Free and legal MP3: Fenne Lily

Brisk, engaging mystery

“Alapathy” – Fenne Lily

We begin with a backbeat: the classic one-TWO-one-TWO that Chuck Berry immortalized seemingly centuries ago. Brisk and archetypal on the one hand, the backbeat here is, at the same time, curiously elusive: note that however much it defines the song’s core, Fenne Lily herself seems to pay little attention to it; the melody is driven instead by words that emerge in a deliberate flow, at half the pace of the arrangement’s urgency. And the song’s other central features likewise manifest in contrast to the backbeat, both the scratchy lo-fi guitar riff, which embodies the “on” beats (i.e., the one and three beats between the backbeat’s two and four) and the smeary, contemplative distortions of the second guitar.

For context it may help to know that Fenne Lily, on her 2018 debut, On Hold, presented as a purveyor of  echoey, precise, largely downtempo singer/songwriter fare. This feels like a related but compelling new direction.

As for that flow of words: Lily has a fascinating way of appearing to sing with perfect clarity (even her breath places prominently in the mix), while hypnotizing the ear into letting go of any effort to grasp actual content. Twenty-first-century bloggers and music writers spend a lot of time analyzing lyrics but I’m time and again puzzled by over-scrutiny of words that can often, fruitfully, be heard merely as “language-sound” versus having comprehensible meaning. To me this is not at all a failing on the part of the singer or the song.  “Alapathy”–a word Lily invented, by the way, blending allopathy and apathy–feels consequential without any scrutiny at all, the mystery and drive being as much part of the “meaning” as any actual meaning itself, if that makes any sense. This is not to denigrate the lyrics; go read them and figure it all out, if you can, and if that’s what works for you.

Lily is from Bristol, in the UK. “Alapathy” is the lead track on her new album Breach, released on Dead Oceans in September. MP3 via The Current (see note below).

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(MP3s from the Minneapolis public radio station The Current are available in files that are 128kbps, which is below the established 192kbps standard, not to mention the higher-def standard of 320kbps. I personally don’t hear much difference on ordinary equipment but if you are into high-end sound you’ll probably notice something. In any case I always encourage you to download the MP3 for the purposes of getting to know a song via a few listens; if you like it I as always urge you to buy the music. It’s still, and always, the right thing to do.)

Free and legal MP3: The Very Most

Sprightly and sad

“That Thing You Like About Yourself (Is Hurting You)” – The Very Most (feat. Melanie whittle)

Clean, welcoming, and lively, “That Thing You Like About Yourself (Is Hurting You)” performs the neat trick of sounding at once sprightly and sad. We all know that one of pop music’s superpowers is its ability to set sad lyrics to happy music, but how about this artful corollary: composing fleet, toe-tapping music that itself, somehow, independent of the words, sounds bittersweet? I guess this is one thing that so-called twee pop often specialized in. But here we get the end result stripped of preciousness. It’s sincere, yes, there’s a flute, yes, but there’s also something refreshingly solid happening here . The song unfolds with both lilt and backbone; the drumbeat means business, the lead guitar in the intro arrives from a distant time and place, with a tone I can only describe as grown-up (a compliment).

The singing means business too: once it starts, words take over the song with barely a breath taken.  We find ourselves once again in the land of indecipherable lyrics–but this time note that the band draws you in by allowing you to understand the words in the opening section:

Everything feels off
Maybe we should take a trip
My everyday places are making me so sad
Intractable problems
We only make them worse and worse
By doing the things we do as often as we do
Trying harder always trying harder
You can get a disorder
And you’ll never know why

How can you not love that, especially as voiced by guest vocalist Melanie Whittle, the captivating lead singer of the Hermit Crabs (see Fingertips, 6 Sept 12)?  The music here, light and wistful in the background, surely reinforces her Glaswegian tendencies. And, go figure, even as I am normally a listener who craves and all but demands lyrics that scan properly with the music, in this case I find the un-synced moments fetching rather than frustrating. Listen in particular to the way the word “intractable” is (purposefully?) forced into service in an inadequate space (0:47). It’s very charming somehow.

