But I took my chances

Eclectic Playlist Series 10.03 – March 2023

So we’re going through another stretch of time during which, among other disconcerting things, AI is receiving a lot of renewed attention. It looks serious this time, huh? Robotic programs creating content on demand that appears to mimic human output, generated by appropriating existing material (with or without permission), launched off the capacity to crunch data at a superhuman level with no awareness of human context, and utilizing truly off-putting amounts of energy in the process. What could possibly go wrong?

I will tiptoe past the many and varied moral, psychological, sociological, and technological issues posed by this brave new world we’ve stumbled into and shoot right to the overlooked heart of the matter. Which is: do we as human beings care to be communicated to by machines? Of course we already are, all the time. There’s Siri, there’s Alexa, there are those robotic voices that answer customer service calls. An algorithm, likewise, is robotic communication; the songs that Spotify has “chosen” for you, that’s a machine doing the choosing. These new AI bots, however, offer a new level of machine communication because in these cases what the machine spits out isn’t just a list of recommended objects or preprogrammed sound bites but written words or graphic images or music that didn’t previously exist, and that may look and/or sound like something a living breathing human being might produce.

That a living breathing human being did not produce these things is, in fact, a profound difference. For template-oriented writing and commercial graphics this is not necessarily a big deal (except of course for people who may lose jobs in the process). But for anything resembling a creative effort the difference as I see it is chasm-like. My personal bottom line is: if a human being, with a depth of consciousness, a network of personal and familial relationships, and (important) awareness of their own mortality is writing a book or a song or painting a picture or doing any other variety of artistic endeavor, there’s a good reason to look and/or listen. This is one consciousness reaching out to another. That’s what art exists to do. If a machine–with no capacity to understand what it’s communicating, no depth of consciousness, no organic existence in our inter-relational world–is “creating” something, I have little interest in what it’s “saying.”

All of this is a (very) roundabout way of noting that these monthly playlists are the conscious effort of one human being reaching out to any other human being who finds their way here. Even if AI could assemble this exact list of 20 songs in the same order (ha! I dare it), this would not be the same experience. Or, correction: to the casual listener, I suppose it would be the same–same songs, same order, what’s the difference? But to an attentive music lover, how can this be the same? Doesn’t it matter that the songs are selected by a human being with a history, an idiosyncratic knowledge of the music being presented, an intuitive sense of what fits together, and a heartfelt interest in connecting with other similarly-minded humans? If we’ve gotten to the point where surface is all that matters, then we have surrendered an important part of our own humanity, which is our depth. I suppose another word for this is “soul,” which is precisely what AI lacks and will never acquire simply through the prodigious capacity to crunch data. (For a more developed series of thoughts on the matter, I’ll refer you to an essay I wrote three years ago entitled “Yeah, but is it art?”.)

And look: no doubt AI has the capacity to stimulate genuine human creativity based on what it produces; this may well lead to fruitful expression rooted in human effort and sensitivity. But chatbot output, of the kind the internet is currently marveling over, while fascinating at a surface level, is just extra noise as far as I’m concerned–and as such another excellent reminder to limit my screen time and make ongoing efforts to interact with the physical world and, even if online, actual individual humans.

End of soapbox. Note that this is the second playlist released in March, as I aim to be back on track numerically speaking, after February eluded me. As always, the widget for listening is below the list of songs. If you are not a robot and are interested in some extra notes about this month’s assortment, scroll down past the widget.

Here’s what you’ll hear:

1. “In France They Kiss on Main Street” – Joni Mitchell (The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1975)
2. “Cash Machine” – Hard-Fi (Stars on CCTV, 2004)
3. “Sharp Words” – Original Mirrors (Original Mirrors, 1980)
4. “The Pins” – Sara Radle (Same Sun Shines, 2012)
5. “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage” – Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (Make It Happen, 1967)
6. “You’re in a Bad Way” – Saint Etienne (So Tough, 1993)
7. “Last Train Home” – Pat Metheny Group (Still Life (Talking), 1987)
8. “The Runner” – Allison Russell (Outside Child, 2021)
9. “Paris 1919” – John Cale (Paris 1919, 1973)
10. “You’re Not Alone” – People and Stars (People and Stars EP, 2016)
11. “Look Outside” – Broadcast (The Noise Made By People, 2000)
12. “Heartbeats Accelerating” – Kate and Anna McGarrigle (Heartbeats Accelerating, 1990)
13. “Souvenir” – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (Architecture & Morality, 1981)
14. “LA Rain” – The Mynabirds (What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, 2010)
15. “Expressway to Your Heart” – The Soul Survivors (Absolute Torch and Twang, 1989)
16. “Bag of Hammers” – Thao & The Get Down Stay Down (We Brave Bee Stings and All, 2008)
17. “Pay As You Go” – Wayne Shorter (Second Genesis, 1960/1974)
18. “Drown” – Son Volt (Trace, 1995)
19. “Grand Central Station, March 18, 1977” – Steve Forbert (Alive on Arrival, 1978)
20. “The Worst is Done” – Weyes Blood (And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow, 2022)

The fine print:

* It’s 46 years nearly to the day from the slice of time captured in Steve Forbert’s poignant “Grand Central Station, March 18, 1977,” found on his mighty debut album, 1978’s Alive on Arrival. However long-ago a moment he is chronicling via song here, the cool and somewhat comforting thing is that his light-footed descriptions sound all but timeless: there’s nothing in the scene he paints from a day spent busking in Grand Central that couldn’t describe the same scene these many years later. Sure, there are prominent contemporary specifics he couldn’t have written about–notably, the phone-scrollers and ear-bud-talkers–but by and large Grand Central was and is Grand Central, recognizably so to this day and beyond.

