Free and legal MP3: The Joy Formidable

Dream pop w/ a triplet-based swing

“Into The Blue” – The Joy Formidable

Thum-pi-da, THUM-pi-da, thum-pi-da, THUM-pi-da: The swinging, triplet-based backbeat that launches “Into the Blue,” offset by scratchy and thoughtful guitar arpeggios, evokes something deep and disregarded in the history of rock’n’roll. What I think we’re hearing here is the ghost of doo-wop, and while doo-wop has never been my thing (I’m old but I’m not quite that old!), it feels invigorating to hear in the context of a song so otherwise rooted in the 21st century.

Layered on top of the backbeat comes a marvelous mixture of light and shadow, melody and noise, liberation and complication. The song takes a terrific turn early on, at 1:08, when front woman Ritzy Bryan is displaced for a verse on vocals by bassist Rhydian Dafydd, who sings an alternate but related melody that strikes the ears as newly urgent. Even if—this again—it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on in the lyrics, the introduction of the other person’s point of view in what sounds like a relationship-centric song intensifies the circumstances, adroitly signaling the communication issue the song seems to be about.

Through it all keep your ears on Bryan’s guitar work—the discrete notes she slips in here and there, the occasionally heard squeak of fingers on strings, and in particular how she sometimes just starts playing her own thing (example at 1:56) as a sort of combination counter-melody/counter-rhythm to the song’s determined drive forward.

The Joy Formidable is a trio founded in Wales, although Dafydd and Bryan have been living in Utah, of all places, in recent years. (The band’s third member is drummer Matthew James.) “Into The Blue” as a single has been out since March, but is soon to emerge as the title track to the fifth Joy Formidable album, arriving later this month. MP3 via KEXP. You can buy the album in a variety of formats on Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Shadwick Wilde

Gentle pandemic ballad

“When All of This Is Over” – Shadwick Wilde

Strangely enough we have another song this month based on a triplet rhythm, in this case a deliberate acoustic ballad expressing an all too common yearning during the Great Lockdown, as we have long been daydreaming about the return of something resembling normalcy. The song came out back in April but seems, alas, ongoingly relevant.

And while earnest singer/songwriters with simple acoustic guitar licks often stray, in my opinion, into the maudlin and/or mundane (or both), there’s something affecting to me about the ambiance here; the sincerity is not over-delivered, and the music, enhanced with tasteful string arrangements, pushes forward with an air of enigmatic buoyancy despite the mournful tone. The tune is straightforward but well-built, while the lyrics hit that alluring middle ground between the literal and the figurative: while the listener clearly knows what he’s singing about, the pandemic is brought to the table only via mention of those things we might do again on the other side. This accomplishes two interrelated things: it makes the song about something larger than our current difficulties, and it nudges us towards a sense of hope through the struggle. And while the song lacks any obvious connection to the activism championed in her writings, there’s something here that reminds me of Rebecca Solnit’s view of hope: “Hope,” she says, “locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” I feel guided towards this spaciousness in Wilde’s reminder of the larger context of human existence; as he sings offhandedly near the end: “How lucky we are/To be orbiting this particular star/At this particular distance.”

Shadwick Wilde is a Kentucky-based singer/songwriter who is also founder in 2010 of the fluid musical collective Quiet Hollers, which has released three albums to date.

A crack in the door

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.07 – July 2021

Did I speak too soon last month about not wearing a mask? I did. But the pleasures of interacting with unmasked faces remain real, if somewhat mitigated one month later by the need to keep the spread tamped down with the new variant elbowing its way around the country (in some places more vigorously than others). It remains true that the vast majority of new cases are rising among the unvaccinated; the fact that there remain people putting energy into protesting events that require masks would be hilarious if it weren’t tragic. What’s next?: protesting at the airport because they require you to have a ticket to get on a plane? People around the world are clamoring for the very vaccines that a determined group of raging American idiots refuse to take. Perhaps the ongoing moral of the story is this tiresome one: that internet-disseminated ignorance remains the bane of our century to date. (As Rachel Cusk’s narrator in her brilliant novel Second Place writes, “Whatever power it is that I have, it’s nothing compared to the power of stupidity.”) Personally I’ve been wondering lately about what evolutionary purpose stupidity serves, because it seems as persistent as the cockroach.

