The lessons of patience

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.04 – April 2022

If you are reading this you are here not because an algorithm directed you but because you found your way via your own human volition. Existing below the recognition level of the algorithms helps keep an enterprise such as this supremely unpopular–“unpopular” as in “infrequently visited” versus “actively disliked”; funny how the two meanings are often co-mingled. But it also, to my mind, ongoingly highlights the failings of a culture that has allowed itself to be hijacked by metrics; steering people relentlessly to things that are already high-profile enough to be steered to is a kind of feedback loop that feels stifling and sad to anyone with a functioning human heart. Or should feel that way, if people weren’t by now trained to be brisk and mindless online; stopping to contemplate and consider is sort of the opposite of the behavior the tech companies require to feed the beast of clicks and page views. If you are fully engaged by said feedback loop there’s little beyond it you are ever going to notice, and will never be encouraged to wonder why.

I recently posted an essay that discusses the fate of quality in a quantity-obsessed world, and it’s a subject that deserves ongoing attention. Where would we be as a culture, historically, if we only paid attention to the most popular and/or easy-to-locate things? Yes, the internet’s algorithmic tools are sophisticated to the extent that they don’t point everyone towards the exact same pieces of content; but the silos they create of differently interested audiences–the famous “people who like X also like Y” directive–are still based on quantity rather than quality.

So if you are here you have decided on your own to be here and I thank you for that. Your reward, such as it is, is another thing beyond the capacity of our algorithmic tools: a playlist drawing upon a wide variety of musical styles and eras. It is a playlist that inherently defies the sorts of sortings that the robots rely upon (genre, decade, mood, etc.) to do their relentless recommending. All I’m ever trying to do is to carry on a tradition founded in the freewheeling era of so-called “progressive” radio–radio found on the FM dial in the mid- to late-’70s. This was before anyone realized there was very much money to be generated from programming in the land of frequency modulation, which is why everything felt loose and unpredictable and ongoingly engaging. The robots keep offering you things that sound like things you’re already listening to. It’s kind of like being surrounded by yes men; it props up the ego but not the soul. Enjoy, if you dare, and we’ll do it again next time, if you find your way back.

More on this month’s offerings below the playlist and the widget:

1. “Ship of Fools” – World Party (Private Revolution, 1987)
2. “Persephone” – Allison Russell (Outside Child, 2021)
3. “Sometime in the Morning” – the Monkees (More of the Monkees, 1967)
4. “Wonder” – San Mei (Heaven EP, 2018)
5. “High Ground” – Orenda Fink (Ask the Night, 2009)
6. “Drowning in the Sea of Love” – Joe Simon (Drowning in the Sea of Love, 1972)
7. “Tuesday Morning” – The Pogues (Waiting for Herb, 1993)
8. “Love Will be Reborn” – Martha Wainwright (Love Will Be Reborn, 2021)
9. “Beck’s Bolero” – Jeff Beck (Truth, 1969)
10. “As Far As I Know” – Paul Westerberg (Folker, 2004)
11. “Straight to My Heart” – Sting (Nothing Like the Sun, 1987)
12. “One of These Things First” – Nick Drake (Bryter Layter, 1970)
13. “Still Thrives This Love” – k.d. lang (Ingenue, 1992)
14. “Peripheral Visionaries” – Young Galaxy (Shapeshifting, 2011)
15. “Tell Me” – Groove Theory (Groove Theory, 1995)
16. “The Only One” – Stiff Little Fingers (Go For It, 1981)
17. “Who By Fire” – Leonard Cohen (New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974)
18. “All the Time in the World” – Maybe Baby (What Matters, 2003)
19. “Other Lover” – Mikaela Davis (Discovery, 2018)
20. “It’s All Too Much” – The Beatles (Yellow Submarine, 1969)

Random notes:

* “Sometime in the Morning” was one of my favorite Monkees songs when I was 10 years old and it still is. I applaud my aesthetic acumen as a youngster; I didn’t know back then that Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote the song, or even who they were, but I did know a lovely series of melodies when I heard them, not to mention a satisfying song structure. The song, puzzlingly, hasn’t been covered very often, and of course there are internet people claiming that one or another alternative version to this one is actually better, because they are internet people. No one beats Micky Dolenz here as far as I’m concerned.

