“Wichita Rx” – Alpha Cat

Casual, compelling strummer

“Wichita Rx” – Alpha Cat

A laid-back strummer in 3/4 time, “Wichita Rx” has an old-time sensibility and attention to craft. Take the opening lines of the first verse as an example. Elizabeth McCullough (who does musical business as Alpha Cat) sings, in her resonant alto, “Somewhere past Wichita/That girl caught up with you.” Already there’s so much going on! Listen to how she adds a melismatic syllable to the end of Wichita, subtly complicating the campfire melody; listen next to how she takes the three syllables of “up with you” at a different pace than the three syllables at the end of the first line (“Wichita”). So, these first two lines scan the same but are sung differently–another subtle and fetching complication. These may be tiny things but they fully impact the musical impression. That’s what I mean by attention to craft. Then, ponder the words themselves, which achieve something you don’t hear in a lot of 21st-century songs: an implied, engaging story from the get-go. Eight words and we already know there are two characters on a road trip, probably a long one, and that the narrator’s companion is tracked down by a woman who seems at best an annoyance, at least to the narrator. We get action, we get drama, and McCullough has been singing for all of six seconds.

And then, a turn: after that tantalizing start and that lived-in musical setting, McCullough keeps the story ever so slightly out of reach and the music subtly off-kilter. With a mix of evocative lines and elusive phrases, we keep circling back to “that girl from Wichita” who now is “using up your time.” The story eludes precise comprehension, but the weary resignation of the narrator implies a less than happy ending. “The mirror she broke/But she never did lie,” she sings, a succinct but enigmatic epigram. All the while, McCullough has been specializing in expressive musical sidesteps, such as you can hear on the word “wire” (0:23) or on the phrase “finds you” (0:58), or, maybe best of all, in the way she finishes the phrase “another one’s eyes” (2:23). Combined with the song’s fill-in-the-blanks story line, such touches cumulatively transform what might appear to a casual listener as a leisurely-paced slice of Americana into a mysteriously potent journey. Which, I might guess, the two characters in the song themselves had, one way or another.

“Wichita Rx” is a track from the EP Venus Smile… retrograde, which is a remastered version of the EP Venus Smile. The original Venus Smile was released in June 2022, while the remastered “retrograde” version came out in October. McCullough’s recording history with Alpha Cat goes back to 1999, with the release of the album Best Boy, which made something of an impact in the college radio world. Alpha Cat was initially a band, but became a solo project. McCullough was, sadly, sidetracked for more than 10 years by serious depression. As a result, the Venus Smile recordings date originally back to music written in the ’00s.

Free and legal MP3: Carrie Biell

Bittersweet & irresistible

“California Baby” – Carrie Biell

With dusky charm and old-school vibes, “California Baby” is a bittersweet, irresistible head-bobber. Sometimes it’s just not complicated: a crisp, unassuming acoustic strum acquires percussion at 0:06, vocals two seconds later, and we’re off; this, friends, is how you handle an introduction if you have a modest ego and would rather not waste time. The moment Biell opens her mouth, the song coalesces around her warm, slightly-raspy tone, reminiscent of Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee) minus maybe a smidgen of edginess. The instrumentation, anchored by good-timey piano vamps, rocks and rolls with nostalgic panache, underscoring lyrics hinting at the isolation imposed by the pandemic and/or the poignancy of the unrecapturable past. You choose. An electric guitar twangs in for a quick solo halfway through but does not overstay its welcome. Nothing about this sad-breezy gem overstays its welcome, making it all the more welcome.

Based in Seattle, Carrie Biell released four LPs between 2001 and 2007, did a bunch of touring, and took time off in the 2010s to concentrate on being a mother to her newborn son. In 2016 she formed the band Moon Palace with her twin sister Cat. The band still exists, but the lockdown of 2020 and 2021 gave Biell both the time and the inspiration to write and record enough songs on her own to give rise to a new solo album. “California Baby” is a track from that forthcoming record, entitled We Get Along, which is scheduled for release in February.

Free and legal MP3: Shadwick Wilde

Gentle pandemic ballad

“When All of This Is Over” – Shadwick Wilde

Strangely enough we have another song this month based on a triplet rhythm, in this case a deliberate acoustic ballad expressing an all too common yearning during the Great Lockdown, as we have long been daydreaming about the return of something resembling normalcy. The song came out back in April but seems, alas, ongoingly relevant.

