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.”

The lessons of patience

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.04 – April 2022

If you are reading this you are here not because an algorithm directed you but because you found your way via your own human volition. Existing below the recognition level of the algorithms helps keep an enterprise such as this supremely unpopular–“unpopular” as in “infrequently visited” versus “actively disliked”; funny how the two meanings are often co-mingled. But it also, to my mind, ongoingly highlights the failings of a culture that has allowed itself to be hijacked by metrics; steering people relentlessly to things that are already high-profile enough to be steered to is a kind of feedback loop that feels stifling and sad to anyone with a functioning human heart. Or should feel that way, if people weren’t by now trained to be brisk and mindless online; stopping to contemplate and consider is sort of the opposite of the behavior the tech companies require to feed the beast of clicks and page views. If you are fully engaged by said feedback loop there’s little beyond it you are ever going to notice, and will never be encouraged to wonder why.

I recently posted an essay that discusses the fate of quality in a quantity-obsessed world, and it’s a subject that deserves ongoing attention. Where would we be as a culture, historically, if we only paid attention to the most popular and/or easy-to-locate things? Yes, the internet’s algorithmic tools are sophisticated to the extent that they don’t point everyone towards the exact same pieces of content; but the silos they create of differently interested audiences–the famous “people who like X also like Y” directive–are still based on quantity rather than quality.

So if you are here you have decided on your own to be here and I thank you for that. Your reward, such as it is, is another thing beyond the capacity of our algorithmic tools: a playlist drawing upon a wide variety of musical styles and eras. It is a playlist that inherently defies the sorts of sortings that the robots rely upon (genre, decade, mood, etc.) to do their relentless recommending. All I’m ever trying to do is to carry on a tradition founded in the freewheeling era of so-called “progressive” radio–radio found on the FM dial in the mid- to late-’70s. This was before anyone realized there was very much money to be generated from programming in the land of frequency modulation, which is why everything felt loose and unpredictable and ongoingly engaging. The robots keep offering you things that sound like things you’re already listening to. It’s kind of like being surrounded by yes men; it props up the ego but not the soul. Enjoy, if you dare, and we’ll do it again next time, if you find your way back.

More on this month’s offerings below the playlist and the widget:

1. “Ship of Fools” – World Party (Private Revolution, 1987)
2. “Persephone” – Allison Russell (Outside Child, 2021)
3. “Sometime in the Morning” – the Monkees (More of the Monkees, 1967)
4. “Wonder” – San Mei (Heaven EP, 2018)
5. “High Ground” – Orenda Fink (Ask the Night, 2009)
6. “Drowning in the Sea of Love” – Joe Simon (Drowning in the Sea of Love, 1972)
7. “Tuesday Morning” – The Pogues (Waiting for Herb, 1993)
8. “Love Will be Reborn” – Martha Wainwright (Love Will Be Reborn, 2021)
9. “Beck’s Bolero” – Jeff Beck (Truth, 1969)
10. “As Far As I Know” – Paul Westerberg (Folker, 2004)
11. “Straight to My Heart” – Sting (Nothing Like the Sun, 1987)
12. “One of These Things First” – Nick Drake (Bryter Layter, 1970)
13. “Still Thrives This Love” – k.d. lang (Ingenue, 1992)
14. “Peripheral Visionaries” – Young Galaxy (Shapeshifting, 2011)
15. “Tell Me” – Groove Theory (Groove Theory, 1995)
16. “The Only One” – Stiff Little Fingers (Go For It, 1981)
17. “Who By Fire” – Leonard Cohen (New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974)
18. “All the Time in the World” – Maybe Baby (What Matters, 2003)
19. “Other Lover” – Mikaela Davis (Discovery, 2018)
20. “It’s All Too Much” – The Beatles (Yellow Submarine, 1969)

Random notes:

* “Sometime in the Morning” was one of my favorite Monkees songs when I was 10 years old and it still is. I applaud my aesthetic acumen as a youngster; I didn’t know back then that Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote the song, or even who they were, but I did know a lovely series of melodies when I heard them, not to mention a satisfying song structure. The song, puzzlingly, hasn’t been covered very often, and of course there are internet people claiming that one or another alternative version to this one is actually better, because they are internet people. No one beats Micky Dolenz here as far as I’m concerned.

