“Take It If You Want It” – Shannon Curtis

Heartfelt & sophisticated

“Take It If You Want It” – Shannon Curtis

A crystalline, synth-driven call to inner action, “Take It If You Want It” stares down the existential mayhem of our 21st-century world and attempts to find a place and a way to live in it regardless. The song’s superpower is the glistening deftness of the presentation: the ’80s-inspired arrangement is tight and inventive (don’t miss the acrobatic bass line), the lyrics are precise and sincere without being dogmatic, and Curtis’s voice is rich, expressive, and disciplined. The overall vibe is heartfelt and sophisticated; if Kate Bush were interested in writing a catchy pop song that wrestles with spiritual precepts, it might sound something like this.

In any case it is certainly a Bushian vocal that, after a brief percussive intro, opens the song with echoey urgency. Curtis has an effortless melodic flair; from the opening lines of the verse the ear is hooked, and the song progresses through its interrelated parts–verse, pre-chorus, chorus–with a enviable sense of inevitability. Not all the lyrics will be immediately legible but, as with the most well-crafted songs, certain phrases will pop; one particularly indelible couplet is unambiguous: “The fascists are ascending/Disaster is impending.” A close listen reveals this as a voice in the head that the narrator is attempting to grapple with. I’d say a lot of us are grappling with that voice here at the end of 2022.

Born in California and based in Tacoma, Washington, Shannon Curtis is a singer/songwriter with a rich catalog to explore. Good To Me is her tenth full-length release in the last 10 years, following three previous EPs and an acoustic compilation album. “Take It If You Want It” is the opening track on the album Good To Me, which is something of a concept album, centering on an inner journey Curtis led herself on during the perilous, pandemic-jostled year 2021. The album, by the way, will next year be followed by a companion book, which Curtis describes as “a step-by-step roadmap for cultivating personal peace and power in hard times.” She notes further that the songs on Good to Me came from her own process of working with and through the steps described in the book. More on the album in the follow-up review, below. (Yes, this month I’m giving you two songs from the same album, with one palate cleanser in between. Keep reading!)

Free and legal MP3: School of Seven Bells (airy atmospherics, guitar-heavy core)

School of Seven Bells returns as a duo, its singular, glistening sound intact.

School of Seven Bells

“The Night” – School of Seven Bells

Born as a trio, featuring identical-twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Dehaza, the Brooklyn-based School of Seven Bells found duo-hood forced upon then when Claudia announced in October of last year that she was leaving. While Alejandra was the songwriter of the two—she and guitarist Benjamin Curtis compose the band’s music—there was concern (by me, anyway) that the twosome version of SVIIB would suffer in comparison. The twin-sister harmonies were central to the band’s presentation; Curtis, in fact, told NPR in 2008 that the sisters’ precise, heavenly vocal synthesis was “the most important part of School of Seven Bells,” adding: “Everything else is accompaniment, you know, in my opinion.”

But life goes on: as it turns out, the instantly seductive tone of the Dehaza voice, at once sweet and searing, remains intact, and Alejandra does a splendid job now harmonizing with herself. How this will work in performance remains a question, but the duo version of the band, recorded, sounds pretty much the same as the trio—which is a fine thing for a band with such a distinctive sound to begin with. While the label-fixated blogosphere tosses SVIIB quickly into the dream pop or shoegaze box, this is a band that from the start has been blessed with a truly individual sound: a whirly, driven amalgam that floats airy atmospherics over a guitar-heavy core, while featuring a harmonic language that does not always feel Western and lyrics that veer towards a mystical kind of incomprehensibility.

“The Night” has an itchy vibe; launching from a sparse, uncentered interplay between two opposing guitar sounds, the song takes off at a running clip and yet also fosters an ineffable tension. Listen carefully and you’ll see how few chords are employed here. If I’m not mistaken, we may not have a chord change until 1:20. Note the lyrical clue at 0:50, when, still on the opening chord, Dehaza sings, “You’ve frozen my thoughts/You’ve frozen me out/I’m in the same place you left me baby.” We go from there into the chorus and still the music, almost claustrophobically, refuses to offer a chord progression for yet another 20 seconds. We have been set a purposeful, musical trap, and the song ultimately delivers, but for reasons which defy explicit description. Chalk it up to the same alchemy that allows SVIIB to craft its unique sound from the same ingredients theoretically available to everyone else.

“The Night” is the first track the duo has made available from their upcoming album,
Ghostory, which is due in late in February as a joint release by Vagrant Records and Ghostly International. MP3 via Pitchfork. School of Seven Bells were featured previously on Fingertips in 2008.

Free and legal MP3: A. A. Bondy (muted, weary beauty)

“Surfer King” sways and hesitates; it seems already to sit in your memory, blurred by reverb and bending under the quaver of a pedal steel.

A. A. Bondy

“Surfer King” – A. A. Bondy

Almost achingly beautiful in a muted and weary kind of way, “Surfer King” finds A. A. Bondy exploring the same sort of atmospheric singer/songwriter sound as he was the last time he was here, in 2009, for the brilliant “When the Devil’s Loose.” No reason to mess with a good thing.

“Surfer King” sways and hesitates; it seems already to sit in your memory, blurred by reverb and bending under the quaver of a pedal steel played for its own sake, rather than to align with the cliched notion of what a pedal steel should sound like. And can I stop for a moment to register the minor but persistent pet peeve of how music bloggers so often hear a pedal steel and call the song country-ish or country-flavored or some such thing? This song has nothing to do with country music (not that there’s anything wrong with that, either). It’s got a pedal steel. But I digress. Bondy in any case seems to have found his sweet spot, having gone from lead singer in a grunge band to a stripped down, early-Dylan-esque troubadour before settling into this pensive, purposeful setting featuring a few well-placed instruments and his reflective baritone. This song is so sturdy, its melody so delicate and true, that the chorus slays us while focusing almost exclusively on two notes, one whole step apart.

“Surfer King” is from Believers, Bondy’s third album as a solo artist, released this month on Fat Possum Records. Bondy was born in Alabama and works from upstate New York. For the excessively curious, A. A. stands for Auguste Arthur.

Free and legal MP3: Soulsavers (Oldham channels Lanegan)

“Sunrise” began life as a real song–it was written by Mark Lanegan and was first heard back on his 1994 album Whiskey For The Holy Ghost–and in this incarnation features new performances by, among others, Will Oldham, who does the singing here.

“Sunrise” – Soulsavers

I’ll admit I have something of a mental block against music that emerges from so-called production and remix teams. Maybe it’s because I dislike remixes with such a pointless passion. But that’s just me and my bias towards song–I find music that’s so blatantly constructed (and re-constructed) to be odd and artificial at its core. And yet, here are Soulsavers, a production and remix duo from England, and I like this one quite a lot.

Then again, this is not just a laptop creation. “Sunrise” began life as a real song–it was written by Mark Lanegan and was first heard back on his 1994 album Whiskey For The Holy Ghost–and in this incarnation features new performances by, among others, Will Oldham, who does the singing here. (Lanegan, it should be noted, has been Soulsavers’ chief vocalist for the past two albums–2007’s It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Way You Land, and this year’s Broken.) In Soulsavers’ hands, “Sunrise” has become atmospheric in a gratifyingly swampy sort of way–we get a piano vamp, washes of cymbals, and a dirty-sounding harmonica, all rinsed through with reverb. And front and center we get Oldham singing with more rough-edged gravitas than he gives us in his more fragile Bonnie “Prince” Billy mode. He seems in fact to be doing an homage to Lanegan; this version of “Sunrise” sounds almost more Lanegan-y than the original, somehow, with its dark echoey groove and that killer harmonica, which replaces the sax heard in the original, to great effect.

Broken was released back in August, without a lot of fanfare, on Columbia. (Note how even now the big labels don’t know how to promote off-kilter projects.) “Sunrise” is actually a non-album single, released just prior to the CD.

