“The Only Heartbreaker” – Mitski

Maybe you’re the only one trying

“The Only Heartbreaker” – Mitski

Famously adored by a sizable silo of fans for her emotionally acute lyrics, Mitski has a secret weapon hiding in plain sight: the gorgeous tonal quality of her singing voice. Overlookable, perhaps, in the context of the synths and beats often surrounding it, her vocal power seems particularly on display throughout her latest album, the terrific Laurel Hell, which was released in February. It could also be that the 31-year-old singer/songwriter continues to deepen as a performer as the years go by.

“The Only Heartbreaker” delivers a melancholy interpersonal message over a rapid pulse. The New York Times last month referred to it as a “catchy pop song,” but is it, really? It’s got a body-stimulating beat, but little about Mitski’s delivery here signals “catchy pop song,” starting with the fact that the melody, already moving at half the pace of the rhythm, is consistently stretched in and around the song’s momentum. The potentially anthemic chorus repeats one line–“I’ll be the only heartbreaker”–in such an in-between-the-raindrops kind of way as to be quite difficult to sing along with.

As for the melancholy, the song’s narrator feels elusively aggrieved from the start, singing, “If you would just make one mistake/What a relief it would be.” The simple but emotionally potent idea here is that the singer feels to be the only one ever messing up in the relationship. One particularly striking lyric, however, hints at further depth: “I’ll be the water main that’s burst and flooding/You’ll be by the window, only watching.” As Mitski explained to Rolling Stone, “Maybe the reason you’re always the one making mistakes is because you’re the only one trying.”

You can listen to Laurel Hell on Bandcamp, and buy it there in a variety of formats, some with different packaging options. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Land of Talk

Tranquil backbeat, emotional intensity

“Weight Of That Weekend” – Land Of Talk

At once gentle and intense, “Weight Of That Weekend” finds Elizabeth Powell, the primary force behind Fingertips favorite Land of Talk, pondering something serious and yet just out of the song’s lyrical spotlight. The music offers contradictory sensations, its tranquil backbeat intermittently jarred by measures of 7/4 (in the verse) and 6/4 (in the chorus). As a singer Powell embodies this duality, with a voice feathered with ambivalence but likewise resolute.

And just after I asserted that I don’t usually listen to lyrics (see previous entry), along comes a song in which the lyrics are a seamless, central part of its texture and allure. Without an introduction, the song launches on as terse a description of being gaslighted as any you’re likely to encounter:

Always come at me from a different angle
Make me think I don’t understand
how I’m feeling

(Note that the “how I’m feeling” part is where you first hear the 7/4 measure momentarily suspend the flow.)

From here the lyrical power accumulates through what is being alluded to without being said, the words a series of understandable phrases that nonetheless never quite reveal their direct meaning. The music amplifies the unsettled atmosphere with a chorus, dominated by suspended chords, that remains unresolved musically, adding to the subtle ache of Powell’s effort to rise above troubled circumstances: “This is a prayer for love” is the insistent conclusion.

Powell by the way is a formidable guitarist; that she plays acoustically here, with restraint, is its own sort of statement. And don’t miss the French horn that wafts into the mix somewhere around 2:25, an unexpected and somehow exactly appropriate addition.

“Weight Of That Weekend” is the fourth track on the new Land of Talk album, Indistinct Conversations, which was released at the end of July on Saddle Creek Records. This is the band’s fourth full-length release; three EPs have been interspersed over the years. You can listen to a few of the new songs and buy the album via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

This is the fifth time Land of Talk has been featured here, with their first review dating back to April 2007, and their most recent appearance ten years ago to the month, in August 2010.

Free and legal MP3: Phoebe Bridgers (moody but lively)

“Kyoto” – Phoebe Bridgers

She may not often be in the mood to give us an upbeat versus a downtempo composition, but when Phoebe Bridgers plugs into a faster rhythm is when, to me, her songs really shine. Outside of the terrific “Motion Sickness,” the compositions on her first album were much more deliberate—very attractive for those ready to comb carefully through lyrics and/or those who groove on a melancholy vibe, but less easy to focus on as a casual listener.

“Kyoto,” on the other hand, grabs immediately. I like the misdirect in the introduction—what starts in a hesitant, filtered mode finds a solid backbeat just after the singing starts (0:07), and sweeps us along from there. Bridgers has a delightful way with phrasing (check out as just one example the way she sings “my little brother” at 1:35), sounding as if the fleet tempo has caught her a bit by surprise as well. (She actually did write “Kyoto” as a ballad, but, she told NME in April, “at that point I was so sick of recording slow songs, it turned into this.”)

There is even a structural reason to enjoy the song’s pacing, having to do with the effect of matching downcast lyrics with lively music. Content-wise, Bridgers remains moody here, grasping at why she can’t seem to be happy anywhere, and signaling some thorny father issues. Setting such musings to a breezy tune, to my ears, amplifies rather than subtracts from their impact.

I’ve emphasized the song’s tempo but note that the chorus features a half-time melody, and encompasses a line that doesn’t maybe register as notable the first time around—“I wanted to see the world”—and yet turns into one of the song’s great moments, due I think to a combination of the alluring chord change that precedes it and the subtle but striking emotion with which Bridgers sings the words, especially the second time through (2:09), with a slight melodic twist at the end.

“Kyoto” is the third track on her second solo album, Punisher, which was released in April on the Dead Oceans label. We heard Bridgers on Fingertips last year, a lifetime ago, in combination with Conor Oberst, as part of the Better Oblivion Community Center.

MP3 once again via KEXP. Listen to the whole album, and buy it if you like it, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Old 97’s (feat. Brandi Carlile) (bang-up collaboration)

Maybe it takes a musical force of nature like Brandi Carlisle to shove the amiable Dallas band out of its comfort zone for four minutes.

Old 97s

“Good With God” – Old 97’s (featuring Brandi Carlile)

Rhett Miller is either blessed or cursed—not sure which—with such a distinctive musical sound that Old 97’s have been writing and recording songs for years that hew to a familiar vibe. This is a nice way of saying that their songs tend to sound the same. I will quickly add that this is a feature not a bug if you are a fan of this sound.

But maybe it takes a musical force of nature like Brandi Carlile to shove the amiable Dallas band out of its comfort zone for four minutes. To be sure, “Good With God” still adheres to one of Old 97’s two basic musical formats—there are the shuffly head-bopping songs, and the chugging, train-rhythm songs, with tempos that can vary slightly in each camp; this one’s a chugger. But the discordant guitar noise that introduces the song alerts us right away that we may here be breaking the mold a bit. And sure enough, even when it settles into the familiar rhythm, the echoey Western guitar line feels instantly self-possessed, and Miller dives into the eight-measure melody with headlong restraint, if that contradiction makes sense. (I like the little hiccup the song makes at 0:35, as if bracing itself for what is still to come.)

So the first verse is Miller singing as some smug pretty boy who imagines that his earthly transgressions aren’t that bad in the scheme of things, that his lip service to the almighty keeps him on the good side of the heavenly register. Cue furious guitar solo. On its heels comes Carlile, a bundle of sharpened fury, voice distorted in a subtly uncanny way. She’s not so nice, she tells him. Watch out. Now then, Miller did signal the plot twist (i.e., female God) in the last lyric of the song’s narrator, who sings, “All’s I know’s I’m good with God/I wonder how she feels about me,” and at first I’m thinking, hm, is this joker the kind to even conceive of a female Creator, never mind employ such a casual reference? But then I’m thinking yes maybe he is precisely that kind of joker. All the worse for him when Brandi Carlile shows up. I’d forgotten what an impressive singer she is. Stick around for the guitar coda, which acquires a grim-reaper-y kind of glee as it climbs up the neck.

