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.

“Det er lige meget” – Rigmor

An energetic sense of melancholy

“Det er lige meget” – Rigmor

Obvious care has gone into constructing a song with a title that translates to “It doesn’t matter,” which maybe signals the subtext here: to care enough to record a song that says it doesn’t matter means that it actually does matter, probably a lot. In any case, listen to all that’s going on before the singing begins: above some indistinct mechanical noise we get a carefully articulated guitar melody playing against a blip of a pulse of a beat. Then (0:17) we’re in a groove, at once firm and laid back, ringing guitar on top, acrobatic bass below.

And then best of all, the voice, belonging to Sarah Wichmann, which likewise has a compelling, ringing quality that both blends in and takes the soundscape to a new and more urgent place. Embodying an unusually energetic sense of melancholy, the song revels in its upbeat, minor-key setting, the rhythm track double-timing the melody, allowing Wichmann to take her time while her bandmates churn it up. By the time the coda kicks in, around 2:24, the song has become pretty intense even as it’s not quite clear how we got here. The guitar returns to the opening melody line even as everything else has changed. We wrap up in under three minutes, always a power move in my book.

The four members of Rigmor began life as a band in Aarhus, Denmark in 2018. After an EP in 2020, the band released its debut full-length album Glade blinde børn in February of this year. The title, which means “Happy blind children,” says a lot about the band’s penchant for bittersweet soundscapes.

MP3 via KEXP. To check out more of Rigmor’s music, head over to Spotify or YouTube.

“Silence is Golden” – The Beths

Hepped-up power pop

“Silence is Golden” – The Beths

The Beths’ front woman Elizabeth Stokes has one of those appealing, unassuming singing voices that conveys the illusion that she’s merely talking most of the time. The fact that she accomplishes this in the midst of something so noisy and melodic makes the effect all the more fetching. At their best this New Zealand foursome is deliriously likable.

“Silence is Golden” is the Beths at their most frenetic, which right away is a bit of a wink in a song with this particular title. Stokes sings of craving quiet in a too-loud world while her band crashes their way through two minutes and fifty-five seconds of hepped-up power pop, with its emphatic, punctuating drumming and scratchy guitar work. And it’s only fitting somehow that a song about the joys of silence leads into a clamorous guitar solo (2:03): 20 seconds of madcap squalling that will make your head spin.

“Silence is Golden” is the third of 12 tracks on the Beths’ new album, Expert in a Dying Field, all of which is worth hearing. Check it out, and buy it in a variety of formats if you like it, via Bandcamp. MP3 again via KEXP.

“Anything You Want” – Vinyl Floor

Crafty touches

“Anything You Want” – Vinyl Floor

There’s something warm and reassuring about the sound the Danish band Vinyl Floor offers up in “Anything You Want”–the steady beat, the engaging melody, the vintage vocal tone, the horn (or horn-like) flourishes: it all evokes something timeless and balm-like in a day and age dominated by the distracting and the distractable.

Listen to how the song sounds both super casual and super well-crafted at the same time, a vibe that is not easy to achieve–I don’t think there’s a blueprint to get there, it’s just something a band can do or not do. I know I’m in good hands near the outset when the verse launches away from the home key (referring here to the chord shift at 0:13, when the singing starts), which is a crafty touch that you don’t hear every day. I like too the metric hiccups in the verse (via some sneaky 7/8 time signatures) and the left-turn chord progression that leads into the sing-along chorus and its emphatic series of “I know”s, which sound too heartfelt to resist.

And yes it’s somehow a second Danish band this week; consider it a coincidence unless you’re inclined as I am not to believe in coincidences, not fully. In any case: Vinyl Floor is the Danish duo of brothers Daniel Pedersen and Thomas Charlie Pedersen, who share lead vocal duties. “Anything You Want” is the lead track on their new album, Funhouse Mirror, the title of which accounts for the photo above, which appears to show a quartet if you don’t look carefully. The band has been around since 2007; Funhouse Mirror is their fifth full-length release. MP3 via the band. And while I can’t seem to find a place where you can actually buy the album, it is available to stream via Apple Music and Spotify.

Push off the bottom

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.09 – September 2022

So perhaps, with summer over, we’ll get a bit of rain, those of us in areas that can use? Had some here today, in fact. And I’ve been generally working on establishing a bit more equanimity in my resting mind, having grown mighty weary of living so long with a sense of underlying stress and doom. Yes, things are continually not great when you look around. But, anyone remember Tom Robbins’ running joke in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues?: every so often in the novel, he would write “The international situation is desperate, as usual.” This was 1976. I don’t mean to stick my head in the sand. At the same time, it’s the fascists who purposefully foster cynicism, who want you to believe your vote doesn’t count, that our institutions have failed, that having integrity doesn’t matter. Well screw all those “dedicated swallowers of fascism” (hat tip to Billy Bragg, on the shoulders of Ray Davies). The world is troubled but there are plenty of helpful and hopeful people working towards the cause of positive change in big ways and small. With the change of seasons I intend to access an untroubled, sanguine part of my psyche, to push off the bottom and swim towards the light. And vote, of course, when the time comes.

