Pop songwriters, among all creative artists, have it easiest when titling their work. Novels and screenplays, sculptures and symphonies: these can be vexingly difficult to name. A song with lyrics, on the other hand, pretty much names itself by the time it’s finished. Find the word or phrase most often repeated and there’s your title—usually. But there are always some outliers—either because the song’s lyrics don’t deliver an obviously repeated phrase, or because the songwriter wants to mess with you a bit. In the case of “Atoms,” a bit of both may be going on. The chorus is heard only twice, and opens with a focus on one word so generic and over-employed that it kind of resists titlehood (“love”). So nothing super obvious suggests itself as a name although I’m thinking “Breaking Point” would have won out had Tidelands front man and songwriter Gabriel Leis been less interested in offering up a puzzle and/or contemplation.
Instead we get “Atoms,” which turns out to be a cunning title for this declarative yet melancholy piece, featuring singer/songwriter Debbie Neigher in duet with Leis. Paradoxical pests that they are, atoms comprise the solid world that we know without possessing any solidity of their own. When Leis sings, “I’m counting atoms,” in this graceful tale of lovers who can no longer communicate, his character’s self-righteousness and futility bleeds through. Meanwhile, launched off the ambiguity of suspended chords, the music has a fatigued grandeur, with its resonant strumming and keenly placed piano fills. Best of all, to my ears, are the vocals: Leis sings with a command that brings Colin Meloy to mind, minus the vocal quirks, and with a muscularity the Decemberists’ front man doesn’t offer; Neigher, brought in as a guest, adds a lovely, dusty edge to the female character’s point of view. The song was inspired, unfortunately, by the break-up of Leis’ marriage and was originally written for only the male narrator, the female part conveyed in third person.
“Atoms” is one side of a split single on white vinyl that Tidelands and Neigher released earlier this month on Redgummy Records, with Neigher’s song “Smile” on the other side. Check that one on Neigher’s web site, it’s also quite good. You can order the white vinyl via Bandcamp. Leis’s partner in Tidelands is drummer Mie Araki. All musicians involved here are based in the San Francisco area. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.