Free and legal MP3: Sufjan Stevens

Insistent, electronic, humane


“Video Game” – Sufjan Stevens

Those who found Sufjan Stevens at his most engaging in his electronic-oriented, Age of Adz phase, as I somehow did, will be happy to see the idiosyncratic musical auteur back in a similar sonic setting on his new album, The Ascension. The two albums may have little in common attitudinally, but I don’t pretend to pay extra close attention to lyrics, especially when they are as generally inscrutable as Stevens’ output. It’s the sound I’m absorbing, a sound I consider more appealing somehow than the chamber pop pastiche of his acclaimed earlier albums. Apparently The Ascension‘s aural landscape was rooted in the reality of his having to put most of his musical equipment in storage after getting kicked out of his Brooklyn apartment. Lemons from lemonade in this case.

I do however heed lyrics broadly enough to understand that Stevens has over the course of the century managed to morph from something of a wide-eyed, naive mystic into someone who sees the world with the veils removed. Here in the insistent-sounding “Video Game” he seems to be employing the concept of a video game as a metaphor for our 21st-century focus on surface-level digital interaction and viral popularity. With palpable exasperation, he sings:

I don’t wanna play your video game
I don’t care if it’s a popular refrain
I don’t wanna be a puppet in a theater
I don’t wanna play your video game


Musically the song achieves a lot with a relative little. The introduction opens with a plaintive synth riff that’s given space to establish the wistful mood even when the beat kicks in. The beat itself is modest, all but mid-tempo; what propels the song is the double-time melody, with its relentless return to that central conviction: “I don’t wanna play your video game.” Regardless of the song’s actual genesis, one can imagine this born from his having received one too many random inquiries from well-intentioned but intrusive strangers. He has in any case latched onto that corrosive consequence of having transformed ourselves into a culture forever trolling for “likes.” Where in this place is there room for the purely human versus the calculatedly capitalistic? The glee with which so many people have embraced the idea of being a personal brand is discomfiting; as Stevens said in an interview with The Atlantic: “We’ve indulged in the cult of personality so far that we have a TV celebrity for a president.” And we’ve seen where that leads.

You can listen to The Ascension, and buy it in various forms, via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Lydia Luce

Sumptuous song, beautifully sung

“Occasionally” – Lydia Luce

Gracefully built and sumptuously presented, “Occasionally” is gorgeous from end to end. Singer/songwriter Lydia Luce entices you first with the verse’s easy-flowing melodies, then all but pierces your heart with the swelling grandeur of the chorus. There is first of all that ear-catching way she lands on the “wrong” note (but very much the right note) at 1:08, on the second syllable of “away.” This then sets up a couple of yearning upward melodic sweeps before a definitive resolution at 1:24. Luce, a classically-trained violinist and violist, uses strings with a lovely touch, adding to the rich vibe while steering clear of both cliché and sentimentality (a good example is the interlude that follows the first chorus at 1:25, with the strings first in conversation with what sounds like a chime-like synthesizer, then taking a short lead before wrapping up with enticing restraint).

And the bonus here is that Luce is a serious instrumentalist in possession of a seriously enchanting singing voice. I’m guessing that her instrumental training may be at least partially responsible for how skillfully she employs her voice’s dynamic range—not just higher and lower notes but softer and louder tones as well. Her voice has a warm depth reminiscent of k.d. lang, and while this may be most obviously on display in the chorus’s heroic moments, I’m equally impressed with how golden and welcoming she sounds when she’s barely singing at all, as for instance in the opening moments of the verse (starting at 0:12). She makes this conversational segment of the song sound both casual and deeply felt, which lends the song a rather stunning tenderness right from the outset. One last thing to notice is how aptly the title word is sung, with its second syllable drawn out just as one might for emphasis in conversation. It’s another subtle sign of just how robust a song and a performance this is.