* I happened this year to catch some of the pre-Grammy webcast–where they handed out the bulk of the awards, and where some of the performances veered away from the mainstream pop that dominates the evening telecast. A highlight for me was the Canadian singer/songwriter Allison Russell performing “Nightflyer,” from her album Outside Child. I’d heard the song many times before on WXPN but the energy she brought to it in live performance was transformative (not to mention instructive: I hadn’t realized she played the clarinet), and sent me quickly to Bandcamp to buy the album, which I recommend; consider “Persephone” a preview of the goodness to be found there.

* I know, I know: the Pogues weren’t really the Pogues anymore after Shane MacGowan got the boot. And yet: would the album Waiting For Herb, the first of two post-MacGowan efforts, have been better-received had it emerged from an entirely unknown band, with a different name? It seems likely. In any case, “Tuesday Morning” is pretty great, to my ears. For what it’s worth, it happened to be the best-selling single, internationally, the band ever released. And yes I am now holding popular acclaim out as a certain measure of success. Do I contradict myself? Very well then.

* Did you watch The Beatles: Get Back, the documentary that Peter Jackson directed and produced? What an experience. I’ve had one or two people tell me it was too long, and such people immediately went down ever so slightly in my estimation of them. To call any part of it “boring” is missing the bigger picture, it seems to me; even when it was ostensibly “boring” it was incredibly compelling to be there with it. The Beatles were lightning in a bottle; the movie gives us a glimpse of the bottle. Strip away all the cultural hullabaloo and focus on the music, which was and remains unprecedented in rock history for its unflagging quality and creativity. While they always sound like the Beatles, they managed to write and record a catalog of music in which no two songs sounded the same; at some intrinsic level of inventiveness and integrity they refused to revisit melodies and chord progressions. Paul McCartney has said, in retrospect, something to the effect of “What would be the point of that?”

* Karl Wallinger thought we were on a ship of fools back in 1987. Little did he know.

* While Jonatha Brooke’s career after the duo The Story gained traction and resulted in a number of reasonably high-profile album releases and other projects, her partner in The Story, Jennifer Kimball, receded into the background in the years following their partnership. I hope this was by design as opposed to being the results of the vagaries of the music industry. While Brooke’s singing voice may be the more immediately distinctive, I find Kimball’s tone equally compelling, and have always in particular loved this one track I stumbled on back in the early years of Fingertips from a band Kimball had formed in the early ’00s called Maybe Baby, with guitarist Ry Cavanaugh. He also happens to be her husband. I see from the internet that Kimball went on from there to study landscape design and start her own business. But she did release an album as recently as 2017, called Avocet, which you can listen to and purchase on Bandcamp. It’s really nice to hear her voice again. As for Maybe Baby, I don’t see it on Bandcamp, but it is available to listen to on Spotify, which tells me as I’m now looking that two other people have listened to it this month. Quantity never tells the whole story; why do we so often let it?

* It seems almost unfathomable that Nick Drake was so generally unrecognized in his day; the music sounds so incisive and remarkable now. It’s also pretty crazy that it took a Volkswagen commercial to bring him into the cultural mainstream in 2000, some 25 years after his death at age 26. You can read more about that in this 2016 article from Boston.com.

“The Only Heartbreaker” – Mitski

Maybe you’re the only one trying

“The Only Heartbreaker” – Mitski

Famously adored by a sizable silo of fans for her emotionally acute lyrics, Mitski has a secret weapon hiding in plain sight: the gorgeous tonal quality of her singing voice. Overlookable, perhaps, in the context of the synths and beats often surrounding it, her vocal power seems particularly on display throughout her latest album, the terrific Laurel Hell, which was released in February. It could also be that the 31-year-old singer/songwriter continues to deepen as a performer as the years go by.

