Power pop is never too far below the surface here on Fingertips, and early-ish 2023 gives us another wistful/tuneful bit of the same, this time of the fuzzy/lo-fi variety. “Jennifer Valentine” is a song exquisitely in tune with itself, telling an archetypal story of unrequited love with the powerfully shy tenderness of an introverted teen-ager. Power pop is the perfect vehicle, as the genre all but aches with innocent, unrealized passion, with its characteristically sweet, succinct melodies, often tinged in minor keys, forever hinting at the despair that lurks below desire.
This representative power-pop vibe hinges frequently, if not always, upon a vocalist with some bit of sugar mixed with the melancholy (or melancholy mixed with the sugar, depending on the individual circumstance). On “Jennifer Valentine” it embodies via the awkward combination of hesitancy and assertion in singer/songwriter Charles Bert’s reedy, mixed-down delivery. That opening salvo about how the singer wrote the name of his beloved “a thousand times” is quintessentially middle-school (you need a handy notebook and pen, after all), as are the progressively grandiose sentiments the song expresses: the singer goes from “Your name should be up in lights/Above the city burning bright” to “Electromagnets realign/Whenever you were walking by.”
And let’s not overlook the flawless choice of name here, with its sing-song-y dual dactyls and guileless imagery; what after all is more innocent and passive-assertive than sending a valentine to someone you have a crush on? This song is a valentine to a Valentine.
Field School is the pandemic-induced solo project launched by Bert during lockdown; its initial output consisted of three five-song cassettes, which were eventually released as digital EPs in 2022. Bert has otherwise been a member of the Seattle-based band Math and Physics Club since 2004. “Jennifer Valentine” was originally on the Hey Satellite EP, released in April 2022; it reappears on the full-length When Summer Comes album, from November 2022, which collects recordings from the original cassettes onto one album. MP3 via KEXP.
(And hey if you are a power pop fan you might want to go back and check out my Power Pop playlists on Spotify, which aim to unite both classic and contemporary power pop into one seamless listen. You’ll see there that I enjoy stretching the genre a bit to get beyond the usual suspects: while every song on these mixes features sparklingly catchy, power-pop-infused melodies, not every song is going to be found on standard power pop playlists. (Which is just as well because a lot of standard power pop playlists are just plain off base. Don’t get me started.) Anyway: Volume 1 is here; you can look for Volumes 2 and 3 once you’re there. Note a news flash: the original studio recording of “Starry Eyes,” as seminal a power pop song as there is, is no longer available on Spotify. This should tell you all you need to know about the efficacy and stability of streaming if you’re a committed music fan. Use it but don’t count on it!)
After a gentle, lullaby-like opening, “Anna” develops into a brisk, melodic composition that, backbeat notwithstanding, I’m tempted to call a ballad. What, after all, is a ballad? Traditionally, it’s a poem, typically suitable for singing, in which a story is told, often a romantic and/or tragic one. Note too that ballads often are set to an ABCB rhyme scheme, which is what “Anna” employs as well. I say it’s a ballad, and a splendid one at that.
The story being told, obliquely, is worth unpacking. The Dutch singer/songwriter Jori, who records as Cloud Cukkoo, tells of seeing a homeless man on a Dublin street, on a cold day, collecting coins in a Starbucks coffee cup with the name “Anna” on it. “Not even the cup was his,” she says. She wrote this song in response; in it, she alludes to his hardships as the man addresses the (imagined) woman whose name graces the discarded cup. It’s a simple but striking premise, brought to life with even-handed production, an incisive chorus, and Jori’s deceptively formidable voice–don’t let the song’s catchiness distract you from her lovely depth of tone. I especially appreciate the clean soundscape, driven by rhythm guitar, unfussy percussion, and well-placed keyboards: a beautiful aural counterpoint to the hyperactive, over-processed pop songs that grab clicks and followers in our mixed-up world.
Originally from a country village in the Netherlands, Jori relocated to Berlin in 2022 to be able to take part in a more diverse and vibrant creative community. She has some older material up on Bandcamp but doesn’t seem to be using that site at this point; your best bet for checking her music out is over on Spotify. “Anna” was just released last week; MP3 courtesy of the artist.
With a haunted, psychedelic flair, “When I’m With You” chugs to a friendly beat before busrting, in the chorus, into a wall-of-sound carnival of echoey organ and sing-along lyrics.
