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.
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.
A complex, expertly composed pop song, as artful as it is accessible.
Gifted and accessible, Liam Singer is the kind of musician for whom Fingertips exists. We are assaulted by endless sound, we are inundated by generic, laptop-fueled creations, we have abandoned meaning for virality and melody for sensation, and yet even here, in this crazed inferno, exist some (hat tip to old friend Italo Calvino) who are not inferno. I try to find these folks every week or so, to give them space and help them endure, and Liam Singer pretty much epitomizes the mission.
Here’s a guy who can begin with a keyboard refrain all but Bachian in its playful convolution (in what appears to be 6/4 time no less), find a melody to sing on top of the refrain, add a chorus too severely syncopated ever to sing along with, float woodwinds and angelic backing vocals through the artfully conceived soundscape, use a cello without showing off, and wrap the whole enterprise up in less than three minutes. And it’s seriously beautiful. As the lyrics glide in and out of comprehension, there’s an air of something out of time here. The title refers not to a “stranger I know” but is the beginning of a sentence addressing this stranger, and as such conveys the flavor of some centuries-old ballad (an impression reinforced by the apparent use of the pronoun “thy”). At the same time there’s something not only modern but brand-new seeming in the song’s sprightly lift and distinctive construction. A winner start to finish.
“Stranger I Know” is the first track made available from the album Arc Iris, which is scheduled for release in July by Hidden Shoal Recordings. Singer was born in Oregon and is based in Queens, NY; this will be his fourth album. He was previously featured on Fingertips in September 2010. MP3 via Hidden Shoal.
With clear roots in country and folk, two very structured genres, “The River” hooks the ear with a series of surprising melodic and harmonic shifts. We hear this first at 0:15, when Mae follows the opening two traditional-sounding lines with a third (“The river’s gonna wash my sins away”) that runs unexpectedly up through a diminished chord. How did we get here? Suddenly the music is unresolved, and remains so until one more surprising shift, at 0:26, on the words “make me forget.” Resolution comes on the succeeding phrase, “my sorrow.” That’s some nifty songwriting–uncomplicated but subtly startling–and Mae uses it all to set up her bittersweet chorus. It begins with one more musical shift: that heartbreaking half-step she takes in the phrase “I can’t swim” (1:02), which starts the major-key chorus with a minor-key twist. Even the lyrics provide a subtle shock here, aurally–when she gets to the phrase “even if I could,” the lack of rhyme isn’t what the ear expects. But she has slyly shifted the rhyme scheme, which the listener catches onto as the chorus continues. More niftiness.
And maybe niftiest of all is how everything is delivered by a young, big-voiced singer who seems anachronistically delighted to use her vocal substance in service of small musical moments. No “American Idol”-ish histrionics for this big voice. One example: listen to how differently she sings the word “I” the first two times she says it: first, the opening word of the song (“I done a bad thing, it’s okay”; 0:05) and second, the beginning of the second line, four seconds later (“I’m going down to the river today”). The first “I” is fast, easy, almost evasive; the second “I,” made resonant with the contracted “m,” feels deep, mighty, and mournful as it encompasses an extra half-beat in the singing. Words don’t do it justice so now I’ll be quiet.
“The River” is the lead track from Audra Mae’s debut EP, Haunt, released last week on SideOneDummy Records. The Oklahoma-born Mae is now based in L.A. and, speaking of big voices, happens to be Judy Garland’s grand niece.