“The Only Heartbreaker” delivers a melancholy interpersonal message over a rapid pulse. The New York Times last month referred to it as a “catchy pop song,” but is it, really? It’s got a body-stimulating beat, but little about Mitski’s delivery here signals “catchy pop song,” starting with the fact that the melody, already moving at half the pace of the rhythm, is consistently stretched in and around the song’s momentum. The potentially anthemic chorus repeats one line–“I’ll be the only heartbreaker”–in such an in-between-the-raindrops kind of way as to be quite difficult to sing along with.

As for the melancholy, the song’s narrator feels elusively aggrieved from the start, singing, “If you would just make one mistake/What a relief it would be.” The simple but emotionally potent idea here is that the singer feels to be the only one ever messing up in the relationship. One particularly striking lyric, however, hints at further depth: “I’ll be the water main that’s burst and flooding/You’ll be by the window, only watching.” As Mitski explained to Rolling Stone, “Maybe the reason you’re always the one making mistakes is because you’re the only one trying.”

You can listen to Laurel Hell on Bandcamp, and buy it there in a variety of formats, some with different packaging options. MP3 via KEXP.

“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.)

The measure of all things

Surviving as a qualitative enterprise in a quantitative world

The day after the 2022 Grammys were awarded I received an email entitled “The Grammys, Corrected: ‘Montero’ Is the Song of the Year.” It came from a music analytics company called Viberate, which specializes in “streaming, airplay, and social media monitoring,” according to the company web site. The concept makes a lot of sense in a music landscape as fragmented and streaming-based as we now have. Clearly the old-school idea of what is a “hit song” has been disrupted by new listening habits generated by 21st-century technology.

But in their enthusiasm to promote their analytical prowess, the brain trust at Viberate has ignored the fact that quality and quantity are (news flash!) not the same thing. “We finally have the winners of the 2022 Grammy Awards, with the coveted Song of the Year title going to Silk Sonic’s ‘Leave the Door Open,'” begins the Viberate press release. “However, data tells a different story.”

Actually, no. Data cannot tell a different story. The Song of the Year award is given to a song perceived by those who vote for such things as the “best” song of the year. No amount of analytics, however sophisticated, can change the fact that the voters thought that the Silk Sonic song was better than Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and therefore Silk Sonic received the award.

Note that I’m not defending the voters’ choice. Lil Nas X may have the better song here, or may not. Awards of this nature are subjective; arguments afterwards about who deserved this or that award are part of the territory. To promote the “‘Montero’ was more popular so it has to win the Grammy” story line reveals either ignorance (do the Viberate folks not realize that awards in the arts are tied to quality not quantity?), misguided bravado (our numbers are better than your opinions!), or outright cynicism (we can measure this objectively so let’s pretend subjectivity doesn’t exist). You choose!

And okay on the one hand this is a small and ignorable circumstance, just another fledgling tech company trying to boost its profile. But the mindset underlying this press release is all too common. I’ve discussed this before, most directly in an essay making the case for quality as an essential cultural concept being routinely devalued by Big Tech–read here if you’re interested. This time I’m going to take the discussion in a more personal direction, as I have lately been pondering my fate not only as the creator of qualitative content in a quantitative digital environment, but as a human having lived a life in which I have consistently fallen short of quantifiable measures of what is typically deemed “success” in our Western, late-capitalist culture. I have never earned a serious-looking salary; I spent many of my middle-adult years both as a primary caregiver and a freelance writer landing whatever modest assignments I could hustle up. All the while, at a more fundamental level, I have felt out of sync with the general concept of having a so-called career in the first place–a “career” itself being a stand-in for an accepted level of human success in our culture.

Hijacked by metrics

Emblematic of my standing in the world is this web site, a carefully constructed but (let’s face it) simple-looking operation, offering thoughtful, well-written (I think) reviews, downloadable songs, and mixed-genre playlists that either a) relatively few people are interested in or b) relatively few people have discovered in the first place. Each option appears discouraging for different reasons: either I’ve been spending the better part of two decades doing something no one really cares about, or doing something that more people might care about were I more capable of attracting attention to myself.