* I happened this year to catch some of the pre-Grammy webcast–where they handed out the bulk of the awards, and where some of the performances veered away from the mainstream pop that dominates the evening telecast. A highlight for me was the Canadian singer/songwriter Allison Russell performing “Nightflyer,” from her album Outside Child. I’d heard the song many times before on WXPN but the energy she brought to it in live performance was transformative (not to mention instructive: I hadn’t realized she played the clarinet), and sent me quickly to Bandcamp to buy the album, which I recommend; consider “Persephone” a preview of the goodness to be found there.

* I know, I know: the Pogues weren’t really the Pogues anymore after Shane MacGowan got the boot. And yet: would the album Waiting For Herb, the first of two post-MacGowan efforts, have been better-received had it emerged from an entirely unknown band, with a different name? It seems likely. In any case, “Tuesday Morning” is pretty great, to my ears. For what it’s worth, it happened to be the best-selling single, internationally, the band ever released. And yes I am now holding popular acclaim out as a certain measure of success. Do I contradict myself? Very well then.

* Did you watch The Beatles: Get Back, the documentary that Peter Jackson directed and produced? What an experience. I’ve had one or two people tell me it was too long, and such people immediately went down ever so slightly in my estimation of them. To call any part of it “boring” is missing the bigger picture, it seems to me; even when it was ostensibly “boring” it was incredibly compelling to be there with it. The Beatles were lightning in a bottle; the movie gives us a glimpse of the bottle. Strip away all the cultural hullabaloo and focus on the music, which was and remains unprecedented in rock history for its unflagging quality and creativity. While they always sound like the Beatles, they managed to write and record a catalog of music in which no two songs sounded the same; at some intrinsic level of inventiveness and integrity they refused to revisit melodies and chord progressions. Paul McCartney has said, in retrospect, something to the effect of “What would be the point of that?”

* Karl Wallinger thought we were on a ship of fools back in 1987. Little did he know.

* While Jonatha Brooke’s career after the duo The Story gained traction and resulted in a number of reasonably high-profile album releases and other projects, her partner in The Story, Jennifer Kimball, receded into the background in the years following their partnership. I hope this was by design as opposed to being the results of the vagaries of the music industry. While Brooke’s singing voice may be the more immediately distinctive, I find Kimball’s tone equally compelling, and have always in particular loved this one track I stumbled on back in the early years of Fingertips from a band Kimball had formed in the early ’00s called Maybe Baby, with guitarist Ry Cavanaugh. He also happens to be her husband. I see from the internet that Kimball went on from there to study landscape design and start her own business. But she did release an album as recently as 2017, called Avocet, which you can listen to and purchase on Bandcamp. It’s really nice to hear her voice again. As for Maybe Baby, I don’t see it on Bandcamp, but it is available to listen to on Spotify, which tells me as I’m now looking that two other people have listened to it this month. Quantity never tells the whole story; why do we so often let it?

* It seems almost unfathomable that Nick Drake was so generally unrecognized in his day; the music sounds so incisive and remarkable now. It’s also pretty crazy that it took a Volkswagen commercial to bring him into the cultural mainstream in 2000, some 25 years after his death at age 26. You can read more about that in this 2016 article from Boston.com.

“The Only Heartbreaker” – Mitski

Maybe you’re the only one trying

“The Only Heartbreaker” – Mitski

Famously adored by a sizable silo of fans for her emotionally acute lyrics, Mitski has a secret weapon hiding in plain sight: the gorgeous tonal quality of her singing voice. Overlookable, perhaps, in the context of the synths and beats often surrounding it, her vocal power seems particularly on display throughout her latest album, the terrific Laurel Hell, which was released in February. It could also be that the 31-year-old singer/songwriter continues to deepen as a performer as the years go by.

