Free and legal MP3: Deep Sea Diver (jangle and fuzz driven anthem)

“Stop Pretending” – Deep Sea Diver

From its evocative, unhurried introduction, an ear-catching blend of jangle and fuzz, “Stop Pretending” is an immediate success, a song so crafty and well-crafted that its origins—written and recorded in two days this April, under lockdown conditions—seem all but miraculous. The end result sounds to me like the pandemic’s first true classic, a song at once languid and incisive, both musically and lyrically:

This life is dangerous
There’s no need to build those walls
Our love is all we have
Who knows where we’re heading

The song offers no solutions but the notion that we must make the effort to be present with what actually is, and tap into our basic goodness, even when the bad people are being awful. The music feels like a balm to the soul, with Jessica Dobson’s guitar noise and distortion churning below a soothing melody and heartfelt vocals. The instrumental break at 2:39, all growl and gristle, is weirdly lovely. Guitars get the job done. Oh and don’t miss the dog at the very end.

Deep Sea Diver is the Seattle-based duo of Dobson and husband Peter Mansen. Dobson played all the instruments but the drums and the “noise synth”; she engineered and mixed the track as well. Deep Sea Diver has released two albums and two EPs to date. Dobson has played with Beck, Spoon, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, among other artists, and was a member of the Shins for a while in the early ’10s.

MP3 via KEXP. You can buy and support the band via Bandcamp; while there you can also explore the rest of their catalog.

Free and legal MP3: Phoebe Bridgers (moody but lively)

“Kyoto” – Phoebe Bridgers

She may not often be in the mood to give us an upbeat versus a downtempo composition, but when Phoebe Bridgers plugs into a faster rhythm is when, to me, her songs really shine. Outside of the terrific “Motion Sickness,” the compositions on her first album were much more deliberate—very attractive for those ready to comb carefully through lyrics and/or those who groove on a melancholy vibe, but less easy to focus on as a casual listener.

“Kyoto,” on the other hand, grabs immediately. I like the misdirect in the introduction—what starts in a hesitant, filtered mode finds a solid backbeat just after the singing starts (0:07), and sweeps us along from there. Bridgers has a delightful way with phrasing (check out as just one example the way she sings “my little brother” at 1:35), sounding as if the fleet tempo has caught her a bit by surprise as well. (She actually did write “Kyoto” as a ballad, but, she told NME in April, “at that point I was so sick of recording slow songs, it turned into this.”)

There is even a structural reason to enjoy the song’s pacing, having to do with the effect of matching downcast lyrics with lively music. Content-wise, Bridgers remains moody here, grasping at why she can’t seem to be happy anywhere, and signaling some thorny father issues. Setting such musings to a breezy tune, to my ears, amplifies rather than subtracts from their impact.

I’ve emphasized the song’s tempo but note that the chorus features a half-time melody, and encompasses a line that doesn’t maybe register as notable the first time around—“I wanted to see the world”—and yet turns into one of the song’s great moments, due I think to a combination of the alluring chord change that precedes it and the subtle but striking emotion with which Bridgers sings the words, especially the second time through (2:09), with a slight melodic twist at the end.

“Kyoto” is the third track on her second solo album, Punisher, which was released in April on the Dead Oceans label. We heard Bridgers on Fingertips last year, a lifetime ago, in combination with Conor Oberst, as part of the Better Oblivion Community Center.

MP3 once again via KEXP. Listen to the whole album, and buy it if you like it, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Punch the Sun (summertime earworm w/ a message)

“Do What I Want” – Punch the Sun

Bassist and front woman Shannon Söderlund has a lucid singing style that brings to mind a young Jonatha Brooke, a style that intimates that words very much matter to her. Combine that with the fact that she is indeed the bass player and right away Punch the Sun presents as a band with an engaging mission. (I have long noted here that bands with the bass player as front person often create especially satisfying music, perhaps because bass players who sing approach their instruments differently than those destined to play with their mouths closed.)

