They can’t read my thoughts

Eclectic Playlist Series 10.1 – January 2023

For those keeping score at home, I operate here under the self-imposed rule that Eclectic Playlist Series artists may only appear once in any given calendar year. January is when everything resets, and all artists are available again. It’s fun to regain the unlimited choice but this does make the January list troublesome in that anyone I feature in this initial mix is immediately excluded for the rest of the year. If I over-eagerly populate the January playlist with some of my all-time favorites (e.g., Elvis Costello, Liz Phair, and Suzanne Vega, to name three), then poof, I’ve already used them up for the year. It’s a first-world problem.

While I’m in new year introductory mode, I’ll offer another couple of tidbits that you may or may not have figured out on your own over time. First: the horizontal graphic you see at the top of any playlist post is excerpted each month from the cover of one of the albums featured (via one song) on each mix. Next: the playlist’s title likewise is a phrase from a lyric in one of the songs in the mix. Usually these two things do not derive from the same song but I think it’s happened once or twice (for those keeping score at home).

As always, the widget for listening is below the playlist. The extra curious can scroll further and find extra notes about some of what you’ll be hearing.

Lastly, regarding the Mixcloud situation: I am leaving everything available there, at least for the next month or so. Feel free to pipe up if you have any helpful input on the matter; for all I know nobody is going back to listen to the older lists in the first place. I do tend to be more of an archivist than is seemingly necessary in an online realm oriented towards what’s next rather than what was here last month (or last year, or last decade). And yet I remain hesitant to have only 10 mixes live at any one time. Still, to keep all the playlists online is going to be pricey moving forward, and Fingertips is–go figure–hardly a money machine. If I take them down it’ll render this page largely superfluous, but maybe that’s not a big deal.

On to the music:

1. “The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)” – The Fun Boy Three (single, 1981)
2. “Collider Particles” – Madison Cunningham (Revealer, 2022)
3. “Say Something” – James (Laid, 1993)
4. “Zebra” – Beach House (Teen Dream, 2010)
5. “Somebody Who Loves You” – Joan Armatrading (Joan Armatrading, 1976)
6. “The Death of Magic Thinking” – Elvis Costello & The Imposters (The Boy Named If, 2022)
7. “Wish I Was” – Kim Deal (b-side, 2013)
8. “Perfume” – Sparks (Hello Young Lovers, 2006)
9. “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” – Lou Johnson (single, 1964)
10. “West Gwillimbury” – Ron Sexsmith (The Last Rider, 2017)
11. “Giving It All to You” – Liz Phair (Somebody’s Miracle, 2006)
12. “She’s In Love With You” – Suzi Quatro (Suzi…And Other Four-Letter Words, 1979)
13. “The Ways of the Wind” – P.M. Dawn (The Bliss Album…?, 1993)
14. “Satellites” – Rickie Lee Jones (Flying Cowboys, 1989)
15. “Keep On Dreamin'” – The Arcs (single, 2022; album coming in 2023)
16. “Sophie” – Jeff Beck (Wired, 1976)
17. “Fat Man & Dancing Girl” – Suzanne Vega (99.9 F°, 1992)
18. “Long and Lonesome Road” – Shocking Blue (At Home, 1969)
19. “Reynardine” – Isobel Campbell (Milkwhite Sheets, 2006)
20. “Hope” – Bauhaus (Burning From the Inside, 1983)

The fine print:

* Two prominent but unrelated factors led to this month’s opening track. There was on the one hand the sad news of the death of the British singer/songwriter Terry Hall, best known here for his prominent role in the bands The Specials and The Fun Boy Three. And there was on the other hand the clown show that opened for business earlier this month in the U.S. House of Representatives. I’m not sure what they were specifically addressing in 1981–it sounds like they had an understandable beef with Ronald Reagan, among other things–but honestly, the lyrics to this debut single strike me as more on point than ever. (Note that the band over time lost the “The” in front of their name, but initial releases were in fact credited to “The Fun Boy Three.”)

* Speaking of newcomers to the EPS univertse: obviously one way to go is to select artists who are relatively new to the music scene. One of my favorites of this group is the singer/songwriter Madison Cunningham, whose songs can be knotty and catchy at the same time. As a bonus, she plays a mean, jazz-inflected guitar. The song “Hospital” was my introduction to her, and it’s a great one if you don’t know it, but it turns out the album, Revealer, is packed with goodies. Check it out if you get a chance.

* All the songs as he’s already written, all the musical paths he’s wandered down, and he still comes up with something like this? I’m talking Elvis Costello and this selection from his most recent LP, 2022’s A Boy Named If, which is as fresh and interesting as his best songs always are. And hey if you’re one of those people who has vaguely good feelings about EC but has maybe lost touch with his 21st-century output, have no fear: my “Elvis Costello: the 21st century” playlist is the thing for you. Twenty-one songs from his 21st-century oeuvre that range widely away from his “angry young man” phase and why shouldn’t they? He is no longer young and no longer angry, but he’s still as good a songwriter as rock’n’roll has ever produced.