“The Only Heartbreaker” delivers a melancholy interpersonal message over a rapid pulse. The New York Times last month referred to it as a “catchy pop song,” but is it, really? It’s got a body-stimulating beat, but little about Mitski’s delivery here signals “catchy pop song,” starting with the fact that the melody, already moving at half the pace of the rhythm, is consistently stretched in and around the song’s momentum. The potentially anthemic chorus repeats one line–“I’ll be the only heartbreaker”–in such an in-between-the-raindrops kind of way as to be quite difficult to sing along with.

As for the melancholy, the song’s narrator feels elusively aggrieved from the start, singing, “If you would just make one mistake/What a relief it would be.” The simple but emotionally potent idea here is that the singer feels to be the only one ever messing up in the relationship. One particularly striking lyric, however, hints at further depth: “I’ll be the water main that’s burst and flooding/You’ll be by the window, only watching.” As Mitski explained to Rolling Stone, “Maybe the reason you’re always the one making mistakes is because you’re the only one trying.”

You can listen to Laurel Hell on Bandcamp, and buy it there in a variety of formats, some with different packaging options. MP3 via KEXP.

“Everything is Simple” – Widowspeak

Brooklyn duo shows no sign of letting up

“Everything is Simple” – Widowspeak

Molly Hamilton’s languorous, whisper-like vocals–an ongoing centerpiece of the Widowspeak sound–feel especially front and center on the chunky yet dreamy “Everything is Simple.” After the hesitating, rubbery bass line establishes the song’s deliberate pace, there she is, purring lazily in your ear, ever-so-slightly behind the beat. It’s hard to resist.

And yet it’s the background instrumentation that really sells this one, for me: the central bass line, marching up and falling back; the prickly guitar licks, adding intermittently insistent metallic abrasion; and the steadying keyboard presence, fingering evocative chords and vamps at just the right time. (Listen for the first instance at 0:24; for me, this recurring moment more or less makes the whole song.) “Everything is Simple” has a circular persistence to it that works against type to transform Hamilton’s laid-back breathiness into something tenacious. “I’m still around but it’s a curse,” she happens to sing.

Widowspeak is the duo of Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas. Formed in Brooklyn in 2010 just before the borough’s indie rock mania began to recede, the band has outlasted that bygone scene with no sign of letting up. They released their sixth album, The Jacket, last month; that’s where you’ll find “Everything is Simple.” MP3 once again via KEXP.

“The Funhouse” – Francis of Delirium

Edgy ’90s guitar rock via a 2022 filter

“The Funhouse” – Francis of Delirium

What kind of name is this–Francis of Delirium? Distinctive, while bordering on the absurd? Offering a religious undertone with a feverish overtone? In any case the name seems somehow to hint at the aural palette on display, which meshes tightly articulated guitar work with a sense of structural abandon, as if you’re never sure what is about to happen next.

And what kind of band is this anyway? The front woman and guitarist is Jana Bahrich, who is 20. The drummer is Chris Hewitt, who is 50. They met because Hewitt’s daughters were in school with Bahrich. This was in Luxembourg (Luxembourg!?), although neither are from there. (Bahrich was born in Vancouver and later moved to Belgium and Switzerland; Hewitt is from the Seattle area.) They intially bonded over their love of Pearl Jam. Jana started the band when she was 17.

It’s a story that didn’t have to go this way but somehow they’ve turned into an internationally touring band with a compelling sound, which includes some of the best guitar playing I’ve heard in a long while–not for its intricacy or wizardry but for the confident, rhythmic melodicism anchoring its movement. The song, as Bahrich has explained, is about being unfazed by the mayhem around you, and if you can’t make it out too specifically from the lyrics, you can feel it from the music. And yet, these lyrics!: check them out because to my ears they achieve something akin to poetry for their evocative blending of the concrete and the allusive. This is worthy stuff from beginning to end.