To the extent that music can contribute to one’s mental and emotional well-being, and I very much believe that it can, here’s the latest genre-hopping mix in the Eclectic Playlist Series. Playlist first, then the widget for listening, then some informative details about a few of the songs:

1. “Yes Eyes” – Fingerprintz (Distinguishing Marks, 1980)
2. “Shallow Heart, Shallow Water” – Caitlin Cary (While You Weren’t Looking, 2002
3. “You Hit Me Right Where It Hurt Me” – Alice Clark (single, 1968)
4. “Do You Sleep?” – Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories (Tails, 1995)
5. “Candy’s Room” – Bruce Springsteen (Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)
6. “Les Vaincus” – Pauline Drand (Faits Bleu, 2018)
7. “Hand in Hand” – Phil Collins (Face Value, 1981)
8. “I Talk to the Wind” – Dana Gavanski (Wind Songs EP, 2020)
9. “Boys Don’t Cry” – The Cure (single, 1979)
10. “Soul Deep” – The Box Tops (Dimensions, 1969)
11. “Come Together” – The Internet (Hive Mind, 2018)
12. “Underdog” – The Murmurs (Pristine Smut, 1997)
13. “Munich” – Editors (The Back Room, 2005)
14. “Master Plan” – Tears for Fears (The Tipping Point, 2020)
15. “Deadbeat Club” – The B-52’s (Cosmic Thing, 1989)
16. “Cry to Me” – Solomon Burke (single, 1962)
17. “Love to Get Used” – Matt Pond PA (Spring Fools EP, 2011)
18. “Blue Denim” – Stevie Nicks (Street Angel, 1994)
19. “The Mesopotamians” – They Might Be Giants (The Else, 2007)
20. “Elegant People” – Weather Report (Black Market, 1976)

Odds and ends:

* Although I did not name Fingertips with the unfairly neglected UK band Fingerprintz in mind, I am happy with the association, if anyone cares to make it. Their second album, Distinguishing Marks, is to my ear a highlight of new wave’s short-lived power pop era; side one in particular offers an impeccable lineup of crafty, melodic compositions. That said, for some reason, on Spotify, “Yes Eyes,” the album’s lead track, has been mysteriously swapped with the song that was actually the opener on side two. “Yes Eyes” definitely was side one cut one; I have the vinyl to prove it. One more Fingerprintz note: during the short, elusive life of the Fingertips podcast–there were 24 of them, back in 2006 and 2007–the Fingerprintz instrumental, “2.A.T.,” a smart Booker T homage, served as the theme music. Which I’m sure I wasn’t allowed to do, but nobody said anything because about three people were listening.

* A far less neglected UK band, Tears for Fears, released an unexpected reunion album earlier this year, their first in 17 years. While I’m not inherently a fan of bands attempting to recapture the magic, as it were, I’m also not opposed to giving a listen and seeing what they’ve managed to do. In this case, I think they’ve done quite a lot–The Tipping Point is, to my ears, both enjoyable and of consistently high quality. It occurs to me that bands that didn’t in their youth hew too closely to the cliche of hard-rocking guitar heroes have a better shot at reestablishing their vibe and sound as elder statesmen. Check the album out yourselves on Bandcamp.

* I can fall hard for French female singers with a certain kind of round whispery tone, and the as yet not-very-well-known Pauline Drand has it. “Les Vaincus” came to my attention a few years ago via a compilation released in 2018 by the French label La Souterraine. Kind of a random find but the song and the singer stuck with me so here she is, sandwiched agreeably between classic rock giants. Drand released her debut album later that year, with “Les Vaincus” as the ninth track; you can listen and purchase via Bandcamp. The title means “The Vanquished,” but that’s about all I can tell you, since feeding the lyrics into an online translator yields a series of words largely defying comprehension. I can also tell you not very much about Drand herself, except for the enticing tidbit, announced via her Twitter page, that she is currently the artist in residence at a place called the De Saram House in Colombo, Sri Lanka. It’s a big world.

* Leisha Halley and Heather Grody, as The Murmurs, made two and a half albums for MCA in the mid-to-late ’90s before moving onto other things. The “half” refers to the fact that their third album, Blender, included seven songs that had already been on their second album, Pristine Smut, among them the splendid “Underdog.” Note that these guys certainly had someone’s attention for a while; their record deal was with a major label, and their second album was produced by Larry Klein and k.d. lang. Not sure why they didn’t take off or stick around but here’s your chance to check them out and see what you’ve (probably) missed.

* “I Talk to the Wind” was originally performed by King Crimson, written by founding member Ian McDonald. Dana Gavanski, based in London, is a Canadian singer/songwriter with family roots in Serbia. Her version can be found on an EP she released during the lockdown in 2020 called Wind Songs, featuring three other covers (songs by Tim Hardin, Chic, and Judee Still), along with a Macedonian folk song. With a resonant voice and a knack for lucid arrangements, she has another EP of covers, Bouncing Ball, slated for release in November.

* “Soul Deep” was only a minor hit for the Alex Chilton-led Box Tops, and their last song to chart; the group disbanded the following year. But what a song it is! “Soul Deep was written by Wayne Carson, who had also written the group’s biggest hit, “The Letter.” Carson, who sometimes used the name Thompson, was a journeyman musician, songwriter, and producer; he shared songwriting credits on “Always On My Mind,” the most well-known and often-recorded entry in his songbook.

* Remember Editors? “Munich” flared across the blogosphere back when the blogosphere was an actual thing. It’s almost hard to fathom here in 2022 that indie rock did in fact have a heyday, albeit a relatively short one, before being sucker-punched by the poptimists and their tribal loyalty to processed, lowest-common-denominator music. (Yeah, don’t get me started.) Anyway, my bad here: Editors are no mere aughts nostalgia act; Tom Smith and company remain an active concern, having released their sixth album in 2018 and with four singles to date released this year, in anticipation of a forthcoming album that Wikipedia reports will be called EBM.

