Arriving in 2020 straight from 1965 or so, “Sun Gun” pays nifty homage to a variety of classic British rockers from an era when sturdy melodies poured out of rock bands like sunshine in August, tinged by an awareness of the psychedelia on the near horizon. The Zombies, the Kinks, early Pink Floyd, they’re all in here, in the jangly guitars, the sweet spacey sing-along chorus, the swell of background harmonies, and the general sense that tea was involved along the way. If you’re not careful you’ll notice a soupçon of young-ish David Bowie in the air, or maybe Marc Bolan, and in any case the Arthurs make a nice case for grounding the entirety of glam rock, by all accounts arising in the early ’70s, in those earlier mid-’60s sounds.
The trick in all this is not to sound like a tribute band, and although it’s hard to point to any one thing they’re doing that shifts things into the 21st century, I am nevertheless getting a strong whiff of present-day creativity here. At which point I should note that the original version of this song on the album is more than nine minutes long, during which it definitely becomes its own sort of trip. (Here’s a link to the full version if you’re curious and have some extra time on your hands.) Personally I didn’t think the song quite justified its length; and yet, oddly, now that I’ve been living with the shorter version, I do have a sense that it could be longer. (Some people are never satisfied it seems.)
In any case, what really sells me on “Sun Gun,” in either length, is the brilliance of the classic-sounding chorus, which gathers an impressive amount of heft as the song progresses. This is partially due to restraint—we only hear the chorus three times in this edited version. The verse melody is different but with a similar rhythm and feel so it works to reinforce and familiarize the ear while at the same time allowing the chorus when it pops in to feel extra memorable.
The Arthur Brothers self-identify as an “artistic alliance” grounded in the work of brothers Matt and Danny Arthur and songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist J.C. Wright. They are based in London. “Sun Gun” is the final track on their debut album, Nine, which was released last month. You can listen to the album and buy it via Bandcamp.
Retro orchestral pop, of the minor-key, slinky variety.
Retro orchestral pop, of the minor-key, slinky variety, “The Planets” launches off an off-kilter four-note ascending melody, a variety of which provides the ongoing motif for this nicely crafted tune. Any sonic element your ear can discern as the song develops will reward the attention, from the well-placed chimes to the space-age electronic squiggles to the subtle contributions of the electric guitar, strings, and muted horns (or some synthesized version thereof). Best of all I will point you to the major chord that glides gracefully in and then out of the song’s aural foundation (an early example is on the phrase “mine collide” at 0:35). It’s not a hook per se but it’s definitely a defining moment. I can’t get enough of that kind of thing.
For all of its rather particular musical trappings, “The Planets” has an amiable air about it; it’s going after a vibe but it doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard or belaboring the point with slavish devotion. The effort is greatly assisted by Jules Buffey’s creamy voice; she sounds like a spy-movie version of Karen Carpenter, which is a better thing than you might imagine.
From Sheffield, The Clear are Buffey, Chris Damms, and Bryan Day. “The Planets” was originally on the band’s debut album, Patchwork, which was released in March 2016. It seems to be having a new life this year as a single. You can listen to (and purchase) the entire album via Bandcamp. It’s a melodic, evocative outing, with a groovy, Mamas-and-Papas vibe, definitely worth checking out.
“Raised the Bar” is as we speak blaring out of Top-40 radios everywhere in some alternative world in which politicians compromise and people still use taxi cabs.
With its anthemic horn charts, melodic bass line, and a retro-y, bittersweet bashiness, “Raised the Bar” is as we speak blaring out of Top-40 radios everywhere in some alternative world in which politicians compromise and people still use taxi cabs.
Let’s start with a hat tip to the introduction, which not only gives us those groovy horns right out of the gate but seems to accomplish a whole lot in a short time. After just 10 seconds not only does the song take off but it feels we are already smack in the middle of things, thanks to the ear-catching sixth interval on which the verse melody quickly hinges (it’s there in the second and third notes we hear). That’s one good way to write a song, for those who need more than rhythm to get the spirit fluttering. Another good way is to employ most of the notes of the scale in your melody, which “Raised the Bar” does in the chorus, skipping just one note out of eight (counting the home note in both its lower and upper registers). (End of music theory lecture.)