After this, the words fade into a blur of language–it’s as if they want you to get the general gist but then float yourself more freely into the vibe, to receive the message at more of an intuitive than literal level. You may notice that the only words that seem to rise above indistinctness is the phrase “Trying harder, always trying harder.” Intended or not there’s a message in this. The words, however out of focus, arrive and arrive, always trying harder, with one break taken for the flute (2:11) that had slipped unnoticed into the background a minute or so earlier. Also very charming.

The Very Most is a band based in Boise and fronted by Jeremy Jensen. Drummer Jim Rivas is the only other permanent member. The band’s latest album is called Needs Help in part because Jensen brought in a lot of guests to make the record, utilizing 13 different singers on both lead and backing vocals, including the aforementioned Whittle on this song. The Very Most was previously featured on Fingertips in July 2008. Thanks to Jeremy for the MP3. You can listen to the whole album, and buy it, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Adia Victoria

Declaration of hope and determination

“South Gotta Change” – Adia Victoria

“South Gotta Change” is a simmering, vivid declaration of hope and determination, inspired by the life of the late Congressperson and civil rights leader John Lewis. And it is as memorable a protest song as I’ve heard in a long while.

The aural landscape–involving little more than a deep drumbeat and a reverberant guitar–is swampy and spacious (and executive-produced by none other than T Bone Burnett). The guitar is both central and understated; you can hear the notes it doesn’t play almost as clearly as those it does. Victoria’s vocal melody is simple to the point of being relentless, with the verse and chorus more or less the same. Everything is here to cycle again back to the titular affirmation, delivered as something between a demand, a dare, and a fait accompli. It seems so obvious and sensible that the place that birthed and fostered white supremacy can and must overcome its history of bigotry that the song’s plea feels more natural than revolutionary. Of course, you say to yourself (if you have any sensible and humane bones in your body): of course it has to change. And of course the voice of change here is a native Southerner, who can speak with authority on the too often overlooked matter that Black people have their own deep and powerful connection to the South, and may therefore be the ones to not only call for change but to push to make it happen.

Meanwhile, keep your ears on the guitar. It first blossoms out of its economical line at 1:36, which develops into a full-on solo at 1:47, and climaxes into a slightly distorted mirror of Victoria’s plaintive vocals singing, simply, the word “change.” Best of all are the sounds emerging from the guitar starting around 2:50: siren-like distortions mixed perfectly into the background so that they accompany rather than overwhelm. The song from end to end is a masterpiece of restraint, sonically, which to my ears serves to amplify its potency.

Born in South Carolina, Adia Victoria is a singer, songwriter, and poet based in Nashville. She has released two full-length albums, the most recent being 2019’s Silences. “South Gotta Change” is a single that came out in late August 2020, but just keeps seeming more and more relevant. MP3 via KEXP.

Nothing stays the same

Eclectic Playlist Series 7.11 – December 2020

You don’t need me to remind you what a poisonous year this has been so I’ll sidestep the rants and simply express gratitude for surviving, gratitude to everyone who has persevered, everyone who has displayed resilience in the face of 2020’s twin plagues (COVID-19, malignant ignorance) and still dares to look ahead to something better. As I mentioned in the most recent Fingertips email, the writer Deborah Eisenberg noted in an essay this fall that “if things could only get worse, we would all have been dead millennia ago.” And I added that I find that this offers a weird sort of consolation during the kind of year 2020 has been.

