“Y Mas Gan” – Sinéad O’Connor
Make no mistake: Sinéad O’Connor is a magical singer; the various twists and turns her career have taken, many of them controversial, have maybe blinded us to how deeply talented she really is. We were given another chance to figure this out last year, in the most unexpected of ways, as the often hair-free Irish singer recorded an album of roots reggae covers entitled Throw Down Your Arms (self-released in October on a label she calls That’s Why There’s Chocolate and Vanilla). It was the kind of well-intentioned but confusing-to-the-mass-media effort that was destined to look like a sort of stunt and fade away. I pretty much missed it, telling myself “Well, I’m not really much of a reggae fan anyway” and leaving it at that. Then I stumbled last week upon this MP3 atmusic.download.com and I realize I may have missed a treasure. This song has great musical character from the get-go, revolving around the mischievous dialogue between a melodic bass line and sly horn chart that unfolds against the familiar loping reggae beat. O’Connor’s voice has an incredible purity at its center, and she has learned to sing with a stunning sort of restraint, almost as if she were able to whisper with her mouth wide open. Listen for her overdubbed, upper-register harmonies, which offer a series of brilliant, unanticipated intervals in the service of the melody and the message. O’Connor traveled to Jamaica to record the CD in Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong recording studio, with the help of master reggae rhythm section/producers Sly and Robbie; she even went so far as to use at least one musician on each track who played on the original. Here she sings a song recorded first by the Abyssinians in 1972. Most of the words are not in English; she may or may not be playing entirely by whatever rules that practitioners and/or fans believe may govern the genre; all I know is that the end result is not only beautiful but distinctly inspiring.
“Roscoe” – Midlake
After a chuggy bit of Fleetwood Mac-ish keyboard vamping, we find ourselves abruptly in the middle of an unfathomable tale involving stonecutters, mountaineers, and an odd sense of displacement in both time and space. As difficult as it is to get grounded here lyrically, I feel myself completely embraced musically, and this is I believe one of pop music’s most wondrous gifts: the capacity to juxtapose accessible music with mysterious lyrics (just as powerful a combination, I think, as the more often discussed idea of setting sad lyrics to happy music). Too often it seems bands feel the need to push into obscurity both musically and lyrically, and while this no doubt can have its own rewards, it rarely works that well for the uninitiated listener, or for anyone seeking great pop music, which requires some amount of listenability by definition. Longtime Fingertips visitors may recall Midlake for the majestic “Balloon Maker,” a stylish piece of Brit-inflected neo-progressive pop from the band’s debut CD in 2004. “Roscoe” sounds almost nothing like that, its Stevie Nicks groove transforming singer/songwriter Tim Smith’s voice into that guy from Bread this time, although his Thom Yorke-ish tone is still pleasantly apparent. A five-piece band from Denton, Texas, Midlake will release its second CD, entitled (unfathomably enough) The Trials of Van Occupanther, on Bella Unionin July.
“Don’t Be Afraid, I’ve Just Come to Say Goodbye (The Ballad of Clementine Jones)” – Spider
Sometimes this song pulls the listener in to such a whispery-quiet place it seems I can hear not merely the acoustic guitar but the very act of strings being plucked and the guitar’s body shifting on the thighs of the guitar player. We’re talking intimate sound here, and yet what’s so bracing and engaging is how much else is going on even in this very personal setting: a wistful flute comes and goes, as does a french horn, a lonely yet precise wood block, and, even, some backward-sounding electric guitar lines, everything coming and going with so much gentleness that you don’t realize something has been until it’s not again. At the center of everything is Jane Herships, doing musical business as Spider, and it is her semi-trembly yet articulate voice that anchors the effort and keeps it from veering off into some sort of lo-fi abyss. If you think it’s easy to sing this closely and precisely and unwaveringly in pitch, you haven’t tried; and if you think it doesn’t make a difference, you haven’t heard enough singers who can’t do it. “Don’t Be Afraid…” is from Spider’s eight-song CD, The Way to Bitter Lake, which was released earlier this year.