Push off the bottom

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.09 – September 2022

So perhaps, with summer over, we’ll get a bit of rain, those of us in areas that can use? Had some here today, in fact. And I’ve been generally working on establishing a bit more equanimity in my resting mind, having grown mighty weary of living so long with a sense of underlying stress and doom. Yes, things are continually not great when you look around. But, anyone remember Tom Robbins’ running joke in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues?: every so often in the novel, he would write “The international situation is desperate, as usual.” This was 1976. I don’t mean to stick my head in the sand. At the same time, it’s the fascists who purposefully foster cynicism, who want you to believe your vote doesn’t count, that our institutions have failed, that having integrity doesn’t matter. Well screw all those “dedicated swallowers of fascism” (hat tip to Billy Bragg, on the shoulders of Ray Davies). The world is troubled but there are plenty of helpful and hopeful people working towards the cause of positive change in big ways and small. With the change of seasons I intend to access an untroubled, sanguine part of my psyche, to push off the bottom and swim towards the light. And vote, of course, when the time comes.

To the extent that music can contribute to one’s mental and emotional well-being, and I very much believe that it can, here’s the latest genre-hopping mix in the Eclectic Playlist Series. Playlist first, then the widget for listening, then some informative details about a few of the songs:

1. “Yes Eyes” – Fingerprintz (Distinguishing Marks, 1980)
2. “Shallow Heart, Shallow Water” – Caitlin Cary (While You Weren’t Looking, 2002
3. “You Hit Me Right Where It Hurt Me” – Alice Clark (single, 1968)
4. “Do You Sleep?” – Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories (Tails, 1995)
5. “Candy’s Room” – Bruce Springsteen (Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)
6. “Les Vaincus” – Pauline Drand (Faits Bleu, 2018)
7. “Hand in Hand” – Phil Collins (Face Value, 1981)
8. “I Talk to the Wind” – Dana Gavanski (Wind Songs EP, 2020)
9. “Boys Don’t Cry” – The Cure (single, 1979)
10. “Soul Deep” – The Box Tops (Dimensions, 1969)
11. “Come Together” – The Internet (Hive Mind, 2018)
12. “Underdog” – The Murmurs (Pristine Smut, 1997)
13. “Munich” – Editors (The Back Room, 2005)
14. “Master Plan” – Tears for Fears (The Tipping Point, 2020)
15. “Deadbeat Club” – The B-52’s (Cosmic Thing, 1989)
16. “Cry to Me” – Solomon Burke (single, 1962)
17. “Love to Get Used” – Matt Pond PA (Spring Fools EP, 2011)
18. “Blue Denim” – Stevie Nicks (Street Angel, 1994)
19. “The Mesopotamians” – They Might Be Giants (The Else, 2007)
20. “Elegant People” – Weather Report (Black Market, 1976)

Odds and ends:

* Although I did not name Fingertips with the unfairly neglected UK band Fingerprintz in mind, I am happy with the association, if anyone cares to make it. Their second album, Distinguishing Marks, is to my ear a highlight of new wave’s short-lived power pop era; side one in particular offers an impeccable lineup of crafty, melodic compositions. That said, for some reason, on Spotify, “Yes Eyes,” the album’s lead track, has been mysteriously swapped with the song that was actually the opener on side two. “Yes Eyes” definitely was side one cut one; I have the vinyl to prove it. One more Fingerprintz note: during the short, elusive life of the Fingertips podcast–there were 24 of them, back in 2006 and 2007–the Fingerprintz instrumental, “2.A.T.,” a smart Booker T homage, served as the theme music. Which I’m sure I wasn’t allowed to do, but nobody said anything because about three people were listening.

* A far less neglected UK band, Tears for Fears, released an unexpected reunion album earlier this year, their first in 17 years. While I’m not inherently a fan of bands attempting to recapture the magic, as it were, I’m also not opposed to giving a listen and seeing what they’ve managed to do. In this case, I think they’ve done quite a lot–The Tipping Point is, to my ears, both enjoyable and of consistently high quality. It occurs to me that bands that didn’t in their youth hew too close to the cliche of hard-rocking guitar heroes have a better shot at reestablishing their vibe and sound as elder statesmen. Check the album out yourselves on Bandcamp.

