Free and legal MP3: Ciel

Melodic splendor, w/ squonky noise

“Pretty Face” – Ciel

Launching without an introduction, “Pretty Face” brings us promptly into the compelling world of vocalist/guitarist Michelle Hindriks, a Netherlands native, transplanted to Brighton. Her lightly accented English and pellucid tone combine with irresistible potency, all the more so when we reach a chorus that ravishes with its melodic sweep and splendor. The subtle double-tracking of the lead vocals here adds to the poignant beauty.

At the same time, tune your ear further down into the mix and track if you can what Jorge Bela Jimenez’s guitar is doing, which is quietly and intermittently going crazy in a “don’t mind me” kind of way. You won’t hear it at first unless you listen for it. By the chorus’s third iteration (2:05), Jiminez is becoming less restrained, setting up the all-out assault that breaks free at 2:43, and carries us through a memorably squonky coda.

Lyrically the song veers into unexpected territory. By Hindriks’ account, she was inspired by a number of documentaries she found herself watching under lockdown about a variety of cults, and one particular story about a man who lost his wife to a cult–how he knows she’s still out there, but forever separated from him. While it’s not a direct experience many of us (thank goodness) can relate to, it can stand as a metaphor for living with the grief of heartache and separation.

Ciel has put out two EPs to date, most recently Monument, in April 2020. “Pretty Face,” released last month, is the second single the band has released since then. Check out the full discography on Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Brandon De La Cruz

Hushed, impressionistic storytelling

“Salmacis” – Brandon De La Cruz

Brandon De La Cruz sings with a hushed authority, his voice cracking against the muted beauty of this simple-seeming song. A two-line verse is answered by a two-line chorus, the former resolving the latter with matter-of-fact grace. Whatever story is being told here is being told obliquely, like a camera focusing only on discreet details, with no establishing shot.

We can, however, flesh out the story via the title: in mythology, Salmacis was a nymph who lusted after Hermaphroditus, the child of Hermes and Aphrodite. When he rejected her and went to bathe in her pool, she sprang upon him; when he still resisted, she prayed to the gods that the two of them should be always together. The gods, in classic “be careful what you wish for” manner, granted her her desire, and they were merged into one body. (Thus, clearly, the etymology of the English word “hermaphrodite.”)

This background renders De La Cruz’s impressionist account evocative in the extreme. We get body words–hands and arms and lips and legs–and, in the repeated chorus, words of union (collide, link up, entwined, seam). Consciously or not this song is in every possible way the antithesis of the prog-rock deep cut “The Fountain of Salmacis,” from the 1972 Genesis album Nursery Crime: concise versus expansive, humble versus baroque, quiet versus clamorous. Nothing at all against Genesis; let’s just say this goes in another direction.

“Salmacis” is one of eight tracks on the album Visions of Ovid, being released this week. With a long-standing interest in mythology, De La Cruz this time has fashioned an entire album riffing on ancient stories. Based in Portland, De La Cruz has been more or less stuck in New Zealand for a year, having chosen an unfortunate time to visit friends early in 2020.  (But there are probably worse places to be stuck!) He has been previously featured on Fingertips both in 2011 and in 2013. MP3 via the artist.

Free and legal MP3: Loma

Steady and dramatic

“Half Silences” – Loma

Loma is a band that seems to enjoy giving us space as much as sound. Don’t let the pulse-like beat that you’re first hearing distract you from the song’s more idiosyncratic attributes. Listen, for instance, to how the beat is soon neutralized by a synthesizer rhythm that slows the effective pace of the song by a factor of eight. And it’s kind of a stuttering, science-fiction-y synthesizer sound at that. Creating space, as it were.

When singer Emily Cross checks in, at 0:31, she delivers a long and careful melody line, half-time to the underlying pulse, which further works to draw the ear to the alluring expanse in which the piece unfolds. The aforementioned synth accents seem slowly to be morphing into wordless vocals by around 0:55; and by 1:16 this background vocalizing, nearly medieval in vibe, becomes the song’s signature accompaniment. Cross, meanwhile, holds the center with her unhurried, slightly smoky mezzo. I love how much drama the song creates without Cross herself having to do anything dramatic–the tension of the beat, the solemnity of the vibe, and a variety of subtle musical flourishes do the work for her. It seems a corollary of Charlie Chaplin’s famous (and effective) acting advice: if the thing you’re doing is funny, you don’t need to try to “act funny” while you’re doing it; here, the song itself is dramatic, and so Cross doesn’t need to sing dramatically to serve the music. Perhaps more singers should figure this out.