“Do What I Want” crosses the breeziness of a bubblegummy summertime earworm with worthy cultural commentary and some tight and meaty guitar work. The bass line dances and percusses with a deft touch, guiding the song’s head-bobbing rhythm without drawing attention to itself. Clocking in at a swift two minutes fifty seconds, the song hurtles forward, delivers its sing-along message, and moves on. In this context, the guitar is given just a seven-second solo (1:47), but it’s a rollicking one.

The lyrics here are a mix of the straightforward and the elusive; while the opening salvo makes Söderlund’s stance clear —

Hide your little girl in fluffy dresses, pretty curls
And soon enough she’ll learn to go along

— some of the other lines are more mysterious, and I kind of like that; once the general concept is communicated—rigid, corporate-driven beauty standards suck, basically—it’s nice the way the song leaves space for interpretation. You get the general gist but not every last thing is spelled out for you. And, given the contemptibility of the target—the consumerist push for women to be quote-unquote attractive in very particular ways—Söderlund hits with a light touch. She’s not out to harangue us about the evils of the fashion or diet industries, she’s just here to say she’s going to ignore all that and just do what she wants with herself. More power to her.

Punch the Sun is a trio based in Queens, New York. “Do What I Want” is the third track on the band’s first full-length album, Brevity, recorded when they were still a foursome, and released in April. You can listen to the whole thing and purchase it, for a price of your choosing, via Bandcamp. MP3 courtesy of the band.

Free and legal MP3: Pete Droge (feat. Elaine Summers) (Strong, gentle, lovely)

“Skeleton Crew” – Pete Droge (featuring Elaine Summers)

While singer/songwriters are relatively common here on Fingertips, I don’t end up featuring a lot of “man with a guitar” or “woman with a guitar” tunes. Not because I don’t like that kind of thing, but, truth be told, because I just don’t hear a lot that crosses the line from “nice” to “vital.” Because look: most acoustic-guitar-and-voice songs are by definition “nice.” But me, I want and need more from a song than niceness, especially now, and I think we get a lot more than that with this one, from Pete Droge, performing here with his wife and collaborator, the artist and musician Elaine Summers.

“Skeleton Crew” is a sad, sturdy song about resilience. Even as it sounds acutely relevant to our current moment —

We’ll get through this thing together
You lean on me and I’ll lean on you
Know that nothing lasts forever and ever

— in truth the song was started in November 2017 and had nothing to do with the pandemic (or, of course, our even more recent crisis). Launched off a concise, ear-catching guitar riff, the song is gracefully crafted, with its crisp, intimate guitar sound and well-placed vocal harmonies. The balance achieved between gentleness and strength, both musically and lyrically, is at the heart of the song’s loveliness and power.

Pete Droge had a moment or two back in the ’90s, with a major label record deal and some mainstream radio play; Allmusic calls him “one of the most overlooked of the modern-day Americana/rock/folk music movement.” But for whatever reason, probably having nothing to do with his talents and efforts, he faded off the scene as the new century turned. He was part of a short-lived “supergroup” called the Thorns, with Matthew Sweet and Shawn Mullins, which released an album in 2003.  Since then he has released four albums under his own name, on his own label. He has also done a lot of composing for a variety of media projects, from his home studio on Vashon Island, in the Puget Sound a short ferry ride from Seattle.

Speaking of which, Droge released “Skeleton Crew” in March as a fundraiser for a local charity, Vashon Youth and Family Services. He was kind enough to let me post the song here, but if you’re up for it, I’d suggest heading to Bandcamp and offering 50 cents or a dollar for the cause. And a big thanks goes out to visitor Scott for the head’s up about the song in the first place.

Free and legal MP3: Steve Earle & the Dukes (Fierce country stomper)

“Devil Put The Coal In The Ground” – Steve Earle & the Dukes

And here’s about the opposite of “nice” singer/songwriter music (see previous review): a rough-edged country stomper that functions simultaneously as a celebration of coal miner grit and an indictment of an industry racked by tragedy and exploitation.