* I can fall hard for French female singers with a certain kind of round whispery tone, and the as yet not-very-well-known Pauline Drand has it. “Les Vaincus” came to my attention a few years ago via a compilation released in 2018 by the French label La Souterraine. Kind of a random find but the song and the singer stuck with me so here she is, sandwiched agreeably between classic rock giants. Drand released her debut album later that year, with “Les Vaincus” as the ninth track; you can listen and purchase via Bandcamp. The title means “The Vanquished,” but that’s about all I can tell you, since feeding the lyrics into an online translator yields a series of words largely defying comprehension. I can also tell you not very much about Drand herself, except for the enticing tidbit, announced via her Twitter page, that she is currently the artist in residence at a place called the De Saram House in Colombo, Sri Lanka. It’s a big world.

* Leisha Halley and Heather Grody, as The Murmurs, made two and a half albums for MCA in the mid-to-late ’90s before moving onto other things. The “half” refers to the fact that their third album, Blender, included seven songs that had already been on their second album, Pristine Smut, among them the splendid “Underdog.” Note that these guys certainly had someone’s attention for a while; their record deal was with a major label, and their second album was produced by Larry Klein and k.d. lang. Not sure why they didn’t take off or stick around but here’s your chance to check them out and see what you’ve (probably) missed.

* “I Talk to the Wind” was originally performed by King Crimson, written by founding member Ian McDonald. Dana Gavanski, based in London, is a Canadian singer/songwriter with family roots in Serbia. Her version can be found on an EP she released during the lockdown in 2020 called Wind Songs, featuring three other covers (songs by Tim Hardin, Chic, and Judee Still), along with a Macedonian folk song. With a resonant voice and a knack for lucid arrangements, she has another EP of covers, Bouncing Ball, slated for release in November.

* “Soul Deep” was only a minor hit for the Alex Chilton-led Box Tops, and their last song to chart; the group disbanded the following year. But what a song it is! “Soul Deep was written by Wayne Carson, who had also written the group’s biggest hit, “The Letter.” Carson, who sometimes used the name Thompson, was a journeyman musician, songwriter, and producer; he shared songwriting credits on “Always On My Mind,” the most well-known and often-recorded entry in his songbook.

* Remember Editors? “Munich” flared across the blogosphere back when the blogosphere was an actual thing. It’s almost hard to fathom here in 2022 that indie rock did in fact have a heyday, albeit a relatively short one, before being sucker-punched by the poptimists and their tribal loyalty to processed, lowest-common-denominator music. (Yeah, don’t get me started.) Anyway, my bad here: Editors are no mere aughts nostalgia act; Tom Smith and company remain an active concern, having released their sixth album in 2018 and with four singles to date released this year, in anticipation of a forthcoming album that Wikipedia reports will be called EBM.

* As for “The Mesopotamians,” this may be one of They Might Be Giants’ loopiest songs, which is saying something. Operating in the liminal space between reality and fantasy, history and nonsense, the song imagines four historical Mesopotamian figures as if they are, somehow, also, paradoxically, a rock band in the present day. The in jokes span millennia, the chorus is goofy and sublime. And circling back to the top of these notes: I did not name Fingertips after Fingerprintz but I did name it after the (goofy, sublime) They Might Be Giants song “Fingertips,” which as some of you know is less a song than a mashup of song fragments. I don’t quite remember what my thinking was but here I am 19 years later, just like the Mesopotamians, with nowhere else to stand.

“Everything is Simple” – Widowspeak

Brooklyn duo shows no sign of letting up

“Everything is Simple” – Widowspeak

Molly Hamilton’s languorous, whisper-like vocals–an ongoing centerpiece of the Widowspeak sound–feel especially front and center on the chunky yet dreamy “Everything is Simple.” After the hesitating, rubbery bass line establishes the song’s deliberate pace, there she is, purring lazily in your ear, ever-so-slightly behind the beat. It’s hard to resist.

And yet it’s the background instrumentation that really sells this one, for me: the central bass line, marching up and falling back; the prickly guitar licks, adding intermittently insistent metallic abrasion; and the steadying keyboard presence, fingering evocative chords and vamps at just the right time. (Listen for the first instance at 0:24; for me, this recurring moment more or less makes the whole song.) “Everything is Simple” has a circular persistence to it that works against type to transform Hamilton’s laid-back breathiness into something tenacious. “I’m still around but it’s a curse,” she happens to sing.

