal tag (that is, the “ah-ah-ahh/oh-oh-ohh” part). This, again, strikes me as unusual for the genre. Normally, when a band opts for noise on top, melody below, there are actual words it seems to want you to strain to hear, or not hear. I find the “ah-ah-ahh”s in this context not only charming but a little cheeky.

Echo Ladies is a trio from Malmö. “Nothing Ever Lasts” appears to be their second single, and arrived as a 7-inch last week via the Swedish label Hybris. Thanks to indefatigable Powerpopulist blog for the head’s up.

photo credit: Ebba Ågren