Built upon a plaintive, insistent banjo riff, “The Devil Put the Coal in the Ground” finds the prolific and genre-bending Earle in backwoods mode, putting the instruments of bluegrass in the service of fierce country blues. Earle sings with his harshest growl while the fiddle and banjo articulate a rather terrifying jig. I warned you, it’s not very nice. But it’s arresting.

The lyrical motif is as deft as the situation described is insidious: the idea that coal was placed in such a difficult and unsafe location by none other than the devil himself. The devil of course exists in the human imagination as a being intent on making human life (and afterlife) as miserable as possible, often through the tragic force of temptation. For the sake of coal’s value as a resource, not to mention its role in generating diamonds, mankind has paid a price, at both the individual and the collective levels—there are the various calamities that befall coal miners on the one hand, and the environmental devastation wreaked by the mining industry on the other. And yet there have been benefits too, from a miner’s pride in his challenging line of work, to the way coal powered what has often been framed as “progress.” All this is covered, by implication, in the course of this less-than-three-minute song.

“The Devil Put the Coal in the Ground” is the third of 10 songs on the album Ghosts of West Virginia, released last month on New West Records. The music was inspired by the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia, and was initially created for a theatrical production at the Public Theater in New York City. Entitled Coal Country, the play opened in early March but shut down prematurely due to the pandemic. Earle was the music director and performed his songs on stage during the play.

Steve Earle I trust you know already but if not, please do give his catalog some attention. He has been one of America’s most talented and uncompromising singer/songwriters of the last 30 years, and one who seems always interested in growing as an artist and a human being. I’m partial to his early- to mid-’00s work, most of all Transcendental Blues, but you’ll find rewarding music on pretty much every release.

MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Washed Out (very appealing synth pop)

“Too Late” – Washed Out

I’m trying to figure out what Ernest Greene’s secret is. The man who does musical business as Washed Out—and let’s remember that he is credited with more or less inventing chillwave—offers up what appears on the surface to be standard-issue 21st-century electronic pop: beat-heavy, bass-forward, easy-on-the-ears, all sounds seemingly emerging from digital sources. Why is this song so good and so many similar efforts so forgettable?

I have a few ideas. First of all, never underestimate the power of a good voice. I am continually surprised by how many submissions I get that discourage me as soon as the singing starts. Not everyone who tries to sing is a good singer; not all voices are created equal. Greene’s voice has a tone at once rich and hazy, and whatever manipulative effects are employed, a listener never loses track of the appealing human voice producing the  sounds. (Boy do I wish that anyone still tempted by Auto-Tune would discover the potential of other ways to deal with voice in the digital realm. Greene should teach a master class.)

Digging deeper, there is something too in the actual notes he sings. I don’t have perfect pitch and my knowledge of music theory is incomplete at best but I do think that Greene has the happy inclination to sing what may be suspended notes, or in any case are notes appealingly off the underlying chord. You hear this as soon as he opens his mouth (0:40), singing “I saw you there”: there, that’s the note I’m talking about. It’s not in the chord backing the melody here. He doesn’t in fact meet up with the chord until the end of the next phrase (“waiting outside“); how warm and cozy that feels is a side effect of how much he has otherwise been hanging the melody in suspension. He draws some extra attention to this inclination when he gets to the word “shy” at 1:03. The subtle tension created by these notes is seductive.

Another thing going on here to the song’s benefit is the dynamic range of the percussion. I don’t know if any of this comes from a three-dimensional drum kit or not but the effect is three-dimensional because Greene offers up shifts in volume in the elements of the beat.  A lot of electronic beats, however seemingly intricate, are flatter in this regard. You can hear a purposefully dramatic incidence of this in the intro, at 0:15. But all through the verse section, what you actually have, underneath the blurry trappings, is an old-fashioned backbeat (emphasis on the second and fourth beats of the measure), effected via the dynamic range. It’s not that this is impossible or even difficult to do electronically; it may just be that music makers right now don’t really care to do it.