Music is an ongoing consolation as well. I don’t need songs to be outwardly cheery to be consoling; for me, beauty will do it, or finesse, or even just the way this chord turns into that chord, the way a particular voice sings a particular word. Kirsty MacColl’s “Autumngirlsoup” is truly one of the saddest songs I know but at the same time, its grace and brilliance provide a bittersweet sort of inspiration; that someone could write that and sing that means that the world isn’t a lost cause, even if the singer herself met a tragic end (more below). I like that this playlist leads ultimately to Jenifer Jackson–whose timbre has a Kirsty-like smoke to it–and her anthemic declaration of “We Will Be Together,” complete with the mighty Spector beat and an indefatigable spirit. Enjoy the music, look to the horizon with curiosity and hope and we will be together again next year.

The playlist:

“Back of My Hand” – The Jags (UK single, 1979)
“The Magic” – Joan as Police Woman (The Deep Field, 2011)
“Without a Doubt” – Major Lance (single, 1967)
“Radiation Vibe” – Hem (No Word From Tom, 2006)
“Careless” – Paul Kelly and the Messengers (So Much Water So Close to Home, 1989)
“Off My Mind” – Hazel English (Wake UP!, 2020)
“Take Me For a Little While” – Jackie Ross (single, 1965)
“Something in 4/4 Time” – Daryl Hall (Sacred Songs, recorded 1977; released 1980)
“Say Anything” – Aimee Mann (Whatever, 1993)
“Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You” – Julia Jacklin (Crushing, 2019)
“Everything Under the Sun” – The Walker Brothers (Images, 1967)
“That Year” – Uncle Tupelo (No Depression, 1990)
“Autumngirlsoup” – Kirsty MacColl (Tropical Brainstorm, 2000)
“Turn Your Lights Down Low” – Bob Marley and the Wailers (Exodus, 1977)
“Never Stop” – Echo & The Bunnymen (Songs to Learn and Sing, 1985)
“Shouting at the Dark” – The Mynabirds (Be Here Now, 2017)
“Footsteps” – Alison Moyet (Hoodoo, 1991)
“Surrender” – Will Butler (Generations, 2020)
“The Things That I Used to Do” – Guitar Slim (single, 1953)
“We Will Be Together” – Jenifer Jackson (So High, 2003)

Bonus explanatory notes:

* If you’ve been around here a while you’ll know I have a hard time resisting power pop nuggets from the late ’70s and early ’80s and this month’s mix launches with one of the most nuggetty of all. The Jags were one of any number of bands who got lazily tagged as Elvis Costello wannabes; like most of those bands, their story was neither that simple nor mercenary. The sound was in the air back then, and it flowed through a lot of outlets. “Back Of My Hand” is top-notch power pop, but it has somehow faded further than some of the era’s other hits. I blame part of that on the record company, which took the original UK single and mucked it up for the US release with a revised version (additional production provided by Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, otherwise known as The Buggles), which added a hermetic sheen that retained the hooks but, to my ears, took some ineffable part of the charm away. I think the Buggles-infested version sounds soulless and calculated and I gladly present you here with the earlier UK iteration.

* From roughly the same era but an entirely different space comes a song from Daryl Hall’s first solo album, Sacred Songs. This has an even worse record-label-messes-with-things story, as the album was recorded, in a collaboration with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, in 1977, but the record company, RCA, didn’t think it sounded commercial enough and simply shelved it, with no intention of release. For three years. Hall at some point went rogue and began sending bits of it to journalists and disc jockeys; eventually RCA relented and released the album in 1980. I think it’s excellent work, showing off both Hall’s ever-impressive vocal prowess and his willingness to venture musically beyond the realm of whatever you’d call what Hall & Oates were doing. Note that this was recorded after Hall & Oates first go-round with top-40 success and before the duo went platinum (and multi-platinum), which started later in 1980 when Voices came out, during a somewhat fallow commercial period for them. I really like the vibe on Sacred Songs, but then again my favorite Hall & Oates album by far is 1978’s Along the Red Ledge, a release from their supposed “lean years.”