“The Funhouse” is Francis of Delirium’s sixth offering, which includes two EPs and four singles, the latter of which sometimes have extra songs attached as well. You can check everything out on Bandcamp. MP3, one more time, via KEXP.

(Oh, and the name? It derives from a woman who lived in Jana’s grandparents’ elder care facility, who used to shout swear words at them when she visited as a child. The memory lingered.)

The measure of all things

Surviving as a qualitative enterprise in a quantitative world

The day after the 2022 Grammys were awarded I received an email entitled “The Grammys, Corrected: ‘Montero’ Is the Song of the Year.” It came from a music analytics company called Viberate, which specializes in “streaming, airplay, and social media monitoring,” according to the company web site. The concept makes a lot of sense in a music landscape as fragmented and streaming-based as we now have. Clearly the old-school idea of what is a “hit song” has been disrupted by new listening habits generated by 21st-century technology.

But in their enthusiasm to promote their analytical prowess, the brain trust at Viberate has ignored the fact that quality and quantity are (news flash!) not the same thing. “We finally have the winners of the 2022 Grammy Awards, with the coveted Song of the Year title going to Silk Sonic’s ‘Leave the Door Open,'” begins the Viberate press release. “However, data tells a different story.”

Actually, no. Data cannot tell a different story. The Song of the Year award is given to a song perceived by those who vote for such things as the “best” song of the year. No amount of analytics, however sophisticated, can change the fact that the voters thought that the Silk Sonic song was better than Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and therefore Silk Sonic received the award.

Note that I’m not defending the voters’ choice. Lil Nas X may have the better song here, or may not. Awards of this nature are subjective; arguments afterwards about who deserved this or that award are part of the territory. To promote the “‘Montero’ was more popular so it has to win the Grammy” story line reveals either ignorance (do the Viberate folks not realize that awards in the arts are tied to quality not quantity?), misguided bravado (our numbers are better than your opinions!), or outright cynicism (we can measure this objectively so let’s pretend subjectivity doesn’t exist). You choose!

And okay on the one hand this is a small and ignorable circumstance, just another fledgling tech company trying to boost its profile. But the mindset underlying this press release is all too common. I’ve discussed this before, most directly in an essay making the case for quality as an essential cultural concept being routinely devalued by Big Tech–read here if you’re interested. This time I’m going to take the discussion in a more personal direction, as I have lately been pondering my fate not only as the creator of qualitative content in a quantitative digital environment, but as a human having lived a life in which I have consistently fallen short of quantifiable measures of what is typically deemed “success” in our Western, late-capitalist culture. I have never earned a serious-looking salary; I spent many of my middle-adult years both as a primary caregiver and a freelance writer landing whatever modest assignments I could hustle up. All the while, at a more fundamental level, I have felt out of sync with the general concept of having a so-called career in the first place–a “career” itself being a stand-in for an accepted level of human success in our culture.

Hijacked by metrics

Emblematic of my standing in the world is this web site, a carefully constructed but (let’s face it) simple-looking operation, offering thoughtful, well-written (I think) reviews, downloadable songs, and mixed-genre playlists that either a) relatively few people are interested in or b) relatively few people have discovered in the first place. Each option appears discouraging for different reasons: either I’ve been spending the better part of two decades doing something no one really cares about, or doing something that more people might care about were I more capable of attracting attention to myself.

Dig deeper, however, and the two different explanations for the ostensible failure of Fingertips can be seen as rooted in the same circumstance, which is a culture hijacked by metrics at every level of effort. On the one hand, yes–I could have worked (much) harder over the years to market this site, which by the 2010s would have involved mastering the art of social media promotion and/or search engine optimization. But on the other hand: note how quantitative such endeavors are, how the ineluctable, reductive point is to generate big numbers of clicks. If one’s original goal is an off-the-beaten-path enterprise–that is, not something that is ever going to appeal to millions of people–attempting to generate millions of page views is a fool’s errand from the get-go.

