Louise Burns

“Storms” – Louise Burns

Louise Burns is pretty much why I do this. She writes songs that sound effortless, sings like a hero, and makes such splendid, accessible music (not a crime!) that, at least for the moment that lasts while you’re listening, the labels and the hand-wringing and the punditry baked into this so-called industry of ours seems pointless, all the hipster posturing and tech-centric prognosticating irrelevant. Because this and only this is what it’s about: music that eases your burden, frees your soul, sets your heart on fire, for reasons that no blog post can explain. That Burns named her newest album after a snarky jibe made against her in a review of her previous album, well, consider that icing on the cake. Louise Burns rocks, and I’m happy to be here to say so.

“Storms” is at once nothing special and exceptional—a fast-paced backbeater that arrives, through arrangement, voice, vibe, melody, and guitar work at something greater than the sum of its parts. I can do my best to identify specific moments that I connect with—the sonorous, minor-key guitar lines; the understated but incisive hook of the chorus; the new timber in Burns’ appealing voice in the bridge—but this still doesn’t get near the effect the song has on me. All I know is I heard it and felt moved on the spot to buy the album, without having heard anything else from it. Look at me!: I still buy albums. And look at Louise Burns, a genuine talent, worth supporting.

Burns was previously featured on Fingertips in 2011; there, you can read, if you’re interested, of her now-unlikely back story as an adolescent almost-pop-star. “Storms” is a track from her 2017 album Young Mopes, released on Light Organ Records in February. MP3, again, via KEXP.


photo credit: Jennilee Marigomen

Old 97s

“Good With God” – Old 97’s (featuring Brandi Carlile)

Rhett Miller is either blessed or cursed—not sure which—with such a distinctive musical sound that Old 97’s have been writing and recording songs for years that hew to a familiar vibe. This is a nice way of saying that their songs tend to sound the same. I will quickly add that this is a feature not a bug if you are a fan of this sound.

But maybe it takes a musical force of nature like Brandi Carlile to shove the amiable Dallas band out of its comfort zone for four minutes. To be sure, “Good With God” still adheres to one of Old 97’s two basic musical formats—there are the shuffly head-bopping songs, and the chugging, train-rhythm songs, with tempos that can vary slightly in each camp; this one’s a chugger. But the discordant guitar noise that introduces the song alerts us right away that we may here be breaking the mold a bit. And sure enough, even when it settles into the familiar rhythm, the echoey Western guitar line feels instantly self-possessed, and Miller dives into the eight-measure melody with headlong restraint, if that contradiction makes sense. (I like the little hiccup the song makes at 0:35, as if bracing itself for what is still to come.)

So the first verse is Miller singing as some smug pretty boy who imagines that his earthly transgressions aren’t that bad in the scheme of things, that his lip service to the almighty keeps him on the good side of the heavenly register. Cue furious guitar solo. On its heels comes Carlile, a bundle of sharpened fury, voice distorted in a subtly uncanny way. She’s not so nice, she tells him. Watch out. Now then, Miller did signal the plot twist (i.e., female God) in the last lyric of the song’s narrator, who sings, “All’s I know’s I’m good with God/I wonder how she feels about me,” and at first I’m thinking, hm, is this joker the kind to even conceive of a female Creator, never mind employ such a casual reference? But then I’m thinking yes maybe he is precisely that kind of joker. All the worse for him when Brandi Carlile shows up. I’d forgotten what an impressive singer she is. Stick around for the guitar coda, which acquires a grim-reaper-y kind of glee as it climbs up the neck.

“Good With God” is from Graveyard Whistling, the band’s eleventh studio album, recorded at the same rural Texas studio as its 1997 debut, and released back in February. The MP3 comes, yet again, from KEXP.

Dallan

“My Man” – Dallan

Launched off a series of melodramatic piano chords, “My Man” blends the feeling of an old-time torch song with something unexpectedly up-to-date. If you don’t notice the subtle hints before this, check out the transition between verses from 0:38 to 0:46 and you’ll hear the sounds of a song not content with all-out nostalgia, even if nostalgia is a potent part of the mix here. A later instrumental break (1:45), concise and slightly twisted as it is, offers definitive proof.

At its heart, this is a very simple song: there is just one central melody, which swings fetchingly against the basic one-two rhythm, and with a resolution that alternates between two primary landing spots, one minor and one major. Beyond this, there are two places in the song where the melody receives a two-line addendum (first heard at 0:33), and there is the aforementioned instrumental break. Other than that, the song sticks to the business of its grounding melody, enhanced strategically by some wonderful vocal flourishes by Dayana Stoehr, the singer/songwriter who performs as Dallan. I am reminded of Björk’s “Bachelorette”—not in sound or feel but in the way that both of these songs are driven by the power of one confident melody. This is not easy to do, either because not many melodies are robust enough to support a whole song or because not many songwriters think this way. Or both.