“Occasionally” is a single released last week, and will be the opening track on Luce’s second full-length album, Dark River, which is coming in February. Her first album, Azalea, was released in 2018.

photo credit: Betsy Phillips

Free and legal MP3: Ailbhe Reddy

Tuneful, bittersweet, sharply paced

“Looking Happy” – Ailbhe Reddy

“Looking Happy” matches an angular guitar riff that would do 1978 proud against lyrics bemoaning the reality of seeing an ex moving on with their life on social media. (We could only dream about the existence of social media back in ’78, although perhaps they would have been nightmares.) This is perhaps the subtlest of a few intriguing juxtapositions that characterize this tuneful, bittersweet song. There’s also the way the music’s upbeat energy counters, at every moment, the disconsolate lyrics. Relatedly, if you’ve ever heard a more sorrowful vocal tone matched against a song with the word “happy” in the title I’d like to hear about it. The fact that Reddy sings with such a palpable ache in such an energetic setting is itself a notable and engaging mismatch.

Best of all, though, is the music itself: sharply paced, tightly executed, and lit up by Reddy’s elastic voice, with its affecting upward leaps in the chorus (first heard at 0:38). An especially fetching vocal moment is wordless vocal break (1:00-:04); I love the descending swoop and then the finishing two-note punctuation—and then the fact that you hear this just once and it’s gone. This is the wonderful way concise rock songs work (this one clocks in just over three minutes)—nothing is belabored, nothing overstays its welcome. Check out for instance the synthesizer blurts that enter around 2:32, punctuating the song’s closing half-minute with a “ta-da!” kind of feeling. They show up, do their thing, and we’re done.

Ailbhe Reddy is a singer/songwriter based in Dublin. “Looking Happy” is a track from Reddy’s debut album Personal History, which was released earlier this month. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy it, over at Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Pillow Queens (incisive rocker w/ a mysterious pull)

What begins abruptly and somewhat droningly transforms itself with repeat listens into an authoritative rocker with a hint of transcendence.

“Handsome Wife” – Pillow Queens

“Handsome Wife” exerts a mysterious pull. What begins abruptly and somewhat droningly transforms itself with repeat listens into an authoritative rocker with a hint of transcendence. If you want an aural handhold, listen for the muscular guitar line that rings out at 0:39, shifting the ear away from the background drone, tantalizing with its unresolved finish, implying a momentous chorus that we don’t yet hear, but will soon.

Now then, there are some well-known one-note melodies in rock history (think “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” or “It’s The End of the World as We Know It”), but perhaps just as ear-catching and maybe somewhat trickier to pull off is the two-note melody, such as we get in the chorus (1:17). At this point Pamela Connolly’s fervent vocals, kicked up a register, convey a quivering air of vulnerability that pushes the song into greatness. The allure is heightened by elusive but perfectly sculpted lyrics:

I was young and I was honest
Me and all your father’s daughters
Laid beside the tide to take us
Kissed the bride and fought your favours
I may not be the wife you want
But I’m pregnant with the virgin tongue

I can’t tell you with any certainty what these words mean, and yet they vibrate with impalpable significance. I think this has to do with two attributes: first, the fact that each line itself is comprehensible, even as they don’t, together, become a digestible narrative; second, the words scan (i.e. match the rhythm of the melody) perfectly, with the opening four lines, including many one-syllable words, aligned in strict trochaic tetrameter (the academic term for what you might in your head associate with childhood rhymes—think, “Peter, Peter pumpkin-eater”; “Twinkle, twinkle little star,” etc.). I’d argue that songs with lyrics that properly scan are unconsciously more impactful than songs with scattershot accentuations. I wish more songwriters agreed.

The last piece of the snowballing puzzle here: the wordless bridge (2:27), in which Connolly’s voice retreats into a choir of reverb, dueting with a guitar line at first in sync and then offering a reassuring countermelody. Following this, the restated chorus sounds somehow more assertive and empowering, even as I still don’t know exactly what she’s singing about.

Pillow Queens are a foursome from Dublin. “Handsome Wife” is the lead single from their debut album, In Waiting, coming out on September 25. You can pre-order the album, and listen to a few more tracks, via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Static in Verona (power pop earworm)

Everything about the song is a testament to craft, which strikes my ear as a particularly special thing in such an onrushing tune as this.

