Lovely and solemn, “Life Lives Inside” is a hymn-like waltz that seems to flow from the depths of that timeless, intuitive place from which the great songs emerge. The melody has the majestic clarity of ages-old folk music, while the easy-going setting is scrupulously presented, but in a way that seems offhand and unfettered–just two people singing, with instruments so casually calibrated as to seem all but undetectable.
With a two-line verse that repeats only once, sung by Perlin alone, “Life Lives Inside” is almost all chorus. And a terrific chorus it is, with two expressive parts, presented in same-note male-female harmonies, Rob Ouseley buzzing low below Perlin’s affecting lead. The swaying rhythm conjures the song’s ocean-bound setting; the finely crafted lyrics hide and convey in equal measure, the words important as sounds as much as message. To my ears, as an example, the power of the couplet “We gave what we could/We couldn’t give more” is as dependent upon the pattern of its carefully repeated words as its poignant sentiment.
“Life Lives Inside,” for all its apparent simplicity, rewards many listens. As you travel through the song again you’ll notice a number of wonderful moments, such as Perlin’s evocative uplift on the word “eye” (0:39), and the wonderful hesitation she builds into the phrase “like nothing I’d heard” (1:46). The quiet instrumentation alone is worth an attentive ear, including the steady muted keyboard underscoring the chorus, with its occasional quiet run of right-hand countermelody, and the gorgeously curated percussion, involving nothing that sounds like a drum kit but rather a well-placed assortment of knocks, snaps, and claps.
Flo Perlin is a London-based singer/songwriter; Pilgrims’ Dream is the performing name employed by singer/songwriter/producer Ouseley, likewise in London. The two met at an open mic five years ago; they wrote and recorded “Life Lives Inside” in Perlin’s living room. The song was released earlier this month and appears to be their only collaboration to date. I for one would eagerly hear more from them.
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.
A balm to the jangled-nerve world of 2020, “The Only Ones” is two guitars and two voices, all four elements interlacing with masterful ease.
A balm to the jangled-nerve world of 2020, “The Only Ones” is two guitars and two voices, all four elements interlacing with masterful ease. The end result is a song at once gentle and sturdy, with a lullaby-like loveliness that helps nudge the lyrics over the edge from despair into something closer to hope. Weirdly enough, I’m hearing an almost Springsteen-esque conviction at the center of this un-Springsteen-like composition, something maybe in the mettle of the chorus’s descending melody, and its ambiguous but stirring lyrics.
The Milk Carton Kids are the duo of Joey Ryan (the tall one) and Kenneth Pattengale (the shorter one). Known for their impressive guitar skills, consummate harmonizing, and amusing stage banter, the Kids have, since 2011, been almost single-handedly in charge of keeping the time-honored “singing duo” concept alive in our 21st-century musical awareness. Written accounts of the Kids turn inevitably to talk of Simon & Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers, both of which have no doubt influenced these guys. But to me, the back-in-the-day musicians the Milk Carton Kids evoke far more directly is the duo Aztec Two-Step, who featured not only the gorgeous harmonizing but, crucially, the interplay of twin acoustic guitars, including some virtuosic finger-picking.
If you by the way have some time on your hands you could do much worse than to watch the Milk Carton Kids concert DVD, “Live from Lincoln Theatre,” which is streaming on YouTube. Pattengale’s facility as a lead guitarist is all but miraculous, and is almost as much of a visual treat as an aural one.
“The Only Ones” is the title track to the most recent Milk Carton Kids recording, an EP released this past October. MP3 via The Current.
(MP3s from the Minneapolis public radio station The Current are available in files that are 128kbps, which is below the established 192kbps standard, not to mention the higher-def standard of 320kbps. I personally don’t hear much difference on ordinary equipment but if you are into high-end sound you’ll probably notice something. In any case I always encourage you to download the MP3 for the purposes of getting to know a song via a few listens; if you like it I as always urge you to buy the music. It’s still, and always, the right thing to do.)
I’ve got one more artist with a Fingertips track record for you this month, as the Portland duo Pure Bathing Culture returns with another glistening piece of indie rock, this their third feature here, dating back to 2012. Whereas in previous incarnations the duo presented their guitar-based material wrapped in a cloud of hazy electronics and constructed beats, they are now embracing their inner Fleetwood Mac and going all in on sprightly riffing and buoyant melodies. (Seeing them in person definitely adds to the Buckingham-Nicks vibe, Sara Versprille white-gowned and witchy up front, Daniel Hindman working guitar magic under a balding, curly-haired pate.)
