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

“Kyoto” – Phoebe Bridgers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do What I Want” – Punch the Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

A chance to talk (Eclectic Playlist Series 7.06 – June 2020)

I’m not here to preach, but I am here to try to be a human being, however lost a mere human being has become in the chaotic sea of systems, policies, memes, propaganda, and brutality that characterizes life in 2020. First and foremost, at this consequential moment in time, I recognize, in my own humanity, many flaws and failings. (By the way, name one honorable and effective person in the history of civilization who claimed always to be the best, who could confront detractors only with insults. I’ll save you time: you can’t.) I recognize that for all my liberal ideals and progressive tendencies, I have lived a long adult life without deeply considering the lived experiences of people of color in America. I mean, I knew about it, and was in pain about it at some abstract level—but at another level, I can see that I simply went about my (privileged) day, unable and/or unwilling to let the uncomfortable reality sink in. Of course I’ll never know, experientially, what it’s like and what it’s been like to live as a person of color in this pseudo-democratic and deeply hypocritical country of ours. But here’s what I can do: I can put myself in the position of needing to learn, needing to have new conversations, needing to have new responses to this world we’re in, this congenitally damaged country that looks much better on paper than it does on the streets where we live.

But: there’s no doing this with a playlist. I won’t even pretend. The best I can do is offer a mix of songs this month, similar to my usual efforts, some of which you may find thoughtful and relevant to the present moment, others of which have no particular connection besides being intangibly part of the flow I put together as someone striving to observe and feel into this fateful hour. As I said, I’m not here to preach. I am simply here to say that we can and must do this together. I’ll let the musical current of this latest mix pull us eventually towards Rickie Lee Jones’ world-weary grace, in the elegiac “Running From Mercy”:

Oh sacred patience with my soul abide
There’s a rainbow above me that the storm clouds hide

Keep hope alive, through the darkness. It’s what humans do.

Full playlist and extra notes below the widget:

“Keep On Keeping On” – Curtis Mayfield (Roots, 1971)
“Praise Song For a New Day” – Suzzy & Maggie Roche (Zero Church, 2001)
“Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” – The Korgis (Dumb Waiters, 1980)
“Cara de espejo” – Juana Molina (Halo, 2017)
“Love You To” – The Beatles (Revolver, 1966)
“Actor Out Of Work” – St. Vincent (Actor, 2009)
“Can’t Fight” – Lianne La Havas (single, 2020)
“Spinning Away” – Brian Eno & John Cale (Wrong Way Up, 1990)
“Smile” – Cristina (Sleep It Off, 1984)
“Try to Remember – The Fantasticks (featuring Jerry Orbach) (Original cast album, 1960)
“Baedeker” – Gabriel Kahane (Book of Travelers, 2013)
“Freedom Rider” – Traffic (John Barleycorn Must Die, 1970)
“Maiden Voyage” – Herbie Hancock (Maiden Voyage, 1965)
“The Charade” – D’Angelo and the Vanguard (Black Messiah, 2014)
“Held Down” – Laura Marling (Songs For Our Daughter, 2020)
“No Mermaid” – Sinéad Lohan (No Mermaid, 1998)
“Zero Hour” – Attention (single, 1983)
“Solace” – Scott Joplin/ Richard Zimmerman (Scott Joplin: His Greatest Hits, 1974 [1909 composition])
“Albert” – Ed Laurie (Meanwhile in the Park, 2006)
“Running From Mercy” – Rickie Lee Jones (Traffic From Paradise, 1993)

* This is the second song I’ve featured here from Gabriel Kahane’s ongoingly impressive Book of Travelers. It was released in the aftermath of one tragedy—the election of an historically ill-prepared and unprincipled man to the U.S. presidency (these are facts, not political statements)—and continues to fit the mood of the country, in its effort to find dignity in our individual stories, despite where we find ourselves collectively.

