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.
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!)
Casual, compelling strummer
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.
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.
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.
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.
Heartfelt & sophisticated
A crystalline, synth-driven call to inner action, “Take It If You Want It” stares down the existential mayhem of our 21st-century world and attempts to find a place and a way to live in it regardless. The song’s superpower is the glistening deftness of the presentation: the ’80s-inspired arrangement is tight and inventive (don’t miss the acrobatic bass line), the lyrics are precise and sincere without being dogmatic, and Curtis’s voice is rich, expressive, and disciplined. The overall vibe is heartfelt and sophisticated; if Kate Bush were interested in writing a catchy pop song that wrestles with spiritual precepts, it might sound something like this.
In any case it is certainly a Bushian vocal that, after a brief percussive intro, opens the song with echoey urgency. Curtis has an effortless melodic flair; from the opening lines of the verse the ear is hooked, and the song progresses through its interrelated parts–verse, pre-chorus, chorus–with a enviable sense of inevitability. Not all the lyrics will be immediately legible but, as with the most well-crafted songs, certain phrases will pop; one particularly indelible couplet is unambiguous: “The fascists are ascending/Disaster is impending.” A close listen reveals this as a voice in the head that the narrator is attempting to grapple with. I’d say a lot of us are grappling with that voice here at the end of 2022.
Born in California and based in Tacoma, Washington, Shannon Curtis is a singer/songwriter with a rich catalog to explore. Good To Me is her tenth full-length release in the last 10 years, following three previous EPs and an acoustic compilation album. “Take It If You Want It” is the opening track on the album Good To Me, which is something of a concept album, centering on an inner journey Curtis led herself on during the perilous, pandemic-jostled year 2021. The album, by the way, will next year be followed by a companion book, which Curtis describes as “a step-by-step roadmap for cultivating personal peace and power in hard times.” She notes further that the songs on Good to Me came from her own process of working with and through the steps described in the book. More on the album in the follow-up review, below. (Yes, this month I’m giving you two songs from the same album, with one palate cleanser in between. Keep reading!)
Offbeat frenzy, with horns
Under certain ineffable conditions I become a bit of a sucker for speak-singing in a rock’n’roll context (Cake perhaps my favorite example), and this one seems to hit the right buttons for me, general veneer of offbeat frenzy notwithstanding (or maybe because of it; hard to say). In any case there is no ignoring the sense of frantic drama that suffuses “Dog Stay Down”: from the wordless guttural chants in the introduction through the deft if semi-feverish vocal stylings of Angus Rodgers and the splatty horn charts, the song spools forward with an unhinged but somehow charming panache that grows more appealing with each listen. Those last 20 seconds introduce an extra level of loopy.
I have no idea what Rodgers is singing about, by the way, and it doesn’t remotely matter. Actually I’ll go out on a limb and say that lyrics in general tend to strike me as semi-irrelevant, in terms of their specific denotation. My ears require vocals on the one hand (I’m not much of an instrumental fan), but on the other hand I realize my enjoyment of words in a rock song has more to do with the voice as sound and the words as rhythm and texture than with what a singer is specifically saying. And here in fact is one of my perennial problems with standard music writing: so many reviews of albums focus so intently on lyrics that you’d almost never know the words were actually being sung, and accompanied by melodies and arrangements. More to the point, such writing tends to overlook the unique power of music, ignoring what’s most potent in the listener experience, which at its core is about sound waves, not verbiage. Or so says me. In any case, even were I able to discern all the words here, in “Dog Stay Down,” which I can’t (and at this point there’s no looking them up online), I really wouldn’t want or need to. The cathartic vibe speaks for itself.
Opus Kink is a six-piece band from Brighton, England. “Dog Stay Down” is a track from their debut EP, ‘Til the Streams Run Dry, which was released in October.
