“Everything is Simple” – Widowspeak

Brooklyn duo shows no sign of letting up

“Everything is Simple” – Widowspeak

Molly Hamilton’s languorous, whisper-like vocals–an ongoing centerpiece of the Widowspeak sound–feel especially front and center on the chunky yet dreamy “Everything is Simple.” After the hesitating, rubbery bass line establishes the song’s deliberate pace, there she is, purring lazily in your ear, ever-so-slightly behind the beat. It’s hard to resist.

And yet it’s the background instrumentation that really sells this one, for me: the central bass line, marching up and falling back; the prickly guitar licks, adding intermittently insistent metallic abrasion; and the steadying keyboard presence, fingering evocative chords and vamps at just the right time. (Listen for the first instance at 0:24; for me, this recurring moment more or less makes the whole song.) “Everything is Simple” has a circular persistence to it that works against type to transform Hamilton’s laid-back breathiness into something tenacious. “I’m still around but it’s a curse,” she happens to sing.

Widowspeak is the duo of Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas. Formed in Brooklyn in 2010 just before the borough’s indie rock mania began to recede, the band has outlasted that bygone scene with no sign of letting up. They released their sixth album, The Jacket, last month; that’s where you’ll find “Everything is Simple.” MP3 once again via KEXP.

“Smile” – Whoop

Charming, charged indie rock

“Smile” – Whoop

Right away the intro hints at this song’s crooked charm: what kind of guitar tone is that, and is it even in tune or on the beat? We don’t have long to ponder these inscrutable questions, as the song is overtaken, at 0:08, by the distinctive presence of Fal, the band’s one-named leader. With a voice that sounds at once like a whisper and a shout, she massages words and syllables into enjoyable new shapes, lyrical lines running into and over each other, enthusiasm bleeding into urgency and back again. The song is worth a listen for Fal alone.

At the same time let’s not give the fellows here short shrift. Playing together only since the fall of 2020, the band seems quickly to have fused into one of those units that can sound like they’re flying apart precisely as they’re pulling tightly together. A tell-tale sign of Whoop’s sharp musicianship is the space they leave for themselves in the mix—often here we get not much more than drum and bass; and when the guitar shows up it’s more to blurt and wobble into the texture than to steal the spotlight. Even the solo (1:58) is a woozy affair, half off the beat, grabbing only 15 seconds of your time, but not before nailing a brief vivid lick, heretofore unheard, into the onrushing tumble of Fal’s narration.

Whoop is based in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Smile” is a track from the band’s exclamatory, self-titled album, Whoop!, which was released in November. You can check out the whole thing, and buy it, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Magnum Dopus

Post-punk intimations

“Scratch & Dent Blonde” – Magnum Dopus

With a tight, scratchy post-punk rhythm and the rich baritone lead of vocalist Andrew McCarty, the Memphis quintet Magnum Dopus delivers an ear-catching homage to the so-called darkwave edge of ’80s new wave music. Adroit shifts between minor and major keys add to the song’s affecting, Depeche-Mode-y vibe. And while it’s definitely not just McCarty’s voice that makes the song, I do give his voice a lot of credit here. That’s quite a voice.

And yet the real hook, to my ears, is the wordless vocal accents that adorn the chorus (first heard at 1:00). The chorus opens with a sense of clearing, with the insistent scratch of the rhythm guitar abruptly dissipated and the melody easing off the double-time urgency of the verse. McCarty sings the titular phrase (it doesn’t sound much like the titular phrase but I’m assured that it is) and then we get the “oo-oo-oo-oo”s and I don’t know, there’s something in that aural maneuver that underpins the song’s potency. Whether it’s because the “oo-oo”s break the portentous trance a voice like his can induce or simply because the sound of those wordless syllables offers some sort of ineffable finishing touch that you didn’t know the song needed until you heard it, I’m convinced they are what transform the song from passingly good to something I’m now writing about here.

Oh and don’t miss the turbulent, neck-climbing guitar solo (2:31-2:48), which represents another kind of homage in a musical world that has largely devalued not just the guitar but the communal value of a soloist within an ensemble in favor of the relentless car-accident appeal of narcissistic TikTok virtuosity.

“Scratch & Dent Blonde” is the fourth of 10 tracks on Suburbanova, the band’s second full-length album, which was released last month. You can listen to and purchase it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: S.G. Goodman (raw, authoritative Americana)

“Old Time Feeling” – S.G. Goodman

The subtly defiant “Old Time Feeling” launches with the crunch and sizzle of raw authority and doesn’t relent. The beat is seductive, the lyrics tantalizing, the melody sturdy, and singer/songwriter S.G. Goodman’s voice has a sawdust dignity at once fragile and powerful that compels you to close listening.