Loma is the trio of Cross, Jonathan Meiburg (front man of the band Shearwater), and Dan Duszynski.  Cross and Duszynski had been a duo together, opening for Shearwater; Meiburg was taken with their sound and attracted to the idea of relinquishing the spotlight for a while. They got together for what was to be a one-off project, resulting in a self-titled 2018 album. A second album was not in the original plan, but the three of them found themselves drawn back together, perhaps partially due to some supportive words on BBC Radio 6 from none other than Brian Eno that made their way back to the band.

“Half Silences” is the third track of 11 on Loma’s second LP, Don’t Shy Away, which was released on Sub Pop Records back in October. (Note that Eno was eventually invited to contribute to the album; he is credited with “additional synths and drum programming” on the album’s closing song, “Homing.”) The band was previously featured on Fingertips in March 2018, around the time of their debut. MP3 via KEXP. You can listen to the whole album, and buy it, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Lucy Francesa Dron

Rhythmic, jazz-inflected indie rock

“What Is Next?” – Lucy Francesca Dron

There is something fetching to me about songs in which the rhythm guitar functions as the lead guitar–when resolute strumming characterizes the accompaniment rather than any sort of fingered showing-off. “What Is Next?” is a showcase for this concept, a song built on a swinging cadence, dictated by the rhythm guitar’s determined syncopations and suspended chords. Against this backdrop of her own doing, Lucy Francesca Dron sings with a cagey, unleashed elegance, landing halfway between a ’90s alternative rocker and a jazz singer.

The guitar’s relentless, recurring chords give “What is Next?” a circular feeling, accentuated by the song’s amorphous structure, with chord-driven verses that lead to no particularly identifiable chorus outside of a few theatrical repetitions of the title phrase. The second time we get there, the song veers into a free-form bridge (2:26) with run-on, scat-like lyrics–as bravely jazz-inflected a section in an indie rock song as you’re likely to hear. Overall the song manages to feel simultaneously determined and light-footed, and presents as a breath of fresh air in our over-processed, hyper-algorithmic times.

Lucy Francesca Dron is a 21-year-old musician from Brisbane. “What Is Next?” is the third single she’s released since a debut EP back in 2017. A new EP is slated for later this year.

Free and legal MP3: The Weather Station

Steady, rich, and resonant

“Tried To Tell You” – The Weather Station

At once intimate and expansive, “Tried To Tell You” simmers with nuanced allure. While grounded in an assertive backbeat, the song’s charms lie in some less obvious places. Do you hear that wobbly synthesizer that eases its way into the mix in the introduction (0:11)? That’s the kind of small, wonderful moment to expect here, much having to do with what the various keyboard sounds are doing; you’ll discover everything from foreboding bass notes to an assortment of friendly interjections if you pay close attention.

But the star of this steady, rich, and resonant song is Tamara Lindeman, the Canadian singer/songwriter who does musical business as The Weather Station. Her voice impresses with its warmth and flexibility, as she ranges between a dusky alto and a breathy soprano, an elasticity that brings to mind none other than fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell. The chorus is concise and sublime (if, again, you stop to pay attention), with brilliant phrasing and intonation. Listen to how much she does with the phrase “I tried to tell you” first heard at 0:48, its simple parade of one-syllable words enhanced by a shift in vocal tone that takes the breath away.

“Tried To Tell You” is a track from The Weather Station’s 2021 album, Ignorance, released earlier this month on Fat Possum Records. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy it (digital, vinyl, CD, cassette, you name it) via Bandcamp.

MP3 via KEXP. The Weather Station was previously featured on Fingertips in September 2011.

Free and legal MP3: Static Shapes

Confident midtempo rocker

“Wolves in White” – Static Shapes

Confident in its artful foundation, “Wolves In White” is purposefully constructed from start to finish. Listen to the way it opens: there’s 10 seconds of a barely-heard, three-note synthesizer line, tracing a classical-sounding ascending interval; another 10 seconds to establish the underlying midtempo backbeat, keyboards up front; 10 more seconds for the bass to break free from the beat (keep your ears on this instrument moving forward) as that ethereal synthesizer returns to float around the top of the mix; and only then does the guitar step in, offering a rounded, lower-register lead to ground us in a fully-formed musical landscape. I’m not usually down for long introductions, but that’s only because most long intros are repetitive vamps. This is not that.

When the vocals begin (0:46) we are treated not only to singer/guitarist Steve Yutzy-Burkey’s agreeably scuffed baritone (although he’s likely tired of the comparison there’s no overlooking his Tweedy-ish tone) but also now have a front seat for bassist Rick Sieber’s acrobatic  explorations. Yutzy-Burkey likewise shares Tweedy’s gift for converting minimalism into grace, his way of altering a simple melody with improvisational-sounding shifts, along with a knack for ending melody lines without resolution. Even the song’s chorus ends up feeling elusive and unresolved: first of all, it’s heard only twice; second of all, it’s a paragon of suggestive constraint, encompassing only four basic notes and a refusal to fully land.