* I am not a Pixies superfan and I don’t know a whole lot about Kim Deal and nothing about what prompted a series of five seven-inch singles she released, without an album, between 2012 and 2014. But I do know that the instrumental “Wish I Was” is weirdly magnetic to my ears, and I suspect that anyone fond of subtle droning guitar lines will feel similarly. The song establishes a deliciously laid-back groove and doesn’t deviate; the deep charm is in Deal’s ongoing choices in both the lead and rhythm parts (I assume she plays both). There are hesitations, minor atonalities, fuzzy patches, fitful melody lines, and an imprecise island vibe. Marvelous from beginning to end.

* “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” is about as Burt Bacharach-y a song as there is (check out those modulation!; and that eccentric opening parentheses!), and later versions are better known, the Naked Eyes cover in 1983 most of all, it was first a modest hit for the singer Lou Johnson back in 1964. It became a big hit in the UK when covered by Sandie Shaw later that same year. Dionne Warwick is also associated with this song; she recorded a demo version in 1963 but didn’t put out a full recording of it until her 1967 album The Windows of the World. Everyone does a pretty good job with this song but I’m especially enjoying Johnson’s take, with its unburdened, almost offhanded arrangement and the singer’s nonchalant delivery.

* I am not aiming to turn these playlists into requiems–my goal is to be as outwardly appreciative as possible while some of these older musicians are still with us–but it seems only natural to mark notable passings from time to time. There was Christine McVie last month and now the news about the so-called “guitarist’s guitarist,” Jeff Beck. I’m not a big fusion fan but only a grump is going to resist the various memorable guitar riffs baked into the eight songs on his 1976 album Wired. “Sophie” is a bit on the long side but it earns the ear space for its engaging, split-personality unfoldings, and the undeniable appeal of Beck’s soaring lead lines, here playing off some extra show-off-y stuff from Jan Hammer.

* If known at all, the Dutch band Shocking Blue gets pigeonholed into the “one-hit wonder” category based on their indelible 1969 song “Venus,” as sneaky-great sounding today as ever. But there was a good deal more to the band than that, thanks in large part to front woman Mariska Veres’ effortless vocal charisma. With a bluesy-folksy psychedelic palette that places them squarely in their late-’60s/early-’70s time frame, Shocking Blue carved out something of their own sound, at least for a while–the later few of their nine studio albums, released between 1967 and 1974, veered often towards either a more generic sound, as if the band were simply running out of ideas, or songs too deliberately evocative of “Venus” (see “Eve and the Apple,” from 1972’s Attila)…as if the band were simply running out of ideas. Through it all, however, Shocking Blue maintained an appealing, home-baked charm that mixed menace and innocence in an especially ’70s sort of way.

* How can you not love “West Gwillimbury”? As noted at Ron Sexsmith’s last appearance here (EPS 9.08), his 2017 album The Last Rider is a keeper, and this song is too delightful for words, featuring the sort of laid-back but insistent melodicism that characterizes his finest efforts. Ongoingly prolific, Sexsmith has not only released two more albums since then, but has another one, entitled The Vivian Line, his eighteenth, coming out next month.

“Some Of Us Are Brave” – Danielle Ponder

Heartfelt and potent

“Some Of Us Are Brave” – Danielle Ponder

A heartfelt knockout of a song, “Some Of Us Are Brave” is one part gospel, one part old-school soul, and one part acute, up-to-the-minute clarion call for empathy and empowerment. Singer/songwriter Danielle Ponder is a former public defender from Rochester, New York who turned full-time to music in 2018. “Some Of Us Are Brave” is the title track to her 2022 debut album; it takes its name from a landmark Black feminist essay collection from 1982 entitled All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies.

There’s much to love about this song, beginning with the potency of Ponder’s voice, which is introduced through a filter that nods at vocal stylings from the ’30s and ’40s. The filter fades after thirty seconds, and Ponder proceeds to use her obviously powerful instrument with artful restraint–super appealing to my ears, which have always been allergic to the sort of singing a music teacher I once knew referred to, with delightful disdain, as “con belto” (cf. bel canto). With Ponder, the wonderful moments are moments of phrasing–such as her “what a pity” at 0:44, or the “I know” at 1:37, among many others–that might glide by an inattentive listener and yet cumulatively contribute to the overall magnetism of the performance.

