“Let Go” – Brooke Bentham

Bittersweet allure

“Let Go” – Brooke Bentham

Launched off a world-weary acoustic strum, “Let Go” turns almost magically beautiful, all resolute melody and intimate, affecting vocals. The song has the bittersweet allure of something that has come down through the decades, not just the months. And it has the feeling of a take recorded with what happened to be handy: “strum this guitar,” “sing in that mic,” “the lyric sheet’s over here if you need it.”

Even when things open up sonically near the one-minute mark, the song retains its tenacity, never filling the space up with more than is necessary, leaning in the chorus on twangy, unresolved chords for drama. And then–speaking of drama–there’s the unusual way the song comes nearly to a halt at around three minutes, finishing with a slow, reflective minute of voice and a guitar strummed even more sparingly than we heard in the intro. The uniting force from start to finish is Bentham’s appealing and penetrating soprano, which holds its silver tone at both ends of the volume spectrum.

Deemed “enigmatic” by her own press material, the Newcastle-based singer/songwriter Brooke Bentham started making and performing music as a teenager, and did her first recordings while still in college. After a flurry of singles and EPs in 2017, beginning with the moody, potent single “Oliver,” she hit a songwriting wall. Her much-anticipated full-length debut, Everyday Nothing, did not emerge until 2020. Three years later we have new music by way of the EP Caring, which is where you’ll find “Let Go,” and three other songs. The EP was released in March; check it out on Bandcamp.

“Showgirls” – Man on Man

Noisy and welcoming

“Showgirls” – Man on Man

For all its fuzzy noise and punk-ish simplicity, “Showgirls” moves with a light touch and a welcoming vibe. The vocals, although filtered, feel personable, while the parade of two-part, closely contained melodies gives the ear an easy hand-hold into the squawky soundscape’s controlled hubbub. A sense of things simultaneously coming together and falling apart is underscored by a set of lyrics that are concise but pretty much unintelligible, a series of sometimes suggestive phrases (“You gotta use spit/If you wanna get used to it”) without any sense of narrative or setting. Whatever is specifically going on, it appears to be a good time, and we seem to be invited along.

Guitars make their presence known quickly and noisily, providing a wash of background buzz from the start, but it’s the instrumental break starting at 1:51 where they really break out, with a squalling six-second opening moment that deserves an extra pat on the back.

Man on Man is the duo of Roddy Bottum, best known as keyboardist for the band Faith No More, and his partner Joey Holman. What started as a pandemic-based lark has solidified into an ongoing endeavor. “Showgirls” is a track from their second album, Provincetown, which comes out next month on Polyvinyl Records. It’s one of a number of songs from the album that were written in and/or inspired by its namesake locale, at the tip of Cape Cod, with its longstanding history of LGBTQ+ respect. As the band’s name implies, Man on Man is not only open about their sexual orientation but they appear ongoingly delighted to celebrate it. We would do well to be delighted on their behalf, as it takes an insecure and/or bigoted pinhead to believe that diversity of all kinds is anything but a planetary blessing.

MP3 via KEXP.

photo credit: A.F. Cortés

“To Supreme” – Will Ranier

The fine line between mysterious and ominous

“To Supreme” – Will Ranier

Any song that opens with the words “There were dark clouds” is unlikely to be super cheery. But however moody a scene “To Supreme” sets, the song retains an underlying spirit of curiosity and resolve, treading the fine line between mysterious and ominous in an agreeable way. Much is established simply via Will Ranier’s plainspoken voice; he sounds like a guy pondering his circumstances with a friend more than a guy undone by dark forces.

While not exactly peppy, the song does stride along with a midtempo pace, anchored by a steady acoustic rhythm guitar and some bass notes on the piano. Intermittent visits from a muted trumpet (played by Ranier) add to the reverberant atmosphere. But clearly the key to the song’s aura is the pedal steel providing fills between lyrical lines, each new echoey flourish different than the previous one. I especially like the discordant notes pedal steel guitarist Raymond Richards sprinkles in midway through (1:26-1:32)–another touch that lightens things away from the sinister.

In the end, perhaps the biggest mystery here is what the title is about. The lyrics do little to enlighten. “Supreme” is where “they” tell the narrator he “should go.” And he “followed their advice,” which led him “into the neon light show.” What the what? Then again, it doesn’t take much search-engine-ing to discover that Supreme is a pizzeria and bar in Seattle, which is where Ranier lives. I can see a songwriter building a mystery around a word laden with as much baggage as “supreme” (there’s the being, the Court, the leader, to start in the obvious places).

