You wouldn’t believe me if I said (Eclectic Playlist Series 7.07 – July 2020)

Little did Natalie Laura Mering, doing musical business as Weyes Blood, realize what a wild time was yet in store when she released Titanic Rising last year. Or maybe she did: “Everyone’s broken now and no one knows just how/ We could have all gotten so far from truth.” I will spare you the rant that I wrote after this in my first draft, and move us right into the mix. Just note that it’s up to any of us who are trying to remain sane and well-informed and compassionate to continue to find the wherewithal to be a human being, and offer comfort and solace to others attempting the same bravura feat. Let music be an ongoing gift through these wild times.

The playlist:

“Slow Burn” – David Bowie (Heathen, 2002)
“Tired of Toein’ the Line” – Rocky Burnette (The Son of Rock’n’Roll, 1979)
“Glass Jar” – Tristen (Sneaker Waves, 2017)
“Think Too Hard” – Syd Straw (Surprise, 1989)
“Feeling Good” – Nina Simone (I Put A Spell On You, 1965)
“Sulky Girl” – Elvis Costello (Brutal Youth, 1994)
“Jaco” – Pat Metheny Group (Pat Metheny Group, 1978)
“Julia’s Call” – Lake Ruth (Birds of America, 2018)
“Mississippi” – Bob Dylan (Love and Theft, 2001)
“No New Tale To Tell” – Love and Rockets (Earth Sun Moon, 1987)
“Look The Other Way” – Lesley Gore (b-side, 1968)
“Wild Time” – Weyes Blood (Titanic Rising, 2019)
“Your Racist Friend” – They Might Be Giants (Flood, 1990)
“Read My Mind” – The Killers (Sam’s Town, 2006)
“Detroit or Buffalo” – Barbara Keith (Barbara Keith, 1972)
“Black Metallic” – Catherine Wheel (Ferment, 1992)
“Tesla Girls” – Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (Junk Culture, 1988)
“Band of Gold” – Freda Payne (Band of Gold, 1970)
“I’m Not Getting Excited” – The Beths (Jump Rope Gazers, 2020)
“Night Train” – Oscar Peterson (Night Train, 1963)

Bonus explanatory notes below the widget…

* “Feeling Good,” rendered extraordinary by Nina Simone, is a song from the 1964 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, composed by Anthony Newley and Lesley Bricusse. Simone’s now-classic interpretation takes the song into a new place, and so richly that the source has been all but forgotten. (Newley’s own take, though, is actually quite good if differently nuanced [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYF__H4PSUA], and exhibit A for anyone wondering who David Bowie’s biggest influences were.)

* Speaking of Mr. Bowie: of all the various “comebacks” of the great man’s career, one of the more overlooked is his return to form in the early ’00s, with the albums Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003). These accessible and high-quality releases followed 15 years of post-Let’s Dance albums dominated by experimentation and musical wandering that largely disappointed both critics and fans (the one exception being 1993’s underrated Black Tie White Noise). This time frame saw his veering off into the Tin Machine era, and culminated in three difficult to digest albums in the later ’90s that each found a smaller following than the last (ending with 1999’s oddly titled ‘hours…’). Heathen, conversely, sounded like a Bowie album for the ages, its melancholy grandeur aligning rather bleakly with our post-9/11 world. And yet, in all the career summaries emerging after his death in 2016, it seemed largely forgotten. I offer “Slow Burn” as a reminder of the album’s power, generated in part by Pete Townshend’s heroic guitar work. And now you can’t not hear Anthony Newley.

* There is oddly little information out there about the trio Lake Ruth, but I do know that I have a particular affinity for front woman Allison Brice’s vocals—she’s got that rounded, smoky tone that you don’t hear very often, and remains difficult to describe. Vocally, I am reminded of dear, departed Kirsty MacColl, which prompts immediate hearts here in Fingertipsland. The music is synthy but warm, and quite different from Brice’s work with the ’00s London-based sextet The Eighteenth Day of May (previously featured in a playlist this past November, in the before days.) This song comes from the band’s second full-length release, 2018’s Birds of America.

