Maybe you’re the only one trying
Famously adored by a sizable silo of fans for her emotionally acute lyrics, Mitski has a secret weapon hiding in plain sight: the gorgeous tonal quality of her singing voice. Overlookable, perhaps, in the context of the synths and beats often surrounding it, her vocal power seems particularly on display throughout her latest album, the terrific Laurel Hell, which was released in February. It could also be that the 31-year-old singer/songwriter continues to deepen as a performer as the years go by.
“The Only Heartbreaker” delivers a melancholy interpersonal message over a rapid pulse. The New York Times last month referred to it as a “catchy pop song,” but is it, really? It’s got a body-stimulating beat, but little about Mitski’s delivery here signals “catchy pop song,” starting with the fact that the melody, already moving at half the pace of the rhythm, is consistently stretched in and around the song’s momentum. The potentially anthemic chorus repeats one line–“I’ll be the only heartbreaker”–in such an in-between-the-raindrops kind of way as to be quite difficult to sing along with.
As for the melancholy, the song’s narrator feels elusively aggrieved from the start, singing, “If you would just make one mistake/What a relief it would be.” The simple but emotionally potent idea here is that the singer feels to be the only one ever messing up in the relationship. One particularly striking lyric, however, hints at further depth: “I’ll be the water main that’s burst and flooding/You’ll be by the window, only watching.” As Mitski explained to Rolling Stone, “Maybe the reason you’re always the one making mistakes is because you’re the only one trying.”
You can listen to Laurel Hell on Bandcamp, and buy it there in a variety of formats, some with different packaging options. MP3 via KEXP.
Charming, distinctive acoustic duo
Sturdy and delicate at the same time, “Saturnine Boy” is a brief, distinctive song from the one-year-old LA-based duo of Tennessee Kamanski and Sarah De La Isla, doing musical business as Allen LeRoy Hug. They self-identify as a mixture of “Big Star, The Everly Brothers, Cocteau Twins, Fionn Regan and Kate Bush,” and I don’t know about you but that grabs my attention forthwith.
And I am in fact delighted by this song while being mysteriously unable to delineate any concrete reason. The duo’s voices vibrate charmingly together; acoustic guitars gambol lightly along an idiosyncratic path; the chorus is a particular enigma, comprised of one laconic lyric (“Saturnine boy things haven’t gone right”) set to an upwardly unfolding melody marked by idiosyncratic intervals. The song is sung by a narrator who appears to have fallen for someone who may not be all that outwardly lovable (“saturnine” = “gloomy and sluggish”) but has still captured her heart. I say “appears” because the lyrics are elusive and/or allusive, in quite a pleasurable way; I mean, what else can you do with a line like “Your eyes heavy luggage I carry” but love it to pieces, especially for Kamanski’s appealing phrasing (listen to how she manages nearly to rhyme “carry” with “heavy” in a most winsome way).
Allen LeRoy Hug have released just two singles to date. You can listen to both of them, and purchase them, over there at good old Bandcamp. This is apparently just the beginning: Kamanski tells me that she and De La Isla wrote and recorded “a ton of songs” throughout the lockdown, which they will be releasing as singles over the coming months. Thanks to the band for the MP3.
Concise and ferocious, “I Heard a Cry” is almost ridiculously appealing—two minutes and sixteen seconds of crunchy guitars, headlong momentum, and subtle craft.
Concise and ferocious, “I Heard a Cry” is almost ridiculously appealing—two minutes and sixteen seconds of crunchy guitars, headlong momentum, and subtle craft that can reaffirm one’s faith in humankind, if that doesn’t sound too grandiose. But what the heck: we need it right about now. To my ears, there’s something Clash-like in the brash meeting of power and grace on display here, with the added bounty of Jess Allanic’s arresting vocals, in their varied guises, from garage-rock yelping to soaring “ooh-oohs” to sultry asides and smartly articulated pronouncements.
At the center of the proceedings are two things: first, a sing-song-y guitar riff, which we hear initially in a searing, almost bag-pipe-y rendering and then later, to keep us on our toes, in an acoustic translation; second, the demarcated five-note melodic descent that the verse coalesces around (first heard at 0:26)—a moment that each time seems nearly to stop the song in its tracks but instead launches it into further commotion. Keep listening and you’ll hear all sorts of other touches, including unexpected forays into interlocking melodies, sudden interjections (check out Allanic’s “Hey!” at 0:49), ear-bending guitar effects, and, even, a brilliant chord change in the middle of where you’d never think to find it (1:40).
Calva Louise is a new-ish band from London, and all but the definition of a 21st-century power trio. This is their second single. A debut full-length album is expected in early 2019.
Crisp, warm, vibrant, lovely
Shimmering with warmth, “I’m Just About Done” offers an object lesson in the power of crisp, skillful production to bring a song to life. It’s a fine song to begin with, and Matt Longo is a gifted singer, but a number of little decisions are made along the way that add to the potency of both the singer and the song.
First smart decision: to begin the song without an actual introduction but in a way that still feels like an introduction, which is affected by starting the verse slowly and starkly, with minimal accompaniment. We can right away sink into the tender qualities of Longo’s voice, and be introduced to a melody that gains power as the song’s true tempo kicks in (0:08) and, even better, when the drum joins the piano and guitar (0:29). Note that even now the full rhythm section hasn’t come on board; this is a moment that waits for the beginning of the second verse (0:45), and to me, that kind of discipline pays off, giving the song a kind of wordless “story arc” that is less available to songs in which the band roars in full steam from the get-go.
