Until you get heard (Eclectic Playlist Series 7.10 – Oct. 2020)

(Note from the future–November 6, to be precise: The original post accompanying this playlist in October has gotten lost in the transition to the new hosting service and the accompanying site redesign. It’s maybe just as well–that post was a pre-election rant that, while still relevant to the extent that our country remains deeply wounded by misinformation and disinformation, we at least managed to elect a decent human being. That the horrific man currently occupying the White House wasn’t rejected by everyone is worrisome to say the least. How awful would a person have to be, now, to be obviously unworthy of elected office? Not a rhetorical question. Anyway: here’s the playlist.)

“Worried Man Blues” – The Carter Family (1930 recording)
“You Want It Darker” – Leonard Cohen (You Want It Darker, 2016)
“Don’t Talk To Me About Love” – Altered images (Bite, 1983)
“Bloodline’ – Orenda Fink (Invisible Ones, 2005)
“13 Questions” – Seatrain (Seatrain, 1970)
“Vow” – Garbage (Garbage, 1995)
“Thousands are Sailing” – The Pogues (If I Should Fall From Grace With God, 1987)
“Ole Man Trouble” – Otis Redding (Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul, 1965)
“Shark Smile” – Big Thief (Capacity, 2017)
“Bored By Dreams” – Marianne Faithfull (A Secret Life, 1994)
“Sing the Changes” – The Fireman (Electric Arguments, 2008)
“Can You Get To That” – Funkadelic (Maggot Brain, 1971)
“Everything Works If You Let It” – Cheap Trick (All Shook Up, 1980)
“Here Goes Nothing” – Jess Cornelius (Distance, 2020)
“Dusty Trails Theme” – Dusty Trails (Dusty Trails, 2000)
“Say Goodbye” – Sophie Barker (Seagull, 2011)
“Someday, Someway” – The Marvelettes (b-side, 1962)
“Put The Message in the Box” – World Party (Goodbye Jumbo, 1990)
“The Walls Are Coming Down” – Fanfarlo (Reservoir, 2009)
“I Know The End” – Phoebe Bridgers (Punisher, 2020)

Free and legal MP3: Sufjan Stevens

Insistent, electronic, humane


“Video Game” – Sufjan Stevens

Those who found Sufjan Stevens at his most engaging in his electronic-oriented, Age of Adz phase, as I somehow did, will be happy to see the idiosyncratic musical auteur back in a similar sonic setting on his new album, The Ascension. The two albums may have little in common attitudinally, but I don’t pretend to pay extra close attention to lyrics, especially when they are as generally inscrutable as Stevens’ output. It’s the sound I’m absorbing, a sound I consider more appealing somehow than the chamber pop pastiche of his acclaimed earlier albums. Apparently The Ascension‘s aural landscape was rooted in the reality of his having to put most of his musical equipment in storage after getting kicked out of his Brooklyn apartment. Lemons from lemonade in this case.

I do however heed lyrics broadly enough to understand that Stevens has over the course of the century managed to morph from something of a wide-eyed, naive mystic into someone who sees the world with the veils removed. Here in the insistent-sounding “Video Game” he seems to be employing the concept of a video game as a metaphor for our 21st-century focus on surface-level digital interaction and viral popularity. With palpable exasperation, he sings:

I don’t wanna play your video game
I don’t care if it’s a popular refrain
I don’t wanna be a puppet in a theater
I don’t wanna play your video game


Musically the song achieves a lot with a relative little. The introduction opens with a plaintive synth riff that’s given space to establish the wistful mood even when the beat kicks in. The beat itself is modest, all but mid-tempo; what propels the song is the double-time melody, with its relentless return to that central conviction: “I don’t wanna play your video game.” Regardless of the song’s actual genesis, one can imagine this born from his having received one too many random inquiries from well-intentioned but intrusive strangers. He has in any case latched onto that corrosive consequence of having transformed ourselves into a culture forever trolling for “likes.” Where in this place is there room for the purely human versus the calculatedly capitalistic? The glee with which so many people have embraced the idea of being a personal brand is discomfiting; as Stevens said in an interview with The Atlantic: “We’ve indulged in the cult of personality so far that we have a TV celebrity for a president.” And we’ve seen where that leads.