On point as well are the production choices, which reinforce the theme of potent restraint. I especially like the way the song shifts at 0:53, and not necessarily in the direction one might anticipate. The introductory section as it develops might seem to be leading to something explosive; instead the song slides into a velvet groove that begins with subtle electronic touches before opening into the bass-forward, trip-hoppy soundscape that dominates the rest of the song. One last indication of the song’s predilection for subtle power is the outro (starting at 3:09), which features a meditative, arpeggiated synth line and lyrics of calm but persuasive force.

MP3 via KEXP. And hey if you can’t help wanting some stormier vocalizing, be sure to check out the entire album on Bandcamp, where you can buy it either digitally, on CD, or on vinyl. Ponder does in fact cut loose from time to time, and in her hands it’s pretty great as well.

“Anna” – Cloud Cukkoo

Brisk, poignant ballad

“Anna” – Cloud Cukkoo

After a gentle, lullaby-like opening, “Anna” develops into a brisk, melodic composition that, backbeat notwithstanding, I’m tempted to call a ballad. What, after all, is a ballad? Traditionally, it’s a poem, typically suitable for singing, in which a story is told, often a romantic and/or tragic one. Note too that ballads often are set to an ABCB rhyme scheme, which is what “Anna” employs as well. I say it’s a ballad, and a splendid one at that.

The story being told, obliquely, is worth unpacking. The Dutch singer/songwriter Jori, who records as Cloud Cukkoo, tells of seeing a homeless man on a Dublin street, on a cold day, collecting coins in a Starbucks coffee cup with the name “Anna” on it. “Not even the cup was his,” she says. She wrote this song in response; in it, she alludes to his hardships as the man addresses the (imagined) woman whose name graces the discarded cup. It’s a simple but striking premise, brought to life with even-handed production, an incisive chorus, and Jori’s deceptively formidable voice–don’t let the song’s catchiness distract you from her lovely depth of tone. I especially appreciate the clean soundscape, driven by rhythm guitar, unfussy percussion, and well-placed keyboards: a beautiful aural counterpoint to the hyperactive, over-processed pop songs that grab clicks and followers in our mixed-up world.

Originally from a country village in the Netherlands, Jori relocated to Berlin in 2022 to be able to take part in a more diverse and vibrant creative community. She has some older material up on Bandcamp but doesn’t seem to be using that site at this point; your best bet for checking her music out is over on Spotify. “Anna” was just released last week; MP3 courtesy of the artist.

“Forever Far Out” – Dot Dash

Succinct power pop

“Forever Far Out” – Dot Dash

One of the reassuring things about power pop, besides its indelible if elusive charm, is that it never quite goes away–largely because it never fully arrived in the first place: a relentlessly niche-y genre, power pop has yielded relatively few big hits over the decades. And although you may see a recurring set of words and phrases used in efforts to describe the sound–upbeat, melodic hooks, often of the sing-along variety; jangly and/or crunchy and/or chunky guitars; sweet-sounding vocals; concise songwriting–we always land eventually in “I know it when I hear it” territory.

So, even here in the year 2023, a good 50 years on from power pop’s formative era, the song “Forever Far Out,” from the veteran DC band Dot Dash, reads as power pop all the way: there’s the chunky guitar line, the upbeat ambiance, a lot of melodic resolution, sweet-toned vocals, and succinct craftsmanship, with the song clocking in under three minutes. Favoring melodies that repeatedly resolve is an underrated commonality among most power pop songs, and Dot Dash does that here before you know what’s hit you: the first verse unfolds in three lines, taking you from tension to resolution in 10 seconds flat. The chorus is a bit cagier on the resolution front but resolution still arrives, and is followed up with some wordless “oo-oos”–a feature, it should be noted, that is rarely out of place in power pop.

Bonus: there’s a bridge (1:39), apparently an endangered concept in 21st-century songwriting, and (extra bonus points) it’s an instrumental bridge, as in no singing. As with everything here it doesn’t waste time. That squalling guitar note that leads us back to the chorus is worth the price of admission, simply as something you pretty much never hear these days.

Dot Dash is a D.C.-based trio, formerly a quartet, with six previous albums to their name. “Forever Far Out” is the lead track from their seventh, entitled Madman in the Rain, released in November. You can check the whole thing out, and buy it, via Bandcamp. The band was previously featured on Fingertips in 2015; read the review and you’ll find out where the name came from and other fun facts. MP3 via the band.

I don’t mind some slight disorder

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.11 – Dec. 2022

I’m going out on a limb here and posting a December playlist that is not a holiday playlist. I challenge you, in fact, to find anything here that says “holiday season” in any straightforward way. I’m not aiming to be a Grinch per se–I’m actually in a pretty good place of late all things considered–but the so-called “holiday spirit” isn’t doing it for me this year. The world is a lot; it’s all one can do to find a little clearing in it to stop and feel grateful for something or another. To crank all the way to deck the halls and ho ho ho is not in the cards for me this time around.