And, were it not a fool’s errand, there’s the off-putting reality of the surveillance-capitalist tricks I’d have to piggy-back onto to effect any sort of far-reaching promotional campaign in the first place.

The bottom line is that a media environment requiring the pursuit of a mass audience seems always to subsume the quality of what is being promoted to the overarching effort to trigger mass quantities of reactions, as instantaneously as possible. There seems no space on the web for the modest success; if something works, it’s supposed to work bigger, and bigger still. It is a media environment that gives birth to an enterprise like Viberate, with a mindset that the only thing that matters is quantity. One person’s hype-free effort to offer quality content–say, a boutique music-curation site–has little place in the metric-tilted environment propagated by our 24/7 information flow and feedback loop. Millions of page views or it didn’t happen. The most popular song is the best song.

The internet didn’t have to develop this way. Things were quirkier and gentler in the late ’90s into the early ’00s, when I started this site. But once the corporations gained a foothold, intoxicated by the power latent in a largely unregulated marketplace, the current situation became steadily inevitable. Fortified by unprecedented amounts of data and the potential to reach more or less anyone anywhere, the internet is a quantitative wonderland; for better or worse, small-scale, qualitative enterprises are more or less irrelevant here.

Facing the music
Chelsea Cutler has criticized the industry’s social media fixation

The fact that the internet reduces to quantity over quality at every turn has had a notable impact on the music industry, both for listeners and for the artists making the music. Singer/songwriter Chelsea Cutler generated headlines at the beginning of the year for posting, on Instagram, her thoughts on what seems to have gone wrong with the music business, focusing on her discomfort with the industry’s mindless embrace of social media for promoting musicians. She wrote: “With the way social media has evolved the last year, I don’t know how to keep up with how insatiable our content culture has become.” In particular, she said, “it feels exhausting to be constantly thinking of how to turn my daily life into ‘content’ especially knowing that I feel best mentally when I spend less time on my phone. It also feels exhausting to be told by everyone in the industry that this is the only effective way to market music right now.”

I’ve long been criticizing the way that musicians have been forced into being social media performers–why assume the most talented musicians are also the most talented attention-getters?–but it’s the logical end result of an online environment in which pure and immediate quantity has become the only meaningful measure of success. (The most popular song is the best song.) The fact that record companies have taken to signing musicians based on one (count ’em, one) TikTok clip is perhaps the apotheosis of quantity mania in the music world. Forget whether an artist has developed a consistent following, has a proven performance and songwriting track record, and shows other important signs of being worthy of serious investment (including whether the music is actually any good!)–nope, let’s throw big bucks at a rando who attracted a one-time crowd on a social media app catering to the shortest of short attention spans. Makes sense to me!

Meanwhile, this over-focus on quantity affects listeners in so many subtle and not-subtle ways that it should be the subject of another essay, and perhaps will be. But let’s start here with the reality that every single recommendation you receive via the streaming service of your choice is based on popularity. And while this isn’t terrible in all cases–sometimes it’s helpful to know which songs of an unfamiliar artist have been most popular–the fact that a basic, quantifiable characteristic (number of streams) is the engine driving the music listening environment of our current day to the exclusion of other factors is not just distressing at a soul level (for what that’s worth), it has opened up a blatantly corrupt can of worms regarding the prevalence of fake artists on streaming services like Spotify.

The fake artist phenomenon is, among other things, proof positive that not everything that’s popular is good and/or worthy of attention; streaming stats will conversely illustrate that not everything that isn’t popular is bad and/or undeserving of attention. But this appears to be too nuanced a concept for a digital world in which everything is ultimately rendered as a 0-or-1, yes-or-no reality. In a way, one might consider quantity to be a digital fact, quality an analog fact.

The tyranny of quantity

Where this tyranny-of-quantity situation leaves me personally is an ongoing question. As of now there are two reasons why I keep Fingertips going despite its longstanding failure as a digital enterprise. The first is that I like the work–I like discovering great songs, many of which are somewhat under the radar, and writing about them in a way that illuminates the listening process. When I’m engaged with it I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. The second reason is somewhat tautological: I’ve been doing it since 2003; to stop now seems to make all the previous years of work even more meaningless than they may already be. If I think too hard about this second reason, however, it also turns into a reason to stop–why continue the meaningless work for one day longer?