* From its origins in an unadorned Off-Broadway show, “Try To Remember” became a drippy standard covered by several zillion crooners and divas and wedding singers over the years. There’s a part of my ear that overlooks all that to remain charmed by the song’s plaintive melody and semi-miraculous chord changes. I keep hearing something elusive and profound in the simple progression in the verse—the movement from “When life was slow” to “and oh so mellow.” Extra points here for a chance to recall that the late great Jerry Orbach was far more than a network procedural fixture.

* “Zero Hour” from the NYC band Attention is a song with next to no internet trail. I discovered it via a Spanish blog offering a thrillingly exhaustive overview of semi-forgotten and entirely forgotten new wave songs, El ABC de la New Wave. I was mostly scanning the offerings for songs I used to know but have lost track of, but along the way I’ve unearthed a few gems I’d never heard before, including this one. According to Discogs, there was the “Zero Hour” single in 1983, a five-song “mini-album” in 1985, and that’s that. Given the generic nature of the band’s name, even if there’s some biographical information buried somewhere online, it’s not going to be easy to find; to make matters worse, another band named Attention has come along in the 21st century, so the earlier band is effectively a ghost.

* And then we have Zero Church, the album released by two of the three Roche sisters, originally slated for a 9/11/01 release, but delayed four months in the aftermath. It’s an unusual album; the origin story is too complicated to explain in a brief note, but the album’s exploration of complex social issues via prayers set to music seems as timely as ever.

* Laura Marling gets deeper and more astonishing with each album. And she’s only now 30. That she has been in a master’s program studying psychoanalysis for the last couple of years endears her to me all the more. Too many of today’s musicians seem so relentlessly one-dimensional, and all too ensnared in our culture of shallow digitalia. I’ll take a singer/songwriter working on her master’s degree over a YouTube sensation singing about his girlfriend every time.

* The trailblazing singer and writer Cristina Monet Zilkha, who performed simply as Cristina, died at the end of March of complications related to COVID-19; she was 64. A pioneer in a new musical realm combining punk attitude with pop sensibilities, Cristina has been retroactively credited with laying the groundwork for the mainstream success of a series of acclaimed pop stars, from Madonna through Lady Gaga. She was associated with the legendary “no wave” record label ZE Records, recording the label’s first-ever release. The song “Smile” was recorded for her second album, 1984’s Sleep It Off, but didn’t appear until a 2004 re-release, as a bonus track. Its sure-handed chops—you might almost call this power pop, with an edge—are due as much to Cristina’s vocal presence as to songwriters Don and David Was, whose band Was (Not Was) was originally signed to ZE Records.

* Lastly, I’m going to let D’Angelo speak for himself. That song came out six years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MP3 via KEXP.

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

“Too Late” – Washed Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

Got any what? (Eclectic Playlist Series 7.05 – May 2020)

Months tick by. I hope you all are hanging in there, and trust that if you have the time and energy and life circumstances to be reading this right now, that you’re doing basically okay, which is to say better than many. But it’s still weird and stressful and surreal, all the more surreal because we’ve all kind of gotten used to the surreality: the people in masks, the deliveries, the not-gatherings, the endless Zoom-ing.

So here’s the latest playlist to accompany our collective dream state, which isn’t a dream at all, sadly. We open with an indescribably great track from the indescribably great new Waxahatchee album (a song with the all too appropriate title “Can’t Do Much”) and travel on from there: we’ve got classic rock nuggets, obscure garage rock, an all-time Northern Soul standard, and (wait for it) Wham!. Among others. We aim for joy, surrounded by a “chain of sorrow,” to use the indelible words of the late great John Prine. To belatedly join in the outpouring honoring his brilliant-humble memory and legacy, I found myself latching onto one of his strangest and most affecting songs, from a Bruised Orange album that came at the height of his powers. You can read about the back story elsewhere but I don’t think it’s necessary to enjoy its quiet grace. Full playlist below the widget.