The bygone feeling in the air here is, according to press material, no accident—Storrow set out on this new album to write straightforward songs in the tradition of the hits one might have heard on AM radio in the 1960s. Based in Montreal, Storrow worked on these new songs with a number of notable Canadians, including musicians from the Fingertips-featured bands Stars, the New Pornographers, the Dears, and Young Galaxy, in addition to the multi-faceted singer/songwriter Patrick Watson (himself featured here back in 2006).
“Raised the Bar” is the second track on Storrow’s new album, The Ocean’s Door, released earlier this month. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp.
“900 Hands” traffics in the best kind of nostalgia: elusive, sweetly sad, and oddly inspiring.
“900 Hands” traffics in the best kind of nostalgia: elusive, sweetly sad, and oddly inspiring. Sounds from the ’60s float through the song without sidetracking it; I’m hearing something timeless going on here too. Don’t miss both the opening and closing moments, which serve further to wrap this lovely, backward-glancing song in the 21st-century present.
I especially like the authoritative balance achieved throughout between reverb and clarity, which doesn’t call extra attention to itself but is highly unusual. The reverb dial is a siren song that lures more than a few musicians into the deadly rocks of stale muddiness. (They’re muddy, but they’re rocks, and they’re stale. Don’t ask. I just needed a metaphor.) With “900 Hands,” we get the warm, inviting feeling of reverb without the gummy aftertaste. (Is that better, metaphorically speaking?) The vocals, in particular, are simultaneously shaded with echo and crystal clear, somehow. Center this all around a chorus that posits a gorgeous, melancholy melody over a bustling bottom end and I’m all in. Oh, and that chord that unresolves the chorus right before it resolves, minor-key-ishly? That one you first hear at 0:44? It’s completely straightforward, and I would listen to that for days on end.
Elskling (“darling” in Norwegian, if the internet is to be trusted) is a musical project launched by Norwegian-born, San Franciso-based Marte Solbakken—with, as it turns out, a number of interesting Fingertips-related connections. Solbakken wrote the first Elskling songs while holed up in her boyfriend’s NYC apartment during the unpleasant winter of 2011. Her boyfriend, it turns out, is Van Pierszalowski, of Waters (Fingertips, June 2011) and Port O’Brien (August 2009). Meanwhile, this debut Elskling song was recorded by Jason Quever, of Papercuts (April 2011, May 2014) and mixed by Chris Chu, whose band Pop Etc used to be called the Morning Benders and were featured here three different times back in the day. So it turns out Solbakken not only knows how to write a great song, she knows who to hang out with—a not to be underestimated skill of its own.
For a minute and a half, “Tired & Buttered” pounds away with a fidgety, psychedelic claustrophobia that seems counter-intuitively liberating.
For a minute and a half, “Tired & Buttered” pounds away with a fidgety, psychedelic claustrophobia that seems counter-intuitively liberating. I don’t think we’re hearing more than two chords here, and the section that seems to be the chorus appears to be getting by with just one. Notice too that a lot of urgency is created without, actually, that much noise. No wailing or bashing, just a steady beat, some atmospheric vocal effects, an elusively non-Western guitar line, and two chords. Keep an ear on the harmonies, which are casually trippy.
At the precise halfway point, things change (1:30). The song slows and quiets, the woozy vocals get a bit woozier, the drumming gets careful and winsome. Soon an electric guitar snakes to the foreground with an informed ’60s flair for the pop-exotic, and leads us with an abrupt lack of fuss back to the opening tempo and ambiance. Now the guitar seems more clearly in charge, its background flourishes suddenly keys to the entire song. Having no clear idea what “tired and buttered” means will not detract from the song’s charms.