As for the rest of what’s in store, I sense an unconscious blending of the happy and the wary, the rousing and the wistful, a bit messy around the edges: life, in other words, via a 20-song playlist. Anticipate the possibility of a slightly jarring segue or two, which I will justify in two ways–first because sometimes songs that work well together as neighbors don’t abut each other comfortably, second because that’s life too.

As usual, the widget for listening is below the playlist. Faitihful listeners should note that Mixcloud, where the playlists live, has made a new corporate adjustment and as of December requires a paid membership, as a curator/creator, in order to keep more than 10 shows actively online at any given time. (It’s still free to listen to.) I decided to spring for the membership at least for the next few months, if only because I felt funny about abandoning eight-plus years of mixes quite so abruptly. I’m not sure it will be worth it in the long haul, given how, um, let’s say “specialized” the audience is. Still, I don’t love the idea of taking all the old playlists offline. We’ll see how it goes. Anyhow, here’s the latest, with some explanatory notes, as usual, below the widget:

1. “Queen Jane Approximately” – Emma Swift (Blonde on the Tracks, 2020)
2. “What You Said” – The Decks (Breath and Bone, 2009)
3. “The Walls Came Down” – The Call (Modern Romans, 1983)
4. “Baby, Don’t Cry” – Ray Charles (Sweet and Sour Tears, 1964)
5. “Time is a Healer” – Jesse Baylin (Jersey Girl, 2022)
6. “I’m Over You” – The Silos (The Silos, 1990)
7. “Now It’s On” – Granddaddy (Sumday, 2003)
8. “Memories of Madrid” – Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass (What Now My Love, 1966)
9. “Broken Circle” – Sam Phillips (Solid State: Songs From the Long Play, 2011)
10.”I Can’t Make It Alone” – Maria McKee (You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, 1993)
11. “Out Of My Head” – First Aid Kit (Palomino, 2022)
12. “When My Baby’s Beside Me” – Big Star (#1 Record, 1972)
13. “Un Poco Loco” – Bud Powell (The Amazing Bud Powell, 1952)
14. “Pull Up The Roots” – Talking Heads (Speaking in Tongues, 1965)
15. “Snap Out Of It” – Arctic Monkeys (AM, 2013)
16. “Skin, Bone & Silicone” – Susan Enan (Plainsong, 2009)
17. “Rain” – Bruce Ruffin (Rain, 1971)
18. “What Friends?” – Bettie Serveert (Dust Bunnies, 1997)
19. “The Challenge” – Christine McVie (Christine McVie, 1984)
20. “Pollen Seeking Bees” – Saadi (Bad City EP, 2009)

The fine print:

* Emma Swift’s album of Bob Dylan covers, from 2020, seemed like just the thing my ears have wanted to listen to these last few weeks. I guess it ties in my mind to the release of Dylan’s odd but captivating book, The Philosophy of Modern Song; something about going through a book where Dylan talks about other people’s songs steered me towards an album where someone else was singing his songs. Or some such thing. Swift has a lovely voice full of effortless shadings, and the arrangements are unfussy, with Swift’s partner Robyn Hitchcock doing all sorts of nice, restrained guitar work. Check it out if you’re curious.

* The sad news of the death of Christine McVie prompted all sorts of well-deserved online eulogies, most focusing, with good reason, on the pivotal if often understated role she played in Fleetwood Mac. I decided to pay tribute via her lesser-known solo work, opting for a characteristically upbeat/melancholy number called “The Challenge,” from her self-titled 1984 album. The challenge she refers to? Love, what else.

* Susan Enan is a British singer/songwriter with one album to her name, which was released back in 2009. I spent a little time digging and could find nothing that suggests she is still active as a musician. I heard this song two or three times a number of years back on Radio Paradise and it stuck with me. If Enan is no longer singer/songwriter-ing I hope she has found a gratifying path; it always pains me to imagine talented musicians having simply to give up based on how hard it can be to make a living this way.

* Originally presented, in 1966, as a melancholy but forceful ballad in a Phil Spector-ish soundscape by the histrionic American singer P.J. Proby, “I Can’t Make It Alone” is yet another indelible Gerry Goffin/Carole King composition. Dusty Springfield recorded what may be the most familiar version of this on her landmark Dusty in Memphis album in 1969. (Lou Rawls did a convincing cover that same year.) No offense to Dusty or Lou but to my ears, Maria McKee owns this song, via a 1993 recording that unearthed the song’s backbeat and didn’t let up.

* The music of Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass could not be made in this day and age, for any number of reasons. And while I am not at all insensitive to issues of appropriation, I have to give a pass to music this innocent and joyful and sonically respectful. If Alpert knew how to package and market this to middle-brow Americans in the mid- to late-’60s, more power to him. It was super appealing to me as a kid and I still have a big soft spot for those whirlwind banner TJB years of 1965 to 1967, with Alpert releasing an album every six or so months; four of the six records that came out during that three-year stretch went to #1 on the US chart, including What Now My Love.