Ranier is a musician with a varied discography. “To Supreme” is a track from his forthcoming album, Wobble in the Moon, to be released June 30. While this is only his second solo album, he has one previous album with his band, Will Ranier and the Pines, and nine albums credited to Stuporhero, a duo comprised of Ranier and his wife, Jen Garrett.

Finish what you start

Eclectic Playlist Series 10.5 – May 2023

While there is an ongoing policy here never to feature the same exact song by the same artist twice, however many years go by, there is no restriction about featuring the same song recorded by different artists. This month, in fact, there are two such entries, about which more below. There are a few other cover songs mixed in here as well, including Cassandra Wilson’s astonishing transformation of an operatic, potentially cheesy Neapolitan classic into a haunting, immaculately arranged marvel. The best cover versions perform the magic trick of revealing something fresh and unexpected while maintaining the familiar core. I’d say the Watson Twins’ Cure cover qualifies as well, as does The Flaming Lips’ overhaul of “Borderline.”

I should note that having a policy is one thing, maintaining it is another: I have twice, to date, featured the exact same song by the same artist in two different mixes, by mistake. The answer to this particular trivia question: “Are You With Me Now?” by Cate Le Bon, and “Fat Man and Dancing Girl” by Suzanne Vega. Oops.

As previously noted, this month marks the 20th anniversary of the first tentative posts on Fingertips. So I guess it’s only appropriate that They Might Be Giants is in the mix this month. (It’s their eighth time here, for those keeping score at home.) But they’re one of only five artists this month who have previously been featured on a playlist, ranging back nine-plus years. So, a particularly eclectic bunch to mark year 20, as follows:

1. “Alex Chilton” – The Replacements (Pleased to Meet Me, 1987)
2. “Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind” – Vashti Bunyan (single, 1965)
3. “Security Check” – Sophie Hunger (Halluzinationen, 2020)
4. “I Don’t Wanna Cry” – Ronnie Dyson ((If You Let Me Make Love To You Then) Why Can’t I Touch You, 1970)
5. “The Sad Sound of the Wind” – Jules Shear (The Great Puzzle, 1992)
6. “Just Like Heaven” – The Watson Twins (Fire Songs, 2008)
7. “I Bet High” – Pop and Obachan (Misc. Excellence, 2016)
8. “Second Choice” – Any Trouble (Where Are All The Nice Girls, 1980)
9. “She Cracked” – The Modern Lovers (The Modern Lovers, 1976 [recorded 1972])
10. “Helen Reddy” – Trembling Blue Stars (The Seven Autumn Flowers, 2004)
11. “The Fairest of the Seasons” – Nico (Chelsea Girl, 1967)
12. “O Sole Mio” – Cassandra Wilson (Another Country, 2012)
13. “Taillights Fade” – Buffalo Tom (Let Me Come Over, 1992)
14. “Don’t Let’s Start” – They Might Be Giants (They Might Be Giants, 1986)
15. “Just Look at What You’ve Done” – Brenda Holloway (single, 1967)
16. “Runaway” – Dwight Twilley (Twilley, 1979)
17. “Blood and Butter” – Caroline Polachek (Desire, I Want to Turn Into You, 2023)
18. “The Queen of Hearts” – The Unthanks (Last, 2011)
19. “Comedy” – Shack (H.M.S. Fable, 1999)
20. “Borderline” – The Flaming Lips (with Stardeath and White Dwarfs) (Covered, A Revolution in Sound: Warner Bros. Records, 2009)

Stray comments:

* Dwight Twilley will be forever be linked to the power pop standard “I’m On Fire,” recorded by the Dwight Twilley Band on the 1976 album Sincerely. But the Tulsa-born singer/songwriter has an extended back catalog as a solo artist, following the breakup of his relatively short-lived band–including, seemingly, more “rarities” and offbeat cover projects than proper album releases at this point. (Among other things, he has recorded two full albums of Beatles songs.) For all the pile-up of music available for the committed aficionado, not everything can be found on the major streaming services; one flagrant missing release is his 1979 solo debut, simply entitled Twilley. So you won’t find the earworm-y “Runaway” on Spotify but it’s yours to enjoy here.

* Ronnie Dyson’s impassioned “I Don’t Wanna Cry” offers up a rhythmic (and grammatical) revision of the Chuck Jackson original, “I Don’t Want to Cry,” from 1961 (as heard in Eclectic Playlist Series 7.01, from January 2020). The Jackson version, interestingly, was the lead and title track of an album on which all songs were about crying. While Jackson’s recording had an attractive whiff of late-autumn doo-wop about it, Dyson’s take, from 1970, is something of a proto-disco number. Dyson, for his part, had an occasionally notable (if unfortunately short) career, hitting the big time at 18 as a featured performer in the Broadway musical Hair; it was his voice that iconically opened the show, singing “Aquarius.” (“When the moon is in the seventh house…”) Dyson soon after landed roles both in the movies and on stage and recorded a debut album, entitled (If You Let Me Make Love to You Then) Why Can’t I Touch You?; the title track was a top-10 hit in the U.S. “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” the follow-up single, hit number 50, and that was as high as any of his subsequent releases charted. He died at age 40 in 1990.

