Melodic flair w/ old-school production
“Not a social media guy” by his own admission, Albert Shalmers is committed to the music in an old-school kind of way. He writes, plays all the (actual) instruments, records and mixes himself, and at the same time steers away from what he deems “modern production tricks,” which can make songs sound “boring and flat” and in any case don’t help you as a musician, he says. I don’t at all disagree, while adding that there could be a chicken-or-egg thing going on here in that the people who lean too heavily on “production tricks” may be doing so because the songs they are capable of writing and performing are uninteresting and uninspiring to begin with.
I, meanwhile, completely appreciate another old-school method Shalmers employs, which is reaching out with a personal email and then backing it up with a song that speaks for itself, minus any long-winded narrative about why he wrote it and the many layers of deep personal significance it has. Everybody has a story; not everybody has a good song.
“Loved Out” is indeed a nifty piece of work, marrying melodic flair to a lyrical deftness that strikes my ear as particularly refreshing: the song delivers its lines in absorbable nuggets, allowing the ear either to tune in to catch the developing story (there is one) or to take in passing phrases that feel meaningful on their own. In either case, the words are powered by three separate, equally strong melodies–in the verse, the chorus, and (talk about old school), a genuine bridge (starting at 2:06) with its own melodic hook.
I could quibble with one or two production moments here–probably the inevitable result of being a bit too much on your own?–but on the other hand I really appreciate some of his choices, such as the wall of backing vocals that suddenly reinforces the hook at 1:17. The fact that the song works on two levels–Shalmers notes that it’s actually about his love-hate relationship with the 21st-century music business–is a bonus. I’m glad that he had the wherewithal to transform his “loved out” feeling into something this worthy and appealing.
After spending some number of years as a session musician in Toronto, Shalmers has recently begun writing and recording his own music. “Loved Out” is his third single to date. He hopes to have an album out by year’s end. MP3 courtesy of the artist.
Surely one of the richest and most delightful categories of music ranging back over the past 50 years is the category of Randy Newman deep tracks. Toronto-based singer/songwriter Rose Brokenshire has dipped into that well to come up with a terrific cover of a poignant song from Newman’s Little Criminals album. That 1977 LP went gold, due to the presence of the widely-misinterpreted hit “Short People,” but the real highlights were some of the subtler pieces, including “Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father,” which succeeded on the strength of its minimalism: sketch-like lyrics hinting at a deep back story, and a gentle melody buoyed by Newman’s exquisite facility with string arrangements.
Brokenshire offers a cover that is faithful yet differently shaded. In place of strings she opts for a wobbly synthesizer and a chorus of wordless voices; it works much more effectively than it might sound from that description, replacing Newman’s lush textures with a vibe that enhances the narrator’s understated sense of loss and displacement. And while there was always something plaintive about hearing the froggy-throated Newman singing as the young girl, Brokenshire’s closely-mic’d voice, tinged with a whispery sorrow, works its own tender magic. If it’s a bit of a loss that Brokenshire’s string substitutes steer clear of one or two of Newman’s beautifully off-kilter chords, it may actually be for the best, as such sounds may require the stringed delivery that this version forgoes.
“Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father” was released as a single by Brokenshire last month. You can check out her work on Bandcamp; go ahead and buy something if you like what you hear. Brokenshire, by the way, is another musician who found her way to Fingertips via a personal email; the MP3 is, again, courtesy of the artist.
Steady, rich, and resonant
At once intimate and expansive, “Tried To Tell You” simmers with nuanced allure. While grounded in an assertive backbeat, the song’s charms lie in some less obvious places. Do you hear that wobbly synthesizer that eases its way into the mix in the introduction (0:11)? That’s the kind of small, wonderful moment to expect here, much having to do with what the various keyboard sounds are doing; you’ll discover everything from foreboding bass notes to an assortment of friendly interjections if you pay close attention.
But the star of this steady, rich, and resonant song is Tamara Lindeman, the Canadian singer/songwriter who does musical business as The Weather Station. Her voice impresses with its warmth and flexibility, as she ranges between a dusky alto and a breathy soprano, an elasticity that brings to mind none other than fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell. The chorus is concise and sublime (if, again, you stop to pay attention), with brilliant phrasing and intonation. Listen to how much she does with the phrase “I tried to tell you” first heard at 0:48, its simple parade of one-syllable words enhanced by a shift in vocal tone that takes the breath away.
“Tried To Tell You” is a track from The Weather Station’s 2021 album, Ignorance, released earlier this month on Fat Possum Records. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy it (digital, vinyl, CD, cassette, you name it) via Bandcamp.