The song’s stomping vibe—Americana with a rough-hewn edge—underscores a rare, if wry, toughness of spirit. A native of Western Kentucky, Goodman here offers an across-the-bow challenge to the persistent, delusional self-image that has been sadly characteristic of the South. As she recently told Spin magazine, “I think for the longest time, Southern music has perpetuated some of the outdated/never-should-have-been-a-rallying-point-to-begin-with message.” Weird sentence editing aside, I love that “never-should-have-been-a-rallying-point-to-begin-with” part. And even if not overtly imbued with “Lost Cause” revisionism, there has long been that “good old boy” self-righteousness represented in Southern music that presents a rollicking, affirmative cover to a region long beset by deep-rooted troubles of all kinds—economic, political, social, you name it. Goodman’s eye-opening pivot in “Old Time Feeling” has three parts: first, the recognition of said troubles—she refers to the “sickness in the countryside,” and sings, “The southern state is a condition, it’s true”—and second, the declaration that there are people in this complex region who are working on change. Thus the repeated chorus “We’re not living in that old time feeling.” She then goes one important step further, taking to task those who complain about the traditional Southern way but leave rather than stay to help with the transformation:

Oh, and I hear people saying how they want a change
And then the most of them do something strange
They move where everybody feels the same

Goodman’s response to them?:

I’ve got a little proposition for you
Stick around and work your way through
Be the change you hope to find

“Old Time Feeling” is the lead single from Goodman’s debut album of the same name, produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket and released in July on Verve Forecast. Goodman had previously fronted a band called The Savage Radley, which released an album entitled Kudzu in 2017.

photo credit: Meredith Truax

Free and legal MP3: Punch the Sun (summertime earworm w/ a message)

“Do What I Want” – Punch the Sun

Bassist and front woman Shannon Söderlund has a lucid singing style that brings to mind a young Jonatha Brooke, a style that intimates that words very much matter to her. Combine that with the fact that she is indeed the bass player and right away Punch the Sun presents as a band with an engaging mission. (I have long noted here that bands with the bass player as front person often create especially satisfying music, perhaps because bass players who sing approach their instruments differently than those destined to play with their mouths closed.)

“Do What I Want” crosses the breeziness of a bubblegummy summertime earworm with worthy cultural commentary and some tight and meaty guitar work. The bass line dances and percusses with a deft touch, guiding the song’s head-bobbing rhythm without drawing attention to itself. Clocking in at a swift two minutes fifty seconds, the song hurtles forward, delivers its sing-along message, and moves on. In this context, the guitar is given just a seven-second solo (1:47), but it’s a rollicking one.

The lyrics here are a mix of the straightforward and the elusive; while the opening salvo makes Söderlund’s stance clear —

Hide your little girl in fluffy dresses, pretty curls
And soon enough she’ll learn to go along

— some of the other lines are more mysterious, and I kind of like that; once the general concept is communicated—rigid, corporate-driven beauty standards suck, basically—it’s nice the way the song leaves space for interpretation. You get the general gist but not every last thing is spelled out for you. And, given the contemptibility of the target—the consumerist push for women to be quote-unquote attractive in very particular ways—Söderlund hits with a light touch. She’s not out to harangue us about the evils of the fashion or diet industries, she’s just here to say she’s going to ignore all that and just do what she wants with herself. More power to her.

Punch the Sun is a trio based in Queens, New York. “Do What I Want” is the third track on the band’s first full-length album, Brevity, recorded when they were still a foursome, and released in April. You can listen to the whole thing and purchase it, for a price of your choosing, via Bandcamp. MP3 courtesy of the band.

Free and legal MP3: Washed Out (very appealing synth pop)

“Too Late” – Washed Out

I’m trying to figure out what Ernest Greene’s secret is. The man who does musical business as Washed Out—and let’s remember that he is credited with more or less inventing chillwave—offers up what appears on the surface to be standard-issue 21st-century electronic pop: beat-heavy, bass-forward, easy-on-the-ears, all sounds seemingly emerging from digital sources. Why is this song so good and so many similar efforts so forgettable?

I have a few ideas. First of all, never underestimate the power of a good voice. I am continually surprised by how many submissions I get that discourage me as soon as the singing starts. Not everyone who tries to sing is a good singer; not all voices are created equal. Greene’s voice has a tone at once rich and hazy, and whatever manipulative effects are employed, a listener never loses track of the appealing human voice producing the  sounds. (Boy do I wish that anyone still tempted by Auto-Tune would discover the potential of other ways to deal with voice in the digital realm. Greene should teach a master class.)

