Free and legal MP3: S.G. Goodman (raw, authoritative Americana)

“Old Time Feeling” – S.G. Goodman

The subtly defiant “Old Time Feeling” launches with the crunch and sizzle of raw authority and doesn’t relent. The beat is seductive, the lyrics tantalizing, the melody sturdy, and singer/songwriter S.G. Goodman’s voice has a sawdust dignity at once fragile and powerful that compels you to close listening.

The song’s stomping vibe—Americana with a rough-hewn edge—underscores a rare, if wry, toughness of spirit. A native of Western Kentucky, Goodman here offers an across-the-bow challenge to the persistent, delusional self-image that has been sadly characteristic of the South. As she recently told Spin magazine, “I think for the longest time, Southern music has perpetuated some of the outdated/never-should-have-been-a-rallying-point-to-begin-with message.” Weird sentence editing aside, I love that “never-should-have-been-a-rallying-point-to-begin-with” part. And even if not overtly imbued with “Lost Cause” revisionism, there has long been that “good old boy” self-righteousness represented in Southern music that presents a rollicking, affirmative cover to a region long beset by deep-rooted troubles of all kinds—economic, political, social, you name it. Goodman’s eye-opening pivot in “Old Time Feeling” has three parts: first, the recognition of said troubles—she refers to the “sickness in the countryside,” and sings, “The southern state is a condition, it’s true”—and second, the declaration that there are people in this complex region who are working on change. Thus the repeated chorus “We’re not living in that old time feeling.” She then goes one important step further, taking to task those who complain about the traditional Southern way but leave rather than stay to help with the transformation:

Oh, and I hear people saying how they want a change
And then the most of them do something strange
They move where everybody feels the same

Goodman’s response to them?:

I’ve got a little proposition for you
Stick around and work your way through
Be the change you hope to find

“Old Time Feeling” is the lead single from Goodman’s debut album of the same name, produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket and released in July on Verve Forecast. Goodman had previously fronted a band called The Savage Radley, which released an album entitled Kudzu in 2017.


photo credit: Meredith Truax

Free and legal MP3: Katy Vernon (Americana, w/ ukulele, and grandeur)

“Undertow” has a casual but distinctive grandeur about it; listen, for instance, to the lap steel intro: sure, a standard motif in country or Americana music, but the tone here is both keening and a little whimsical.

“Undertow” – Katy Vernon

December approaches, which means that it’s time here to take stock of those songs I’ve been listening to for a good part of the year but which somehow never broke through to a feature. This can happen for any number of random reasons, often just because a song doesn’t seem to want to fit in with the other songs being presented in a given month. (No one else might, but I always listen to each group of featured songs as a linked set; I like them to work well when heard, in order, one after the other.) Needless to say this is all an idiosyncratic mess, but it’s my mess.

So, here at long last is Katy Vernon, a London-born singer/songwriter/ukulele player who has been living in Minneapolis since the late ’00s. “Undertow” has a casual but distinctive grandeur about it; listen, for instance, to the lap steel intro: sure, a standard motif in country or Americana music, but the tone here is both keening and a little whimsical. It sets your ears up for something wonderful, somehow. Maybe this has something to do with the lap steel’s partner here, which is Vernon’s omnipresent ukulele, a less standard companion. When she starts singing (0:12), her voice traces a stately verse melody bookended by two half-interval descents; this feels grounded and inevitable but, after the second pass through, primes us for something grander, which we receive in the chorus.

Now then, the chorus. First, that lap steel swell that brings you in is pretty great. Second, you are not imagining it if you hear a strong melodic echo of June Carter’s “Ring of Fire” here—it’s not only that upward leap by thirds, tracing a D chord, on “Took me down” (0:36), but also the follow-up descent (“way along the shore”); the melody is quite similar to the chorus melody in the Carter classic but the altered rhythm and feel transform it into something distinct. And, whether intentional or not, the way Vernon veers off into new territory in the resolution (starting with the words “till you” at 0:52) keeps sounding like a deft and welcome surprise. I can attest that the song is definitely a grower; I’ve been listening since March, when the Current featured the download in the “Song of the Day” feature. Something about it kept it hanging around, prompted me eventually to investigate the rest of the album (which is good!), and now, finally, here you go.

