“Smoke ‘Em Out” – CocoRosie (featuring Anonhi)

“Smoke ‘Em Out,” when released back in January, was positioned as a protest song, timed as it was to coincide with the massive Women’s March on Washington, the day after the U.S. president* was elected*. And you can surely sense righteous and rightful anger and frustration here. But as protest songs go, this one is elusive at best. The lyrics, as often with CocoRosie songs, scan as randomly associated words (but scan they do; the Casady sisters are masters of rhythmic authenticity), and together add up to little more than an intriguing mystery. But hell if they say this is a protest song, I’m all in. We need as many of them as we can muster.

We also need as many talented and idiosyncratic musicians as Bianca and Sierra Casady as we can encourage. Doing musical business as CocoRosie since 2004, the sisters have consistently trafficked in a quirky but captivating sound that blends a dizzying variety of musical elements together into something unusually gripping. While pundits like to point out their proclivity at creating an unusual mix of the lo-fi and the tightly produced, the amalgam of theirs I find personally gratifying is their simultaneous commitment to eccentricity and accessibility. This strikes me as a rare treat in today’s musical landscape, which has tended to polarize towards the almost fascistically formulaic on the one hand and the blatantly outre on the other.

Glitchy percussion, child-like synth lines, appealing chord washes, “Smoke ‘Em Out” has all of that just in the ear-catching introduction. When the lyrics start, the song incorporates Bianca’s rap-like delivery into a beautifully sculpted aural environment. The Casadys’ long-time friend Anonhi brings her distinctive voice to the impressively succinct chorus, but I think it’s actually Bianca’s lines after Anonhi sings (first heard at 1:42) that seals this song’s triumph. Her singing voice is here processed in an old-school, megaphonic way, and while mimicking the precision of her rapped verses in her first sung line, in the second line she holds back and releases her words exquisitely behind the beat; that this lyric coincides with a sneaky musical resolution has a lot to do with how satisfying the song feels.

Based in France, CocoRosie has been featured on Fingertips twice previously: in March 2007 and in April 2010. Longtime friends with Anonhi, the sisters previously worked with her on 2013’s Tales of a Grass Widow. Their most recent album was 2015’s Heartache City. “Smoke ‘Em Out” is so far a single only. MP3 via KEXP.

The Rebel Light

“Where Did All The Love Go” – The Rebel Light

This a great, must-hear summer song, now that we’re smack in the middle of summer here in the northern hemisphere. The minor detail is that this song came out last summer—it fell through the cracks here, as music often does, due the unprecedented volume of recorded musical activity that entreats us in the 2010s. Apologies up front to the fine fellows of The Rebel Light, who have been dolling out delightful indie rock goodness since 2013, and were previously featured here in October 2014.

“Where Did All The Love Go” is upbeat in a languid way, has happy string riffs, is easy to sing along with, and is all about love: perfect summer song, yes? What seals the deal is that the song is not lyrically cheerful, but shot through with wistful ruminations. What is a summer song without a shot of wistfulness? Barely a summer song at all, in my book.

I like how effortlessly this trio call forth bygone musical times without caving in to pure nostalgia. There is nothing frozen here as they call forth a’70s-in-California sound; instead, they tap into the heart of anthemic pop music that knows no time or space (although has been too often kicked to the curb since the mid-’00s or so). To accentuate the song’s sing-along quality, the band gives us two different versions, lyrically, of the same chorus, and it works because they have landed on a classic-sounding melody here, leaking all sorts of references out its sides but asserting itself as its own new thing right here and now.

“Where Did All The Love Go” is a track from the band’s most recent effort, a five-song EP entitled, appropriately enough, A Hundred Summer Days, released last August on Dualtone Records. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Coincidence Bizarre

“Invisible Man” – Coincidence Bizarre

“Invisible Man” is a concise and atmospheric number from a group or ensemble or collective that calls itself Coincidence Bizarre. Outside of their location in Los Angeles, the folks behind this effort are keeping themselves purposefully hidden. Meaning, I can’t even paper over my congenital lack of hip-hop knowledge with information about the artist. With an upfront understanding that my musical affinities are rooted in melody and therefore my ears have always felt at sea in the hip-hop world, I find myself engaged by the sleek and sonorous “Invisible Man.”

Why? Not exactly sure. I like the gentle texture of its careful construction, the way there is always something of aural interest happening but without melodrama or turgidity. I like the wit on display. Even just the way it starts, with something resembling a jazz guitar noodle, gives me a good feeling. As a bonus, my ear notes not one but two hooks, one with lyrics (the “Skip along, Sam” part) and one instrumental (the little run on that same guitar, immediately following [e.g., 0:42]). And I do not at all underestimate the simple power of an appealing voice in this context. For better or worse (and it’s probably an age thing), the aural character of what strikes me as a typical rapper’s voice has been a longstanding turn-off for me. The sound to my ear is bratty and self-involved. (Just for context, I didn’t much like the bratty and self-involved vocal character of someone like Johnny Rotten either.) The rapper here, whoever he is, conveys depth and spirit, humanity and complexity. I want to listen to him, and he layers his voice within a cunning amalgam of samples, effects, and surprises. Don’t miss the eerie insertion of something choral-sounding in the mix (around 1:56) as the song trips along to its conclusion.

“Invisible Man” is the A side of a single released in mid-May. It is the only Coincidence Bizarre release to date.