* The other song previously featured here but by a different artist is “Borderline,” which was Madonna’s first top-10 hit (see Eclectic Playlist Series 3.02, February 2016). The song arrived during that short moment when her music was considered “alternative” (mostly just because she had been signed to the new-wave-oriented label Sire Records). I’ve always been partial to “Borderline” for its multi-faceted musicality: there’s the instrumental hook, the melodic shifts, the two-part verse plus the pre-chorus (those “Just try to understand” chords get me every time), and then the nuanced chorus with its one-word first line. The song was written by Reggie Lucas, who produced most of the debut album. A guitarist who played with Billy Paul and Miles Davis, among others, Lucas started producing and writing with partner James Mtume in the late ’70s; the Madonna debut, in 1983, was his first solo production. According to the internet, Lucas and Madonna had a strained relationship as the recording unfolded. But he did give her what is arguably the album’s best song–a song so solid it delightfully survives unpacking and repacking by the Flaming Lips, a version the band recorded for an offbeat Warner Bros. compilation album released in 2017. The album commemorated the label’s 50th anniversary and featured currently-signed Warner artists covering songs by legacy Warner acts. It’s a motley collection both in terms of songs and artists but it culminates marvelously with this slow, increasingly furious Madonna cover. The Norman, OK-based band Stardeath and White Dwarfs, along for the ride here, has collaborated a few times with the Flaming Lips; among the band’s members is Dennis Coyne, nephew of Wayne.

* I love how effortlessly the Watson Twins transfigure the Cure’s boppy, late new-wave hit into a plaintive C&W-inflected ballad. You’ll find “Just Like Heaven” on their 2008 album Fire Songs; it also appeared on the HBO series True Blood. The twins–who are in fact actual twins–have a new album due out next month entitled Holler, which is their first release in five years.

* Brenda Holloway recorded for Motown in the ’60s, but never quite hit it big, despite the quality of her singles. At one point poised to step into Mary Wells’ shoes as Motown’s major female solo artist, Holloway also was one of only a handful of Motown artists who wrote their own songs. Issues arose between her and the label, leading to her departure from Motown in 1968; the next year, she sued Berry Gordy, who had made some minor changes to her song “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” and gave himself a writing credit on the song, which became a huge hit for Blood, Sweat & Tears. She recorded a few times post-Motown, including a gospel album in 1980, but eventually left the music business. She is one of many lesser-known artists to have found her early work embraced by the Northern Soul scene in the UK; she re-emerged as a recording artist in the 1990s, releasing three albums between 1990 and 2003. “Just Look What You’ve Done” was co-written by Frank Wilson and R. Dean Taylor, each with colorful and convoluted histories of their own; I’ll let the internet fill you in if you are interested.

* I am still getting my musical arms around the phenomenon that is Caroline Polachek, who arrives from outside my comfort zone in terms of her wholehearted embrace of sounds associated with 21st-century pop. And yet she clearly is using that vocabulary for intriguing artistic purposes. Her new-ish album, Desire, I Want to Turn Into You, is a grower–The New Yorker has called it “a spellbindingly deranged collage”–compelling re-listens even as I’m not sure, always, how to absorb what I’m listening to. “Blood and Butter” is one of the songs I clicked with first, thanks to the instantly engaging pre-chorus (the “And what I want is…” part). One of Polachek’s defining attributes is a powerful voice that she has trained to flip registers in such a way as to imitate what Auto-Tune can do artificially. While I remain intuitively skeptical of Auto-Tune I can’t help but approach with an open mind a gifted vocalist who finds something aesthetically satisfying in the effects it can produce. Clearly she is also processing her voice intermittently. Note that I’ve never ruled processed vocals out of my realm of interest, I just generally find Auto-Tune’s robotic tinge unpleasant and its mindless employment irritating. But Caroline Polachek I listen to, finding in her approach and vibe a worthy successor to Kate Bush as a singer/songwriter trafficking in unabashed, auteur-like pop drama.

* As usual, this month’s mix features a handful of songs that were previously featured as MP3s here on Fingertips. May’s “alumni” class: Pop and Obachan, The Unthanks, and, going way back to 2004, the London-based collective Trembling Blue Stars. Follow the links if you’re curious on the details.