“Undertow” is the ninth of 12 tracks on Vernon’s third album, Suit of Hearts, which was also released in March. But, to make things nominally current, the last track on the album is called “Christmas Wish,” and has just been put online as a single. Visit Vernon’s Bandcamp page to listen to everything, and buy what you’d like.



(MP3s from 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 still urge you to buy the music. It’s still the right thing to do.)

Free and legal MP3: Pieta Brown (feat. Mark Knopfler) (Warm & steady, w/ luminous guitar work)

“The Hard Way” – Pieta Brown (feat. Mark Knopfler)

Warm and steady guitar work drives “The Hard Way,” and who is a warmer, steadier guitar player than Mark Knopfler? A brilliant stylist, Knopfler is at the same time an impressive team player, willing to figure out the best way to contribute to a song without taking it over. I can’t completely figure out how much my enjoyment of this song, and Knopfler’s part in it, is due to the nostalgic rush of that guitar sound of his. I mean, he just has to do that little lick at 0:20, and my god, it’s like the late ’70s come flooding back in all their innocent glory. It presents like a call back to one of MK’s greatest guest appearances of the era, on Dylan’s Slow Train Coming, in particular the song “Precious Angel.” It’s odd how nostalgia can sometimes slay you even over things you didn’t really have particular feelings for at the time.

Anyway: back to the current century, shall we? Pieta Brown has been releasing albums of well-crafted, acoustic-oriented music since 2002—music that floats around an engaging gray area where folk, blues, jazz, and Americana interweave. She sings with an intimate sort of slurriness, sounding maybe like a cross between a young Rickie Lee Jones and Shawn Colvin; in “The Hard Way,” the lyrical phrases are spread out against the song’s steady pulse, generating a restrained urgency that is ongoingly echoed in Knopfler’s flourishes. The words emerge with such intentionality that small phrasing choices acquire lovely consequence (as a small but distinct example, how she sings the word “sending” at 1:16).

“The Hard Way” is the sixth track on Brown’s new album, Freeway, her first for Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records. I’d like to think of it as the first song on the second side, as this is the kind of smart, organic music one can imagine living on a vinyl record, even if as of now it exists only digitally. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy it, via Bandcamp. Note that Knopfler also appeared on a song from Brown’s previous album, 2017’s Postcards. And, for the record, note too that Brown was previously featured on Fingertips way back in March 2006. MP3 via The Current (see below).



(MP3s from 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 still urge you to buy the music. It’s still the right thing to do.)

Free and legal MP3: The Jayhawks (classy classic Americana)

The gracefully descending minor-key melody, this thing hits the ground like archetypal Jayhawks, which is more or less equivalent to archetypal Americana.

Jayhawks

“Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces” – The Jayhawks

Have you heard this before? Of course you’ve heard this before—even if not this exact song. This is not a new sound. But my god, how sweet and solid this is, and how indicative that we lose something consequential when we demand only that everything be so friggin’ new all the time. I mean, come on: it makes no more sense to demand that everything only be new than to demand that everything only be old. Surely we desire and deserve a blend, much as we desire and deserve artists presenting visions and stories from all points on the adult human life spectrum, not just from those under the age of 25. The insidious pressure to require music to sound somehow continually “new” can always be sensed when writers approach a veteran band like The Jayhawks: if a new album is favorably viewed, there are always statements lauding the idea that the band “didn’t just revisit the past”; if unfavorably viewed, it’s either because they’re “stuck in the past” or tried too hard to reinvent themselves. You can’t win for losing when the New police are on patrol. So many witches to burn.

Anyway: that opening acoustic strum, the gracefully descending minor-key melody—this thing hits the ground like archetypal Jayhawks, which is more or less equivalent to archetypal Americana, complete with (say it with me) jangly guitars. As with a lot of Americana when it’s really good, there’s a lingering strain of ’70s country-rock in the air (think Poco, or Pure Prairie League), contributing to the music’s uncanny ability to feel mournful and jubilant at the same time. If Gary Louris’s silvery tenor shows some fetching wear around the edges, it serves merely to accentuate the beautifully crafted melodies he, yet again, sings for us.