You can listen to The Ascension, and buy it in various forms, via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Lydia Luce

Sumptuous song, beautifully sung

“Occasionally” – Lydia Luce

Gracefully built and sumptuously presented, “Occasionally” is gorgeous from end to end. Singer/songwriter Lydia Luce entices you first with the verse’s easy-flowing melodies, then all but pierces your heart with the swelling grandeur of the chorus. There is first of all that ear-catching way she lands on the “wrong” note (but very much the right note) at 1:08, on the second syllable of “away.” This then sets up a couple of yearning upward melodic sweeps before a definitive resolution at 1:24. Luce, a classically-trained violinist and violist, uses strings with a lovely touch, adding to the rich vibe while steering clear of both cliché and sentimentality (a good example is the interlude that follows the first chorus at 1:25, with the strings first in conversation with what sounds like a chime-like synthesizer, then taking a short lead before wrapping up with enticing restraint).

And the bonus here is that Luce is a serious instrumentalist in possession of a seriously enchanting singing voice. I’m guessing that her instrumental training may be at least partially responsible for how skillfully she employs her voice’s dynamic range—not just higher and lower notes but softer and louder tones as well. Her voice has a warm depth reminiscent of k.d. lang, and while this may be most obviously on display in the chorus’s heroic moments, I’m equally impressed with how golden and welcoming she sounds when she’s barely singing at all, as for instance in the opening moments of the verse (starting at 0:12). She makes this conversational segment of the song sound both casual and deeply felt, which lends the song a rather stunning tenderness right from the outset. One last thing to notice is how aptly the title word is sung, with its second syllable drawn out just as one might for emphasis in conversation. It’s another subtle sign of just how robust a song and a performance this is.

“Occasionally” is a single released last week, and will be the opening track on Luce’s second full-length album, Dark River, which is coming in February. Her first album, Azalea, was released in 2018.

photo credit: Betsy Phillips

Free and legal MP3: The Arthur Brothers

Mid-’60s vibe

“Sun Gun” – The Arthur Brothers

Arriving in 2020 straight from 1965 or so, “Sun Gun” pays nifty homage to a variety of classic British rockers from an era when sturdy melodies poured out of rock bands like sunshine in August, tinged by an awareness of the psychedelia on the near horizon. The Zombies, the Kinks, early Pink Floyd, they’re all in here, in the jangly guitars, the sweet spacey sing-along chorus, the swell of background harmonies, and the general sense that tea was involved along the way. If you’re not careful you’ll notice a soupçon of young-ish David Bowie in the air, or maybe Marc Bolan, and in any case the Arthurs make a nice case for grounding the entirety of glam rock, by all accounts arising in the early ’70s, in those earlier mid-’60s sounds.

The trick in all this is not to sound like a tribute band, and although it’s hard to point to any one thing they’re doing that shifts things into the 21st century, I am nevertheless getting a strong whiff of present-day creativity here. At which point I should note that the original version of this song on the album is more than nine minutes long, during which it definitely becomes its own sort of trip. (Here’s a link to the full version if you’re curious and have some extra time on your hands.) Personally I didn’t think the song quite justified its length; and yet, oddly, now that I’ve been living with the shorter version, I do have a sense that it could be longer. (Some people are never satisfied it seems.)

In any case, what really sells me on “Sun Gun,” in either length, is the brilliance of the classic-sounding chorus, which gathers an impressive amount of heft as the song progresses. This is partially due to restraint—we only hear the chorus three times in this edited version. The verse melody is different but with a similar rhythm and feel so it works to reinforce and familiarize the ear while at the same time allowing the chorus when it pops in to feel extra memorable.