With a haunted, psychedelic flair, “When I’m With You (I Feel Love)” chugs to a friendly beat before bursting, in the chorus, into a wall-of-sound carnival of echoey organ and sing-along lyrics. The Brighton-based Nancy keeps personal details to a minimum but surely pours his heart and soul into music that manages to feel at once tightly designed and loosely thrown together. This warped melange of a song also performs the wonderful balancing act of sounding both vintage and up-to-date at the same time, adding idiosyncratic 21st-century frenzy to a classic core of melody and riff. The fact that the tune clocks in at 3:33 feels like a purposeful hat tip to the trippy ear worms that made their way to the radio back in the late ’60s. One half churning atmosphere, one half catchy pop song, “When I’m With You” does its business and gets out. Bands that feel the unaccountable need for beat-heavy intros and endless repetition should take notes.
Nancy is a musician who uses just the one name, and it might be an homage to Nancy Sinatra, but, as noted, details about the guy are sketchy. He doesn’t mind describing his music, however; this song he calls a “swirling head rush, a shot of adrenaline, an oscillating distorted cacophony of noise and melody.” I’ll go along with that.
“When I’m With You” was released early last month via B3SCI/Cannibal Hymns. And earlier this month, Nancy released two more tracks, which you can find up on SoundCloud. An EP is in the works for the spring.
Breezing in on a vibe that explores the overlap between the Cranberries and the Sundays, “Sure” overflows with melody and nostalgia. And yet, the magic trick here is that Hatchie mastermind Harriette Pilbeam manages to put forth her music in a crisp, contemporary package. Which doesn’t (thankfully) mean she’s pandering to any of today’s all-but-unlistenable trends (over-processing, mindless digital rhythms, affected vocalizing). This is as solidly constructed a piece of music emerging from the remnants of the pop-rock spectrum as one can hope to encounter in the ongoing nightmare that is the year 2018.
I’m hearing a coy type of syncopation as one of the keys to this song’s earworm-y success. After the chiming, guitar-filled intro, the drums kick in at 0:22, and if you listen you’ll see that we get a direct second beat but in place of an equally accented fourth beat (which would be the classic backbeat rhythm), there’s a stuttered, off-center accent. This manages both to move the song along and to play with the flow in an agreeable way. Added to this is the way the lyrics in the verse begin only on the second beat of the measure, which creates a pleasant, head-bobbing lag, the hesitation pulling us forward rather than backward. Resolution comes with the sturdy descent of the chorus, melody now planted on the first beat, even as the drumming underneath stays with its offbeat swing.
And hey that’s a rather wordy explication; I could also just say: it’s really catchy.
Pilbeam is from Brisbane, which partially explains her easy way with this type of melodic, history-embracing music—Australia is one of a handful of countries (Sweden is another) that has figured out how to maintain cultural interest in rock’n’roll’s organic development long after the combined machinations of the mainstream American music industry and fad-obsessed internet crowds have left it for dead. “Sure” was originally released as a single in November 2017, and became more widely available with the release of her Sugar & Spice EP in May 2018. Hatchie is finishing up a US tour as we speak, with dates upcoming this month in LA and Brooklyn, among other places.
Graceful, well-crafted rock’n’roll
From its opening instrumental gestures, “Glass Jar” reveals itself to be exactly the sort of graceful, well-crafted rock’n’roll that I, personally, need right now. No posturing and no processing here. We get instead a straight-ahead blend of organ and guitar, and an infectious groove led by an agile bass line. And then, on top, we get Tristen Gaspadarek’s lovely, decisive voice, singing unflappable melodies that lead adroitly to the chorus’s simple, subtle brilliance:
You put me in a glass jar and tap, tap, tap
To see how I move
These lines work with a musical and lyrical synergy not often seen. First, the lyric presents us with an incisive relationship metaphor, with built-in layers of meaning that I feel I will only detract from if I attempt to unpack. Just think about it for a while, noting how beautifully the music reinforces the lyrical strata, boosted by Jenny Lewis’s backing vocals, and coalescing around the hammering conveyed by the on-the-beat clockwork of the “tap tap tap” line. And then note the music’s refusal to resolve at the end of the lyrical line; it takes that chugging little organ line in the background to bring us to some kind of end point. That organ line in fact has been an understated star of the show since we first heard it answering the lyric “They’re all assassins” in the first verse (0:32)—it’s just the kind of instrumental motif that a good song will volunteer effortlessly.