* Another, entirely different musical soft spot for me is anything Sam Phillips puts out. Phillips is not only deeply thoughtful and creative as a songwriter, she has been creative with the business end of things as well. Back in 2009, she launched a fee-based subscription service called The Long Play, which offered members regular downloads of new songs, along with blog posts, interviews with her musical collaborators, and an array of other original content. All in all, she sent out 42 songs this way, distributed over five EPs and one LP, before shutting the service down in 2011. After the fact, she curated an album featuring 13 of those 42 songs, entitled Solid State: Songs From The Long Play. I never subscribed to the service but I bought the compilation album, from which “Broken Circle” is one of many highlights.

* The Arctic Monkeys have evolved into a somewhat different-sounding (but still great) band since the release of their widely-praised 2013 album AM. While the ubiquitous “Do I Wanna Know?” received the bulk of the attention (it’s got 1.5 billion streams on Spotify), the album is engaging throughout, and even included a few hints at where they would be heading, sonically, especially on the closing track “I Wanna Be Yours.” I’m still absorbing their new album, Car, but I think I like it a lot.

* One last soft spot in a mix overloaded with them, apparently: I love the vocal tone and texture of Carol van Dyk, front woman for the long-running Dutch band Bettie Serveert. There’s something at once friendly and imperious about her voice; match it with the band’s flair for crunchy guitar lines and punchy melodies and what’s not to love? “What Friends?” is a cleverly punctuated song from the band’s third album, 1997’s Dust Bunnies (the full lyric reads “You still don’t know what friends are for”). There have been eight albums released since then, most recently 2016’s Damaged Good, all worthy of a listen. The band has been featured three times to date on Fingertips, dating all the way back to 2003; this 2010 review gives you some more background on what they’re about.

“Take It If You Want It” – Shannon Curtis

Heartfelt & sophisticated

“Take It If You Want It” – Shannon Curtis

A crystalline, synth-driven call to inner action, “Take It If You Want It” stares down the existential mayhem of our 21st-century world and attempts to find a place and a way to live in it regardless. The song’s superpower is the glistening deftness of the presentation: the ’80s-inspired arrangement is tight and inventive (don’t miss the acrobatic bass line), the lyrics are precise and sincere without being dogmatic, and Curtis’s voice is rich, expressive, and disciplined. The overall vibe is heartfelt and sophisticated; if Kate Bush were interested in writing a catchy pop song that wrestles with spiritual precepts, it might sound something like this.

In any case it is certainly a Bushian vocal that, after a brief percussive intro, opens the song with echoey urgency. Curtis has an effortless melodic flair; from the opening lines of the verse the ear is hooked, and the song progresses through its interrelated parts–verse, pre-chorus, chorus–with a enviable sense of inevitability. Not all the lyrics will be immediately legible but, as with the most well-crafted songs, certain phrases will pop; one particularly indelible couplet is unambiguous: “The fascists are ascending/Disaster is impending.” A close listen reveals this as a voice in the head that the narrator is attempting to grapple with. I’d say a lot of us are grappling with that voice here at the end of 2022.

Born in California and based in Tacoma, Washington, Shannon Curtis is a singer/songwriter with a rich catalog to explore. Good To Me is her tenth full-length release in the last 10 years, following three previous EPs and an acoustic compilation album. “Take It If You Want It” is the opening track on the album Good To Me, which is something of a concept album, centering on an inner journey Curtis led herself on during the perilous, pandemic-jostled year 2021. The album, by the way, will next year be followed by a companion book, which Curtis describes as “a step-by-step roadmap for cultivating personal peace and power in hard times.” She notes further that the songs on Good to Me came from her own process of working with and through the steps described in the book. More on the album in the follow-up review, below. (Yes, this month I’m giving you two songs from the same album, with one palate cleanser in between. Keep reading!)

“Dog Stay Down” – Opus Kink

Offbeat frenzy, with horns

“Dog Stay Down” – Opus Kink

Under certain ineffable conditions I become a bit of a sucker for speak-singing in a rock’n’roll context (Cake perhaps my favorite example), and this one seems to hit the right buttons for me, general veneer of offbeat frenzy notwithstanding (or maybe because of it; hard to say). In any case there is no ignoring the sense of frantic drama that suffuses “Dog Stay Down”: from the wordless guttural chants in the introduction through the deft if semi-feverish vocal stylings of Angus Rodgers and the splatty horn charts, the song spools forward with an unhinged but somehow charming panache that grows more appealing with each listen. Those last 20 seconds introduce an extra level of loopy.

