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.
Pretty much all of their work is exquisitely crafted and touching; some of it, like this new single, is soul-stirringly gorgeous.
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.
With its deep, deliberate beat and hushed group vocals, “Black Willow” floats into my ears like a visitation from a different, unsettling, yet somehow more benevolent dimension.
Listen to how the almost uncomfortable slowness of the groove is soon counteracted by the solace of the humming voices that rise up at 0:14. When the words start, 10 or so seconds later, they engage us with one of the most tantalizing words with which to begin a song: “Because.” The opening verse, in fact, delivers a series of “Because…” statements, which deftly engage the ear for the mystery implicit in an answer delivered without a question.
And talk about implicit mystery!: listen to what the sound of voices singing the same note brings up for you. It may take a while for this to register but there are no harmonies here, just a group of voices (two, maybe three) singing directly on the melody, all the way through. To me, this feels counter-intuitively enigmatic. Another moment of satisfying elusiveness is the soupçon of time-signature shifting that happens a couple of times (first at 1:20), which registers as a subtle hiccup, a passing “what was that?” moment in a song otherwise measured and resolute.
The song is grounded musically by the bass and the drums, with well-placed keyboard fills offering some counter-balancing brightness. A windswept synth sound is added at a lyrically opportune time (“I make a home inside the wind”; 2:28). And then check out how the voices themselves transmute into something wind-like at around 3:13. This leads us to the song’s delayed, haunting chorus, featuring the title repeated over and over, while the voices, at the end of each repetition, morph increasingly into the echoey, windy soundscape.
Loma is a band that seems to have begun inadvertently, when Shearwater front man Jonathan Meiburg was so taken with the music made by the Texas duo Cross Record (Emily Cross and Dan Duszynski), opening for Shearwater on a tour, that the three of them began playing together. Adding to the depth of the experience: Cross and Duszynski’s marriage was disintegrating when the three of them were writing and recording the music that would become Loma’s self-titled debut album. “Black Willow” is the tenth and last track on the record, which was released last month on Sub Pop. MP3 again via KEXP.
Gorgeous 21st-century folk rock
Static and fuzz lead us counterintuitively into a smooth, minor-key strummer. The melody, at first, is lovely, but contained—the verse, in fact, concentrates on just two different notes. But emerging from the mouth of Oli Deakin, doing musical business as Lowpines, the song sounds, already, rich and wistful.
Then the chorus slays with pure beauty. Deakin’s already multi-tracked voice opens into a wash of vocal sound as the melody expands into gratifying intervals—note in particular the two different landing spots for the word “wing” on the chorus’s repeated end line, “Be my broken wing”: the first “wing” dips down below an expected descent and then the second one, also against expectation, finishes higher up, in an unresolved place, with Deakin’s phrasing lagging behind the beat in a way that somehow adds both lushness and regret to the palette.
After the first chorus the song feels transformed into something silvery and resolute. The background fills with a soft sort of loudness, buoying the song into grandeur. The return of the chorus, with its Moody Blues-like pathos, just about brings tears to the eyes. At one point a clarion synth line finds its way through the sumptuous forward-moving haze. At the end we get a slowed-down coda in which the song ends without resolution, as if in mid-thought. There is little to do now but go back and listen again.
Deakin, based in the UK, has been recording as Lowpines since 2012. Earlier Lowpines material, while still melodic, was characterized by a more whispery vocal style that brings the likes of Iron & Wine and Bon Iver and, grandfather of them all, Elliott Smith to mind: by now the almost cliched woodsy-folksy 21st-century troubadour sound. “Broken Wing” breaks past the claustrophobia often looming in that approach, and lands us in some new kind of folk-rock firmament. It’s the second track on the second Lowpines album, In Silver Halides, slated for release later this month. You can check out his previous discography—one other album, three EPs, two singles—over on Bandcamp.
Melson has an arresting voice, at once very direct, in a Jenny Lewis sort of way, but with a subtle, engaging quirkiness to it, a muted theatricality of tone.
Gentle and elegant, “El Matador Beach” unfolds slowly. Melson has an arresting voice, at once very direct, in a Jenny Lewis sort of way, but also with a subtle, engaging quirkiness to it, a muted theatricality of tone. Her voice feels particularly central to the developing song since it proceeds without percussion for 1:45; the most concentrated sound we hear during this slow build-up is Melson’s self-harmonizing in the chorus (1:12), and the effect, over the song’s oceanic sway, is angelic.
When the drumming starts, syncing beautifully with the melodic bass line, the tidal feeling expands out of the lyrics directly into the music, accentuated by the way the hypnotic chorus expands to fill most of the song’s second half. It almost prompts inexplicable laughter, a kind of bittersweet spiritual delight, to hear a song this committed to beauty in this most un-beautiful year.
Sara Melson is a singer/songwriter based in Los Angeles. Following her graduation from Harvard she became a successful television actress in the ’90s, appearing on shows like Frasier and Beverly Hills 90210. But over time, stifled by the cliched characters she was playing, she found music to be a more fulfilling way to be an artist, happily trading mainstream success for the chance to express herself authentically. (And what a better place the world might be if everyone felt this way.)