Widowspeak is the duo of Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas. Formed in Brooklyn in 2010 just before the borough’s indie rock mania began to recede, the band has outlasted that bygone scene with no sign of letting up. They released their sixth album, The Jacket, last month; that’s where you’ll find “Everything is Simple.” MP3 once again via KEXP.

“The Funhouse” – Francis of Delirium

Edgy ’90s guitar rock via a 2022 filter

“The Funhouse” – Francis of Delirium

What kind of name is this–Francis of Delirium? Distinctive, while bordering on the absurd? Offering a religious undertone with a feverish overtone? In any case the name seems somehow to hint at the aural palette on display, which meshes tightly articulated guitar work with a sense of structural abandon, as if you’re never sure what is about to happen next.

And what kind of band is this anyway? The front woman and guitarist is Jana Bahrich, who is 20. The drummer is Chris Hewitt, who is 50. They met because Hewitt’s daughters were in school with Bahrich. This was in Luxembourg (Luxembourg!?), although neither are from there. (Bahrich was born in Vancouver and later moved to Belgium and Switzerland; Hewitt is from the Seattle area.) They intially bonded over their love of Pearl Jam. Jana started the band when she was 17.

It’s a story that didn’t have to go this way but somehow they’ve turned into an internationally touring band with a compelling sound, which includes some of the best guitar playing I’ve heard in a long while–not for its intricacy or wizardry but for the confident, rhythmic melodicism anchoring its movement. The song, as Bahrich has explained, is about being unfazed by the mayhem around you, and if you can’t make it out too specifically from the lyrics, you can feel it from the music. And yet, these lyrics!: check them out because to my ears they achieve something akin to poetry for their evocative blending of the concrete and the allusive. This is worthy stuff from beginning to end.

“The Funhouse” is Francis of Delirium’s sixth offering, which includes two EPs and four singles, the latter of which sometimes have extra songs attached as well. You can check everything out on Bandcamp. MP3, one more time, via KEXP.

(Oh, and the name? It derives from a woman who lived in Jana’s grandparents’ elder care facility, who used to shout swear words at them when she visited as a child. The memory lingered.)

“Champion” – Warpaint

Unique, captivating

“Champion” – Warpaint

The singular Los Angeles quartet Warpaint returns after a six-year absence with the wily, elusive “Champion.” Masters of subtle sonic intrigue, the four women in Warpaint work brilliantly together, creating a succinct, unique soundscape that is part groove, part intricate tapestry, overseen by an echoey wash of interweaving vocals singing simple but cryptic lyrics. The effect is captivating.

A great way to approach “Champion” is to focus first on drummer Stella Mozgawa, whose ability to fabricate three-dimensional textures via tone and rhythm is a marvel; to say she single-handedly redefines the concept of rock’n’roll drumming is maybe only a slight overstatement. And if the drums lead the way into the Warpaint sound, the guitars close the sale. You have to wait for them, however. First your ear will note an unhurried, circular riff (shortly past the 30-second mark) that sounds acoustic. It stays for a while, leaves, comes back, never drawing too much attention to itself. The bass edges in, almost preternaturally attuned to the percussion, 10 seconds or so after the guitar. Here is a rhythm section fully deserving of the name, steadily constructing a groove as assured as it is ingenious, sometimes composed as much of space as of sound.

Meanwhile, what about the electronics? The intro was launched by some soft synth sounds, which blend so organically into the background as the song proceeds that they seem nothing that has to be specifically played; they just exist, if that makes sense (which it doesn’t, really). And then: what you’ve been anticipating without realizing it are the electric guitars that slide into the mix around 2:30, all rhythm at first, adding new character to the groove without overwhelming the established vibe.

Finally the payoff: the instrumental coda, arising after the song nearly stops at 3:46, delivering some fuzz, some drone, and a nonchalant lower-register guitar lead à la New Order. The band’s ongoing capacity to unite instrumentally in a manner at once off-handed and disciplined is remarkable. In a world ever (moronically) chasing the latest viral sensation, we too easily neglect the power latent in musicians who have played together for a long time. This band is the real thing.

Warpaint was featured here back in 2010, at the time of their debut album, The Fool. “Champion” is a track from their forthcoming LP Radiate Like This, scheduled for release in May. It will be their first album since 2016’s Heads Up, and–for a band in existence since 2004–only their fourth full-length release to date. MP3 via KEXP.