It was 20 years ago today

With equal parts optimism and naivete (sometimes but not always the same thing), Fingertips was launched 20 years ago this month. Because of some format and template changes over the years, some of the earliest posts are no longer available, but the extra curious can find an archive featuring the very first, very tentative posts (from May and June 2003) here, via the Wayback Machine.

That’s a long time, 20 years. Needless to say, the world has changed. Facebook didn’t exist in 2003; neither did iPhones, or Twitter; the phrase “social media” had been tossed around for about a decade at that point but it was not a mainstream coinage (in fact, it was still not quite clear what it meant). “The Apprentice” had yet to rear its poisonous head; little did we realize where that would lead us.

One thing that did exist in 2003, with increasing prominence, was the music blog. Fingertips wasn’t the first, but I was in the early mix; Fluxblog, self-identified as the first MP3 blog, had launched in 2002, as had the indomitable Largehearted Boy, and a handful of others, most of whom are long gone.

The original mission here was straightforward, if offbeat: there amidst the internet’s piracy party of the ’00s, Fingertips featured only free and legal downloads. What a concept! The early posts, which came weekly, were merely a sentence or two; I think my initial intention was to be a clearinghouse more than a review compendium. “Hey,” I was saying, “do you realize that there’s a bunch of really good, free music available legally?” “And hey,” I guess I was also saying, “maybe everyone can stop stealing so much music?” As noted: optimistic, naive.

Within a few months, the songs were each receiving a paragraph, and my fuller purpose was becoming clear: I wanted not only to alert people to the existence of high-quality free and legal downloads, I wanted to write about why any given song was so good, in as concrete a way as possible. This was based on a long-standing pet peeve of mine: music reviews that don’t talk much, if at all, about what the music actually sounds like. To this day, many album reviews focus disconcertingly on lyrics. This has bothered me for two reasons. First, it downplays the aural reality of the recording; second, it overlooks the fact that not every listener necessarily tunes in to the lyrics when they listen to music. I’m describing myself here, and I assume I’m not alone. In any case: if a song was only supposed to be considered for its lyrics there would be no need for there to be music in the first place.

The stream of warm impermanence

As such, the reviews here increasingly began to focus on distinct aspects of a song’s sound, often pointing to specific moments, via the time clock readily visible on your MP3 player of choice. Longtime visitors may dimly remember that there was also a fair amount of other content on the site in those early years, including guides to where you might find artistically satisfying free and legal MP3s in various locations around the web. I did album reviews for a while too. The weekly newsletter was launched relatively early on, and every so often way back when there would be a contest to give away stuff I was receiving. (Yes, record companies used to have actual physical things to send to the likes of me.) By year-end 2007 the song reviews had expanded into two or three paragraphs, and I had gotten it into my head to post essays every so often about some digital-music-related topic or another.

Eventually, the weekliness broke down. (I’m surprised in retrospect it lasted as long as it did.) Likewise lost in the first half of the ’10s was all extraneous content (except the essays, as you can see); in the 2014-2015 time frame, the reviews became a monthly occurrence, along with the playlists, which began in that same era.

And that’s been the model ever since, complete with intermittent self-questioning about why I continue to do this and who is paying any attention. Some things just don’t change.

As for the music itself, the description on the home page still stands: “Fingertips seeks out 21st-century music with heart and spirit, grounded in one sort of rock’n’roll lineage or another but with feet planted solidly in the here and now.” Fingertips was launched during rock music’s one last burst of cultural semi-relevance–the indie rock boom of the early ’00s. While other blogs grounded in similar ideas at the time have since ventured into different soundscapes, aiming to ride the wave of whatever’s most popular, I’ve stayed focused on that “rock’n’roll lineage” idea because it’s the music I know the most about and feel most connected to. As long as there are still people making it (which apparently there are) and some handful of people still interested in listening to it (ditto), that’s the music you’ll hear here. But only the really good stuff.

So. Here we are in 2023, in a culture (world?) that feels to be both slowly and quickly coming apart at the seams. And I don’t know about you but I most certainly am not getting any younger–I was already the “old guy” among the early music bloggers, some of whom only now are moving through the age I was back then. Which is to say there are all sorts of reasons for me to wonder, even if I am continuing, which apparently I am, how much longer this ship will keep sailing.