* I’m still waiting, hopefully, for another album from Laura Berhenn, who does musical business as The Mynabirds. Her 2010 debut, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, remains a retro-fueled joy from start to finish; her most recent release, 2017’s Be Here Now was another strong effort, with more of an ’80s than a ’60s flair in this case. Long-time Fingertips visitors may recall any one or another of the four times the Mynabirds have been featured in the MP3 section here (see Artist Index for details); Berhenn has also been tapped twice previously for inclusion in a playlist. While I know that the real-life LA rains have caused no minor amount of havoc and distress this year, the rain also had at least a bit of a bright side vis-à-vis the area’s long-standing drought. Berhenn’s song seems well pitched between tragedy and detachment, with its plaintive swing and matter-of-fact fortitude.

* Here’s another chance for you to be reminded of the glory of Allison Russell’s 2021 debut album, the painful yet triumphant Outside Child. No offense (necessarily) meant to 14-year-old TikTokkers (or to AI robots, for that matter), but the output of a mature, life-experienced artist is music coming to us from another, much weightier plane of existence and authenticity than the attention-seeking twaddle craved by audiences trained by now not to know any better, or even care. More than ever it’s up to you and me to acknowledge and honor the difference–to remember that even here in the inferno live some who “are not inferno,” as per old friend Italo Calvino, and to salute and encourage them.

* The short-lived British new wave band Original Mirrors laid down some indelible tracks before dissolving due to commercial disinterest. Personally I’m not sure why a song like “Sharp Words” didn’t become a new wave classic, along with their incisive cover of the Supremes’ oddly psychedelic tune “Reflections.” You can check out their self-titled debut album on Spotify; the one follow-up, Heart Twango and Raw Beat, has no digital existence. At the end of the day, the most notable thing about Original Mirrors is probably that it was co-founded by Ian Broudie, who later went on to some bit of fame and fortune as mastermind behind the Lightning Seeds. His co-founder was Steve Allen, a semi-known quantity back in the day as front man for the somewhat influential art rockers Deaf School.

* Speaking of which, the new wave era introduced me firsthand to the delightful quirks and charms of the British pop charts. The idea that a loping, melodic, synth-filled song such as “Souvenir” could be a smash hit in the UK in 1981 (it peaked there at #3) delighted me. The US charts from that same time frame had some half-decent stuff and some (let’s just say) fluff, but nothing that sounded like OMD. The band would not hit the top 10 in the US until 1986, with the smoother, poppier “If You Leave,” a song launched to the big time by its prominent use in the popular movie Pretty in Pink.

* This playlist’s seemingly inevitable memorial entrant comes from saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, who died this month at age 89. While his jazz pedigree is impeccable, with early-career experience with both Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the Miles Davis Quintet, he is probably best known to rock’n’roll fans as founder of the celebrated fusion band Weather Report, and soon after for playing extensively with Joni Mitchell, appearing on all 10 studio albums she released between 1977 and 2002. Another rock-fan highlight: Shorter’s memorable tenor sax solo three-quarters of the way through the Steely Dan epic “Aja.” “Pay As You Go” is a short, spiffy track from the second solo album Shorter recorded, in 1960. For whatever reason, the album, Second Genesis, was not released until 1974. Note that I don’t listen to jazz as aficionados seem to; I’m not tracking the sounds and tones of the instrumentalists or the explicit manner of their interactions. I hear energetic playing and an engaging (and concise!) tune and I’m happy.

Maybe I can make it better

Eclectic Playlist Series 10.2 – March 2023

I know not everyone has time to listen to a 20-song playlist, especially when said playlist is comprised of a certain amount of unfamiliar music. But I do hope that those of you who have the inclination to start at least occasionally find the stamina to finish. This doesn’t mean you have to do it all in one sitting! But look: my playlists are not albums front-loaded with hit singles, quickly to peter out after that. I believe in every one of the 20 songs that populate each list, which means that songs that land near the bottom aren’t there because they are somehow weaker or less appealing than the first few songs. But I see the stats and I see that listening lengths tend not (at all) to be the full length of the playlist. This is the internet, people are flitty, I get it. But I’m often sad to see what great songs people are missing out on just because they weren’t among the first few.

Take this month, for instance. Anyone who bugs out before the final stretch will miss, among other excellent things, the short but distinctive David Bowie track “So She,” mysteriously left off the standard version of 2013’s The Next Day; rather, it ended up one of four songs added to the “deluxe” version of the album. To this day, however, it is not to be found on Spotify; remember the mantra about streaming: use it but don’t rely on it!

As always, the widget for listening is below the playlist. The extra curious can scroll further and find extra notes about some of what you’ll be hearing.

On to the music:

1. “Glorious” – A. Graham and the Moment Band (This Tyrant is Free, 2004)
2. “Things We Said Today” – The Beatles (A Hard Day’s Night, 1964)
3. “Instrumental Introduction/Don’t Look Down” – Lindsey Buckingham (Out of the Cradle, 1992)
4. “Sweetheart” – Jennah Barry (Young Men, 2012)
5. “If Looks Could Kill” – Camera Obscura (Let’s Get Out of This Country, 2006)
6. “Livin’ in Love” – Sheila Anthony (b-side, 1970)
7. “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” – The English Beat (What Is Beat?, 1983)
8. “Diamantes” – Carla Morrison (El Renacimiento, 2022)
9. “Nevermind” – Leonard Cohen (Popular Problems, 2014)
10. “Rome (Wasn’t Built in a Day)” – Sam Cooke (Ain’t That Good News, 1964)
11. “Anniversary Song” – Cowboy Junkies (Pale Sun, Crescent Moon, 1993)
12. “Icarus” – Paul Winter Consort (Icarus, 1972)
13. “Always” – Tom Verlaine (Dreamtime, 1981)
14. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” – Burt Bacharach (Burt Bacharach – Hit Maker!, 1965)
15. “Walkin’ In and Out of Your Arms” – k.d. lang (Absolute Torch and Twang, 1989)
16. “Stop Pretending” – Deep Sea Diver (single, 2020)
17. “So She” – David Bowie (The Next Day [deluxe], 2013)
18. “American Heartbeat” – Duncan Browne (Streets of Fire, 1979)
19. “It’s In Our Hands” – Björk (Greatest Hits, 2002)
20. “Magnificent Bird” – Gabriel Kahane (Magnificent Bird, 2022)