“Good With God” is from Graveyard Whistling, the band’s eleventh studio album, recorded at the same rural Texas studio as its 1997 debut, and released back in February. The MP3 comes, yet again, from KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Heidi Gluck (rapid-pulsed acoustic confessional)

A breath of frictionless fresh air, “One of Us Should Go” is a rapid-pulsed acoustic confessional, and if it initially sounds like just another “girl with a guitar” song I invite you to listen more carefully.

Heidi Gluck

“One of Us Should Go” – Heidi Gluck

A breath of frictionless fresh air, “One of Us Should Go” is a rapid-pulsed acoustic confessional, and if it initially sounds like just another “girl with a guitar” song I invite you to listen more carefully. The instrumentation is simple but rich: in fact, there’s not a moment in this three-minute heart-breaker that doesn’t reveal itself to be exquisitely conceived and executed, from thoughtful electric guitar contributions to well-timed piano accents and creative electronics. Gluck’s plain-spoken vocals, which achieve the difficult trick of sounding like talking even while singing, add to the subtle interpersonal drama on display.

And the extra awesome part is how beautifully the song’s sound and structure intertwines with its content: this is a stunning breakup song, in which the music’s very feel echoes the inertia of a relationship that has outlived its spark, and the words of the chorus betray the difficulty of breaking the passivity with actual action:

I’m sure it’s nice out there
I’m sure there’s beauty everywhere
A wide open road
And one of us should go

Gluck is Canadian by birth, but has been living and working in the US midwest for a length of time that eludes internet research; I do know that she spent some years in Indiana, and has been in Lawrence, Kansas for about the past eight. Careful readers of liner notes (yes, such people still exist!; I have faith) may recognize her name from her session work with Juliana Hatfield and Margot & The Nuclear So and Sos, among others; she was also a member of the well-regarded Indiana band The Pieces in the early ’00s. “One of Us Should Go” is a track from Gluck’s first release as a solo artist, an EP called The Only Girl in the Room, which was released at the end of April on Lotuspool Records. You can stream the whole thing via SoundCloud. MP3 via Magnet Magazine. The EP is the first of a planned series of four; work begins on the next one this summer.

Fingertips Flashback: Ryan Ferguson (from July 2007)

Returning to a previously featured song, it’s the Fingertips Flashback….

The songs did not quite get themselves together this week; expect three new ones early next week. In place of new material, how about a Flashback? Once again we return to the halcyon (?) days of 2007….

Ryan Ferguson

“Remission” – Ryan Ferguson

[from July 30, 2007]

Comfortably incisive from beginning to end, “Remission” is one of those blessed songs with a perfectly balanced feeling between the verse and the chorus. You know how a song can have a great chorus, but the verse is like treading water to get there; or conversely, some songs have a really interesting verse but then the chorus is flavorless. Here the verse is interesting and commanding, and yet leads to—rather than overpowers—the chorus, the brilliance of which is just subtle enough, in turn, not to overshadow the verse. The hidden trick behind all of this here, I think, is the strong working relationship between the words and the music. After that emphatic opening chord sequence—nicely textured with an added xylophone—listen carefully to the lyrics and note not merely the dramatic story line (this does not appear to be another tale of relationship woes, although it might work that way metaphorically) but how uncannily well the words scan with the music–that is, how the rhythm of the music allows the words to be sung exactly how they’re spoken, without putting any stress on odd syllables. All too many pop songwriters write without much sensitivity to how the words will scan; whether accidentally or purposefully, Ferguson—previously in the locally popular San Diego quartet No Knife—emerges in this song as a master. “Remission” is from his first full-length solo CD, Only Trying to Help, set for release next month on Better Looking Records. The MP3 is via the Better Looking site. Thanks to the guys at 3hive for the lead.

ADDENDUM: Ferguson has not released an album since this one. His web site, bearing a 2012 copyright, reports that he is working on a new solo project, to be called Brake Rider.

