Push off the bottom

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.09 – September 2022

So perhaps, with summer over, we’ll get a bit of rain, those of us in areas that can use? Had some here today, in fact. And I’ve been generally working on establishing a bit more equanimity in my resting mind, having grown mighty weary of living so long with a sense of underlying stress and doom. Yes, things are continually not great when you look around. But, anyone remember Tom Robbins’ running joke in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues?: every so often in the novel, he would write “The international situation is desperate, as usual.” This was 1976. I don’t mean to stick my head in the sand. At the same time, it’s the fascists who purposefully foster cynicism, who want you to believe your vote doesn’t count, that our institutions have failed, that having integrity doesn’t matter. Well screw all those “dedicated swallowers of fascism” (hat tip to Billy Bragg, on the shoulders of Ray Davies). The world is troubled but there are plenty of helpful and hopeful people working towards the cause of positive change in big ways and small. With the change of seasons I intend to access an untroubled, sanguine part of my psyche, to push off the bottom and swim towards the light. And vote, of course, when the time comes.

To the extent that music can contribute to one’s mental and emotional well-being, and I very much believe that it can, here’s the latest genre-hopping mix in the Eclectic Playlist Series. Playlist first, then the widget for listening, then some informative details about a few of the songs:

1. “Yes Eyes” – Fingerprintz (Distinguishing Marks, 1980)
2. “Shallow Heart, Shallow Water” – Caitlin Cary (While You Weren’t Looking, 2002
3. “You Hit Me Right Where It Hurt Me” – Alice Clark (single, 1968)
4. “Do You Sleep?” – Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories (Tails, 1995)
5. “Candy’s Room” – Bruce Springsteen (Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)
6. “Les Vaincus” – Pauline Drand (Faits Bleu, 2018)
7. “Hand in Hand” – Phil Collins (Face Value, 1981)
8. “I Talk to the Wind” – Dana Gavanski (Wind Songs EP, 2020)
9. “Boys Don’t Cry” – The Cure (single, 1979)
10. “Soul Deep” – The Box Tops (Dimensions, 1969)
11. “Come Together” – The Internet (Hive Mind, 2018)
12. “Underdog” – The Murmurs (Pristine Smut, 1997)
13. “Munich” – Editors (The Back Room, 2005)
14. “Master Plan” – Tears for Fears (The Tipping Point, 2020)
15. “Deadbeat Club” – The B-52’s (Cosmic Thing, 1989)
16. “Cry to Me” – Solomon Burke (single, 1962)
17. “Love to Get Used” – Matt Pond PA (Spring Fools EP, 2011)
18. “Blue Denim” – Stevie Nicks (Street Angel, 1994)
19. “The Mesopotamians” – They Might Be Giants (The Else, 2007)
20. “Elegant People” – Weather Report (Black Market, 1976)

Odds and ends:

* Although I did not name Fingertips with the unfairly neglected UK band Fingerprintz in mind, I am happy with the association, if anyone cares to make it. Their second album, Distinguishing Marks, is to my ear a highlight of new wave’s short-lived power pop era; side one in particular offers an impeccable lineup of crafty, melodic compositions. That said, for some reason, on Spotify, “Yes Eyes,” the album’s lead track, has been mysteriously swapped with the song that was actually the opener on side two. “Yes Eyes” definitely was side one cut one; I have the vinyl to prove it. One more Fingerprintz note: during the short, elusive life of the Fingertips podcast–there were 24 of them, back in 2006 and 2007–the Fingerprintz instrumental, “2.A.T.,” a smart Booker T homage, served as the theme music. Which I’m sure I wasn’t allowed to do, but nobody said anything because about three people were listening.

* A far less neglected UK band, Tears for Fears, released an unexpected reunion album earlier this year, their first in 17 years. While I’m not inherently a fan of bands attempting to recapture the magic, as it were, I’m also not opposed to giving a listen and seeing what they’ve managed to do. In this case, I think they’ve done quite a lot–The Tipping Point is, to my ears, both enjoyable and of consistently high quality. It occurs to me that bands that didn’t in their youth hew too closely to the cliche of hard-rocking guitar heroes have a better shot at reestablishing their vibe and sound as elder statesmen. Check the album out yourselves on Bandcamp.

* I can fall hard for French female singers with a certain kind of round whispery tone, and the as yet not-very-well-known Pauline Drand has it. “Les Vaincus” came to my attention a few years ago via a compilation released in 2018 by the French label La Souterraine. Kind of a random find but the song and the singer stuck with me so here she is, sandwiched agreeably between classic rock giants. Drand released her debut album later that year, with “Les Vaincus” as the ninth track; you can listen and purchase via Bandcamp. The title means “The Vanquished,” but that’s about all I can tell you, since feeding the lyrics into an online translator yields a series of words largely defying comprehension. I can also tell you not very much about Drand herself, except for the enticing tidbit, announced via her Twitter page, that she is currently the artist in residence at a place called the De Saram House in Colombo, Sri Lanka. It’s a big world.

* Leisha Halley and Heather Grody, as The Murmurs, made two and a half albums for MCA in the mid-to-late ’90s before moving onto other things. The “half” refers to the fact that their third album, Blender, included seven songs that had already been on their second album, Pristine Smut, among them the splendid “Underdog.” Note that these guys certainly had someone’s attention for a while; their record deal was with a major label, and their second album was produced by Larry Klein and k.d. lang. Not sure why they didn’t take off or stick around but here’s your chance to check them out and see what you’ve (probably) missed.

* “I Talk to the Wind” was originally performed by King Crimson, written by founding member Ian McDonald. Dana Gavanski, based in London, is a Canadian singer/songwriter with family roots in Serbia. Her version can be found on an EP she released during the lockdown in 2020 called Wind Songs, featuring three other covers (songs by Tim Hardin, Chic, and Judee Still), along with a Macedonian folk song. With a resonant voice and a knack for lucid arrangements, she has another EP of covers, Bouncing Ball, slated for release in November.

* “Soul Deep” was only a minor hit for the Alex Chilton-led Box Tops, and their last song to chart; the group disbanded the following year. But what a song it is! “Soul Deep was written by Wayne Carson, who had also written the group’s biggest hit, “The Letter.” Carson, who sometimes used the name Thompson, was a journeyman musician, songwriter, and producer; he shared songwriting credits on “Always On My Mind,” the most well-known and often-recorded entry in his songbook.

* Remember Editors? “Munich” flared across the blogosphere back when the blogosphere was an actual thing. It’s almost hard to fathom here in 2022 that indie rock did in fact have a heyday, albeit a relatively short one, before being sucker-punched by the poptimists and their tribal loyalty to processed, lowest-common-denominator music. (Yeah, don’t get me started.) Anyway, my bad here: Editors are no mere aughts nostalgia act; Tom Smith and company remain an active concern, having released their sixth album in 2018 and with four singles to date released this year, in anticipation of a forthcoming album that Wikipedia reports will be called EBM.

* As for “The Mesopotamians,” this may be one of They Might Be Giants’ loopiest songs, which is saying something. Operating in the liminal space between reality and fantasy, history and nonsense, the song imagines four historical Mesopotamian figures as if they are, somehow, also, paradoxically, a rock band in the present day. The in jokes span millennia, the chorus is goofy and sublime. And circling back to the top of these notes: I did not name Fingertips after Fingerprintz but I did name it after the (goofy, sublime) They Might Be Giants song “Fingertips,” which as some of you know is less a song than a mashup of song fragments. I don’t quite remember what my thinking was but here I am 19 years later, just like the Mesopotamians, with nowhere else to stand.