The Nashville-based Tristen (she uses her first name only) is a singer/songwriter who makes me simultaneously hopeful and despondent about the state of music. Hopeful for the realization that smart, nimble rock’n’roll is yet possible here in this “barbaric slaughterhouse known as humanity” (as per Wes Anderson); despondent for how easily something this good can slip past any kind of widespread recognition. “Glass Jar” has been out for months. It’s been posted by exactly four other blogs on Hype Machine before this post. And this a song enhanced further by the vocal presence of the aforementioned Lewis.
The sad truth is that in this viral-sensation-oriented online culture we’ve aided and abetted collectively for the past 15 years or so, smart and graceful doesn’t tend to generate the clicks. Draw your own conclusions but me I’m fucking fed up with the whole thing. Nothing good comes of mob action, whether in the physical world or the digital one. And nothing attracts a mob quite like viral attractions. And the web has been calibrated to foster viral attractions.
Anyway: “Glass Jar” is a song from Tristen’s album Sneaker Waves, which was released in July. The MP3 is via KEXP. Tristen was previously featured here on Fingertips way back in 2010, for the irresistible song “Baby Drugs.” And if you’re in the holiday mood, here’s a bonus stream, from 2011: Tristen doing a lovely, Spector-esque cover of “Frosty the Snowman.”
A simple tune that reverberates with understated power.
Not that you have to be middle-aged to put out accomplished music, by the way (see previous review). Katie Crutchfield, 28, has, up till now, recorded three albums’ worth of smart, lo-fi rock’n’roll as Waxahatchee. (And this overlooks the many independent recordings she made—both solo and with bands—dating back to age 14, often with her twin sister Allison.) You sometimes have to slow down to appreciate her penchant for introspective, drum-free electric guitar pieces. But she’ll take it up a notch or two also, and in “Silver” we get Waxahatchee at its drummiest and catchiest.
A relatively simple tune, with a verse that employs but three notes, “Silver” reverberates with understated power. Some of this comes from the relentless fuzz of the guitar, some from the simple sound of a human being at a drum kit, some from the ineffable purity of Crutchfield’s unaffected voice. Also, I am getting a particular thrill out of lyrics that manage both to puzzle and to flow, as the striking preponderance of one-syllable words lends a comfortable solidity to a song that does not reveal much direct meaning. Because of the unorthodox title choice, I can’t help hearing the line “My skin all turns silver” with extra attention, but then what? Lacking comprehensible narrative message, the phrase highlights mystery on the one hand, while feeling precise and gratifying on the other—the colloquial construction of skin “all turning [x]” is lovely in the way a candid photo can be lovely: capturing something familiar and yet never quite recorded before.
Katie Crutchfield was born in Alabama—which explains, at least peripherally, Waxahatchee—but has been based (sometimes loosely) in Philadelphia since the early 2010s. “Silver” is a track from the fourth Waxahatchee album, Out in the Storm, which is coming in July on Merge Records. MP3 available, again, via the fine folks at KEXP.
When will the critics understand that rock’n’roll was never about being original; it’s about being good. “Going Nowhere” is very good.
For a while there in the late ’90s and early ’00s, until it more or less died as far as the hipsters are concerned, rock’n’roll was increasingly taken to task for not offering up anything “new” or “original,” as if this most derivative of musical genres was ever truly about being new or original. Lazy critics yawning that this band or that wasn’t doing anything you hadn’t heard before was always beside the point. Good rock’n’roll was never really about being new or original; it was about being good. Much of rock’s goodness has always been grounded in visceral impact: does a song grab you? Does it work precisely because you don’t need to analyze it or philosophize about it or fit it into this or that intellectual construct? If at the same time a rock song can integrate its influences in ear-catching ways, then, well, we’re moving beyond good to great.
And so here comes the Austin quartet Toma, doing precisely this: taking a variety existing aural elements, integrating them in engaging ways, and crafting a song that grabs the ear quite firmly. I might even partially contradict what I just said and note that a band can in fact sound if not original then at least semi-original if it manages to combine its influences in new-seeming ways—although this point is always going to be difficult to demonstrate conclusively. But with “Going Nowhere,” my ear hears a bracing amalgam of ’80s synth pop, up-to-date production, and classic rock’n’roll (“it’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it”). And the synth pop vibe is really more a feel than a particular sound, as you will no doubt notice that “Going Nowhere” ends up being anchored in solid guitar lines.
As for this so-called “up-to-date production,” I’m referring both to the vocal effects and the background electronics the band works into the fabric of the presentation without unduly disrupting things. There is no particular way to describe this with any specificity, but it could be the thing that makes me happiest about “Going Nowhere.” The ability to use tools as tools rather than gimmicks is one that just might organically arise here in the later ’10s, as a kind of natural corrective to the overkill with which digital tools have been used by the mainstream music industry. Or, it might not. Lord knows I’ve been wrong before.