The Jayhawks, from Minneapolis, have been playing in one incarnation or another since 1985, with one mid-’00s hiatus. The band still features two original members—Louris and bassist Marc Perlman—while the other two are veterans in their own right: keyboard player Karen Grotberg first played with the band from 1992 to 2000, then rejoined in 2009, while drummer Tim O’Reagan has been on board since 1995. “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces” is the lead track on the new album, Paging Mr. Proust, which was produced by Peter Buck, Tucker Martine, and Louris. It was released at the very end of April and can be purchased directly from the band, if you are so inclined, via their website. MP3 via the good folks at KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Swaying Wires (Finnish Americana)

While there is something of the archetypal lonely West in the air, there’s also something unsettled about this song, something that doesn’t want to be entirely constrained within the strummy conventions of so-called Americana.

Swaying Wires

“Nowhere” – Swaying Wires

Melancholy yet upbeat folk rock, “Nowhere” is buoyed by graceful melodies and an even more graceful vocalist, in front woman Tina Karkinen. It is in fact the combination of the rough-edged electric guitar work and Karkinen’s easeful vocal tone that gives me such a good feeling as this song unfolds, and accentuates the impression that there is not any one thing that makes “Nowhere” stand out but rather its nuanced elements working together.

And while there is something of the archetypal lonely West in the air, there’s also something unsettled about this song, something that doesn’t want to be entirely constrained within the strummy conventions of so-called Americana. Swaying Wires is from Finland, for one thing, so their take on this kind of music is legitimately unconventional. If you listen closely you’ll see that the song builds mutably—there are wordless breaks between verses and then the verses themselves change musically with each iteration. One of the song’s most intriguing vagaries happens in the chorus, which on the one hand is rooted in a melody that circles with a gratifying momentum, but on the other hand goes harmonically off the rails in two different places—first in a subtle way (at 2:04; listen to the underlying chord around “made to last”) and then more unsettlingly (at 2:20, in and around the phrase “in a silent movie”). The juxtaposition of Karkinen’s cozy voice and these moments of quiet but willful dissonance is mysterious and persuasive, underscored by that hammering electric guitar. The song compels (and rewards) repeated listens.

Swaying Wires is a quartet from Turku, on the southwest coast, Finland’s oldest city and former capital. You’ll find “Nowhere” on I Left a House Burning, the band’s second album, which was released in January on the Brighton, UK-based indie label Battle Worldwide. MP3 via Insomnia Radio.

Free and legal MP3: Cashavelly Morrison (graceful, commanding gothic tale)

Cashavelly Morrison’s graceful and commanding “Long-Haired Mare” not only serves as evidence of the eternal potential of folk-like music but functions as an aural balm for any ears that might be feeling overstuffed with 21st-century musical commotion.

Cashavelly Morrison

“Long-Haired Mare” – Cashavelly Morrison

I am never quite sure when and how musical simplicity transmutes into timeless musical power. It is certainly true that most simple songs are neither timeless nor powerful and likewise true that many powerful songs are not especially simple. But Cashavelly Morrison’s graceful and commanding “Long-Haired Mare” not only serves as evidence of the eternal potential of folk-like music but functions as an aural balm for any ears that might be feeling overstuffed with 21st-century musical commotion just about now.

The particular beauty I hear in this song is grounded in the acoustic guitar, in particular the supple notes slipped in after the first four iterations of the traditional strumming pattern on which the song is based. At once fluid and discrete, this understated motif (first heard in the introduction starting at 0:11), recurs throughout the song, between verses, and each time it comes around it sounds like a would-be confidant, a repeatedly viewed stranger with kind eyes, and if it is partial illusion to sense that the song’s poised unfolding and subtle accumulation of textures (heartbreaking drums, outcast steel guitar) is built entirely on the foundation of this humble motif, it is also partial non-illusion. The ear knows what it knows. Add to the aural amalgam Morrison’s country-air voice and instinctive, subtly syncopated phrasing and from humble roots—gothic tale, guitars, percussion—I sense a growing majesty and am myself humbled before it.

And the payoff for waiting patiently for each return of the sad and deft guitar motif? A full-fledged guitar solo, beginning at 3:26, as gripping as a resolutely self-effacing acoustic solo can possibly be.

