“The Funhouse” – Francis of Delirium

Edgy ’90s guitar rock via a 2022 filter

“The Funhouse” – Francis of Delirium

What kind of name is this–Francis of Delirium? Distinctive, while bordering on the absurd? Offering a religious undertone with a feverish overtone? In any case the name seems somehow to hint at the aural palette on display, which meshes tightly articulated guitar work with a sense of structural abandon, as if you’re never sure what is about to happen next.

And what kind of band is this anyway? The front woman and guitarist is Jana Bahrich, who is 20. The drummer is Chris Hewitt, who is 50. They met because Hewitt’s daughters were in school with Bahrich. This was in Luxembourg (Luxembourg!?), although neither are from there. (Bahrich was born in Vancouver and later moved to Belgium and Switzerland; Hewitt is from the Seattle area.) They intially bonded over their love of Pearl Jam. Jana started the band when she was 17.

It’s a story that didn’t have to go this way but somehow they’ve turned into an internationally touring band with a compelling sound, which includes some of the best guitar playing I’ve heard in a long while–not for its intricacy or wizardry but for the confident, rhythmic melodicism anchoring its movement. The song, as Bahrich has explained, is about being unfazed by the mayhem around you, and if you can’t make it out too specifically from the lyrics, you can feel it from the music. And yet, these lyrics!: check them out because to my ears they achieve something akin to poetry for their evocative blending of the concrete and the allusive. This is worthy stuff from beginning to end.

“The Funhouse” is Francis of Delirium’s sixth offering, which includes two EPs and four singles, the latter of which sometimes have extra songs attached as well. You can check everything out on Bandcamp. MP3, one more time, via KEXP.

(Oh, and the name? It derives from a woman who lived in Jana’s grandparents’ elder care facility, who used to shout swear words at them when she visited as a child. The memory lingered.)

“Sunday” – Sea Lemon

Sprightly air, melancholy center

“Sunday” – Sea Lemon

Shall we pretend, at least for the length of time it takes to read a couple of paragraphs, that we are here for the music, for the way it makes us feel, the alchemy involved in the interaction of melody and chords and arrangements of sound with our own individual physical and metaphysical presence? We are here, in other words, for the inner experience of listening versus the outer experience of posturing, marketing, keeping up with what’s “trending” and who’s “rising” and all of that technology-induced bullshit. Oh I know the social-media hustling is (sadly) its own real thing that plenty of people are caught up in, some quite happily, but that doesn’t make it reasonable or humane or (more to the point) remotely music-oriented. Just stream the song, and download if you’d like to. You don’t have to share it, you don’t have to tell anyone else what you’re doing. Just have your own experience; enjoy the internal adventure instigated by a wonderful song.

And “Sunday” is indeed a wonderful song, its sprightly, Cure-ish air belying a melancholy center. One of the song’s signature musical moves is how consistently the lyrics enter past the first beat of the measure. There must be a music-theory name for this but in any case the ongoing effect is both engaging–your ear is unconsciously anticipating a melody once the measure starts without it–and subtly bittersweet, for the same reason. It happens throughout the song but most prominently in the chorus (first heard at 0:42), where the initial hook is the bouncy guitar line, its six careful notes filling up two measures and then the first beat of the third before the lyrics rush in. I’ll point your ear as well to the satisfying way the nearly one-note vocal melody feels like the ideal response to the guitar’s prelude.

Sea Lemon is the musical alias of Seattle singer/songwriter Natalie Lew. “Sunday” is her debut single, self-released; an EP is expected some time later this year. MP3 via KEXP.

photo credit: Raphael Gaultier

Free and legal MP3: EERA

Shoegazey goodness

“Ladder” – EERA

Fuzzy, bass-heavy, and replete with unresolved chords, “Ladder” offers us a sharp, 2020s update on one of indie rock’s foundational sub-genres. In addition to its somewhat awkward name, shoegaze is a kind of betwixt and between category in that while it was never entirely in fashion it subsequently has never entirely gone out of fashion, either.