And while earnest singer/songwriters with simple acoustic guitar licks often stray, in my opinion, into the maudlin and/or mundane (or both), there’s something affecting to me about the ambiance here; the sincerity is not over-delivered, and the music, enhanced with tasteful string arrangements, pushes forward with an air of enigmatic buoyancy despite the mournful tone. The tune is straightforward but well-built, while the lyrics hit that alluring middle ground between the literal and the figurative: while the listener clearly knows what he’s singing about, the pandemic is brought to the table only via mention of those things we might do again on the other side. This accomplishes two interrelated things: it makes the song about something larger than our current difficulties, and it nudges us towards a sense of hope through the struggle. And while the song lacks any obvious connection to the activism championed in her writings, there’s something here that reminds me of Rebecca Solnit’s view of hope: “Hope,” she says, “locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” I feel guided towards this spaciousness in Wilde’s reminder of the larger context of human existence; as he sings offhandedly near the end: “How lucky we are/To be orbiting this particular star/At this particular distance.”

Shadwick Wilde is a Kentucky-based singer/songwriter who is also founder in 2010 of the fluid musical collective Quiet Hollers, which has released three albums to date.

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: 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: The Milk Carton Kids (lullaby-like loveliness)

A balm to the jangled-nerve world of 2020, “The Only Ones” is two guitars and two voices, all four elements interlacing with masterful ease.

“The Only Ones” – The Milk Carton Kids

A balm to the jangled-nerve world of 2020, “The Only Ones” is two guitars and two voices, all four elements interlacing with masterful ease. The end result is a song at once gentle and sturdy, with a lullaby-like loveliness that helps nudge the lyrics over the edge from despair into something closer to hope. Weirdly enough, I’m hearing an almost Springsteen-esque conviction at the center of this un-Springsteen-like composition, something maybe in the mettle of the chorus’s descending melody, and its ambiguous but stirring lyrics.

The Milk Carton Kids are the duo of Joey Ryan (the tall one) and Kenneth Pattengale (the shorter one). Known for their impressive guitar skills, consummate harmonizing, and amusing stage banter, the Kids have, since 2011, been almost single-handedly in charge of keeping the time-honored “singing duo” concept alive in our 21st-century musical awareness. Written accounts of the Kids turn inevitably to talk of Simon & Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers, both of which have no doubt influenced these guys. But to me, the back-in-the-day musicians the Milk Carton Kids evoke far more directly is the duo Aztec Two-Step, who featured not only the gorgeous harmonizing but, crucially, the interplay of twin acoustic guitars, including some virtuosic finger-picking.

If you by the way have some time on your hands you could do much worse than to watch the Milk Carton Kids concert DVD, “Live from Lincoln Theatre,” which is streaming on YouTube. Pattengale’s facility as a lead guitarist is all but miraculous, and is almost as much of a visual treat as an aural one.

“The Only Ones” is the title track to the most recent Milk Carton Kids recording, an EP released this past October. MP3 via The Current.

(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: Iron and Wine (exquisite, essential)

At his best, Sam Beam writes the sorts of songs that sound eternal—exquisite melodies fragile enough to break into rainbows, strong enough to support the universe.

Iron and Wine

“Call It Dreaming” – Iron and Wine

At his best, Sam Beam writes the sorts of songs that sound eternal—exquisite melodies fragile enough to break into rainbows, strong enough to support the universe. This is one of them. How could he have written this thing that must surely have already existed! And how much is yet left to be done with an acoustic guitar! (Who’d have thought, in this mean-spirited moment in our planet’s history? Or maybe that’s exactly why.) And not that this is a simple guitar-and-voice presentation; on the contrary, Beam has over the years developed a gift for enveloping his guitar within an ensemble of textures while neither overwhelming it nor over-relying on it. You never lose track of this as an acoustic song, but hear how well he places the bass, the piano, the percussion, all definitively in there yet never obviously or individually emphasized. Even the graceful backing harmonies enter gently, mixed exactly to where they will have impact and no higher. The lyrics, meanwhile, float through the air with elegant purity—phrases ebb and flow, creating emotion beyond the reach of reason.

Nothing further need be said. This song has been out since August, so you may have heard it already. If so, now you can have a free and legal MP3 of it (again, via KEXP); if not, waste no more time and by all means listen. The song is track six on the album Beast Epic, Beam’s sixth full-length studio album as Iron and Wine, not including collaborative projects. Iron and Wine has been twice previously featured on Fingertips, but not since 2007.

Free and legal MP3: Orouni (acoustic rock from Paris, gentle and assured)

What a fluid and charming piece of work this one is, buoyed by an effortless sense of melody and the fragile but authoritative voice of the eponymous Orouni.