Cashavelly Morrison is both the stage name taken on by the singer/songwriter Melissa MacLeod and the name of the musical project co-created and -peformed with her husband Ryan MacLeod; he is the masterly guitarist we’ve been hearing here. Cashavelly and Morrison are family names from Melissa’s side, lost in marriage. “Long-Haired Mare” is from the debut Cashavelly Morrison album, The Kingdom Belongs to a Child, self-released at the end of October. You can listen to the album via SoundCloud, and buy the album at the CM web site.

Free and legal MP3:Emma Swift(brilliant, achy cover of new wave nugget)

I have only rarely heard such a satisfying reinterpretation.

Emma Swift

“Total Control” – Emma Swift

Australian singer/songwriter Emma Swift has transformed this new wave classic via the most delicate and deft mutation. The Motels tune still burns slowly, achingly. In place of the original’s rubbery, late-’70s itch Swift employs a torchy, old-style country setting, with exquisite pedal steel work and a slight but effective vocal twang.

We know we are in excellent hands from the opening notes: Swift creates an entirely new introduction for the song, composed of lovely, unresolved arpeggios, played on a silver-toned guitar. It couldn’t be more different than the dated, repetitive staccato of the original intro, which had its new-wave-y charms but always struck me as clunky. (It can be a fine line between a slow burn and lack of imagination.) And while there is likewise nothing wrong with Martha Davis’s vocals—okay they were a bit affected but that was her thing—Swift here really sings this baby, accessing all sorts of actual emotion in places where Davis was content to go for eccentricity.

That’s the thing about this cover that feels almost shockingly appealing: how deep and lived-in Swift makes a song that never previously seemed much more than a quirky curiosity. Some of this has to do with the subtle but superb arrangement; there does not appear to be one note in the background or foreground that isn’t being played for a purpose. Even something as seemingly minor as the decision to deliver the oddly climactic line “Stay in bed/Stay in sheets” with harmony vocals (Swift otherwise sings single-tracked the whole way through) becomes a moment rich with ineffable delight via some combination of know-how and hunch. In any case, I have only rarely heard such a satisfying reinterpretation.

Swift is a singer/songwriter from Sydney who spends half her year in Nashville. She also hosts an Americana-oriented radio show on the Australian station Double J. “Total Control” can be found on Swift’s debut release, a self-titled six-song EP, which you can listen to and/or purchase via Bandcamp. Thanks muchly to Cover Lay Down for the link. Joshua’s been running a genial covers-only music blog there for years and years; check it out at http://coverlaydown.com.

Free and legal MP3: Susto (rugged, tuneful Americana)

Walking the fine and often unwarranted line separating Americana from country rock, “Acid Boys,” with its sure backbeat and rugged tunefulness, reveals the perennial power of solid songwriting and straightforward instrumentation.

Susto

“Acid Boys” – Susto

Walking the fine and often unwarranted line separating Americana from country rock, “Acid Boys,” with its sure backbeat and rugged tunefulness, reveals the perennial power of solid songwriting and straightforward instrumentation. History will have the last word, of course, but I can’t believe that computer technology is so consequential that it eliminates the human appetite for accessible melody and music played in physical space. Sure, let’s celebrate and explore the sounds our devices can make. Just don’t throw out the guitars, okay? Or the rough-hewn voices either, for that matter.

From the musically underrated city of Charleston, South Carolina, Susto is a full-fledged six-piece band, and it is the spacious, intentional interplay of a half-dozen genuine musicians that fuels this song’s confident momentum. For example, when there is a dedicated keyboard player, the keyboard parts are inherently more thoughtful and engaging, or at least should be. Here, I like the rinky-tink piano we hear at the outside but even more I like the classic rock organ that oozes into background as the song unfolds. Likewise, a band with a lead guitarist and a rhythm guitarist can, ideally, create richer textures—sounds that you don’t always hear specifically but that add deeply to the ear’s sense of completion and certainty.