When all is said and done, a lot of what I’ve written about here over the years has advocated either directly or indirectly for the ongoing importance of quality in a world transfixed by quantity. This may be a little ‘woo-woo,’ but I believe that the physical reality of digitalia–the fact that all computerized information, however complex, whether textual or visual or musical, is reduced to a series of electronic gates that are open or closed, no in between–is if not the direct cause of the interrelated humanistic crises provoked by our having given ourselves over to this black-or-white world, then is in any case a powerful metaphor for what’s rotten here at the core. The world is relentlessly analog: there is nuance, there is gradation, there are grey areas, there is verticality and depth. Anything digitized, deep at the bottom of all the arcane code, possesses none of these characteristics. We can’t change that but we also ignore it at our peril–if not physical peril (it may yet come to that) then certainly emotional and spiritual peril.

This is a lot of writing to arrive at no particular conclusion, but so far I don’t have one. Quantity continues to stamp its cold hard boot on the tender face of quality. Fingertips is a small effort in the quality camp. The question remains whether small-scale quality on the internet is inevitably tantamount to the proverbial tree falling in the unpopulated forest. Some days the thought of how invisible I am here drives me nuts–not because I yearn for fame (at all), but because I know there are a lot of people out there, including people far further up the chain in the music industry than I am, who would dig what I’m doing if they would only stumble upon it.

Other days, I tell myself that’s still my ego talking. I tell myself that the only legitimate reason to keep doing what I’m doing is if it comes from deep inside of me and wants to get out. Whether there’s anyone else in the forest is, in theory, beside the point. I gain some solace from something Toni Morrison once said: “You are not the work you do, you are the person you are.” And, hell, if you think about it isn’t that hard enough? Being the person you are? If the words I write and the music I offer on this web site helps me at least try to do that, then that will have to be enough for now.

This is what we’ve seen

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.03 – March 2022

I could easily title each playlist “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” at this point in the story of our beleaguered world. Just as soon as we (kind of) pushed one fucked-up narcissist off the world stage we are terrorized by another, with a pandemic still spiraling around in the background. Regarding the cowardly, insecure war criminal holding court in the Kremlin, it seems a kind of evolutionary mistake at this point, the idea that humans are so easily hornswoggled by malevolent madmen. Someone should look into that.

In the meantime, we go on, as we do, and must. Here are the latest 20 songs that find themselves collected, from a variety of points of origin, into one (somewhat) coherent whole. Enjoy what you can, when you can:

1. “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” – Janice Whaley (The Smiths Project: The Queen is Dead, 2010)
2. “When You Awake” – The Band (The Band, 1969)
3. “Cherry” – Anna Fox Rochinski (Cherry, 2021)
4. “Driven to Tears” – The Police (Zenyatta Mondatta, 1980)
5. “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” – The Decemberists (Castaways and Cutouts, 2002)
6. “State of Independence” – Donna Summer (Donna Summer, 1982)
7. “Tiny Town” – David Byrne (Uh-Oh, 1992)
8. “If That’s What You Wanted” – Frankie Beverly & The Butlers (B-side, 1967)
9. “Sure” – Hatchie (Sugar & Spice EP, 2018)
10. “Ricochet in Time” – Shawn Colvin (Steady On, 1989)
11. “All I Want” – Ronnie Spector (The Last of the Rock Stars, 2006)
12. “All That You Dream” – Little Feat (The Last Record Album, 1975)
13. “Stabilise” – Nilüfer Yanya (Painless, 2022)
14. Prelude & Fugue #21 in B Flat – Keith Jarrett (Dmitri Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues op. 87, 1992)
15. “Aptitude” – Novillero (Aim Right for the Hole in Their Lives, 2005)
16. “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War” – Paul Simon (Hearts and Bones, 1983)
17. “Awkward Waltz” – Acapulco Lips (Acapulco Lips, 2016)
18. “Dosage” – Liz Phair (Soberish, 2021)
19. “A Secret Place” – Grover Washington Jr. (A Secret Place, 1976)
20. “Darling Be Home Soon” – The Lovin’ Spoonful (You’re a Big Boy Now – The Original Soundtrack Album, 1967)