The fine print:

* Back in Fingertips’ formative years, I used to keep a running “Top 10” of favorite songs from the recent months of postings. I remember “Glorious” as riding at #1 on that list for a good while. These many years later, it remains as user-friendly and good-natured a song as it sounded to me back in the day. I long since lost track of front man Andy Graham but a quick poke around the intertubes informs me that he is still out there singing and recording in his user-friendly, good-natured style. He now calls his ensemble A. Graham and the Worlds of Fun; their album, Rides, came out in November. Check it out on Bandcamp. The album includes a new recording of “Glorious,” identified “Glorious 22.”

* An original Buttercup Records pressing of Sheila Anthony’s 1970 single “Woman to Woman,” the b-side of which is “Livin’ in Love,” is currently selling on Discogs for £325.00. Several re-issues, from 1975, are somewhat cheaper. The previously obscure track has become a Northern Soul standard but remains virtually unknown outside of that well-intentioned but somewhat fetishy scene. As for Anthony herself, I can find nothing online with even a hint of her history or biography. I guess the song, which is wonderful, will have to suffice.

* Duncan Browne had a few different musical incarnations in his cancer-shortened career. On the scene first in the late ’60s as a baroque folkie, he emerged in the mid-’70s as half of the would-be glam-rock-ish duo Metro, only then to find his most compelling voice as a solo act with two fine late-’70s albums. However excellent, neither album sold very well, and Browne in the ’80s ventured into the somewhat more remunerative field of TV and movie scoring. The sad ending came in 1993; Browne was just 46. I featured the haunting title track to his 1978 album The Wild Places on EPS 4.05 in May 2017. “American Heartbeat” is a standout track from 1979’s Streets of Fire.

* Björk’s singular, unearthly vocals are in full command of “It’s In Our Hands,” a song that showed up on her 2002 Greatest Hits LP without previously appearing on any release of hers. Sonically it lands in an awesome sweet spot: a near-ideal blend of her commanding Homogenic sound and the quieter, glitchier world of Vespertine. Her subsequent albums have gotten at once more complex and more abstract–not necessarily a bad thing but also not necessarily music that’s easy to absorb without careful and repeated listens. Sometimes the ear just needs simple and accessible to get through the day. But being a little weird at the same time is usually a bonus.

* When last we heard from the Mexican singer/songwriter Carla Morrison (see EPS 4.07), she was touring in the aftermath of two Grammy-nominated albums, which were her first two full-length releases, coming in 2012 and 2015. A lot has changed since then. By the end of 2017, she had burnt out from writing and performing and was battling depression. She moved to Paris in 2019 and started to find new inspiration, moving her music in a more overtly pop-oriented direction, while lyrically confronting her mental health battles. A new wave of depression descended in 2021 after losing her father to COVID. But she has since emerged and finished her first album in five years, El Renacimiento (which can be translated as “The Rebirth”), which came out in the spring of 2022. My ears are not often attuned to what passes for pop in the 2020s but when it emerges from a musician with deeper roots and musical chops I take it more seriously.

* Is Leonard Cohen a downer or what? But an incisive and formidable downer to be sure. I did however feel compelled to shut the door on old Leonard with an immediate shot of Sam Cooke. The songs don’t quite match up but I wanted a quick change of pace so that’s where we ended up.

* Two memorials wove their way, back to back, into this month’s mix. First up is Tom Verlaine, who left us in January at the age of 73. He’s most well-known for co-founding the seminal NYC band Television in the 1970s. (And call me thick but I just the other day realized the connection between the band name and Verlaine’s initials.) Influential and iconoclastic, Verlaine released nine solo albums after Television’s initial breakup, in 1978, but only two after 1992 (the year Television reunited; they never officially broke up again but never recorded again either). It’s not clear exactly how he passed the final few decades of his life, but a hint comes from his answer to the New York Times when asked, in 2006, to summarize his life. He replied, “Struggling not to have a professional career.” I can relate.

* The second “in memoriam” entry is of course the Burt Bacharach song. Bacharach, 94, died last month and the outpouring of appreciation was potent and well-deserved. If you’re curious, you can read a lot more about him all over the internet at this point. I can’t help but recall from my distant youth his snazzy, harmonically astute ’60s hits, often for Dionne Warwick, but what drew me towards him as an adult was the collaboration album he did with Elvis Costello in 1998, Painted From Memory–an album that has only grown in stature over the years. (It’s a bit of a masterpiece.) “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” is an early Bacharach nugget, at once lazily sophisticated and over in a blink. This was another case in which I judged the somewhat mismatched segue as worth it for the overall effect. By the way, the vocals here were handled by a British trio called The Breakaways, considered top-flight session vocalists at the time; they worked with Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, and (yes) Jimi Hendrix, among others. They were uncredited on the Bacharach song.

* But hey if you want a nice segue check out #19 into #20. That works pretty well.