Keep an ear in the meantime on Sieber’s work, and the way the bass often works itself into the foreground, culminating with a nimble solo at 2:28. And if anyone can identify the likable noise we get at 3:37, I’d love to know what that is.

“Wolves in White” is the lead track from Static Shapes’ debut album, Give Me The Bad News, released in December. Listen to the whole thing via Bandcamp, where it’s available to buy in both digital and vinyl form. Based in Philadelphia, Yutzy-Burkey was previously known as the front man for the well-regarded local band The Swimmers (which featured Sieber as well). Before that, he headed up the Philly-based quartet One Star Hotel (also with Sieber), who were featured here on Fingertips way back in the innocent days of 2004. Thanks to the Yutzy-Berkey for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Fenne Lily

Brisk, engaging mystery

“Alapathy” – Fenne Lily

We begin with a backbeat: the classic one-TWO-one-TWO that Chuck Berry immortalized seemingly centuries ago. Brisk and archetypal on the one hand, the backbeat here is, at the same time, curiously elusive: note that however much it defines the song’s core, Fenne Lily herself seems to pay little attention to it; the melody is driven instead by words that emerge in a deliberate flow, at half the pace of the arrangement’s urgency. And the song’s other central features likewise manifest in contrast to the backbeat, both the scratchy lo-fi guitar riff, which embodies the “on” beats (i.e., the one and three beats between the backbeat’s two and four) and the smeary, contemplative distortions of the second guitar.

For context it may help to know that Fenne Lily, on her 2018 debut, On Hold, presented as a purveyor of  echoey, precise, largely downtempo singer/songwriter fare. This feels like a related but compelling new direction.

As for that flow of words: Lily has a fascinating way of appearing to sing with perfect clarity (even her breath places prominently in the mix), while hypnotizing the ear into letting go of any effort to grasp actual content. Twenty-first-century bloggers and music writers spend a lot of time analyzing lyrics but I’m time and again puzzled by over-scrutiny of words that can often, fruitfully, be heard merely as “language-sound” versus having comprehensible meaning. To me this is not at all a failing on the part of the singer or the song.  “Alapathy”–a word Lily invented, by the way, blending allopathy and apathy–feels consequential without any scrutiny at all, the mystery and drive being as much part of the “meaning” as any actual meaning itself, if that makes any sense. This is not to denigrate the lyrics; go read them and figure it all out, if you can, and if that’s what works for you.

Lily is from Bristol, in the UK. “Alapathy” is the lead track on her new album Breach, released on Dead Oceans in September. MP3 via The Current (see note below).

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(MP3s from the Minneapolis public radio station The Current are available in files that are 128kbps, which is below the established 192kbps standard, not to mention the higher-def standard of 320kbps. I personally don’t hear much difference on ordinary equipment but if you are into high-end sound you’ll probably notice something. In any case I always encourage you to download the MP3 for the purposes of getting to know a song via a few listens; if you like it I as always urge you to buy the music. It’s still, and always, the right thing to do.)

Free and legal MP3: The Very Most

Sprightly and sad

“That Thing You Like About Yourself (Is Hurting You)” – The Very Most (feat. Melanie whittle)

Clean, welcoming, and lively, “That Thing You Like About Yourself (Is Hurting You)” performs the neat trick of sounding at once sprightly and sad. We all know that one of pop music’s superpowers is its ability to set sad lyrics to happy music, but how about this artful corollary: composing fleet, toe-tapping music that itself, somehow, independent of the words, sounds bittersweet? I guess this is one thing that so-called twee pop often specialized in. But here we get the end result stripped of preciousness. It’s sincere, yes, there’s a flute, yes, but there’s also something refreshingly solid happening here . The song unfolds with both lilt and backbone; the drumbeat means business, the lead guitar in the intro arrives from a distant time and place, with a tone I can only describe as grown-up (a compliment).

The singing means business too: once it starts, words take over the song with barely a breath taken.  We find ourselves once again in the land of indecipherable lyrics–but this time note that the band draws you in by allowing you to understand the words in the opening section:

Everything feels off
Maybe we should take a trip
My everyday places are making me so sad
Intractable problems
We only make them worse and worse
By doing the things we do as often as we do
Trying harder always trying harder
You can get a disorder
And you’ll never know why

How can you not love that, especially as voiced by guest vocalist Melanie Whittle, the captivating lead singer of the Hermit Crabs (see Fingertips, 6 Sept 12)?  The music here, light and wistful in the background, surely reinforces her Glaswegian tendencies. And, go figure, even as I am normally a listener who craves and all but demands lyrics that scan properly with the music, in this case I find the un-synced moments fetching rather than frustrating. Listen in particular to the way the word “intractable” is (purposefully?) forced into service in an inadequate space (0:47). It’s very charming somehow.