I walk along darkened corridors

But sail on it does for now. Having long ago abandoned the idea of attracting a large audience, I have in recent years learned to embrace the “boutique” nature of this endeavor. If my dreams of earning a useful income this way proved to be idle fantasy, what I’ve realized over the years is that a small audience is, in important ways, a more real audience than a super-large one. I can absorb and be grateful for every single person who finds their way here; and you can be sure that each of you is appreciated for your (excellent) taste far more than you could ever be appreciated or even perceived as an individual by any company or publication running a site with thousands or millions of visits, clicks, likes, whatever. You are not a real person there but you are a real person here. And maybe that means less and less in the dawning age of generative AI. But it’s meaningful to me; it’s really why I’m still here, 20 years and counting.

Perhaps the most important consequence of Fingertips’ persistence as a boutique music site, a one-man band as it were, is the site’s lack of the sorts of pernicious features long since accepted as normal most everywhere else online. The content is not only free but free of the strings usually attached to free web content; and say what you might about the underwhelming site design, there is, here, none of the mendacious tricks employed by most other sites to force you to scroll or make extra clicks simply to read what you came to read or listen to what you came to listen to. And of course no distracting ads. I am operating as a human being respectful of other human beings and ever hopeful of connecting to those with similarly humanistic inclinations. (This is needless to say an algorithm- and AI-free zone.)

These past 20 years have seen technology reach fascinating new heights and disconcerting new depths. The same might be said for the country where I was born and where I am based. (Short version: we had Obama, we had the next guy.) Fingertips has mostly operated as something of an innocent bystander, occasionally aiming to be a quiet voice of reason in a world dominated by loud and unreasonable entities, be they people, avatars, billionaires, websites, corporations, what have you.

And, a voice ever advocating for quality in this quantity-crazed world of ours. Whether the creation of a mainstream artist or a band with a relative handful of followers, each song featured here is a song of notable quality. I stand by every one of them, regardless of the views or clicks or likes they have received either here or anywhere else. Think of it: how many web sites can you name that have quality as their one and only content guideline? I understand the problem: to offer this attribute in the digital realm in which we socio-culturally exist requires a rejection of the capitalism on which we base pretty much everything we do. I am in the relatively luxurious life position of not requiring income from this enterprise (although donations do help!). Most of the icky features sprayed up and down and across the web are the direct result of the need and/or desire for profit. So none of them are here.

My ultimate hope is that I have created something of a digital oasis: an online location where you can forget about what makes more tentacled online experiences either overwhelming or off-putting or both. It was a conscious decision from the outset to keep “community” features to a minimum and by now that makes Fingertips a refreshingly quiet corner of a very noisy medium. You can come here to read about and/or listen to good music, and think your own thoughts, and feel your own feelings. Once you remember that web sites encourage active comment sections not because they care about your input but to increase their engagement metrics, it kind of takes the bloom off that particular rose. In any case, I think we as a culture have grown by a number of factors a little too concerned with having and expressing opinions. It’s okay just to read; it’s okay just to listen.

To anyone reading this, your presence and attention is truly appreciated. I don’t know where we end up on this idiosyncratic ride but I know that there will be a lot of worthwhile music to listen to, still, as the path yet unfolds. Stay strong and be a good human, because that is one thing the robots can never be.

Let the brass bands play

Eclectic Playlist Series 10.4 – April 2023

We’ll launch this month’s mix with one of rock’n’roll’s all-time great singles and then take the usual trip through decades and genres to land, ultimately, in a pretty-much genre-less 21st-century instrumental inspired by the poetry of e.e. cummings. You know, just another run-of-the-mill internet playlist. Stick around for the whole ride and you’ll hear power pop, classic R&B, Americana, some pre-Beatles rock’n’roll from an unexpected source, a couple of generations of indie rock, and maybe something in there qualifying around the edges as classic rock too. There are even a couple of bonafide hit singles in here this time. Note that I have nothing against hits, they just have to be good, not merely popular, and there is no arguing the all-time quality of “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” however familiar (to some) it might be. Head to the widget below the playlist to listen, and head down below the widget if you’re interested in a smattering of background notes about what you’re listening to.

Here’s what you’ll hear:

1. “Going Underground” – The Jam (single, 1980)
2. “Hunter” – Jess Williamson (Time Ain’t Accidental, 2023)
3. “Daphne” – Squeeze (Ridiculous, 1995)
4. “I Just Don’t Understand” – Ann-Margret (On The Way Up, 1962)
5. “I Can’t Stay Long” – Ultravox (Systems of Romance, 1978)
6. “Learn to Say No” – Lydia Loveless (Indestructible Machine, 2011)
7. “Captain” – Shapes of Race Cars (Apocalypse Hurts EP, 2004)
8. “Sing Me a Love Song” – The Glories (single, 1967)
9. “Dorina” – Dada (Puzzle, 1992)
10. “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” – Linda Ronstadt (Heart Like a Wheel, 1974)
11. “Holding On” – Body Type (single, 2023)
12. “Heaven” – The Walkmen (Heaven, 2012)
13. “Reach Out I’ll Be There” – The Four Tops (single, 1966; Reach Out, 1967)
14. “In a Manner of Speaking” – Martin Gore (Counterfeit EP, 1989)
15. “Come and Hold Me” – Fanny (Fanny, 1970)
16. “Ghost of York” – As Tall As Lions (As Tall As Lions, 2006)
17. “John I Love You” – Sinéad O’Connor (Universal Mother, 1994)
18. “Magnolia Blues” – Adia Victoria (A Southern Gothic, 2021)
19. “You Pay Your Money and You Take Your Chance” – Bruce Cockburn (Inner City Front, 1981)
20. “the rain is a handsome animal” – Tin Hat (the rain is a handsome animal, 2012)

Smattering of background information:

* Yes I do consider “Going Underground” to be one of rock’s all-time best singles; in my own peculiar world I’d rank it in the top 10 if not top 5. Adding to its powerful charm is the fact that it was a single through and through, never placed on an album (except of course on after-the-fact compilations). The Jam, like the Beatles before them, were inclined to release songs as stand-alone singles, which in retrospect seems at once urgent and romantic. “Going Underground,” released in March 1980, appeared while the trio were at the height of their powers, in the middle of a three-album run of exceptional quality; it went to #1 in the UK and solidified their huge rock-star status there–a condition never close to being realized here in the US. Engaging from the offbeat, staccato intro through to its fading bass note, the song is solidly built musically and confident lyrically, with its signature flip-flop: a pre-chorus that asserts, first, that “the public gets what the public wants” but, the second time, that “the public wants what the public gets.” That’s about as subtle and incisive an indictment of capitalism as you’re going to get in a pop song. Curiously, “Going Underground” was originally intended as the B-side to a song called “Dreams of Children,” but the single apparently got misprinted as a double A side. Radio programmers gravitated to the catchier and more forceful “Going Underground,” as did the UK public.

* No you’re not missing anything: “Heaven” by the Walkmen does not have the word “heaven” in the lyrics. And it’s even the title track to their 2012 album, which turned out to be the band’s last–so far. After a long hiatus the group has reunited for some live performances in New York City. Stay tuned.

* Ridiculous, from 1995, was once upon a time considered a late-career release for the intermittently brilliant British band Squeeze; whoever anticipated that they’d be releasing albums 20-plus years later? (They had three in the 2010s, most recently 2017’s The Knowledge; and in 2022 came an EP with one new song, two re-recorded older songs, and three live recordings.) While not as widely heard as their late-’70s/early-’80s LPs, Ridiculous was a strong effort, with a handful of memorable songs, including this quirky bit of relationship observation. Don’t miss the signature Tilbrook/Difford octave harmonies in the chorus. And while few here in the US, these days, are likely to have any idea who Nana Mouskouri is, the Greek singer (and, at one point, politician) had a hugely successful international career for decades. And for a long stretch there, even people who probably never heard her sing knew her name and her enduring look: the severe, middle-parted dark hair and those large, dark-framed, rectangular eyeglasses. You basically never saw popular singers with glasses back in the day, and mostly still don’t. Leave it to Glenn and Chris to work her so vividly into a song lyric.

* The Glories remain a soul group from the ’60s with an uncommonly small internet footprint. It doesn’t help that their name is rather too generic for search engines; you’re as likely to come up with references to the movie The Glorias and/or a batch of religious literature as anything about this elusive but terrific trio. They can be found neither on Wikipedia nor, for all intents and purposes, on Allmusic. But the compilation Soul Legend that someone or another released in 2011, apparently only digitally, is the place to go to hear pretty much everything the group recorded during their short, commercially negligible, but aesthetically powerful run.

* Dave Gahan gets all sorts of well-deserved credit for the deep distinctive voice with which he has fronted Depeche Mode for decades on end. But bandmate and principal songwriter Martin Gore brings some decent pipes to the table as well when he occasionally steps up to lead vocals for the band. He has released a handful of solo recordings over the years, opting either for covering other people’s songs or penning atmospheric electronic music without vocals. Here he finds the spacious dark ballad hiding within Tuxedomoon’s prickly composition from earlier that decade. Fifteen years later, Nouvelle Vague gave it a bittersweet bossa nova twist and that’s the one that really hit (60 million Spotify streams and counting).