“Sunday” – Winter

You can’t resist

“Sunday” – Winter

About as dreamy as dream pop gets, “Sunday” begins all gossamer and twinkle, with desultory guitar chords and piano plinkings and, eventually, singer/songwriter Samira Winter singing languidly about something that’s in your head that you can’t resist. And then goes on to set the same lyrics to a brisk backbeat and yes it is hard to resist, that juxtaposition of happy rhythm and melancholy affect.

Because make no mistake: Winter, however airy the voice, isn’t singing about shiny happy people here. First there’s a reference to “years of trauma”; then we get the chorus: Where’s the truth?/It’s slipping loose/Getting abused/So confused. And yet, right after that comes a prominently articulated guitar melody, warm and low-registered. Then there’s that light-hearted instrumental after the second iteration of the chorus (3:17), a bubbling up of space-age synthesizers that augments the song’s shimmer even as Winter closes the tune out on the repeated lyric “So confused,” spun out via a series of layered harmonies marked by unresolved chords. A final touch: more of those lackadaisical piano tinkles that we heard in the introduction. Is the confusion referenced by the lyrics mirrored in the happy/sad mixed signals delivered by the songwriting? Or is this just dream pop being dream pop, in which the glistening soundscape is often contradicted by lyrics that may be disaffected, hallucinatory, or tenaciously indecipherable (cf. Twins, Cocteau)? Could be both. Me I’m chalking the whole thing up as an homage to Harriet Wheeler and her seminal semi-dream-poppy band the Sundays. I’m probably wrong about that but any time I get to write about the Sundays I’m happy.

Samira Winter was born and raised in Brazil and moved to the U.S. to go to college. Winter began as a duo in 2012, evolved into a band a few years later, and depopulated into a solo project for Winter herself by the time of the 2019 album Hazy. “Sunday” is a track from the album What Kind of Blue Are You?, the sixth full-length attributed to Winter. It’s a nice listen end to end.

MP3 via KEXP.

“Jennifer Valentine” – Field School

Fuzzy and melodic

“Jennifer Valentine” – Field School

Power pop is never too far below the surface here on Fingertips, and early-ish 2023 gives us another wistful/tuneful bit of the same, this time of the fuzzy/lo-fi variety. “Jennifer Valentine” is a song exquisitely in tune with itself, telling an archetypal story of unrequited love with the powerfully shy tenderness of an introverted teen-ager. Power pop is the perfect vehicle, as the genre all but aches with innocent, unrealized passion, with its characteristically sweet, succinct melodies, often tinged in minor keys, forever hinting at the despair that lurks below desire.

This representative power-pop vibe hinges frequently, if not always, upon a vocalist with some bit of sugar mixed with the melancholy (or melancholy mixed with the sugar, depending on the individual circumstance). On “Jennifer Valentine” it embodies via the awkward combination of hesitancy and assertion in singer/songwriter Charles Bert’s reedy, mixed-down delivery. That opening salvo about how the singer wrote the name of his beloved “a thousand times” is quintessentially middle-school (you need a handy notebook and pen, after all), as are the progressively grandiose sentiments the song expresses: the singer goes from “Your name should be up in lights/Above the city burning bright” to “Electromagnets realign/Whenever you were walking by.”

And let’s not overlook the flawless choice of name here, with its sing-song-y dual dactyls and guileless imagery; what after all is more innocent and passive-assertive than sending a valentine to someone you have a crush on? This song is a valentine to a Valentine.

Field School is the pandemic-induced solo project launched by Bert during lockdown; its initial output consisted of three five-song cassettes, which were eventually released as digital EPs in 2022. Bert has otherwise been a member of the Seattle-based band Math and Physics Club since 2004. “Jennifer Valentine” was originally on the Hey Satellite EP, released in April 2022; it reappears on the full-length When Summer Comes album, from November 2022, which collects recordings from the original cassettes onto one album. MP3 via KEXP.

(And hey if you are a power pop fan you might want to go back and check out my Power Pop playlists on Spotify, which aim to unite both classic and contemporary power pop into one seamless listen. You’ll see there that I enjoy stretching the genre a bit to get beyond the usual suspects: while every song on these mixes features sparklingly catchy, power-pop-infused melodies, not every song is going to be found on standard power pop playlists. (Which is just as well because a lot of standard power pop playlists are just plain off base. Don’t get me started.) Anyway: Volume 1 is here; you can look for Volumes 2 and 3 once you’re there. Note a news flash: the original studio recording of “Starry Eyes,” as seminal a power pop song as there is, is no longer available on Spotify. This should tell you all you need to know about the efficacy and stability of streaming if you’re a committed music fan. Use it but don’t count on it!)

“Wichita Rx” – Alpha Cat

Casual, compelling strummer

“Wichita Rx” – Alpha Cat

A laid-back strummer in 3/4 time, “Wichita Rx” has an old-time sensibility and attention to craft. Take the opening lines of the first verse as an example. Elizabeth McCullough (who does musical business as Alpha Cat) sings, in her resonant alto, “Somewhere past Wichita/That girl caught up with you.” Already there’s so much going on! Listen to how she adds a melismatic syllable to the end of Wichita, subtly complicating the campfire melody; listen next to how she takes the three syllables of “up with you” at a different pace than the three syllables at the end of the first line (“Wichita”). So, these first two lines scan the same but are sung differently–another subtle and fetching complication. These may be tiny things but they fully impact the musical impression. That’s what I mean by attention to craft. Then, ponder the words themselves, which achieve something you don’t hear in a lot of 21st-century songs: an implied, engaging story from the get-go. Eight words and we already know there are two characters on a road trip, probably a long one, and that the narrator’s companion is tracked down by a woman who seems at best an annoyance, at least to the narrator. We get action, we get drama, and McCullough has been singing for all of six seconds.