“Poor Juliet” – Static in Verona

Maybe there’s a technical term for the upbeat, syncopated melody featured in “Poor Juliet”‘s verse—the easy-to-listen-to but tricky-to-pinpoint movement, which shifts emphasis from the third beat (the ET of “Ju-li-ET”) in the first measure to the second beat in the second (the SET of “so up-SET”). Perhaps it has something to do with matching four syllables against three beats of rhythm? In any case the un-technical term would be “earworm,” because ever since hearing this song, this is the part that has relentlessly been playing in my head.

Which is almost unfair to the song, since the chorus goes on to deliver an irresistible dose of power pop melodicism that is otherwise the killer hook here (1:01). We’re dealing with a classic chord progression, to be sure, but it’s pumped up by the sparkling beat, the background organ, and some ear-catching intervals (i.e., the jump up from “don’t” to “let” at 1:07 and the jump back down from “other” to “girls” a moment later). Everything about the song is a testament to craft, which strikes my ear as a particularly special thing in such an onrushing tune as this. (As I now think about it, it seems more common to find smartly crafted tunes working in more deliberate tempos, maybe?) A good example: the subtle changes made to the second verse (e.g., the backing vocals that echo the lyrics [first heard at 1:27], or the alterations to the original melody), which may be neither necessary nor expected in a song this concise (run time 2:42).

Static in Verona is the band name the Chicago musician Rob Merz has been employing since 2009. He was previously featured here on Fingertips back in 2015 for the song “Blindfold,” itself another slice of pithy power pop goodness. As for the Juliet here, yes it’s the legendary one, but with a twist—in the song, according to Rob, her father saved her and is doing his best to offer solace in the wake of her grief. Oh and the connection between the tragic title character—famously a resident of Verona, Italy—and his band name (generated from a random incident near Verona, Wisconsin) was unintended.

“Poor Juliet” is a track from the new Static in Verona album, Sometimes You Never, released last month. You can listen to the album and buy it for a price of your choosing via Bandcamp. While you’re there, check out the previous five Static in Verona releases, all also available for whatever you’d like to pay. Thanks to Rob for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Orion Sun (dreamy, minimalist)

From the carefully plucked guitar through the smeary background wash and methodical drumming, the song delivers a vibe at once vague and precise, and pulls you along on its short and sultry journey as if in a comfy, if minimalist, dream.

“Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me)” – Orion Sun

And while some songs succeed via melody, there are those that establish a place in your head via atmosphere, like Orion Sun’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me).” From the carefully plucked guitar through the smeary background wash and methodical drumming, the song delivers a vibe at once vague and precise, and pulls you along on its short and sultry journey as if in a comfy, if minimalist, dream.

Orion Sun—the performing name for the Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter Tiffany Majette—favors melodies that bounce up and down, lending a rapping rhythm to her singing, or, for you truly old-school folks, bring recitative, from the opera world, to mind. The effect is at once conversational and intimate, and is accentuated by the plainspoken feelings on display, with the repeated chorus of “It feels so good to know you,” augmented by a blurry proffering of “so good”s.

The texture is so carefully established that I find myself fascinated by the way the primary guitar line sounds at once central to the song and yet spends most of the time not playing. It only finishes its full phrase at the very beginning (0:04) and then again near the very end (2:34); and it literally sounds like someone pulls the plug on the instrument halfway through the introduction (0:10). Yes, if you listen closely you will in fact hear the guitar underneath the chorus but it seems to be there all but subliminally, to give you a vague memory of something you aren’t fully experiencing.

As for the title, if there’s a reason Majette co-opted the title from a Jacques Brel classic (not to mention Regina Spektor’s more recent and much perkier song of the same name), it’s not immediately apparent. “Ne Me Quitte Pas” is from the debut Orion Sun album, Hold Space For Me, released back in March on the Mom + Pop record label. You can listen and purchase via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP. You might also be interested in a newer track of hers, “Mama’s Baby,” which was written in response to Majette having been attacked and injured by police during a protest in Philadelphia in May. Track is here; a newspaper account of the incident and resulting song is here.