I have no idea what Rodgers is singing about, by the way, and it doesn’t remotely matter. Actually I’ll go out on a limb and say that lyrics in general tend to strike me as semi-irrelevant, in terms of their specific denotation. My ears require vocals on the one hand (I’m not much of an instrumental fan), but on the other hand I realize my enjoyment of words in a rock song has more to do with the voice as sound and the words as rhythm and texture than with what a singer is specifically saying. And here in fact is one of my perennial problems with standard music writing: so many reviews of albums focus so intently on lyrics that you’d almost never know the words were actually being sung, and accompanied by melodies and arrangements. More to the point, such writing tends to overlook the unique power of music, ignoring what’s most potent in the listener experience, which at its core is about sound waves, not verbiage. Or so says me. In any case, even were I able to discern all the words here, in “Dog Stay Down,” which I can’t (and at this point there’s no looking them up online), I really wouldn’t want or need to. The cathartic vibe speaks for itself.

Opus Kink is a six-piece band from Brighton, England. “Dog Stay Down” is a track from their debut EP, ‘Til the Streams Run Dry, which was released in October.

“Good To Me” – Shannon Curtis

Large & meditative at the same time

“Good To Me” – Shannon Curtis

In a new twist here on Fingertips I am this month featuring two songs from the same artist. This strikes me as a win-win: it relieves me of the need to select just one song from an album I really like, while also relieving me of the need to lower my standards in order to find three MP3s to offer in a given month. As recently noted, I’m sensing a decline in the availability of free and legal downloads–at least, in the availability of free and legal downloads that live up to my admittedly idiosyncratic standards. I may use this strategy moving forward, as the situation allows, in order to continue to offer at least three songs in any given update.

So yes, I really really like this new Shannon Curtis album, start to finish. The sonic palette, shot through with ’80s atmosphere (the good kind!), is immediately engaging, and Curtis’s prowess as a singer is continually on display–she can go light and airy one moment, and reach grainier middle tones at another. Reverb abounds but with ongoing restraint; the music feels spacious without losing definition. And I am impressed ongoingly by Curtis’s songwriting chops–the effortless melodies and artfully structured songs provide consistent delight, and reward repeated listens. As for the album’s cohesiveness lyrically, the songs reward as much attention as you’re willing to pay to them. For those who want the deep deep dive, there will also be the companion book, as noted above. (The book will initially be available to her community of supporting members, and then released more widely next year.) I applaud Curtis for the seriousness of her purpose and her concurrent capacity to translate her journey into a series of such accessible songs; and yet the beauty of the project is that you don’t have to engage with the details to be moved by the music.

“Good To Me” is the title track, and everything I’ve said about the album overall applies here. I love the ’80s synthesizers and big round percussion, in particular for how mindfully and cleanly produced these potentially over-the-top effects are employed; the song feels both large and meditative at the same time. And from beginning to end, the songcraft is exquisite, with verse and chorus melodies that interrelate and build on each other, and resolve with aplomb. The album was jointly produced by Curtis and her husband, Jamie Hill; Curtis is credited with the concept, the arrangements, the programming, and the performance, Hill with the synthesizers, sound design, and additional programming. This was a pandemic project through and through, conceived of and created during a time when Curtis, very active in recent years as a house-concert musician, was stuck in her own house during the extended lockdown.

MP3s here courtesy of the artist herself. You can listen to the whole thing on Bandcamp, and buy it there too, for a price of your own choosing. Be generous!

You can’t escape the way it all shakes out

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.10 – October 2022

My passing reference, last month, to Billy Bragg’s “dedicated swallower of fascism” lyric put the song it comes from in my head firmly enough that I had to give it an outlet this month. The Kinks will have to wait, but not, probably, for long.

As for the rest of what’s in store, I sense an unconscious blending of the happy and the wary, the rousing and the wistful: life, in other words, filtered through a 20-song playlist.

There are eight decades on tap this time, ranging from a jaunty 1956 cover of the jazz standard “On Green Dolphin Street” to a couple of heartfelt singles from 2022. In between there’s a little of a lot of things, from Motown and classic rock to new wave, indie rock, folk, funk, and other things that don’t cleave neatly to a genre label. Is there a usefully identifiable genre for an overlooked McCartney song from 2001? For Icelandic singer/songwriter Emiliana Torrini’s 2022 work with an ensemble dedicated to “the unorthodox use of classical instruments”? For former supermodel Rosie Vela’s one-time collaboration with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker? If one might file both the Casket Girls and Jolie Holland under “indie rock,” how helpful a label can that actually be?