Lastly, Greene is comfortable getting a little odd. And a bit of oddness can be extremely welcome, especially in a musical era marked by click-oriented efforts to be “catchy.” Here we get a distinctly odd chorus (1:20): the beat disappears; the vocals layer into a vibey mist; the lyrics are punctuated by what sound like distorted, synthesized cellos; and for good measure we get some digitized hand claps before it’s done.

“Too Late” is a single released in April on Sub Pop. Washed Out was featured previously on Fingertips back in August 2011. MP3 once again via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3 Yumi Zouma (happy music, wistful words)

“Cool For a Second” – Yumi Zouma

Remember this feeling? Breeziness? Lack of any immediate concern? “Cool For a Second”—all warm, boopy synths and cheery electronic percussion—glides in with a carefree, encouraging spirit, a lovely breath of good-natured air. Augmented by front woman Christie Simpson’s conversational personability, the song snuggles itself easily into my happy place.

Maybe a bit too easily, if one doubles back and considers the words that accompany the breezy-bouncy music. Take the chorus:

Omissions never flare, they go out if you let them
Changing every year, I was cool for a second
Find me in the fall, swept underneath
Forgetting every charm, took a bullet together
You could pull apart, so I’d never remember
The image that would call you back to me

While I’m not sure what the heck she’s singing about, I’m quite sure that it’s not all unicorns and rainbows here. But maybe, on second thought, this does snuggle into my happy place, because I have long looked kindly upon songs that manage the unique-to-pop feat of juxtaposing happy music with sad or wistful lyrics. In the case of “Cool For a Second,” both the happy music and the wistful lyrics eventually, over the course of this concise 3:10 tune, seem to converge into one feeling—something resembling perseverance. I think this has a lot to do with the powerful circular melody of the chorus, with its persistent up-and-over refrain. You hear it first starting at 0:53, and it incorporates at one point the title phrase, and that’s another of the song’s subtle virtues: finding a title in a phrase that recurs but is not repeated too often. Most songs are named for phrases that are clearly the most regularly sung, and sometimes it’s the opposite, where the song has a title entirely separate from the lyrics. Most unusual is the song where the title is in there but doesn’t go out of its way to stick in your ear. I’m not sure why but in this case it seems especially effective.

Yumi Zouma is a quartet from Christchurch, founded in 2014. “Cool For a Second” is a track off Truth Or Consequences, the band’s third full-length album, released last month on Polyvinyl Records. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Pinewood (ear-pleasing mystery)

“Riverbank” – Pinewood

Fleet, spacious, and impressive, “Riverbank” gathers a solemn momentum through the determined repetition of its underlying finger-picked riff. The riff materializes from the quiet haze at 0:09 in the introduction and it literally doesn’t stop, accompanying the song straight through to the end, with one brief, well-placed shift (heard first at 1:07, repeated just once more at 2:34). The riff, warm and resolute, is augmented by a carefully curated soundscape, including a homey variety of percussion, what sounds briefly like a string section (1:12), a distant murmur of voices (2:08), an intermittent mandolin, and a great bottom-register buzz that sounds familiar but I can’t identify it—it’s often there deep in the background but can be heard a bit more clearly at around 1:50. (Maybe some kind of flanged bass guitar? Amplified mouth harp??)

The end result is an ear-pleasing mystery, at once calm and urgent, simple and complex, organic and manipulated, 1970s and 2020s, blended into a here-and-gone 3:05 composition. Such a spell is cast that the lyrics themselves seem to dissolve into the music, leaving wisps of impressions with little concrete information. Note how the song comes to an all but complete stop around 2:10, itself a somewhat mysterious turn of events. And then, later: bam, the thing ends with an abrupt shutdown.