MP3 via KEXP. The Weather Station was previously featured on Fingertips in September 2011.
Tranquil backbeat, emotional intensity
At once gentle and intense, “Weight Of That Weekend” finds Elizabeth Powell, the primary force behind Fingertips favorite Land of Talk, pondering something serious and yet just out of the song’s lyrical spotlight. The music offers contradictory sensations, its tranquil backbeat intermittently jarred by measures of 7/4 (in the verse) and 6/4 (in the chorus). As a singer Powell embodies this duality, with a voice feathered with ambivalence but likewise resolute.
And just after I asserted that I don’t usually listen to lyrics (see previous entry), along comes a song in which the lyrics are a seamless, central part of its texture and allure. Without an introduction, the song launches on as terse a description of being gaslighted as any you’re likely to encounter:
Always come at me from a different angle
Make me think I don’t understand
how I’m feeling
(Note that the “how I’m feeling” part is where you first hear the 7/4 measure momentarily suspend the flow.)
From here the lyrical power accumulates through what is being alluded to without being said, the words a series of understandable phrases that nonetheless never quite reveal their direct meaning. The music amplifies the unsettled atmosphere with a chorus, dominated by suspended chords, that remains unresolved musically, adding to the subtle ache of Powell’s effort to rise above troubled circumstances: “This is a prayer for love” is the insistent conclusion.
Powell by the way is a formidable guitarist; that she plays acoustically here, with restraint, is its own sort of statement. And don’t miss the French horn that wafts into the mix somewhere around 2:25, an unexpected and somehow exactly appropriate addition.
“Weight Of That Weekend” is the fourth track on the new Land of Talk album, Indistinct Conversations, which was released at the end of July on Saddle Creek Records. This is the band’s fourth full-length release; three EPs have been interspersed over the years. You can listen to a few of the new songs and buy the album via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.
This is the fifth time Land of Talk has been featured here, with their first review dating back to April 2007, and their most recent appearance ten years ago to the month, in August 2010.
The plucky ukulele riff that opens this one, as steadfast and persistent as ukulele riffs often are, hints not at the muscular romp to follow. But after the intro and a preliminary uke-backed verse, the band kicks in, and drives “Unleashed” forward with a gleeful vigor. That terrific bit of syncopation she dishes out at the end of each short verse—spelled out first in the ukulele prelude, starting at 0:20—adds to both the glee and the vigor.
“Unleashed” appears to be about rising up in resistance to injustice, and if so, it is surely one of the friendlier-sounding protest songs I’ve heard. The ukulele helps, to begin with. But Fellows herself has one of those congenial singing voices, a singing voice with the approachable tone of a speaking voice. It’s actually perfect for a protest song; she makes you inherently want to join in.
The lyrics add to the welcoming vibe. She positions resistance to tyranny as not merely humane but joyful; one line that stands out, both for its tone and its content, is: “We enrage our enemies/With rousing elegies.” I could not help but think of President Obama here, how the right wing extremists could listen to his eloquent calls for justice and respond only with unheeding rage. Fellows frames this crazy-making situation with such good-natured zest that it reinforces the important idea that we are not responsible for the reactions of others, only for our own actions. Which means: keep it up with the rousing elegies.
If “Unleashed” is a resistance pep talk, the Winnipeg-based Fellows doesn’t, in the end, shy from somber reality. Her final words, over a portentous drone from the cello, are “And the tide is rising.” On the one hand, she may be referring to the tide of the resistance, but the words unflinchingly bring climate change to mind. In other words, the tide of resistance had better be rising, and soon. She can rouse us into action with a good-spirited zing of a song but let’s remember the stakes.
“Unleashed” is a track from Roses on the Vine, Fellows’ seventh album, in a recording career dating back to 2000. She was actually one of the earlier artists featured on Fingertips, appearing back in August 2004. Her new album, released last month, is available in name-your-price fashion via Bandcamp.
photo: Lesandra Dodson
“Valley Boy” presents with a sonic depth and acumen that belies its pop-song length.
The well-regarded Montreal quartet Wolf Parade went on an indefinite hiatus in 2010. This fall they returned, and these were the first words from them we heard:
The radio’s been playing all your songs
Talking about the way you slipped away without a care
Did you know that it was all gonna go wrong?
Did you know that it would all be more than you could bear?