“El Matador Beach” is the first track on Melson’s new album Safe and Sound, her third full-length recording, released earlier this month. You can listen to it in full as well as buy it via Bandcamp. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.
Lush, disciplined song with a drop-dead gorgeous chorus.
You don’t expect a song named “Nightingale” to begin with a drum solo. You do expect a song named “Nightingale” to be sung by a someone with a lovely voice. You don’t expect any song—named “Nightingale,” or not—to have a drop-dead, goose-bump gorgeous chorus, simply because there’s no sense in getting one’s expectations that high. Bonus points here for the musical elegance of the transition from verse to chorus (first heard at 0:52-0:55). Note too that even in the rarified world of crystal-pure voices, The Honey Trees’ singer Becky Filip deserves some special props. Hers is not simply pretty but full of subtle character, and impressively athletic (for example, the supple leap she takes at the end of the phrase “skin and bones,” at 0:40).
The song is lush, disciplined, unfalteringly interesting. The verse feels purposeful, as Filip floats her beguiling voice above a syncopated rhythm. I like the sudden clearing of the minimal bridge (2:26). But, seriously, this chorus. Like many acutely beautiful things, it is not perfect. It is less full-fledged chorus than indecipherable sentence, containing perhaps 10 words, and encompassing (by my count) at least six moments of ravishing harmonic delight along the way. It ends both unresolved and somewhat incomplete-seeming, the perhaps inevitable result of the breathtaking mini-journey it pulls us through. The first time you hear it, in fact, the power of its beauty may not quite to sink in before the song slides sideways into a liminal section of wordless vocals (1:10). The next two times, the chorus is repeated, creating what may well be the song’s finest moment: the drum-led threshold between the chorus’s irresolute end and its immediate repetition, which we hear both at 2:13 and at 3:14. And that second time—don’t miss it—the chorus gets an additional repeat, which this time is preceded by an unexpected upward melisma at 3:43 that in its own way introduces a delicate kind of anticipatory closure into a melody that otherwise resists completion.
The Honey Trees are a duo from central California (Filip’s band mate is Jacob Wick). “Nightingale” is a song from the band’s debut full-length album, Bright Fire. An earlier EP was released in 2009. The album was produced by Jeremy Larson in Springfield, Missouri, and will be released in April.
“White Roses” is as simple as a song is likely to be in 2013—a plainly strummed acoustic instrument, a delicate tenor voice, three verses and three choruses, over and done in three minutes, sixteen seconds. The lyrics too are plainspoken in the extreme; De La Cruz has a previously explicated talent for compositional austerity, otherwise known as having a way with one-syllable words. (For instance: in the last version of the chorus, 20 of 22 words have one syllable; the other two are “roses” and “listen.”)
Now then, simplicity doesn’t guarantee quality any more than complexity does. But the high-wire act of coming to us with just a nylon-stringed guitar and a voice and a satchel full of plain words is itself impressive; that De La Cruz manages to add genuine beauty into the equation renders the end product all but breathtaking. To begin with, the melody is gorgeous, and deceptively deep. The entire verse and chorus is one unbroken melody line, with an elegant transition that leaves the verse unresolved and sets up the chorus’s beautiful inevitability, complete with a lovely bit of major/minor drama—how the uplifting “I still saw it was you” part (0:44) veers into the minor-key “coming through” (0:48) addendum, before cycling resolutely back to a gentle major key.
And perhaps the most beautiful thing of all here are the female harmony vocals. Four singers are credited, and they slide into place so gracefully, only in the chorus, and sing with such sweet subdued finesse, and are so apt in tone and intent, that you might almost miss them even as they are fully audible and perhaps the song’s greatest asset.
“White Roses” is from the album Common Miracles, which De La Cruz released at the end of May. You can hear the whole thing on Bandcamp, and buy it there on a name-your-price basis. You can download “White Roses” via the link above, as usual, or do it via SoundCloud, where you can leave a comment directly for De La Cruz, if you so desire. The Southern California-based singer/songwriter was featured previously on Fingertips in January 2011.
She sings in sighs; it seems you hear her every breath.
Lisa Germano is rivaled only by Tom Waits when it comes to the ability to insert sad, majestic melodies into squirrelly settings. Her songs tend to feel fractured, half-discarded. She sings in sighs; it seems you hear her every breath. In many if not most of her songs, she creates the disconcerting sense that much more is going on than either the words or the music quite reveals.
“And So On” is classic Germano—delicate and peculiar, gorgeous and heart-rending. Beginning with an unadorned piano and voice lament, the background shifts at 0:41 when Germano breaths out the words, “Oh, animals,” and that’s what we get—a barnyard full of chickens and cows and such, suddenly doing their thing in the background. “I just don’t want to know/The places people go,” Germano then sings, a line that seems somehow both to clarify and baffle; and by the way, check out both that chord under the word “places” and the lovely resolution it leads to, briefly. What a short and unusual journey this is. The chorus simply repeats the title phrase, as if its principal section was somehow excised and we are left both musically and lyrically with the afterthought. An acrobatic bass line temporarily wrestles the background spotlight from the animals, but they return in force the next time around. Are the animals the chatter that we try to fill our head with after a loss? Are our inner voices as confused and helpless as the voices of those without language at all? Are our emotions best expressed without words?