Moving (thankfully) on to the playlist, this one as usual has a little bit of a lot of different things, mixing the familiar with the less familiar, rock and pop with soul and jazz, the new wave with the old guard, and sprinkled throughout with a batch of 21st-century goodies; a vague sense of summer is in the air but mostly by accident. While on many days I wonder at the foolishness of my endeavor here—today’s music scene seems definitively to have hoisted my taste and perspective into a box gathering dust in our cultural attic—I try to rise above the doubts by reminding myself that fashion is a different filter than quality, and however many people are out there chasing shiny objects, there remains a persistent bloc of artists who care about longer-standing standards of craft and musicality. Thus the aforementioned “21st-century goodies,” as well as my inclination to circulate them in and among quality songs from decades gone by. It’s a quixotic task at best; if you’re out there listening I appreciate your time and attention more than you know.

“Complex” – Tristen (Aquatic Flowers, 2021)
“I Want More” – CAN (Flow Motion, 1976)
“Bernadette” – The Four Tops (Reach Out, 1967)
“Summer Rain” – Star Tropics (single, 2015)
“A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” – Andrew Bird (The Mysterious Production of Eggs, 2004)
“Houses in Motion” – Talking Heads (Remain in Light, 1980)
“Wonder” – Natalie Merchant (Tigerlily, 1995)
“Don’t Let Me Down Again” – Buckingham Nicks (Buckingham Nicks, 1975)
“Song For My Father” – The Horace Silver Quintet (Song For My Father, 1964)
“Tom The Model” – Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man (Out Of Season, 2002)
“Sleep All Summer” – Neko Case, w/ Eric Bachmann (Hell-On, 2018)
“Linger” – The Cranberries (Everyone Else is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, 1993)
“More Love” – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (Make It Happen, 1968)
“Life In Tokyo” – Japan (Assemblage, 1981)
“Poison My Cup” – Shannon McArdle (Summer of the Whore, 2008)
“At Attention” – Northern Portrait (single, 2020)
“Scattered” – The Kinks (Phobia, 1993)
“Swimming” – Tracey Thorn (Love and Its Opposite, 2011)
“Boxcars” – Joe Ely (Honky Tonk Masquerade, 1978)
“Morning Come” – Marianne Faithfull (A Child’s Adventure, 1983)

Random notes:

* Tristen has been doing her adroitly-crafted indie singer/songwriter rock’n’roll for more than a decade (she made her Fingertips debut back in 2010, for what it’s worth). To my ears her music sounds far more expansive and curious about the world than the music her somewhat younger and more well-known one-named peers have been recently making. Tristen’s latest album is Aquatic Flowers, released in June.

* I am only peripherally familiar with the work of the avant-garde, improvisational German band CAN but they do present me with the irresistible challenge of figuring out how to work something of theirs into a playlist here. That said, the band did have a certain number of songs that managed to be hits in their native land, “I Want More” being one of them. And they were super-influential among a certain arty sort of rock’n’roller; note for instance a certain CAN-iness to the Talking Heads track a few slots down in the playlist. And while three of the original four members are no longer alive, the band does have a thorough presence on Bandcamp, where you can listen to and purchase all of their (intermittently impenetrable) albums.

* Why was Buckingham Nicks, the one-off duo album recorded by Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, a commercial failure in 1973 when the two of them joining Fleetwood Mac shortly thereafter is what ended up generating Fleetwood Mac’s monstrous success? It seems mysterious in retrospect, given how similar the sound of this album is to music that became hugely popular on the Fleetwood Mac album released two years later. (One song, in fact, from Buckingham Nicks—“Crystal”—later appeared on the landmark 1975 album.) Chalk it up, apparently, to colossal promotional mismanagement. But given the messy/unpleasant interpersonal history involved, there does seem something star-crossed about Buckingham Nicks, which has yet to this day to have an official digital release, either on CD or via any streaming service. (High-priced unofficial copies can be had, however, because the internet.)

* “Scattered” is the closing track on Phobia, the 24th and final studio album by the Kinks. While Ray Davies’ material grew a little wobbly as the band sputtered out of the late ’80s, he could always be counted on for two or three unusually good songs even on lesser releases. If this, as is likely, remains the last official original Kinks song of the band’s storied career, it’s a strong farewell indeed. Then again, I personally could listen to that man sing just about anything. What a voice.