* “Your Racist Friend”: always, sadly, in season.

* Rocky Burnette, as per the title of his album, is in fact the son of early rock’n’roll star Johnny Burnette. This song is by and large Rocky’s only claim to fame to date, but it’s a fun one; what “Tired of Toein’ the Line” lacks in depth it makes up for in earnest glee and unrelenting hookiness. It was a top 10 hit in the U.S., and a number of other countries, back in 1980. Burnette is still out there somewhere, but not musically active since a spurt of new activity in the ’90s.

* One more note about Weyes Blood: check out the album cover when you have a chance—the scene was constructed and photographed under water, for real.

* While I continue to try to take in Bob Dylan’s latest ramblings (i.e., the intermittently compelling, extravagantly praised Rough and Rowdy Ways), I feel compelled to return to what to my ears was his last great album: Love and Theft. This too is tied to 9/11 (released that very day, in fact), but has otherwise little to do with that calamity, being instead a loose, often humorous, ongoingly offbeat collection of songs and performances. While this album introduced us to the shuffly, old-timey persona Dylan was unexpectedly morphing into, it also contained honest to goodness musical variety and lyrical sharpness. To this day I count “Mississippi” as his last masterpiece, a song that stands up to most anything in his ’60s and ’70s pantheon.

* Speaking of later compositions that belong in an artist’s pantheon, I will tip my hat here to the fierce and melodic “Sulky Girl,” a generally disregarded gem from Elvis Costello’s Brutal Youth album. The release was notable to us Elvis lovers for reuniting the Attractions for the first time since 1986; his long-time backing band, complete with personality kerfuffles, recorded together on five of the album’s 15 tracks. “Sulky Girl” is a standout, calling to mind the vehemence of his “angry young man” days tempered with the mature dynamism of his ongoing artistic evolution.

* And then we have “Band of Gold,” one of 20th-century top 40 radio’s shining moments, a song with such mysterious pull that its lyrical enigmas and/or unconventionality glide right by. Without listening too closely, you can read this as a standard tale of heartbreak. But the lyrics reveal a marriage in which the man, for unstated reasons, can’t perform sexually, and abandons his newlywed bride, leaving her frustrated and disappointed. Not the usual pop song fare in those days. Written by the mighty songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, the song was credited to two other names, for contractual reasons at the time. But it is one of their very best.

Free and legal MP3: Deep Sea Diver (jangle and fuzz driven anthem)

“Stop Pretending” – Deep Sea Diver

From its evocative, unhurried introduction, an ear-catching blend of jangle and fuzz, “Stop Pretending” is an immediate success, a song so crafty and well-crafted that its origins—written and recorded in two days this April, under lockdown conditions—seem all but miraculous. The end result sounds to me like the pandemic’s first true classic, a song at once languid and incisive, both musically and lyrically:

This life is dangerous
There’s no need to build those walls
Our love is all we have
Who knows where we’re heading

The song offers no solutions but the notion that we must make the effort to be present with what actually is, and tap into our basic goodness, even when the bad people are being awful. The music feels like a balm to the soul, with Jessica Dobson’s guitar noise and distortion churning below a soothing melody and heartfelt vocals. The instrumental break at 2:39, all growl and gristle, is weirdly lovely. Guitars get the job done. Oh and don’t miss the dog at the very end.

Deep Sea Diver is the Seattle-based duo of Dobson and husband Peter Mansen. Dobson played all the instruments but the drums and the “noise synth”; she engineered and mixed the track as well. Deep Sea Diver has released two albums and two EPs to date. Dobson has played with Beck, Spoon, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, among other artists, and was a member of the Shins for a while in the early ’10s.

MP3 via KEXP. You can buy and support the band via Bandcamp; while there you can also explore the rest of their catalog.

Free and legal MP3: Phoebe Bridgers (moody but lively)

“Kyoto” – Phoebe Bridgers

She may not often be in the mood to give us an upbeat versus a downtempo composition, but when Phoebe Bridgers plugs into a faster rhythm is when, to me, her songs really shine. Outside of the terrific “Motion Sickness,” the compositions on her first album were much more deliberate—very attractive for those ready to comb carefully through lyrics and/or those who groove on a melancholy vibe, but less easy to focus on as a casual listener.

“Kyoto,” on the other hand, grabs immediately. I like the misdirect in the introduction—what starts in a hesitant, filtered mode finds a solid backbeat just after the singing starts (0:07), and sweeps us along from there. Bridgers has a delightful way with phrasing (check out as just one example the way she sings “my little brother” at 1:35), sounding as if the fleet tempo has caught her a bit by surprise as well. (She actually did write “Kyoto” as a ballad, but, she told NME in April, “at that point I was so sick of recording slow songs, it turned into this.”)

There is even a structural reason to enjoy the song’s pacing, having to do with the effect of matching downcast lyrics with lively music. Content-wise, Bridgers remains moody here, grasping at why she can’t seem to be happy anywhere, and signaling some thorny father issues. Setting such musings to a breezy tune, to my ears, amplifies rather than subtracts from their impact.

I’ve emphasized the song’s tempo but note that the chorus features a half-time melody, and encompasses a line that doesn’t maybe register as notable the first time around—“I wanted to see the world”—and yet turns into one of the song’s great moments, due I think to a combination of the alluring chord change that precedes it and the subtle but striking emotion with which Bridgers sings the words, especially the second time through (2:09), with a slight melodic twist at the end.

“Kyoto” is the third track on her second solo album, Punisher, which was released in April on the Dead Oceans label. We heard Bridgers on Fingertips last year, a lifetime ago, in combination with Conor Oberst, as part of the Better Oblivion Community Center.

MP3 once again via KEXP. Listen to the whole album, and buy it if you like it, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Punch the Sun (summertime earworm w/ a message)

“Do What I Want” – Punch the Sun

Bassist and front woman Shannon Söderlund has a lucid singing style that brings to mind a young Jonatha Brooke, a style that intimates that words very much matter to her. Combine that with the fact that she is indeed the bass player and right away Punch the Sun presents as a band with an engaging mission. (I have long noted here that bands with the bass player as front person often create especially satisfying music, perhaps because bass players who sing approach their instruments differently than those destined to play with their mouths closed.)

“Do What I Want” crosses the breeziness of a bubblegummy summertime earworm with worthy cultural commentary and some tight and meaty guitar work. The bass line dances and percusses with a deft touch, guiding the song’s head-bobbing rhythm without drawing attention to itself. Clocking in at a swift two minutes fifty seconds, the song hurtles forward, delivers its sing-along message, and moves on. In this context, the guitar is given just a seven-second solo (1:47), but it’s a rollicking one.

The lyrics here are a mix of the straightforward and the elusive; while the opening salvo makes Söderlund’s stance clear —

Hide your little girl in fluffy dresses, pretty curls
And soon enough she’ll learn to go along

— some of the other lines are more mysterious, and I kind of like that; once the general concept is communicated—rigid, corporate-driven beauty standards suck, basically—it’s nice the way the song leaves space for interpretation. You get the general gist but not every last thing is spelled out for you. And, given the contemptibility of the target—the consumerist push for women to be quote-unquote attractive in very particular ways—Söderlund hits with a light touch. She’s not out to harangue us about the evils of the fashion or diet industries, she’s just here to say she’s going to ignore all that and just do what she wants with herself. More power to her.

Punch the Sun is a trio based in Queens, New York. “Do What I Want” is the third track on the band’s first full-length album, Brevity, recorded when they were still a foursome, and released in April. You can listen to the whole thing and purchase it, for a price of your choosing, via Bandcamp. MP3 courtesy of the band.