Dig deeper, however, and the two different explanations for the ostensible failure of Fingertips can be seen as rooted in the same circumstance, which is a culture hijacked by metrics at every level of effort. On the one hand, yes–I could have worked (much) harder over the years to market this site, which by the 2010s would have involved mastering the art of social media promotion and/or search engine optimization. But on the other hand: note how quantitative such endeavors are, how the ineluctable, reductive point is to generate big numbers of clicks. If one’s original goal is an off-the-beaten-path enterprise–that is, not something that is ever going to appeal to millions of people–attempting to generate millions of page views is a fool’s errand from the get-go.

And, were it not a fool’s errand, there’s the off-putting reality of the surveillance-capitalist tricks I’d have to piggy-back onto to effect any sort of far-reaching promotional campaign in the first place.

The bottom line is that a media environment requiring the pursuit of a mass audience seems always to subsume the quality of what is being promoted to the overarching effort to trigger mass quantities of reactions, as instantaneously as possible. There seems no space on the web for the modest success; if something works, it’s supposed to work bigger, and bigger still. It is a media environment that gives birth to an enterprise like Viberate, with a mindset that the only thing that matters is quantity. One person’s hype-free effort to offer quality content–say, a boutique music-curation site–has little place in the metric-tilted environment propagated by our 24/7 information flow and feedback loop. Millions of page views or it didn’t happen. The most popular song is the best song.

The internet didn’t have to develop this way. Things were quirkier and gentler in the late ’90s into the early ’00s, when I started this site. But once the corporations gained a foothold, intoxicated by the power latent in a largely unregulated marketplace, the current situation became steadily inevitable. Fortified by unprecedented amounts of data and the potential to reach more or less anyone anywhere, the internet is a quantitative wonderland; for better or worse, small-scale, qualitative enterprises are more or less irrelevant here.

Facing the music
Chelsea Cutler has criticized the industry’s social media fixation

The fact that the internet reduces to quantity over quality at every turn has had a notable impact on the music industry, both for listeners and for the artists making the music. Singer/songwriter Chelsea Cutler generated headlines at the beginning of the year for posting, on Instagram, her thoughts on what seems to have gone wrong with the music business, focusing on her discomfort with the industry’s mindless embrace of social media for promoting musicians. She wrote: “With the way social media has evolved the last year, I don’t know how to keep up with how insatiable our content culture has become.” In particular, she said, “it feels exhausting to be constantly thinking of how to turn my daily life into ‘content’ especially knowing that I feel best mentally when I spend less time on my phone. It also feels exhausting to be told by everyone in the industry that this is the only effective way to market music right now.”

I’ve long been criticizing the way that musicians have been forced into being social media performers–why assume the most talented musicians are also the most talented attention-getters?–but it’s the logical end result of an online environment in which pure and immediate quantity has become the only meaningful measure of success. (The most popular song is the best song.) The fact that record companies have taken to signing musicians based on one (count ’em, one) TikTok clip is perhaps the apotheosis of quantity mania in the music world. Forget whether an artist has developed a consistent following, has a proven performance and songwriting track record, and shows other important signs of being worthy of serious investment (including whether the music is actually any good!)–nope, let’s throw big bucks at a rando who attracted a one-time crowd on a social media app catering to the shortest of short attention spans. Makes sense to me!

Meanwhile, this over-focus on quantity affects listeners in so many subtle and not-subtle ways that it should be the subject of another essay, and perhaps will be. But let’s start here with the reality that every single recommendation you receive via the streaming service of your choice is based on popularity. And while this isn’t terrible in all cases–sometimes it’s helpful to know which songs of an unfamiliar artist have been most popular–the fact that a basic, quantifiable characteristic (number of streams) is the engine driving the music listening environment of our current day to the exclusion of other factors is not just distressing at a soul level (for what that’s worth), it has opened up a blatantly corrupt can of worms regarding the prevalence of fake artists on streaming services like Spotify.