* A slow burner with a stellar chorus, Neko Case’s “Sleep All Summer” features Eric Bachmann (Crooked Fingers, Archers of Loaf) on co-vocals. As the lyrics are more suggestive than conclusive, this is one of those songs whose inherent drama is linked more to the sound, vocal quality; you do however get the strong sense that something deep is going down here. Case’s 2018 album Hell-On was a lot to take in at the time, as the mighty singer/songwriter has taken to writing and singing increasingly complex “pop” songs, so it took me a while to find this one.

* Speaking of vocal quality, any excuse to place Tracey Thorn into a playlist I will gladly take.

* Earlier this year I featured a Keith Jarrett song that Steely Dan borrowed from to create their song “Gaucho.” This month I stumbled on and am here including another jazz piece the Dan utilized (pilfered?), in the Horace Silver Quintet’s “Song For My Father”: that introductory keyboard riff (minus, interestingly, its first note) is employed in the same position in “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” which turned out to be Steely Dan’s most successful single. I’m not sure how the riff manages to be so simple and so distinctive at the same time but it’s easy to see why Fagen and Becker felt the need to re-use it.

* The ever-mysterious, ongoingly elusive Beth Gibbons, front woman for the iconic trio Portishead, has released one solo album, 2002’s Out Of Season, which she made along with Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb (calling himself Rustin Man for reasons never explained). As scintillating as her performances have been with Portishead, this album—which I circle back to every few years, wanting at some point to love it, not quite getting there—has always felt somewhat off, in part because of the music’s bleary iciness, in part because of Gibbons’ puzzling inclination towards Billie Holiday mimicry. And yet the album still casts enough a spell to stay in long-term rotation. And this new flash: after years of inactivity, Paul Webb has abruplty released two Rustin Man albums in recent years, one in 2019 and one in 2020.

If I could make sense of it all

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.06

Suddenly it’s summer time and, for some of us fortunate ones, it’s also rather suddenly semi-normal again. Disconcerting but encouraging. Turns out it’s super easy to get used to walking around without a mask and without steering clear of fellow pedestrians. And smiling at people!: if only the anti-mask lunatics had centered their arguments around the idea that being unable to smile at people is really harmful to one’s psyche they might at least have been making a reasonable point. As for this month’s mix, I’m just going to get out of the way and let it unfold for you. Part of me feels it’s a bit of a strange ride, and yet I kind of needed all these songs in this particular order, which is as follows:

“Act of the Apostle” – Belle and Sebastian (The Life Pursuit, 2006)
“You Better Move On” – Arthur Alexander (single, 1961)
“I Want To Run” – Mates of States (You’re Going to Make It, 2015)
“School Days” – Stanley Clarke (School Days, 1976)
“When I Get It Right” – Joan Armatrading (Walk Under Ladders, 1981)
“Here Today” – The Beach Boys (Pet Sounds, 1966)
“All I Want” – Sarah Blasko (As Day Follows Night, 2009)
“Barbed Wire Heart” – The Sinners (Piece By Piece, 1990)
“Satta Massagana” – The Abyssinians (Satta Massagana, 1976)
“Serpents” – Sharon Van Etten (Tramp, 2012)
“Somewhere Down the Crazy River” – Robbie Robertson (Robbie Robertson, 1987)
“Unleashed” – Christine Fellows (Roses on the Vine, 2018)
“Live As You Dream” – Beth Orton (Trailer Park, 1996)
“Children of Coincidence” – Dory Previn (We’re Children of Coincidence and Harpo Marx, 1975)
“Hey Now Now” – The Cloud Room (The Cloud Room, 2005)
“Me and My Machine” – The Easybeats (demo, 1968; released on The Shame Just Drained, 1977)
“Forget Me Nots” – Patrice Rushen (Straight From The Heart,1982)
“Monday” – Wilco (Being There, 1996)
“On Melancholy Hill” – Gorillaz (Plastic Beach, 2010)
“Glenfern” – Kathleen Edwards (Total Freedom, 2020)

Stray observations:

* The internet tells me that Arthur Alexander is the only songwriter whose songs have been covered on studio albums by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. If true it’s a fine bit of trivia. In any case, Alexander was a much admired songwriter in the early ’60s who never really got his due as a performer; he died in 1993 at the age of 53. “You Better Move On” was, in fact, covered by the Stones, whose version is styled rather precisely after Alexander’s original.