And then, a turn: after that tantalizing start and that lived-in musical setting, McCullough keeps the story ever so slightly out of reach and the music subtly off-kilter. With a mix of evocative lines and elusive phrases, we keep circling back to “that girl from Wichita” who now is “using up your time.” The story eludes precise comprehension, but the weary resignation of the narrator implies a less than happy ending. “The mirror she broke/But she never did lie,” she sings, a succinct but enigmatic epigram. All the while, McCullough has been specializing in expressive musical sidesteps, such as you can hear on the word “wire” (0:23) or on the phrase “finds you” (0:58), or, maybe best of all, in the way she finishes the phrase “another one’s eyes” (2:23). Combined with the song’s fill-in-the-blanks story line, such touches cumulatively transform what might appear to a casual listener as a leisurely-paced slice of Americana into a mysteriously potent journey. Which, I might guess, the two characters in the song themselves had, one way or another.

“Wichita Rx” is a track from the EP Venus Smile… retrograde, which is a remastered version of the EP Venus Smile. The original Venus Smile was released in June 2022, while the remastered “retrograde” version came out in October. McCullough’s recording history with Alpha Cat goes back to 1999, with the release of the album Best Boy, which made something of an impact in the college radio world. Alpha Cat was initially a band, but became a solo project. McCullough was, sadly, sidetracked for more than 10 years by serious depression. As a result, the Venus Smile recordings date originally back to music written in the ’00s.

They can’t read my thoughts

Eclectic Playlist Series 10.1 – January 2023

For those keeping score at home, I operate here under the self-imposed rule that Eclectic Playlist Series artists may only appear once in any given calendar year. January is when everything resets, and all artists are available again. It’s fun to regain the unlimited choice but this does make the January list troublesome in that anyone I feature in this initial mix is immediately excluded for the rest of the year. If I over-eagerly populate the January playlist with some of my all-time favorites (e.g., Elvis Costello, Liz Phair, and Suzanne Vega, to name three), then poof, I’ve already used them up for the year. It’s a first-world problem.

While I’m in new year introductory mode, I’ll offer another couple of tidbits that you may or may not have figured out on your own over time. First: the horizontal graphic you see at the top of any playlist post is excerpted each month from the cover of one of the albums featured (via one song) on each mix. Next: the playlist’s title likewise is a phrase from a lyric in one of the songs in the mix. Usually these two things do not derive from the same song but I think it’s happened once or twice (for those keeping score at home).

As always, the widget for listening is below the playlist. The extra curious can scroll further and find extra notes about some of what you’ll be hearing.

Lastly, regarding the Mixcloud situation: I am leaving everything available there, at least for the next month or so. Feel free to pipe up if you have any helpful input on the matter; for all I know nobody is going back to listen to the older lists in the first place. I do tend to be more of an archivist than is seemingly necessary in an online realm oriented towards what’s next rather than what was here last month (or last year, or last decade). And yet I remain hesitant to have only 10 mixes live at any one time. Still, to keep all the playlists online is going to be pricey moving forward, and Fingertips is–go figure–hardly a money machine. If I take them down it’ll render this page largely superfluous, but maybe that’s not a big deal.

On to the music:

1. “The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)” – The Fun Boy Three (single, 1981)
2. “Collider Particles” – Madison Cunningham (Revealer, 2022)
3. “Say Something” – James (Laid, 1993)
4. “Zebra” – Beach House (Teen Dream, 2010)
5. “Somebody Who Loves You” – Joan Armatrading (Joan Armatrading, 1976)
6. “The Death of Magic Thinking” – Elvis Costello & The Imposters (The Boy Named If, 2022)
7. “Wish I Was” – Kim Deal (b-side, 2013)
8. “Perfume” – Sparks (Hello Young Lovers, 2006)
9. “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” – Lou Johnson (single, 1964)
10. “West Gwillimbury” – Ron Sexsmith (The Last Rider, 2017)
11. “Giving It All to You” – Liz Phair (Somebody’s Miracle, 2006)
12. “She’s In Love With You” – Suzi Quatro (Suzi…And Other Four-Letter Words, 1979)
13. “The Ways of the Wind” – P.M. Dawn (The Bliss Album…?, 1993)
14. “Satellites” – Rickie Lee Jones (Flying Cowboys, 1989)
15. “Keep On Dreamin'” – The Arcs (single, 2022; album coming in 2023)
16. “Sophie” – Jeff Beck (Wired, 1976)
17. “Fat Man & Dancing Girl” – Suzanne Vega (99.9 F°, 1992)
18. “Long and Lonesome Road” – Shocking Blue (At Home, 1969)
19. “Reynardine” – Isobel Campbell (Milkwhite Sheets, 2006)
20. “Hope” – Bauhaus (Burning From the Inside, 1983)

The fine print:

* Two prominent but unrelated factors led to this month’s opening track. There was on the one hand the sad news of the death of the British singer/songwriter Terry Hall, best known here for his prominent role in the bands The Specials and The Fun Boy Three. And there was on the other hand the clown show that opened for business earlier this month in the U.S. House of Representatives. I’m not sure what they were specifically addressing in 1981–it sounds like they had an understandable beef with Ronald Reagan, among other things–but honestly, the lyrics to this debut single strike me as more on point than ever. (Note that the band over time lost the “The” in front of their name, but initial releases were in fact credited to “The Fun Boy Three.”)

