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 As she recently told Spin magazine, “I think for the longest time, Southern music has perpetuated some of the outdated/never-should-have-been-a-rallying-point-to-begin-with message.”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.

Free and legal MP3: Auditorium (brisk, elusive, unique)

“Never Wrote a Diver a Poem” is brisk and elusive, ending before the cavalcade of mysterious lyrics can quite register, before, it might seem, the song has truly taken full flight.


“Never Wrote a Diver a Poem” – Auditorium

Last heard here in January 2015, Spencer Berger is back with his unique, theatrical take on 21st-century rock’n’roll. “Never Wrote a Diver a Poem” is brisk and elusive, ending before the cavalcade of mysterious lyrics can quite register—before, it might seem, the song has truly taken full flight.

But boy what an incisive little piece this is, with its mix of arcane pronouncements (“Never helped a builder learn the dirt’s a liar”) and aphoristic gems (“‘Kindly’ is a word that makes me doubt my deeds”), set to a rolling melody that spikes almost astonishingly with a one-off hook (the “once in generation” segment, starting at 0:54) before cuddling back into its determined groove. And even while barely reaching 1:40, the song is concise enough to first offer up a wordless melody in the introduction and then, at the end, bring that motif back into the song, now with lyrics (1:24).

Above and beyond all this remains the singular allure of Berger’s singing voice, which is tinged with exotic drama, bearing little resemblance to anything you’re normally streaming in the 2010s (unless you happen to be a Bat Out Of Hell fan; I must inescapably join in with others who hear Meatlovian elements in Auditorium vocals). One would guess Berger’s distinctive sound has something to do with his unique background, having been a professional opera singer from the ages of nine through 12; as a child, he literally sang with Pavarotti. Based in Los Angeles, he began recording as Auditorium in 2011. His new album, The First Music, was released in January; you can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp. It’s a real one-man-band effort, as Berger not only sings all the vocal parts and plays all the instruments, he also recorded and mixed it himself.

(Note that the song I featured here two years ago, “My Grandfather Could Make the World Dance,” has also ended up as a track on the new album.)

Thanks to Spencer for the MP3.

photo credit: Liza Boone

Free and legal MP3: Jesca Hoop (minimal, agitated)

Itchy and curious, “The Lost Sky” grabbed my ear in a “where is this going?” kind of way, as the song’s opening verses unfold over minimal, agitated acoustic guitar work and a precise, intermittent bass line.

Jesca Hoop

“The Lost Sky” – Jesca Hoop

Itchy and curious, “The Lost Sky” grabs my ear in a “where is this going?” kind of way, as the song’s opening verses unfold over minimal, agitated acoustic guitar work and a precise, intermittent bass line. But as the song proceeds I slowly get the idea that where the song is going is where it already is: the ear has to adjust to its edgy open-endedness, its determined lack of solid ground. Symbolic of its restless core is what happens at the end of the (not very chorus-like) chorus (1:23-1:26). Listen first to how the melody has slowed down and seems at last to move towards resolution; and then, nope, it turns out that the note the ear is waiting for (1:23-1:26) is not an ending but a beginning: the resolving note starts the next verse and off we go again.

Other things begin to anchor me as I listen, starting first and foremost with Hoop’s harmonies, which kick in at 1:12 on the song’s incisive question “Why would you say those words to me if you could not follow through?” The narrator is a brokenhearted lover, and as the song plucks along my heart warms with the understanding that it only ever takes a talented songwriter to render the familiar unfamiliar. Here we get propulsive but diligent music, evocative lyrics, and then, yes, those increasingly startling and satisfying harmonies (where she takes it at 2:31 caused me just about to gasp), and there I am, embraced yet again, with gratitude, by the potency of song. It’s a nice place to be right about now.

Born in California, singer/songwriter Jesca Hoop moved to Manchester (UK) in 2010. “The Lost Sky” is from her forthcoming album, Memories Are Now, coming out in February on Sub Pop Records. Here is someone who apparently cycles through Fingertips in five-year loops; Hoop was previously featured in 2007 and 2012.

MP3 via Colorado Public Radio.

Free and legal MP3: Mark Tulk (plaintive but upbeat, piano-driven)

A fetching constant throughout is Tulk’s warm, strong singing voice, with a tone at once earthy and buoyant.

Mark Tulk

“Universal Code” – Mark Tulk

While tinged with a bittersweet air “Universal Code” likewise comes across as friendly and comforting. Piano-based rock music can have that effect on me, I think. Maybe it’s just because I grew up playing piano, and hearing a good amount of piano music in the house. Or maybe—just maybe—there is something built into the sound of a piano, perhaps its unique capacity to be at once melodic and percussive, that feels human-scaled and reassuring.

More to the point, see what Tulk is doing with the piano here—two things I am noticing in particular: first, the incisive, eighth-note motif that opens the song, with its accents on the one and two beats (at once basic and somewhat unusual), right away asserting the instrument’s rhythmic potency, and racing the pulse a bit; second, the song’s central chord change, heard first at 0:14, which is a homely but affecting up-step from G major to A minor. Written into the right context, moving up just one tonal interval can be a poignant thing. Which is to say he had me at hello, basically.

Which is not to say there are not engaging elements throughout, of course. The instrumentation is deftly done—the song expands beyond its piano foundation, with subtle electronic flourishes and offbeat vocal layering, without losing its piano-centric-ness, which seems its own sort of accomplishment. And then what’s this?: a coterie of reed instruments sidle in somewhere along the way, and become undeniable past the two-minute mark. An appealing constant throughout is Tulk’s warm, strong singing voice, with a tone at once earthy and buoyant.

“Universal Code” is the lead track on Embers, Tulk’s third full-length album, released in March; he has also put out two EPs. You can listen to the entire album as well as purchase it via Bandcamp. Born in Australia, Tulk, who identifies himself on his web site as a “writer, philosopher, and musician,” is based in Boulder, Colorado. MP3 courtesy of the artist.