* While Sharon Van Etten’s profile has grown mightily in the past few years, it was the 2012’s Tramp that put her onto my personal radar–in particular the single “Serpents,” which I featured in December 2011. You can read what I made of it at the time (“sizzling, guitar-driven drama” were among the words employed); she’s had a mysterious pull on me ever since. (Note that the free download is still available.)

* As much as Pet Sounds has been revered and discussed, almost more here in the 21st century than in the preceding decades, one song that seems ever to slip through the cracks is “Here Today.” Me, I love it to pieces. That wordless vocal section, with its galumphing orchestral accompaniment and its ascending melody line, and the way it separates the word “Here” from the word “today” (as well as “gone” from “tomorrow”)? So so good; despite the ostensibly negative message, the song feels uplifting and smile-inducing to me.

* Kathleen Edwards re-emerged in 2020 after eight years away from music, most of which she spent running a coffee shop in suburban Ottawa. I wanted to love Total Freedom more than I (so far) do, but “Glenfern,” the opening track, is vintage KE. The rest may yet grow on me.

* The Easybeats were a Kinks-adjacent mid-’60s-ish band from Australia whom no one here would have heard of in the slightest were it not for their having written and recorded one of rock’n’roll’s signature “can’t-wait-for-the-weekend” songs, “Friday On My Mind.” Here in the US that was pretty much all we got from them until someone decided to put out a B-sides and stray tracks compilation in 1977 called The Shame Just Drained. The two creative forces behind the Easybeats, Harry Vanda and George Young, went on to form the strange but compelling band Flash and the Pan, where their knack for writing catchy melodies found an interesting new setting. “Me and My Machine” is on the one hand a throwaway, and on the other hand a marvelous bit of semi-dramatic, vintage pop-rock with the rarely encountered “killer verse” (as opposed to the more pedestrian killer chorus).

Free and legal MP3: Ruby Gilbert

Authoritative (Australian) Americana, with trumpet

“No Vacancy” – Ruby Gilbert

With an authoritative Americana brio reminiscent of early Neko Case, Ruby Gilbert is the real deal, her depth of voice matched by a knack for composition and presentation. From its opening acoustic strum–minor-key and assertive–“No Vacancy” feels at once sturdy and adventurous, with its casually resourceful chord changes and, yes, that trumpet. About which more in a moment.

Gilbert begins a story of frustrated romance with an incisive opening couplet: “My baby’s only got eyes for me/But he’s got his sights set on leaving.” The underlying premise here seems to be that all romances, however brilliant at first, will come to an end; the song’s narrator seems oppressed by this hard-won knowledge (“I don’t get no rest,” she sings, “I hear it in my head, tick and tock”).

The ache of being left alone is mirrored in the song’s musical landscape, which aligns with that particularly appealing strain of Americana music that I hear as “lonesome.” I’m not sure precisely what may generally create this impression–something in the spaciousness of the mix, I’m guessing, and/or some well-placed slide guitar lines; reverbed vocals help–but “No Vacancy” ups the ante with artful flourishes from an echoey trumpet, courtesy of Eamon Dilworth. I wouldn’t have realized this in advance but damn if that trumpet doesn’t (somehow) sound like the epitome of “lonesome Western sound.”

Ruby Gilbert is a singer/songwriter from Brisbane with a handful of recordings to date and, I hope, a bright future ahead. “No Vacancy” was released in March. She has an earlier single, “Slave,” from this past October, and a four-song EP, entitled Dearly Beloved, that came out in June 2018. You can hear everything, and buy everything at a price of your choosing, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Havana Swim Club

Well-crafted, sample-forward tropicalia

“Lagoon” – Havana Swim Club

Speaking of trumpets (see previous post), here we have that trusty brass contraption contributing to an entirely different aural universe. The trumpets on display here evoke the tones heard in Latin horn charts, while tracing a languid melody, against a swaying beat, that sounds like shade on a sunny beach day.