Digging deeper, there is something too in the actual notes he sings. I don’t have perfect pitch and my knowledge of music theory is incomplete at best but I do think that Greene has the happy inclination to sing what may be suspended notes, or in any case are notes appealingly off the underlying chord. You hear this as soon as he opens his mouth (0:40), singing “I saw you there”: there, that’s the note I’m talking about. It’s not in the chord backing the melody here. He doesn’t in fact meet up with the chord until the end of the next phrase (“waiting outside“); how warm and cozy that feels is a side effect of how much he has otherwise been hanging the melody in suspension. He draws some extra attention to this inclination when he gets to the word “shy” at 1:03. The subtle tension created by these notes is seductive.

Another thing going on here to the song’s benefit is the dynamic range of the percussion. I don’t know if any of this comes from a three-dimensional drum kit or not but the effect is three-dimensional because Greene offers up shifts in volume in the elements of the beat.  A lot of electronic beats, however seemingly intricate, are flatter in this regard. You can hear a purposefully dramatic incidence of this in the intro, at 0:15. But all through the verse section, what you actually have, underneath the blurry trappings, is an old-fashioned backbeat (emphasis on the second and fourth beats of the measure), effected via the dynamic range. It’s not that this is impossible or even difficult to do electronically; it may just be that music makers right now don’t really care to do it.

Lastly, Greene is comfortable getting a little odd. And a bit of oddness can be extremely welcome, especially in a musical era marked by click-oriented efforts to be “catchy.” Here we get a distinctly odd chorus (1:20): the beat disappears; the vocals layer into a vibey mist; the lyrics are punctuated by what sound like distorted, synthesized cellos; and for good measure we get some digitized hand claps before it’s done.

“Too Late” is a single released in April on Sub Pop. Washed Out was featured previously on Fingertips back in August 2011. MP3 once again via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Wye Oak (gliding, gratifying rocker)

“Fear of Heights” – Wye Oak

A long-standing Fingertips favorite, the duo Wye Oak continues to produce music that feels effortless and compelling. Despite my general familiarity with their history, each new recording of theirs manages to hit my ears in unexpected ways. “Oh,” I end up saying to myself, “that’s what they sound like this time.”

The ongoing constant is Jenn Wasner’s voice—smoky, yearning, articulate, unyielding. We begin in a sparse setting, devoid of time signature, just Wasner and a few piano chords. This is striking as an opening salvo—not a standard introduction, it is in fact the song’s first verse, waded rather than plunged into. We end up in the middle of the first verse without quite realizing how we got there—perhaps an apt mirror of how someone afraid of heights has to trick herself into making the upward journey.

As the song develops lyrically, the ostensible subject transforms into a metaphor about the difficulties and rewards of a long-term relationship. The idea of being afraid of heights is, I think, easier to grasp and/or acknowledge as a physical concept than as an emotional one; as such, linking the two informs both sides of the challenge.

A potentially weighty concept? Maybe. And yet handily presented at a pop-perfection length of 3:34, gliding forth with a gratifying momentum that feels at once circular and syncopated. Building off its piano-based opening, the song juxtaposes verses with musical space between lyrics against a declarative chorus, offering one thought: “You say it’s worth it for the view.”  Wasner’s self-harmonies add gorgeous texture. A bridge section intervenes with a cascade of phrases pivoting around the recurring sentence “I am a woman.” It is mysterious and powerful. To top it off we get a Bowie-like saxophone (or sax sound, in any case) playing the song out from 3:00 onward.

Wye Oak has lately been releasing singles in lieu of albums. “Fear of Heights” came out in January, more recently available, via KEXP, as a free and legal MP3. Their latest single is “Walk Soft,” available via Bandcamp. This is the band’s fifth feature on Fingertips, dating back to 2008.

Free and legal MP3: The Innocence Mission (gorgeous, soul-stirring)

Pretty much all of their work is exquisitely crafted and touching; some of it, like this new single, is soul-stirringly gorgeous.

“On Your Side” – The Innocence Mission

The trio of Karen Peris, Don Peris, and Mike Bitts have been doing their beautiful and timeless thing, as The Innocence Mission, out there in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, since 1989. Pretty much all of their work is exquisitely crafted and touching; some of it, like this new single, is soul-stirringly gorgeous. Karen sings with a slurry, fragile power that augments the melancholy tones baked into the band’s melodies and chord changes. In her masterful hands, even a sprightly, upturned melody, such as when she here sings, “Some days we are not sure where we’re going” (0:21), can bring tears to the eyes from the poignant power of it all.

And, to be sure, this song draws on a deep well of feeling, rooted in the potency of life-long love, including love that extends beyond the grave. The song’s surface-level simplicity is its grace, that up-skipping, recurring melody its super power. Note too how intimate the recording sounds—husband and wife Karen and Don record the band in their house—yet also how well built and nimbly crafted. With care and vision and talent (and technology), The Innocence Mission manage to do this impossible thing: they make the internet seem peaceful, helpful, and generally Okay.