* As for “The Mesopotamians,” this may be one of They Might Be Giants’ loopiest songs, which is saying something. Operating in the liminal space between reality and fantasy, history and nonsense, the song imagines four historical Mesopotamian figures as if they are, somehow, also, paradoxically, a rock band in the present day. The in jokes span millennia, the chorus is goofy and sublime. And circling back to the top of these notes: I did not name Fingertips after Fingerprintz but I did name it after the (goofy, sublime) They Might Be Giants song “Fingertips,” which as some of you know is less a song than a mashup of song fragments. I don’t quite remember what my thinking was but here I am 19 years later, just like the Mesopotamians, with nowhere else to stand.

Trouble acting normal

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.08 (August 2022)

Maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s the hiatus, or maybe it’s the ever-unfolding perturbations of life in the 2020s, but I’m going to let the music do the talking this month. For a few enlightening details on a few of this month’s songs, scroll down past the playlist and the widget.

1. “Every One of Us” – Goldrush (The Heart is the Place, 2007)
2. “Dog & Butterfly” – Heart (Dog & Butterfly, 1978)
3. “Harps” – The Sea and Cake (Runner, 2012)
4. “Falling Down the Stairs” – Even As We Speak (Feral Pop Frenzy, 1993)
5. “Weird Fishes” – Lianne La Havas (Lianne La Havas, 2020)
6. “Reptile” – The Church (Starfish, 1988)
7. “The Planets” – The Clear (Patchwork, 2017)
8. “Pavement Cracks” – Annie Lennox (Bare, 2003)
9. “Bones” – Soccer Mommy (Sometimes, Forever, 2022)
10. “1,000,000” – R.E.M. (Chronic Town EP, 1982)
11. “She Loves the Way They Love Her” – Colin Blustone (One Year, 1971)
12. “Small Pony” – Dott (Swoon, 2013)
13. “Don’t You Even Care” – Leslie Uggams (single, 1965)
14. “What About Now” – Robbie Robertson (Storyville, 1991)
15. “Mirage” – Jean-Luc Ponty (Enigmatic Ocean, 1977)
16. “Dandelion Wine” – Ron Sexsmith (Retriever, 2004)
17. “Round Here” – Counting Crows (August and Everything After, 1993)
18. “Ese Chico” – Christina Rosenvinge (single, 2022)
19. “Bigmouth Strikes Again” – The Smiths (The Queen is Dead, 1986)
20. “Come All Ye” – Fairport Convention (Liege & Leaf, 1969)

Odds and ends:

* Sometimes Wikipedia is enlightening, sometimes it’s weirdly dense, and other times it’s just plain sad–and here I’m thinking about the way the information can just stop, page abandoned (but still online) because a band has ended its life without fanfare or notice. A page can go from being updated by various fans and observers to being deserted seemingly in midstream, with no one even bothering to change the present-tense intro (“XYZ are a band from…”) to past tense (“XYZ were a band…”). The Oxford, UK-based band Goldrush seems to have suffered this fate, despite being a band with a certain amount of notice and success in indie rock’s early-21st-century halcyon years. I don’t claim for Goldrush an undue amount of praise but I did feature them twice in the ’00s, and in particular loved “Every One of Us,” which I still find deep and affecting.

* With its bedroom rock ambiance, hazy vocals, and midtempo stasis, Soccer Mommy’s song “Bones” could’ve veered into a faceless mush but instead elevates to fabulous via the anchor of a terrific, poignant chorus melody. And don’t miss the increasingly frantic guitar work that dominates the last third of the song. Soccer Mommy is the Nashville-based singer/songwriter Sophie Allison; “Bones” is the opening track on Sometimes, Forever, her excellent third album, which was released in June.

* For a minute there in the 1970s, Jean-Luc Ponty was the planet’s most famous electric violinist. After working with Frank Zappa, Elton John, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, among other notables, he recorded a string of solo albums that collectively sold in the millions. His most recent project seems to have been 2015’s collaboration with Jon Anderson, the Yes front man, on an album called Better Late Than Never. Ponty will turn 80 next month. The track featured here comes from his mainstream heyday, 1977’s Enigmatic Ocean.

* I find it delightful that Lianne La Havas would even think of covering Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes,” independent of what the finished product sounds like. Watching talent seek talent is invigorating. And yet, not surprisingly, the end result is a marvel–an unexpected showcase for La Havas’s uncanny vocal prowess on the one hand, and for the emotional resonance, on the other, of a song that always intrigued but seemed, previously, a bit too abstract for its own good. It’s a surprising and satisfying winner from La Havas’s 2020 self-titled album.

* I programmed the old-school R.E.M. song “1,000,000” into this mix just because it seemed like a good idea, which is pretty much how I put these together in general. Only after I slotted it in did I find out that the band’s debut EP Chronic Town, where it comes from, which is 40 years old this year, was being released–last week–for the first time as a standalone CD, with a bunch of new liner notes from Mitch Easter, who produced it. I enjoy a good synchronicity whenever I encounter one.