This is music as constructed collage; Havana Swim Club mastermind Dan Koch utilizes samples from vintage and/or global vinyl to create what he labels “nostalgic instrumental dream pop.” However digitally manipulated it is, “Lagoon” flows with a well-constructed sense of purpose and a gratifying feeling of space. One of the savvy things Koch does is reveal the song’s principal melody only once near the beginning (0:34-0:54) and once near the end (3:04-3:27). The rest of the song functions as variations to the main theme: there’s the theatrical introduction, itself a riff on the second half of the primary melody; there are dream-like snippets of the main motif, offered in minimalist segments; there indecipherable voices, shimmering sound effects, and subtle countermelodies and electronic flourishes, all nodding in the direction of the primary theme without delivering it. In the song’s second half we are teased by the return of the introduction (2:00), but the central melody remains withheld until just past the three-minute mark. At this point, the returning trumpet solo sounds luxurious and triumphant, and yet doesn’t overstay its welcome–one simple pass through the melody and the song shuts itself right down.

The evocatively-named Havana Swim Club is, as noted, the project of the Seattle-based Koch, who is a founding member of the indie rock band Sherwood. “Lagoon” is a track from the debut self-titled Havana Swim Club album, which was released last week. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy a digital copy, via Bandcamp. MP3 via the artist.

Free and legal MP3: Bachelor

Exhilarating ’90s rock update

“Stay in the Car” – Bachelor

A concise, exhilarating update of Breeders-like ’90s rock, “Stay in the Car” revs up with no intro; two chunky guitar strokes and we’re right in it. At which point three compelling things happen simultaneously: idiosyncratic lyrics about a fascinating woman watched from afar; irresistible same-note-harmony vocals from Bachelor’s two bandmates, Ellen Kempner and Melina Duterte; and a sinuous, descending verse melody that feels at once inevitable and surprising.

While the first verse rocks with a spare thumpiness, unleashed guitars provide a drony wall of sound for the chorus, and then continue to make their clamorous presence known in the second verse (but only, it should be noted, after a 12-second bass solo). I especially love the atonal stabs we hear at, say, 1:00 and 1:16. And yet: the third verse gets an acoustic guitar accompaniment, and it too sounds exactly right.

Most of all this song shows how a smart and effective song can be built on the foundation of not very much. In real life one day, Kempner saw an eye-catching woman, dressed in red, with wild hair, emerging from a car in a parking lot, yelling back to the man behind the wheel to find out what he wanted in the store: this became the song. And then, via rock’n’roll’s mysterious alchemy, a potentially mundane and impersonal encounter turns deep and indelible. “She said, ‘Stay in the car and I’ll grab what you want”: the lyric becomes the chorus–becomes, repeated, with that protracted “Ohhhh,” slyly majestic, a thing you can imagine transforming into some sort of cultural touchstone. And not that it will, but that it feels in the moment of listening exactly that powerful. In any case, “Stay in the Car” seems to get better and better the more I listen to it.

Kempner and Duterte were each previously known as separate artists with their own projects, Kempner at the front of the band Palehound, Duterte performing as Jay Som. You’ll find “Stay in the Car” on Bachelor’s debut album, Doomin’ Sun, which was released at the end of May on Polyvinyl Records. Listen to it over on Bandcamp, where you can also buy it as a vinyl record, a CD, a cassette, or the digital album. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Walk in Wardrobe

Sweet & ambling earworm

“Apology” – Walk in Wardrobe

Sweet and ambling, with a melancholy undertone, “Apology” is a simple, triplet-based tune, without a set chorus, that grows in stature and impact as it unfolds. Things feel at once thoughtfully put together and completely relaxed, which often makes for an endearing musical cocktail.

While not elaborately recorded, the song has a nice share of small but gratifying touches. It starts with some nice acoustic finger-picking, but rather than stay in that lane, there is, soon, a double hit of percussion–a steady tom-tom starting at 0:10 and then, just as the singing starts, perfectly timed finger-snaps. Whether organic or digital, the snaps add a pleasing touch to the rhythm section, working nicely into the fabric of the sound without drawing too much attention. And at this still-early point in the song it might be starting to occur to you what a potent voice singer Atticus Flynn has—gentle but substantive, with an ever-so-slightly roughed-up tone that lends dynamic authority to lyrics that he doesn’t always render intelligible. Note that this is not a criticism!: that the words, when they are decipherable, can sometimes hit the ear as a bit clunky becomes less relevant in the face of Flynn’s potent delivery. Then again, an occasional line pops as compelling, such as “I wouldn’t put a ripple in his sea,” which is a potent way to express that thought.