“Loved Out” – Albert Shalmers

Melodic flair w/ old-school production

“Loved Out” – Albert Shalmers

“Not a social media guy” by his own admission, Albert Shalmers is committed to the music in an old-school kind of way. He writes, plays all the (actual) instruments, records and mixes himself, and at the same time steers away from what he deems “modern production tricks,” which can make songs sound “boring and flat” and in any case don’t help you as a musician, he says. I don’t at all disagree, while adding that there could be a chicken-or-egg thing going on here in that the people who lean too heavily on “production tricks” may be doing so because the songs they are capable of writing and performing are uninteresting and uninspiring to begin with.

I, meanwhile, completely appreciate another old-school method Shalmers employs, which is reaching out with a personal email and then backing it up with a song that speaks for itself, minus any long-winded narrative about why he wrote it and the many layers of deep personal significance it has. Everybody has a story; not everybody has a good song.

“Loved Out” is indeed a nifty piece of work, marrying melodic flair to a lyrical deftness that strikes my ear as particularly refreshing: the song delivers its lines in absorbable nuggets, allowing the ear either to tune in to catch the developing story (there is one) or to take in passing phrases that feel meaningful on their own. In either case, the words are powered by three separate, equally strong melodies–in the verse, the chorus, and (talk about old school), a genuine bridge (starting at 2:06) with its own melodic hook.

I could quibble with one or two production moments here–probably the inevitable result of being a bit too much on your own?–but on the other hand I really appreciate some of his choices, such as the wall of backing vocals that suddenly reinforces the hook at 1:17. The fact that the song works on two levels–Shalmers notes that it’s actually about his love-hate relationship with the 21st-century music business–is a bonus. I’m glad that he had the wherewithal to transform his “loved out” feeling into something this worthy and appealing.

After spending some number of years as a session musician in Toronto, Shalmers has recently begun writing and recording his own music. “Loved Out” is his third single to date. He hopes to have an album out by year’s end. MP3 courtesy of the artist.

“Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father” – Rose Brokenshire

Lovely, sensitive cover

“Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father” – Rose Brokenshire

Surely one of the richest and most delightful categories of music ranging back over the past 50 years is the category of Randy Newman deep tracks. Toronto-based singer/songwriter Rose Brokenshire has dipped into that well to come up with a terrific cover of a poignant song from Newman’s Little Criminals album. That 1977 LP went gold, due to the presence of the widely-misinterpreted hit “Short People,” but the real highlights were some of the subtler pieces, including “Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father,” which succeeded on the strength of its minimalism: sketch-like lyrics hinting at a deep back story, and a gentle melody buoyed by Newman’s exquisite facility with string arrangements.

Brokenshire offers a cover that is faithful yet differently shaded. In place of strings she opts for a wobbly synthesizer and a chorus of wordless voices; it works much more effectively than it might sound from that description, replacing Newman’s lush textures with a vibe that enhances the narrator’s understated sense of loss and displacement. And while there was always something plaintive about hearing the froggy-throated Newman singing as the young girl, Brokenshire’s closely-mic’d voice, tinged with a whispery sorrow, works its own tender magic. If it’s a bit of a loss that Brokenshire’s string substitutes steer clear of one or two of Newman’s beautifully off-kilter chords, it may actually be for the best, as such sounds may require the stringed delivery that this version forgoes.

“Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father” was released as a single by Brokenshire last month. You can check out her work on Bandcamp; go ahead and buy something if you like what you hear. Brokenshire, by the way, is another musician who found her way to Fingertips via a personal email; the MP3 is, again, courtesy of the artist.

“Sunday” – Sea Lemon

Sprightly air, melancholy center

“Sunday” – Sea Lemon

Shall we pretend, at least for the length of time it takes to read a couple of paragraphs, that we are here for the music, for the way it makes us feel, the alchemy involved in the interaction of melody and chords and arrangements of sound with our own individual physical and metaphysical presence? We are here, in other words, for the inner experience of listening versus the outer experience of posturing, marketing, keeping up with what’s “trending” and who’s “rising” and all of that technology-induced bullshit. Oh I know the social-media hustling is (sadly) its own real thing that plenty of people are caught up in, some quite happily, but that doesn’t make it reasonable or humane or (more to the point) remotely music-oriented. Just stream the song, and download if you’d like to. You don’t have to share it, you don’t have to tell anyone else what you’re doing. Just have your own experience; enjoy the internal adventure instigated by a wonderful song.

