Free and legal MP3: Sløtface (wistful midtempo rocker)

So yes I guess every now and then I am engaged by a song’s lyrics, however much that is not normally the case for me here.

“New Year, New Me” – Sløtface

“New Year, New Me,” already pithily arranged, strips down even further, shortly after the halfway point, allowing front woman Haley Shea to draw attention to the following lyrics:

I keep playing my own therapist
And I’m convinced I’m good at it

Packed into these lines is the layered theme of this appealing midtempo rocker. With a blasé crispness suited to the matter at hand, Shea initially sings of the inevitable disappointments of unfulfilled new year’s resolutions. But this isn’t a cynical pity party. If, yes, we annually set ourselves up for failure by making new year’s resolutions in the first place, then maybe this inevitability is itself worth pondering. Most of us want to be better people but at some point have to confront the reality that you don’t get there via new year’s resolutions. Being convinced that one can be one’s own therapist is a poignant part of the wistful predicament, but recognizing that this is what one keeps trying to do is, maybe, a first step towards actual change. And maybe approaching the self with compassion rather than reproof offers a new hope, having nothing to do with making fated-to-fail “resolutions” (a word Shea does not in fact employ here).

So yes I guess every now and then I am engaged by a song’s lyrics, however much that is not normally the case for me here. As for the music, the first thing I like a lot is the laid-back lead guitar line, which comprises the introduction: it’s concise, melodic, and self-assured. The verse unfolds so casually as to seem spontaneous, with a couple of nicely-placed chord changes (e.g., 0:25), then launches into the chorus on a riff itself so understated as to be nearly nonexistent (0:37)—a musical reinforcement, perhaps, of the self’s predicament here: does stasis make change impossible, or is there some oh-so-gentle way to accept the self that can lead to transformation?

Sløtface is a band based in Stavanger, Norway. Although consistently identified as a punk pop (or a pop punk; is there a difference?) band, Sløtface (original name Slutface, and that’s still how you pronounce it), presents more accurately as a band that knows how to write and perform crafty, accessible rock songs, their guitar-laced volume consistently tempered by musical know-how and Shea’s approachable vocal style. Note that Shea has American parents, but grew up in Norway; the band’s other three members are Norwegian. “New Year, New Me” can be found on Sløtface’s new album, Sorry For The Late Reply, released late last month via Nettwerk/Propeller Recordings.

MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Rewilding (homespun instrumental)

The overall effect is a singular type of unsophisticated sophistication—it feels both homespun and skillfully assembled.

“Home Shore Highlights” – Rewilding

The oddly inviting instrumental “Home Shore Highlights” intermingles the organic and the electronic with idiosyncratic aplomb. Listen, for instance, to how the synthesizer takes the lead at some moments, a homely glockenspiel at others. The overall effect is a singular type of unsophisticated sophistication—it feels both homespun and skillfully assembled. On the one hand, the song is little more than a variety of recurring, related melodies on top of an unhurried tropical beat; on the other hand, things feel ongoingly off-kilter and endearing. As different sounds take turns in the spotlight, one consistent underlying element is the hands-on percussion, mixed with a bashy spaciousness that adds three-dimensionality to the aural landscape.

What might be the song’s signature moment, if not an actual hook, is that repeating place in the unfolding melody in which we get an even-tempoed march up the scale: a full, eight-note ascent that, in fact, occurs in pairs—when it happens once, it happens again a few seconds later (first at 0:43/0:51). Once this progression gets in your head, you tend to anticipate it in a variety of spots in which it doesn’t show itself. This makes its final appearance, at 3:04/3:12, seem particularly gratifying

“Home Shore Highlights” is the first single available from Rain Patch, the second Rewilding album, which is due out in April. Rewilding is masterminded by the Philadelphia-based musician Jake McFee, who wrote and recorded the bulk of the album in Glacier Bay, Alaska, where he decamped for a few summers starting in 2017.

You can pre-order the album (digital, vinyl, cassette) via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: The Milk Carton Kids (lullaby-like loveliness)

A balm to the jangled-nerve world of 2020, “The Only Ones” is two guitars and two voices, all four elements interlacing with masterful ease.

“The Only Ones” – The Milk Carton Kids

A balm to the jangled-nerve world of 2020, “The Only Ones” is two guitars and two voices, all four elements interlacing with masterful ease. The end result is a song at once gentle and sturdy, with a lullaby-like loveliness that helps nudge the lyrics over the edge from despair into something closer to hope. Weirdly enough, I’m hearing an almost Springsteen-esque conviction at the center of this un-Springsteen-like composition, something maybe in the mettle of the chorus’s descending melody, and its ambiguous but stirring lyrics.

The Milk Carton Kids are the duo of Joey Ryan (the tall one) and Kenneth Pattengale (the shorter one). Known for their impressive guitar skills, consummate harmonizing, and amusing stage banter, the Kids have, since 2011, been almost single-handedly in charge of keeping the time-honored “singing duo” concept alive in our 21st-century musical awareness. Written accounts of the Kids turn inevitably to talk of Simon & Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers, both of which have no doubt influenced these guys. But to me, the back-in-the-day musicians the Milk Carton Kids evoke far more directly is the duo Aztec Two-Step, who featured not only the gorgeous harmonizing but, crucially, the interplay of twin acoustic guitars, including some virtuosic finger-picking.

If you by the way have some time on your hands you could do much worse than to watch the Milk Carton Kids concert DVD, “Live from Lincoln Theatre,” which is streaming on YouTube. Pattengale’s facility as a lead guitarist is all but miraculous, and is almost as much of a visual treat as an aural one.

“The Only Ones” is the title track to the most recent Milk Carton Kids recording, an EP released this past October. MP3 via The Current.

(MP3s from the Minneapolis public radio station The Current are available in files that are 128kbps, which is below the established 192kbps standard, not to mention the higher-def standard of 320kbps. I personally don’t hear much difference on ordinary equipment but if you are into high-end sound you’ll probably notice something. In any case I always encourage you to download the MP3 for the purposes of getting to know a song via a few listens; if you like it I as always urge you to buy the music. It’s still, and always, the right thing to do.)

I await the day (Eclectic Playlist Series 7.02 – February 2020)

While I will admit to not being the world’s biggest Who fan, I had not meant to leave them off of an Eclectic Playlist Series mix until this, the seventh year of our mutual adventures. And so they make a belated appearance with one of their earlier classics, when the band seemed nearly to be inventing power pop versus the brash, anthemic material they generated as Tommy led to Who’s Next led to Quadrophenia. Now that I think about it, I guess my playlists have in fact been resistant to including much in the way of recognizable classic rock, even as I always dip into the classic rock time frame, chronologically. What can I say?: I have a hard-wired distaste for songs that have been over-exposed and over-played, and most everything considered to be canon in the classic rock realm at this point qualifies. (Thus my effort to construct a playlist of “classic rock you aren’t tired of”: see “Rescuing Classic Rock,” posted back in June 2018). Anyway, here’s the Who, along with a fair number of artists, this month, you’ve likely heard of (Stevie Wonder, PJ Harvey, Miles Davis, New Order, Suzanne Vega, et al.). I think I needed some reassurance during these challenging times. Does democracy lead inexorably to cravenness and idiocy? Historians may some day sort that out; in the meantime, aural comfort food is, sometimes, the order of the day.

Notes for the extra curious:

* This is the second time I’ve opened a playlist with a Warren Zevon track, both of which, now, have been songs that were side-one/track-one offerings from the late great singer/songwriter. He was especially good at crafting songs with the ineffable introductory panache ideally characterizing an album’s first song. Probably half of the songs I’ve launched playlists here have themselves been side-one/track-ones. That said, I also do like hearing opening-track potential in songs buried deeper down on an album, turning them into opening statements. I guess I draw no conclusions.

* Accidental discovery while constructing this playlist: the song “It Would Be So Easy,” from Cassandra Wilson’s 2006 album Thunderbird, has incorrect lyrics posted, across the entire web. That is, every single lyrics site has the same lyrics posted for this song, and these lyrics are wrong—they’re for an entirely different song (which for no apparent reason is “I’ll Find a Way,” by Rachel Yamagata). It’s a bizarre enough mistake, but the fact that you’ll see these same wrong lyrics posted on every lyrics site in existence is not only aggravating, but disconcerting. Sure, let’s put the robots in charge. What could possibly go wrong?

* PJ Harvey released the album Let England Shake back in 2011, years before the country’s current challenges…or, maybe not.

* I’m not sure there’s ever been an artistically and commercially successful band as able as New Order to combine scintillating music with really ditzy lyrics. What they seem to have been able to do is take the well-established reality that rock lyrics, read on their own, can seem insipid, and just flaunt it. I mean: I’d tell the world and save my soul/But rain falls down and I feel cold/A cold that sleeps within my heart/It tears the Earth and sun apart  ?? And yet the song is sheer magic from start to finish. (Bonus: don’t miss the segue into “Doctor Monroe”: it’s an accidental keeper.)

* This web site’s namesake is the multi-track epic “Fingertips,” by They Might Be Giants, but I’ll take Emiliana Torrini’s very different song with the same name under my wing here too.

* Speaking of side-one/track-ones, “Look Around” opened the album Where I’m Coming From, which in 1971 became the first Stevie Wonder album that the artist (only 21 at the time) was able to produce without interference from Berry Gordy. This underrated album—unfavorably compared at the time to Marvin Gaye’s concurrently released What’s Going On, for its social consciousness—contains songs ranging from very good to classic, and even so merely hints at the brilliance soon to come in albums like Talking Book and Innervisions.

* Gone, tragically, now for nearly 20 years (!), Kirsty MacColl will always live on in my musical life. This Billy Bragg cover is definitive: she took a skeleton of a tune, layered it with harmonies, and even got Bragg himself to add a verse because she thought it was originally too short. And just to show that not all rock lyrics are insipid, is this awesome or what?:

Once upon a time at home
I sat beside the telephone
Waiting for someone to pull me through
When at last it didn’t ring, I knew it wasn’t you

Full playlist below the widget.

“Johnny Strikes up the Band” – Warren Zevon (Excitable Boy, 1978)
“If You Wanna” – The Vaccines (What Did You Expect From the Vaccines?, 2011)
“A New England” – Kirsty MacColl (single, 1984)
“So Sad About Us” – The Who (A Quick One, 1966)
“It Would Be So Easy” – Cassandra Wilson (Thunderbird, 2006)
“Fingertips” – Emiliana Torrini (Love in the Time of Science, 1999)
“To Cut a Long Story Short” – Spandau Ballet (Journeys to Glory, 1981)
“Let England Shake” – PJ Harvey (Let England Shake, 2011)
“You’re Gonna Miss Me” – Cletus Marland (single, 1965)
“All I Need is Everything” – Over the Rhine (Good Dog Bad Dog,1996)
“Windows” – Utopia (Oops! Wrong Planet, 1977)
“Carmine St.” – Kaki King (Everybody Loves You, 2014)
“Sunspots” – Julian Cope (single remix, 1984)
“River of Dirt” – Marisa Nadler (Little Hells, 2009)
“Look Around” – Stevie Wonder (Where I’m Coming From, 1971)
“World Before Columbus” – Suzanne Vega (Nine Objects of Desire, 1996)
“Shellshock” – New Order (single, 1986)
“Doctor Monroe” – Casey Dienel (Wind-Up Canary, 2006)
“Seven Steps to Heaven” – Miles Davis (Seven Steps to Heaven, 1963)
“Me at the Museum, You at the Wintergardens” – Tiny Ruins (Brightly Painted One, 2014)