Trouble acting normal

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.08 (August 2022)

Maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s the hiatus, or maybe it’s the ever-unfolding perturbations of life in the 2020s, but I’m going to let the music do the talking this month. For a few enlightening details on a few of this month’s songs, scroll down past the playlist and the widget.

1. “Every One of Us” – Goldrush (The Heart is the Place, 2007)
2. “Dog & Butterfly” – Heart (Dog & Butterfly, 1978)
3. “Harps” – The Sea and Cake (Runner, 2012)
4. “Falling Down the Stairs” – Even As We Speak (Feral Pop Frenzy, 1993)
5. “Weird Fishes” – Lianne La Havas (Lianne La Havas, 2020)
6. “Reptile” – The Church (Starfish, 1988)
7. “The Planets” – The Clear (Patchwork, 2017)
8. “Pavement Cracks” – Annie Lennox (Bare, 2003)
9. “Bones” – Soccer Mommy (Sometimes, Forever, 2022)
10. “1,000,000” – R.E.M. (Chronic Town EP, 1982)
11. “She Loves the Way They Love Her” – Colin Blustone (One Year, 1971)
12. “Small Pony” – Dott (Swoon, 2013)
13. “Don’t You Even Care” – Leslie Uggams (single, 1965)
14. “What About Now” – Robbie Robertson (Storyville, 1991)
15. “Mirage” – Jean-Luc Ponty (Enigmatic Ocean, 1977)
16. “Dandelion Wine” – Ron Sexsmith (Retriever, 2004)
17. “Round Here” – Counting Crows (August and Everything After, 1993)
18. “Ese Chico” – Christina Rosenvinge (single, 2022)
19. “Bigmouth Strikes Again” – The Smiths (The Queen is Dead, 1986)
20. “Come All Ye” – Fairport Convention (Liege & Leaf, 1969)

Odds and ends:

* Sometimes Wikipedia is enlightening, sometimes it’s weirdly dense, and other times it’s just plain sad–and here I’m thinking about the way the information can just stop, page abandoned (but still online) because a band has ended its life without fanfare or notice. A page can go from being updated by various fans and observers to being deserted seemingly in midstream, with no one even bothering to change the present-tense intro (“XYZ are a band from…”) to past tense (“XYZ were a band…”). The Oxford, UK-based band Goldrush seems to have suffered this fate, despite being a band with a certain amount of notice and success in indie rock’s early-21st-century halcyon years. I don’t claim for Goldrush an undue amount of praise but I did feature them twice in the ’00s, and in particular loved “Every One of Us,” which I still find deep and affecting.

* With its bedroom rock ambiance, hazy vocals, and midtempo stasis, Soccer Mommy’s song “Bones” could’ve veered into a faceless mush but instead elevates to fabulous via the anchor of a terrific, poignant chorus melody. And don’t miss the increasingly frantic guitar work that dominates the last third of the song. Soccer Mommy is the Nashville-based singer/songwriter Sophie Allison; “Bones” is the opening track on Sometimes, Forever, her excellent third album, which was released in June.

* For a minute there in the 1970s, Jean-Luc Ponty was the planet’s most famous electric violinist. After working with Frank Zappa, Elton John, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, among other notables, he recorded a string of solo albums that collectively sold in the millions. His most recent project seems to have been 2015’s collaboration with Jon Anderson, the Yes front man, on an album called Better Late Than Never. Ponty will turn 80 next month. The track featured here comes from his mainstream heyday, 1977’s Enigmatic Ocean.

* I find it delightful that Lianne La Havas would even think of covering Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes,” independent of what the finished product sounds like. Watching talent seek talent is invigorating. And yet, not surprisingly, the end result is a marvel–an unexpected showcase for La Havas’s uncanny vocal prowess on the one hand, and for the emotional resonance, on the other, of a song that always intrigued but seemed, previously, a bit too abstract for its own good. It’s a surprising and satisfying winner from La Havas’s 2020 self-titled album.

* I programmed the old-school R.E.M. song “1,000,000” into this mix just because it seemed like a good idea, which is pretty much how I put these together in general. Only after I slotted it in did I find out that the band’s debut EP Chronic Town, where it comes from, which is 40 years old this year, was being released–last week–for the first time as a standalone CD, with a bunch of new liner notes from Mitch Easter, who produced it. I enjoy a good synchronicity whenever I encounter one.

* In our current pop cultural moment, Leslie Uggams is known, if at all, for roles in the Deadpool movies and in the television series Empire. But the 79-year-old actress/singer has been in show business and recording singles since she was a child in the 1950s. As a teenager, she was a regular on NBC’s popular Sing Along With Mitch series, a show that seems preposterous now but was a thing for a few strange early-’60s years. Then there was the probably inevitable effort to establish her as an R&B singer, which to these ears sounded pretty promising, if 1965’s “Don’t You Even Care,” on Atlantic Records, is any indication. But she soon found her niche in more pop- and/or musical-theater-oriented material, and landed in 1969 as the host of The Leslie Uggams Show on ABC, which was the first network variety show hosted by a Black woman. Since then she’s had a multi-faceted career including a star turn on the original Roots mini-series and a lot of varied stage work. MCUers can expect her back as Blind Al when Dead Pool 3 eventually emerges.

* I have long-standing admiration for the Spanish singer Christina Rosenvinge, who ditched a successful pop career as half of the duo Alex y Christina in the late ’80s for a more offbeat, soul-searching, and substantive solo career; she’s worked off and on as an actress as well. Openly critical of the misogyny she has encountered over the years in the music industry, she is likewise vocal in her support of the LGBTQ community, as this new single of hers demonstrates. I stumbled on it in Spotify but haven’t seen it talked about in any English-speaking media, so you can be the first on your block to check it out.

* And then there’s Ron Sexsmith, the Canadian troubadour with a extraordinarily consistent–and consistently overlooked–catalog of recorded music, with 14 quality studio albums now to his credit, dating back to his self-titled debut in 1995. What he does is neither ever in fashion nor quite out of fashion but boy does he do it well. Every album of his contains hidden gems, perhaps none gemmier and more hidden than “Dandelion Wine,” from his fine 2004 effort, Retriever. (The album received stellar reviews on both Pitchfork and AllMusic, with neither mentioning this song among the highlights.) His most recent release is 2020’s Hermitage, which I still haven’t caught up with, but I will note that his previous album, 2017’s The Last Rider, ranks up there with his best.

* There’s no standout segue this month but the best one may be “Round Here” into “Ese Chico”; I can definitely nominate a worst segue, which would be “1,000,000” into “She Loves the Way They Love Her”–it was one of those that was almost brilliant but in missing by a little it’s kind of a clunker. Apologies to the deep listeners among you.

Even though I might

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.07 – July 2022

I’m thrilled that Kate Bush is having a moment; I’ve been a fan for decades, and, 37 years later, I still place Hounds of Love at the top of my Favorite Albums of All Time list. Bush is an artist with an exceptional individual vision and the fortitude to remain her own person throughout her career–an unusual combination in this profit-fixated world of ours.

That said, I’ll admit there is likewise something discomfiting about this abrupt burst of Bushmania. While I am happy for the well-deserved exposure, in the U.S. in particular (“Running Up That Hill,” here in 2022, has become her first top five U.S. hit ever), the fact that it’s been generated so randomly, based on some music supervisor’s suggestion for a so-called “sync,” leaves me a bit unsettled. How randomly are the fruits of capitalism distributed to creative people! Kate Bush is just as brilliant and singular an artist now as she was before her song was featured in Stranger Things. The fact that the wide world is now paying attention to her is terrific on the one hand but highlights on the other the fact that our most deserving artists often lack the rewards they ideally merit. Our culture has brainwashed itself, through the ascendancy of “poptimism” in the 21st century, to treat our most popular artists as the most artistically deserving of their popularity but that’s a lie we tell ourselves to avoid having to operate in the slippery land of quality versus the concrete territory of quantity.