Based in Switzerland, Dallan appears admirably disinterested in personal hype—it’s hard enough to discern her country of origin, and I wouldn’t know her real name if she hadn’t emailed me in the first place. “My Man” is a song from Dallan’s upcoming album, Overturn, which is set for release in August. Her previous release was the EP Decade, which came out in 2015; you can listen to it and purchase it via Bandcamp. You can furthermore listen to four other songs slated for the new album on her SoundCloud page. Thanks to Dayana for the MP3.


photo credit: Renato Serge Stöhr

There’s a meandering quality to some of these songs. Some may make you smile. Smiling is good. Of the 20 artists represented, 16 had yet to be featured on a playlist here. And we made it back to the ’50s for the first time in a while. Also good. Less good: Samsa the band seems no longer to exist, but “Throw My Weight” remains one of the early great finds on Fingertips, back from the retrospectively innocent mid-aughts. Then there are all those amazing soul numbers, still aching to be discovered, some so elusive there is no telling when they were actually recorded. (“I’ll Never Stop Loving You” may not have been released in 1967, but it sounds like it.) “The Wild Places” is as evocative a song from my young adulthood as I can call to mind. I did not visit many wild places at the time, and received no consolation prize. Life goes on, with or without revolutions. We are led on, we are let go of. Are you with me now? You’re a bit early, but I know how you feel.


Full playlist below the widget.

“Throw My Weight” – Samsa (First, The Lights EP 2005)
“I’ll Never Stop Loving You” – Carla Thomas (single, 1967?)
“Lights Are Changing” – Mary Lou Lord (Got No Shadow, 1998)
“Don’t Dictate” – Penetration (single, 1977)
“Driving Through” – Jennifer O’Connor (The Color and the Light, 2005)
“She Took Off My Romeos” – David Lindley (El Rayo-X, 1981)
“Where’s the Revolution” – Depeche Mode (Spirit, 2017)
“Etude No. 2” – Philip Glass (Etudes For Piano, Vol. 1, 2003)
“I Only Have Eyes For You” – The Flamingos (single, 1959)
“The Wild Places” – Duncan Browne (The Wild Places, 1978)
“Est-Ce Que Tu” – Dusty Trails (Dusty Trails, 2000)
“I”ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” – The Byrds (Mr. Tambourine Man, 1965)
“Consolation Prize” – The Ocean Blue (Davy Jones’ Locker, 1999)
“Pendulum” – FKA twigs (LP1, 2014)
“Let Me Go” – Heaven 17 (The Luxury Gap, 1983)
“Powerhouse” – Don Byron (Bug Music, 1996)
“Lead Me On” – Gwen McCrae (single, 1970)
“Are You With Me Now?” – Cate Le Bon (Mug Museum, 2011)
“Cigarette of a Single Man” – Squeeze (Babylon and On, 1987)
“At The Beginning Of Time” – Jane Siberry (When I Was a Boy, 1993)

Kacey Johansing

“Bow and Arrow” – Kacey Johansing

“Bow and Arrow” has a melancholy majesty about it, formed of straightforward acoustic guitar strumming, a calm but resolute backbeat, and the dusky beauty of Kacey Johansing’s voice. This is the kind of music that grabs me at some level below or beyond the ear. I’m a sucker, to be sure, for suspended chords, and am pulled in effortlessly, as well, by lyrics that do this, even as I’m not sure exactly what “this” is:

I held the bow and arrow
Unsteady was my shot

These words arrive near the beginning; a scene is suggested without clarifying details—the titular bow and arrow could be pure metaphor, or could have a literal side; whatever story Johansing tells is sketched so elusively that we read the live-and-learn sorrow without apprehending a storyline. As the plot is probably thickening, in fact, Johansing backs away from enunciation, floating the second verse into smudges of suggestions; released from particulars, the listener tunes further into the emotion of the climactic lines (which I hope I’ve gleaned accurately):

I wanted to feel
Anything at all
I wanted to know
How far I could fall

So it turns out that songs are only partly fathomable as concrete notes and words on paper. Arrangement, vibe, and quality of singing voice can transform and transport. Meaning: it’s not always what someone is saying but how they are saying it—which then feeds back (crucially, alchemically) into what they are saying. That’s the magic of song, pretty much. Kacey Johansing (previously featured on Fingertips in 2013, by the way) has a firm grip on this magic.

Johansing is currently based in Los Angeles, after a decade in the Bay Area. “Bow and Arrow” is a song from her third album, The Hiding, which comes out in June on Night Bloom Records. MP3 via Insomnia Radio, a stalwart source of downloads in this wayward, stream-focused age.