“Going Nowhere” is a song from the band’s debut album, Aroma, which is due out this week. MP3 via Magnet Magazine
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.
Just about as irresistible as chillwave comes.
Recycling the slick grooves of the late ’70s and early ’80s through 21st-century digital noodling has given birth to an entire (sort of) genre which has in recent years been as cutting-edge hip in pop music circles as the original music had been deemed hopelessly passé for a good 20 years or more. Funny that.
But there’s no denying the allure of this stuff, and “Chase the Night” strikes me just about as irresistible as chillwave comes. Equal parts sultry beat and soaring melody, the song transcends the genre’s robotic drift via some canny songwriting chops: both the verse and the chorus have two distinct sections, the second in each case building on the first in subtle but ear-grabbing ways. In the case of the verse, the melody changes from ascending to descending at the midway point and now comes at us in double time (0:30); the chorus, meanwhile, likewise goes double-time about halfway through, adding a lower-register counter-melody (1:03) after opening more anthemically.
And the boys of Work Drugs aren’t done there. We get a short, foggy bridge that floats near a kind of vocal manipulation that tips its hat towards commercial pop, but fades as quickly and curiously as it arose, and then leads into the song’s last two, disarming sections: first (2:35), the chorus, now presented in a new, minimal setting that accentuates the appeal of both the melody and of the human voices singing it; second (2:55), an out-of-the-blue, honest-to-goodness guitar solo, which sounds beautifully in context even as it was the last thing I might have expected. (Repeat listens to the song have since revealed a guitar hiding in plain sight in the back of the mix in the chorus, but without the closing solo, I’d never have picked it out.)
Work Drugs is the bizarrely prolific Philadelphia-based duo of Thomas Crystal and Ben Louisiana. They have been recording since 2011, and their forthcoming album, Louisa, will be their seventh full-length. I’m not even sure how that happens. The band performs live as a five-piece. “Chase the Night” is from Louisa, and can be downloaded as an MP3 in the usual method, above, or you can visit the band’s SoundCloud page and grab it there as a higher-definition .wav file. Lots of other songs available there as well. Thanks to the band for the MP3.
“Strangers” opens with a burst of happy wordless vocals (choosing the especially giddy “ba-ba-ba” over the more noncommittal “la-la-la”), right away informing us of its good-natured intentions.
Year by 21st-century year I am increasingly discouraged by our collective inability to discern good-catchy (based on effective/surprising melody) from bad-catchy (based on annoying, often shout-y repetition)—and, I suppose the greater affliction, our apparent preference for the bad-catchy. I do understand that bad-catchy is far easier to concoct and that today’s pop-oriented songwriters and producers, perceiving that virality is unrelated to quality, find bad-catchy better suited to their purposes.
Well, boo to all of them, but hooray for the astutely good-catchy “Strangers,” from the Los Angeles-based trio The Rebel Light. While sounding entirely of the 2014 moment, “Strangers” thrums with warmth and joy in a way that far too much of today’s indie pop has abandoned in favor of technology and analytics. As such, I’ll wager that this song will sound as fresh to future ears as most of 2014’s YouTube fodder will sound stale and uninteresting not that many years from now.
With a thumpy, head-bobbing core, “Strangers” opens with a burst of happy wordless vocals (choosing the especially giddy “ba-ba-ba” over the more noncommittal “la-la-la”), right away informing us of its good-natured intentions. While displaying moments of near-minimal accompaniment, the song works almost surreptitiously to add layers of aural interest as things unfold—squally electronics, hand-claps, an undercover disco beat, cowbell, acoustic guitar, a capella break, we get a little bit of everything stitched ably together into a pop-perfect 3:25 length. And at the heart of this catchy song is (of course) a super catchy chorus, featuring one of those great, inevitable-sounding melodies that good-catchy songs so often have. While easy to learn and sing along with, the chorus’s melody delivers extra oomph via the way it slides seamlessly off and on the beat. Specifically, note how each line in the chorus starts off the beat (i.e., the words “you,” “standing,” “waving,” etc.) aligns onto the beat for the middle of the line, then slips back between the beat for its three emphatic closing syllables (for instance, on the words “live this way” beginning at 0:46). I especially like when seemingly straightforward songs give us subtle little treats like that along the way.
“Strangers” is a single released by the band last month. You can download as usual via the title above, or directly from the band via SoundCloud. The band has previously released one three-song EP and one other single, both in 2013.