Large & meditative at the same time
In a new twist here on Fingertips I am this month featuring two songs from the same artist. This strikes me as a win-win: it relieves me of the need to select just one song from an album I really like, while also relieving me of the need to lower my standards in order to find three MP3s to offer in a given month. As recently noted, I’m sensing a decline in the availability of free and legal downloads–at least, in the availability of free and legal downloads that live up to my admittedly idiosyncratic standards. I may use this strategy moving forward, as the situation allows, in order to continue to offer at least three songs in any given update.
So yes, I really really like this new Shannon Curtis album, start to finish. The sonic palette, shot through with ’80s atmosphere (the good kind!), is immediately engaging, and Curtis’s prowess as a singer is continually on display–she can go light and airy one moment, and reach grainier middle tones at another. Reverb abounds but with ongoing restraint; the music feels spacious without losing definition. And I am impressed ongoingly by Curtis’s songwriting chops–the effortless melodies and artfully structured songs provide consistent delight, and reward repeated listens. As for the album’s cohesiveness lyrically, the songs reward as much attention as you’re willing to pay to them. For those who want the deep deep dive, there will also be the companion book, as noted above. (The book will initially be available to her community of supporting members, and then released more widely next year.) I applaud Curtis for the seriousness of her purpose and her concurrent capacity to translate her journey into a series of such accessible songs; and yet the beauty of the project is that you don’t have to engage with the details to be moved by the music.
“Good To Me” is the title track, and everything I’ve said about the album overall applies here. I love the ’80s synthesizers and big round percussion, in particular for how mindfully and cleanly produced these potentially over-the-top effects are employed; the song feels both large and meditative at the same time. And from beginning to end, the songcraft is exquisite, with verse and chorus melodies that interrelate and build on each other, and resolve with aplomb. The album was jointly produced by Curtis and her husband, Jamie Hill; Curtis is credited with the concept, the arrangements, the programming, and the performance, Hill with the synthesizers, sound design, and additional programming. This was a pandemic project through and through, conceived of and created during a time when Curtis, very active in recent years as a house-concert musician, was stuck in her own house during the extended lockdown.
MP3s here courtesy of the artist herself. You can listen to the whole thing on Bandcamp, and buy it there too, for a price of your own choosing. Be generous!
Rumbly, insistent slice of indie rock
It’s been a minute or two but here we are again with the download thing. Anyone interested? My beleaguered soul may only be able to fight the flow of inexorable technology for so long; even as I remain convinced that MP3s are an important part of the music listening landscape, I’m not sensing a lot of agreement outside of my own head. The more practical issue: whether I can continue to source enough MP3s that delight me to be able to continue to post about them in any regular way. If KEXP discontinues their MP3-attached “Song of the Day” feature I may have precious little left to offer.
But, let’s move along for the time being. And we’ll start here in October with this rumbly, insistent slice of indie rock from a founding member of the Walkmen, out on his own ever since the band entered its “extreme hiatus” stage in 2014. To anyone familiar with the Walkmen, the echoey ambiance and loping, syncopated pace will feel heartening; we can remember at least for four minutes and forty-six seconds that indie rock still inspires (some) people. An organ sustain beneath a bashy drum riff underscores Bauer’s distant, layered vocals and stately chord progression in an arrangement careful enough to create tension and purpose–you can all but intuit the guitar solo lying in wait (1:44). And worth the wait it is, with its patient melodicism and slow-boiling intensity.
“Skulls” is a song from Bauer’s third solo album, Flowers, released last month. Check it out via Bandcamp. Born in Washington DC, Bauer has, according to his website, done a significant amount of “esoteric work as a writer and astrologer,” influenced by Jung and Jodorowsky, among others. Knowing this may help you hear the lyrics–which skip across the ear without connecting to a discernible narrative or graspable meaning–in a different light, generating a vague sense of something potent lurking beneath the surface. In any case, for me–positioned against 21st-century pop music’s tiresome fountain of inspiration–well-chosen words even lacking any obvious connotation are preferable to lyrics detailing trivial issues of attraction and betrayal. Just saying.
MP3 via KEXP.