Even so, I’m trying not to be too much of a grump about it. Kate Bush will always be one of my favorite artists (she’s now been featured here 8 times, tied at the top with David Bowie and Radiohead) and I should only be happy that more of the world now knows about her. (Note that she has rarely allowed her music to be licensed in this way in the past; she only agreed this time because she was already a fan of the show.) My disgruntlements, such as they are, have to do with the capitalist-driven materialism that overwhelms the Western world, about which, alas, there seems little right now to be done.

In any case, here we are again. Even as Fingertips remains on a summer hiatus with respect to individual song reviews, the Eclectic Playlist Series carries on. Enjoy the mix, which this month features 14 artists not previously heard here. Oh, and that Kate Bush song? Watch the 1986 video and see how naturally it aligns with the Stranger Things vibe, so much so that it makes me wonder if the Duffers had her in mind all along.

Bonus commentary below the playlist and the widget:

1. “Nowhere Girl” – B-Movie (single, 1980/1982)
2. “Saddest Day” – Ephemera (Sun, 2000)
3. “Don’t Forget” – Sky Ferreira (single, 2022)
4. “I’ve Seen the Saucers” – Elton John (Caribou, 1974)
5. “’74-’75” – The Connells (Ring, 1993)
6. “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe” – Okkervil River (The Stage Names, 2007)
7. “Face of the Sun” – Shana Cleveland (Night of the Worm Moon, 2019)
8. “Children’s Songs: No. 6” – Chick Corea (Children’s Songs, 1984)
9. “Play Me” – Marcia Griffiths (Sweet & Nice, 1974)
10. “Down on the Corner” – Creedence Clearwater Revival (Willy and the Poor Boys, 1969)
11. “The Spur” – Joan Shelley (The Spur, 2022)
12. “I Lost the Monkey” – The Wedding Present (El Rey, 2008)
13. “Experiment IV” – Kate Bush (single, 1986)
14. “900 Hands” – Elskling (single, 2014)
15. “Don’t Change Your Love” – The Five Stairsteps (single, 1968)
16. “I Can’t” – Radiohead (Pablo Honey, 1993)
17. “Liquid Numbing Pain” – Lucy Francesca Dron (Leftovers, 2021)
18. “Only Skin” – The Spring Standards (Yellow/Gold, 2012)
19. “You Got It (Release It)” – Pearl Harbor & The Explosions (Pearl Harbor & The Explosions, 1979)
20. “Glory Box” – John Martyn (The Church With One Bell, 1998)

 

* Radiohead, like Kate Bush, is here for the eighth time this month, and this time I dip all the way back to their typically overlooked if not disparaged debut. I think it’s unfortunate that this album doesn’t get more respect–sure, the band will grow a lot from here onward (understatement) but it’s still an admirable slice of ’90s guitar rock. Song quality is a notch down from their follow-up but The Bends is about the highest bar possible. Trust me, there’s more to Pablo Honey than “Creep”; start with “I Can’t” and explore from there. Among other things it’s interesting to be reminded of quite how much they were influenced at the outset by U2.

* Texas-based Okkervil River was a semi-regular presence here on Fingertips during the indie rock glory days of the middle ’00s. Featured four times between 2004 and 2008, and once more in 2011, they rightly or wrongly faded away from my awareness through the rest of the 2010s, even as they remained and still remain an active–if shape-shifting–ensemble; front man Will Sheff is the only one left from Okkervil River’s ’00s incarnations. “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe” comes from the record that represents their commercial, and possibly their critical, high water mark, 2007’s The Stage Names. The band’s most recent album is In the Rainbow Rain, released in 2018.

* Is there a reason, I wonder, that Neil Diamond songs have been so gracefully transmuted into reggae songs? There’s “Red Red Wine,” of course, which UB40 made so much their own that few knew that Neil Diamond was the original songwriter. John Holt’s cover of “Holly Holy” is considered a classic by aficionados. And then there’s Marcia Griffiths and her marvelous cover of “Play Me,” which manages to convert a slightly cheesy tune into something welcoming and delightful. Might it possibly have to do with Diamond’s song “Reggae Strut,” which appeared on his 1974 album Serenade (and on the B-side of the single “Longfellow Serenade,” a pleasingly bombastic song which I’d entirely forgotten about until right now)? To our contemporary ears, “Reggae Strut” may sound, um, a little colonial. But for better or worse it’s possible the attention worked both ways? After all, 1974 was still pretty early for Diamond, a huge mainstream success at that point, to be tuned into reggae enough to write a song about it. Maybe the reggae community decided to check him out, if they hadn’t previously? Lord knows that by now there are more reggae versions of “Sweet Caroline” than you probably care to know about.

* I am not much of a jazz guy or a classical guy, although I dabble in both as the mood strikes. The 1984 LP Children’s Songs, by the late Chick Corea, is an album that shows how blurry, sometimes, the line between these two ostensibly separate genres can be. Featuring 20 original piano compositions–most shorter than two minutes–the album was inspired by one of Corea’s musical heroes, Béla Bartók, combining an unadorned simplicity of feel with a gratifying melodic and harmonic complexity. I stumbled on it a few months ago and found myself struck in particular by the playful movement and tension embodied by “No. 6.” I hope it works as a friendly interstitial within this wide-ranging mix.

* I was speaking earlier of the random nature of what draws our cultural attention to some artists and not to others; with the advent of social media over the last 10 years or so the situation has become something of a travesty, as the endless jockeying for clicks and followers has debased our collective interactions greviously. This is obvious at a political level but applies in the arts as well. With everyone seemingly seeking popularity at all costs, what cultural room is left for the acquired tastes, for quality that whispers as opposed to quantity that overwhelms? I listen to Brisbane-based Lucy Francesca Dron and am saddened by how much less attention a musician of her quality and taste seems at this point to be receiving versus all the shiny, interchangeable popsters dominating the charts and feeds. I featured Dron’s song “What Is Next?” last year here, and later in the year was taken as well by a follow-up single, “Liquid Numbing Pain.” I make it a policy not to review two songs by the same artist within one calendar year but am happy to present that second single here within a 2022 playlist. The song can be found on her 2021 EP, Leftovers.

* Sky Ferreira has had a troubled go of it from the outset of her intermittent career. While pretty astonishing at the time, her 2013 debut album Night Time, My Time if anything sounds even better in retrospect for its adroit blending of processed pop with grungier edges not usually heard on the charts at that point. Her very long-awaited second album is due–supposedly–later this year. “Don’t Forget” is the second single now available from the upcoming LP. Don’t believe Pitchfork’s sniffing dismissal; to my ears, the track rewards far more listens than this particular reviewer seems to have given it.

* When I first heard John Martyn’s version of “Glory Box” I thought hm, how clever of the Bristol-based trio to have found a song from that veteran blues-folk pioneer and given it the Portishead treatment. I was properly abashed to find out at some point that it was Martyn who grabbed the tune from Dummy. Without actually changing it all that much, Martyn excavates the blues swing hiding in plain sight in the original. Some covers succeed by thoroughly re-interpreting the first version, some work by hewing close to the original in a act of homage; a rare few manage somehow to do both at the same time.