* In our current pop cultural moment, Leslie Uggams is known, if at all, for roles in the Deadpool movies and in the television series Empire. But the 79-year-old actress/singer has been in show business and recording singles since she was a child in the 1950s. As a teenager, she was a regular on NBC’s popular Sing Along With Mitch series, a show that seems preposterous now but was a thing for a few strange early-’60s years. Then there was the probably inevitable effort to establish her as an R&B singer, which to these ears sounded pretty promising, if 1965’s “Don’t You Even Care,” on Atlantic Records, is any indication. But she soon found her niche in more pop- and/or musical-theater-oriented material, and landed in 1969 as the host of The Leslie Uggams Show on ABC, which was the first network variety show hosted by a Black woman. Since then she’s had a multi-faceted career including a star turn on the original Roots mini-series and a lot of varied stage work. MCUers can expect her back as Blind Al when Dead Pool 3 eventually emerges.

* I have long-standing admiration for the Spanish singer Christina Rosenvinge, who ditched a successful pop career as half of the duo Alex y Christina in the late ’80s for a more offbeat, soul-searching, and substantive solo career; she’s worked off and on as an actress as well. Openly critical of the misogyny she has encountered over the years in the music industry, she is likewise vocal in her support of the LGBTQ community, as this new single of hers demonstrates. I stumbled on it in Spotify but haven’t seen it talked about in any English-speaking media, so you can be the first on your block to check it out.

* And then there’s Ron Sexsmith, the Canadian troubadour with a extraordinarily consistent–and consistently overlooked–catalog of recorded music, with 14 quality studio albums now to his credit, dating back to his self-titled debut in 1995. What he does is neither ever in fashion nor quite out of fashion but boy does he do it well. Every album of his contains hidden gems, perhaps none gemmier and more hidden than “Dandelion Wine,” from his fine 2004 effort, Retriever. (The album received stellar reviews on both Pitchfork and AllMusic, with neither mentioning this song among the highlights.) His most recent release is 2020’s Hermitage, which I still haven’t caught up with, but I will note that his previous album, 2017’s The Last Rider, ranks up there with his best.

* There’s no standout segue this month but the best one may be “Round Here” into “Ese Chico”; I can definitely nominate a worst segue, which would be “1,000,000” into “She Loves the Way They Love Her”–it was one of those that was almost brilliant but in missing by a little it’s kind of a clunker. Apologies to the deep listeners among you.

Even though I might

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.07 – July 2022

I’m thrilled that Kate Bush is having a moment; I’ve been a fan for decades, and, 37 years later, I still place Hounds of Love at the top of my Favorite Albums of All Time list. Bush is an artist with an exceptional individual vision and the fortitude to remain her own person throughout her career–an unusual combination in this profit-fixated world of ours.

That said, I’ll admit there is likewise something discomfiting about this abrupt burst of Bushmania. While I am happy for the well-deserved exposure, in the U.S. in particular (“Running Up That Hill,” here in 2022, has become her first top five U.S. hit ever), the fact that it’s been generated so randomly, based on some music supervisor’s suggestion for a so-called “sync,” leaves me a bit unsettled. How randomly are the fruits of capitalism distributed to creative people! Kate Bush is just as brilliant and singular an artist now as she was before her song was featured in Stranger Things. The fact that the wide world is now paying attention to her is terrific on the one hand but highlights on the other the fact that our most deserving artists often lack the rewards they ideally merit. Our culture has brainwashed itself, through the ascendancy of “poptimism” in the 21st century, to treat our most popular artists as the most artistically deserving of their popularity but that’s a lie we tell ourselves to avoid having to operate in the slippery land of quality versus the concrete territory of quantity.

Even so, I’m trying not to be too much of a grump about it. Kate Bush will always be one of my favorite artists (she’s now been featured here 8 times, tied at the top with David Bowie and Radiohead) and I should only be happy that more of the world now knows about her. (Note that she has rarely allowed her music to be licensed in this way in the past; she only agreed this time because she was already a fan of the show.) My disgruntlements, such as they are, have to do with the capitalist-driven materialism that overwhelms the Western world, about which, alas, there seems little right now to be done.

In any case, here we are again. Even as Fingertips remains on a summer hiatus with respect to individual song reviews, the Eclectic Playlist Series carries on. Enjoy the mix, which this month features 14 artists not previously heard here. Oh, and that Kate Bush song? Watch the 1986 video and see how naturally it aligns with the Stranger Things vibe, so much so that it makes me wonder if the Duffers had her in mind all along.

Bonus commentary below the playlist and the widget:

1. “Nowhere Girl” – B-Movie (single, 1980/1982)
2. “Saddest Day” – Ephemera (Sun, 2000)
3. “Don’t Forget” – Sky Ferreira (single, 2022)
4. “I’ve Seen the Saucers” – Elton John (Caribou, 1974)
5. “’74-’75” – The Connells (Ring, 1993)
6. “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe” – Okkervil River (The Stage Names, 2007)
7. “Face of the Sun” – Shana Cleveland (Night of the Worm Moon, 2019)
8. “Children’s Songs: No. 6” – Chick Corea (Children’s Songs, 1984)
9. “Play Me” – Marcia Griffiths (Sweet & Nice, 1974)
10. “Down on the Corner” – Creedence Clearwater Revival (Willy and the Poor Boys, 1969)
11. “The Spur” – Joan Shelley (The Spur, 2022)
12. “I Lost the Monkey” – The Wedding Present (El Rey, 2008)
13. “Experiment IV” – Kate Bush (single, 1986)
14. “900 Hands” – Elskling (single, 2014)
15. “Don’t Change Your Love” – The Five Stairsteps (single, 1968)
16. “I Can’t” – Radiohead (Pablo Honey, 1993)
17. “Liquid Numbing Pain” – Lucy Francesca Dron (Leftovers, 2021)
18. “Only Skin” – The Spring Standards (Yellow/Gold, 2012)
19. “You Got It (Release It)” – Pearl Harbor & The Explosions (Pearl Harbor & The Explosions, 1979)
20. “Glory Box” – John Martyn (The Church With One Bell, 1998)

 

* Radiohead, like Kate Bush, is here for the eighth time this month, and this time I dip all the way back to their typically overlooked if not disparaged debut. I think it’s unfortunate that this album doesn’t get more respect–sure, the band will grow a lot from here onward (understatement) but it’s still an admirable slice of ’90s guitar rock. Song quality is a notch down from their follow-up but The Bends is about the highest bar possible. Trust me, there’s more to Pablo Honey than “Creep”; start with “I Can’t” and explore from there. Among other things it’s interesting to be reminded of quite how much they were influenced at the outset by U2.