Lovely things continue to happen. Horns slide in shortly after the rhythm section enters and move to the forefront of the accompaniment by 0:51. I love the grace of the horn lines here, how they embrace and enfold the melody rather than offering a more traditional kind of “horn chart” burst. And these in turn lead to the song’s last major building block, which is the female vocal harmony that enters the second time we hear the chorus (1:16), sung beautifully by Brigit Kelly Young and mixed with tantalizing discretion—as vibrantly as she sings, you can also rather easily not hear her as well, if you don’t focus on her, and for me there is more power in robust singing mixed down than there would be if her voice had been given more volume. Note that in seeking to point out some of the winning nuances of “I’m Just About Done,” let me not forget that it is still Longo’s skill as a singer and songwriter that carries the day. There are moments when the combined sweetness of the melody and the voice give me the chills.
“I’m Just About Done” can be found on Longo’s EP You Bet Your Life, which was released last month and is available in full as a free download via Bandcamp. He has one full-length release to date, which came out in December 2011, and was previously featured on Fingertips in January 2011.
There’s something spine-tingling here in the assurance of the composition, the elegance of the arrangement, and the beauty of the vocal work.
With the air of Celtic folk music about it, “The Devil Wears a Suit” is a haunting piece of smart, beautifully-crafted pop. There’s something spine-tingling here in the assurance of the composition, the elegance of the arrangement, and the beauty of the vocal work. And it’s not just the music but the lyrics too which crackle with purpose. The chorus is central, and striking, and it’s that line in the middle that really moves me—
He’s not underground
He’s not in the air
He’s not in that book
You take everywhere
The devils wears a suit
He lives in our town
He lives on our street
In your home
In your bed
“He’s not in that book/You take everywhere”: it’s a nonchalant kind of line, almost a throwaway, and yet in its casual, observational adroitness, it just about breaks the heart. And I’m not even sure why, but it’s the kind of moment in a song that compels me to thank the universe that talented musicians still exist who can do this, whatever “this” actually is.
An established star in Australia, Miller-Heidke remains a fringe figure at best here in the U.S., largely because the market has (temporarily, one hopes) turned away from any song in which the intelligence behind it is audible in the music itself versus the technology or the beat. I’m still optimistic on Miller-Heidke’s behalf because someone with this much polish, musical know-how, and personality is bound to find a sizable audience sooner or later, and definitely deserves it. “The Devil Wears a Suit” is a song from her fourth album, Nightflight, which was released in April in Australia and is coming later this month in the U.S. Thanks to Muruch for the head’s up. Note that this is Miller-Heidke’s fourth appearance on Fingertips; she was here most recently this past November. Note too that the entire album is currently streaming on SoundCloud; go there and you’ll also find two other free and legal MP3s to download.
This Year’s Model is a Swedish band that does not sound like a Swedish band, even though there is no one way a Swedish band sounds.
Brisk and anthemic, “No Miracles” launches into place via a Stax Records beat, all bass and drums (and yeah there’s a keyboard somewhere in there too). Within six seconds, front man Niklas Gustafsson joins in; he’s got that Martin Fry-like gravitas/melodrama thing going. His breathing is part of his singing. The melodies seem all tops and bottoms. “No Miracles” quickly and unassumingly establishes a presence, a central core of lean and worthy sound; we are paying attention; this is sneaky good stuff.
And then the chorus: pure pay dirt, with its descending-melody hooks, at once plaintive and powerful, and its mixture of blurred and concrete lyrics that both grab your ear and leave you guessing. This Year’s Model is a Swedish band that does not sound like a Swedish band, even though there is no one way a Swedish band sounds. The quintet seemingly takes its name from Elvis Costello but doesn’t imitate him in any apparent way; they make music, instead, that has learned from him—perhaps the truest tribute of all.
“No Miracles” is from the band’s second album, We Walk Like Ghosts, released in February on Marsh-Marigold Records. MP3 via the band’s site. Thanks to visitor Gustav for the lead.
Dutch proto-indie band returns
“Deny All” – Bettie Serveert
Moving into their 20th year together, the Dutch band Bettie Serveert may at long last be outlasting the “college rock” tag they earned as a proto-indie band in the mid-’90s. In any case, when their new album, Pharmacy of Love, is released later this month, they will have released more albums in the 21st century than they did in the 20th. So the time is ripe for listening to this engaging, not-quite-place-able-sounding band with new ears. It’s not 1995 anymore in any possible way that I can think of.
“Deny All” presents the Betties at their fastest and crunchiest. Guitarist Peter Visser couldn’t be having a better time, combining searing lead lines with exuberantly squonky chords–one moment barely choked out, another fraying with dissonance. Leave it, however, to the fetching Carol van Dyk to distract us rather unfairly from Visser’s heroics. The Canadian-born, Netherlands-raised singer has always helped to give the band a subtly inscrutable sound; moving to Amsterdam at age seven, she apparently never quite mastered a native Dutch accent but didn’t grow up speaking English as a North American either. If you don’t listen carefully you might not notice anything unusual but then again, given that lucid voice of hers, at once bright and dreamy, why aren’t you listening carefully?
“Deny All” leads off Pharmacy of Love, the band’s ninth album, due out this month on Second Motion Records.
MP3 via Second Motion. Bettie Serveert was previously featured on Fingertips in December 2003 and January 2005.