I’ll be the first to admit there’s a fine line between acoustic-based singer/songwriter music that inspires and acoustic-based singer/songwriter music that bores. The basic sonic atmosphere is pretty much the same—guitar, voice—and yet some songs fly and some songs sink.
“Let Me Run” is a flyer, and one of its primary assets is its simplest: this song is super concise. Check out the introduction—we hear one iteration of the deftly-played central guitar lick, seven seconds in all, and then a three-second pause, and then we’re right into the verse. This is not the trivial detail it may at first seem; precisely because acoustic-based songs are often stripped of most aural texture they really should progress without delay. Many don’t; Glen wins our hearts and ears quickly by simply opening her mouth. In all, the song runs but 3:05—a healthy length, to my ears.
But “concise” doesn’t just mean “short”; it means intelligently compressed and expressed. One of “Let Me Run”‘s finest features is its production quality, in terms of both clarity and variety of sound. Everything is crisp and succinct, even as more instrumental diversity is involved than one might initially expect in this singer/songwriter-y setting. In addition to percussion we get adroitly incorporated strings and even, I think, a tasteful hint of electronics. Nothing intrudes and yet we are soon enough in the middle of a fully formed composition.
Best of all is the natural instrument on display—Glen’s dusky alto, with its fetching lilt (counterbalancing the darker tones of her lower register) and a rhythmic precision built into her enunciation (I am for some reason especially taken with how she sings the word “together” at 0:52).
“Let Me Run” is a song from Glen’s EP Spread Them Eggs, released in May. You can check out the full EP on SoundCloud. Glen is based in London. This is her first fully-produced recording; a previous, self-recorded digital EP came out in 2013.
Fluent and assured, “Enemy” casts a compelling spell with minimal fuss—a deftly picked electric guitar, a smoky soprano (perhaps mezzo?), and artfully arranged backing vocals are just about all we get. The song is rooted in the silky-deep tone of the guitar but nothing is really as easy-breezy as the mellow sound implies. Listen to how the opening riff starts away from the tonic—a subtle jar to the ear—and then to that tiny rhythmic hiccup it offers at 0:06.
The whole song is like that, its mellifluous surface masking twists and misdirections. The central melody—languid, descending, black-note-dominated—recycles equivocally through a song that doesn’t seem to have either verses or a chorus. Lyrical lines are typically repeated, and long stretches of wordless vocals are employed, enhanced by silvery choral layers. And then, approaching the song’s midpoint, a new lyric starts, without repeats this time, which has the effect of making the lines stand out more rather than less. It feels like we’ve arrived at the song’s unexpectedly powerful nucleus (“You don’t trust/You won’t love/Nothing will ever be good enough”), the backing vocals now emerging in the worded section too, and before the mind can quite absorb this development, Johansing glides back into a repeating line (“You can find a balance, achieve a balance”), the echoey but disciplined backing vocals now get to sing their first actual word (“balance!”), and the effect is almost startling. Soon after, the opening riff returns but with the guitar’s tone rubbed raw and harsh (2:11). There is more going on in this song than a casual listen will uncloak.
Johansing is a San Francisco-based singer/songwriter who has been involved in a number of Bay Area projects, including the bands Geographer and Honeycomb; she is currently, also, half of the experimental folk duo Yesway. “Enemy” is from Johansing’s second solo album Grand Ghosts, which was self-released at the end of February. You can stream the whole thing, and purchase it, via Bandcamp. Meanwhile, over on her SoundCloud page, two other songs from the album are available for free and legal download. Thanks to the artist for the MP3.
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.
The appealing sense of gliding momentum that propels “Zebra”? It’s due entirely to a rhythm based on three beats rather than four, but one which has nothing to do with either the waltzing rhythm yielded by a 3/4 beat or the bluesy shuffle of a 12/8 beat. I’m guessing we’re dealing with 6/4, but in any case the movement here is hypnotic; rooted in three beats but without any swing–it’s all one-two-three-one-two-three, no ONE-two-three-ONE-two-three–there’s a continual feeling of being carried along in anticipation, like a wave that rolls and rolls but never breaks.
Even the chorus, with its delightful opening hook (the inching-up-three-half-steps melody of “Anywhere you run”) and nifty chord changes, is musically satisfying but doesn’t really give us any deep resolution, being too nimbly constructed, not to mention too busy tricking our ear into hearing syncopation that doesn’t really exist. All in all the song is like a lovely little dream–shepherded by Victoria Legrand’s commanding and all but gender-free alto, built with brisk but evasive dynamics, leaving an impression of having happened but without a clear sense of how or why.
“Zebra” originally appeared on Teen Dream, the Baltimore-based duo’s third album, which came out in January on Sub Pop. This is a slightly different version, the so-called “UK Radio Edit,” which can be found on the Zebra EP released by for Record Store Day in April. MP3 via Sub Pop. And somehow the P.S. 22 Chorus in NYC got a hold of this song; you can watch their version in the video below.