Free and legal MP3: The Daily Spreadsheets (layered, hymn-like)

A ringing guitar tone, carefully paced, sets the stage for this subtly unusual rocker.

“I’ll Never Change” – The Daily Spreadsheets

A ringing guitar tone, carefully paced, sets the stage for this subtly unusual rocker. Hang with this one for a while; what “I’ll Never Change” may lack in a certain polish it makes up for in its cumulative power.

The structure is fairly simple. The song alternates between two melody patterns; the second one may be considered the chorus if only because it concludes with the title line, “I’ll never change.” After a relatively naked run-through to start us off (0:09), we get introduced, at 0:27, to the layered vocals that will characterize the rest of the song. The vocal texture deepens as we go, via both blankets of harmony and intertwining countermelodies.

The song grows hymn-like as it proceeds, starting especially at the coalescing harmonies we hear at 1:30. Has it occurred to you yet that there’s been no percussion? No worries, the drums are coming, right after that itchy guitar solo that disrupts the vibe (in a good way) at 1:49. The drumming that starts at 1:53 delivers a modified Spector beat, which is both unanticipated and wonderful (maybe because I’m a sucker for that beat, in whatever form it takes). From here the song continues on its determined path, with one addition—a chord shift at 2:13 that alters the feel of the now-familiar melody in an appealing way, and sets up the song’s closing section, which includes two satisfying endings: the vocal closure from 3:07 to 3:12, and the instrumental denouement that follows.

The Daily Spreadsheets is another one man band this month, the bailiwick of Brazilian musician Henrique Neves. You can hear a few of his other tracks over at SoundCloud, including a brand new remix of “I’ll Never Change.” Thanks to Henrique for the MP3.

(Side note: Henrique first contacted me via Fluence, which is a place where you can pay a nominal fee to have me do a review of your song. There is no guarantee at all that this leads to a feature on Fingertips; in the vast majority of the cases, it doesn’t. But it does guarantee that I will listen closely to a song and give my relatively detailed reaction. You can learn more about this and submit a song at this link: https://fluence.io/fingertipsmusic)

Free and legal MP3: S.G. Goodman (raw, authoritative Americana)

“Old Time Feeling” – S.G. Goodman

The subtly defiant “Old Time Feeling” launches with the crunch and sizzle of raw authority and doesn’t relent. The beat is seductive, the lyrics tantalizing, the melody sturdy, and singer/songwriter S.G. Goodman’s voice has a sawdust dignity at once fragile and powerful that compels you to close listening.

The song’s stomping vibe—Americana with a rough-hewn edge—underscores a rare, if wry, toughness of spirit. A native of Western Kentucky, Goodman here offers an across-the-bow challenge to the persistent, delusional self-image that has been sadly characteristic of the South. As she recently told Spin magazine, “I think for the longest time, Southern music has perpetuated some of the outdated/never-should-have-been-a-rallying-point-to-begin-with message.” Weird sentence editing aside, I love that “never-should-have-been-a-rallying-point-to-begin-with” part. And even if not overtly imbued with “Lost Cause” revisionism, there has long been that “good old boy” self-righteousness represented in Southern music that presents a rollicking, affirmative cover to a region long beset by deep-rooted troubles of all kinds—economic, political, social, you name it. Goodman’s eye-opening pivot in “Old Time Feeling” has three parts: first, the recognition of said troubles—she refers to the “sickness in the countryside,” and sings, “The southern state is a condition, it’s true”—and second, the declaration that there are people in this complex region who are working on change. Thus the repeated chorus “We’re not living in that old time feeling.” She then goes one important step further, taking to task those who complain about the traditional Southern way but leave rather than stay to help with the transformation:

Oh, and I hear people saying how they want a change
And then the most of them do something strange
They move where everybody feels the same

Goodman’s response to them?:

I’ve got a little proposition for you
Stick around and work your way through
Be the change you hope to find

“Old Time Feeling” is the lead single from Goodman’s debut album of the same name, produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket and released in July on Verve Forecast. Goodman had previously fronted a band called The Savage Radley, which released an album entitled Kudzu in 2017.