* Speaking of newcomers to the EPS univertse: obviously one way to go is to select artists who are relatively new to the music scene. One of my favorites of this group is the singer/songwriter Madison Cunningham, whose songs can be knotty and catchy at the same time. As a bonus, she plays a mean, jazz-inflected guitar. The song “Hospital” was my introduction to her, and it’s a great one if you don’t know it, but it turns out the album, Revealer, is packed with goodies. Check it out if you get a chance.

* All the songs as he’s already written, all the musical paths he’s wandered down, and he still comes up with something like this? I’m talking Elvis Costello and this selection from his most recent LP, 2022’s A Boy Named If, which is as fresh and interesting as his best songs always are. And hey if you’re one of those people who has vaguely good feelings about EC but has maybe lost touch with his 21st-century output, have no fear: my “Elvis Costello: the 21st century” playlist is the thing for you. Twenty-one songs from his 21st-century oeuvre that range widely away from his “angry young man” phase and why shouldn’t they? He is no longer young and no longer angry, but he’s still as good a songwriter as rock’n’roll has ever produced.

* I am not a Pixies superfan and I don’t know a whole lot about Kim Deal and nothing about what prompted a series of five seven-inch singles she released, without an album, between 2012 and 2014. But I do know that the instrumental “Wish I Was” is weirdly magnetic to my ears, and I suspect that anyone fond of subtle droning guitar lines will feel similarly. The song establishes a deliciously laid-back groove and doesn’t deviate; the deep charm is in Deal’s ongoing choices in both the lead and rhythm parts (I assume she plays both). There are hesitations, minor atonalities, fuzzy patches, fitful melody lines, and an imprecise island vibe. Marvelous from beginning to end.

* “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” is about as Burt Bacharach-y a song as there is (check out those modulation!; and that eccentric opening parentheses!), and later versions are better known, the Naked Eyes cover in 1983 most of all, it was first a modest hit for the singer Lou Johnson back in 1964. It became a big hit in the UK when covered by Sandie Shaw later that same year. Dionne Warwick is also associated with this song; she recorded a demo version in 1963 but didn’t put out a full recording of it until her 1967 album The Windows of the World. Everyone does a pretty good job with this song but I’m especially enjoying Johnson’s take, with its unburdened, almost offhanded arrangement and the singer’s nonchalant delivery.

* I am not aiming to turn these playlists into requiems–my goal is to be as outwardly appreciative as possible while some of these older musicians are still with us–but it seems only natural to mark notable passings from time to time. There was Christine McVie last month and now the news about the so-called “guitarist’s guitarist,” Jeff Beck. I’m not a big fusion fan but only a grump is going to resist the various memorable guitar riffs baked into the eight songs on his 1976 album Wired. “Sophie” is a bit on the long side but it earns the ear space for its engaging, split-personality unfoldings, and the undeniable appeal of Beck’s soaring lead lines, here playing off some extra show-off-y stuff from Jan Hammer.

* If known at all, the Dutch band Shocking Blue gets pigeonholed into the “one-hit wonder” category based on their indelible 1969 song “Venus,” as sneaky-great sounding today as ever. But there was a good deal more to the band than that, thanks in large part to front woman Mariska Veres’ effortless vocal charisma. With a bluesy-folksy psychedelic palette that places them squarely in their late-’60s/early-’70s time frame, Shocking Blue carved out something of their own sound, at least for a while–the later few of their nine studio albums, released between 1967 and 1974, veered often towards either a more generic sound, as if the band were simply running out of ideas, or songs too deliberately evocative of “Venus” (see “Eve and the Apple,” from 1972’s Attila)…as if the band were simply running out of ideas. Through it all, however, Shocking Blue maintained an appealing, home-baked charm that mixed menace and innocence in an especially ’70s sort of way.

* How can you not love “West Gwillimbury”? As noted at Ron Sexsmith’s last appearance here (EPS 9.08), his 2017 album The Last Rider is a keeper, and this song is too delightful for words, featuring the sort of laid-back but insistent melodicism that characterizes his finest efforts. Ongoingly prolific, Sexsmith has not only released two more albums since then, but has another one, entitled The Vivian Line, his eighteenth, coming out next month.

“Some Of Us Are Brave” – Danielle Ponder

Heartfelt and potent

“Some Of Us Are Brave” – Danielle Ponder

A heartfelt knockout of a song, “Some Of Us Are Brave” is one part gospel, one part old-school soul, and one part acute, up-to-the-minute clarion call for empathy and empowerment. Singer/songwriter Danielle Ponder is a former public defender from Rochester, New York who turned full-time to music in 2018. “Some Of Us Are Brave” is the title track to her 2022 debut album; it takes its name from a landmark Black feminist essay collection from 1982 entitled All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies.

There’s much to love about this song, beginning with the potency of Ponder’s voice, which is introduced through a filter that nods at vocal stylings from the ’30s and ’40s. The filter fades after thirty seconds, and Ponder proceeds to use her obviously powerful instrument with artful restraint–super appealing to my ears, which have always been allergic to the sort of singing a music teacher I once knew referred to, with delightful disdain, as “con belto” (cf. bel canto). With Ponder, the wonderful moments are moments of phrasing–such as her “what a pity” at 0:44, or the “I know” at 1:37, among many others–that might glide by an inattentive listener and yet cumulatively contribute to the overall magnetism of the performance.

On point as well are the production choices, which reinforce the theme of potent restraint. I especially like the way the song shifts at 0:53, and not necessarily in the direction one might anticipate. The introductory section as it develops might seem to be leading to something explosive; instead the song slides into a velvet groove that begins with subtle electronic touches before opening into the bass-forward, trip-hoppy soundscape that dominates the rest of the song. One last indication of the song’s predilection for subtle power is the outro (starting at 3:09), which features a meditative, arpeggiated synth line and lyrics of calm but persuasive force.

