Defending the MP3

While streaming obviously has its benefits, so do MP3s. From a music listener’s point of view this is not a zero-sum game, even if the pundits want us to believe that.

Pity the poor MP3: as formats for recorded music go, it seems to lie somewhere below the 8-track tape in terms of critical appreciation. Despite its track record as a revolutionary medium for music, the MP3 has never been loved as much as tolerated. And by the end of the 2010s there had developed a widespread feeling of “And don’t let the door hit you on the way out” by industry pundits, as well as no small number of musicians and listeners alike.

Given the short nature of our collective memories, not to mention our increasing resistance to actual facts, it’s easy to forget, here in the 2020s, that in the beginning, a new generation of music fans couldn’t get enough of the MP3. And they proved it by uploading and downloading music willy-nilly, with no regard for legal standards of intellectual property, not to mention simple human fairness. Thus was the MP3 format disfigured from the outset: it was never an unconditional force for good in the world. No other previous medium for recorded music was so immediately and boldly embraced by people who did not feel the need to pay for the product they were laying claim to.

If in the early years of the MP3, the magic of music available digitally was marred by issues of legality, the format gathered additional criticism based on sound quality. Audiophiles wanted nothing to do with MP3s from the get-go, but even music fans with less sensitive ears could likely discern a transistor-radio-like quality to first-generation digital music files. This did change with time, as 128kbps and then 192kbps and higher MP3s became the norm. Once reasonable-quality MP3s were standard, however, the format seemed always to contain a whiff of the inadequate about it–the very idea that recordings had to be “compressed” into MP3s made the end result seem suspicious even if many listeners did not notice any problem with their own ears.

And then came streaming–first slowly, then by the mid-’10s flooding the digital music scene. At that point, for many, it was game over: streaming wins, MP3s lose, no one needs to own their music any longer because how can you own a digital “thing” anyway? Actually you can, but never mind: renting music is so much more convenient and then, wow, look at the end result: you can pretty much listen to anything, any time. Isn’t this what those dreaming in the ’90s about that so-called “Celestial Jukebox” were dreaming about?

I’ve been watching all this from my front-row seat in a virtual theater increasingly threatened by the wrecking ball of obsolescence. I still, clearly, feature MP3s here on Fingertips. And while I am not sure if, to use the old nugget attributed to Mark Twain, reports of the death of the MP3 are greatly exaggerated, I am entirely sure that MP3s even now serve a valuable role in the 21st-century musical landscape and if they are to die an untimely death, we will be collectively losing out on something important about how music may enhance our lives.

Look, I can’t and won’t argue against the many and varied benefits of streaming. I stream music myself on a daily basis, in a variety of circumstances. What I am arguing against is the tech-industry-driven picture of a world in which that beautiful human need we have for music in our lives is so thoroughly serviced by streaming that possessing music of one’s own comes to be regarded as somehow foolish. It is after all standard tech-talk to presume obsolescence, to be so interested in selling the latest technology that any and all ways that the newest innovation ignores or counteracts benefits from previous products and services are dismissed without a care.

Food for thought: if the MP3 were so worthless and kick-aside-able, what’s with the concern over the past few years about “stream ripping,” identified as a “major problem” for the music industry starting in 2016, and continuing to nip at the industry’s heels, as discussed for example in a recent Hollywood Reporter article? Stream ripping is positioned as an ongoing threat to industry revenue; what no one seems to mention is the fact that this means that people still want MP3s.

And yes some who rip streams may simply be trying to avoid YouTube ads, but at this point, it’s not as if every last song that’s available on YouTube has an ad in front of it. Furthermore, it’s not clear that ripping a stream is a less involved process than watching a short ad; to me the act of stream-ripping is more about reasserting control as a listener, about taking possession of the music itself in a way that listeners just can’t do when they are streaming. I have never advocated piracy, and I’m not saying everyone should be stream-ripping to their heart’s content. But in this case, for the first time, I can appreciate the gesture; I can appreciate a listener saying, “I want my MP3.”