The song was written about a year ago, after two profound, near-simultaneous occurrences: the death of Leonard Cohen and the election of the 45th President of the United States. Wolf Parade has ably if enigmatically linked these two adjacent events in the rolling, quirkily anthemic, Bowie-esque rocker “Valley Boy.” With a theatrical quaver, vocalist Spencer Krug sings words that conceal more than they reveal, but the opening verse, repeated once at the end, blazes with clarity and pathos, providing a foundation of meaning for an otherwise inscrutable song. I have certainly yet to figure out the centrality of the “valley boy” reference, but I’m working at it, because it so clearly means something. The best I can surmise is that the song is wondering if, after death, Cohen has finally been able to release himself from the existential angsts he spent his life pondering. It may not be the writer’s intention but it kind of works, for me.
Musically, “Valley Boy” presents with a sonic depth and acumen that belies its pop-song length. There are dissonant motifs and churning textures; there are also moments of clearing, and some attentive, Television-ish guitar interweavings. Krug has been quoted as saying, intriguingly, that “the band itself is almost a fifth member of the band,” as a way of describing and/or explaining the group’s authoritative sound. I like that.
“Valley Boy” is from the new Wolf Parade album Cry Cry Cry, the band’s first since 2010. It was released early last month on Sub Pop. MP3, again, via KEXP.
Some alchemical mixture of voice, texture, and melody puts me in my happy place when I hear them.
All music fans, I’m pretty sure, have certain sounds that are so irresistible to them that bands who manage to hit that aural sweet spot have a more or less limitless appeal—just about anything they record sounds terrific. The Toronto-based quartet Alvvays (pronounced “Always”) is one of those bands for me. Some alchemical mixture of voice, texture, and melody puts me in my happy place when I hear them.
It all begins with Molly Rankin’s voice, with its enchanting blend of purity and depth, her honeyed tones retouched by the flawless application of reverb. Add in the band’s knack for finding contemporary homes for nostalgic melodies and I am smitten. Beyond these immediate characteristics, the band delivers likewise at a deeper level. Check out the juxtaposition of the staccato bass line with the ongoing wash of guitar noise, the bass guiding the ear through the indeterminate din that floats just beyond the surface prettiness; “ice cream truck jangle collides with prismatic noise pop” is how the band describes the general ambiance and sure, why not.
Then we have Alvvays’ ongoing attentiveness to the words employed within their sonic environment of choice. Despite the reverb and the noise, Rankin is rarely mixed beyond comprehension, which allows us to appreciate her heedful language. Note the way the words in the second part of the second verse mirror the words in the same position in the first verse, but altered into slant rhymes: “metaphorically” for “rhetorically,” “psychology” for “astrology,” “mood” for “moon.” Another sign of attention to language is the title selection—rather than rely on the most repeated phrase, which would be “no turning back,” the band names the song after a phrase heard (just barely) once. And speaking of “no turning back,” one of the few places in which Rankin muffles her words is here. With its delivery broken this way—“No turning/There’s no turning/There’s no turning back”—the phrase, at first, to my ears, sounded like “There’s no teddy bears.” Whether she did this on purpose or not, and I suspect she did, it adds poignancy to a tale of a love that’s disappeared.
Alvvays was previously featured on Fingertips in November 2014, some months after their debut release. The band’s second album, Antisocialites, comes out in early September on Polyvinyl Records. You can check out one other song from the new album, and purhase it, on Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.
Now this is how to start a slow song: with a stately, centered, melodic line, via a deep but elusive synth tone, in unhurried 6/8 time.
Now this is how to start a slow song: with a stately, centered, melodic line, via a deep but elusive synth tone, in unhurried 6/8 time. Add, without fuss, some subtle digital noise, and then a piano (acoustic or electric, can’t tell, but it sounds acoustic, which is the important thing)—and then, unexpectedly, an acoustic guitar, strumming crisp chords. We’re already a minute and twenty seconds into the song, there is still nothing but introduction in sight, but I am on board. (I’ve heard much shorter introductions sound boring and pointless.)
The singing starts, with a subtle lead-in from some shivery cymbals, at 1:58, a clean female voice, emerging so organically from the instrumentation that it’s hard to discern exactly when she starts. The song’s steady pace, measured out in deliberate triplets, becomes its anchor, its defining core, but don’t be so lulled you miss the turning point at 2:36, when a deep electronic pulse promises some as-yet unimagined transformation. Jittery synths supplant the piano around 3:15, and the digitalia accumulates as a preface to: guitars (3:54). Silvery, siren-y guitars, putting me in the mind of Explosions in the Sky, but here, initially, matched against the background acoustic rhythm guitar. Until the next turning point, at 5:14: the trembling electric guitar (maybe it’s just one after all) goes into full solo mode, joined at long last by the drums. Had you missed the drums? This is the first we’ve heard them, which I’m pretty sure illustrates (if everything else hasn’t already done so) how carefully this song was constructed. It’s easier to aim for epic than to get there but “I’m Not Ready to Go Yet” makes the journey and, to my ears, comes out the other side.