After this, the words fade into a blur of language–it’s as if they want you to get the general gist but then float yourself more freely into the vibe, to receive the message at more of an intuitive than literal level. You may notice that the only words that seem to rise above indistinctness is the phrase “Trying harder, always trying harder.” Intended or not there’s a message in this. The words, however out of focus, arrive and arrive, always trying harder, with one break taken for the flute (2:11) that had slipped unnoticed into the background a minute or so earlier. Also very charming.

The Very Most is a band based in Boise and fronted by Jeremy Jensen. Drummer Jim Rivas is the only other permanent member. The band’s latest album is called Needs Help in part because Jensen brought in a lot of guests to make the record, utilizing 13 different singers on both lead and backing vocals, including the aforementioned Whittle on this song. The Very Most was previously featured on Fingertips in July 2008. Thanks to Jeremy for the MP3. You can listen to the whole album, and buy it, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Adia Victoria

Declaration of hope and determination

“South Gotta Change” – Adia Victoria

“South Gotta Change” is a simmering, vivid declaration of hope and determination, inspired by the life of the late Congressperson and civil rights leader John Lewis. And it is as memorable a protest song as I’ve heard in a long while.

The aural landscape–involving little more than a deep drumbeat and a reverberant guitar–is swampy and spacious (and executive-produced by none other than T Bone Burnett). The guitar is both central and understated; you can hear the notes it doesn’t play almost as clearly as those it does. Victoria’s vocal melody is simple to the point of being relentless, with the verse and chorus more or less the same. Everything is here to cycle again back to the titular affirmation, delivered as something between a demand, a dare, and a fait accompli. It seems so obvious and sensible that the place that birthed and fostered white supremacy can and must overcome its history of bigotry that the song’s plea feels more natural than revolutionary. Of course, you say to yourself (if you have any sensible and humane bones in your body): of course it has to change. And of course the voice of change here is a native Southerner, who can speak with authority on the too often overlooked matter that Black people have their own deep and powerful connection to the South, and may therefore be the ones to not only call for change but to push to make it happen.

Meanwhile, keep your ears on the guitar. It first blossoms out of its economical line at 1:36, which develops into a full-on solo at 1:47, and climaxes into a slightly distorted mirror of Victoria’s plaintive vocals singing, simply, the word “change.” Best of all are the sounds emerging from the guitar starting around 2:50: siren-like distortions mixed perfectly into the background so that they accompany rather than overwhelm. The song from end to end is a masterpiece of restraint, sonically, which to my ears serves to amplify its potency.

Born in South Carolina, Adia Victoria is a singer, songwriter, and poet based in Nashville. She has released two full-length albums, the most recent being 2019’s Silences. “South Gotta Change” is a single that came out in late August 2020, but just keeps seeming more and more relevant. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Talkboy

Sturdy, succinct, melodic

“Stupid Luck” – Talkboy

Sturdy, succinct, and melodic, “Stupid Luck” has everything going for it: a catchy tune, crafty textures, appealing vocals, and an outstanding development-versus-length dynamic–a concept I just made up but I like the idea of it. What I mean is that the song covers a lot of compositional ground in a short amount of time. That’s the best of both worlds from my idiosyncratic point of view. This is in fact the kind of song that can reaffirm one’s sense of faith in this whole endeavor–that is, the endeavor of a group of musicians banding together, still, and still trying to put something of interest and value out into this wounded world.

Right from the start the song soars, via an intro that channels bygone guitar tones, augmented by some space-age keyboard flourishes that then frame the shift we get with the opening verse, which begins with a half-time melody and stripped-back instrumentation as vocalist Katie Heap sings over fuzzy guitars that progress through some very satisfying chords. The verse repeats with fuller production, leading to a chorus boosted by nostalgic background “aahs” and a generally agreeable wall of subtle sound. By now this song is as sturdy as can be; that Beatlesque chord the song lands on at 1:07 is just another splendid touch.

And there’s still much to enjoy in this three-minute gem. Listen for the altered textures when the verse comes back around 1:15, the momentary guitar squeal as 1:23, the augmented backing vocals around 1:32, and the semi-psychedelic bridge (1:57) leading to an honest to goodness guitar solo (2:31). And, in one of the finer if subtler songwriting moments of the whole thing, the song revisits the verse near the end with a cleared-out musical palette that transforms the former verse into a coda that ends directly on the titular phrase–a rarely achievable and quite gratifying maneuver.

Talkboy is a six-piece band from Leeds. They were previously featured on Fingertips in February 2019. “Stupid Luck” is a single from their forthcoming EP, due for release in February 2021. Their brand new single, “Sky is Falling,” is available to listen to via SoundCloud.