So far I’ve only got questions, no answers. But note that “And So On” is a song from a new album, called No Elephants, which is intended to be listened to as a whole, with a beginning and middle and end. The song is third from last. So on the one hand we are missing context but on the other hand, Germano is never all that straightforward—consider that she saw fit to put this song out there on its own, after all—so I’m guessing the entire album will likewise prompt more questions than answers. No Elephants is due out next month on Badman Recordings. MP3 again via Magnet Magazine. Site-related trivia note: Germano’s “It’s Party Time,” in May 2003 (note Web 1.0 format!), was the first song featured on Fingertips. She was also here in 2006.
“The Wrecking Ball Company” both pulls you in and develops slowly. Somehow you don’t mind.
Fingertips favorite Marissa Nadler returns with a swaying ballad sung over a mournful, triplet-based accompaniment (ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, that is). While the music is inspired by the classic blues progression, a wonky chord slips in to keep your ears shiny; meanwhile, the rhythm is torchy and the mood spooky-gorgeous. Nadler lives in the spooky-gorgeous, with a dollop of reverb.
“The Wrecking Ball Company” both pulls you in and develops slowly. Somehow you don’t mind. It’s just guitar and voice for the first almost-minute. And then we arrive, at 0:54, at the song’s signature moment: first we get a muted gong-like cymbal roll and then Nadler hits a high C-sharp with a wordless “Oooh.” If you’re listening with the right kind of attentive inattention, your spine should tingle right about then. If not, go back and try again. Another moment of note: 1:31, when the bass and drum officially start keeping the beat you were already keeping in your head. The song right here is in an interesting place—the verse has kind of ended but then extends unexpectedly before cycling us through the introductory arpeggios again (complete with wonky chord). As the second verse starts, the simple addition of the sparse rhythm section deepens the song’s sad sway, which deepens again when we get to the second instance of the C-sharp “Oooh” (2:37), wrapped now in elusive harmony, which includes both Nadler’s own voice and that of Mike Fiore, a fellow Boston singer/songwriter, who records as Faces on Film. Fiore’s voice is blended in such a way as to add to the sound without quite registering as a male harmony. We’ll hear more from him—subtly—during the song’s lovely minute-long vocal coda, featuring a series of wordless melodies over some ghostly guitar work and slippery chord changes. I never anticipated how Radiohead-like Nadler might be able to get but here you are. Pretty sweet.
“The Wrecking Ball Company” is from an eight-song album entitled The Sister, which came out at the end of May, and serves as a subtle companion work to her self-titled album of 2011. Both albums were self-released on Nadler’s Box of Cedar label. This is Nadler’s fourth time here, having been previously in 2007, 2009, and 2011. MP3 via Spinner.
A Swedish band that sounds more like an Icelandic band—that is to say, drifting and expansive versus kicky and ironic (and yeah, I know: generalizations; oh well!)—Jeniferever plays with a lilting sort of precision that seems well-suited to the grey icy whiteness that many of us have been looking at out our windows for the weeks on end.
A Swedish band that sounds more like an Icelandic band—that is to say, drifting and expansive versus kicky and ironic (and yeah, I know: generalizations; oh well!)—Jeniferever plays with a lilting sort of precision that seems well-suited to the grey icy whiteness that many of us have been looking at out our windows for the weeks on end. They are not in a hurry but they are determined. The chorus—gorgeous, noble, and subtle—is as beautiful as your heart will allow it to be.
The song derives its elusive power from its hidden-in-plain-sight 3/4 time signature. The pace is steady and deliberate, like a 4/4 song, without any waltz-like clue that we’re in three. Blame drummer Frederik Aspelin on the seductive misdirection; after staying aligned with beats one and two he rushes ahead and then behind the third beat before the ear quite recognizes it, creating a hypnotic, syncopated flow where more typically we get the prosaic ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three. The verse melody then works complexly in and around this already complex approach to the basic time signature; singer Kristofer Jönson here does not once sing a melody aligned with the basic beat (“Fight to find the balance in between,” he sings, at one point). And this is exactly why the chorus floods us with grace, beginning with that wondrous four-note guitar lead-in (1:18), which seems literally to launch us into another plain of awareness. In the chorus, the melody at last surrenders to the beat the song had otherwise resisted. It feels just about transcendent, all the more so as the chorus otherwise remains unresolved. The big moment is the moment that appears to be leading to a bigger moment but actually doesn’t.
“Waifs and Strays” is a song from the quartet’s new album, Silesia, only its third full-length in 15 years of existence. (Not to date them or anything but the band is named after an early Smashing Pumpkins song.) It will be released on Monotreme Records in April. Thanks to Monotreme for permission to host the MP3. And thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up on the song.