Winchester is the Toronto-based duo of Lauren Austin and Montgomery de Luna. “I’m Not Ready to Go Yet” is a track from their forthcoming debut EP, If Time is Not Linear Why Can’t I Forget the Past? (no release date set at this point). Thanks to the band for the MP3.
p.s. While I resist typographic idiosyncrasy here, you should know for the record that the band officially spells its name with capital letters and spaces, like this: W I N C H E S T E R.
The chorus is a recurringly climactic gem, with a shiny-catchy feeling that marvelously transmutes the song’s influences into something all its own.
If you have any long-term knowledge of rock’n’roll history, when you listen to “Anything Anything” you are likely going to be put in the mind of the Smiths. This is not a bad thing; the Smiths were a seminal band, trafficking in a sound so unique as to be sui generis. Pretty much anyone influenced by the Mancunian quartet at all ends up kind of sounding like them in certain unmistakable ways.
But I will quickly note that “Anything Anything” is not Smiths 2.0; it’s quite a wonderful piece of pop on its own terms. If it manifests shared characteristics with Morrissey-Marr compositions—from the fade-in intro through lead singer Imran Haniff’s discontented lilt to the chiming guitar arpeggios—the song at the same time has an underlying energy that feels warmer and brighter, and a structure less willfully idiosyncratic. And boy oh boy this chorus, which feels almost goose-bumpily climactic every time it recurs, with a shiny-catchy feeling that marvelously transmutes the song’s influences into something all its own.
That all said, a visit to the band’s Facebook page informs us that they may not be in love with the Smiths comparisons. Oops! But then again, not. Because look, it’s my (self-appointed) job to put new songs I’m enjoying into their musical contexts. I compare new bands to older bands regularly. I try to do so creatively and sensitively but to act as if an obvious aural correlate doesn’t exist, or to feel it is somehow taboo to point it out, is silly. I mean, were I to write about this song and not mention the Smiths, most of you would wonder how I managed to miss that. Online commenters love to rail against “lazy” reviewers who use comparisons rather than descriptors, but this isn’t a zero-sum game. I believe in comparisons and descriptors, and anything else that assists with the eternally thorny problem of dancing about architecture, as it were. It is no more a crime to be influenced by a major musical antecedent than it is to point out this influence. End of soapbox.
The Holiday Crowd is a quartet from Toronto. They formed in 2010, and released their first album in 2013, which you can listen to on Bandcamp. “Anything Anything” is a song from their forthcoming self-titled album, due out in January. Thanks to Magnet Magazine for the MP3.
“Raised the Bar” is as we speak blaring out of Top-40 radios everywhere in some alternative world in which politicians compromise and people still use taxi cabs.
With its anthemic horn charts, melodic bass line, and a retro-y, bittersweet bashiness, “Raised the Bar” is as we speak blaring out of Top-40 radios everywhere in some alternative world in which politicians compromise and people still use taxi cabs.
Let’s start with a hat tip to the introduction, which not only gives us those groovy horns right out of the gate but seems to accomplish a whole lot in a short time. After just 10 seconds not only does the song take off but it feels we are already smack in the middle of things, thanks to the ear-catching sixth interval on which the verse melody quickly hinges (it’s there in the second and third notes we hear). That’s one good way to write a song, for those who need more than rhythm to get the spirit fluttering. Another good way is to employ most of the notes of the scale in your melody, which “Raised the Bar” does in the chorus, skipping just one note out of eight (counting the home note in both its lower and upper registers). (End of music theory lecture.)
The bygone feeling in the air here is, according to press material, no accident—Storrow set out on this new album to write straightforward songs in the tradition of the hits one might have heard on AM radio in the 1960s. Based in Montreal, Storrow worked on these new songs with a number of notable Canadians, including musicians from the Fingertips-featured bands Stars, the New Pornographers, the Dears, and Young Galaxy, in addition to the multi-faceted singer/songwriter Patrick Watson (himself featured here back in 2006).
“Raised the Bar” is the second track on Storrow’s new album, The Ocean’s Door, released earlier this month. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp.