Tell me I’m not alone

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.01 – January 2022

January always strikes me as the most elusive of months; it takes the entire 31 days to grow used to it and then, poof, it’s gone. Yes the weather is brutal and the general news is desperate, as usual, but I try to hold onto January, without ever the hope of succeeding. By the way, semantic sleight of hand aside, Yoda was wrong. There not only is “try” but that’s about all we’re ever really doing when we “do.”

I digress. I meant merely to offer the usual January boilerplate here about how the Eclectic Playlist Series works—how my self-imposed rule decrees that no artist appears in more than one playlist in any given year (at least not on purpose; I’ve done it by mistake at least once), and how in January everything is reset and all artists are up for grabs again. The EPS is now in its ninth year, and doing a quick survey of the past mixes I can report that only one artist has so far placed a song in a playlist in all previous eight years, and that artist is David Bowie. I’m surprised that none of my other favorites have managed the same feat, not Radiohead (seven), not Kirsty MacColl (seven), not Elvis Costello (six), not Kate Bush (seven). It’s kind of encouraging, to me, that I haven’t had to lean too heavily on my stalwarts, that the diversity upon which these playlists are founded has kept the mixes truly mixed. The other ongoing dictate here is a conscious spread through the decades, with each mix offering at least two and usually three (sometimes four) songs from each decade of the rock’n’roll past—typically starting with the ’60s but sometimes going further back. It’s been fun these past two years to begin to incorporate yet another decade into the canon as we now start the third year of the 2020s.

I do these for myself—my master Spotify list incorporating nearly every song featured to date has become my in-house radio station when I can’t decide on something specific to listen to—but I am really happy to offer them as well to whatever small number of like-minded music fans who find their way to this off-the-beaten-track, non-commercial, anti-algorithmic musical oasis. I’m okay on my own but a little bit of company is nice too.

“Sorry About That” – Michael Guthrie Band (Direct Hits, 1981)
“Can’t Hide It” – Curtis Harding (If Words Were Flowers, 2021)
“Like a Woman Can” – Kim Taylor (Love’s a Dog, 2013)
“Who Gets Your Love” – Dusty Springfield (Cameo, 1973)
“Come to Me” – Björk (Debut, 1993)
“What I’m Trying To Say” – Stars (Set Yourself on Fire, 2005)
“Space Age Love Song” – A Flock of Seagulls (A Flock of Seagulls, 1982)
“When Will I Be Loved” – The Everly Brothers (single, 1960)
“The Calculation” – Regina Spektor (Far, 2009)
“I Wanna Be Your Lover” – Prince (Prince, 1979)
“Girl of My Dreams” – Charles Mingus (Mingus Ah Um, 1959)
“Dishonor the Stars” – Elvis Costello & The Imposters (Look Now, 2018)
“Guinnevere” – Crosby, Stills & Nash (Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969)
“Paprika” – Japanese Breakfast (Jubilee, 2021)
“Somebody to Shove” – Soul Asylum (Grave Dancers Union, 1992)
“Remember Me” – British Sea Power (The Decline of British Sea Power, 2001)
“The Name of the Game” – ABBA (ABBA: The Album, 1977)
“Dear Prudence” – Siouxsie and the Banshees (Hyæna, 1983)
“It’s Cold Outside” – The Choir (single, 1967)
“Tomorrow” – Waxahatchee (El Deafo original soundtrack, 2022)

Random notes:

* There were all sorts of regional and semi-regional bands in the US and the UK churning out some pretty sweet power pop during the new wave years and the Michael Guthrie Band, a trio from Virginia, was one of them. Their debut album, Direct Hits, isn’t streaming anywhere (a mint copy of the LP is selling on Discogs for $99.99), and their much-delayed follow-up, 1994’s Right Honourable Friend, has disappeared entirely. “Sorry About That” was the lead track on the debut album and works as the lead track here as well. The band appears to have had a bit of a 21st-century re-emergence; a 2011 song called “Now We’ve Started” is on Spotify, and their Facebook page is active, with 1,000+ followers.

* Speaking of melody (power pop being the most melody-forward genre in the rock universe), Elvis Costello is on hand to deliver a couple of melodies so strong and appealing I almost can’t believe my ears. And maybe neither can he, since he breaks “Dishonor the Stars” into disparate sections, as if the main melodies, like food that’s both amazing and a bit too rich, can only be taken in limited portions. Initially this frustrated me but I’ve learned to embrace the entirety of this short but intricate composition. It’s not clear what is verse and what if anything is chorus, and it’s not clear what he is singing about specifically. But, when he allows you to hear them: those melodies! Note that Elvis & the gang have another new album just out; this one comes from their briefly-paid-attention-to-but-since-forgotten 2018 album, Look Now.

* Might as well not waste time getting a 2022 release into the EPS, and also might as well not waste time getting Fingertips favorite Waxahatchee back into a mix here as well. Katie Crutchfield has been in quite the groove these past few years and can do no wrong as far as I can hear. This song comes from the just-released soundtrack, an EP, to the new Apple+ TV series El Deafo.

* If you are familiar only with Linda Ronstadt’s top-10 version of “When Will I Be Loved,” from 1974, I think you’re in for a treat when you hear the Everly Brothers’ 1960 original. Ronstadt did a fine job, don’t get me wrong, but she sped up and regularized a song that, in the Everlys’ hands, was full of nuanced, behind-the-beat singing and subtle hesitations. The song is both immediately recognizable and, compared to the ’70s cover, marvelously transformed.

* Curtis Harding is a singer/songwriter who was born in Michigan and raised in Atlanta. He’s been recording since 2014 but I only managed to come across him recently. I’m eager now to catch up on his work, which walks a wonderful line between the retro and the contemporary, with psychedelic undertones (or overtones; and hm what’s actually the difference?). “Can’t Hide It” is a song from his third album, 2021’s If Words Were Flowers. Harding cites an impressive variety of influences, from Mahalia Jackson and MC Lyte to Bob Dylan and (them again!) the Everly Brothers.

* Bonus note for the Elvis Costello curious: I just posted a playlist on Spotify featuring the best of his 21st-century releases. Despite his ongoing output and prodigious capacity for growth and variety, Elvis seems culturally stuck in the past, with his early output being the only music people seem able to remember and refer to. And yet to my ears the breadth and ongoing quality of what he’s been up to for decades now renders his later work even more notable than the early stuff. I offer up 20 songs in support of this idiosyncratic argument.

Free and legal MP3: Carrie Biell

Bittersweet & irresistible

“California Baby” – Carrie Biell

With dusky charm and old-school vibes, “California Baby” is a bittersweet, irresistible head-bobber. Sometimes it’s just not complicated: a crisp, unassuming acoustic strum acquires percussion at 0:06, vocals two seconds later, and we’re off; this, friends, is how you handle an introduction if you have a modest ego and would rather not waste time. The moment Biell opens her mouth, the song coalesces around her warm, slightly-raspy tone, reminiscent of Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee) minus maybe a smidgen of edginess. The instrumentation, anchored by good-timey piano vamps, rocks and rolls with nostalgic panache, underscoring lyrics hinting at the isolation imposed by the pandemic and/or the poignancy of the unrecapturable past. You choose. An electric guitar twangs in for a quick solo halfway through but does not overstay its welcome. Nothing about this sad-breezy gem overstays its welcome, making it all the more welcome.

Based in Seattle, Carrie Biell released four LPs between 2001 and 2007, did a bunch of touring, and took time off in the 2010s to concentrate on being a mother to her newborn son. In 2016 she formed the band Moon Palace with her twin sister Cat. The band still exists, but the lockdown of 2020 and 2021 gave Biell both the time and the inspiration to write and record enough songs on her own to give rise to a new solo album. “California Baby” is a track from that forthcoming record, entitled We Get Along, which is scheduled for release in February.

Free and legal MP3: La Loye

Starts quiet & goes places

“About Imagining Things” – La Loye

At once introspective and expansive, “About Imagining Things” is never as quiet and unassuming as it may seem. Turn your radar on and from the outset you’ll sense a song pushing at its constraints, beginning with that itchy-echoey synth loop that starts us up and serves as the rhythm section for the first 1:50. While this and an acoustic guitar comprise the only accompaniment heard for a good long while, that scratchy background sound, increasingly mechanical in demeanor, hints at spaces and ideas that outstrip the “singer/songwriter with a guitar” trope.

The melodies—subtle but sturdy—are also a hint. While the verse might sound like an ordinary chatter-style lyric—I said this thing to that person and now it’s a song–La Loye elevates matters by crafting a melody with grace to it, an eight-bar line with some soft but gratifying resolution. And it sets up the gentle chorus (0:49), a repetition of the line “I can’t figure this out/I can’t figure this without you,” which finds some artful descending intervals to land on as a cello floats into earshot. The first clear sign that we may be heading in unforeseen directions is how the cello ends up droning itself to the front of the mix as the verse starts up again (1:11). At 1:50 we glide into a spacious new landscape, percussion soon kicking in with a half-time stutter, guitar and maybe a mandolin creating with the drumming an oceanic momentum underneath a bridge-like extension to the earlier melodies. We are in pretty much a different song now, driving forward as the guitar gets heavier, a synthesizer sweeping some arpeggios into existence before things de-clutter towards the end and we are left only with that throbbing mechanical rhythm that started us going three and a half minutes earlier. And a lovely, adventurous, rewarding three and a half minutes it was.

La Loye—for the record, she appears to prefer to stylize this in lower case: la loye—is the 24-year-old Dutch singer/songwriter Lieke Heusinkveld. “About Imagining Things” is a song off her debut EP, To Live Underwater, which was released at the beginning of the month.

Free and legal MP3: Erin Rae

Dreamy, seductive pandemic ballad

“Candy + Curry” – Erin Rae

A heartwarming example of the good stuff that can emerge from bad circumstances, the woozy, unhurried “Candy + Curry” was written in the Tennessee countryside by Nashville-based Erin Rae in the midst of 2020’s disconcerting and long-lasting lockdown. The song grabs and holds attention to an unusual degree for such a languidly paced piece of music. This seems to relate to textural touches employed—including a persistent high-hat “drone,” boosted by a bicycle-bell-like chime—that convey a feeling of being carried along on a gentle breeze on a blue-sky day, or maybe just turning slow circles in a fragrant meadow, watching puffy white clouds float by. For 50 seconds or so the bass is the most prominent instrument heard, the other vague sounds providing a bare, white-noise-y background. A cello is the first to make its presence known (around 0:50); and, just when you’ve settled into the dreamy pace, a siren sounds at 1:27. No doubt a synthesizer of some sort but it starts as a genuine-sounding siren, only to perform a bit of a magic trick by transforming what is typically an alarming sound into something friendly and encouraging.

The smart, poignant lyrics, full of resonant short-cuts, reflect both the uncertainty of pandemic life as well as some of its hidden if quirky charms–or, at least, the potential charms available to those lucky enough to have shelter and good health in the midst of the widespread disaster (which, thankfully, was/is still most of us). Rae’s clear, somewhat quizzical tone serves both the words and music fabulously. I urge you to listen to this one a few times; it gets better and better as you grow familiar with it.

“Candy + Curry” is the lead track from Rae’s forthcoming album, Lighten Up, scheduled for a February release. She has two previous full-length albums to her credit, dating back to 2015. You can check her out on Bandcamp, where you can listen to two more pre-release songs from the very enjoyable Lighten Up.

Instant special new

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.10 – October 2021

Even as there are 14 artists on this month’s playlist who had not yet appeared in any EPS mix to date, you’ll also find in this mix a handful of all-time favorites who are now among the most often featured musicians in the eight-plus years these lists have been operational. So I guess it’s an intriguing blend of the old and new both chronologically and aesthetically. In any case, the all-time favorites in question—Sam Phillips, They Might Be Giants, Jane Siberry, and Cassandra Wilson—are all truly among my personal musical heroes through the decades; I’m kind of startled and delighted to find them all together here. And although we live, it would seem, under graver and graver collective shadows, I ended up with a number of songs this month that are not just peppy but in a few cases rather playful—in search of the kinder light, you might say. Besides which, we lose our playfulness and there’s not much hope for us. Man o nam indeed.

“Bad Reputation” – Freedy Johnston (This Perfect World, 1994)
“That Man” – Caro Emerald (Deleted Scenes From the Cutting Room Floor, 2010)
“Head On” – The Jesus and Mary Chain (Automatic, 1989)
“On The Run” – Scorched Earth (single, 1974)
“The Light Is Kinder In This Corner of the Corona” – Bill Nelson (Rosewood: Ornaments and Graces for Acoustic Guitar, Volume 2, 2005)
“Too Late To Say You’re Sorry” – Darlene Love (single, 1966)
“Love Is Everything” – Jane Siberry (When I Was a Boy, 1993)
“Queen of the World” – The Jayhawks (Smile, 2002)
“Hold Back the Night” – The Trammps (The Legendary Zing Album, 1975)
“Swift Arrows” – Shelby Earl (Swift Arrows, 2013)
“There She Goes Again” – The Velvet Underground (The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967)
“Baby Can I Hold You” – Tracy Chapman (Tracy Chapman, 1988)
“Hurt a Fly” – Squirrel Flower (Planet (i),2021)
“Don’t Tell Me” – Blancmange (Mange Tout, 1984)
“You See The Trouble With Me” – Barry White (Let The Music Play, 1976)
“Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You” – Sam Phillips (Push Any Button, 2013)
“Show Me A Love” – Cassandra Wilson (Belly of the Sun, 2002)
“Every Home Should Have One” – Millicent Martin (single, 1970))
“I Palindrome I” – They Might Be Giants (Apollo 18, 1992)
“Country” – Good Morning (Barnyard, 2021)

Random notes:

* Like a number of unexpected-in-retrospect musicians, Freedy Johnston flirted with commercial success in 1990s, most particularly with the album This Perfect World, which featured this simple and glorious lead track “Bad Reputation.” The world may not be perfect, the album itself may not have been perfect (although it was pretty good!), but this song is as nearly perfect as a four-minute piece of semi-popular music has any right to be, with one of those choruses that seem to transcend the idea of someone writing it, it seems just to have always existed.

* Guitarist extraordinaire Bill Nelson’s short period of semi-mainstream success came when he fronted the band Be Bop Deluxe in the 1970s. He’s always been prolific—Be Bop released five studio albums and one live album in a four-year stretch—but a look at Wikipedia will make you dizzy: listed there are some 140 or more (I lost count) solo albums released since 1981, including 12 since 2018 alone. I can’t begin to understand what this could all be about, outside of assuming he’s recording a lot of experimental/improvisational stuff. And I will admit that featuring one gentle instrumental tune from among the thousands he has recorded seems pathetically random. But I believe in synchronicity, and only after putting this list together noticed that the title has taken on quite a new meaning from when he first recorded it back in the good old days of 2005 (little did we know). I’ve always been fond of Be Bop Deluxe, feel that they are sorely underappreciated in the panorama of rock’n’roll history, and have featured them here a couple of times. Bill Nelson I have no idea what to do with but I’ve slipped one song in here if only to pay a bit of respect for the idiosyncratic path he has followed over the decades.

* Scorched Earth was the first band that Billy Ocean recorded with; this was 10 years before his international breakout hit “Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run),” which if you don’t recognize from the title you’d know if you heard it. “On The Run” has no apparent connection outside of the phrase itself but it’s quite a rousing number, the kind of song that completely could have been a hit but for the vagaries of ’70s-era record promotion. Note that Ocean recorded four solo albums from 1976 to 1982 that didn’t really go anywhere before hitting the big time, bigly, in 1984. Say what you will about the corruption of the old record company system, one admirable thing it at least sometimes did was stick with an artist while he or she was working to find their voice. That kind of corporate patience stopped pretty much in the ’90s, never (so far) to be seen again.

* Shelby Earl has a Neko Case-level voice, as sure and strong as you could want to hear. “Swift Arrows” is the title track to an album released in 2013, and was featured on Fingertips here. She was also by the way featured further back, in 2011. Her most recent release is 2017’s The Man Who Made Himself a Name.

* Cato Emerald is a Dutch singer (birth name Caroline Esmeralda van der Leeuw) whose album Deleted Scenes From the Cutting Room Floor spent 30 weeks at number one on the Dutch charts in 2010, beating out Thriller as the best-selling album of all time in the Netherlands. She hasn’t made much of a dent with audiences in the US but you can check here out on Spotify and see what you think. While “That Man” risks veering towards sounding like a retro-y gimmick, the song hits my ears as infectious fun and who can’t use some of that right about now?

* I hear “Every Home Should Have One” as an early entry in the “satirize consumer culture” category that grew as the ’70s wore on. Later in the decade we’d get things like “What Do You Want From Life?” from the Tubes in 1975 and, perhaps the quintessential song of this type, “Step Right Up,” from Tom Waits in 1976. “Every Home Should Have One” was the title song from a British movie released in 1970 and starring Marty Feldman, a farce poking fun at an effort to crack down on sexual images in advertising and culture by the conservative activist Mary Whitehouse (who also drew the direct attention of Pink Floyd a few years later; that’s the “Whitehouse” they address in “Pigs [Three Different Ones],” not the US presidency). The movie ended up being released here with the title Think Dirty but was much more popular in the UK than it was here. Millicent Martin, by the way, has had a long career as a singer and an actress both in the UK and the US. In the early ’60s, she was a featured singer of topical songs on the legendary British satirical news show That Was The Week That Was, but she has remained active for decades, including countless appearances on American TV in the 21st century—she had a recurring role on Frasier at the turn of the millennium, and most recently has been a regular on Grace and Frankie.

* As noted, I love Sam Phillips to pieces; all her releases are top notch, even when they seem to fall in the musical forest with comparatively no one there to hear them. While she, like Freedy Johnston, had a bit of a moment back in the ’90s, her albums over the succeeding years have been uniformly excellent, in particular 2013’s Push Any Button, from which comes the inimitable “Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You.” On the one hand I can understand why she’s an acquired taste but on the other hand I must briefly and pointlessly rail against a culture that would shunt an artist like Phillips off into the “acquired taste” classification in the first place. We are so often just too dumb, collectively, for our own good.

Free and legal MP3: EERA

Shoegazey goodness

“Ladder” – EERA

Fuzzy, bass-heavy, and replete with unresolved chords, “Ladder” offers us a sharp, 2020s update on one of indie rock’s foundational sub-genres. In addition to its somewhat awkward name, shoegaze is a kind of betwixt and between category in that while it was never entirely in fashion it subsequently has never entirely gone out of fashion, either.

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Anna Lena Bruland is who we’re hearing from here, in the guise of her musical project EERA. With “Ladder,” Bruland seems inherently to understand what’s largely overlooked about the appeal of shoegaze, which is that for all the fuzz and reverb and distortion, most shoegaze songs have a backbeat holding them up. (Remember what the backbeat is: rock’n’roll’s defining rhythm, which stresses the second and fourth beats of a four-beat measure.) Here, the backbeat provides the structural solidity behind the song’s idiosyncratic chord patterns, as well as the propulsion underneath the droning guitar that plays here with a muted fury that never fully unleashes, sounding like someone playing extra-loud but in a room down the hall.

For all the sound happening around her, Bruland sings in a semi-blasé tone as the verse melody alternates between extended same-note repetitions and unexpected intervals; the short, insistent chorus, one phrase repeating, finds her in her lower register, sounding nearly like a different singer. The guitar arrives soon enough to sweep us back up into a backbeated wall of sound that seems to include some wordless male vocals but this could also be an interesting aural illusion. Crank it up and see what you think.

Born in Norway, Bruland is based in Berlin. “Ladder” is a track from her forthcoming album, Speak, due out in December on Just Dust Recordings. Her first album, Reflection of Youth, was released in 2017. You can check her out on Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Pseudonym

Melancholy power pop

“Maybe” – Pseudonym

Following the introduction’s ringing, ricocheting guitar line, “Maybe” gets right to it: “Sanity/When will you come to me/Truly does nobody/See what’s all around.” I can relate. The troubled lyrics are delivered by a voice with a comfortable, power-pop purity to it, which reinforces the song’s dual nature, its vibe both itchy and leisurely, an effect embodied by the way the half-time melody is set against a deft, double-time bass line. What hits the ear is a song at once upbeat and melancholy.

Fed up with the state of the world and/or his relationship, the song’s narrator seeks solace in the tried and true; “Side two of Abbey Road/I’ve come to put you on,” he sings. The song’s denouement pays additional tribute: “And in the end,” we hear, “the love you generate/Hopefully will negate/The hate.” One can always hope.

Everything you hear here arrives courtesy of Paul Desjarlais, who is not merely the singer and songwriter but in fact the only member of the “band” Pseudonym—which is, come to think of it, quite the clever and effective stage name. “Maybe” is a track from Before The Monsters Came, the sixth album Desjarlais has recorded as Pseudonym, which was released in August. You can listen to it and buy it, digitally, via Bandcamp. MP3 via the artist.

Free and legal MP3: Chloe Mae

Dreamy, with a swing

“Falling” – Chloe Mae

Its dreaminess tweaked with a bit of a swing, “Falling” is an engaging song that highlights Chloe Mae’s supple and subtly potent voice. I’m hooked at the start by the Sundays-eseque character of the verse, its bi-level, 6/8 melody quickly revealing Mae’s voice as one to be reckoned with (check out the high E she hits around 0:31, a wonderful bit of passing dissonance).

But it’s the chorus that slays me for good here, the way its simple two-note melody, describing a descending major third interval, is answered a half step up and an octave higher with wordless vocals now offering an ascending minor third interval straddling the original two notes. That’s what’s going on technically but what counts is how satisfying this sounds, turning the chorus’s unusual reticence, melodically (how many choruses repeat just two notes?), into its superpower.

Things get pleasantly psychedelic in the second half, synthesizers moving from background to foreground, lyrics repeating the phrase “Falling back to you” as a sort of mantra with a synthesizer countermelody below and higher-pitched synth noodles above. Everything wraps up in a tidy 3:10. I suggest repeated listens, to allow its charms to sink further in.

Chloe Mae is a singer/songwriter from Brisbane. “Falling” is her second single, released in August.

I stay here just the same

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.09 – Sept. 2021

With apologies to the ever under-valued piano, this month’s mix offers an inadvertent salute to rock’n’roll’s two quintessential instruments, the electric guitar and the synthesizer. I’m pretty sure the guitar wins this round (see Weezer, Bowie, Davies, Trynin, and, fiercest of all, that second to last track from the Motels), but it’s close. The enticing Canadian experimental popster Bernice gives us all sorts of electronic bips and twiddles (note, though, the analog piano winding its way in and out); the defunct Bay Area band Dealership offers warm, bell-like digital tones; and, wrapping things up, the mighty Toronto foursome Metric goes all fidgety-synth-poppy on us with the portentous but danceable “Cascades.” Guitars win but synths have the last word.

For the record, note that 13 of the 20 artists this month are making their first appearance on an EPS mix, and two songs this time around are songs formerly featured as MP3s here on Fingertips: the Dealership song “Forest,” and “The Sun Ain’t Shining No More,” from the Danish band Asteroid Galaxy Tour, whose most recent record dates to 2014; they are currently on hiatus.

“Monday Morning Rock” – Marshall Crenshaw (Field Day, 1983)
“Benny” – Allen LeRoy Hug (single, 2021)
“Dirty Work” – Steely Dan (Can’t Buy a Thrill, 1972)
“The Good Life” – Weezer (Pinkerton, 1996)
“Forest” – Dealership (Action/Adventure, 2004)
“Maybe” – The Chantels (single, 1957)
“The Next Day” – David Bowie (The Next Day, 2013)
“What Do Pretty Girls Do?” – Kirsty MacColl (Kite, 1989)
“One Track Mind” – The Knickerbockers (single, 1966)
“It’s Me, Robin” – Bernice (Eau de Bonjourno, 2021)
“The Sun Ain’t Shining No More” – The Asteroids Galaxy Tour (Around the Bend EP, 2009)
“About Her Eyes” – Jerry Jeff Walker (Five Years Gone, 1969)
“From the Lonely Afternoon” – Flora Purim (Carry On, 1979)
“I’m Not the Guy” – Dan Bern (Dan Bern, 1997)
“Cry Cry Cry” – Nicole Atkins (Mondo Amore, 2011)
“Imaginations Real” – Dave Davies (AFL1-3063, 1980)
“Better Than Nothing” – Jennifer Trynin (Cockamamie, 1994)
“Spark” – Over the Rhine (Drunkard’s Prayer, 2005)
“Dressing Up” – The Motels (The Motels, 1979)
“Cascades” – Metric (Pagans in Vegas, 2015)

Random notes:

* The singer/songwriter duo of Tennessee Kamanski and Sarah De La Isla, known together as Allen LeRoy Hug, are one of my favorite new acts of recent years. Featured in May for the mysteriously charming song “Saturnine Boy”, their more recent song “Benny” is another winner, highlighting the twosome’s elusive allure—the offbeat chords, the delayed but brilliant hooks, the fetching vocals, it’s all here, and wrapped up in less than three minutes. Captivating stuff for the discerning listener, and it’s the second song in so no excuse for not checking it out!

* Among the varied chronological destinations this month is year-end 1957, which is when the stone-cold early-rock’n’roll classic “Maybe,” by the Chantels, was released. The Chantels were one of the earliest female, all-Black vocal groups to have crossover national success. They were fronted by the classically-trained Arlene Smith, who not only sang but also wrote both words and music. (Not surprisingly, her co-songwriting credit for “Maybe” was never officially recognized.) A transitional song between straight-ahead doo wop and what would soon be known as the “girl group” sound, “Maybe” comes to us in 2021 as a visitor from another planet, and yet there’s something so foundational here that it cannot be denied, and well deserves being heard within a 21st-century sandwich, as happens here.

* My well-established love for the Kinks necessarily extends to the overlooked brother, Mr. Dave Davies, who can never get enough credit both for his archetypal guitar playing and his very occasional but incisive songwriting for the band. Whatever rough patches he and Ray have gone through relationally, it’s notable that neither brother has felt the need to do a whole lot of solo work over the years. Dave’s 1980 album AFL1-3063 remains an enjoyable glimpse of a bygone era, but sounds as sturdy as ever, what with all the guitars, and that inimitable Davies vocal style, related to Ray’s but not at all the same. (Note: the title was the album’s actual bar code; the cover showed the bar code displayed where his face should be. This was when bar codes were just starting to be slapped on everything. Don’t mess with Dave.)

* “Monday Morning Rock” presents us with a verse melody as muscular as it is humble, embedding itself in the ear with a casual, “you-mean-this-old-thing?” manner, but please let us bow down before its casual brilliance. It doesn’t sound like something someone had to write, so inviting and inevitable is its arc. I do apologize in advance if you have trouble getting it out of your head but there are many worse things that might be filling that space so I’m not really sorry at all.

* Jennifer Trynin had a brief alt-rock moment in the ’90s, appearing in the wake of Liz Phair’s world-shaking debut, with major labels competing with one another to sign her. But there was, as usual, no happy ending, just the usual narrative: the musician ends up with little of the money, the label loses interest when she doesn’t hit it big, moving on in search of the next big thing that almost never pans out. Trynin pretty much left the business after her critically well-regarded first LP and less well-regarded second LP (the one where the musician tries to make amends with the record company) go nowhere commercially. She was able to have something of the last word with a memoir she published in 2006 called Everything I’m Cracked Up To Be, which sounds like a good read. And she has apparently tip-toed back into performance in the 2010s, but no solo work at this point.

* For the uninitiated, this wonderful Steely Dan song is one of a two that Donald Fagen did not sing lead on on the band’s debut album; the alternate lead singer at that point was a guy named David Palmer, who may have been suggested by the record label, perhaps due to Fagen’s lack of confidence at that point as a singer. (I am doing my best to sort through internet “facts.”) Palmer was last heard with the Dan on backing vocals on the second album, Countdown to Ecstasy. Fun (internet) fact: the album’s title was derived from the Bob Dylan song “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.”

* There is one unartful segue here this time, sorry to say. It happens sometimes: the songs go pretty well together but not how they specifically fit where the first ends and the second begins. I won’t mention it to draw any extra attention to it, but if you hear one that you think is pretty ugly, know that I know it too.

Free and legal MP3: Savannah Gardner

Hymn-like solemnity, down-home allure

“Heartbreak River” – Savannah Gardner

There’s a hymn-like solemnity to “Heartbreak River,” with its dignified pace, swelling vocals, and down-home vibe. There’s also something that cumulatively touches the soul here, although I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what it is. Gardner is a young singer/songwriter with an ache in her voice and a depth to her presence, so part of the song’s persuasiveness lies in her performance.

And me being a melody guy through and through, I’m also moved by the solidity of the tune itself, which has a steady majesty, and culminates in a resolution in the chorus as mighty and unshakable as they come: the first half (0:45-0:59) a thoroughgoing set-up for the second half, the second half (1:00-1:14) the unhurried and inevitable conclusion. You see the resting point coming from a mile away and it’s all the sweeter as a result.

As suits the song’s humble power, the arrangement feels easy and tasteful, grounded in simple piano playing, with intermittent violin countermelodies, the occasionally audible guitar lick, and the recurrent punctuation of layered backing vocals. These voices rise and fall with restrained drama (and perhaps a bit of vocal processing?; if so, I like the effect a lot), becoming increasingly central to the song’s complexion. The violin, for its part, hangs back a bit, curbing what might be a natural tendency in this sort of song to pour on the syrup; when it moves front and center for the short coda (3:24), it carries with it the heft and poignancy of a bygone time.

Savannah Gardner, born to British parents, was raised in California, but lives now in the Cotswolds. “Heartbreak River” is a single released back in May; her new single, “Take Me Home,” came out late last month; you can check it out via YouTube. Thanks to Savannah for the MP3.