Susto has its roots in front man Justin Osborne’s trip to Cuba last year. Previously lead singer in the band Sequoyah Prep School, Osborne ended up back in Charleston to flesh out music that originated during his Cuban sojourn, first hooking up with his friend Johnny Delaware and soon adding four others to create the six-piece Susto. (Fingertips followers may remember Delaware from his most excellent song “Primitive Style,” which was featured here last year and later landed at number four in the year’s top 10 favorite list.) “Acid Boys” can be found on Susto’s debut, self-titled album, which was released in April. You can listen to the whole thing and purchase it directly from the band’s web site.

photo credit: Paul Andrew Dunker

Free and legal MP3: Eddie Spaghetti (ramshackle Americana)

“The Value of Nothing” glows with the energy of something unfussed over.

Eddie Spaghetti

“The Value of Nothing” – Eddie Spaghetti

With his throwaway stage name and kick-ass growl, Tucson-born, Seattle-based Eddie Spaghetti is not quite the rock’n’roller you’d expect to be writing a song based on an Oscar Wilde quotation he had just read (“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”) But I surely will not discourage serendipitous cultural intermingling; that’s kind of all I do here week after week.

Spaghetti reports that he read the quote while in Australia, knew it was a song, then wrote the thing back in his hotel room in about 20 minutes. “The Value of Nothing” glows with the energy of something unfussed over—uncomplicated on the one hand, highlighted on the other by the supplemental, unaffected touches that can happen when a creator isn’t over-thinking things. The song launches off a lonesome-prairie vibe produced by adding harmonica flourishes to a prog-rock-y electric guitar; after this, the ramshackle vigor is generated largely by a hoedown style acoustic guitar and dry, snare-filled drumming. (I like the little yelp that gets things going at 0:50.) Accentuating the itchy drive are lyrics sung largely in between the beats. But check out the chorus, and how he empowers offhanded phrases by now re-aligning with the beat:

You know the price of everything, don’t you honey
But it ain’t about, it ain’t about the money

I find something slippery attractive in the rhyming of the tossed-off half of these lines. One more sneaky-good thing here is how the electric guitar insinuates itself back into the song, culminating in a snaky solo (2:08) that feels like we’ve wandered into a trippy Outlaws song.

Spaghetti was born Edward Carlyle Daly III, and has been known previously as front man for the cowpunky garage rock band the Supersuckers. “The Value of Nothing” is the title track of his fourth solo album, but first album featuring all original songs. The new album is coming in mid-June on Bloodshot Records. You can download the song via the link above or over at SoundCloud. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Denver (country roots, both laid back & incisive)

With its ambling backbeat and lonesome pedal steel guitar,”The Way It Is” has the spacious, laid-back authority of some ’70s piece of pre-Americana.

Denver

“The Way It Is” – Denver

With its ambling backbeat and lonesome pedal steel guitar,”The Way It Is” has the spacious, laid-back authority of some ’70s piece of pre-Americana. Which we might as well just call country. At the same time, it manages an incisiveness that is almost unsettling; you just don’t expect a song with this kind of scruffy, dirty-booted ambiance to be focused enough to finish up under three minutes. Denver pulls off this magic trick by forsaking the instrumental break, and just sticking to the musical facts: melody, accompaniment, and weary, achy-hearted singing.

“The Way It Is” launches off an smooth, two-chord vamp, Neil Young-ish in character. As with the Hermit Crabs song above, the verse is a succinct two lines; in this case, however, it leads into a chorus that is fat with resolution, using a descending bass line to anchor a determined series of classic chords. The melody takes one solid step up and tumbles incrementally down a satisfying perfect fifth. The lyrics, meanwhile, blaze with unpretentious majesty, if I haven’t managed to coin a double or triple oxymoron: “There’s things in the world that I know nothing about,” laments the song’s narrator, without pity, “And that’s just the way it is.” You and me both, pal.

Denver is named more for feeling than geography; the six-man band is actually based in Portland, and features three guys from Alela Diane’s band Wild Divine, including Diane’s husband Tom Bevitori and two from Blitzen Trapper. (Diane and band were featured together here in March 2011.) Five others are said to “rotate” through the lineup. The band’s debut album was recorded and engineered at the home of a friend’s mother—“Drums in the living room, singer in the bedroom, four-track cassette recorder, cases of beer, whiskey, sandwiches and a sunny porch,” is how band co-founder Birger Olsen has described it. The self-titled album was released in mid-August on Portland-based Mama Bird Recording Co.