* As one more 2020 nod in the direction of the late great Adam Schlesinger, here is one of my favorite covers of all time, because first of all it’s a such a friggin’ good song and second of all the subtle but sure means by which the band Hem has transformed it. Typically a cover version is either super loyal to the original or works hard to find a whole new approach. What Hem does here is rather magically splits the difference. As sung by the very appealing Sally Ellyson, and arranged by whoever arranges their stuff, “Radiation Vibe” is both instantly recognizable and rendered different and new. The amusing backstory to the song is that Chris Collingswood once told an interviewer that the song “was written in less time than it takes to play.” He also confirmed what you kind of have to suspect, even as your brain works hard to overcome the suspicion: that the song quite literally doesn’t mean anything. It’s a bunch of words that sound cool together.

* And, yes: Kirsty MacColl. This month marks the 20th anniversary of her death in the ocean in Mexico, at the hands of a reckless motorboat driver, a fate that stings doubly for both how unfair and how horrific. I’ve featured her a few times here over the years because my heart beats strongly for her still, and while I’ve so far presented her catchy and flashier material, at the end of the day I’m not sure she wrote and performed anything quite as deep and moving as “Autumngirlsoup,” from what turned out to be her final album. An unexpected bonus is that the thing is also pretty hilarious; her extended metaphor (woman as a dish devoured by man) is both over the top and razor sharp, at once skewering and despairing over the ingrained misogyny of human history. I mean who would think to write this?: “Carve up my heart on a very low flame/Separate my feelings then pour them down the drain.” Kirsty did. A singular presence, and talent.

* As for Jenifer Jackson, consider her another talented musician all too easily lost in the unending waves of digital music that have washed up on our cultural shores in the 21st century. (She doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, something that I might go about fixing.) Her 2003 album So High, her third, released on the acclaimed Bar-None label, was well-regarded and remains a pleasure to listen to; succeeding albums drew successively less attention, with no notable drop-off in quality. She continues to make records to this day–her most recent is the album Paths, released last year. You can find all her stuff here. (Note that a  bunch of her older albums were just this year put up on Bandcamp, so their release dates are off.)

Free and legal MP3: Talkboy

Sturdy, succinct, melodic

“Stupid Luck” – Talkboy

Sturdy, succinct, and melodic, “Stupid Luck” has everything going for it: a catchy tune, crafty textures, appealing vocals, and an outstanding development-versus-length dynamic–a concept I just made up but I like the idea of it. What I mean is that the song covers a lot of compositional ground in a short amount of time. That’s the best of both worlds from my idiosyncratic point of view. This is in fact the kind of song that can reaffirm one’s sense of faith in this whole endeavor–that is, the endeavor of a group of musicians banding together, still, and still trying to put something of interest and value out into this wounded world.

Right from the start the song soars, via an intro that channels bygone guitar tones, augmented by some space-age keyboard flourishes that then frame the shift we get with the opening verse, which begins with a half-time melody and stripped-back instrumentation as vocalist Katie Heap sings over fuzzy guitars that progress through some very satisfying chords. The verse repeats with fuller production, leading to a chorus boosted by nostalgic background “aahs” and a generally agreeable wall of subtle sound. By now this song is as sturdy as can be; that Beatlesque chord the song lands on at 1:07 is just another splendid touch.

And there’s still much to enjoy in this three-minute gem. Listen for the altered textures when the verse comes back around 1:15, the momentary guitar squeal as 1:23, the augmented backing vocals around 1:32, and the semi-psychedelic bridge (1:57) leading to an honest to goodness guitar solo (2:31). And, in one of the finer if subtler songwriting moments of the whole thing, the song revisits the verse near the end with a cleared-out musical palette that transforms the former verse into a coda that ends directly on the titular phrase–a rarely achievable and quite gratifying maneuver.