* Sinéad O’Connor has one of rock’s most indelible singing voices, and this tender but intense song off her somewhat disregarded Universal Mother album shows it off brilliantly. Spiritually and psychologically complex, she has for decades presented as someone neither critics nor the mainstream public quite know what to do with; her career has in any case ricocheted through any number of controversies. But that voice. And let’s not overlook her capacity for writing some mighty tunes. Last year she announced her retirement from the music industry. And yet (there’s always more with her) this year she surfaced with a new version of “The Skye Boat Song,” which has been the theme song for the show Outlander; O’Connor’s impressive version will be heard during the upcoming seventh season of that popular TV series.

* Fanny was the first all-female band to release a major-label album, and while they experienced a certain amount of commercial and critical success in the early to middle ’70s, they somehow never really stuck in terms of widespread legacy or long-term industry recognition. I say “somehow”; I mean flagrant sexism. They were serious and talented musicians, and yet of course had to keep resisting record-company executives who wanted them to play up their sex appeal. They worked with producers Richard Perry and Todd Rundgren; they toured around the world, opening for big-name bands like Jethro Tull and Humble Pie. Even as they faded quickly from our mainstream cultural memory, they did inspire later generations of female rock’n’rollers, including the Runaways, the Go-Go’s, and the Bangles. The band has received a new round of overdue attention here in the 21st century. A long-awaited reunion is in the works, which will include at least one live performance and a new major-label album.

* The song “Captain” by the LA-based band Shapes of Race Cars was one of Fingertips’ early precious finds, a song that convinced me there were unrecognized treasures floating out there on the internet if only one had the patience and wherewithal to track them down. The song, a first-rate power pop gem, appeared originally on their debut EP in 2004, and re-appeared in a revamped and shortened version on their first full-length release, 2006’s Power. The band released one more album in 2010 and seemed to fade away–until resurfacing during the pandemic with their 2020 single “Say Yeah.” Oh and perhaps there are one or two longstanding Fingertips visitors among you who remember that “Captain” was one of 13 songs featured on the one and only CD project produced here, the elusive Fingertips: Unwebbed disc, released late in 2006. I may still have a few copies if anyone is curious these many years later!

* While Midge-Ure-era Ultravox and John-Foxx-era Ultravox both have their charms, I think that Systems of Romance functions as a really satisfying transitional work. (Note that both Systems, from 1978, Foxx’s last with the band, and the first Ure-fronted album, 1980’s Vienna, were produced by Conny Plank, most well-known for his work with Kraftwerk.) In Systems you can pretty much hear where things are heading, even as the band was as yet trafficking in spiky electronics more than achy, synth-driven melodrama. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In any case, check out “I Can’t Stay Long,” which is the exact kind of lost classic these playlists exist to uncover and highlight.

“Flash of Light” – Tugboat Captain

Short and expansive, with bassoon

“Flash of Light” – Tugboat Captain

“Flash of Light” may be the most expansive, fully-developed two-minute song I’ve ever heard. It unfolds without any sense of hurry: fully 43 seconds of the two minutes operates as the introduction; there is, additionally, an instrumental break, an engaging structure, and a sophisticated sense of melody. At the same time, there is no chorus, which is one sly way to shorten a song. The imagistic lyrics are haiku-like in their brevity and allusiveness, hinting at unexplored depths with impressive conciseness–another way of creating an impression of something weightier than the time clock might seem to indicate.

Let’s get back to that drawn-out introduction. I’m not often a fan of long intros, and initially looked askance at the unusual intro/body-of-song ratio. But this one launches with a pleasing mixture of mystery and urgency: first, an in-the-distance keyboard pounding around some synth squiggles in a sort of pre-introduction; this swells at 0:21 into a more dramatic soundscape, a siren-like electric guitar now reinforcing the pounding motif; and everything now engaging the ear so thoroughly that the pull-the-plug ending at 0:42 feels momentarily disconcerting. But this drop is its own kind of wonderful, the song collapsing on the third beat of a measure idiosyncratically expanded to 6/4 as the singing starts. This might better be framed as a new, 2/4 measure, which adds emphasis to a melody otherwise being offered on the downbeat. In any case, what a melody it is, brought to melancholy life via the wistful tones of front man Alexander Sokolow, punctuated by some Beatlesque chord changes (cf. 0:46-0:48). Also, there’s a bassoon in here somewhere. The band has a bassoon player.

And hm–I risk explicating out of proportion to the song’s succinctness don’t I? It’ll only take two minutes of your time to investigate so go do. And maybe you’ll figure out on your own the location of “the first ever four-part bassoon drop in the indie-rock genre,” as noted by the band on their Bandcamp page. They take their bassooning seriously.

Tugboat Captain is a four-piece from London. “Flash of Light” is a single released in January. A second single, “Deep Sea Diving,” was released in mid-March. The band’s debut album, Rut, appeared in 2020. You can check everything out on Bandcamp.