photo credit: Meredith Truax

Free and legal MP3: Juan Torregoza (instrumental with personality)

“Amber Eyes” – Juan Torregoza

Rock’n’roll instrumentals vaguely intimidate me; it’s like my mind doesn’t know what to do without words guiding the way. Which is kind of weird on the one hand, as I don’t usually listen too closely to the words of a song in the first place. I guess it’s that I like the sound of words with music versus music without a human voice in the mix. This is all to say that when it comes to instrumentals, I have even less of a thought process for selecting something to feature than usual. Occasionally, for reasons I can’t explain, one breaks through my awareness and says “Pick me,” and so I do.

And so here is “Amber Eyes,” from the NYC-based guitarist Juan Torregoza, which launches without fanfare into a deliberately plucked, 11-note electric guitar melody line, repeated with one variation on the final three notes, set against an itchy drumbeat. The personality and intention seem immediately appealing. After this settles in, some scrunchy guitar noises interject, with additional personality. This turns out to be the warm-up for the second lead guitar to add its counter-melody to the persistent 11-note through-line, beginning around 0:47.

If I had to guess what hooked me for good I’d say it’s probably that interval described when the second guitar kicks in, which sounds like a 7th (always an attractive interval). That 7th interval becomes a persistent thorn in the side of the first melody, in an aurally satisfying way. This goes on for a minute and a half or so, at which point (2:29) the second guitar retreats into 20 seconds of the scrunchy stuff, before returning undaunted to the opening interval. After 20 more seconds, the enterprise shuts itself down, having gone on long enough to register its ideas, and then knowing when it’s time to go.

“Amber Eyes” is one of six tracks on Torregoza’s EP Agimat, which was created and produced in April under quarantine conditions. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy it (for $4) via Bandcamp. The guitarist is currently part of two different musical projects in New York—the experimental ambient duo Dovie Beams Love Child and the band Subtropico Militia, which self-identifies its genres as reggae/dub/metal/hardcore. MP3 via the artist.

Free and legal MP3: Land of Talk (tranquil backbeat, emotional intensity)

“Weight Of That Weekend” – Land Of Talk

At once gentle and intense, “Weight Of That Weekend” finds Elizabeth Powell, the primary force behind Fingertips favorite Land of Talk, pondering something serious and yet just out of the song’s lyrical spotlight. The music offers contradictory sensations, its tranquil backbeat intermittently jarred by measures of 7/4 (in the verse) and 6/4 (in the chorus). As a singer Powell embodies this duality, with a voice feathered with ambivalence but likewise resolute.

And just after I asserted that I don’t usually listen to lyrics (see previous entry), along comes a song in which the lyrics are a seamless, central part of its texture and allure. Without an introduction, the song launches on as terse a description of being gaslighted as any you’re likely to encounter:

Always come at me from a different angle
Make me think I don’t understand
how I’m feeling

(Note that the “how I’m feeling” part is where you first hear the 7/4 measure momentarily suspend the flow.)

From here the lyrical power accumulates through what is being alluded to without being said, the words a series of understandable phrases that nonetheless never quite reveal their direct meaning. The music amplifies the unsettled atmosphere with a chorus, dominated by suspended chords, that remains unresolved musically, adding to the subtle ache of Powell’s effort to rise above troubled circumstances: “This is a prayer for love” is the insistent conclusion.

Powell by the way is a formidable guitarist; that she plays acoustically here, with restraint, is its own sort of statement. And don’t miss the French horn that wafts into the mix somewhere around 2:25, an unexpected and somehow exactly appropriate addition.

“Weight Of That Weekend” is the fourth track on the new Land of Talk album, Indistinct Conversations, which was released at the end of July on Saddle Creek Records. This is the band’s fourth full-length release; three EPs have been interspersed over the years. You can listen to a few of the new songs and buy the album via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

This is the fifth time Land of Talk has been featured here, with their first review dating back to April 2007, and their most recent appearance ten years ago to the month, in August 2010.