Talkboy is a six-piece band from Leeds. They were previously featured on Fingertips in February 2019. “Stupid Luck” is a single from their forthcoming EP, due for release in February 2021. Their brand new single, “Sky is Falling,” is available to listen to via SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Flo Perlin and Pilgrims’ Dream

Lovely, deep, timeless

“Life Lives Inside” – Flo Perlin and Pilgrims’ Dream

Lovely and solemn, “Life Lives Inside” is a hymn-like waltz that seems to flow from the depths of that timeless, intuitive place from which the great songs emerge. The melody has the majestic clarity of ages-old folk music, while the easy-going setting is scrupulously presented, but in a way that seems offhand and unfettered–just two people singing, with instruments so casually calibrated as to seem all but undetectable.

With a two-line verse that repeats only once, sung by Perlin alone, “Life Lives Inside” is almost all chorus. And a terrific chorus it is, with two expressive parts, presented in same-note male-female harmonies, Rob Ouseley buzzing low below Perlin’s affecting lead. The swaying rhythm conjures the song’s ocean-bound setting; the finely crafted lyrics hide and convey in equal measure, the words important as sounds as much as message. To my ears, as an example, the power of the couplet “We gave what we could/We couldn’t give more” is as dependent upon the pattern of its carefully repeated words as its poignant sentiment.

“Life Lives Inside,” for all its apparent simplicity, rewards many listens. As you travel through the song again you’ll notice a number of wonderful moments, such as Perlin’s evocative uplift on the word “eye” (0:39), and the wonderful hesitation she builds into the phrase “like nothing I’d heard” (1:46). The quiet instrumentation alone is worth an attentive ear, including the steady muted keyboard underscoring the chorus, with its occasional quiet run of right-hand countermelody, and the gorgeously curated percussion, involving nothing that sounds like a drum kit but rather a well-placed assortment of knocks, snaps, and claps.

Flo Perlin is a London-based singer/songwriter; Pilgrims’ Dream is the performing name employed by singer/songwriter/producer Ouseley, likewise in London. The two met at an open mic five years ago; they wrote and recorded “Life Lives Inside” in Perlin’s living room. The song was released earlier this month and appears to be their only collaboration to date. I for one would eagerly hear more from them.

Free and legal MP3: Coco Reilly

Harrisonian pensiveness

“Oh Oh My My” – Coco Reilly

Here we have another song that gratifies through seeming simplicity. Launched off an acoustic-strummed backbeat and a verse that is no more than one lyrical line repeated four times (“Have you ever really loved?”), “Oh Oh My My” has a stately, Harrisonian pensiveness about it. Reilly sings with a reverbed languor that lends a nonchalant authority to her words, particularly as the drumming kicks in with the chorus (0:44).

Best of all, notice how Reilly employs the vaguest of words–“oh oh my my”–as a feint, allowing her to smuggle in some existential musings that strike as deeply as you allow them to go in your own head:

Do you think that you can really ever
Step outside of your mind
Long enough to step into your heart?

And while the song’s general Beatlesque-ishness is easy enough to point to, I hear a lot of Sam Phillips in here as well–the underrated Phillips being herself a master of the Beatlesque when she has wanted to be but with the supplemental oomph of her own musical and lyrical chops. There’s no point in rehashing 50-year-old music for the mere sake of imitation, but there’s always room for new talent to find inspiration in material that has captured cultural and artistic attention for a good deal longer than the latest viral stupidity sensation.

Reilly is a singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, film composer, and producer based in Los Angeles. She has been writing original music, according to one online bio, since she was 10. “Oh Oh My My” is a song from her debut album, scheduled for release later this month. You can stream a few more songs and pre-order the album via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Ya Minko

Contemplative, textured ballad

“Chambres Vides” – Ya Minko

A gentle series of piano chords lays the groundwork for this contemplative, textured ballad from the bilingual Washington, D.C. rapper/singer Ya Minko, himself not above throwing a bit of Beatles into the downbeat mix (note in particular the beginning and the end). I am admittedly a sucker for major-to-minor chord transitions, and “Chambres Vides” (translated: “empty rooms”) gives us such moments both in the verse and the chorus. An additional, more unusual transition is also employed here, which is some alternating between French and English lyrics. (Okay I guess I’m kind of a sucker for French lyrics as well.)