Pinewood is the performing name of  Sam Kempe, a songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist based in Atlanta. “Riverbank” is one of four tracks on the debut Pinewood EP All Things With Symmetry, which comes out May 1.

Photo: Megan Varner

Free and legal MP3: Sass (terrific grunged-out pop)

“11:11” – Sass

Maybe what we all really need right now is some guitars. In which case, the Minneapolis band Sass is at your service. And we’re not talking mindless, mathematical thrashing. What Sass delivers, guitar-wise, runs the gamut from amiably ringing riffs and sparkly plucking to full-on crunches and delightfully distorted squonks. For the guitar-starved who also likes a good pop song, this is a veritable buffet of aural delight.

And this is indeed a terrific if thoroughly grunged-out pop song, full of melodic spunk, lyrical thrusts, and self-possessed forward movement. And did I mention guitars? Given the fitful ruckus, “11:11” requires a special someone to pull it all together, vocally, and Sass has you covered here too, in the person of front woman Stephanie Jo Murck. Often we speak of a singer’s vocal range in terms of dynamic register, as in how low to how high a voice can go. Murck’s range, alternatively, is tonal, encompassing everything from blasé yearning to full-throated howling, a range that aptly complements the variegated guitar work. There’s nothing show-off-y going on here, which is one of the song’s special powers—the dynamic performances here all hit the ear as matter-of-fact. Murck’s narrator seems to have made a misstep in a fledgling relationship after previously assuring herself she didn’t need anyone to be okay. Now she’s not so sure. It’s a complex circumstance to cover in less than three and a half minutes, and a good part of the complexity is portrayed as much by sound as by words; there’s an “I can’t go on; I’ll go on” vibe in the air. Sporadic moments of chaos convey it; sustained histrionics would ruin it.

You will hear without effort the obvious moments of ramshackle guitar splendor the song has in store for you; let me here draw your attention to a few subtler things this deft band makes happen along the way. There’s the smeary line drawn by one of the guitars from 0:28 to 0:32;  the odd group of slightly off notes woven in from 1:17 to 1:20; and the squeal at 1:35, which leads into this lyrical highlight:

I am unreasonable
Let me push and
Never be pulled
But that’s impossible

Murck lets loose on this last line, the guitars screech a while, and then we’re back to a more restrained tone, revisiting the line “I thought I’d be fine alone,” and it somehow hits the ear as especially poignant, perhaps because this time it’s followed by the lines “I’d watch a new TV show/Learn to dance and paint and sew.”

Sass was founded in 2016. After a couple of early singles, they released an EP in 2017 and their first full-length, Chew Toy, last year. You can listen to and buy all their music via Bandcamp. “11:11” was released this month, and is a track from their upcoming album, Heart to Heart. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Thrillhouse (subtle hooks, accumulated majesty)

“Lesser” – Thrillhouse

As we collectively ponder just how to put one foot in front of the other without falling into a pit of grief, recalling a disregarded sense of normal wrenched away from us, let’s take a deep breath. Music remains accessible. It helps. As the hackneyed but undeniable truism reminds us: Don’t look back. You’re not going that way.

So. We’ll take it one song at a time, and “Lesser” is a worthy place to start—a smart 21st-century rocker paved with subtle hooks and accumulated majesty.  The throbbing beat set against an unresolved chord in the introduction grabbed me quickly, while the song’s unfolding changes and idiosyncratic twists—most notably the spoken-word pre-chorus (first heard at 0:52; listen to how the melody is implied without being sung)—keep the ear and heart engaged through to the end.

Other impressive moments and touches: the anthemic guitar line appearing at 1:08, and again only at 2:51 (what great restraint to use this only after one particular lyric); the telegraph-signal synth that emerges from the background around 1:38, and gets something of its own solo around 2:27; the unexpected percussive effect at 2:39; the wonderful squiggle of a synth solo in the coda (beginning at 3:26).

Thrillhouse is a trio based in Brighton. “Lesser” is their second single, released earlier this month. Thanks to the band for the MP3.