“The Lives of Elevators” – Orouni

What a fluid and charming piece of work this one is, buoyed by an effortless sense of melody and the fragile but authoritative voice of the eponymous Orouni. A Parisian singer/songwriter whose self-proclaimed influences include the likes of Leonard Cohen and The Kinks, Orouni makes carefully composed songs in which the notes seem handcrafted, one by one, then sung with an ongoing aura of surprise and assurance. The chord change at 0:56, gentle and resolute, is emblematic of the song’s pervading ambience of precipitant redesign, which culminates at 2:37 with a trumpet solo. It is both unexpected and ideal.

“The Lives of Elevators” is a live performance, from a recently folded-up French music site called Findspire, the offerings of which remain available on YouTube. Watch the video and be lulled by the easy-going flow, as we check in visually with each musician, so locked into the groove that they somehow seem to be playing one thing but listening to another. I mean that as a compliment, even if that doesn’t sound like one.

Orouni has recorded three albums to date, which you can listen to and purchase via Bandcamp. I recommend a visit there. “The Lives of Elevators” is based on a 2008 New Yorker article of the same name, written by Nick Paumgarten, which itself is worth reading. The song is a new one, which might appear on the next Orouni album, which might be released this year. Plans are yet unclear. Thanks to Orouni for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Blind Lake (comfy, unhurried)

Comfy like a roomy old leather reading chair, “Lately” glides with offhanded purpose and resonant charm.

Blind Lake

“Lately” – Blind Lake

Comfy like a roomy old leather reading chair, “Lately” glides with offhanded purpose and resonant charm. Fueled by crisp acoustic strumming, the song’s instrumental palette is craftily expanded by a melodic bass line, tasteful electric guitar accents, and some good old “oo-oos” in the background. No one is in a hurry here, but the song still feels sharp and essential.

At the center of it all is the underutilized trick of synchronized lead vocals, as the duo of
Lotta Wenglén and Måns Wieslander both sing the entire song, often without harmonizing. And there is something about their cumulative effort, leading to the climactic lyric “I’ve got myself a pair of slippery hands/And nothing to hold onto” that turns “Lately” from merely comfy to downright moving without my quite knowing how it happened.

Blind Lake is based in Böste, Sweden; they take their name from a 2003 sci-fi novel by American-Canadian author Robert Charles Wilson. In their press material, the band claims that “Lately” is “best played while driving on a slightly wet road on a late summer’s night while deep thinking.” Have yet to try it but I won’t argue.

You’ll find the song on the album On Earth, released earlier this month. Thanks again to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Heidi Gluck (rapid-pulsed acoustic confessional)

A breath of frictionless fresh air, “One of Us Should Go” is a rapid-pulsed acoustic confessional, and if it initially sounds like just another “girl with a guitar” song I invite you to listen more carefully.

Heidi Gluck

“One of Us Should Go” – Heidi Gluck

A breath of frictionless fresh air, “One of Us Should Go” is a rapid-pulsed acoustic confessional, and if it initially sounds like just another “girl with a guitar” song I invite you to listen more carefully. The instrumentation is simple but rich: in fact, there’s not a moment in this three-minute heart-breaker that doesn’t reveal itself to be exquisitely conceived and executed, from thoughtful electric guitar contributions to well-timed piano accents and creative electronics. Gluck’s plain-spoken vocals, which achieve the difficult trick of sounding like talking even while singing, add to the subtle interpersonal drama on display.

And the extra awesome part is how beautifully the song’s sound and structure intertwines with its content: this is a stunning breakup song, in which the music’s very feel echoes the inertia of a relationship that has outlived its spark, and the words of the chorus betray the difficulty of breaking the passivity with actual action:

I’m sure it’s nice out there
I’m sure there’s beauty everywhere
A wide open road
And one of us should go

Gluck is Canadian by birth, but has been living and working in the US midwest for a length of time that eludes internet research; I do know that she spent some years in Indiana, and has been in Lawrence, Kansas for about the past eight. Careful readers of liner notes (yes, such people still exist!; I have faith) may recognize her name from her session work with Juliana Hatfield and Margot & The Nuclear So and Sos, among others; she was also a member of the well-regarded Indiana band The Pieces in the early ’00s. “One of Us Should Go” is a track from Gluck’s first release as a solo artist, an EP called The Only Girl in the Room, which was released at the end of April on Lotuspool Records. You can stream the whole thing via SoundCloud. MP3 via Magnet Magazine. The EP is the first of a planned series of four; work begins on the next one this summer.