So let’s acknowledge the actual facts, free of industry spin: streaming has its benefits and so do MP3s. From a listener’s point of view this is not a zero-sum game, no matter what the pundits say. By now everyone knows what the benefits of streaming are. Few talk about the benefits of the MP3. Some of these benefits are subtle and interrelated, but this is the internet so I will attempt to make this look like a list.

Here as I see them are the benefits of the MP3:

1) The benefit of ownership

This is something that the buzzwordy tech crowd and the casual fans content with listening to Spotify playlists do not understand, relate to, or, I guess, care about. Plenty of committed music fans, too, seem at this point entirely comfortable with using a streaming service’s extensive music library as their own, stringing playlists together on the go, and feeling good about “their music.”

But it’s not their music or their library. It’s someone else’s music they are renting, and not even directly. When you rent a car, you are taking temporary possession of one concrete thing. Paying $10 a month to stream music disconnects the listener from any particular piece of music the fee gives access to. And even if an iTunes library full of MP3s does not present the public display of personal aesthetic preferences that a shelf full of CDs or LPs did in the old days, I contend there is an important if intangible reality attendant to having music that is yours, meaning specific music that you awarefully paid for, accessible via your own physical and/or digital resources. The marketplace–which brings together someone with a thing of value and someone else who wants it pays for it–answers one of human civilization’s primordial needs for the successful interaction of individual selves in a collective enterprise. We know that owning certain things, bringing things into your own personal space, carries significance. The act of offering currency, as a stand in for value, for something specifically valued is part of what human culture does, even when that thing of value is a digital file. To rent music via a monthly fee to a technology company isn’t the same thing.

Knowing that you made the decisive commitment to buy a song or an album, to place it among your possessions, even your digital possessions, marks the music as something of personal significance, as being part of you in palpable way. And at the same time, it creates a bond between listener and artist that feels weakened if not disrupted entirely in a streaming environment.

Another thought here: if ownership has been generally devalued in the music industry, think about who has been doing the devaluing: companies (including record companies) with a stake in streaming revenue, and a tentacled variety of hangers-on (consultants, pundits, promoters, etc.) who have hitched their wagons to Spotify and its varied competitors. Vested interests have been in charge of the conversation here.

And yet try as they might they can’t completely kill the concept of ownership, the inherent value of which is at least in part behind the resurgence of vinyl records–among other things vinyl might be seen as a way for streamers to address their unmet ownership needs. I’m all for that; and I would continue to argue that buying digital music is another (cheaper!) path to the intangible satisfaction of ownership (minus of course the satisfying record covers). (Yet another cheap option few mention any more: buying used CDs and converting them to MP3s yourself.) The ongoing success of Bandcamp, not to mention the extra triumph of “Bandcamp Fridays” (when the site waives its revenue share so that the artists accrue more direct income from purchases) proves that there is a substantial audience of music fans who are willing and able to pay for the music they like.

2) The benefit of reliability

As an MP3, a song’s ongoing existence in your life will now not depend on either: a) the uninterrupted existence of a reliable internet connection, or b) the everlasting survival of a particular internet company.

Regarding a), network connections may be reasonably robust here in the 2020s but shit sometimes does happen. When everything’s working normally, it’s easy to forget that “your” music is residing on a corporate server in a remote location. This appears to be a situation most people don’t care about, but for me it’s another aspect of the frayed connection between the musician and the listener that ownership repairs while streaming perpetuates.

The b) situation sounds even more abstract but is in my mind more troubling in the long term. I have records I bought in the 1970s in my possession. What are the chances that the songs in someone’s Spotify playlist will still be there in 2070? Or 2030 for that matter? More to the point, what are the chances that Spotify will still exist?

Of course one may also ask if the technology that supports MP3s will still be around in 10 or 20 or more years. A legitimate question–but I have to assume that something will persist in this regard, even if it involves eventual migration. And I think it’s clear that technology that is independent of one particular corporation definitely stands a better chance of persisting long-term than does any one company.