The fake artist phenomenon is, among other things, proof positive that not everything that’s popular is good and/or worthy of attention; streaming stats will conversely illustrate that not everything that isn’t popular is bad and/or undeserving of attention. But this appears to be too nuanced a concept for a digital world in which everything is ultimately rendered as a 0-or-1, yes-or-no reality. In a way, one might consider quantity to be a digital fact, quality an analog fact.

The tyranny of quantity

Where this tyranny-of-quantity situation leaves me personally is an ongoing question. As of now there are two reasons why I keep Fingertips going despite its longstanding failure as a digital enterprise. The first is that I like the work–I like discovering great songs, many of which are somewhat under the radar, and writing about them in a way that illuminates the listening process. When I’m engaged with it I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. The second reason is somewhat tautological: I’ve been doing it since 2003; to stop now seems to make all the previous years of work even more meaningless than they may already be. If I think too hard about this second reason, however, it also turns into a reason to stop–why continue the meaningless work for one day longer?

When all is said and done, a lot of what I’ve written about here over the years has advocated either directly or indirectly for the ongoing importance of quality in a world transfixed by quantity. This may be a little ‘woo-woo,’ but I believe that the physical reality of digitalia–the fact that all computerized information, however complex, whether textual or visual or musical, is reduced to a series of electronic gates that are open or closed, no in between–is if not the direct cause of the interrelated humanistic crises provoked by our having given ourselves over to this black-or-white world, then is in any case a powerful metaphor for what’s rotten here at the core. The world is relentlessly analog: there is nuance, there is gradation, there are grey areas, there is verticality and depth. Anything digitized, deep at the bottom of all the arcane code, possesses none of these characteristics. We can’t change that but we also ignore it at our peril–if not physical peril (it may yet come to that) then certainly emotional and spiritual peril.

This is a lot of writing to arrive at no particular conclusion, but so far I don’t have one. Quantity continues to stamp its cold hard boot on the tender face of quality. Fingertips is a small effort in the quality camp. The question remains whether small-scale quality on the internet is inevitably tantamount to the proverbial tree falling in the unpopulated forest. Some days the thought of how invisible I am here drives me nuts–not because I yearn for fame (at all), but because I know there are a lot of people out there, including people far further up the chain in the music industry than I am, who would dig what I’m doing if they would only stumble upon it.

Other days, I tell myself that’s still my ego talking. I tell myself that the only legitimate reason to keep doing what I’m doing is if it comes from deep inside of me and wants to get out. Whether there’s anyone else in the forest is, in theory, beside the point. I gain some solace from something Toni Morrison once said: “You are not the work you do, you are the person you are.” And, hell, if you think about it isn’t that hard enough? Being the person you are? If the words I write and the music I offer on this web site helps me at least try to do that, then that will have to be enough for now.

This is what we’ve seen

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.03 – March 2022

I could easily title each playlist “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” at this point in the story of our beleaguered world. Just as soon as we (kind of) pushed one fucked-up narcissist off the world stage we are terrorized by another, with a pandemic still spiraling around in the background. Regarding the cowardly, insecure war criminal holding court in the Kremlin, it seems a kind of evolutionary mistake at this point, the idea that humans are so easily hornswoggled by malevolent madmen. Someone should look into that.

In the meantime, we go on, as we do, and must. Here are the latest 20 songs that find themselves collected, from a variety of points of origin, into one (somewhat) coherent whole. Enjoy what you can, when you can:

1. “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” – Janice Whaley (The Smiths Project: The Queen is Dead, 2010)
2. “When You Awake” – The Band (The Band, 1969)
3. “Cherry” – Anna Fox Rochinski (Cherry, 2021)
4. “Driven to Tears” – The Police (Zenyatta Mondatta, 1980)
5. “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” – The Decemberists (Castaways and Cutouts, 2002)
6. “State of Independence” – Donna Summer (Donna Summer, 1982)
7. “Tiny Town” – David Byrne (Uh-Oh, 1992)
8. “If That’s What You Wanted” – Frankie Beverly & The Butlers (B-side, 1967)
9. “Sure” – Hatchie (Sugar & Spice EP, 2018)
10. “Ricochet in Time” – Shawn Colvin (Steady On, 1989)
11. “All I Want” – Ronnie Spector (The Last of the Rock Stars, 2006)
12. “All That You Dream” – Little Feat (The Last Record Album, 1975)
13. “Stabilise” – Nilüfer Yanya (Painless, 2022)
14. Prelude & Fugue #21 in B Flat – Keith Jarrett (Dmitri Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues op. 87, 1992)
15. “Aptitude” – Novillero (Aim Right for the Hole in Their Lives, 2005)
16. “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War” – Paul Simon (Hearts and Bones, 1983)
17. “Awkward Waltz” – Acapulco Lips (Acapulco Lips, 2016)
18. “Dosage” – Liz Phair (Soberish, 2021)
19. “A Secret Place” – Grover Washington Jr. (A Secret Place, 1976)
20. “Darling Be Home Soon” – The Lovin’ Spoonful (You’re a Big Boy Now – The Original Soundtrack Album, 1967)

Random notes:

* The Smiths Project, from British singer/songwriter Janice Whaley, is one of the most impressive acts of committed artistry I have ever encountered. I missed it at the time of recording and release in 2010 and 2011, only stumbling upon it in the last few weeks. What Whaley did, almost unbelievably, is create, in the span of a year or so, an a capella version of all 71 Smiths songs from the band’s six major releases (four studio albums and two compilations of singles, B-sides, and assorted non-album recordings). You can read more about it on Bandcamp, where you can listen to everything and buy what you’d like. For a more concise introduction, Whaley also released an 11-track “Best of the Smiths Project.” She did use pitch-altering technology to create bass lines, but everything you hear was originally voice-generated. As for the odd but compelling “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others,” the final track on The Queen is Dead, I’ve always been attracted to this song for a variety of reasons, and it’s one where Whaley’s treatment is particularly transformative. And don’t miss what’s hiding in plain sight: what a great voice Whaley has.

* I am no classical aficionado by any means but I do, somehow, find Dmitri Shostakovich to be one of the rock’n’roll-ier composers of the 20th-century. I was introduced to his suite of 24 linked Preludes and Fugues via Keith Jarrett’s 1992 recording, so that’s where I’m landing here–while readily admitting I haven’t the ears or the experience to know how his interpretations stack up to others. I do want sometimes to mix things up here with a classical track but have only managed it once or twice so far, because it does present a bit of an aesthetic challenge. Still, it’s worth a try every now and then. Note that Shostakovich modeled this series after something Bach had done centuries earlier–composing a prelude and fugue for each major and minor key.

* So great to hear from Liz Phair again after more than a decade since her last album, and nearly two decades after falling out of favor with those who had previously lionized her, thanks to her (unfairly) vilified self-titled album in 2003. Soberish is not necessarily a “Wow!” experience but it is a rewarding one. Her voice is subtly singular, her songwriting gift still underrated; I offer “Dosage” as a case in point. Note the lyrical call-back to Henry the bartender, from 1998’s “Polyester Bride.”

* A story has it that Jimi Hendrix once told his friend Ronnie Spector that her voice “sounds like a guitar.” In retrospect, we never quite heard enough of that voice, given the unfortunate path her life took after marrying the disturbed, controlling Phil Spector. While Ronnie attempted, in the ’70s and ’80s, to overcome the idea that she was merely an oldies act, her limited solo work never gained a lot of mainstream traction–although Eddie Money’s tribute, by way of his 1986 hit “Take Me Home Tonight,” did return her to the spotlight and rejuvenated if not her career than at least her status as a rock icon. Her death this January, at the age of 78, gave many of us motivation to re-examine her work and reacquaint ourselves with her influential style. It’s so cool that she found the Amy Rigby tune “All I Want” for her 2006 album The Last of the Rock Stars: a brilliant synthesis of retro rock’n’roll and contemporary brio, the song gave the former Ronettes’ front woman a chance to sing lyrics like “I feel kind of furious/And you’re not even curious/You’re way too oblivious/Where I’m concerned.” Listen carefully and see if you don’t get chills along the way. (Note that Rigby’s original functioned as the “title track,” as it were, for EPS 2.06 back in August 2015: “A list of things I didn’t do.”)