A lot of big names slipped into this month’s playlist. It’s a summertime thing. Speaking of which, I find “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” to be as majestic and beautiful a song as Bruce Springsteen has ever written, and in my mind the one absolute classic he’s recorded in the 30 some-odd years that have passed since Born in the USA made him a stadium star. (Note: while I appreciate it emotionally, I found The Rising kind of ponderous and self-derivative musically speaking.) It came out on the 2007’s generally underrated Magic album and is a must-have on any summer playlist; if you happen to have never heard it before, you’re welcome.

One you almost certainly have not heard before is the odd little Patti LaSalle nugget, “How Many Times,” which was made available this month on an intriguing compilation that just came out last week called Mid-Century Sounds: Deep Cuts From the Desert, via Fervor Records. Given that I am a sucker for anything that says either “mid-century” or “deep cuts,” I could not pass this one by. The overall quality is erratic but the story, which you can read about here, is interesting, and there are a few goodies buried in here for those willing to dig into the hot desert sand.

And talk about buried goodies, how awesome is “I Stand Accused (Of Loving You),” from the The Glories, a criminally overlooked trio fronted by Frances Yvonne (Frankie) Gearing? This was the only song of theirs to crack the Billboard charts (for a mere two weeks); their other seven singles disappeared without a trace, at least until Goldenlane Records put them all out on a CD called The Glories: Soul Legend, in 2011. Many of them, now, sound good enough to have been hits, and have been embraced by Northern Soul fans, this one perhaps most fondly of all. But, sheesh, The Glories have slipped through the internet’s cracks for sure—they don’t even have a Wikipedia page, probably because there’s no reliable source material otherwise online.

Meanwhile, I finally found a place for Todd Rundgren on one of these playlists, and “Long Flowing Robe” is a terrific example of a lead track that was not a single, the kind of thing FM radio loved to play back in the day (there were no notable hit singles from Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren; maybe because they never released this one?). And let’s not overlook the glory that is Dean Friedman’s “Ariel,” which was in fact something of a hit in 1977, coming in at number 87 for the year on the American Top 40 year-end chart. Although long since faded from the mainstream scene in the U.S., Friedman has all these years been recording and touring, and released the album 12 Songs just last month, as luck would have it. Take that as a reminder that luck does, sometimes, against the odds, have it.

Full playlist below the widget.

“Long Flowing Robe” – Todd Rundgren (Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, 1971)
“Almost” – Sarah Harmer (All Of Our Names, 2004)
“Strange Relationship” – Prince (Sign O’ the Times, 1988)
“Contessa” – Mice Parade (Candela, 2012)
“Tell Me When the Whistle Blows” – Elton John (Captain Fantastic and the
       Brown Dirt Cowboy
, 1975)
“Maricela” – Los Lobos (Colossal Head, 1996)
“Thrasher” – Casey Dienel (Imitation of a Woman to Love, 2017)
“I Stand Accused (Of Loving You)” – The Glories (single, 1967)
“London Rain (Nothing Heals Me Like You Do)” – Heather Nova (Siren, 1998)
“Gates of Steel” – Devo (Freedom of Choice, 1980)
“Ariel” – Dean Friedman (Dean Friedman, 1977)
“Start a Little Late” – Annie Hayden (The Rub, 2001)
“Everything Now” – Arcade Fire (pre-release, Everything Now, 2017)
“How Many Times” – Patti LaSalle (single, 1960)
“Fast Buck Freddie” – Jefferson Starship (Red Octopus, 1975)
“Black Sails in the Sunset” – Elvis Costello (originally unreleased, 1980)
“Couldn’t Love You More” – Sade (Love Deluxe, 1992)
“Girls In Their Summer Clothes” – Bruce Springsteen (Magic, 2007)
“The Magic Touch” – Melba Moore (single, 1966)
“Over There” – The Connells (Boylan Heights, 1987)

Cairo Gang

“Real Enough to Believe” – The Cairo Gang

Emmett Kelly, the L.A.-based singer/songwriter doing musical business as The Cairo Gang, has a preternatural knack for pop rock at once knotty and charming. Funneling sounds and melodies born in the power pop origin years of 1967 through 1974, “Real Enough to Believe” combines Byrdsian jangle and Beatlesque chords (um: 2:18!) with the melancholy, inside-out tunefulness of Big Star.

Interestingly, Kelly combines these archetypally ear-friendly elements into a song that is neither power pop nor catchy in any obvious way—the pace is a bit too relaxed, the verse melody too spread out, and the chorus too subtle, what with its 10/4 time signature. Full of lovely melodic turns but resisting efforts to sing along, “Real Enough to Believe” feels, somehow, like the embodiment of thought, and not just because the lyrics are generally difficult to understand. Many songs are inscrutable lyrically but retain a sense of narrative or action. This one feels to be floating in the realm of reverie in such a way as to be somehow commenting on the process of thinking itself. Maybe I’m being influenced, or misled, by a handful of phrases that do make themselves heard—“thinking only of the time”; “it’s too far off to be real enough to believe”; “with some people it’s plain to see”—but I sense this as an unusually introspective song. To my ears, the music, with its gentle knobs and declarative intervals, reflects the rumination in a nuanced and gratifying way.

“Real Enough to Believe” is a track from The Cairo Gang’s second album, Untouchable, released in March. You can buy the album via Bandcamp. The Cairo Gang was previously featured on Fingertips for the song “Ice Fishing,” one of my favorites of 2015. The MP3 comes, as will two others this time around, from the generous gang at KEXP.