The Arthur Brothers self-identify as an “artistic alliance” grounded in the work of brothers Matt and Danny Arthur and songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist J.C. Wright. They are based in London. “Sun Gun” is the final track on their debut album, Nine, which was released last month. You can listen to the album and buy it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Ailbhe Reddy

Tuneful, bittersweet, sharply paced

“Looking Happy” – Ailbhe Reddy

“Looking Happy” matches an angular guitar riff that would do 1978 proud against lyrics bemoaning the reality of seeing an ex moving on with their life on social media. (We could only dream about the existence of social media back in ’78, although perhaps they would have been nightmares.) This is perhaps the subtlest of a few intriguing juxtapositions that characterize this tuneful, bittersweet song. There’s also the way the music’s upbeat energy counters, at every moment, the disconsolate lyrics. Relatedly, if you’ve ever heard a more sorrowful vocal tone matched against a song with the word “happy” in the title I’d like to hear about it. The fact that Reddy sings with such a palpable ache in such an energetic setting is itself a notable and engaging mismatch.

Best of all, though, is the music itself: sharply paced, tightly executed, and lit up by Reddy’s elastic voice, with its affecting upward leaps in the chorus (first heard at 0:38). An especially fetching vocal moment is wordless vocal break (1:00-:04); I love the descending swoop and then the finishing two-note punctuation—and then the fact that you hear this just once and it’s gone. This is the wonderful way concise rock songs work (this one clocks in just over three minutes)—nothing is belabored, nothing overstays its welcome. Check out for instance the synthesizer blurts that enter around 2:32, punctuating the song’s closing half-minute with a “ta-da!” kind of feeling. They show up, do their thing, and we’re done.

Ailbhe Reddy is a singer/songwriter based in Dublin. “Looking Happy” is a track from Reddy’s debut album Personal History, which was released earlier this month. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy it, over at Bandcamp.

Between reality and madness (Eclectic Playlist Series 7.09 – Sept. 2020)

The famous Becket line keeps playing in my head: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” That pretty much describes my head space here in September 2020, with corruption institutionalized, the pandemic yet untamed, and democracy itself on the ballot. We’ve been stuck, somewhere between reality and madness, for months on end. Someday this will all make sense, in retrospect, like everything else. In the meantime, I invite another playlist into your lives. And I’ve done you the service of putting the song I’d most like you to hear right at the top this month, so you won’t miss it—it’s a song from the Paris-based Brit Kate Stables, who does musical business as This Is The Kit, and it’s itchy and insistent and preternaturally wonderful. (“You thought you didn’t like the banjo but you were wrong pal,” says her Bandcamp page.) “This Is What You Did” came out in June; her album is coming in October. I of course would like you to listen to all the rest of the songs too but I know how life goes. But if you happen to have the time, I hope you enjoy the latest meandering adventure through the years and the genres, this time including three from our damaged new decade. Music doesn’t help, music helps. Stay strong.

The playlist:

“This Is What You Did” – This is the Kit (single, 2020; album due in October)
“Ain’t Nothing Gonna Change Me” – Betty Everett (single, 1971)
“Wounded” – Nik Kershaw (To Be Frank, 2001)
“Mary’s Prayer” – Danny Wilson (Meet Danny Wilson, 1987)
“Lost On You” – LP (Lost On You, 2016)
“Queen of the Night” – Michel van der Aa feat. Kate Miller-Heidke (Time Falling, 2020)
“Little Red Book” – Love (single, 1966)
“She’s a Girl and I’m a Man” – Lloyd Cole (Don’t Get Weird On Me, Babe, 1991)
“No Man’s Woman” – Sinéad O’Connor (Faith and Courage, 2000)
“Lay This Burden Down” – Mary Love (single, 1967)
“Panic in the World” – Be Bop Deluxe (Drastic Plastic, 1978)
“Class” – Chicago – The Musical (feat. Bebe Neuwrith, Marcia Lewis) (1996 Broadway
Revival Cast album, 1997)
“Been Here Before” – Jeremy Enigk (World Waits, 2006)
“Hum Dono” – Joe Marriott, Amancio D’Silva Quartet (Hum Dono, 1969)
“She’s a Sensation” – The Ramones (Pleasant Dreams, 1981)
“Placeholder” – Hand Habits (Placeholder, 2019)
“Late Night Conversation” – Josh Rouse (Dressed Up Like Nebraska, 1997)
“Feels Like the First Time” – Corinne Bailey Rae (The Sea, 2010)
“Summer, Highland Falls” – Billy Joel (Turnstiles, 1976)
“I Do” – Misty Boyce (single, 2020)