Another notable ingredient: the extra chords we get in the lead-in to the second verse (1:08-1:21); that there seems something purposeful about this is corroborated the next time the song arrives at that point, as this is when the violin joins in (2:17) and embarks on an extended solo. All in all this is a singular creation, worth spending a bit of time with, although I’ll warn you it becomes quite the earworm with a small amount of exposure.

Walk in Wardrobe is the project of Australian musician Frankie Haubrich, currently based in Vancouver. He wrote the song and plays all the instruments, with Flynn handling the vocals for this first recording. “Apology” was released in April. MP3 via the artist.

What I have hidden there

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.05 – May 2021

One of the things I like to do with these (self-proclaimed) eclectic playlists is sprinkle them with songs that have been previously featured here as free and legal MP3s, ranging back from these last 18 or so years. It’s first of all a nice way to reinforce the quality of the songs by saying yes, this is not only a free download, not just a “flavor of the month,” but it’s a legitimately wonderful song, here for the long run (I mean, “Hotel Lights”!: such a brilliant piece of music! so sadly overlooked!). Which leads me to the other great thing about revisiting songs I’ve reviewed in the past, which is the opportunity the playlists provide to hear these songs in a wider musical context than their being simply shunted into one or another 21st-century-focused mix. Among the many unfortunate side effects of our cultural tendency to put music in silos of genres and/or decades is that we rarely if ever get to hear music from our current generation of musicians standing in and around music written and performed by other kinds of musicians from other moments in time. Why is this important? I’ll tell you: I don’t really know. (But here are some more detailed thoughts on the matter.) I do suspect that consistently narrowing one’s horizons does not contribute to one’s health and well-being, never mind the health and well-being of a society composed of individuals with similarly narrowed outlooks.

If you’re with me this far, you already know all this. What you may not already know are some of the songs in this month’s mix (artful segue, huh?). We start with new wave power pop from an obscure, defunct British outfit that never had a US release, visit the Psychedelic Furs’ unexpected and unexpectedly good reunion album from last year, give a listen to an overlooked Rickie Lee Jones gem from a challenging album, dive into a “freak folk” antecedent from the dawn of the ’70s, spend a bit of time with Joe Jackson’s unusual live album, and, oh, a lot more. Please see (and listen) for yourself, via the handy Mixcloud widget right below the song list:

“The Way I See It” – The Brakes (For Why You Kicka My Donkey, 1979)
“Wreck” – The Bittersweets (Goodnight San Francisco, 2008)
“Chan Chan” – Buena Vista Social Club (Buena Vista Social Club, 1997)
“No-One” – The Psychedelic Furs (Made of Rain, 2020)
“Badge” – Cream (Goodbye, 1969)
“You’ve Been Gone Too Long” – Ann Sexton (Loving You, Loving Me, 1973)
“Living a Lie” – The dB’s (Repercussion, 1982)
“Sorry Is Gone” – Jessica Lea Mayfield (Sorry is Gone, 2017)
“The Duke” – Menahan Street Band (The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band, 2021)
“Hard Line” – Jill Barber (For All Time, 2007)
“Life and How to Live it” -R.E.M. (Fables of the Reconstruction, 1985)
“Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love)” – The Delfonics (single, 1968)
“Hotel Lights” – Amy Cook (Let The Light In, 2010)
“Firewalker” – Rickie Lee Jones (Ghostyhead, 1997)
“Knives Out” – Radiohead (Amnesiac, 2001)
“Dolphin” – Linda Perhacs (Parallelograms, 1970)
“Cheese Cake” – Dexter Gordon (Go, 1962)
“Ice Fishing” – The Cairo Gang (Goes Missing, 2015)
“Soul Kiss” – Joe Jackson (Big World, 1986)
“Sit On My Hands” – Frente! (Shape, 1996)

Stray observations:

* You may not have heard of The Brakes–I did not until this month, via Willfully Obscure–but there seems little doubting that this overlooked British band is from the late ’70s; “The Way I See It” in fact all but screams 1979, from the “Starry Eyes” echo of its introduction through its proto-new-wave vocal stylings and overall power-pop goodness. (This was a year that gave us not only The Records but “Girl of My Dreams,” “Oliver’s Army,” “Girls Talk,” “Back of My Hand,” “Too Late,” etc. etc.)

* Maybe it’s because of the long pandemic, maybe it’s because of the even longer-standing cultural trend that has splintered music into a dizzying variety of sub-genres (any number of which strike me better identified as “sound” rather than “music”; not a judgment just an observation), but I hear “The Duke,” from the venerable Brooklyn collective Menahan Street Band, and something in me warms and settles. Here are people playing solid three-dimensional instruments together; here is a groove and a melody; here is something that sounds like a party and a discussion at the same time. I missed hearing about these guys–and their music’s popularity among samplers–when they first appeared on the scene in the later ’00s. “The Duke” comes from their first album in nine years, and it’s laden with groove and melody from top to bottom.

* Linda Perhacs has an unusual history I can’t effectively summarize in this short space; check out her bio on Allmusic if you’d like the details. The executive summary is that she made one album, in 1970, considered something of a lost psych-folk classic, then disappeared so thoroughly that an indie label that re-released it in 1998 had to write in the liner notes that they had tried to find her and couldn’t. She had been working all those years as a dental hygienist in California. She was finally located and Parallelograms was not only given a more official re-release, she has eventually recorded, after all this time, two new albums, one in 2014 and one in 2017.

* Joe Jackson’s Big World, released in 1986, is an underrated landmark, an album recorded across a series of live performances in New York City during which the audience was instructed to refrain from applauding. The end result fit onto the relatively new CD format without a problem, but was too long for a standard vinyl record. It ended up being released as a three-sided album (the second side of the second record was simply left blank), which was kind of strange and kind of cool. For whatever reason, the album was a commercial disappointment after his previous two very successful releases (Night and Day, Body and Soul); in retrospect, this was something of a turning point in his career: Jackson, while musically active to this day, has yet to regain a mainstream audience.

* Is it my imagination or does the Delfonics “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love)” sound a little stalk-y here in 2021? Let’s assume songwriters Thom Bell and William Hart meant no harm in crafting this early Philly soul treasure. The single came out in 1968; it appeared on the group’s second album, Sound of Sexy Soul, the following year. Bell would soon hook up with Leon Huff and Kenny Gamble and produce any number of big hits; William Hart was the lead vocalist of the Delfonics, who numbered among group members Hart’s brother Wilbert.

* Bonus info for the extra curious: besides the Amy Cook song, the other songs this month that were previously reviewed on Fingertips as MP3s are “Wreck” by the Bittersweets (2008), “Sorry is Gone” from Jessica Lea Mayfield (2017), “Hard Line” from Jill Barber (2007), and The Cairo Gang’s “Ice Fishing” (2015).

Free and legal MP3: Trapper Schoepp

Casually anthemic

“May Day” – Trapper Schoepp

“May Day” is a terrific example of how the familiar can take a turn towards the powerful. Notice at the outset how Schoepp doesn’t belabor the introduction–a canny move when you’re operating in familiar territory: as listeners, we hear the two-measure riff repeated once, and we’re good, let’s move right into it. The same thing happens with the one-note verse melody, which fades as we get into the fourth measure–the ear grasps the effect and at that point Schoepp’s decision to expand the melody beyond the one note registers as an effective surprise.

Then, the chorus: why does something this simple work so well? There are three subtle elements I can point to. First, there’s the way that the melody here slows down, with key words drawn out over multiple beats. This presents an engaging contrast to the march-like regularity of the verse. Second, there’s no denying the power of unadulterated melodic resolution: this chorus ends precisely as your ear wants and needs it to end. Lastly, Schoepp begins the chorus on a high E and ends one octave below–a broad melodic range to cover in a simple rock song. This is nothing that you actually have to know, and it’s not at all showy, but I’m convinced the breadth of the melody contributes to its potency; anthemic rock songs tend to have more concise melody lines (think Tom Petty as a classic example). All this is delivered with Schoepp’s scuffed-up tenor, which lends a down-home appeal that brings to mind Steve Forbert, for another old-school reference point.

Raised in Wisconsin and based in Milwaukee, Schoepp has been releasing music since he was a teenager in the late ’00s. “May Day” is the title track to his new album, which will be released later this month. The single is up on Bandcamp as well; you’ll find the album there too upon release.