* Texas-based Okkervil River was a semi-regular presence here on Fingertips during the indie rock glory days of the middle ’00s. Featured four times between 2004 and 2008, and once more in 2011, they rightly or wrongly faded away from my awareness through the rest of the 2010s, even as they remained and still remain an active–if shape-shifting–ensemble; front man Will Sheff is the only one left from Okkervil River’s ’00s incarnations. “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe” comes from the record that represents their commercial, and possibly their critical, high water mark, 2007’s The Stage Names. The band’s most recent album is In the Rainbow Rain, released in 2018.

* Is there a reason, I wonder, that Neil Diamond songs have been so gracefully transmuted into reggae songs? There’s “Red Red Wine,” of course, which UB40 made so much their own that few knew that Neil Diamond was the original songwriter. John Holt’s cover of “Holly Holy” is considered a classic by aficionados. And then there’s Marcia Griffiths and her marvelous cover of “Play Me,” which manages to convert a slightly cheesy tune into something welcoming and delightful. Might it possibly have to do with Diamond’s song “Reggae Strut,” which appeared on his 1974 album Serenade (and on the B-side of the single “Longfellow Serenade,” a pleasingly bombastic song which I’d entirely forgotten about until right now)? To our contemporary ears, “Reggae Strut” may sound, um, a little colonial. But for better or worse it’s possible the attention worked both ways? After all, 1974 was still pretty early for Diamond, a huge mainstream success at that point, to be tuned into reggae enough to write a song about it. Maybe the reggae community decided to check him out, if they hadn’t previously? Lord knows that by now there are more reggae versions of “Sweet Caroline” than you probably care to know about.

* I am not much of a jazz guy or a classical guy, although I dabble in both as the mood strikes. The 1984 LP Children’s Songs, by the late Chick Corea, is an album that shows how blurry, sometimes, the line between these two ostensibly separate genres can be. Featuring 20 original piano compositions–most shorter than two minutes–the album was inspired by one of Corea’s musical heroes, Béla Bartók, combining an unadorned simplicity of feel with a gratifying melodic and harmonic complexity. I stumbled on it a few months ago and found myself struck in particular by the playful movement and tension embodied by “No. 6.” I hope it works as a friendly interstitial within this wide-ranging mix.

* I was speaking earlier of the random nature of what draws our cultural attention to some artists and not to others; with the advent of social media over the last 10 years or so the situation has become something of a travesty, as the endless jockeying for clicks and followers has debased our collective interactions greviously. This is obvious at a political level but applies in the arts as well. With everyone seemingly seeking popularity at all costs, what cultural room is left for the acquired tastes, for quality that whispers as opposed to quantity that overwhelms? I listen to Brisbane-based Lucy Francesca Dron and am saddened by how much less attention a musician of her quality and taste seems at this point to be receiving versus all the shiny, interchangeable popsters dominating the charts and feeds. I featured Dron’s song “What Is Next?” last year here, and later in the year was taken as well by a follow-up single, “Liquid Numbing Pain.” I make it a policy not to review two songs by the same artist within one calendar year but am happy to present that second single here within a 2022 playlist. The song can be found on her 2021 EP, Leftovers.

* Sky Ferreira has had a troubled go of it from the outset of her intermittent career. While pretty astonishing at the time, her 2013 debut album Night Time, My Time if anything sounds even better in retrospect for its adroit blending of processed pop with grungier edges not usually heard on the charts at that point. Her very long-awaited second album is due–supposedly–later this year. “Don’t Forget” is the second single now available from the upcoming LP. Don’t believe Pitchfork’s sniffing dismissal; to my ears, the track rewards far more listens than this particular reviewer seems to have given it.

* When I first heard John Martyn’s version of “Glory Box” I thought hm, how clever of the Bristol-based trio to have found a song from that veteran blues-folk pioneer and given it the Portishead treatment. I was properly abashed to find out at some point that it was Martyn who grabbed the tune from Dummy. Without actually changing it all that much, Martyn excavates the blues swing hiding in plain sight in the original. Some covers succeed by thoroughly re-interpreting the first version, some work by hewing close to the original in a act of homage; a rare few manage somehow to do both at the same time.

* Formed in 1978, Pearl Harbor & The Explosions were one of the first new wave bands in the U.S., and scored a minor indie hit with the song “Drivin'” in 1979. Warner Brothers scooped them up for a major label deal, but, despite the listener-friendly hooks of “You Got It (Release It),” the album sunk and nothing much stuck after that. (Note that lead singer Pearl E. Gates, born Patricia Gilbert, named the band as she did because her parents were married on Dec. 7, 1941.) Relocating to the U.K. after the band broke up, she there adopted the British spelling (Harbour) because that’s how her name kept appearing in the press. In 1982, she married Clash bassist Paul Simonon, who played without credit (along with Mick Jones and Topper Headon and other notable British musicians) on Pearl’s debut solo album, the rockabilly-infused Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost Too. She and Simonon divorced in 1989, at which point she moved back to California, where she’s been ever since. Pearl is still active online (see IG:@pearlharbourmusic) but doesn’t seem to have released any music since 1995. (Thanks to The Forty-Five for some of the background information here.)