And hey I’m not trying to open up a relatively pointless can of worms–I’m certainly not going to argue away the concept of genres, which no doubt have their place. In our content-saturated world I end up feeling the need to entice, and talking up the variety via well-worn labels seems, perhaps, a serviceable selling point. But in the interest of full transparency, these playlists, while offering variety, do not range every which way. I don’t connect to music that’s harsh or strident, so I pretty much act like genres that lean in that direction don’t exist. (Kind of a “sorry not sorry” circumstance.) Because melody, chord progressions, and traditional songcraft are my things, I have trouble making qualitative judgments in the hip-hop arena, so you won’t hear much here, though there have been occasional exceptions. For similar reasons, I don’t have a useful feel for EDM. And hyperpop?: I fear I am way behind the curve in understanding what’s going on there, but will note that any music that strikes my ears as “over-processed” defeats my ability to enjoy it. I’m not averse to technology and/or studio trickery per se, but at the end of the day I prefer music that presents as being generated by human voices and, ideally, physical instruments. It’s my born-in-the-20th-century shortcoming but there you go.

Back to the matter at hand: the musical vibe and value of these playlists can’t be fully summarized or represented by the parade of generic labels I might necessarily use to give a preview, via written words, of what your ears are going to encounter. I know there’s a small but dedicated group of listeners who find these mixes enjoyable, which continues to motivate me to put them together.

Enough jabbering. As usual, the widget for listening is below the playlist. After that, for the fully committed, you’ll find some random information about a few of the key songs this month.

1. “Pharmacist” – Alvvays (Blue Rev, 2022)
2. “Accident Waiting to Happen” – Billy Bragg (Don’t Try This At Home, 1991)
3. “Back In My Arms Again” – The Supremes (single, 1965)
4. “Getting Ready to Get Down” – Josh Ritter (Sermon on the Rocks, 2015)
5. “Laugh and Walk Away” – The Shirts (Street Light Shine, 1979)
6. “The Belle of St. Mark” – Sheila E. (The Glamorous Life, 1984)
7. “I Was Neon” – Julia Jacklin (Pre Pleasure, 2022)
8. “On Green Dolphin Street” – Ahmad Jamal Trio (Count ‘Em 88, 1956)
9. “Lonely Road” – Paul McCartney (Driving Rain, 2001)
10.”Magic Smile” – Rosie Vela (Zasu, 1986)
11. “Old Friend” – Caveman (Coco Beware, 2011)
12. “My Man On Love” – Judee Sill (Judee Sill, 1971)
13. “Only Talking Sense” – The Finn Brothers (Finn, 1995)
14. “Let Him Run Wild” – The Beach Boys (Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), 1965)
15. “Palmyra” – Jolie Holland (The Living and the Dead, 2008)
16. “So In Love” – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (Crush, 1985)
17. “Western World” – Casket Girls (What Keeps You Up At Night EP, 2015)
18. “People Say” – The Meters (Rejuvenation, 1974)
19. “Right Here” – Emiliana Torrini & The Colorist Orchestra (single, 2022)
20. “Save It For Someone Who Cares” – The Leisure Society (The Sleeper, 2009)

Odds and ends:

* All these years I didn’t realize that Neil and Tim Finn’s one and only album as a duo is called, simply, Finn as opposed to The Finn Brothers. For what it’s worth, iTunes never realized it either. As a longtime Neil Finn fan I always wanted to love this album more than I did at the time. But returning to it after a few decades I find it quite accomplished and charming in a low-key kind of way. And I realize that I never gave the years-later follow-up, 2004’s Everyone is Here much of a listen beyond the agreeable single, “Won’t Give In.” Going to do that right now. (By the way, you guys are all pretty clear on how great Neil Finn is, right? I’ll leave it to you to look up the history if you’re not familiar. He is an underrated rock’n’roll great, of the substantive/sensitive songwriter variety.)

* “I Was Neon” is the earwormy (in a good way) second single from Julia Jacklin’s impressive third album, Pre Pleasure. Jacklin has broken through more thoroughly so far in her native Australia but her time here in the U.S. may yet be coming.

* Paul McCartney released the album Driving Rain in 2001 to an unusual amount of commercial indifference (it was for instance his lowest-selling album to date in the UK)–a particular shame given the positive reviews and the general quality of the music. In retrospect the album represents a break in his sizable discography; recorded and released at age 59, it can be viewed as the last album he made before his age and experience themselves became subtle and often not-so-subtle themes. By the time of his next studio release, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, in 2004, he was presenting himself more openly as an aging adult. A subtle but definitive shift, and I should note a healthy one. We all get older; rock’n’rollers can too easily get stuck in youthful posturing that just gets foolish after a while. That all said, “Lonely Road” is a terrific, underplayed song. (Those interested in such things might want to give a listen to my “Overlooked McCartney” playlist, where you’ll find this and 20 other terrific Macca tunes that are less well-known than they deserve to be.)