A more systemic and intractable issue in the realm of reliability is the persistent fact that no streaming service will ever have every last song or album you might want to listen to, especially to the extent that your tastes are wide-ranging. While I am not someone who goes out of his way to collect rarities and B-sides and such, I have still encountered any number of songs I’ve attempted to put in a Spotify playlist but couldn’t find there. Here is where people content to stream rather than own must simply hand control of their music collection over to corporate forces that are impersonal to a fault.

3) The benefit of conscious limitation

One of the interesting things that happens when 21st-century humans are set free among seemingly limitless choices is a kind of shut-down. People get anxious, they artificially and randomly narrow down their options, they make easy or familiar choices over optimal ones, or turn away from making any choice at all. Search “having too much choice” for a quick glance at the articles, essays, and books that have sprung up in the 21st century on the problems inherent with unlimited number of things to choose from.

Thus did the streaming services rather quickly pivot from bragging about the volume of their libraries to bragging about the quality of their curation–it’s a way to allow the listener to sidestep the problem of how to choose what to listen to from too wide an array of options. But underneath it all there’s always the pressure of choice overload when operating in an effectively infinite environment.

When you have your own, demarcated music library of MP3s sitting on your computer or hard drive or smartphone, you go from a paralysis-inducing unlimited space, populated without intention, to a space of conscious limitation: a purposefully constructed musical environment that can ongoingly inspire and nourish rather than paralyze and hypnotize. While it is theoretically possible to maintain a cordoned-off area of conscious limitation as a streamer, it takes discipline to stay there, rather than drift off into a haze of music being fed to you that you have no particular motivation to pay attention to or even remember in another week or two.

4) The benefit of committed listening

The opposite holds true when you spend actual money for particular pieces of music. As if by magic, investing financially, even in a humble MP3, invests you emotionally too. It’s easy enough to decide you don’t like music that you’re streaming for a few moments before moving onto something else, and then something else. If you’ve paid actual dollars for something, you’re going to be sure to give it a chance. It will sit in your library and call to you. Some music needs more attention and repeated exposure than other music. Streaming incentivizes fast listening and seeing what’s next; it fosters virality over substance. Buying your music fosters commitment. Once you’ve bought the music, you are now on its side: you want to like it, and you’ll work at it if necessary. As such, you learn to listen more patiently, you learn to pay attention to what’s actually unfolding, to move helpfully beyond the realm of the hot take and the snap judgment.

An extra way I choose to accentuate the commitment involved in listening to digital recordings I own versus music I stream is by keeping my digital music library reasonably well-organized. Right at the beginning of the iTunes era, I made the apparently idiosyncratic decision to sort my music by artists’ last names–you know, the way we sort things in real life, versus the idiot iTunes (and, later, Spotify) default of sorting by first name. This step right away made my digital library seem more genuine and, if I may put it this way, self-respecting. I’ve also taken time over the years to create certain sorting categories that make it easier to make playlists–you know, doing the kinds of things that digital music offers as advantages over physical recordings. Paying extra attention to digital storage works as another way to establish a model of commitment in a realm that may too easily transform itself into an indistinct landscape of disembodied and context-free sound.

5) The benefit of convenience

Much of what I’ve talked about here is not oriented specifically towards MP3s as much as any recording you might buy, whether vinyl or CD or MP3. But here’s one that singles out the MP3: MP3s are very easy to access–the first recorded medium, in fact, that doesn’t require a particular, dedicated piece of equipment to be able to listen (that is, you can use any one of a number of multi-purpose devices that you already have). It is also, of course, the first recorded medium that takes up no physical space, which offers related conveniences in terms of transport, transfer, and storage.

Lord knows I am not a fan of convenience for the sake of convenience. I believe with all my heart that convenience is oversold as a thing to seek, never mind worship. (I always refer to the movie Wall-E as the clear and logical endpoint of valuing convenience above all else.) So I’m listing it last. But: I’m still listing it, because hell, it can be pretty great to wander virtually over to Bandcamp, find an album you’d like to buy, download it, and see it populate into your music library in a matter of moments. I’d still rather go to a record store and browse physical objects, but to the extent that my music library is largely digital, there’s no point in not appreciating that aspect of digital music that can make music-buying more accessible.

