The sound is rough and dirty, with that air of tumbled-together crunchiness and ramshackle singing that we often get in this particular sonic arena.
One of the coolest things the original “alternative rock” movement of the middle ’80s did was link the DIY ethics and lo-fi sound of garage rock with hi-fi artistic pretensions introduced to rock’n’roll by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and (let’s not leave them out, as too many do) the Kinks. It’s a tricky balancing act—music of this nature can become too precious and/or too muddy for its own good—but an engaging enough aspiration to remain alive lo these 30 years later. At its best, this lineage has given birth to bands with an impressive, maybe even unprecedented breadth to their sound (think Yo La Tengo, perhaps the proto-band of whatever you actually want to call this stuff), because the foundational idea was never about one particular kind of song in the first place, and the attachment to sonic basics never actually required shoddy recording standards.
Enter “Franki Jo,” from the trio Mincer Ray, whose very name clues us in to the band’s ancestry (“Mincer Ray” is a song from Guided By Voices’ alt-rock classic Bee Thousand). The sound is rough and dirty, with that air of tumbled-together crunchiness and ramshackle singing that we often get in this particular sonic arena. But the song is hardly as slapdash as the vibe suggests. This is in truth a well-crafted song, with touches that are engaging and, often, slyly humorous—from the the heard-only-once pre-chorus (0:45) to the shifting verse melody (i.e., the second verse is not precisely the same as the first) to the extended “oo”-ing in the background in the second verse to the satisfying, two-part coda (2:48, 3:11). The song’s underlying riff (what we hear first at 0:04) is at once primal and slightly complicated, with its rushed, four-note descent, climaxing off the main beat; and after it asserts itself, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, if only because there is so much more going on from start to finish. (Think how different those old garage-rock songs were, which were often all riff, and little song.) Don’t miss as well the appearance of some spiffy chords and unexpected chord changes along the way.
Mincer Ray is a Berlin-based band of expats, comprised of Americans Graham McCarthy and Sean Anderson and Brazilian Acácio Do Conto, known as Cate (pronounced Ka-Chee). Ray Mincer, the debut full-length, came out last year. “Franki Jo” is the lead track on the EP A Magnate’s Reach, officially coming out at the end of May. You can listen and purchase via Bandcamp. Note also that if you download the song via SoundCloud, you can have the song as a .wav file, if you like higher-quality downloads.
This one hits the sweet spot in which DIY sensibility and serious pop know-how—not to mention the 20th and 21st centuries—magically blend.
This one hits the sweet spot in which DIY sensibility and serious pop know-how—not to mention the 20th and 21st centuries—magically blend. Even as the vocals are processed into an AM-radio-ish and/or ’40s-cartoon-ish kind of tinny chipperness, the music feels stout and committed, with its precise, multifaceted groove, its purposefully constructed vibe, and the accumulated grandeur of what the band throws at us over the course of four minutes.
I call your particular attention to the interplay we hear between the rather cheesy organ and a swaying, swelling chorus of trombones beginning at 2:23—an entirely unnatural pairing that is made to sound entirely natural. When this gives way at 2:57 to, of all things, the warm strum of a simple acoustic guitar, the surprise might blow the mind except that it also strikes the ear as exactly what was then required.
Radiation City is a quartet from Portland, Oregon. “The Color of Industry” is a song from the album The Hands That Take You, originally self-released on cassette in February, coming out in a more standard release in September on Tender Loving Empire, the Portland-based arts collective/record label/retail store run by Jared Mees, last seen around these parts back in February.
Steph Brown—who is Lips, all by herself–has a lovely-yet-cheeky, plainspoken voice, the kind that can sound like she’s talking even though she’s singing, and she plunges us right into the middle of a story: “Left a note taped to the fridge:/’I’m staying with Josie.'”
Sometimes you just get a good feeling about something—it can be anything, really, from a song to a book to a restaurant to a back road in the country. You get that good feeling and you just know everything’s going to be fine.
I had that good feeling from the moment “1not2” began, with its jaunty, overlapping keyboard motif. I can’t unscramble this entirely—maybe there are two, maybe there are three different keyboards making sounds here—but I immediately like the bell-like, percussive tones employed and especially like the way the background key completes the musical phrase of the foreground leader at the end of every second measure. The intro is both agreeable and purposeful. We are in good hands. When Steph Brown—she is Lips, all by herself—begins singing, the good feeling is confirmed. She has a lovely-yet-cheeky, plainspoken voice, the kind that can sound like she’s talking even though she’s singing, and she plunges us right into the middle of a story: “Left a note taped to the fridge:/’I’m staying with Josie.'” So it’s a breakup story—one, not two. Gotcha. How infrequently here in 21st-century indie-rock-digital-music-land do we get songs with characters and story lines and people simply doing things. After the second verse gets underway (1:16), I am putty in Brown’s hands: “Took the dog out for a walk/Bumped into Mrs. Bacon/She asked me about how you were/It was an awkward conversation.” This brings to mind some of those great Squeeze story-songs from the late ’70s and early ’80s, and her adjunct commentary underneath the lyrics, as she “acts out” the scene a bit, is casually delightful. The whole song is casually delightful, but make no mistake, as DIY as this is, it’s also very smartly constructed and performed—a pure pop song in a digital sea of blurry, aimless drivel.
Lips is the name of Steph Brown’s solo recording project; “1not2” comes from the debut release, a five-song EP called Lips Songs, available via Bandcamp. Brown is from Auckland, but has been living (where else?) in Brooklyn for the last three years, with her four keyboards. (She used to have six but sold two of them to move to the US.) She is also in a band with Deva Mahal (Taj Mahal’s daughter) called Fredericks Brown, which plays an entirely different kind of music (simmering and soulful), and has also just released an EP. The “1not2” MP3 is a Fingertips exclusive right now.
I’ve never been personally into the anarchic posturing of old-school punks, nor the fetishistic preference for noise over musicality. But every now and then I stumble upon something from that world that reminds me that a certain number of punksters are popsters at heart, and that, when used in symbiotic tandem, punk and pop can offer a uniquely satisfying experience.
Come to think of it, not a lot of rough-hewn DIY stuff ends up here either. I’ve never been personally into the anarchic posturing of old-school punks, nor the fetishistic preference for noise over musicality. But every now and then I stumble upon something from that world that reminds me that a certain number of punksters are popsters at heart, and that, when used in symbiotic tandem, punk and pop can offer a uniquely satisfying experience. And I’m not talking about what has been labeled “punk pop” on the commercial side of things. I’m talking about something like “Resilient Bastard,” with its squonky guitar work, unschooled but determined vocals, sly sense of humor both lyrically and musically (sleigh bells? really?), and, best of all, its spirited hook, which depends equally on the words and music. No way that chorus kills the way it does if the singer leads with a line other than “I don’t care/I’m a resilient bastard.”
Johnny “Shellhead” and Jen Shag (Shell, Shag, you see), although from different places–he, Missouri; she, New Jersey–are both rooted musically in the ’90s DIY scene in San Francisco, and began playing together in 1999, first in the trio Kung Fu USA. ShellShag emerged from that experience. “Resilient Bastard” will be found on the album Rumors In Disguise, ShellShag’s second full-length, scheduled for release in February on Don Giovanni Records.