The lyrics, meanwhile, are awash with the empathy currently struggling to re-establish itself in a world seemingly gone vicious and unreflective.
A lovely strain of uplift runs through “How It Feels,” the latest offering from a band with currents of melodicism and humanity consistently twinning through their music. Maybe it’s there in the plinky, upturning synth line that, recycling, impels us forward, or in the inscrutable, airy, Lindsay Buckingham-ish declarations of the verses (“Feel the noise add up under my skin/Look around as if I only just noticed,” et al.). And then, the thing that really grips the heart: the chorus, which only subtly alters the verse melody, but with the incisive entry of a female singing partner, joining only for the phrase “But I wanted to tell you” (it’s “And I wanted to tell you” the second time, sung the same way). Notice the delightful little leap on the word “tell,” and the guileless conversion of “you” to “ya,” which itself feels like the hug the song is benevolently aspiring to offer via words and music.
“How It Feels” opens itself to us as it goes. Listen for the synth insertions—ambling, flute-like, nearly dissonant—that begin between verses (around 1:19) and proceed to work themselves into the mix. A later instrumental break finds a guitar infiltrating with neither warning nor fuss (2:23), like a long-lost relative at a family reunion. The lyrics, meanwhile, are awash with the empathy currently struggling to re-establish itself in a world seemingly gone vicious and unreflective. This too shall pass, and in the meantime, we hold onto each other, those of us who believe in good hearts.
“How It Feels” is a single offered up by Ages and Ages back in October. It was recently featured as a free and legal download via KEXP, which is my source here. The band is from Portland, Oregon; they have released three full-length LPs to date, the most recent, Something to Ruin, in 2016. They have been previously featured on Fingertips in 2011 and 2014. The band lists five members in its core, but with a couple of dozen others in its “extended family.” There are six people in this photo because I’m not sure.
“Everything Breaks” manages the uncommon trick of being both lovely and urgent. Each of these aspects, as it turns out, seems to hinge primarily on the song’s consistent—and subtly edgy—alteration between minor and major keys. We hear it right away in the crisp, ringing piano intro, and the minor/major shifting is only deepened and underlined by the addition of vocals. There’s a breathlessness to the proceedings, a sense that the song just has to burst out as is and be done.
And then too there’s the way the song unfolds lyrically as an elegiac litany of facts, descriptions, and/or circumstances, creating a kind of beauty-meets-tragedy atmosphere, even if it is difficult to apprehend exactly what is being sung about and why. With its graceful confluence of lyrical and melodic portent, “Everything Breaks” grabs the ear so quickly and securely that we feel grounded without even a chorus to provide its steadying influence.
The Sharp Things, previously featured on Fingertips in November 2013, are an expanding and contracting NYC ensemble, active since the ’90s, and currently in a nine-piece phase. “Everything Breaks” is the lead track on Adventurer’s Inn, released earlier this month. This album, the band’s sixth, turned out to be a personally notable and heartbreaking effort for front man Perry Serpa, as it is the last album the Sharp Things were able to record with drummer and band co-founder Steven Gonzalez, Serpa’s best friend since childhood. Gonzalez died in September from complications related to a lifelong struggle with cystic fibrosis.
Thanks to the band for the MP3.
Piano-driven ensemble pop
So very many decades after Jerry Lee Lewis first started pounding (and pounding) the ivories, the piano remains kind of a rock’n’roll outlier, in that when I hear rock’n’roll with a piano in it, I tend to think, “Oh, a piano.” This does not happen with a guitar, or a synthesizer. It doesn’t even happen that much for me with a violin these days, which is weird, and another story. A piano changes the texture of rock’n’roll, gives it a non-electrified sound powerful enough to drive the song’s core yet tender enough to offer both chiming atmosphere and melodic nuance.
That said, the piano, while giving “Can’t Get Started” its splashy opening, is hardly the only thing going on within the ensemble-pop sound of The Sharp Things. The most noticeable “ensemble-y” touches here are the various string voices you’ll hear if you listen carefully (some are unorthodox) and the group vocals, an effect that can either be tiresome or brilliant, depending to a good extent on the melody being group-sung. In this case, I love the collective vocals, which are effected with a beautiful, almost whispered restraint that accentuates the coiled energy of the verse melody’s center point—the way it gathers itself each time for that one aspiring, upward leap it takes (0:20, 0:37, et al.). Because of the discipline on display with the group vocals, the couple of moments when the voices break through for a sudden “hey!” are all the more potent.
The Sharp Things are a Brooklyn-based outfit that has often shape-shifted since its founding in the late ’90s, all the while fronted by singer/songwriter Perry Serpa. Currently they do business as a nine-piece band. “Can’t Get Started” is from the album The Truth is Like the Sun, due out later this month. It is the Brooklyn collective’s fifth album. Thanks to The Sharp Things for the MP3.
Listen and I’ll think you’ll sense the three-dimensionality of the sound, the honest layering and physical interaction of instruments, in the chuggy ambiance.
Thick and thumpy with instrumental diversity, “A Good of Good Health” yet retains its simple drive and almost poignant melodic and lyrical synergy. Not that I’m at all sure what front man John Lennox is singing about here (and he doesn’t even start until 0:45). We hear attractive phrases, at once comfy and mysterious; they unfold with the music with an almost magical pleasure, flaunting an elusive rhyme scheme, and defying any straightforward comprehension. Lennox sings with a casual sort of intensity, high-pitched, and he lets the ends of his words fade, as if he’s turning his face repeatedly from the microphone.
And even in a song without narrative structure, this chorus still buzzes with delightful incongruity (1:36):
A week of good health
Pin your hair back
Get some new clothes for yourself
Get ’em black on black
Don’t miss Lennox’s phrasing here, particularly in the third line, which he voices in a talking rather than a singing rhythm, and it’s more wonderful than I can describe. So let’s get back to the music itself, which I have not meant to neglect. Panoramic & True are an eight-piece band, from Chicago, and they recorded this new album, Wonderlust, on eight-track analog tape, live. Listen and I’ll think you’ll sense the three-dimensionality of the sound, the honest layering and physical interaction of instruments, in the chuggy ambiance. I’m particularly tickled by how the strings work so resolutely in the background; we hear them emerge, shyly, only a few times, and each time receding quickly back into the well-ordered commotion. Fun stuff, and chewy too.
Wonderlust is the second Panoramic & True album, released in July on Raymond Roussel Records. You can listen to it and buy it via Bandcamp.
World-music rhythms, elegant gypsy flourishes, and the beauty of thoughtfully composed melody lines sung with pleasure and command
A happy combination of style and substance. Front man Noah Lit makes no bones about his admiration for the so-called “gypsy jazz” of Django Reinhardt, but he has funneled his devotion through a filter of rock’n’roll songcraft, as he is likewise an attentive student of the Beatles, the Kinks, Wilco, Radiohead, and other masters of the form past and present. The end result is something at once exotic and immediate. We get world-music rhythms, elegant gypsy flourishes, and the beauty of thoughtfully composed melody lines sung with pleasure and command.
We’ve heard similar sounds coming out of the indie rock world over the last decade; Beirut in particular comes to mind. Properly done, I don’t think we can get too much of this stuff. When you combine thoughtful songwriting with musical flair and instrumental virtuosity, there’s not much to complain about, as far as I’m concerned. Lit helps himself a lot with his agile singing. even as I have no idea what he’s singing about. This is one of those songs in which the words exist more for their sonic qualities than their meaning. In and around the evocative soundscape, they weave a spell. By the time the gypsy instruments move center stage (2:42), there is nothing to do but surrender.
Lit is based in Los Angeles and was previously in a band called Oliver Future. “On and On” is a track from the album Anthems for a Stateless Nation, which was actually released back in October on Silence Breaks Records, but appears to have fallen into something of a black hole since then. Well worth seeking out. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.
“Electricity” offers us a refreshing break from 21st-century indie-rock’s inclination towards obscurantism. And you can dance to it.
“Electricity” offers us a refreshing break from 21st-century indie-rock’s inclination towards obscurantism. And you can dance to it.
I’ve got nothing against a certain amount of lyrical mystery, mind you, but I think today’s exceedingly well-educated rockers often overdo it in the “what are they talking about?” category. There’s something to be said for narrative clarity and matter-of-fact insight, and “Electricity,” the dryly related story of a small town and its first long-ago Saturday night with electricity, has both. The storytelling is musical as much as lyrical here. You’ll obviously notice the noodly, sci-fi synth that is immediate aural code for “ooh! electricity!” But note too the perfect electric guitar sound, right there in the intro—that buzzy but vibrant tone, which, combined with a fuzzed-out drumbeat, feels shot through with current. When the opening riff returns in an instrumental break at 2:47, the guitar sounds even more thematically aligned; I can’t describe it but it feels to my ears like the sound an electrified fence would make if you could play it like an instrument.