MP3 via KEXP. And hey if you can’t help wanting some stormier vocalizing, be sure to check out the entire album on Bandcamp, where you can buy it either digitally, on CD, or on vinyl. Ponder does in fact cut loose from time to time, and in her hands it’s pretty great as well.

“Anna” – Cloud Cukkoo

Brisk, poignant ballad

“Anna” – Cloud Cukkoo

After a gentle, lullaby-like opening, “Anna” develops into a brisk, melodic composition that, backbeat notwithstanding, I’m tempted to call a ballad. What, after all, is a ballad? Traditionally, it’s a poem, typically suitable for singing, in which a story is told, often a romantic and/or tragic one. Note too that ballads often are set to an ABCB rhyme scheme, which is what “Anna” employs as well. I say it’s a ballad, and a splendid one at that.

The story being told, obliquely, is worth unpacking. The Dutch singer/songwriter Jori, who records as Cloud Cukkoo, tells of seeing a homeless man on a Dublin street, on a cold day, collecting coins in a Starbucks coffee cup with the name “Anna” on it. “Not even the cup was his,” she says. She wrote this song in response; in it, she alludes to his hardships as the man addresses the (imagined) woman whose name graces the discarded cup. It’s a simple but striking premise, brought to life with even-handed production, an incisive chorus, and Jori’s deceptively formidable voice–don’t let the song’s catchiness distract you from her lovely depth of tone. I especially appreciate the clean soundscape, driven by rhythm guitar, unfussy percussion, and well-placed keyboards: a beautiful aural counterpoint to the hyperactive, over-processed pop songs that grab clicks and followers in our mixed-up world.

Originally from a country village in the Netherlands, Jori relocated to Berlin in 2022 to be able to take part in a more diverse and vibrant creative community. She has some older material up on Bandcamp but doesn’t seem to be using that site at this point; your best bet for checking her music out is over on Spotify. “Anna” was just released last week; MP3 courtesy of the artist.

“Forever Far Out” – Dot Dash

Succinct power pop

“Forever Far Out” – Dot Dash

One of the reassuring things about power pop, besides its indelible if elusive charm, is that it never quite goes away–largely because it never fully arrived in the first place: a relentlessly niche-y genre, power pop has yielded relatively few big hits over the decades. And although you may see a recurring set of words and phrases used in efforts to describe the sound–upbeat, melodic hooks, often of the sing-along variety; jangly and/or crunchy and/or chunky guitars; sweet-sounding vocals; concise songwriting–we always land eventually in “I know it when I hear it” territory.

So, even here in the year 2023, a good 50 years on from power pop’s formative era, the song “Forever Far Out,” from the veteran DC band Dot Dash, reads as power pop all the way: there’s the chunky guitar line, the upbeat ambiance, a lot of melodic resolution, sweet-toned vocals, and succinct craftsmanship, with the song clocking in under three minutes. Favoring melodies that repeatedly resolve is an underrated commonality among most power pop songs, and Dot Dash does that here before you know what’s hit you: the first verse unfolds in three lines, taking you from tension to resolution in 10 seconds flat. The chorus is a bit cagier on the resolution front but resolution still arrives, and is followed up with some wordless “oo-oos”–a feature, it should be noted, that is rarely out of place in power pop.

Bonus: there’s a bridge (1:39), apparently an endangered concept in 21st-century songwriting, and (extra bonus points) it’s an instrumental bridge, as in no singing. As with everything here it doesn’t waste time. That squalling guitar note that leads us back to the chorus is worth the price of admission, simply as something you pretty much never hear these days.

Dot Dash is a D.C.-based trio, formerly a quartet, with six previous albums to their name. “Forever Far Out” is the lead track from their seventh, entitled Madman in the Rain, released in November. You can check the whole thing out, and buy it, via Bandcamp. The band was previously featured on Fingertips in 2015; read the review and you’ll find out where the name came from and other fun facts. MP3 via the band.

I don’t mind some slight disorder

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.11 – Dec. 2022

I’m going out on a limb here and posting a December playlist that is not a holiday playlist. I challenge you, in fact, to find anything here that says “holiday season” in any straightforward way. I’m not aiming to be a Grinch per se–I’m actually in a pretty good place of late all things considered–but the so-called “holiday spirit” isn’t doing it for me this year. The world is a lot; it’s all one can do to find a little clearing in it to stop and feel grateful for something or another. To crank all the way to deck the halls and ho ho ho is not in the cards for me this time around.

As for the rest of what’s in store, I sense an unconscious blending of the happy and the wary, the rousing and the wistful, a bit messy around the edges: life, in other words, via a 20-song playlist. Anticipate the possibility of a slightly jarring segue or two, which I will justify in two ways–first because sometimes songs that work well together as neighbors don’t abut each other comfortably, second because that’s life too.