Only connect

All of these five benefits together add up to what may be the greatest payoff of all: the benefit of feeling connected to something outside of yourself. Ownership lays the groundwork for connection, reliability stabilizes it, limitation renders it intelligible, and commitment deepens the possibility of connecting both to a musical artist’s efforts and to your own inner world of feelings, memories, and simple human aliveness. The accessibility of MP3s is then icing on the cake.

This is not to say that people listening to streamed music can’t likewise develop a worthy connection to what they are listening to. But the streaming environment fights it by its nature, while the personal possession model fosters it.

Note that I am not here to try to cancel streaming, even if I could. I would instead argue for the evolution of an environment for music that embraces both streaming and owning, side by side. Streaming is wonderful for some types of listening and some types of listeners, and falls short in other ways. Whatever its present and future technological limitations, the MP3 remains the most accessible format through which the valuable idea of ownership of recorded music is effected here in the 21st century. In the best of all possible worlds, we might collectively re-establish vinyl (or, better, some more ecologically responsible substrate) at the center of our music libraries, but this is implausible for many reasons. Given the portability and availability of the MP3, there is no good reason that it shouldn’t co-exist with both streamed music and vinyl records in a symbiotic way moving into the future.

Human endeavors, however, quite often fly in the face of “good reason.” I am therefore making no predictions, just laying out a modest case for the music industry’s ugly duckling when no one else seems to want to. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some new MP3s to listen to and review. Watch this space…


 

Everyone else has lost interest

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.01 – Jan. 2021

The Eclectic Playlist Series enters its eighth year. Many things were very different eight years ago, but the guidelines here remain the same: I feature 20 songs each month, and look to spread the songs out somewhat evenly among the decades. I also aim for male-female balance, but I don’t mind it if there are more songs sung by women than men in a given month–consider it a small gesture towards symbolically overcoming rock’n’roll’s longstanding misogyny. And then there’s the primary rule, self-imposed from the beginning, that no artist can be featured more than once in a calendar year. As the years have gone by I have also done my best to keep introducing artists who haven’t previously been featured here; I like at least half of the artists in each new mix to be making their EPS debut but that doesn’t always work out. (The passing years have made this increasingly challenging.) This month, for instance, there are only seven new artists. Conversely, here in January, Kate Bush moves quickly into the all-time lead, having been featured once each year to date, including, now, 2021.

With those guidelines in place, the playlists are otherwise constructed via intuition alone. I don’t have any concrete theme in mind when I start, and I don’t purposefully juxtapose songs based on lyrical similarities. When, say, “If You Change Your Mind” arrives two songs after “Baby, Don’t Change Your Mind,” which itself comes after “I Meant What I Said,” I consider it a bonus; I don’t usually plan this kind of thing, although I don’t rule out that there’s some unconscious architecting going on. The same goes for the segues. I will rule out songs that just don’t fit next to each other because of how one ends and the other begins, but when a really great segue occurs (for instance, this month: “Song For Zula” into “Uncle Alvarez”), it’s almost always a happy accident. And the immediate lyrical reference to “Ring of Fire” right after a song from Rosanne Cash? Definitely an accident, but an enjoyable one.

And so, for those who haven’t lost interest, here we go:

“This One” – Paul McCartney (Flowers in the Dirt, 1989)
“The Dirt” – Waxahatchee (Ivy Tripp, 2015)
“Couldn’t Believe a Word” – The 45s (single, 1979)
“Linger” – Jonatha Brooke (Steady Pull, 2001)
“Fall On You” – Moby Grape (Moby Grape, 1967)
“Teardrop” – Massive Attack (Mezzanine, 1998)
“Three of a Perfect Pair” – King Crimson (Three of a Perfect Pair, 1984)
“I Meant What I Said” – Rosehip Teahouse (Fine EP, 2020)
“Baby, Don’t Change Your Mind” – The Stylistics (Fabulous, 1976)
“My Maudlin Career” – Camera Obscura (My Maudlin Career, 2009)
“If You Change Your Mind” – Roseanne Cash (King’s Record Shop, 1987)
“Song For Zula” – Phosphorescent (Muchacho, 2013)
“Uncle Alvarez” – Liz Phair (Whitechocolatespaceegg, 1998)
“Girl Don’t Come” – Sandie Shaw (single, 1964)
“‘Long As You Know You’re Living Yours” – Keith Jarrett (Belonging, 1974)
“Astronaut” – Ass Ponys (Some Stupid With a Flare Gun, 2000)
“Wuthering Heights” – Kate Bush ([new vocal] The Whole Story, 1986)
“Romeo’s Seance” – Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet (The Juliet Letters, 1993)
“Sparrow Song” – Acrylics (Lives and Treasure, 2010)
“Bulbs” – Van Morrison (Veedon Fleece, 1974)

Bonus explanatory notes:

* Earlier this month I posted a playlist on Spotify featuring Paul McCartney, noting how many excellent and overlooked songs he’s written in his long post-Beatles career. I started that playlist with the same song that starts us off here: “This One,” from 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head for weeks. You’ve been warned.

* I somehow missed the kerfuffle way back when over the similarity between Steely Dan’s “Gaucho” and Keith Jarrett’s “‘Long as You Know You’re Living Yours,” which came out six years earlier, in 1974. Jarrett brought a lawsuit, or at least threatened a lawsuit (the internet record is fuzzy on this), and in any case did up end with a songwriting credit. The two songs are clearly related in vibe and musical details, even if sticklers can find no note-for-note melodic plagiarism. The Dan later admitted they were big fans of the Jarrett tune and did in fact find more than a little inspiration there for “Gaucho.” In the end, both songs are wonderful. Me, I say it takes no small talent to do what Becker and Fagan did to the Garrett tune to create “Gaucho”; it’s right for them to have credited Jarrett, and this takes nothing away from their own artistry.

* Rosehip Teahouse is a five-piece band from Cardiff, fronted by Faye Rogers and trafficking in a bittersweet, echoey, guitar-washed vibe that I find very appealing. “I Meant What I Said” is a song from their debut EP, called Fine, released in December. You can listen to it, and buy it, via Bandcamp. A brand new video for a second track from the EP, “No Gloom,” just came out this week. The band was originally scheduled to play in Austin at SXSW last year; this year, they will participate in the virtual SXSW that’s happening in March.

* While Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” is wondrous classic–written by an 18-year-old!–I always found her teenaged voice to be a little harsh in conjunction with the song’s melody and vocal range. Perhaps Bush herself thought as much in retrospect; how else to explain her re-recording of the song in 1986, in conjunction with the release of a “best of” collection that year. The song was remixed but presents as largely the same, except the vocal. And wow: to hear Bush, in full command of her mature voice, revisiting this remarkable song is, to me, goosebump-inducing. I could listen to this over and over, for all the subtle grandeur of her phrasing and intonation. “Wuthering Heights” was her first-ever single, and a smash hit in the UK, although not even released as a single in the US. Fun fact: Bush was inspired initially by a BBC production of Wuthering Heights; she later read the book, and then discovered that she and Emily Brontë have the same birthday.

* I love Liz Phair’s whitechocolatespaceegg to pieces, and have always been particularly captivated by “Uncle Alvarez,” for reasons that seem to be beyond my conscious awareness. I still eagerly await her forthcoming album, Soberish, slated however vaguely for release this year.

* I have a soft spot for Ohio’s Ass Ponys from my years of living in Cincinnati right around when the band was having their major-label moment in the mid-’90s. As melodic as they could be, the Ponys were too quirky a band to satisfy A&M’s commercial needs. Some Stupid With a Flare Gun was their first post-A&M album, released in 2000. That album’s title comes from the lyrics to “Smoke On The Water,” for those keeping score at home.

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).

———

(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.