Bonus explanatory notes below the widget…

* Kate Miller-Heidke is a long-standing Fingertips favorite (first featured back in 2005), not least because of her idiosyncratic range of musical interests. And of course that incisive, wide-ranging voice. Here she has hooked up with a Dutch composer named Michel van der Aa, who has previously written in “contemporary classical” mode but has a background in indie rock; this comes from his first effort to make something of a rock album–Time Falling, released back in January. Idiosyncratic and prickly, it’s apparently a bit of a concept album, circling around the concept of infinity, and inspired by the likes of Jorge Luis Borges, Federico García Lorca, Emily Dickinson, and others. Miller-Heidke handles all the lead vocals, and co-wrote two songs, including this one. You can check the whole thing out, and purchase it, on Bandcamp.

* I’m hoping that Lloyd Cole’s insistently catchy “She’s a Girl and I’m a Man” is intentionally sexist-sounding, in order to make a point, but just in case I’m reading this wrong (it was after all released in 1991), let’s run that one into Sinéad O’Connor’s blazing anti-patriarchy anthem, 2000’s underrated “No Man’s Woman.” And no, Sinéad doesn’t always write lyrics that scan, but for my ears anyway her voice makes up for it.

* Where has “Lay This Burden Down” been all my life? I only recently stumbled upon it, which I guess goes to show what great soul nuggets remain out there to be found. That chorus with the delayed melody line (i.e., how those opening lines each begin on the measure’s second beat): it’s as iconic sounding as an old soul record can be, and no doubt became so some years after its original release, on the UK Northern Soul scene. All of Mary’s original singles, most recorded for the L.A.-based Modern Records label, were first gathered onto an album in 1994, along with songs from the gospel-oriented second phase of her career, in the 1980s. A more recent version of her collected singles was released in 2014.

* Danny Wilson, from Scotland, was a band, not a person. They were originally named Spencer Tracy, but got some blowback from the actor’s estate. This was the song they were known for, although the album had some other good things. The band split with no hard feelings after two albums. Front man Gary Clark went on to a successful career as a songwriter and producer, which continues as we speak.

* At this point, the methodical, reclusive musician Jeremy Enigk seems like a figure from another time and place entirely. First coming into some renown as leader of the somewhat mysterious and influential band Sunny Day Real Estate, in the 1990s, Enigk has had a slow-moving solo career, highlighted by a long hiatus or two and the distinct lack of a public-facing persona. “Been Here Before” is a stately, gorgeous piece from his 2006 album, World Waits, released 10 years after his first album. His most recent recording is 2017’s Ghosts.

* I’ve always loved “She’s a Sensation,” a somewhat forgotten gem in the Ramones catalog. You can really hear their Brill Building fandom cooked into this one, and the way Joey funneled his adenoidal pique into something that veers into genuine tenderness by the second hook.

Free and legal MP3: Pillow Queens (incisive rocker w/ a mysterious pull)

What begins abruptly and somewhat droningly transforms itself with repeat listens into an authoritative rocker with a hint of transcendence.

“Handsome Wife” – Pillow Queens

“Handsome Wife” exerts a mysterious pull. What begins abruptly and somewhat droningly transforms itself with repeat listens into an authoritative rocker with a hint of transcendence. If you want an aural handhold, listen for the muscular guitar line that rings out at 0:39, shifting the ear away from the background drone, tantalizing with its unresolved finish, implying a momentous chorus that we don’t yet hear, but will soon.