* Formed in 1978, Pearl Harbor & The Explosions were one of the first new wave bands in the U.S., and scored a minor indie hit with the song “Drivin'” in 1979. Warner Brothers scooped them up for a major label deal, but, despite the listener-friendly hooks of “You Got It (Release It),” the album sunk and nothing much stuck after that. (Note that lead singer Pearl E. Gates, born Patricia Gilbert, named the band as she did because her parents were married on Dec. 7, 1941.) Relocating to the U.K. after the band broke up, she there adopted the British spelling (Harbour) because that’s how her name kept appearing in the press. In 1982, she married Clash bassist Paul Simonon, who played without credit (along with Mick Jones and Topper Headon and other notable British musicians) on Pearl’s debut solo album, the rockabilly-infused Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost Too. She and Simonon divorced in 1989, at which point she moved back to California, where she’s been ever since. Pearl is still active online (see IG:@pearlharbourmusic) but doesn’t seem to have released any music since 1995. (Thanks to The Forty-Five for some of the background information here.)

Maybe I’m just a fool

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.06 – June 2022

I recently read and was disheartened by a Pitchfork article from last month about how AI is on the verge of turning the music industry and music production upside down. As usual with such articles, there was much to read about the various gee-whizzy things technologists have done and are yet dreaming of doing by applying AI tools to artistic endeavors. Also as usual there was no discussion of the perpetually overlooked fact that art is ever and always about one human consciousness communicating with another. Whatever a computer can produce, it’s still and forever doing so minus the depth of a human consciousness. Sure, a machine may one day (soon?) become self-aware at some level, but no matter what it will never be an organic being that is born, that is aware that it will die, that exists with all the flesh-and-blood peril and pleasure and connections we humans live our lives with and among. Accordingly, everyone relatedly misses the fact that regardless of what a computer produces, it is not the same as the product of a human consciousness, even if it looks the same or sounds the same.

As a convenient example, take the exceptional guitar work in Luka Bloom’s “Delirious,” down there in the second half of this month’s mix. I’m sure someone could program a computer to create a similar if not the exact same sound, and someone is also probably working feverishly as we speak on creating software that can generate on its own the music the guitar is playing. And in so doing would take all the visceral thrill out of the music, which as far as I’m concerned depends upon the knowledge that a human being conceived of and performed what I’m hearing. I wrote about this in more detail here if you’re interested. I may be intellectually curious–mildly–about what a machine may produce, but deep in my heart and soul I don’t give a shit about what a machine “thinks” or “feels” and accordingly have no interest in music that might be entirely composed by a computer no matter what it sounds like. If it turns out at some point there are no humans left who are interested in playing their own music–something the article appears to imply–then I guess I’ll stick with what we humans have already created. There’s a fair amount of it.

Meanwhile, hello. Welcome back to the latest incarnation of the Eclectic Playlist Series, which turns out to be especially eclectic this month, with everything from indie rock, classic rock, and Motown to French movie-star pop, weird new wave, and Swedish jazz. There are a smattering of familiar names but fully 15 of the 20 songs this month come to us from artists who have not previously been featured on an EPS mix, going back some eight-plus years at this point.

Oh and everything you’ll hear here was written and performed by humans, for humans.

Commentary about some of the specific songs can be found below the playlist and the widget:

1. “Love and Mercy” – Brian Wilson (Brian Wilson, 1988)
2. “When the Lights Go Out” – Crybaby (Crybaby, 2012)
3. “Sure Enough” – Angela Desveaux (The Mighty Ship, 2008)
4. “Hold On” – Sharon Tandy (single, 1968)
5. “San Diego Zoo” – The 6ths (Wasps’ Nest, 1995)
6. “The Tunnel of Love” – Fun Boy Three (Waiting, 1983)
7. “Believe in Me” – Sally Shapiro (Sad Cities, 2022)
8. “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” – Bob Dylan (Street-Legal, 1978)
9. “La Madrague” – Brigitte Bardot (Brigitte, 1963)
10. “Girlfriend” – Phoenix (Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, 2009)
11. “Mama’s Pearl” – The Jackson 5 (Third Album, 1971)
12. “Only Lonely Lovers” – Pure Bathing Culture (Moon Tides, 2013)
13. “Delirious” – Luka Bloom (Riverside, 1990)
14. “Fox on the Run” – Sweet (Desolation Boulevard, 1974)
15. “I Know There’s Something Going On” – Frida (Something Going On, 1982)
16. “Talk” – beabadoobee (Beatopia, 2022)
17. “Visa från Utanmyra” – Jan Johansson (Jazz på svenska, 1964)
18. “Hippychick” – Soho (Goddess, 1991)
19. “Slip” – Motorcade (See You in the Nothing, 2022)
20. “Jerusalem” – Steve Earle (Jerusalem, 2002)

* A couple of the big names here are especially notable for having recently celebrated 80-something birthdays–namely Mr. Bob Dylan (81) and Mr. Brian Wilson (80). While Wilson has had a wild and woolly go of it over the past half century, with erratic output at best, Dylan remains by all accounts at the top of his game–however much his game, as it were, has altered with the passing decades. While many fans still idolize his run in the mid-’60s, with all that surreal electric output of his, I find his mid-’70s material to landing most solidly in my sweet spot: namely, the albums from Planet Waves through Street-Legal, with those two in between–Blood on the Tracks and Desire–at the top of my all-time favorite Dylan efforts. (And were it not for the unfortunate “Joey” I’d actually put Desire on top.) Street-Legal, meanwhile, puzzled everyone at the time, if it didn’t outright exasperate them. But me I always kind of liked its obscure charms, and there’s no doubting the classic status of a few of its offerings, most particularly “Changing of the Guards” and track 8 here.

* Sharon Tandy was a South African singer who came to the UK in the 1960s without ever hitting it very big at the time; she recorded a number of 45s in the process. “Hold On” seems to have been the strongest cut, and certainly has the feel of something that could have been a major hit. She did make it to British TV (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4O-gKNiDXA) so she maybe had at least a bit of a moment. In a few years she returned to South Africa and recorded through the ’70s. In 2016, the year after she died, Rhino Records saw fit to release a compilation entitled Playlist: The Best of Sharon Tandy, and “Hold On” is the lead track. Oh and speaking as I was about guitar work, don’t miss the long and wild guitar solo about halfway through this one. Crazy stuff.

* Turns out it’s Sweden month here for no particular reason. If you make it most of the way through you’ll be treated to a song that is far more well known there than here–“Visa från Utanmyra,” from the jazz pianist Jan Johansson. The song is a jazz arrangement of a traditional Swedish folk song, as in fact are all the songs on the 1964 album Jazz på svenska (“Jazz in Swedish”), which remains, according to Wikipedia, the top-selling Swedish jazz album of all time. Johansson, sadly, died in a car crash in 1968 at age 37. On a happier note, we also hear this month from long-time Fingertips favorite Sally Shapiro, which is both the name of the band and the pseudonym used by its anonymous lead singer. After announcing their retirement in 2013, the band–which is really just “Shapiro” and the producer/writer/arranger Johan Agebjörn–re-emerged out of the blue last year with a new single, and then released an entire new album of material earlier this year entitled Sad Cities. Its sparkling neo-italo-disco/synth pop is as enticing as ever. And then there’s Frida. Remember Frida? Born Anni-Frid Synni Lyngstad, formally (since 1992) called Princess Anni-Frid Reuss, Dowager Countess of Plauen, she is by far best known as one of the four founding members of ABBA (one of the As there is for Anni-Frid). The album Something Going On was Frida’s first album in English, and her first post-ABBA solo release. After being obsessed with Phil Collins’ super-popular 1981 album Face Value, Frida enlisted Collins both to produce and do his magic at the drum kit, and the collaboration paid off. The single “I Know There’s Something Going On” was a decent-sized hit for her and still sounds pretty darned good to these ears.

* The 6ths were a short-lived side project masterminded by Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields. While Merritt wrote and produced all the music, and played most of it too, he sung lead vocal on only one of the final product’s fifteen songs. “San Diego Zoo” was the opening track and it was sung by San Diego-born Barbara Manning, something of an indie/alternative rock legend herself. Manning has a long, interesting, and complicated career, dating back to the 1980s, but does not appear to have recorded anything new since the first decade of the current century. In her daily life she is a middle school science teacher.

* My old-school tendencies leave me skeptical of sampling but boy oh boy does the Smiths sample anchoring Soho’s “Hippychick” sound fresh and glorious to this day. Based in the UK and fronted by twin sisters Jacqui and Pauline Cuff, Soho released six more albums through the ’90s but never gained traction again commercially or culturally. Their 1991 album Goddess, where you’ll find “Hippychick,” seems to be the only one reasonably easy to find digitally these days.

* Angela Desveaux’s “Sure Enough” is the sole song this month that was previously featured on Fingertips. That was back in 2008. But two other artists in this mix have also been reviewed here in the past, for different tracks–the aforementioned Sally Shapiro (twice), and, as it turns out, another duo: the Portland, Ore.-based Pure Bathing Culture. PBC have had three features here to date, most recently in 2019, and are still active; I should go investigate what they’ve been up to, as I haven’t in a while. Angela Desveaux on the other hand seems to have slipped off the internet entirely; 2008’s The Mighty Ship was her last release. I hope this was a proactive decision and if so more power to her.

* I don’t know much about the Dallas band Motorcade but I sure like this song, from their recently released second album. The rest of it seems worth exploring; the band sounds especially adept at taking its post-punk influences into something that feels more like an evolution than an homage.

* “I don’t remember learning how to hate in Sunday School.” Someone should tell that to the GOP, as well as their puppet-filled Supreme Court, as they hide behind a warped view of “faith” that not only flouts Constitutional guarantees but contradicts every bit of spiritual wisdom espoused by the very guy they claim to believe in–the same guy who said absolutely nothing, zero, about abortion.

No matter who you are (Eclectic Playlist Series 9.05)

Along with this playlist comes a larger announcement: Fingertips will be taking a summer hiatus starting with the unofficial start of the our American summer this coming weekend. I’m not sure whether the MP3s are drying up or whether it’s just me in need of a break but I know that as I tried over the last couple of weeks to work on the regular update I just wasn’t feeling it. I’m taking that as a sign that I can use a few months away from the MP3 review side of Fingertips. The plan is to keep the playlists going in the interim but we’ll see how that goes. I’m assuming I’ll be back with reviews at the end of the summer but we’ll see how that goes too.

In the meantime, here’s another idiosyncratic compilation, iteration 9.05, spanning the decades and the genres as usual. Don’t forget this means that there are more than nine years of playlists already stored and ready to listen to–you can go straight to the widgets on Mixcloud, or access them via the commentary about each mix on the Fingertips web site. Or, for a different and longer-lasting experience, there’s the Eclectic Playlist Series Master Mix on Spotify. It doesn’t have every last song ever featured on an EPS mix because Spotify doesn’t have every song but there are about 1,500 songs in the mix at this point; shuffle it and you’ve got an instant and pretty damn interesting radio station.

As usual, I’ll have a few stray observations about some of the song’s on this month’s offerings below the playlist and the widget:

1. “A to Z” – Alice Russell (To Dust, 2013)
2. “Peaches en Regalia” – Frank Zappa (Hot Rats, 1968)
3. “Speed of Sound” – Coldplay (X&Y, 2005)
4. “Madness” – Carlene Carter (Musical Shapes, 1980)
5. “I’ll Try” – Sharon Van Etten (We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, 2022)
6. “The Only One I Know” – The Charlatans (Some Friendly, 1990)
7. “Help Me Make Up My Mind” – Joyce Jones (single, 1969)
8. “Release, Release” – Yes (Tormato, 1978)
9. “Ablaze” – Liz Durrett (Husk, 2005)
10. “Cry” – Godley & Creme (The History Mix Vol. 1, 1984)
11. “She Loves Everybody” – Chester French (Love the Future, 2009)
12. “Sunday Morning” – Margo Guryan (Take a Picture, 1968)
13. “Every 1’s a Winner” – Hot Chocolate (Every 1’s a Winner, 1978)
14. “The Unheard” – Fabryka (Sparkles EP, 2015)
15. “Airstream” – Low-Beam (Every Other Moment EP, 2004)
16. “We’re Not Deep” – The Housemartins (London 0 Hull 4, 1986)
17. “Everybody Needs a Hammer” – Willie Nile (Places I Have Never Been, 1991)
18. “Asking for a Friend” – CHVRCHES (Screen Violence, 2021)
19. “Brother” – Color of Clouds (Satellite of Love, 2010)
20. “The Hurt” – Cat Stevens (Foreigner, 1975)

Random notes:

* Last month I featured the Canadian singer/songwriter Allison Russell near the top of the mix; this month I’m starting with a song from the British soul singer Alice Russell–two quite different but equally wonderful performers. Alice Russell has been recording since 2004, but only recently came to my attention. (So much music, so little time…) A powerhouse singer inspired by classic soul recordings while committed to contemporary ideas and sounds, Russell has somehow never gained the widespread recognition that Amy Winehouse did mining similar territory. “A to Z” is the lead track from To Dust, a 2013 release that remains her most recent album.

* Sharon Van Etten slays it yet again with her new album, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong. You kind of have to sink into her vibe when listening to an album of hers–she tends towards similarly-paced songs, somewhere on the slower side of midtempo. But there’s always something intense and gorgeous going on with her music, and when she does allow a song to pick up the pace a bit, it seems effortlessly brilliant, as with “I’ll Try.” And while I’m fanboy-ing SVE: if you’ve never seen her covering “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” with the band Shearwater you are in for a treat if you go there right now. Mysterious feelings arise for me as this video unfolds. And don’t miss the face she makes at the very end. Melts my heart every time.

* I am neither much of a Yes fan nor a prog rock fan but the occasional song of theirs appeals to me for inscrutable reasons. These seem always to be songs that were recorded past their first few extra-proggy albums, which means that the Yes music I like is probably all the stuff that their “real” fans disparage. “Release Release” is something of a lost track from something of a lost album, 1978’s Tormato. It’s kind of a lovable mess, with energy and hooks to spare. Bonus points for that short section when Anderson isn’t singing in his screechiest register. Not sure what the crowd noise is doing there in the middle of the instrumental break, but when it turns off we get one of the song’s best if subtlest moments.

* “Airstream” was originally featured here back in 2004 and it still sounds elusively original to me; you can read my original review here. All these years later it’s hard to track the New London band Low-Beam, which had its regional heyday long before social media took hold–their original releases, three EPs and a single, happened between 2002 and 2007. According to one online account, the band began work on a full-length as early as 2004, but there were a variety of unspecified difficulties. The album did eventually come out; on Bandcamp the release date is listed as 2011, but the dates listed on Bandcamp are not necessarily the dates of an album’s original release but when an album was uploaded to the site. There are also two double-sided singles up on Bandcamp with release dates of 2010 and 2011. The only thing that seems clear is that the band is no longer around, although the Bandcamp page as noted is available and worth exploring.

* I am impressed by how much staying power the best songs by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens still have, some 50 years or so after the fact. To my ears his biggest hits (“Wild World,” “Peace Train,” et al.), while worthy and ear-wormy, are a notch below a healthy handful of other songs that had their moments on the FM dial back in the day but are less widely remembered today–“Sitting,” “On the Road to Find Out,” and “Sun/C79,” among others, including this month’s closing number, “The Hurt.” “The Hurt” did get its share of radio play when it was released, but it was a track off an album, Foreigner (1973), that marked a commercial dropoff from his super-popular LPs from a few years earlier, Tea for the Tillerman(1970) and Teaser and the Firecat (1971). Foreigner was complicated by the fact that side one was taken up with one long track–not an uncommon move for a rock act in 1973 but maybe nothing Cat Stevens’ fans were hoping for. He had one more big album in him, 1974’s Buddha and the Chocolate Box, before his music began losing its strange but compelling spark, as his long-standing mixed feelings about rock’n’roll stardom culminated in his forsaking not only the career and lifestyle but his very name, converting to Islam late in 1977, and abandoning his musical career for two decades. In recent years Yusuf Islam has re-embraced his Cat Stevens side–he is identified now as Yusuf/Cat Stevens–and has released a few albums that bring his classic sound to mind. Check out 2017’s The Laughing Apple as an example if you are at all curious. To my ears the new stuff is missing the deep melodic magic of his prime ’70s work but his voice remains a wonderful instrument indeed.

* If you manage to listen through to the end you’ll be rewarded with one my best accidental segues to date, as “Brother” glides into “The Hurt.”

* Four other songs on this playlist, beyond “Airstream,” were originally reviewed as MP3s here on Fingertips: “Ablaze,” “She Loves Everybody,” “The Unheard,” and “Brother.”

The lessons of patience

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.04 – April 2022

If you are reading this you are here not because an algorithm directed you but because you found your way via your own human volition. Existing below the recognition level of the algorithms helps keep an enterprise such as this supremely unpopular–“unpopular” as in “infrequently visited” versus “actively disliked”; funny how the two meanings are often co-mingled. But it also, to my mind, ongoingly highlights the failings of a culture that has allowed itself to be hijacked by metrics; steering people relentlessly to things that are already high-profile enough to be steered to is a kind of feedback loop that feels stifling and sad to anyone with a functioning human heart. Or should feel that way, if people weren’t by now trained to be brisk and mindless online; stopping to contemplate and consider is sort of the opposite of the behavior the tech companies require to feed the beast of clicks and page views. If you are fully engaged by said feedback loop there’s little beyond it you are ever going to notice, and will never be encouraged to wonder why.

I recently posted an essay that discusses the fate of quality in a quantity-obsessed world, and it’s a subject that deserves ongoing attention. Where would we be as a culture, historically, if we only paid attention to the most popular and/or easy-to-locate things? Yes, the internet’s algorithmic tools are sophisticated to the extent that they don’t point everyone towards the exact same pieces of content; but the silos they create of differently interested audiences–the famous “people who like X also like Y” directive–are still based on quantity rather than quality.

So if you are here you have decided on your own to be here and I thank you for that. Your reward, such as it is, is another thing beyond the capacity of our algorithmic tools: a playlist drawing upon a wide variety of musical styles and eras. It is a playlist that inherently defies the sorts of sortings that the robots rely upon (genre, decade, mood, etc.) to do their relentless recommending. All I’m ever trying to do is to carry on a tradition founded in the freewheeling era of so-called “progressive” radio–radio found on the FM dial in the mid- to late-’70s. This was before anyone realized there was very much money to be generated from programming in the land of frequency modulation, which is why everything felt loose and unpredictable and ongoingly engaging. The robots keep offering you things that sound like things you’re already listening to. It’s kind of like being surrounded by yes men; it props up the ego but not the soul. Enjoy, if you dare, and we’ll do it again next time, if you find your way back.

More on this month’s offerings below the playlist and the widget:

1. “Ship of Fools” – World Party (Private Revolution, 1987)
2. “Persephone” – Allison Russell (Outside Child, 2021)
3. “Sometime in the Morning” – the Monkees (More of the Monkees, 1967)
4. “Wonder” – San Mei (Heaven EP, 2018)
5. “High Ground” – Orenda Fink (Ask the Night, 2009)
6. “Drowning in the Sea of Love” – Joe Simon (Drowning in the Sea of Love, 1972)
7. “Tuesday Morning” – The Pogues (Waiting for Herb, 1993)
8. “Love Will be Reborn” – Martha Wainwright (Love Will Be Reborn, 2021)
9. “Beck’s Bolero” – Jeff Beck (Truth, 1969)
10. “As Far As I Know” – Paul Westerberg (Folker, 2004)
11. “Straight to My Heart” – Sting (Nothing Like the Sun, 1987)
12. “One of These Things First” – Nick Drake (Bryter Layter, 1970)
13. “Still Thrives This Love” – k.d. lang (Ingenue, 1992)
14. “Peripheral Visionaries” – Young Galaxy (Shapeshifting, 2011)
15. “Tell Me” – Groove Theory (Groove Theory, 1995)
16. “The Only One” – Stiff Little Fingers (Go For It, 1981)
17. “Who By Fire” – Leonard Cohen (New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974)
18. “All the Time in the World” – Maybe Baby (What Matters, 2003)
19. “Other Lover” – Mikaela Davis (Discovery, 2018)
20. “It’s All Too Much” – The Beatles (Yellow Submarine, 1969)

Random notes:

* “Sometime in the Morning” was one of my favorite Monkees songs when I was 10 years old and it still is. I applaud my aesthetic acumen as a youngster; I didn’t know back then that Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote the song, or even who they were, but I did know a lovely series of melodies when I heard them, not to mention a satisfying song structure. The song, puzzlingly, hasn’t been covered very often, and of course there are internet people claiming that one or another alternative version to this one is actually better, because they are internet people. No one beats Micky Dolenz here as far as I’m concerned.

* I happened this year to catch some of the pre-Grammy webcast–where they handed out the bulk of the awards, and where some of the performances veered away from the mainstream pop that dominates the evening telecast. A highlight for me was the Canadian singer/songwriter Allison Russell performing “Nightflyer,” from her album Outside Child. I’d heard the song many times before on WXPN but the energy she brought to it in live performance was transformative (not to mention instructive: I hadn’t realized she played the clarinet), and sent me quickly to Bandcamp to buy the album, which I recommend; consider “Persephone” a preview of the goodness to be found there.

* I know, I know: the Pogues weren’t really the Pogues anymore after Shane MacGowan got the boot. And yet: would the album Waiting For Herb, the first of two post-MacGowan efforts, have been better-received had it emerged from an entirely unknown band, with a different name? It seems likely. In any case, “Tuesday Morning” is pretty great, to my ears. For what it’s worth, it happened to be the best-selling single, internationally, the band ever released. And yes I am now holding popular acclaim out as a certain measure of success. Do I contradict myself? Very well then.

* Did you watch The Beatles: Get Back, the documentary that Peter Jackson directed and produced? What an experience. I’ve had one or two people tell me it was too long, and such people immediately went down ever so slightly in my estimation of them. To call any part of it “boring” is missing the bigger picture, it seems to me; even when it was ostensibly “boring” it was incredibly compelling to be there with it. The Beatles were lightning in a bottle; the movie gives us a glimpse of the bottle. Strip away all the cultural hullabaloo and focus on the music, which was and remains unprecedented in rock history for its unflagging quality and creativity. While they always sound like the Beatles, they managed to write and record a catalog of music in which no two songs sounded the same; at some intrinsic level of inventiveness and integrity they refused to revisit melodies and chord progressions. Paul McCartney has said, in retrospect, something to the effect of “What would be the point of that?”

* Karl Wallinger thought we were on a ship of fools back in 1987. Little did he know.

* While Jonatha Brooke’s career after the duo The Story gained traction and resulted in a number of reasonably high-profile album releases and other projects, her partner in The Story, Jennifer Kimball, receded into the background in the years following their partnership. I hope this was by design as opposed to being the results of the vagaries of the music industry. While Brooke’s singing voice may be the more immediately distinctive, I find Kimball’s tone equally compelling, and have always in particular loved this one track I stumbled on back in the early years of Fingertips from a band Kimball had formed in the early ’00s called Maybe Baby, with guitarist Ry Cavanaugh. He also happens to be her husband. I see from the internet that Kimball went on from there to study landscape design and start her own business. But she did release an album as recently as 2017, called Avocet, which you can listen to and purchase on Bandcamp. It’s really nice to hear her voice again. As for Maybe Baby, I don’t see it on Bandcamp, but it is available to listen to on Spotify, which tells me as I’m now looking that two other people have listened to it this month. Quantity never tells the whole story; why do we so often let it?

* It seems almost unfathomable that Nick Drake was so generally unrecognized in his day; the music sounds so incisive and remarkable now. It’s also pretty crazy that it took a Volkswagen commercial to bring him into the cultural mainstream in 2000, some 25 years after his death at age 26. You can read more about that in this 2016 article from Boston.com.

“The Only Heartbreaker” – Mitski

Maybe you’re the only one trying

“The Only Heartbreaker” – Mitski

Famously adored by a sizable silo of fans for her emotionally acute lyrics, Mitski has a secret weapon hiding in plain sight: the gorgeous tonal quality of her singing voice. Overlookable, perhaps, in the context of the synths and beats often surrounding it, her vocal power seems particularly on display throughout her latest album, the terrific Laurel Hell, which was released in February. It could also be that the 31-year-old singer/songwriter continues to deepen as a performer as the years go by.

“The Only Heartbreaker” delivers a melancholy interpersonal message over a rapid pulse. The New York Times last month referred to it as a “catchy pop song,” but is it, really? It’s got a body-stimulating beat, but little about Mitski’s delivery here signals “catchy pop song,” starting with the fact that the melody, already moving at half the pace of the rhythm, is consistently stretched in and around the song’s momentum. The potentially anthemic chorus repeats one line–“I’ll be the only heartbreaker”–in such an in-between-the-raindrops kind of way as to be quite difficult to sing along with.

As for the melancholy, the song’s narrator feels elusively aggrieved from the start, singing, “If you would just make one mistake/What a relief it would be.” The simple but emotionally potent idea here is that the singer feels to be the only one ever messing up in the relationship. One particularly striking lyric, however, hints at further depth: “I’ll be the water main that’s burst and flooding/You’ll be by the window, only watching.” As Mitski explained to Rolling Stone, “Maybe the reason you’re always the one making mistakes is because you’re the only one trying.”

You can listen to Laurel Hell on Bandcamp, and buy it there in a variety of formats, some with different packaging options. MP3 via KEXP.

“Everything is Simple” – Widowspeak

Brooklyn duo shows no sign of letting up

“Everything is Simple” – Widowspeak

Molly Hamilton’s languorous, whisper-like vocals–an ongoing centerpiece of the Widowspeak sound–feel especially front and center on the chunky yet dreamy “Everything is Simple.” After the hesitating, rubbery bass line establishes the song’s deliberate pace, there she is, purring lazily in your ear, ever-so-slightly behind the beat. It’s hard to resist.

And yet it’s the background instrumentation that really sells this one, for me: the central bass line, marching up and falling back; the prickly guitar licks, adding intermittently insistent metallic abrasion; and the steadying keyboard presence, fingering evocative chords and vamps at just the right time. (Listen for the first instance at 0:24; for me, this recurring moment more or less makes the whole song.) “Everything is Simple” has a circular persistence to it that works against type to transform Hamilton’s laid-back breathiness into something tenacious. “I’m still around but it’s a curse,” she happens to sing.

Widowspeak is the duo of Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas. Formed in Brooklyn in 2010 just before the borough’s indie rock mania began to recede, the band has outlasted that bygone scene with no sign of letting up. They released their sixth album, The Jacket, last month; that’s where you’ll find “Everything is Simple.” MP3 once again via KEXP.

“The Funhouse” – Francis of Delirium

Edgy ’90s guitar rock via a 2022 filter

“The Funhouse” – Francis of Delirium

What kind of name is this–Francis of Delirium? Distinctive, while bordering on the absurd? Offering a religious undertone with a feverish overtone? In any case the name seems somehow to hint at the aural palette on display, which meshes tightly articulated guitar work with a sense of structural abandon, as if you’re never sure what is about to happen next.

And what kind of band is this anyway? The front woman and guitarist is Jana Bahrich, who is 20. The drummer is Chris Hewitt, who is 50. They met because Hewitt’s daughters were in school with Bahrich. This was in Luxembourg (Luxembourg!?), although neither are from there. (Bahrich was born in Vancouver and later moved to Belgium and Switzerland; Hewitt is from the Seattle area.) They intially bonded over their love of Pearl Jam. Jana started the band when she was 17.

It’s a story that didn’t have to go this way but somehow they’ve turned into an internationally touring band with a compelling sound, which includes some of the best guitar playing I’ve heard in a long while–not for its intricacy or wizardry but for the confident, rhythmic melodicism anchoring its movement. The song, as Bahrich has explained, is about being unfazed by the mayhem around you, and if you can’t make it out too specifically from the lyrics, you can feel it from the music. And yet, these lyrics!: check them out because to my ears they achieve something akin to poetry for their evocative blending of the concrete and the allusive. This is worthy stuff from beginning to end.

“The Funhouse” is Francis of Delirium’s sixth offering, which includes two EPs and four singles, the latter of which sometimes have extra songs attached as well. You can check everything out on Bandcamp. MP3, one more time, via KEXP.

(Oh, and the name? It derives from a woman who lived in Jana’s grandparents’ elder care facility, who used to shout swear words at them when she visited as a child. The memory lingered.)

The measure of all things

Surviving as a qualitative enterprise in a quantitative world

The day after the 2022 Grammys were awarded I received an email entitled “The Grammys, Corrected: ‘Montero’ Is the Song of the Year.” It came from a music analytics company called Viberate, which specializes in “streaming, airplay, and social media monitoring,” according to the company web site. The concept makes a lot of sense in a music landscape as fragmented and streaming-based as we now have. Clearly the old-school idea of what is a “hit song” has been disrupted by new listening habits generated by 21st-century technology.

But in their enthusiasm to promote their analytical prowess, the brain trust at Viberate has ignored the fact that quality and quantity are (news flash!) not the same thing. “We finally have the winners of the 2022 Grammy Awards, with the coveted Song of the Year title going to Silk Sonic’s ‘Leave the Door Open,'” begins the Viberate press release. “However, data tells a different story.”

Actually, no. Data cannot tell a different story. The Song of the Year award is given to a song perceived by those who vote for such things as the “best” song of the year. No amount of analytics, however sophisticated, can change the fact that the voters thought that the Silk Sonic song was better than Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and therefore Silk Sonic received the award.

Note that I’m not defending the voters’ choice. Lil Nas X may have the better song here, or may not. Awards of this nature are subjective; arguments afterwards about who deserved this or that award are part of the territory. To promote the “‘Montero’ was more popular so it has to win the Grammy” story line reveals either ignorance (do the Viberate folks not realize that awards in the arts are tied to quality not quantity?), misguided bravado (our numbers are better than your opinions!), or outright cynicism (we can measure this objectively so let’s pretend subjectivity doesn’t exist). You choose!

And okay on the one hand this is a small and ignorable circumstance, just another fledgling tech company trying to boost its profile. But the mindset underlying this press release is all too common. I’ve discussed this before, most directly in an essay making the case for quality as an essential cultural concept being routinely devalued by Big Tech–read here if you’re interested. This time I’m going to take the discussion in a more personal direction, as I have lately been pondering my fate not only as the creator of qualitative content in a quantitative digital environment, but as a human having lived a life in which I have consistently fallen short of quantifiable measures of what is typically deemed “success” in our Western, late-capitalist culture. I have never earned a serious-looking salary; I spent many of my middle-adult years both as a primary caregiver and a freelance writer landing whatever modest assignments I could hustle up. All the while, at a more fundamental level, I have felt out of sync with the general concept of having a so-called career in the first place–a “career” itself being a stand-in for an accepted level of human success in our culture.

Hijacked by metrics

Emblematic of my standing in the world is this web site, a carefully constructed but (let’s face it) simple-looking operation, offering thoughtful, well-written (I think) reviews, downloadable songs, and mixed-genre playlists that either a) relatively few people are interested in or b) relatively few people have discovered in the first place. Each option appears discouraging for different reasons: either I’ve been spending the better part of two decades doing something no one really cares about, or doing something that more people might care about were I more capable of attracting attention to myself.

Dig deeper, however, and the two different explanations for the ostensible failure of Fingertips can be seen as rooted in the same circumstance, which is a culture hijacked by metrics at every level of effort. On the one hand, yes–I could have worked (much) harder over the years to market this site, which by the 2010s would have involved mastering the art of social media promotion and/or search engine optimization. But on the other hand: note how quantitative such endeavors are, how the ineluctable, reductive point is to generate big numbers of clicks. If one’s original goal is an off-the-beaten-path enterprise–that is, not something that is ever going to appeal to millions of people–attempting to generate millions of page views is a fool’s errand from the get-go.

And, were it not a fool’s errand, there’s the off-putting reality of the surveillance-capitalist tricks I’d have to piggy-back onto to effect any sort of far-reaching promotional campaign in the first place.

The bottom line is that a media environment requiring the pursuit of a mass audience seems always to subsume the quality of what is being promoted to the overarching effort to trigger mass quantities of reactions, as instantaneously as possible. There seems no space on the web for the modest success; if something works, it’s supposed to work bigger, and bigger still. It is a media environment that gives birth to an enterprise like Viberate, with a mindset that the only thing that matters is quantity. One person’s hype-free effort to offer quality content–say, a boutique music-curation site–has little place in the metric-tilted environment propagated by our 24/7 information flow and feedback loop. Millions of page views or it didn’t happen. The most popular song is the best song.

The internet didn’t have to develop this way. Things were quirkier and gentler in the late ’90s into the early ’00s, when I started this site. But once the corporations gained a foothold, intoxicated by the power latent in a largely unregulated marketplace, the current situation became steadily inevitable. Fortified by unprecedented amounts of data and the potential to reach more or less anyone anywhere, the internet is a quantitative wonderland; for better or worse, small-scale, qualitative enterprises are more or less irrelevant here.

Facing the music
Chelsea Cutler has criticized the industry’s social media fixation

The fact that the internet reduces to quantity over quality at every turn has had a notable impact on the music industry, both for listeners and for the artists making the music. Singer/songwriter Chelsea Cutler generated headlines at the beginning of the year for posting, on Instagram, her thoughts on what seems to have gone wrong with the music business, focusing on her discomfort with the industry’s mindless embrace of social media for promoting musicians. She wrote: “With the way social media has evolved the last year, I don’t know how to keep up with how insatiable our content culture has become.” In particular, she said, “it feels exhausting to be constantly thinking of how to turn my daily life into ‘content’ especially knowing that I feel best mentally when I spend less time on my phone. It also feels exhausting to be told by everyone in the industry that this is the only effective way to market music right now.”

I’ve long been criticizing the way that musicians have been forced into being social media performers–why assume the most talented musicians are also the most talented attention-getters?–but it’s the logical end result of an online environment in which pure and immediate quantity has become the only meaningful measure of success. (The most popular song is the best song.) The fact that record companies have taken to signing musicians based on one (count ’em, one) TikTok clip is perhaps the apotheosis of quantity mania in the music world. Forget whether an artist has developed a consistent following, has a proven performance and songwriting track record, and shows other important signs of being worthy of serious investment (including whether the music is actually any good!)–nope, let’s throw big bucks at a rando who attracted a one-time crowd on a social media app catering to the shortest of short attention spans. Makes sense to me!

Meanwhile, this over-focus on quantity affects listeners in so many subtle and not-subtle ways that it should be the subject of another essay, and perhaps will be. But let’s start here with the reality that every single recommendation you receive via the streaming service of your choice is based on popularity. And while this isn’t terrible in all cases–sometimes it’s helpful to know which songs of an unfamiliar artist have been most popular–the fact that a basic, quantifiable characteristic (number of streams) is the engine driving the music listening environment of our current day to the exclusion of other factors is not just distressing at a soul level (for what that’s worth), it has opened up a blatantly corrupt can of worms regarding the prevalence of fake artists on streaming services like Spotify.

The fake artist phenomenon is, among other things, proof positive that not everything that’s popular is good and/or worthy of attention; streaming stats will conversely illustrate that not everything that isn’t popular is bad and/or undeserving of attention. But this appears to be too nuanced a concept for a digital world in which everything is ultimately rendered as a 0-or-1, yes-or-no reality. In a way, one might consider quantity to be a digital fact, quality an analog fact.

The tyranny of quantity

Where this tyranny-of-quantity situation leaves me personally is an ongoing question. As of now there are two reasons why I keep Fingertips going despite its longstanding failure as a digital enterprise. The first is that I like the work–I like discovering great songs, many of which are somewhat under the radar, and writing about them in a way that illuminates the listening process. When I’m engaged with it I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. The second reason is somewhat tautological: I’ve been doing it since 2003; to stop now seems to make all the previous years of work even more meaningless than they may already be. If I think too hard about this second reason, however, it also turns into a reason to stop–why continue the meaningless work for one day longer?

When all is said and done, a lot of what I’ve written about here over the years has advocated either directly or indirectly for the ongoing importance of quality in a world transfixed by quantity. This may be a little ‘woo-woo,’ but I believe that the physical reality of digitalia–the fact that all computerized information, however complex, whether textual or visual or musical, is reduced to a series of electronic gates that are open or closed, no in between–is if not the direct cause of the interrelated humanistic crises provoked by our having given ourselves over to this black-or-white world, then is in any case a powerful metaphor for what’s rotten here at the core. The world is relentlessly analog: there is nuance, there is gradation, there are grey areas, there is verticality and depth. Anything digitized, deep at the bottom of all the arcane code, possesses none of these characteristics. We can’t change that but we also ignore it at our peril–if not physical peril (it may yet come to that) then certainly emotional and spiritual peril.

This is a lot of writing to arrive at no particular conclusion, but so far I don’t have one. Quantity continues to stamp its cold hard boot on the tender face of quality. Fingertips is a small effort in the quality camp. The question remains whether small-scale quality on the internet is inevitably tantamount to the proverbial tree falling in the unpopulated forest. Some days the thought of how invisible I am here drives me nuts–not because I yearn for fame (at all), but because I know there are a lot of people out there, including people far further up the chain in the music industry than I am, who would dig what I’m doing if they would only stumble upon it.

Other days, I tell myself that’s still my ego talking. I tell myself that the only legitimate reason to keep doing what I’m doing is if it comes from deep inside of me and wants to get out. Whether there’s anyone else in the forest is, in theory, beside the point. I gain some solace from something Toni Morrison once said: “You are not the work you do, you are the person you are.” And, hell, if you think about it isn’t that hard enough? Being the person you are? If the words I write and the music I offer on this web site helps me at least try to do that, then that will have to be enough for now.