* “What began as a world-weary warning about how we are all limited by our inherent capabilities reveals itself (if I’m hearing it right) rather poignantly as a philosophy borne from disappointment in love”: that was my summary of the song “Aptitude” at the time (2005), and I stand by it. A terrific piece, at once catchy and complicated, both musically and lyrically, “Aptitude” came from the cleverly titled album Aim Right for the Hole in Their Lives. The Canadian band Novillero was formed in 1999, disbanded in 2010, sprung back to life in 2016, and had posts on their Facebook page as recently as 2020; current status unclear.

* Paul Simon’s visibility and commercial viability as an album artist both took a big dip following his popular 1975 album Still Crazy After All These Years. His last ’70s hit, “Slip Slidin’ Away,” in 1977, was a new track on a greatest hits album; a few years later, the soundtrack to his movie One Trick Pony (1980) didn’t sell up to his previous standards, despite a hit single (“Late in the Evening”). His next regular release, Hearts and Bones (1983), generated no hits and little interest, becoming the least popular of his career to date. In retrospect this only shows how wrong the marketplace can be at any point in time. Personally, I loved Hearts and Bones from the first time I heard it; thankfully, its reputation has been corrected over the years, the album now widely regarded as one of his best. “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” is a magical bit of singer/songwriter surrealism, and a song Simon concocted based on the title of two photographs he came across by the German photographer Lothar Walleh.

* The song “Driven to Tears” was identified in my digital library as being released in 1979; only as I was writing this post did I discover (or re-discover; I probably knew this once) that the album Zenyatta Mondatta was actually released in 1980. This matters only to my ongoing efforts to distribute music somewhat evenly through the decades in each mix. Meaning: I thought I had put three songs from the ’70s and three songs from the ’80s in this playlist, three being the number I aim for (if all goes well, one decade of seven gets two, the rest get three). But now it turns out there are actually just two songs from the ’70s and four from the ’80s. For what it’s worth, Sting did write it in 1979. That’ll have to do, this month. Much more important: the song remains sadly relevant, year after goddamned year.

“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.

Don’t act surprised

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.02 – Feb. 2022

There’s that story about St. Francis, hoeing beans in his garden, being asked something to the effect of “If you knew this was your last day on Earth, what would you do?” And his answer: something to the effect of “I would finish hoeing my garden.” I’m not Catholic and it’s apparently told in a variety of ways; I hope I haven’t butchered it too badly. But I think that’s the gist, and I find myself reminded of it a lot lately, in the context both of my own aging and the struggles of this fragile planet and its benighted denizens. I don’t see the St. Francis allegory as an argument for passivity or inaction, I see it as a testament to the simple fact that being present with what one is doing is both our greatest challenge and potentially our greatest gift.

While the moral of the story might appear to presume that one is engaged in a relatively humane pursuit, or at least doing no harm, it might be seen to apply to the gamut of human activity. So even, say, if you are a sociopathic leader, hell bent on invading a neighboring country, compelled by little but narcissistic fantasy, the idea might be that becoming truly present to one’s life and actions might expose the broken psyche underlying such insecure displays of malevolent power and make you think twice. It’s a theory anyway. For the rest of us, I see it as a way to animate whatever it is that you are choosing to do, or are required to do, in your day-to-day life, however haunted or not you might be by the knowledge of how short a time each of us gets here in the scheme of things. I like in particular the introverted resolve supporting St. Francis’s simple declaration. He’s not trying to impress anyone. He’s not expecting anyone even to notice. He’s hoeing his row.