Now then, there are some well-known one-note melodies in rock history (think “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” or “It’s The End of the World as We Know It”), but perhaps just as ear-catching and maybe somewhat trickier to pull off is the two-note melody, such as we get in the chorus (1:17). At this point Pamela Connolly’s fervent vocals, kicked up a register, convey a quivering air of vulnerability that pushes the song into greatness. The allure is heightened by elusive but perfectly sculpted lyrics:

I was young and I was honest
Me and all your father’s daughters
Laid beside the tide to take us
Kissed the bride and fought your favours
I may not be the wife you want
But I’m pregnant with the virgin tongue

I can’t tell you with any certainty what these words mean, and yet they vibrate with impalpable significance. I think this has to do with two attributes: first, the fact that each line itself is comprehensible, even as they don’t, together, become a digestible narrative; second, the words scan (i.e. match the rhythm of the melody) perfectly, with the opening four lines, including many one-syllable words, aligned in strict trochaic tetrameter (the academic term for what you might in your head associate with childhood rhymes—think, “Peter, Peter pumpkin-eater”; “Twinkle, twinkle little star,” etc.). I’d argue that songs with lyrics that properly scan are unconsciously more impactful than songs with scattershot accentuations. I wish more songwriters agreed.

The last piece of the snowballing puzzle here: the wordless bridge (2:27), in which Connolly’s voice retreats into a choir of reverb, dueting with a guitar line at first in sync and then offering a reassuring countermelody. Following this, the restated chorus sounds somehow more assertive and empowering, even as I still don’t know exactly what she’s singing about.

Pillow Queens are a foursome from Dublin. “Handsome Wife” is the lead single from their debut album, In Waiting, coming out on September 25. You can pre-order the album, and listen to a few more tracks, via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Static in Verona (power pop earworm)

Everything about the song is a testament to craft, which strikes my ear as a particularly special thing in such an onrushing tune as this.

“Poor Juliet” – Static in Verona

Maybe there’s a technical term for the upbeat, syncopated melody featured in “Poor Juliet”‘s verse—the easy-to-listen-to but tricky-to-pinpoint movement, which shifts emphasis from the third beat (the ET of “Ju-li-ET”) in the first measure to the second beat in the second (the SET of “so up-SET”). Perhaps it has something to do with matching four syllables against three beats of rhythm? In any case the un-technical term would be “earworm,” because ever since hearing this song, this is the part that has relentlessly been playing in my head.

Which is almost unfair to the song, since the chorus goes on to deliver an irresistible dose of power pop melodicism that is otherwise the killer hook here (1:01). We’re dealing with a classic chord progression, to be sure, but it’s pumped up by the sparkling beat, the background organ, and some ear-catching intervals (i.e., the jump up from “don’t” to “let” at 1:07 and the jump back down from “other” to “girls” a moment later). Everything about the song is a testament to craft, which strikes my ear as a particularly special thing in such an onrushing tune as this. (As I now think about it, it seems more common to find smartly crafted tunes working in more deliberate tempos, maybe?) A good example: the subtle changes made to the second verse (e.g., the backing vocals that echo the lyrics [first heard at 1:27], or the alterations to the original melody), which may be neither necessary nor expected in a song this concise (run time 2:42).

Static in Verona is the band name the Chicago musician Rob Merz has been employing since 2009. He was previously featured here on Fingertips back in 2015 for the song “Blindfold,” itself another slice of pithy power pop goodness. As for the Juliet here, yes it’s the legendary one, but with a twist—in the song, according to Rob, her father saved her and is doing his best to offer solace in the wake of her grief. Oh and the connection between the tragic title character—famously a resident of Verona, Italy—and his band name (generated from a random incident near Verona, Wisconsin) was unintended.

“Poor Juliet” is a track from the new Static in Verona album, Sometimes You Never, released last month. You can listen to the album and buy it for a price of your choosing via Bandcamp. While you’re there, check out the previous five Static in Verona releases, all also available for whatever you’d like to pay. Thanks to Rob for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Orion Sun (dreamy, minimalist)

From the carefully plucked guitar through the smeary background wash and methodical drumming, the song delivers a vibe at once vague and precise, and pulls you along on its short and sultry journey as if in a comfy, if minimalist, dream.

“Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me)” – Orion Sun

And while some songs succeed via melody, there are those that establish a place in your head via atmosphere, like Orion Sun’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me).” From the carefully plucked guitar through the smeary background wash and methodical drumming, the song delivers a vibe at once vague and precise, and pulls you along on its short and sultry journey as if in a comfy, if minimalist, dream.

Orion Sun—the performing name for the Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter Tiffany Majette—favors melodies that bounce up and down, lending a rapping rhythm to her singing, or, for you truly old-school folks, bring recitative, from the opera world, to mind. The effect is at once conversational and intimate, and is accentuated by the plainspoken feelings on display, with the repeated chorus of “It feels so good to know you,” augmented by a blurry proffering of “so good”s.

The texture is so carefully established that I find myself fascinated by the way the primary guitar line sounds at once central to the song and yet spends most of the time not playing. It only finishes its full phrase at the very beginning (0:04) and then again near the very end (2:34); and it literally sounds like someone pulls the plug on the instrument halfway through the introduction (0:10). Yes, if you listen closely you will in fact hear the guitar underneath the chorus but it seems to be there all but subliminally, to give you a vague memory of something you aren’t fully experiencing.

As for the title, if there’s a reason Majette co-opted the title from a Jacques Brel classic (not to mention Regina Spektor’s more recent and much perkier song of the same name), it’s not immediately apparent. “Ne Me Quitte Pas” is from the debut Orion Sun album, Hold Space For Me, released back in March on the Mom + Pop record label. You can listen and purchase via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP. You might also be interested in a newer track of hers, “Mama’s Baby,” which was written in response to Majette having been attacked and injured by police during a protest in Philadelphia in May. Track is here; a newspaper account of the incident and resulting song is here.

Free and legal MP3: The Daily Spreadsheets (layered, hymn-like)

A ringing guitar tone, carefully paced, sets the stage for this subtly unusual rocker.

“I’ll Never Change” – The Daily Spreadsheets

A ringing guitar tone, carefully paced, sets the stage for this subtly unusual rocker. Hang with this one for a while; what “I’ll Never Change” may lack in a certain polish it makes up for in its cumulative power.

The structure is fairly simple. The song alternates between two melody patterns; the second one may be considered the chorus if only because it concludes with the title line, “I’ll never change.” After a relatively naked run-through to start us off (0:09), we get introduced, at 0:27, to the layered vocals that will characterize the rest of the song. The vocal texture deepens as we go, via both blankets of harmony and intertwining countermelodies.

The song grows hymn-like as it proceeds, starting especially at the coalescing harmonies we hear at 1:30. Has it occurred to you yet that there’s been no percussion? No worries, the drums are coming, right after that itchy guitar solo that disrupts the vibe (in a good way) at 1:49. The drumming that starts at 1:53 delivers a modified Spector beat, which is both unanticipated and wonderful (maybe because I’m a sucker for that beat, in whatever form it takes). From here the song continues on its determined path, with one addition—a chord shift at 2:13 that alters the feel of the now-familiar melody in an appealing way, and sets up the song’s closing section, which includes two satisfying endings: the vocal closure from 3:07 to 3:12, and the instrumental denouement that follows.

The Daily Spreadsheets is another one man band this month, the bailiwick of Brazilian musician Henrique Neves. You can hear a few of his other tracks over at SoundCloud, including a brand new remix of “I’ll Never Change.” Thanks to Henrique for the MP3.

(Side note: Henrique first contacted me via Fluence, which is a place where you can pay a nominal fee to have me do a review of your song. There is no guarantee at all that this leads to a feature on Fingertips; in the vast majority of the cases, it doesn’t. But it does guarantee that I will listen closely to a song and give my relatively detailed reaction. You can learn more about this and submit a song at this link: https://fluence.io/fingertipsmusic)