As usual, the widget for listening is below the playlist. Faitihful listeners should note that Mixcloud, where the playlists live, has made a new corporate adjustment and as of December requires a paid membership, as a curator/creator, in order to keep more than 10 shows actively online at any given time. (It’s still free to listen to.) I decided to spring for the membership at least for the next few months, if only because I felt funny about abandoning eight-plus years of mixes quite so abruptly. I’m not sure it will be worth it in the long haul, given how, um, let’s say “specialized” the audience is. Still, I don’t love the idea of taking all the old playlists offline. We’ll see how it goes. Anyhow, here’s the latest, with some explanatory notes, as usual, below the widget:

1. “Queen Jane Approximately” – Emma Swift (Blonde on the Tracks, 2020)
2. “What You Said” – The Decks (Breath and Bone, 2009)
3. “The Walls Came Down” – The Call (Modern Romans, 1983)
4. “Baby, Don’t Cry” – Ray Charles (Sweet and Sour Tears, 1964)
5. “Time is a Healer” – Jesse Baylin (Jersey Girl, 2022)
6. “I’m Over You” – The Silos (The Silos, 1990)
7. “Now It’s On” – Granddaddy (Sumday, 2003)
8. “Memories of Madrid” – Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass (What Now My Love, 1966)
9. “Broken Circle” – Sam Phillips (Solid State: Songs From the Long Play, 2011)
10.”I Can’t Make It Alone” – Maria McKee (You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, 1993)
11. “Out Of My Head” – First Aid Kit (Palomino, 2022)
12. “When My Baby’s Beside Me” – Big Star (#1 Record, 1972)
13. “Un Poco Loco” – Bud Powell (The Amazing Bud Powell, 1952)
14. “Pull Up The Roots” – Talking Heads (Speaking in Tongues, 1965)
15. “Snap Out Of It” – Arctic Monkeys (AM, 2013)
16. “Skin, Bone & Silicone” – Susan Enan (Plainsong, 2009)
17. “Rain” – Bruce Ruffin (Rain, 1971)
18. “What Friends?” – Bettie Serveert (Dust Bunnies, 1997)
19. “The Challenge” – Christine McVie (Christine McVie, 1984)
20. “Pollen Seeking Bees” – Saadi (Bad City EP, 2009)

The fine print:

* Emma Swift’s album of Bob Dylan covers, from 2020, seemed like just the thing my ears have wanted to listen to these last few weeks. I guess it ties in my mind to the release of Dylan’s odd but captivating book, The Philosophy of Modern Song; something about going through a book where Dylan talks about other people’s songs steered me towards an album where someone else was singing his songs. Or some such thing. Swift has a lovely voice full of effortless shadings, and the arrangements are unfussy, with Swift’s partner Robyn Hitchcock doing all sorts of nice, restrained guitar work. Check it out if you’re curious.

* The sad news of the death of Christine McVie prompted all sorts of well-deserved online eulogies, most focusing, with good reason, on the pivotal if often understated role she played in Fleetwood Mac. I decided to pay tribute via her lesser-known solo work, opting for a characteristically upbeat/melancholy number called “The Challenge,” from her self-titled 1984 album. The challenge she refers to? Love, what else.

* Susan Enan is a British singer/songwriter with one album to her name, which was released back in 2009. I spent a little time digging and could find nothing that suggests she is still active as a musician. I heard this song two or three times a number of years back on Radio Paradise and it stuck with me. If Enan is no longer singer/songwriter-ing I hope she has found a gratifying path; it always pains me to imagine talented musicians having simply to give up based on how hard it can be to make a living this way.

* Originally presented, in 1966, as a melancholy but forceful ballad in a Phil Spector-ish soundscape by the histrionic American singer P.J. Proby, “I Can’t Make It Alone” is yet another indelible Gerry Goffin/Carole King composition. Dusty Springfield recorded what may be the most familiar version of this on her landmark Dusty in Memphis album in 1969. (Lou Rawls did a convincing cover that same year.) No offense to Dusty or Lou but to my ears, Maria McKee owns this song, via a 1993 recording that unearthed the song’s backbeat and didn’t let up.

* The music of Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass could not be made in this day and age, for any number of reasons. And while I am not at all insensitive to issues of appropriation, I have to give a pass to music this innocent and joyful and sonically respectful. If Alpert knew how to package and market this to middle-brow Americans in the mid- to late-’60s, more power to him. It was super appealing to me as a kid and I still have a big soft spot for those whirlwind banner TJB years of 1965 to 1967, with Alpert releasing an album every six or so months; four of the six records that came out during that three-year stretch went to #1 on the US chart, including What Now My Love.

* Another, entirely different musical soft spot for me is anything Sam Phillips puts out. Phillips is not only deeply thoughtful and creative as a songwriter, she has been creative with the business end of things as well. Back in 2009, she launched a fee-based subscription service called The Long Play, which offered members regular downloads of new songs, along with blog posts, interviews with her musical collaborators, and an array of other original content. All in all, she sent out 42 songs this way, distributed over five EPs and one LP, before shutting the service down in 2011. After the fact, she curated an album featuring 13 of those 42 songs, entitled Solid State: Songs From The Long Play. I never subscribed to the service but I bought the compilation album, from which “Broken Circle” is one of many highlights.

* The Arctic Monkeys have evolved into a somewhat different-sounding (but still great) band since the release of their widely-praised 2013 album AM. While the ubiquitous “Do I Wanna Know?” received the bulk of the attention (it’s got 1.5 billion streams on Spotify), the album is engaging throughout, and even included a few hints at where they would be heading, sonically, especially on the closing track “I Wanna Be Yours.” I’m still absorbing their new album, Car, but I think I like it a lot.

* One last soft spot in a mix overloaded with them, apparently: I love the vocal tone and texture of Carol van Dyk, front woman for the long-running Dutch band Bettie Serveert. There’s something at once friendly and imperious about her voice; match it with the band’s flair for crunchy guitar lines and punchy melodies and what’s not to love? “What Friends?” is a cleverly punctuated song from the band’s third album, 1997’s Dust Bunnies (the full lyric reads “You still don’t know what friends are for”). There have been eight albums released since then, most recently 2016’s Damaged Good, all worthy of a listen. The band has been featured three times to date on Fingertips, dating all the way back to 2003; this 2010 review gives you some more background on what they’re about.