Random notes:

* The Smiths Project, from British singer/songwriter Janice Whaley, is one of the most impressive acts of committed artistry I have ever encountered. I missed it at the time of recording and release in 2010 and 2011, only stumbling upon it in the last few weeks. What Whaley did, almost unbelievably, is create, in the span of a year or so, an a capella version of all 71 Smiths songs from the band’s six major releases (four studio albums and two compilations of singles, B-sides, and assorted non-album recordings). You can read more about it on Bandcamp, where you can listen to everything and buy what you’d like. For a more concise introduction, Whaley also released an 11-track “Best of the Smiths Project.” She did use pitch-altering technology to create bass lines, but everything you hear was originally voice-generated. As for the odd but compelling “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others,” the final track on The Queen is Dead, I’ve always been attracted to this song for a variety of reasons, and it’s one where Whaley’s treatment is particularly transformative. And don’t miss what’s hiding in plain sight: what a great voice Whaley has.

* I am no classical aficionado by any means but I do, somehow, find Dmitri Shostakovich to be one of the rock’n’roll-ier composers of the 20th-century. I was introduced to his suite of 24 linked Preludes and Fugues via Keith Jarrett’s 1992 recording, so that’s where I’m landing here–while readily admitting I haven’t the ears or the experience to know how his interpretations stack up to others. I do want sometimes to mix things up here with a classical track but have only managed it once or twice so far, because it does present a bit of an aesthetic challenge. Still, it’s worth a try every now and then. Note that Shostakovich modeled this series after something Bach had done centuries earlier–composing a prelude and fugue for each major and minor key.

* So great to hear from Liz Phair again after more than a decade since her last album, and nearly two decades after falling out of favor with those who had previously lionized her, thanks to her (unfairly) vilified self-titled album in 2003. Soberish is not necessarily a “Wow!” experience but it is a rewarding one. Her voice is subtly singular, her songwriting gift still underrated; I offer “Dosage” as a case in point. Note the lyrical call-back to Henry the bartender, from 1998’s “Polyester Bride.”

* A story has it that Jimi Hendrix once told his friend Ronnie Spector that her voice “sounds like a guitar.” In retrospect, we never quite heard enough of that voice, given the unfortunate path her life took after marrying the disturbed, controlling Phil Spector. While Ronnie attempted, in the ’70s and ’80s, to overcome the idea that she was merely an oldies act, her limited solo work never gained a lot of mainstream traction–although Eddie Money’s tribute, by way of his 1986 hit “Take Me Home Tonight,” did return her to the spotlight and rejuvenated if not her career than at least her status as a rock icon. Her death this January, at the age of 78, gave many of us motivation to re-examine her work and reacquaint ourselves with her influential style. It’s so cool that she found the Amy Rigby tune “All I Want” for her 2006 album The Last of the Rock Stars: a brilliant synthesis of retro rock’n’roll and contemporary brio, the song gave the former Ronettes’ front woman a chance to sing lyrics like “I feel kind of furious/And you’re not even curious/You’re way too oblivious/Where I’m concerned.” Listen carefully and see if you don’t get chills along the way. (Note that Rigby’s original functioned as the “title track,” as it were, for EPS 2.06 back in August 2015: “A list of things I didn’t do.”)

* “What began as a world-weary warning about how we are all limited by our inherent capabilities reveals itself (if I’m hearing it right) rather poignantly as a philosophy borne from disappointment in love”: that was my summary of the song “Aptitude” at the time (2005), and I stand by it. A terrific piece, at once catchy and complicated, both musically and lyrically, “Aptitude” came from the cleverly titled album Aim Right for the Hole in Their Lives. The Canadian band Novillero was formed in 1999, disbanded in 2010, sprung back to life in 2016, and had posts on their Facebook page as recently as 2020; current status unclear.