Quilt is a trio from Boston. “Tired & Buttered” has been floating around online since the fall, finally to emerge on the band’s second album, Held in Splendor, in late January, on the Mexican Summer label. MP3 via NPR’s fine selection of free and legal downloads from 2014 SXSW acts.
(As a P.S., the band had a bad accident in their van recently. They are all okay but their van, upon which they rely to tour, is not. You can read more details at http://quiltmusic.org/quiltmusic/HOME.html and contribute some amount, big or small, if you are so inclined.)
With the mischievous energy of something vaguely furtive, “Dans Le Noir” unfolds with an intricate overlay of ’60s influences, from the folk-rock melodies to the spy-movie guitar accents to the psychedelic synthesizer flourishes.
With the mischievous energy of something vaguely furtive, “Dans Le Noir” unfolds with an intricate overlay of ’60s-like sounds, from the folk-rock melodies to the spy-movie guitar accents to the psychedelic synthesizer flourishes. Before we get to any of that, however, take note of the introduction, which effects the satisfying trick of introducing without simply vamping on the main motif—what we get instead is an engaging guitar duet, with a lower-register, half-time melody backed by busy runs in the upper register. The song is thereby introduced, but we still don’t know exactly what it’s going to sound like. I like this.
The song itself is equally likable, driven by front woman Anna Jean’s cool, shadowy vocals, singing a cycling, minor-key melody that seems to keep yearning upward before pitching downward, aiming over and over for something not apparently reachable. The concise chorus, flattened and reverbed and buoyed by nostalgic harmonies, feels cinematic in a black-and-white kind of way. Anna Jean floats through its melodic poignancy with her self-possession unruffled—which actually renders the music all the more poignant somehow. In a similar (or not?) way, the entire song’s surface-level simplicity manages to convey a deepening sense of complexity with repeated listens. Somehow.
Juniore is a new band from Paris about which information remains sketchy, besides the fact that Anna Jean is in charge. She has previously collaborated with an assortment of other French musicians, but this appears to be the first time she is taking center stage. “Dans Le Noir” is one of two songs on the band’s debut 7-inch, released in November. A full-length album and a tour is scheduled for 2014.
This one makes me picture Paul Simon writing about the leaves that are green, that kind of driven innocence, of someone intent on turning pop to poetry, or vice-versa.
A sweet, melancholy toe-tapper, “There May Come a Time” comes blanketed in a vague but powerful nostalgia. When Pam Berry sings, right at the start, of someday forgetting “all the words to every song,” I feel immediately transported back to some hazy, flower-filled moment in the past (in the ’60s, no doubt). And I am filled with a lost sense of longing, as if no one actually does write songs any more. Which of course isn’t true. But. I picture Paul Simon writing about the leaves that are green, that kind of driven innocence, of someone intent on turning pop to poetry, or vice-versa. We can, it seems, no longer truly get there, but we can sing about what it must have been like.
Now then, a song can’t do what I’ve been attempting to describe and not veer a bit towards the twee (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). A general kind of wavery-ness permeates here, both within the tone of Berry’s warm, unschooled alto and in the lead guitar, a mild-mannered electric which sounds as if it is being finger-picked almost the whole way through. But in the end this is much less about the quivering of too-tender emotion than the capturing of simple human performance. I like the string squeaks you can hear intermittently (the best one at 1:37)—sounds typically associated with an acoustic guitar, and in any case indicative of an organic sound. What I referred to a moment ago as wavery-ness is actually the result of honest, dynamic playing, recorded authentically, without any flattening or processing. And maybe that’s the most nostalgic thing of all.
Bart and Friends is the ongoing project of Australian musician Bart Cummings, and has featured a rotating cast of friends and fellow musicians, often from among Australia’s indie pop elite and/or semi-elite (including the Lucksmiths, the Shapiros, and the Zebras). After a 1998 debut and 2001 mini-album, Bart and Friends went on hiatus until 2010, when another mini-album was released. Ditto for 2011, and now, in 2012, an EP has emerged, with “There May Come a Time” as the title track. (You may now meditate on the difference between a mini-album and an EP.) The EP is out next week on Santa Barbara-based Matineé Recordings; MP3 via Matineé.