Free and legal MP3: Joe Henry (deconstructed, slow-motion gospel blues)

“Death to the Storm” – Joe Henry

A dusty, deconstructed, slow-motion gospel-blues stomp. I consistently like Joe Henry’s music without really knowing why. His songs succeed through atmosphere, maybe, more than anything else, which with Henry involves a canny intermingling of his fuzzy-buzzy baritone–rich and weary in a fin de siècle sort of way–with an idiosyncratic mix of sounds and organic beats. This time around, I’m particularly enjoying Marc Ribot’s unmistakable guitar lines, with their dry ghostly twang, which imply a bunch of noise they’re not actually making; the subtle interplay of a tinkly piano with a quiet horn of some sort; and the continuous use of drum rolls, on at least two different types of drums, to keep things edgy and forlorn.

Each time Henry releases an album, music writers seem to knock themselves out talking about how different it is from his last one but to my ears, everything sounds entirely Joe Henryesque. However different the music may be–and in all honesty I’m not hearing the differences others are hearing–the voice and the warm, intriguing sonic amalgam is a strong constant. If you’ve liked his stuff in the past, you’ll like this; if you like this, go back and check out some of his older things. You’ll like them too.<

"Death to the Storm" is from the album Blood From Stars, to be released next week on Anti Records. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3: A. A. Bondy (rootsy, atmospheric singer/songwriter fare)

“When the Devil’s Loose” – A. A. Bondy

Thick with atmosphere and aching with the majesty of something timeless and true, “When the Devil’s Loose” has me at hello, as it were. I love those guitars, at once fuzzy and bell-like, and the casual authority they immediately establish. The song, which refers at the outset to a river, itself flows with a river-like depth and grandeur, its potent melody sung with a rough-edged nonchalance at once sultry and defiant. I like how the guitars sometimes float off into a bit of dissonance, adding to the impression that some deep sort of force of nature was involved in the creation of this song.

Bondy is an Alabama-born singer/songwriter now based in upstate New York. He fronted a loud, Nirvana-like band in the late ’90s and early ’00s called Verbena, then using the first name Scott. His solo debut, American Hearts (2008), presented him in a folk-like, early-Dylan-ish setting, backed largely by acoustic guitar and the occasional harmonica. And yet the one or two songs featuring a bit more of a band sounded to me like the stronger cuts–in particular, “Lovers’ Waltz,” which “When the Devil’s Loose” resembles somewhat. To me, therefore, the news that his forthcoming album finds him more often playing with a band is promising. I look forward to hearing more of it.

This song is the title track to that second solo album, which is due out in September on Fat Possum Records. MP3 via Spinner.

Free and legal MP3: Marissa Nadler (beautiful, mysterious, atmospheric toe-tapper)

“River of Dirt” – Marissa Nadler

A master of atmosphere, Marissa Nadler can maintain her delicate, otherworldly vibe even when she adds percussion and electric guitar to her spidery sound, and even when the music chugs along at a toe-tapping pace. A lot of the aura has to do with that spooky voice of hers, encased in reverb, and the words that voice is singing–weird words, full of romance, escape, and sorrow (the titular metaphor appears to be referring to death itself). The echoey, keening lap steel that hovers in the background heightens the familiar strangeness of it all.

Nadler may be adding band-like instrumentation to her sound, but it’s hardly a standard sort of rock band she’s got going here. Listen, first, to the drumming, which moves forward with an idiosyncratic blending of rims and toms, and a most judicious use of cymbals–what you hear in the intro from about :06 onward is what propels the entire song; it’s a subtly peculiar sound, seeming at once mechanical and homespun. Then check out the aforementioned lap steel guitar, which howls and sings with uncanny luminosity, mixing in and around an electric guitar and also Nadler’s own backing vocal tracks, often stressing notes that set it apart from the melody and harmony and yet join everything mysteriously together. Beautiful, compelling music we have here.

Fingertips regulars may recall Nadler from the oddly gorgeous 2007 song “Diamond Heart,” which ended that year among the top 10 favorite free and legal MP3s here that year. “River of Dirt” is from her forthcoming (and fourth) CD, Little Hells, which is slated for release next month on Kemado Records. MP3 originally via Kemado, but no longer available there. You can still grab a free and legal download of it via Stereogum, but it’s no longer a direct link, so you can’t sample it in the player here.