“Skulls” – Peter Matthew Bauer

Rumbly, insistent slice of indie rock

“Skulls” – Peter Matthew Bauer

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.

“Det er lige meget” – Rigmor

An energetic sense of melancholy

“Det er lige meget” – Rigmor

Obvious care has gone into constructing a song with a title that translates to “It doesn’t matter,” which maybe signals the subtext here: to care enough to record a song that says it doesn’t matter means that it actually does matter, probably a lot. In any case, listen to all that’s going on before the singing begins: above some indistinct mechanical noise we get a carefully articulated guitar melody playing against a blip of a pulse of a beat. Then (0:17) we’re in a groove, at once firm and laid back, ringing guitar on top, acrobatic bass below.

And then best of all, the voice, belonging to Sarah Wichmann, which likewise has a compelling, ringing quality that both blends in and takes the soundscape to a new and more urgent place. Embodying an unusually energetic sense of melancholy, the song revels in its upbeat, minor-key setting, the rhythm track double-timing the melody, allowing Wichmann to take her time while her bandmates churn it up. By the time the coda kicks in, around 2:24, the song has become pretty intense even as it’s not quite clear how we got here. The guitar returns to the opening melody line even as everything else has changed. We wrap up in under three minutes, always a power move in my book.

The four members of Rigmor began life as a band in Aarhus, Denmark in 2018. After an EP in 2020, the band released its debut full-length album Glade blinde børn in February of this year. The title, which means “Happy blind children,” says a lot about the band’s penchant for bittersweet soundscapes.

MP3 via KEXP. To check out more of Rigmor’s music, head over to Spotify or YouTube.

“Silence is Golden” – The Beths

Hepped-up power pop

“Silence is Golden” – The Beths

The Beths’ front woman Elizabeth Stokes has one of those appealing, unassuming singing voices that conveys the illusion that she’s merely talking most of the time. The fact that she accomplishes this in the midst of something so noisy and melodic makes the effect all the more fetching. At their best this New Zealand foursome is deliriously likable.

“Silence is Golden” is the Beths at their most frenetic, which right away is a bit of a wink in a song with this particular title. Stokes sings of craving quiet in a too-loud world while her band crashes their way through two minutes and fifty-five seconds of hepped-up power pop, with its emphatic, punctuating drumming and scratchy guitar work. And it’s only fitting somehow that a song about the joys of silence leads into a clamorous guitar solo (2:03): 20 seconds of madcap squalling that will make your head spin.

“Silence is Golden” is the third of 12 tracks on the Beths’ new album, Expert in a Dying Field, all of which is worth hearing. Check it out, and buy it in a variety of formats if you like it, via Bandcamp. MP3 again via KEXP.

“Anything You Want” – Vinyl Floor

Crafty touches

“Anything You Want” – Vinyl Floor

There’s something warm and reassuring about the sound the Danish band Vinyl Floor offers up in “Anything You Want”–the steady beat, the engaging melody, the vintage vocal tone, the horn (or horn-like) flourishes: it all evokes something timeless and balm-like in a day and age dominated by the distracting and the distractable.

Listen to how the song sounds both super casual and super well-crafted at the same time, a vibe that is not easy to achieve–I don’t think there’s a blueprint to get there, it’s just something a band can do or not do. I know I’m in good hands near the outset when the verse launches away from the home key (referring here to the chord shift at 0:13, when the singing starts), which is a crafty touch that you don’t hear every day. I like too the metric hiccups in the verse (via some sneaky 7/8 time signatures) and the left-turn chord progression that leads into the sing-along chorus and its emphatic series of “I know”s, which sound too heartfelt to resist.

And yes it’s somehow a second Danish band this week; consider it a coincidence unless you’re inclined as I am not to believe in coincidences, not fully. In any case: Vinyl Floor is the Danish duo of brothers Daniel Pedersen and Thomas Charlie Pedersen, who share lead vocal duties. “Anything You Want” is the lead track on their new album, Funhouse Mirror, the title of which accounts for the photo above, which appears to show a quartet if you don’t look carefully. The band has been around since 2007; Funhouse Mirror is their fifth full-length release. MP3 via the band. And while I can’t seem to find a place where you can actually buy the album, it is available to stream via Apple Music and Spotify.

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 closely 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.