“On Your Side” is a song from the band’s eleventh album, See You Tomorrow, which was released last week. Listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp, where it is available digitally, on CD, and (most fittingly, to my ears) on vinyl. This is the fourth time the band has been featured here on Fingertips, dating all the way back to November 2003. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Laura Gibson

Song as languorous dream

Laura Gibson

“Tenderness” – Laura Gibson

Framed on top of a sparse but expressive rhythm section—buoyant bass riff meets stark tom-tom beat—“Tenderness” unfolds without haste, as a languorous dream. Gibson sings in a warm, rounded tone, augmented by an almost Holiday-esque ache, suggesting someone at once too shy to speak and yet brave enough to sing. “Don’t wake a swarm of bees beneath me,” she coos, not as fragile as she might sound.

The song supports her both musically and symbolically, employing sturdy sonic structures as almost aural sleight of hand—you don’t notice the droning guitars we get hints of in the background, but you feel them. And the strings: yes, you hear the strings, but really listen to them and feel what they’re doing, too—as for instance the intuited pathos of their downward-sliding notes (1:25 presents an example). In Gibson’s hands, even the straightforward idea of backing vocals feels freighted, unnerving; she asks, in the chorus, “Do you want tenderness?” and the lack of certainty over whether she’s still singing to the man she’d been initially addressing or now singing to herself is intensified by answering background voices so in sync with her idiosyncrasies (it’s all her, after all) that they register as the personification of voices in her own head, manifesting the depth of her interpersonal turmoil. (She proceeds, in the first chorus, from “Kiss your mouth for tenderness” to, in later iterations, “Curse your name for tenderness,” and then, “Break your leg for tenderness”; ouch.)

With its simple sway, “Tenderness” doesn’t break a sweat as much as glue you to your seat. More is revealed with repeated listening. I suggest not losing yourself too much in Gibson’s vocal tone to forget to listen to her phrasing, which can stun. Hear, for instance, how she sings the words “model of” in the lyric “You’re a model of reason,” at 0:47: I can’t quite absorb what she’s doing there or how she’s doing it. Or, listen to the upward swerve she effects in both the second and third verses, at the same moment in the fourth line of each—on the word “men” at 1:46, and “face” at 3:15. These are not moments you are necessarily supposed to notice, which makes noticing them all the more potent. And not all moments here are vocal. Maybe my favorite is the abrupt shutdown of the strings at 1:44, a muted reinforcement of the fierce words that have preceded it:

I’ve been taught, I should wait to be chosen
That I haven’t known love
Until I’ve been destroyed by love

“Tenderness” is a track from Goners, Gibson’s fifth album, which was released on Barsuk Records in October. Gibson’s song “La Grande” was featured on Fingertips in November 2011, and her song “Harmless” made its way into a playlist in May 2016. MP3 via Barsuk, where you can also buy the album, in vinyl, CD, FLAC, or MP3 format. Or go to Bandcamp, where you can listen in full before you buy the digital version.

photo: Timothy O’Connell/Fader

Free and legal MP3:Kacey Johansing (warm and alluring)

“Bow and Arrow” has a melancholy majesty about it, formed of straightforward acoustic guitar strumming, a calm but resolute backbeat, and the dusky beauty of Kacey Johansing’s voice.

Kacey Johansing

“Bow and Arrow” – Kacey Johansing

“Bow and Arrow” has a melancholy majesty about it, formed of straightforward acoustic guitar strumming, a calm but resolute backbeat, and the dusky beauty of Kacey Johansing’s voice. This is the kind of music that grabs me at some level below or beyond the ear. I’m a sucker, to be sure, for suspended chords, and am pulled in effortlessly, as well, by lyrics that do this, even as I’m not sure exactly what “this” is:

I held the bow and arrow
Unsteady was my shot

These words arrive near the beginning; a scene is suggested without clarifying details—the titular bow and arrow could be pure metaphor, or could have a literal side; whatever story Johansing tells is sketched so elusively that we read the live-and-learn sorrow without apprehending a storyline. As the plot is probably thickening, in fact, Johansing backs away from enunciation, floating the second verse into smudges of suggestions; released from particulars, the listener tunes further into the emotion of the climactic lines (which I hope I’ve gleaned accurately):

I wanted to feel
Anything at all
I wanted to know
How far I could fall

So it turns out that songs are only partly fathomable as concrete notes and words on paper. Arrangement, vibe, and quality of singing voice can transform and transport. Meaning: it’s not always what someone is saying but how they are saying it—which then feeds back (crucially, alchemically) into what they are saying. That’s the magic of song, pretty much. Kacey Johansing (previously featured on Fingertips in 2013, by the way) has a firm grip on this magic.

Johansing is currently based in Los Angeles, after a decade in the Bay Area. “Bow and Arrow” is a song from her third album, The Hiding, which comes out in June on Night Bloom Records. MP3 via Insomnia Radio, a stalwart source of downloads in this wayward, stream-focused age.