* Speaking of aging rockers, every generation of rock’n’roll musicians to date has had to deal with how to square this particular career choice with the idea of growing older, but indie rock musicians are the first generation to be growing older in a post-rock’n’roll environment. This gives the question of staying power a vexing new wrinkle. (Are rock’n’rollers merely “experts in a dying field,” to quote the Beths?) I am in any case delighted that the Canadian band Alvvays is back for another go. I’ve long since forgiven them for the gimmicky-looking band name (you’re just supposed to pronounce it “Always,” but the spelling makes the band easier to find online), and am eager to spend more time with their fuzzed-up new album, Blue Rev, which was named for a sweet alcoholic drink that was popular in Canada around the turn of the century. The band have been through some bumps in the road since their sophomore effort, Antisocialites (2017), including stolen demos, flood-damaged equipment, two new band members to break in, and oh by the way the pandemic. They seem to have landed in one piece.

* The endearing Icelandic singer/songwriter Emiliana Torrini hasn’t been too obviously active over the last decade or so; her most recent solo album was 2013’s Tookah. But in 2016 she made a collaborative live album with the Belgium collective known as the Colorist Orchestra, which specializes in rearranging songs of specific singer/songwriters, and making an album featuring the new arrangements. More recently Torrini and the ensemble reconnected for a studio recording; the album, Racing the Storm, featuring all original material, will be released next year. “Right Here” is the first song to emerge from this intriguing project. Very long-time Fingertips followers may recall Torrini from her memorable single, “Me and Armini,” featured here back in 2008.

* I always wanted the Brooklyn-based band The Shirts to be better than they actually were. Staples on the same early new wave scene in NYC that produced Blondie, Television, and the rest, the Shirts weren’t punk in the slightest but that was okay–the music on stage at CBGBs in those days was more eclectic than you might think. The problem with the Shirts was simply a lack of consistent material. Over the course of their three initial albums, there were a small handful of excellent songs and a lot more that was forgettable. “Laugh and Walk Away” is from the second of those albums, Street Light Shine (1979), which was also the last album for which they received any helpful record company support. Lead singer Annie Golden ended up abandoning rock’n’roll for an acting career, where you might still find her–she had a notable role on Orange is the New Black and was also recently on Broadway in the acclaimed Into the Woods revival. Sans Golden, the Shirts reunited in the 21st century to release albums in 2006 and 2010. I’m not sure I’m that interested but I’ll always have a soft spot for a few of their ’70s tunes.

* Rosie Vela is an interesting footnote in rock history. After years as a successful fashion model, Vela went all in on music, building a home studio and landing a major record-label deal. The album she ended up making was produced by Gary Katz, well-known for his work with Steely Dan, and actually featured both Donald Fagen and Walter Becker for what might have been their first recorded work on the same project since they had broken up their band in 1981. Vela’s Dan-adjacent album was called Zasu–one assumes after the silent movie star ZaSu Pitts–and was well-received by critics, but went nowhere in terms of sales. While she later appeared intermittently as a singer on other people’s albums, and dated Jeff Lynne for a while, Vela has yet to make another record.

“Skulls” – Peter Matthew Bauer

Rumbly, insistent slice of indie rock

“Skulls” – Peter Matthew Bauer

It’s been a minute or two but here we are again with the download thing. Anyone interested? My beleaguered soul may only be able to fight the flow of inexorable technology for so long; even as I remain convinced that MP3s are an important part of the music listening landscape, I’m not sensing a lot of agreement outside of my own head. The more practical issue: whether I can continue to source enough MP3s that delight me to be able to continue to post about them in any regular way. If KEXP discontinues their MP3-attached “Song of the Day” feature I may have precious little left to offer.

But, let’s move along for the time being. And we’ll start here in October with this rumbly, insistent slice of indie rock from a founding member of the Walkmen, out on his own ever since the band entered its “extreme hiatus” stage in 2014. To anyone familiar with the Walkmen, the echoey ambiance and loping, syncopated pace will feel heartening; we can remember at least for four minutes and forty-six seconds that indie rock still inspires (some) people. An organ sustain beneath a bashy drum riff underscores Bauer’s distant, layered vocals and stately chord progression in an arrangement careful enough to create tension and purpose–you can all but intuit the guitar solo lying in wait (1:44). And worth the wait it is, with its patient melodicism and slow-boiling intensity.

“Skulls” is a song from Bauer’s third solo album, Flowers, released last month. Check it out via Bandcamp. Born in Washington DC, Bauer has, according to his website, done a significant amount of “esoteric work as a writer and astrologer,” influenced by Jung and Jodorowsky, among others. Knowing this may help you hear the lyrics–which skip across the ear without connecting to a discernible narrative or graspable meaning–in a different light, generating a vague sense of something potent lurking beneath the surface. In any case, for me–positioned against 21st-century pop music’s tiresome fountain of inspiration–well-chosen words even lacking any obvious connotation are preferable to lyrics detailing trivial issues of attraction and betrayal. Just saying.

MP3 via KEXP.