Maybe I’m just a fool

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.06 – June 2022

I recently read and was disheartened by a Pitchfork article from last month about how AI is on the verge of turning the music industry and music production upside down. As usual with such articles, there was much to read about the various gee-whizzy things technologists have done and are yet dreaming of doing by applying AI tools to artistic endeavors. Also as usual there was no discussion of the perpetually overlooked fact that art is ever and always about one human consciousness communicating with another. Whatever a computer can produce, it’s still and forever doing so minus the depth of a human consciousness. Sure, a machine may one day (soon?) become self-aware at some level, but no matter what it will never be an organic being that is born, that is aware that it will die, that exists with all the flesh-and-blood peril and pleasure and connections we humans live our lives with and among. Accordingly, everyone relatedly misses the fact that regardless of what a computer produces, it is not the same as the product of a human consciousness, even if it looks the same or sounds the same.

As a convenient example, take the exceptional guitar work in Luka Bloom’s “Delirious,” down there in the second half of this month’s mix. I’m sure someone could program a computer to create a similar if not the exact same sound, and someone is also probably working feverishly as we speak on creating software that can generate on its own the music the guitar is playing. And in so doing would take all the visceral thrill out of the music, which as far as I’m concerned depends upon the knowledge that a human being conceived of and performed what I’m hearing. I wrote about this in more detail here if you’re interested. I may be intellectually curious–mildly–about what a machine may produce, but deep in my heart and soul I don’t give a shit about what a machine “thinks” or “feels” and accordingly have no interest in music that might be entirely composed by a computer no matter what it sounds like. If it turns out at some point there are no humans left who are interested in playing their own music–something the article appears to imply–then I guess I’ll stick with what we humans have already created. There’s a fair amount of it.

Meanwhile, hello. Welcome back to the latest incarnation of the Eclectic Playlist Series, which turns out to be especially eclectic this month, with everything from indie rock, classic rock, and Motown to French movie-star pop, weird new wave, and Swedish jazz. There are a smattering of familiar names but fully 15 of the 20 songs this month come to us from artists who have not previously been featured on an EPS mix, going back some eight-plus years at this point.

Oh and everything you’ll hear here was written and performed by humans, for humans.

Commentary about some of the specific songs can be found below the playlist and the widget:

1. “Love and Mercy” – Brian Wilson (Brian Wilson, 1988)
2. “When the Lights Go Out” – Crybaby (Crybaby, 2012)
3. “Sure Enough” – Angela Desveaux (The Mighty Ship, 2008)
4. “Hold On” – Sharon Tandy (single, 1968)
5. “San Diego Zoo” – The 6ths (Wasps’ Nest, 1995)
6. “The Tunnel of Love” – Fun Boy Three (Waiting, 1983)
7. “Believe in Me” – Sally Shapiro (Sad Cities, 2022)
8. “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” – Bob Dylan (Street-Legal, 1978)
9. “La Madrague” – Brigitte Bardot (Brigitte, 1963)
10. “Girlfriend” – Phoenix (Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, 2009)
11. “Mama’s Pearl” – The Jackson 5 (Third Album, 1971)
12. “Only Lonely Lovers” – Pure Bathing Culture (Moon Tides, 2013)
13. “Delirious” – Luka Bloom (Riverside, 1990)
14. “Fox on the Run” – Sweet (Desolation Boulevard, 1974)
15. “I Know There’s Something Going On” – Frida (Something Going On, 1982)
16. “Talk” – beabadoobee (Beatopia, 2022)
17. “Visa från Utanmyra” – Jan Johansson (Jazz på svenska, 1964)
18. “Hippychick” – Soho (Goddess, 1991)
19. “Slip” – Motorcade (See You in the Nothing, 2022)
20. “Jerusalem” – Steve Earle (Jerusalem, 2002)

* A couple of the big names here are especially notable for having recently celebrated 80-something birthdays–namely Mr. Bob Dylan (81) and Mr. Brian Wilson (80). While Wilson has had a wild and woolly go of it over the past half century, with erratic output at best, Dylan remains by all accounts at the top of his game–however much his game, as it were, has altered with the passing decades. While many fans still idolize his run in the mid-’60s, with all that surreal electric output of his, I find his mid-’70s material to landing most solidly in my sweet spot: namely, the albums from Planet Waves through Street-Legal, with those two in between–Blood on the Tracks and Desire–at the top of my all-time favorite Dylan efforts. (And were it not for the unfortunate “Joey” I’d actually put Desire on top.) Street-Legal, meanwhile, puzzled everyone at the time, if it didn’t outright exasperate them. But me I always kind of liked its obscure charms, and there’s no doubting the classic status of a few of its offerings, most particularly “Changing of the Guards” and track 8 here.

* Sharon Tandy was a South African singer who came to the UK in the 1960s without ever hitting it very big at the time; she recorded a number of 45s in the process. “Hold On” seems to have been the strongest cut, and certainly has the feel of something that could have been a major hit. She did make it to British TV (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4O-gKNiDXA) so she maybe had at least a bit of a moment. In a few years she returned to South Africa and recorded through the ’70s. In 2016, the year after she died, Rhino Records saw fit to release a compilation entitled Playlist: The Best of Sharon Tandy, and “Hold On” is the lead track. Oh and speaking as I was about guitar work, don’t miss the long and wild guitar solo about halfway through this one. Crazy stuff.

* Turns out it’s Sweden month here for no particular reason. If you make it most of the way through you’ll be treated to a song that is far more well known there than here–“Visa från Utanmyra,” from the jazz pianist Jan Johansson. The song is a jazz arrangement of a traditional Swedish folk song, as in fact are all the songs on the 1964 album Jazz på svenska (“Jazz in Swedish”), which remains, according to Wikipedia, the top-selling Swedish jazz album of all time. Johansson, sadly, died in a car crash in 1968 at age 37. On a happier note, we also hear this month from long-time Fingertips favorite Sally Shapiro, which is both the name of the band and the pseudonym used by its anonymous lead singer. After announcing their retirement in 2013, the band–which is really just “Shapiro” and the producer/writer/arranger Johan Agebjörn–re-emerged out of the blue last year with a new single, and then released an entire new album of material earlier this year entitled Sad Cities. Its sparkling neo-italo-disco/synth pop is as enticing as ever. And then there’s Frida. Remember Frida? Born Anni-Frid Synni Lyngstad, formally (since 1992) called Princess Anni-Frid Reuss, Dowager Countess of Plauen, she is by far best known as one of the four founding members of ABBA (one of the As there is for Anni-Frid). The album Something Going On was Frida’s first album in English, and her first post-ABBA solo release. After being obsessed with Phil Collins’ super-popular 1981 album Face Value, Frida enlisted Collins both to produce and do his magic at the drum kit, and the collaboration paid off. The single “I Know There’s Something Going On” was a decent-sized hit for her and still sounds pretty darned good to these ears.

* The 6ths were a short-lived side project masterminded by Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields. While Merritt wrote and produced all the music, and played most of it too, he sung lead vocal on only one of the final product’s fifteen songs. “San Diego Zoo” was the opening track and it was sung by San Diego-born Barbara Manning, something of an indie/alternative rock legend herself. Manning has a long, interesting, and complicated career, dating back to the 1980s, but does not appear to have recorded anything new since the first decade of the current century. In her daily life she is a middle school science teacher.

* My old-school tendencies leave me skeptical of sampling but boy oh boy does the Smiths sample anchoring Soho’s “Hippychick” sound fresh and glorious to this day. Based in the UK and fronted by twin sisters Jacqui and Pauline Cuff, Soho released six more albums through the ’90s but never gained traction again commercially or culturally. Their 1991 album Goddess, where you’ll find “Hippychick,” seems to be the only one reasonably easy to find digitally these days.

* Angela Desveaux’s “Sure Enough” is the sole song this month that was previously featured on Fingertips. That was back in 2008. But two other artists in this mix have also been reviewed here in the past, for different tracks–the aforementioned Sally Shapiro (twice), and, as it turns out, another duo: the Portland, Ore.-based Pure Bathing Culture. PBC have had three features here to date, most recently in 2019, and are still active; I should go investigate what they’ve been up to, as I haven’t in a while. Angela Desveaux on the other hand seems to have slipped off the internet entirely; 2008’s The Mighty Ship was her last release. I hope this was a proactive decision and if so more power to her.

* I don’t know much about the Dallas band Motorcade but I sure like this song, from their recently released second album. The rest of it seems worth exploring; the band sounds especially adept at taking its post-punk influences into something that feels more like an evolution than an homage.

* “I don’t remember learning how to hate in Sunday School.” Someone should tell that to the GOP, as well as their puppet-filled Supreme Court, as they hide behind a warped view of “faith” that not only flouts Constitutional guarantees but contradicts every bit of spiritual wisdom espoused by the very guy they claim to believe in–the same guy who said absolutely nothing, zero, about abortion.

No matter who you are (Eclectic Playlist Series 9.05)

Along with this playlist comes a larger announcement: Fingertips will be taking a summer hiatus starting with the unofficial start of the our American summer this coming weekend. I’m not sure whether the MP3s are drying up or whether it’s just me in need of a break but I know that as I tried over the last couple of weeks to work on the regular update I just wasn’t feeling it. I’m taking that as a sign that I can use a few months away from the MP3 review side of Fingertips. The plan is to keep the playlists going in the interim but we’ll see how that goes. I’m assuming I’ll be back with reviews at the end of the summer but we’ll see how that goes too.

In the meantime, here’s another idiosyncratic compilation, iteration 9.05, spanning the decades and the genres as usual. Don’t forget this means that there are more than nine years of playlists already stored and ready to listen to–you can go straight to the widgets on Mixcloud, or access them via the commentary about each mix on the Fingertips web site. Or, for a different and longer-lasting experience, there’s the Eclectic Playlist Series Master Mix on Spotify. It doesn’t have every last song ever featured on an EPS mix because Spotify doesn’t have every song but there are about 1,500 songs in the mix at this point; shuffle it and you’ve got an instant and pretty damn interesting radio station.