Free and legal MP3: The Lawlands (sedate, assured, & poetic)

Sedate and assured, with two simple verses, no chorus, and an unexpected poetic kick.

The Lawlands

“Youth” – The Lawlands

Front man Anthony Ferraro is crooning—there’s no other word for it—but he does so with a wondrous light touch: the rare crooner who sounds like he is singing actually to communicate, rather than to hear the sound of his own voice. (Ouch, regarding all the other crooners, but true, -ish.)

The sedate, assured “Youth” plays out as two simple verses, with no chorus; each verse cycles twice through a melody that is gentle but resolute, unfolding over a double-time rhythm section and a gliding series of open chords. The song’s musical core is I think best understood and reflected by the 35-second instrumental break after the first verse, with a chiming lead guitar line landing more often than not on semi-dissonant notes, creating that open-chorded feeling. There’s a sense of flow, and exploration, and ineffable yearning, and (important) exquisite craftsmanship; I feel I could sit in this space for a long time. But the best is yet to come, as the second verse’s final lyrics open out into unequivocal poetry:

It’s strange, the child that I put to rest
Is beating on the walls of my head
And shouting I’m not finished yet

I call this poetry because any attempt to explicate the meaning would require far more words than the lyric used to get there itself. And because there’s an apprehension (both meanings) in these lines that’s almost thrilling to discover. The song finishes with Ferraro repeating one wistful question—“Where is everything I’ve read about?”—which on the one hand brings good old Morrissey (another crooner!) to mind, with echoes of a famous question he asked only in the song’s title (“How soon is now?”). But here I think we transcend that earlier song’s mopey, unripe concerns. This is pretty deep stuff.

Ferraro has been previously featured on Fingertips for a song he recorded as the one-man project Astronauts, etc., in October 2012. Note that at the time I called his voice a “soothing tenor,” but I guess that was more like a “soothing falsetto.” The Lawlands is a Bay Area band that he joined not long ago when their previous lead singer left the country. From left to right in the picture, you are looking at Drew, Alex, Shaun, and Anthony. “Youth” is available as an MP3 through the link here, or via the SoundCloud page, which also offers up the lyrics and, of course, the opportunity to comment on the song directly to the band.

Free and legal MP3: King of Spain (one-note melody, w/ power & style)

I don’t know if I’m a sucker for one-note melodies but I sure am fascinated by them.

King of Spain

“Motions” – King of Spain

I don’t know if I’m a sucker for one-note melodies but I sure am fascinated by them. Rock’n’roll has had a smattering of famous songs with extended one-note melodies (“Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Pump It Up,” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” are the three that always come to mind) and yet consider the difference in feel between that trio of harangue-like tunes and this one-note wonder, which is smooth and cat-like in its unfolding. The arrangement, drony and hypnotic, pulls us with style and determination through such a silvery series of chords that the ear almost doesn’t hear how dogged a one-note melody this is—unlike its one-note companions from rock history, which veer now and then from the primary note, the melody in “Motions” is literally just one note for the entire length of the verse section, beginning at 0:39, until the very last note, which falls off on the last word of the phrase “This is the way that we fall.”

One-note melodies inescapably draw our attention to the lyrics, since our ears seek the source of complication in what they are listening to, in an effort to understand, and if the melody is all one note, the complication pretty much all comes from the words. The lyrics in a one-note melody carry an inescapable feeling of stream of consciousness; the lyrics of “Motions” take this one step further—they seem less a spontaneous litany of cool-sounding words than themselves a meaningful exploration of the inner workings of the mind. They pour out, demand contemplation, yet leave no time in which to contemplate. Focus if you can on the words and you’ll find the power of the song multiplies.