This one hits the sweet spot in which DIY sensibility and serious pop know-how—not to mention the 20th and 21st centuries—magically blend.
This one hits the sweet spot in which DIY sensibility and serious pop know-how—not to mention the 20th and 21st centuries—magically blend. Even as the vocals are processed into an AM-radio-ish and/or ’40s-cartoon-ish kind of tinny chipperness, the music feels stout and committed, with its precise, multifaceted groove, its purposefully constructed vibe, and the accumulated grandeur of what the band throws at us over the course of four minutes.
I call your particular attention to the interplay we hear between the rather cheesy organ and a swaying, swelling chorus of trombones beginning at 2:23—an entirely unnatural pairing that is made to sound entirely natural. When this gives way at 2:57 to, of all things, the warm strum of a simple acoustic guitar, the surprise might blow the mind except that it also strikes the ear as exactly what was then required.
Radiation City is a quartet from Portland, Oregon. “The Color of Industry” is a song from the album The Hands That Take You, originally self-released on cassette in February, coming out in a more standard release in September on Tender Loving Empire, the Portland-based arts collective/record label/retail store run by Jared Mees, last seen around these parts back in February.
A rollicking, low-key stomper with an old-fashioned feel and rock-solid songwriting chops.
A rollicking, low-key stomper with an old-fashioned feel, a gut-kicking beat, and rock-solid songwriting chops. The husband-wife duo of Guthrie and Irion don’t sound like they’re breaking a sweat here as they let the song do the work for them, with its three strong sections (verse, pre-chorus, chorus), its echoes of some vague lost soul classic, and an incisive lyrical payoff—almost a punchline, except it’s insightful rather than funny—at the end of the chorus that pivots the whole song into place. And I won’t give it away because you should hear it in context. And don’t miss the lyric’s musical punctuation, that vintage instrumental accent first heard at 0:54. An essential and exquisite touch.
“Speed of Light” is a song from the pair’s second full-length Bright Examples, due out in February on Ninth Street Opus. And yes, Sarah Lee is a genuine Guthrie: daughter of Arlo, granddaughter of Woody. Although she sang at age 12 on one of her father’s albums, she hadn’t necessarily planned on a musical career but eventually found collaboration with her husband too fruitful to resist.
MP3 via Ninth Street Opus. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.
With a clipped, fleet Motown beat, an expansive girl-group-style sing-along chorus, and an oh-so-classic length of two minutes fifty seconds, “Don’t Send the Searchlights” has one eye quite obviously on our musical past. But at the same time there’s something lovely and casual going on that allows the music to transcend its influences; Greta Morgan, the band’s singer, songwriter, and keyboard player, has the sound of someone just kind of happening upon this song rather than sweating the historical details, and “Don’t Send the Searchlights” jumps and swings accordingly.
I think a good part of the song’s flair arises from the melodic intervals Morgan builds into both the verse and the chorus. You can hear an example when she sings “before we hit the dawn” at 0:18–from the “we” she jumps down a fifth to “hit” and then back up a fifth to “dawn.” This larger-than-normal interval creates a sense of movement and freedom, and in so doing reflects the lyrics, which on the surface extol the benefits of breaking off a relationship so it won’t turn sour (“Always leave before tomorrow comes/All the greatest loves are the unfinished ones”). But don’t believe everything she says. There’s something wistful playing at the edges of the song’s breeziness, and once again a melodic interval comes into play: the leaps she takes while singing both “goodbye” and “good guy” turn on the half-step difference between the first and second “good,” which turns the chord from major to minor. She may not be as happy as she’d like to believe she is. And the chorus ends musically unresolved–not typically a sign that all is well.
Formerly of the Hush Sounds (2005-2008), Morgan assembled the five-piece Gold Motel in 2009. “Don’t Send the Searchlights” is one of five songs on the band’s self-released, self-titled debut EP, which came out in December. Expect a full length in June. MP3 via the band’s site.