And now, this month’s row (musical commentary below the widget):

“Talk to Me” – Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes (Hearts of Stone, 1978)
“The Down Low” – Nelly McKay (Pretty Little Head, 2006)
“Weight” – Mikal Cronin (MCII, 2013)
“Airwaves” – Thomas Dolby (The Golden Age of Wireless, 1984)
“February” – Dar Williams (Mortal City, 1996)
“Wind” – Circus Maximus (Circus Maximus, 1967)
“Sun is Always in my Eyes” – Kindsight (single; album forthcoming, 2022)
“Roscoe” – Midlake (The Trials of Van Occupanther, 2006)
“Out in the Cold” – Carole King (Tapestry outtake, 1971)
“New Normal” – Caroline Polachek (Pang, 2019)
“Balloon Man” – Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians (Globe of Frogs, 1988)
“How Can I Forget” – Marvin Gaye (That’s the Way Love Is, 1970)
“I Predict a Riot” – Kaiser Chiefs (Employment, 2005)
“Cybele’s Reverie” – Stereolab (Emperor Tomato Kethcup, 1996)
“Seasons Come, Seasons Go” – Bobbie Gentry (Touch ‘Em With Love1969)
“If I Could Breathe Underwater” – Marissa Nadler (The Path of the Clouds, 2021)
“7 Seconds” – Youssou N’Dour feat. Neneh Cherry (single, 1994)
“Running on the Spot” – The Jam (The Gift, 1982)
“Whole World Knows” – Adia Victoria (A Southern Gothic, 2021)
“There is No Other Way” – Pacific Overtures (Original Broadway Cast, 1976)

Random notes:

* I finally remembered to put Dar Williams’ stunning “February” in a February playlist. As you may have noticed I don’t normally do a lot of time-of-year related songs but it’s a brilliant and poignant song that really doesn’t work in another month’s mix so I’m glad it at long last occurred to me at the right time. She’s got a lovely and distinctive singing voice that occasionally, to great effect, merges with her speaking voice, as you’ll hear here when she arrives at the word “March.”

* Emblematic of their late ’60s origin, the semi-psychedelic, semi-jazzy, semi-folky American band Circus Maximus might populate a lost footnote in the history of rock’n’roll by now but for two things. First, they happened to be Jerry Jeff Walker’s first band (he was identified merely as Jerry Walker on their eponymous debut; doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it?); second, the song presented here, “Wind,” was a minor hit, gaining a significant amount of play at the time on the wide-ranging progressive FM radio stations that were sprouting all over the country at that point. They’re probably pretty much of a lost footnote here in 2022 anyway, but now you know.

* According to reliable sources, including The New Yorker, the Los Angeles-based musician Caroline Polachek, late of the band Chairlift, achieves her vocal effects through natural methodology–which is to say some tricks she accomplishes with her voice versus employment of Auto-Tune. Listen to “New Normal” and it seems hard to believe, but the more I spend time with 2019’s Pang, the more I’m taken with her artistry and creativity, independent of what she’s doing or not doing with her voice.

* “Out in the Cold” was recorded by Carole King during the Tapestry but was left off the final album. On the one hand, I think you can kind of hear why–there’s something a little off about it, or, at least, a little out of sync with the songs that were included on her seminal album. On the other hand, it’s Carole King! it’s the Tapestry sessions!; so it’s pretty great to hear. According to the internet, this song was actually lost and/or forgotten about until Tapestry was being remastered in 1999, and was released to the public for the first time with that remastered release. It only made its way to a digital release last year.

* Nearly 16 years have passed and, Midlake’s “Roscoe” remains as lyrically elusive as ever, and as welcome-sounding.

* Meanwhile, Marissa Nadler’s reverb-drenched indie noir seems to get deeper and richer with each release. “If I Could Breathe Underwater” is from 2021’s The Path of Clouds, which is roughly her fourteenth album–it’s a bit hard to track because she’s had a number of informal releases over the years, in addition to albums released via record companies. All of her recent work is consistent and compelling.

* Speaking as I was earlier of someone’s last day on Earth, the world lost a musical giant at the tail end of 2021 in the person of Stephen Sondheim. In his honor I close this month out with one of his most beautiful compositions, albeit it one of his lesser-known songs from one of his less-often-performed masterpieces, Pacific Overtures. Note that one character in the song is a woman and one is a man even as both parts, as a nod to traditional Japanese theater, are sung by men. The effect is somehow all the more touching.