And “Sunday” is indeed a wonderful song, its sprightly, Cure-ish air belying a melancholy center. One of the song’s signature musical moves is how consistently the lyrics enter past the first beat of the measure. There must be a music-theory name for this but in any case the ongoing effect is both engaging–your ear is unconsciously anticipating a melody once the measure starts without it–and subtly bittersweet, for the same reason. It happens throughout the song but most prominently in the chorus (first heard at 0:42), where the initial hook is the bouncy guitar line, its six careful notes filling up two measures and then the first beat of the third before the lyrics rush in. I’ll point your ear as well to the satisfying way the nearly one-note vocal melody feels like the ideal response to the guitar’s prelude.

Sea Lemon is the musical alias of Seattle singer/songwriter Natalie Lew. “Sunday” is her debut single, self-released; an EP is expected some time later this year. MP3 via KEXP.

photo credit: Raphael Gaultier

“Greenhill” – Naomi Keyte

Understated acoustic gem

“Greenhill” – Naomi Keyte

Unlike many listeners with an affinity for acoustic-oriented singer/songwriters, I do not embrace this style of music indiscriminately. In fact, as much as I can appreciate musicians with acoustic guitars up front, I am more often than not unmoved by performers of this type, who seem frequently to allow the intrinsic sonority of their instrument to stand in for musical value. Which I guess is a kind way of saying “using pleasant sounds to cover up mediocre songwriting.” By that measure, however, when I do come across a musician presenting in this setting with a strong sense of self and craft I am overjoyed. Someone’s still got it.

The Australian singer/songwriter Naomi Keyte, from Adelaide, definitely has it. “Greenhill” is an understated gem, which first and foremost requires the direct attention of the listener. You’ll have to bring it on your own; Keyte has too much integrity and composure to pander or preen like so many of the TikTok-addled musicians who clutter my inbox. Keyte, rather, sings lyrics resonant with domestic details in a near hush, relying on propulsive finger-picking to add momentum to a song replete with what presents as a sort of still-life-in-motion. She herself has described “Greenhill” as “a love song to a house and its inhabitants,” written specifically about life during lockdown. The melody’s downward pattern feels as introspective as the lyrics, lower notes sometimes all but swallowed out of earshot.

The chorus is a particular thing of beauty, from the lovely subtle upturn Keyte’s voice takes at the end of the word “road” (e.g., 0:54) to the elegant way she eliminates the stopping point between the second and third lines, which grabs the ear on the one hand but also mirrors the words she’s singing about the air rushing in through the windows. The second time we hear the chorus (1:59) the arrangement opens up to include drums, piano, and double-tracked vocals, which settles the song into a deep new place. Listen too, at this point, for the male voice blended deftly into the background, via Ben Talbot-Dunn, who also produced the song.

“Greenhill” is a single released in October; Keyte recently dropped a new single, “Gilian”; both songs are slated to appear on a forthcoming LP, and both are available via Bandcamp. The new album will be her second; her first, Melaleuca, was released in 2017, and can also be found on Bandcamp.

“Smile” – Whoop

Charming, charged indie rock

“Smile” – Whoop

Right away the intro hints at this song’s crooked charm: what kind of guitar tone is that, and is it even in tune or on the beat? We don’t have long to ponder these inscrutable questions, as the song is overtaken, at 0:08, by the distinctive presence of Fal, the band’s one-named leader. With a voice that sounds at once like a whisper and a shout, she massages words and syllables into enjoyable new shapes, lyrical lines running into and over each other, enthusiasm bleeding into urgency and back again. The song is worth a listen for Fal alone.

At the same time let’s not give the fellows here short shrift. Playing together only since the fall of 2020, the band seems quickly to have fused into one of those units that can sound like they’re flying apart precisely as they’re pulling tightly together. A tell-tale sign of Whoop’s sharp musicianship is the space they leave for themselves in the mix—often here we get not much more than drum and bass; and when the guitar shows up it’s more to blurt and wobble into the texture than to steal the spotlight. Even the solo (1:58) is a woozy affair, half off the beat, grabbing only 15 seconds of your time, but not before nailing a brief vivid lick, heretofore unheard, into the onrushing tumble of Fal’s narration.

Whoop is based in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Smile” is a track from the band’s exclamatory, self-titled album, Whoop!, which was released in November. You can check out the whole thing, and buy it, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Carrie Biell

Bittersweet & irresistible

“California Baby” – Carrie Biell

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

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