* Paul Simon’s visibility and commercial viability as an album artist both took a big dip following his popular 1975 album Still Crazy After All These Years. His last ’70s hit, “Slip Slidin’ Away,” in 1977, was a new track on a greatest hits album; a few years later, the soundtrack to his movie One Trick Pony (1980) didn’t sell up to his previous standards, despite a hit single (“Late in the Evening”). His next regular release, Hearts and Bones (1983), generated no hits and little interest, becoming the least popular of his career to date. In retrospect this only shows how wrong the marketplace can be at any point in time. Personally, I loved Hearts and Bones from the first time I heard it; thankfully, its reputation has been corrected over the years, the album now widely regarded as one of his best. “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” is a magical bit of singer/songwriter surrealism, and a song Simon concocted based on the title of two photographs he came across by the German photographer Lothar Walleh.

* The song “Driven to Tears” was identified in my digital library as being released in 1979; only as I was writing this post did I discover (or re-discover; I probably knew this once) that the album Zenyatta Mondatta was actually released in 1980. This matters only to my ongoing efforts to distribute music somewhat evenly through the decades in each mix. Meaning: I thought I had put three songs from the ’70s and three songs from the ’80s in this playlist, three being the number I aim for (if all goes well, one decade of seven gets two, the rest get three). But now it turns out there are actually just two songs from the ’70s and four from the ’80s. For what it’s worth, Sting did write it in 1979. That’ll have to do, this month. Much more important: the song remains sadly relevant, year after goddamned year.

“Champion” – Warpaint

Unique, captivating

“Champion” – Warpaint

The singular Los Angeles quartet Warpaint returns after a six-year absence with the wily, elusive “Champion.” Masters of subtle sonic intrigue, the four women in Warpaint work brilliantly together, creating a succinct, unique soundscape that is part groove, part intricate tapestry, overseen by an echoey wash of interweaving vocals singing simple but cryptic lyrics. The effect is captivating.

A great way to approach “Champion” is to focus first on drummer Stella Mozgawa, whose ability to fabricate three-dimensional textures via tone and rhythm is a marvel; to say she single-handedly redefines the concept of rock’n’roll drumming is maybe only a slight overstatement. And if the drums lead the way into the Warpaint sound, the guitars close the sale. You have to wait for them, however. First your ear will note an unhurried, circular riff (shortly past the 30-second mark) that sounds acoustic. It stays for a while, leaves, comes back, never drawing too much attention to itself. The bass edges in, almost preternaturally attuned to the percussion, 10 seconds or so after the guitar. Here is a rhythm section fully deserving of the name, steadily constructing a groove as assured as it is ingenious, sometimes composed as much of space as of sound.

Meanwhile, what about the electronics? The intro was launched by some soft synth sounds, which blend so organically into the background as the song proceeds that they seem nothing that has to be specifically played; they just exist, if that makes sense (which it doesn’t, really). And then: what you’ve been anticipating without realizing it are the electric guitars that slide into the mix around 2:30, all rhythm at first, adding new character to the groove without overwhelming the established vibe.

Finally the payoff: the instrumental coda, arising after the song nearly stops at 3:46, delivering some fuzz, some drone, and a nonchalant lower-register guitar lead à la New Order. The band’s ongoing capacity to unite instrumentally in a manner at once off-handed and disciplined is remarkable. In a world ever (moronically) chasing the latest viral sensation, we too easily neglect the power latent in musicians who have played together for a long time. This band is the real thing.

Warpaint was featured here back in 2010, at the time of their debut album, The Fool. “Champion” is a track from their forthcoming LP Radiate Like This, scheduled for release in May. It will be their first album since 2016’s Heads Up, and–for a band in existence since 2004–only their fourth full-length release to date. MP3 via KEXP.