When the debut King of Spain album, Entropy, was released in 2007, the band was a solo project for Tampa singer/multi-instrumentalist Matt Slate. In 2009, King of Spain became a duo when bassist Daniel Wainright joined as a full-fledged member. “Motions” is from the forthcoming album All I Did Was Tell Them the Truth and They Thought It Was Hell, to be released at the end of August on New Grenada Records.

photo credit: Lucy Pearl Photography (http://www.lucy-pearl.com)

Free and legal MP3: Kate Miller-Heidke (haunting & smart, w/ Celtic air)

There’s something spine-tingling here in the assurance of the composition, the elegance of the arrangement, and the beauty of the vocal work.

Kate Miller-Heidke

“The Devil Wears a Suit” – Kate Miller-Heidke

With the air of Celtic folk music about it, “The Devil Wears a Suit” is a haunting piece of smart, beautifully-crafted pop. There’s something spine-tingling here in the assurance of the composition, the elegance of the arrangement, and the beauty of the vocal work. And it’s not just the music but the lyrics too which crackle with purpose. The chorus is central, and striking, and it’s that line in the middle that really moves me—

He’s not underground
He’s not in the air
He’s not in that book
You take everywhere
The devils wears a suit
He lives in our town
He lives on our street
In your home
In your bed

“He’s not in that book/You take everywhere”: it’s a nonchalant kind of line, almost a throwaway, and yet in its casual, observational adroitness, it just about breaks the heart. And I’m not even sure why, but it’s the kind of moment in a song that compels me to thank the universe that talented musicians still exist who can do this, whatever “this” actually is.

An established star in Australia, Miller-Heidke remains a fringe figure at best here in the U.S., largely because the market has (temporarily, one hopes) turned away from any song in which the intelligence behind it is audible in the music itself versus the technology or the beat. I’m still optimistic on Miller-Heidke’s behalf because someone with this much polish, musical know-how, and personality is bound to find a sizable audience sooner or later, and definitely deserves it. “The Devil Wears a Suit” is a song from her fourth album, Nightflight, which was released in April in Australia and is coming later this month in the U.S. Thanks to Muruch for the head’s up. Note that this is Miller-Heidke’s fourth appearance on Fingertips; she was here most recently this past November. Note too that the entire album is currently streaming on SoundCloud; go there and you’ll also find two other free and legal MP3s to download.

Free and legal MP3: The Spring Standards (evoking bygone folk w/ up-to-date flair)

A song about leaving, evoking bygone folk music but with a 21st-century attitude.

The Spring Standards

“Only Skin” – The Spring Standards

There’s something tender and unfinished about “Only Skin.” Fading in at the beginning, the musical setting (piano and percussion, and a bit of guitar later on) is a tentative one, the instruments sketching rather than fully painting the scene. The feeling is not minimalist—there is a full-fledged sense of musical warmth here—but the restraint feels introductory, as if we are waiting for something larger to happen.

It turns out that what is larger that happens is Heather Robb’s voice, a wise and honeyed instrument itself. The arrangement leaves her so exposed you can hear her breathing. She sings about leaving, and the lyrics evoke bygone folk music, both for the way the verses begin and end with the same lines (hey, M. Ward did this last week too) and for some of the lyrical conceits, notably the way the song’s narrator urges the lover she is leaving behind to “Remember me with yellow hair and freckles on my nose.” And then the song takes an abrupt and delicious turn into the 21st century: “Remember me in purple shoes and turquoise pantyhose.” The lover who is leaving is determined to the point of harshness; the titular phrase arrives in the guise of one of the greatest lyrical kiss-offs I’ve yet heard: “Your name is just a noise now/Your face is only skin.” (Ouch.) And yet it comes wrapped in that careful melody, and embellished by those aching, wordless harmonies. Does the narrator mean it, or is she trying simply to convince herself? One can’t be sure, but the bittersweet gentleness of the nearly nursery-rhyme-like music suggests heartbreak under the bravado.

The Spring Standards are three musicians who have been playing various instruments together since their teenage days growing up along the Pennsylvania/Delaware border. They are now located in New York City. “Only Skin” is a track from their double-EP release yellow//gold, which is coming out in May on Parachute Shooter Records.