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.

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.

Free and legal MP3: Angharad Drake (simple setting, potent singing & songwriting)

Via the song’s soft, triplet-based accompaniment, you can just about sense the leg-pumping momentum, the giddy semi-dizziness of leaning straight back into the pendulum energy of an actual swing.

Angharad Drake

“Swing” – Angharad Drake

Lovely and unassuming, “Swing” acquires gentle power from its soft, triplet-based accompaniment, which as the song unfolds does indeed give the listener the sensation of being on a swing—you can just about sense the leg-pumping momentum, the giddy semi-dizziness of leaning straight back into the pendulum energy. Listen to the swing of the chorus—“If I could be anything/I’d be your darling”—in which Drake achieves the almost impossible trick of employing an awkward scan for both musical and metaphorical purpose: the “incorrect” emphasis amplifies the swinging sensation while also capturing the ambiguous command of one on a swing, where you are in control but also not really. And you are by necessity alone.

Through it all, “Swing” carries with it the force of Angharad Drake’s clear, tranquil voice, combining an intimate tone with unexpected potency when the moment calls for it. Young singer/songwriters don’t often write and sing with this much authority, and compound the problem by too obviously attempting to compensate. Drake glides easily into her simple sonic landscape of guitar and voice, drawing only as much attention to herself as is required, leaving us with the satisfying sense of having been visited more by a great song than a particular personality. This will serve her well in the long run. We grow far more easily weary of personalities than songs.

Drake is from Brisbane; her first name is not as difficult as it looks—accentuate the second syllable and it becomes pleasantly easy to say. “Swing” is the title track from an eight-song EP, her second, that she released in September. You can listen to and and buy it via Bandcamp. Thanks to Insomnia Radio for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Suntrapp (simple/deep UK folk rock)

I can’t quite tell if “All the Seas” is a simple song that feels deep or a deep song that feels simple.

Suntrapp

“All the Seas” – Suntrapp

I can’t quite tell if “All the Seas” is a simple song that feels deep or a deep song that feels simple. It is in any case a song that casts indirect aspersions, through both beauty and sturdiness, on many current efforts at so-called “indie folk rock.”

The simple/deep enigma is driven by a few factors. First, the lyrics strike a nice balance between personal reflection and grander philosophizing. Note that that latter kind of pondering, in a pop song, can easily become ponderous (pun intended). “All the Seas” hits the mark from the opening line, which asserts a universal truth from a first-person position:

I’d rather stare into an eye
Than into a sea or into a sky, my my

Simple words, personal declaration, but a rather substantive point being made at the same time. Next, the music itself, as straightforward as it seems, provides subtle richness in the interaction of the turbulent rhythm—established by the intricate finger-picking that opens the song—and the lovely, folk-like melody that is hung on top of it. That the song sways to an underlying one-two beat is partially hidden until the chorus, and is not fully felt until the second time the chorus visits, when it is fleshed out by three extra lines, all sung, unlike most of the verse, directly on the beat. I’m finding the song’s dramatic peak at the third line in the expanded chorus (1:55; “So pay no mind…”), not only for the crisp wording but for the thoughtful melodic turns the line takes as it descends.

And then, whether done consciously or not, the fact that front man Jacob Houlsby swallows the lyric that would be the song’s primary teaching moment is another, rather charming way we not only avoid pretentiousness but also cultivate depth. “All the seas, all the seas, have been”—what: “seen”? “sailed”? I can’t make it out. (Do feel free to let me know what you think he’s saying.) And yet clarity here not only doesn’t seem to matter, it somehow softens me to the song by sending me into my own imagination, accompanied by the churning, oceanic rhythm.

Houlsby is from Newcastle in the UK; Suntrapp is a project poised in a Bon Iver-like way between being a one-man project and a full-out band. “All the Seas” is the first release, and will be found on an upcoming EP called Yannina. Thanks to The Mad Mackeral for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Brandon Thomas De La Cruz (powerful simplicity)

The high-wire act of coming to us with just a nylon-stringed guitar and a voice and a satchel full of plain words is itself impressive; that De La Cruz manages to add genuine beauty into the equation renders the end product all but breathtaking.

Brandon Thomas De La Cruz

“White Roses” – Brandon Thomas De La Cruz

“White Roses” is as simple as a song is likely to be in 2013—a plainly strummed acoustic instrument, a delicate tenor voice, three verses and three choruses, over and done in three minutes, sixteen seconds. The lyrics too are plainspoken in the extreme; De La Cruz has a previously explicated talent for compositional austerity, otherwise known as having a way with one-syllable words. (For instance: in the last version of the chorus, 20 of 22 words have one syllable; the other two are “roses” and “listen.”)

Now then, simplicity doesn’t guarantee quality any more than complexity does. But the high-wire act of coming to us with just a nylon-stringed guitar and a voice and a satchel full of plain words is itself impressive; that De La Cruz manages to add genuine beauty into the equation renders the end product all but breathtaking. To begin with, the melody is gorgeous, and deceptively deep. The entire verse and chorus is one unbroken melody line, with an elegant transition that leaves the verse unresolved and sets up the chorus’s beautiful inevitability, complete with a lovely bit of major/minor drama—how the uplifting “I still saw it was you” part (0:44) veers into the minor-key “coming through” (0:48) addendum, before cycling resolutely back to a gentle major key.

And perhaps the most beautiful thing of all here are the female harmony vocals. Four singers are credited, and they slide into place so gracefully, only in the chorus, and sing with such sweet subdued finesse, and are so apt in tone and intent, that you might almost miss them even as they are fully audible and perhaps the song’s greatest asset.

“White Roses” is from the album Common Miracles, which De La Cruz released at the end of May. You can hear the whole thing on Bandcamp, and buy it there on a name-your-price basis. You can download “White Roses” via the link above, as usual, or do it via SoundCloud, where you can leave a comment directly for De La Cruz, if you so desire. The Southern California-based singer/songwriter was featured previously on Fingertips in January 2011.