“So Hard to Tell” – Debby Friday

Quasi-psychedelic electronic ballad

“So Hard to Tell” – Debby Friday

After hitting the Canadian music scene a few years ago with glitchy, club-oriented bangers (her first two EPs were entitled Death Drive and Bitchpunk, for what it’s worth), the Nigeria-born, Montreal-raised DJ-turned-musician Debby Friday unveils a gentler side with this single from her new album, Good Luck.

An electronic ballad with distorted backing vocals and washes of reverberant sound, “So Hard to Tell” centers on a soothing, circular melody that induced Friday to find a previously unutilized singing style; she usually hits the mic with a lower, speaking-voice-like register. This song finds her addressing and advising her younger self, which invited the vulnerable vocal–although she has said she was initially surprised by the sound coming out of her mouth here. There’s still some underlying glitch in the air, which to my ears is part of the appeal, as is the swirly, quasi-psychedelic atmosphere in general. It’s a hypnotic dream of a song, with a sturdy core but a tender spirit.

MP3 via KEXP. Good Luck came out March 24 on Sub Pop; the rest of the record is a good bit more forceful. You can check it out, and buy it (digital, vinyl, CD), via Bandcamp.

“Slow Passage” – Thomas Charlie Pedersen

Upbeat melancholia

“Slow Passage” – Thomas Charlie Pedersen

Here’s another song that packs a lot of presence into a relatively short package. Like many people alert to life’s bittersweet qualities, I’m partial to minor-key compositions, so I’m on board here from the song’s opening arpeggios; syncopated finger picking adds to the appealing vibe of upbeat melancholia. Thomas Charlie Pedersen’s forthright vocal style recalls something intangible about rock’n’roll records from the late ’60s or early ’70s, and this elusive nostalgia, too, feeds the song’s bittersweet complexion.

The song’s aural impact, in fact, is strong enough to do what many great rock songs do, which is render lyrical specifics unnecessary: the sound of the words is not only enough but in its own way more necessary than intelligible meaning. I’m never sure if this aligns with a musician’s intention or not but I enjoy songs like this in which you can easily enough discern individual words and short phrases but can’t decipher the bigger picture lyrically speaking. This forces the listener away from concrete analysis and into a looser state of attentiveness, in which the song might more easily induce an emotional rather than an intellectual response.

Thomas Charlie Pedersen is a Danish musician who showed up last year on Fingertips as half of the sibling duo Vinyl Floor. “Slow Passage” is the third of 15 tracks on the album Employees Must Wash Their Hands, set for release next week. This will be Pedersen’s third solo album; Vinyl Floor, meanwhile, have five full-length releases to date. You can check out Pedersen’s previous albums on Spotify; the new one will be up there on April 14.

MP3 via the artist.

“FOMO” – Small Million

Misty grandeur

“FOMO” – Small Million

Indie pop with a misty grandeur, “FOMO” manages to drift and insist at the same time. The trick here is the double-time melody: while the song ambles to a steady beat, rendered all the more deliberate by sustained bass notes, whether synthesized or otherwise, the verse melody comes at us in a twice-as-fast flow. The subtle ache in Malachi Graham’s voice echoes the emotion baked into the title, while a touch of reverb reinforces the sense of empowered solitude the song appears to be exploring. With the chorus (first heard at 0:44) the song spreads back out, luxuriating in the unhurried vibe of the foundational rhythm, with countermelodic backing vocals loosely layered underneath.

Graham’s voice is in a fact a highlight, its airy tone underpinned by something steely, which she keeps largely but not entirely under wraps. To hear what I’m talking about, check out the pent-up surge in her delivery of the line “So what’s it like at the end of the line” (0:41-0:43). That’s a voice to be reckoned with. And unlike the song reviewed previously, “FOMO” does appear to be more directly about something, even as the words, in Graham’s handling, do often dance just out of the reach of comprehension. (For those less comfortable in living with the mystery, the lyrics are available here.)

Note how the introduction’s stately synth riff retreats so delicately that you don’t really notice its presence below subsequent choruses, only to return at 2:10 for an emphatic 12-second recapitulation. With just a restrained bass line as accompaniment, this solo of sorts retroactively illuminates how mindfully arranged the entire song has been; however lush the overall feeling, there aren’t actually a lot of moving parts in play. Less, as the modernist architects used to assert, often is more.

Small Million is a Portland-based band that recently expanded from a duo to a foursome. They have released two EPs to date, in 2016 and 2018, and two singles in 2019. They have re-emerged this year with two singles so far, and an LP slated for release later this year. Check everything out on Bandcamp.