As for the story itself, I like how it extends beyond the Saturday night into Sunday morning, when no one could get up because they had all been up so late. This, we are being told indirectly, is really how “things will never be the same in this city.” It’s an incisive twist.
Brooklyn-based Balthrop, Alabama was founded by Alabama-born siblings Pascal and Lauren Balthrop, who have named the band as they did for their idea that the band itself, with 11 members, is a kind of small town. “Electricity” is the semi-title-track from the ensemble’s new album, We Have Electricity, released last month on the not-for-profit End Up Records, also located in Brooklyn. After a double-album debut in 2007 and four subsequent EPs, this is the band’s first regular-length album. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.
With its Neutral Milk Hotel echoes, “The Party” is a squeaky bouncy clattery lo-fi rocker, full of momentum and noise, and an appealing melodic through-line.
There is a hyper-obscure element that has been unleashed upon the musical landscape by the internet. It’s not often commented upon because by nature, the hyper-obscure is either ignored or it’s totally embraced, and the two groups involved—the many who ignore it, the few who embrace it—never much talk to each other. By hyper-obscure I mean music that is so far down its own hole musically or lyrically (or both) that it doesn’t begin to try to explain itself to an outsider. Pre-internet record labels, whether major or independent, were rarely in the business of releasing the hyper-obscure, if only because such projects never look to be brisk sellers. Now that a) traditional gatekeepers are no longer needed to produce and distribute music, and b) musicians aren’t even necessarily trying to sell anything, the ground is fertile for the hyper-obscure. To which I say: yikes.
On the one hand, I admire musicians so committed to their own visions that they just create this stuff, independent of efforts to explain themselves. On the other hand, far too often, either the music or the lyrics (or both) frustrate any outside effort to approach it. Which is a nice way of saying this stuff is typically unlistenable. The payoff can be big—look to the (pre-MP3) brilliance of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea for a powerful example. But, I fear, most musicians drawn down that path are not quite so brilliant.
I don’t equate “The Party” to Aeroplane (although NMH fans will hear some resonance here), but its squeaky bouncy clattery presence, full of lo-fi momentum and noise, combines with a melodic through-line that proves irresistible to me. So irresistible, in fact, that I ignored/didn’t hear lyrics such as “There’s someone at the party getting everyone pregnant/Then mutating his shape and being impregnated.” “The Party,” it turns out, is from a concept album called Home Church Road, which, according to press material, tells “the epic story of a future Earth after human extinction.” We are urged to listen to it in its entirety but here’s an abiding conundrum of hyper-obscure music: it requires a commitment of time and attention prior to the musician having proved him- or herself worthy of said time and attention. Front man and Folklore mastermind Jimmy Hughes—more well-known as a member of the Elephant 6-rooted Athens band Elf Power—has a fertile imagination to be sure, but so do a lot of us. I’m more sold on his musical muscle than his storytelling but I will admit I have yet to listen to the album straight through. That’s another conundrum of the age: all of this music unleashed upon us and still (last I checked) only 24 hours in a day.
This song, however, is definitely worth three minutes or so of your time. Home Church Road was released in June on Single Girl Married Girl Records. Folklore, by the way, while born in Athens, has become a Philadelphia-based “mini-orchestra,” with seven joining Hughes in its northern iteration, and six others still on the roster down in Georgia.
With its tender, ear-opening piano motif and graceful, ruminative momentum, “Daydreaming” is fully engaging throughout its almost five-minute length, which is a relative rarity in 21st-century rock’n’roll.
With its tender, ear-opening piano motif and graceful, ruminative momentum, “Daydreaming” is fully engaging throughout its almost five-minute length, which is a relative rarity in 21st-century rock’n’roll. (When aiming for some kind of pop, few songs of this length manage without some dead spots.) Singer/pianist Nona Marie Invie is front and center from the start, her haunted voice offering up plaintive phrases, surrounded by warm acoustic instrumentation.
What exactly we are hearing in the background becomes a bit of a mystery, however, as the song progresses. Beyond the piano and the percussion there’s an accordion involved, and, according to promotional material, a banjo (that could be what we hear briefly at around 0:20); band members are also known to play clarinet and trumpet, but I’m not sure either of those account for that sound we get for a moment or two at 1:17. Invie’s repeating piano refrain, with its recurring blue notes, remains at the song’s backbone, but listen to how the accompaniment grows increasingly tense and solid after the three-minute mark. Her singing is nearly overwhelmed by the ghostly wash of noise—a clamor that is tamed only by the second round of her incisive, swooping “oo-oo”s as the song draws to its wistful close with one more half-iteration of the captivating piano line.
“Daydreaming” is not a new song, but it has arrived newly in my inbox. It comes from the Minneapolis ensemble’s second full-length album, Wild Go, which was released on Supply and Demand Records in October 2010, and then in Europe and the UK in April 2011 on Melodic Records. Featuring as many as seven members at certain times, Dark Dark Dark is currently touring in a five-person format.
With a melodic bass line, atmospheric piano refrain, and well-placed, chimed accents, “Ghost Maps” sweeps us without resistance into its briskly-rendered nostalgia before a word is even uttered.
With a melodic bass line, atmospheric piano refrain, and well-placed, chimed accents, “Ghost Maps” sweeps us without resistance into its briskly-rendered nostalgia before a word is even uttered. Once the singing starts, Ben Walpole, with his soft-spoken, Stuart Murdoch-y croon, manages the keen trick of being both front man and band member, his voice finding its central but not over-bearing place among the guitars and chimes and female harmonies and indistinct wash of background sound, all coursing along at a near-breathless pace. On the one hand this does make the lyrics somewhat harder to discern, but on the other hand, it renders the often wistful phrases that come to the foreground all the more redolent. The whole thing feels like someone rifling through a photo album too quickly to see anything but a Kodachromatic blur of oranges and yellows at once bleached and vibrant.
“Ghost Maps” is one of two singles the band has released in advance of its next album—you can download this one here, or both of them together via a .zip file on the band’s site. The album is to be entitled North College Hill and is slated for a release some time this fall on Datawaslost Records. It’s the Cincinnati-based septet’s sixth full-length album and their first since 2009’s This Story Is Old, I Know, But It Goes On. The band has been featured on Fingertips both in 2009 and in 2006. MP3 via Datawaslost.
While it has an unmistakable Grateful Dead meets Neil Young kind of hippie-dippie orientation (and not that there’s anything wrong with that!), there’s also something grounded and purposeful in the air here.
With the head-bobbing backbeat and the guitar-based, sing-along vibe of a hippie anthem from 1970, “Navy Parade” is something of an antidote to the synthesized gravity of “Year Off.” Instead of two-person, California-cool digital manipulation we get a Portland-based septet recording live, singing into one microphone. But hey: the fact that each kind of song exists makes the other all the more powerful and appealing. That’s something that the diversity-averse among us never seem to understand.
But I digress. As for “Navy Parade,” while it has that Grateful Dead meets Neil Young kind of hippie-dippie orientation (and not that there’s anything wrong with that!), there’s also something grounded and purposeful in the air here. Actually, as falsetto-y front guys go, Tim Perry oozes more Thom Yorke than Neil Young; he’s got that kind of edge if you listen for it, and the song, without abandoning the central shuffle, builds in intensity. This is not merely a question of volume; the structure here is built to acquire potency as it progresses. Part of this has to do with the verse’s melody line, which extends a full 16 measures and includes a nice modulation away from resolution halfway through (first heard with the words “hour finally came” at 0:25; it’s even more satisfying the second time, when Perry sings “and that’s the worst thing that you could do,” at 1:00). The rest has to do with the song’s overall framework: there are two distinct halves, and once we arrive at the second half, featuring an accumulating repetition of ensemble singing, we do not return to the first. The linear movement can heighten a sense of climax. All those voices singing together in real time don’t hurt either.
“Navy Parade”—which carries the parenthetical words “(Escape From the Black River Bluffs)”—is from the debut Ages and Ages album, Alright You Restless, which was released back in February on Knitting Factory Records. (Okay, so the album was sitting on my desk for a little while. Better late than never.) And while “Navy Parade” was not the first single from the album, it was in fact the first video. As often noted, I’m not a great video fan but this one I’m fond of, both for the storyline and for the authentic Portland imagery, with the splendid St. Johns Bridge serving as a backdrop for the song’s climactic second half.