“Can’t Do Much” – Waxahatchee (Saint Cloud, 2020)
“No Matter What” – Badfinger (No Dice, 1970)
“I Walked” – Sufjan Stevens (The Age of Adz, 2010)
“A New Love Today” – The Debutantes (single, 1966)
“You’ve Had Me Everywhere” – Of Montreal (UR Fun, 2020)
“Freedom” – Wham! (Make It Big, 1985)
“City Morning Song” – Sarah Shannon (City Morning Song, 2006)
“Eleventh Earl of Mar” – Genesis (Wind & Wuthering, 1977)
“Precious Little” – Eleanor McEvoy (What’s Following Me?, 1996)
“Charlie Don’t Surf” – The Clash (Sandinista!, 1980)
“He Will Break Your Heart” – Jerry Butler (single, 1960)
“Stay Alive” – Hollie Cook (Vessel of Love, 2014)
“Kiss Them For Me” – Siouxsie and the Banshees (Superstition, 1991)
“Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone” – John Prine (Bruised Orange, 1978)
“New Orleans Blues” – Tom McDermott & Lucia Micarelli (Treme: Music From The HBO Original Series, Season 1, 2010)
“(You) Got What I Need” – Freddie Scott (single, 1968)
“Put On Your Light” – Hezekiah Jones with Clare Callahan (Come To Our Pool Party, 2007)
“Das Model” – Kraftwerk (The Man-Machine, 1978)
“May Queen” – Liz Phair (Whip-Smart, 1994)
“See How We Are” – X (See How We Are, 1987)

More notes to note:

* To my ears the Of Montreal album UR Fun deserved a bit more attention than it seemed to get. There were any number of songs I might have selected, settling on one that just seemed to fit best into the playlist flow. I will take a side swipe at the perpetually imperious critic class, some of whom with tiring inevitability blind themselves with preconceptions and misperceptions, such as the Pitchfork critic who said that UR Fun “often sounds more like a patchwork of soft-boiled singles than an album with a cohesive narrative arc.” All of a sudden an album requires a “cohesive narrative arc”? The thing is musical, endearing, and, yes, fun. Give it a stream if you get a chance.

* While I hesitate to too readily turn each month’s playlist into an “in memoriam” segment, it’s hard to resist reaching into the catalog of a just-passed artist to remember and reflect and, sometimes, even to re-assess. So, me, I was never a big Kraftwerk fan back in the day. But as the decades passed it became clearer and clearer what a visionary band this was. Sometimes it seemed to me music to appreciate more than enjoy but a lot of great artists were far more tuned in to them and their accomplishments from the outset than I certainly was—their focus on repetitive rhythms often obscured their melodic sensibility, to my ears. With the death this month of the band’s co-founder Florian Schneider, I took some time to go back and check out some things I’d never properly listened to. This little pop number is from an album, The Man-Machine, that came out the same year as Bruised Orange. The ’70s were a wonderful thing, musically.

* I managed to overlook Liz Phair’s terrific Whip-Smart for many years. As in love as I became with her next one, Whitechocolatespaceegg, I finally tip-toed back into album number two and discovered lots of great things, including the little gem of a tune presented in this month’s mix. The way she sings the words “Got any what?” is so brilliant (listen to how she slightly delays, draws out, then snaps closed the word “what”) I had to bring extra attention to it here. What a fantastic, intuitive singer and songwriter she is; just about everything she’s done turns out to seem even better in retrospect, including her much-decried self-titled album in 2003. I am super excited about her upcoming album, Soberish, due for release some time later this year.

* I think I’m turning into a Siouxsie and the Banshees fan after all these years; in any case, their singles in particular are never anything but a welcome addition to a playlist.

* “New Orleans Blues” is a short, appealing instrumental found on the soundtrack to the great, semi-forgotten HBO show Treme, one of my favorite television programs of all time. (Everyone knows The Wire, another David Simon co-creation, but seems to ignore this one.) The violinist here, Lucia Micarelli, was also an actress in the show, which featured incredible music and a mix of real-life and fictional musician characters. Steve Earle had a regular role, playing a character, but (slight spoiler) don’t get too attached to him.

* Yes it’s Wham! Always loved this song and probably always will.

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

“Cool For a Second” – Yumi Zouma

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Riverbank” – Pinewood

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

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

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

Photo: Megan Varner

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

“11:11” – Sass

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

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

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

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

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

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