“All Night” is as upbeat as these guys get; the song’s momentum receives an added push thanks to its persistently on-the-beat melody—in the verse in particular, there are a limited number of quarter or eighth notes, and little in the way of syncopation. Over time this lends a subtle breathlessness to the proceedings, reinforced by Versprille’s recurring yelp in the chorus at the end of the lyric “Till black in the sky turns blue.”
Most of all the song in particular, and Pure Bathing Culture more generally, presents an ongoing affirmation on the power and purpose of the electric guitar, despite its relegation to the scrap heap of history by 2010s mainstream pop. Sure, Hindman still tucks his licks in and around a glossy bed of bounce and reverb, but if you have any questions about the intensity of his instrumental commitment, even here in 2019, listen closely to the last 60 seconds of this song, where he out-Buckinghams Buckingham and maybe even out-Knopflers Knopfler in the process. Personally, I think he gets faded out a bit too gently and too early but even in those closing seconds you can feel the heat of his playing.
“All Night” is the sixth of 11 tracks on the band’s album Night Pass, their third, which was released in April and produced by Portland crony Tucker Marine. Listen to it and buy it, in your format of choice, via Bandcamp. There’s even a tote bag for you tote bag fans. MP3 once more via The Current.
(Note that MP3s from The Current are available in files that are 128kbps, which is below the iTunes standard of 192kbps, not to mention the higher-def standard of 320kbps. I personally don’t hear much difference on standard-quality equipment but if you are into high-end sound you’ll probably notice something. In any case I always encourage you to download the MP3 for the purposes of getting to know a song via a few listens; if you like it I still urge you to buy the music. It’s the right thing to do.)
A loose-limbed paean to 21st-century chaos.
When a song comes along that’s this affable and effective, you can begin to wonder why everyone doesn’t do this. It seems so straightforward!: lay down a jangly, toe-tapping groove, add in a friendly descending melody peopled by tumbly, literate lyrics, performed by same-note, male-female harmonies, and boom—terrific song. Consider the couple of interruptions from rambunctious guitars (for instance, at 1:22) a bonus.
By their own accounts, Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers, who together comprise Better Oblivion Community Center, did in fact find this song pretty easy to write—Oberst has been quoted as calling the song a “happy accident.” It sprung from a discussion of a Reply All episode (they are both big fans of this great podcast) that had to do with the conspiracy theories online that posit, in apparent seriousness, that the current American president is only pretending to be a colossal moron. Oh and the Dylan Thomas connection seems to do with the basic fact that Oberst is himself a long-time admirer of the Irish poet.
I assume fans either of Oberst or of Bridgers individually will dig this but I myself wasn’t either in particular and I dig it too, in a whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts way. Their blended voices in this relatively upbeat setting have a delightful elan that overshadows a draggy melancholy that, to my ears, can beset both of them on their own. Not that there’s anything wrong with draggy melancholy! Sometimes that’s just the thing. But, not a thing on this loose-limbed paean to 21st-century chaos.
“Dylan Thomas” is the third track on the Better Oblivion Community Center’s self-titled debut, released in January. You can stream it as well as buy it (digital, CD, vinyl) via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.
When Jenn Wasner’s multi-tracked vocals arrive, they wash into the song in full-on School of Seven Bells fashion and, with the ongoing jig of synthesizers, conjure some sort of soaring, hopeful ache that seems to make life both challenging and worth living at the same time.
Both dreamy and driven, the title track from the new Wye Oak album chugs to a brisk, intricate-sounding 4/4 beat, propelled by an array of synth lines with enough texture and zest to support the 57-second introduction. (Listen in particular for the pentatonic arpeggios punctuated by percussive stabs and distant twiddles on top.) When Jenn Wasner’s multi-tracked vocals arrive, they wash into the song in full-on School of Seven Bells fashion and, with the ongoing jig of synthesizers, conjure some sort of soaring, hopeful ache that seems to make life both challenging and worth living at the same time.
And okay that’s a lot to put on an indie rock song, or any song for that matter. So let’s get back to the music itself, and specifically the guitar work. Do you even notice it? There in the chorus, that distorted, antic melody underpinning Wasner’s repetition of the titular phrase, that’s her partner Andy Stack on guitar. The sound is charming and inventive as it intertwines with the staccato synths and Wasner’s plain-spoken vocals, producing in its entirety a song that feels very alive, very of the moment. So…can we lay to rest, yet, the streaming-induced hand-wringing about the death of rock? Is getting three million streams the only legitimate goal in musical life? There are smart young musicians out there who find artistic merit in extending the spectrum of rock’n’roll history to include what they’re trying to say and do. Part of separating ourselves from the 21st century’s digital trance involves remembering there is more to music than virality. There’s more to everything than virality.
“The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs” is available as an MP3 via KEXP. The album was just released this past week on Merge Records. Wye Oak has been featured on Fingertips three previous times, dating back to 2008 (see the Artist Index for details).
Echoes of ’60s spy-movie music are just a part of the charm, and are woven into something that feels different and organic.
“Nova” grows in potency with repeated listens. Sly echoes of ’60s spy-movie music are just a part of the charm, and are woven into something that feels at once innovative and organic. This is music to sink into, music to remind us that the world remains a beautiful place, even when you find yourself living in a country with leaders who are fucked up beyond all repair, and where innocent people pay the dreadful price, over and over.
I digress. Listen to Karolina Thunberg’s sweet, clear-throated voice, with its understated vibrato, and then listen to how snugly Ísak Ásgeirsson’s blends in. Listen to the lonely, resonant guitar tones, redolent of empty spaces and purple skies. Listen to the evocative drumming, with its preference for rumbling over crashing. This is marvelous new music, from beginning to end, using an aural palette that evokes classic rock without sounding tired or derivative in any way. One of my favorite moments, small but impactful, is the guitar line in the middle of the chorus (first heard at 1:01-1:03), tracing a nifty chord progression without showing off. And this moment comes directly on the heels of another favorite moment, which is the way Thunberg has lyrics that repeat themselves (“In the end, no one will know”: beginning at 0:54), via musical notes that repeat themselves, but she alters the phrasing the second time through, pausing this time on the word “end.” It’s a soft change, but a suggestive one.
And can I say that among the smaller but still important reasons to love and admire the Scandinavian countries is their commitment to rock’n’roll as an ongoing, vibrant, multi-faceted genre. As corporate America continues to foster a marketplace that squashes heart and expression in favor of fad and compression, I for one heartily support cultures that recognize that humanity comprises far more than commercial concerns.
Based in Gothenburg, Sweden, the half-Swedish, half-Icelandic duo Baula formed in 2015. This is their third single; I look forward to more. Check out their stuff on SoundCloud. Thanks to the band for the MP3.
photo credit: Greta Maria Asgeirsdottir
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.
At once woozy and perky, “I Bet High” presents us with a brief but much-needed shot of good spirit and motion to counter the tar pit of despair many of us have fallen into since 11/9.
“I Bet High” – Pop & Obachan
At once woozy and perky, “I Bet High” presents us with a brief but much-needed shot of good spirit and motion to counter the tar pit of despair many of us have fallen into since 11/9. But blink and you’ll miss this one: no sooner does the listener feel fully embraced by the chunky, freewheeling vibe then the song plunks to a close.
So while I like this a lot there is no hiding the fact that “I Bet High” is an odd song, with an ad hoc feeling to both structure and texture. The tinkly electric guitar sounds like some kind of far-away-in-time instrument; Emma Tringali sings with a tone mixing come-hither-ness and a playful shove, awash in reverb; and the entire song bounces along without much of a rudder—the verses melt into a charming if woolly indistinctness, while the chorus glides through our awareness before we even realize that’s what we just heard. In the end, the song’s playful, “look-at-what-I-just-found” sensibility is central to its appeal. Put it on repeat and enjoy.
Pop & Obachan is a studio duo and a six-piece live band, led by Tringali and Jake Smisloff and based in upstate New York. “I Bet High” is a track from their debut album, entitled Misc. Excellence, which was recorded in their apartment on a tape deck and released last month. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp. Thanks to the band for the MP3. [MP3 no longer available.]
Brisk, skittish, and still rather lovely, “Confession” presents as a knowing homage to ’80s electro-pop while sparkling with an energy that feels current rather than nostalgic. The effortless, sing-song-y melodicism evokes Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, without perhaps that band’s knob-twiddly thickness, while the unusually effective mix of synthesizer and guitar calls New Order to mind.
Only here, notice, the guitar doesn’t loom heavily at the bottom of the mix but provides a lilting, melodic counterpoint to the song’s electronic pulse. In the extended introduction, the guitar at first works with its own variation of a heartbeat, but later on (0:45) finds its upper register and snuggles a precise and concise melodic line into the rubbery electronic milieu. Listen in particular to when it returns, between verses, at 1:37, all glide and grace, and a seductive counterpoint to singer Aaron Closson’s sweet but substantive tenor.
The Blessed Isles is the duo of Closson and Nolan Thies. Based in Brooklyn, the band self-released an EP in 2011, and was signed to Saint Marie Records the following year. “Confession” is a track off their debut full-length album, Straining Hard Against the Strength of Night, released by Saint Marie back in May. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.