Just the sort of lovely, bittersweet song that Tracey Thorn, known best as half of Everything But the Girl, seems born to sing. A Jacques Brel-like waltz with both pathos and humor, minimally scored with piano and strings, “Oh, The Divorces!” deftly captures the exquisite sorrow of marital demise, viewed from that stage in life when one’s friends begin to break up, in seeming droves. “Who’s next?/Who’s next?” she sings at the outset. “Always the ones that you least expect.”
The nicely sculpted lyrics are a particular treat, and not just because they emerge from Thorn’s dusky yet velvety alto, although that doesn’t hurt. At once matter-of-fact and ever so slightly sly, some of the words shine with almost Sondheimian savvy (“And this one is different/And each one of course is/And always the same/Oh, the divorces”). There’s something gratifyingly grown-up about this song–from the wise, hurt depth of Thorn’s singing to the wistful (and yet also sometimes almost ironic) bowing and plucking of the violins–and those rock’n’rollers who persist in championing loud and aggressive music as the only legitimate means of expression are so incredibly missing the boat I’m beginning to feel sorry for them, rather than annoyed. (Although I’m still pretty annoyed. Essay to follow. But read Azzerad’s first if you haven’t.)
“Oh, The Divorces!” is the lead single from Thorn’s upcoming Love and Its Opposite, slated for a May release on Merge Records. MP3 via Merge. This is her second solo record since EBTG went on hiatus in ’02. Thorn remains married to band mate Ben Watt–happily, one hopes.
Lord knows I don’t think of Fingertips as me sharing playlists with the world (um, see essay), but I have to say I entirely love how the three songs this week interlock musically. In particular, check out the strummy warmth of the intro here and how welcome it feels after the swaying sadness of Thorn’s tune. (And how perfect, somehow, that we first get that solitary drum beat, which functions as an instant head-clearer.)
Front woman Nicole Schneit is another alto, but hers is a different instrument than Thorn’s–a fuzzy, plainspoken, lo-fi voice, happy to get almost but not quite lost in the mix, happy to deliver a sing-song melody over a rumbling, chugging, two-chord accompaniment. I keep listening for a third chord but I don’t think they get there, and it goes to show you how far a snappy melody and some good innocent instrumental energy will take you in a pop song…along with, okay, some “oo-oos” and other oddities in the background, including maybe bird noises. At least I think those are bird noises.
Air Waves is a Brooklyn-based trio founded by Schneit; the name comes from a Robert Pollard song and is definitively two words, not one. To date the band has released one EP–in 2008, on Catbird Records; “Sweetness” is a new song, released on a compilation Winter Review 2010 disc put out in December by the label Underwater Peoples. The band has recently added a fourth member; a full-length album is expected later this year.
“It’s not my job to create happy music,” says Emily Jane White, a San Francisco-based singer/songwriter. “I’m okay with that.” This may be a tricky stance to maintain for a long career, but you and I can be okay with that too for now if the end result is something as lovely, stark, and textured as “Liza.” Sure, there’s surface-level sadness in the air, but the music, while reasonably simple, offers an enticing depth of sound and spirit right from the outset.
“It’s not my job to create happy music,” says Emily Jane White, a San Francisco-based singer/songwriter. “I’m okay with that.” This may be a tricky stance to maintain for a long career, but you and I can be okay with that too for now if the end result is something as lovely, stark, and textured as “Liza.” Sure, there’s surface-level sadness in the air, but the music, while reasonably simple, offers an enticing depth of sound and spirit right from the outset. The introduction alone is mysteriously satisfying, with its evocative blend of picked electric guitar and violin, and that repeat musical line at the finish, which makes me feel like I’ve just heard an entire story in 24 seconds.
Certainly White’s subtly toasted alto is well-suited to the “not happy” vibe, but I’m actually enjoying more her phrasing and delivery than her tone. It’s not too hard to sound gloomy; it’s hard to sound interesting while also sounding gloomy. I like her off-handed delivery, the way she manages to sound like she’s just deciding what to sing as she sings it, rather than reciting lyrics committed to memory–a particular feat in a song featuring not many lyrics in the first place. And why does the abrupt entrance of the drumming, at 1:51, sound like precisely the thing that needed to be there? Curious. The first verse, re-sung, is transformed by that insistent drum beat, which soon drives the violins into a double-time swirl, creating the feeling of a chase through the woods. The subsequent slowdown (2:56) is likewise sudden but somehow wonderful. We hear the first verse yet again. And that repeat finishing line from the introduction gets an extra repeat at the end of the song, exactly as required.
“Liza” is from White’s second full-length, Victorian America, set to be released next month on Milan Records. MP3 via Pitchfork.