As usual, I’ll have a few stray observations about some of the song’s on this month’s offerings below the playlist and the widget:

1. “A to Z” – Alice Russell (To Dust, 2013)
2. “Peaches en Regalia” – Frank Zappa (Hot Rats, 1968)
3. “Speed of Sound” – Coldplay (X&Y, 2005)
4. “Madness” – Carlene Carter (Musical Shapes, 1980)
5. “I’ll Try” – Sharon Van Etten (We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, 2022)
6. “The Only One I Know” – The Charlatans (Some Friendly, 1990)
7. “Help Me Make Up My Mind” – Joyce Jones (single, 1969)
8. “Release, Release” – Yes (Tormato, 1978)
9. “Ablaze” – Liz Durrett (Husk, 2005)
10. “Cry” – Godley & Creme (The History Mix Vol. 1, 1984)
11. “She Loves Everybody” – Chester French (Love the Future, 2009)
12. “Sunday Morning” – Margo Guryan (Take a Picture, 1968)
13. “Every 1’s a Winner” – Hot Chocolate (Every 1’s a Winner, 1978)
14. “The Unheard” – Fabryka (Sparkles EP, 2015)
15. “Airstream” – Low-Beam (Every Other Moment EP, 2004)
16. “We’re Not Deep” – The Housemartins (London 0 Hull 4, 1986)
17. “Everybody Needs a Hammer” – Willie Nile (Places I Have Never Been, 1991)
18. “Asking for a Friend” – CHVRCHES (Screen Violence, 2021)
19. “Brother” – Color of Clouds (Satellite of Love, 2010)
20. “The Hurt” – Cat Stevens (Foreigner, 1975)

Random notes:

* Last month I featured the Canadian singer/songwriter Allison Russell near the top of the mix; this month I’m starting with a song from the British soul singer Alice Russell–two quite different but equally wonderful performers. Alice Russell has been recording since 2004, but only recently came to my attention. (So much music, so little time…) A powerhouse singer inspired by classic soul recordings while committed to contemporary ideas and sounds, Russell has somehow never gained the widespread recognition that Amy Winehouse did mining similar territory. “A to Z” is the lead track from To Dust, a 2013 release that remains her most recent album.

* Sharon Van Etten slays it yet again with her new album, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong. You kind of have to sink into her vibe when listening to an album of hers–she tends towards similarly-paced songs, somewhere on the slower side of midtempo. But there’s always something intense and gorgeous going on with her music, and when she does allow a song to pick up the pace a bit, it seems effortlessly brilliant, as with “I’ll Try.” And while I’m fanboy-ing SVE: if you’ve never seen her covering “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” with the band Shearwater you are in for a treat if you go there right now. Mysterious feelings arise for me as this video unfolds. And don’t miss the face she makes at the very end. Melts my heart every time.

* I am neither much of a Yes fan nor a prog rock fan but the occasional song of theirs appeals to me for inscrutable reasons. These seem always to be songs that were recorded past their first few extra-proggy albums, which means that the Yes music I like is probably all the stuff that their “real” fans disparage. “Release Release” is something of a lost track from something of a lost album, 1978’s Tormato. It’s kind of a lovable mess, with energy and hooks to spare. Bonus points for that short section when Anderson isn’t singing in his screechiest register. Not sure what the crowd noise is doing there in the middle of the instrumental break, but when it turns off we get one of the song’s best if subtlest moments.

* “Airstream” was originally featured here back in 2004 and it still sounds elusively original to me; you can read my original review here. All these years later it’s hard to track the New London band Low-Beam, which had its regional heyday long before social media took hold–their original releases, three EPs and a single, happened between 2002 and 2007. According to one online account, the band began work on a full-length as early as 2004, but there were a variety of unspecified difficulties. The album did eventually come out; on Bandcamp the release date is listed as 2011, but the dates listed on Bandcamp are not necessarily the dates of an album’s original release but when an album was uploaded to the site. There are also two double-sided singles up on Bandcamp with release dates of 2010 and 2011. The only thing that seems clear is that the band is no longer around, although the Bandcamp page as noted is available and worth exploring.

* I am impressed by how much staying power the best songs by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens still have, some 50 years or so after the fact. To my ears his biggest hits (“Wild World,” “Peace Train,” et al.), while worthy and ear-wormy, are a notch below a healthy handful of other songs that had their moments on the FM dial back in the day but are less widely remembered today–“Sitting,” “On the Road to Find Out,” and “Sun/C79,” among others, including this month’s closing number, “The Hurt.” “The Hurt” did get its share of radio play when it was released, but it was a track off an album, Foreigner (1973), that marked a commercial dropoff from his super-popular LPs from a few years earlier, Tea for the Tillerman(1970) and Teaser and the Firecat (1971). Foreigner was complicated by the fact that side one was taken up with one long track–not an uncommon move for a rock act in 1973 but maybe nothing Cat Stevens’ fans were hoping for. He had one more big album in him, 1974’s Buddha and the Chocolate Box, before his music began losing its strange but compelling spark, as his long-standing mixed feelings about rock’n’roll stardom culminated in his forsaking not only the career and lifestyle but his very name, converting to Islam late in 1977, and abandoning his musical career for two decades. In recent years Yusuf Islam has re-embraced his Cat Stevens side–he is identified now as Yusuf/Cat Stevens–and has released a few albums that bring his classic sound to mind. Check out 2017’s The Laughing Apple as an example if you are at all curious. To my ears the new stuff is missing the deep melodic magic of his prime ’70s work but his voice remains a wonderful instrument indeed.

* If you manage to listen through to the end you’ll be rewarded with one my best accidental segues to date, as “Brother” glides into “The Hurt.”

* Four other songs on this playlist, beyond “Airstream,” were originally reviewed as MP3s here on Fingertips: “Ablaze,” “She Loves Everybody,” “The Unheard,” and “Brother.”