Born in Gabon, Ya Minko moved to the U.S. after high school. He is self-taught on ProTools, and I give him a lot of credit for (I know this is one of my key words here) the restraint he employs throughout, resisting unnecessary vocal effects and beat augmentations. Listen, as an example, to how effective that one wood-block-y percussive sound is that he injects in the chorus (first heard at 0:51): it just does its steady thing, once per measure, on the third beat, as the music tracks through its lovely chord progressions underneath the recycling melody, with its repeated, melancholy triplets . I would go as far as to say that that one percussive sound, nearly a musical note but not quite, is what gives the song’s primary major-to-minor moment (launching from 0:57) extra impact, as that sound becomes a constant against which the switch is performed.

Another nice moment comes during the second half of the chorus, which is by and large a repeat of the first run: if you listen carefully, you’ll hear, with increasing volume, a sort of string-like bass line that mimics at the bottom of the mix the melody Ya Minko is singing (it becomes more apparent starting around 1:17). Small touches, to my ear, are so much more effective than gaudy sound effects and pop-production clichés.  As for the “Strawberry Fields Forever” callback in the coda (starting at 2:30), it functions as icing on the serene and melancholy cake that the song serves up. Ya Minko tells me the instrumentation for the track was conceived by a Las Vegas producer named Mantra, so props to him here as well.

“Chambres Vides” is the lead track from Ya Minko’s four-song EP, Catharsis, which you can listen to and download, for free, via SoundCloud.

Until you get heard (Eclectic Playlist Series 7.10 – Oct. 2020)

(Note from the future–November 6, to be precise: The original post accompanying this playlist in October has gotten lost in the transition to the new hosting service and the accompanying site redesign. It’s maybe just as well–that post was a pre-election rant that, while still relevant to the extent that our country remains deeply wounded by misinformation and disinformation, we at least managed to elect a decent human being. That the horrific man currently occupying the White House wasn’t rejected by everyone is worrisome to say the least. How awful would a person have to be, now, to be obviously unworthy of elected office? Not a rhetorical question. Anyway: here’s the playlist.)

“Worried Man Blues” – The Carter Family (1930 recording)
“You Want It Darker” – Leonard Cohen (You Want It Darker, 2016)
“Don’t Talk To Me About Love” – Altered images (Bite, 1983)
“Bloodline’ – Orenda Fink (Invisible Ones, 2005)
“13 Questions” – Seatrain (Seatrain, 1970)
“Vow” – Garbage (Garbage, 1995)
“Thousands are Sailing” – The Pogues (If I Should Fall From Grace With God, 1987)
“Ole Man Trouble” – Otis Redding (Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul, 1965)
“Shark Smile” – Big Thief (Capacity, 2017)
“Bored By Dreams” – Marianne Faithfull (A Secret Life, 1994)
“Sing the Changes” – The Fireman (Electric Arguments, 2008)
“Can You Get To That” – Funkadelic (Maggot Brain, 1971)
“Everything Works If You Let It” – Cheap Trick (All Shook Up, 1980)
“Here Goes Nothing” – Jess Cornelius (Distance, 2020)
“Dusty Trails Theme” – Dusty Trails (Dusty Trails, 2000)
“Say Goodbye” – Sophie Barker (Seagull, 2011)
“Someday, Someway” – The Marvelettes (b-side, 1962)
“Put The Message in the Box” – World Party (Goodbye Jumbo, 1990)
“The Walls Are Coming Down” – Fanfarlo (Reservoir, 2009)
“I Know The End” – Phoebe Bridgers (Punisher, 2020)

Free and legal MP3: Sufjan Stevens

Insistent, electronic, humane


“Video Game” – Sufjan Stevens

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

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


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

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