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Anna Lena Bruland is who we’re hearing from here, in the guise of her musical project EERA. With “Ladder,” Bruland seems inherently to understand what’s largely overlooked about the appeal of shoegaze, which is that for all the fuzz and reverb and distortion, most shoegaze songs have a backbeat holding them up. (Remember what the backbeat is: rock’n’roll’s defining rhythm, which stresses the second and fourth beats of a four-beat measure.) Here, the backbeat provides the structural solidity behind the song’s idiosyncratic chord patterns, as well as the propulsion underneath the droning guitar that plays here with a muted fury that never fully unleashes, sounding like someone playing extra-loud but in a room down the hall.

For all the sound happening around her, Bruland sings in a semi-blasé tone as the verse melody alternates between extended same-note repetitions and unexpected intervals; the short, insistent chorus, one phrase repeating, finds her in her lower register, sounding nearly like a different singer. The guitar arrives soon enough to sweep us back up into a backbeated wall of sound that seems to include some wordless male vocals but this could also be an interesting aural illusion. Crank it up and see what you think.

Born in Norway, Bruland is based in Berlin. “Ladder” is a track from her forthcoming album, Speak, due out in December on Just Dust Recordings. Her first album, Reflection of Youth, was released in 2017. You can check her out on Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: The Joy Formidable

Dream pop w/ a triplet-based swing

“Into The Blue” – The Joy Formidable

Thum-pi-da, THUM-pi-da, thum-pi-da, THUM-pi-da: The swinging, triplet-based backbeat that launches “Into the Blue,” offset by scratchy and thoughtful guitar arpeggios, evokes something deep and disregarded in the history of rock’n’roll. What I think we’re hearing here is the ghost of doo-wop, and while doo-wop has never been my thing (I’m old but I’m not quite that old!), it feels invigorating to hear in the context of a song so otherwise rooted in the 21st century.

Layered on top of the backbeat comes a marvelous mixture of light and shadow, melody and noise, liberation and complication. The song takes a terrific turn early on, at 1:08, when front woman Ritzy Bryan is displaced for a verse on vocals by bassist Rhydian Dafydd, who sings an alternate but related melody that strikes the ears as newly urgent. Even if—this again—it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on in the lyrics, the introduction of the other person’s point of view in what sounds like a relationship-centric song intensifies the circumstances, adroitly signaling the communication issue the song seems to be about.

Through it all keep your ears on Bryan’s guitar work—the discrete notes she slips in here and there, the occasionally heard squeak of fingers on strings, and in particular how she sometimes just starts playing her own thing (example at 1:56) as a sort of combination counter-melody/counter-rhythm to the song’s determined drive forward.

The Joy Formidable is a trio founded in Wales, although Dafydd and Bryan have been living in Utah, of all places, in recent years. (The band’s third member is drummer Matthew James.) “Into The Blue” as a single has been out since March, but is soon to emerge as the title track to the fifth Joy Formidable album, arriving later this month. MP3 via KEXP. You can buy the album in a variety of formats on Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Bachelor

Exhilarating ’90s rock update

“Stay in the Car” – Bachelor

A concise, exhilarating update of Breeders-like ’90s rock, “Stay in the Car” revs up with no intro; two chunky guitar strokes and we’re right in it. At which point three compelling things happen simultaneously: idiosyncratic lyrics about a fascinating woman watched from afar; irresistible same-note-harmony vocals from Bachelor’s two bandmates, Ellen Kempner and Melina Duterte; and a sinuous, descending verse melody that feels at once inevitable and surprising.

While the first verse rocks with a spare thumpiness, unleashed guitars provide a drony wall of sound for the chorus, and then continue to make their clamorous presence known in the second verse (but only, it should be noted, after a 12-second bass solo). I especially love the atonal stabs we hear at, say, 1:00 and 1:16. And yet: the third verse gets an acoustic guitar accompaniment, and it too sounds exactly right.

Most of all this song shows how a smart and effective song can be built on the foundation of not very much. In real life one day, Kempner saw an eye-catching woman, dressed in red, with wild hair, emerging from a car in a parking lot, yelling back to the man behind the wheel to find out what he wanted in the store: this became the song. And then, via rock’n’roll’s mysterious alchemy, a potentially mundane and impersonal encounter turns deep and indelible. “She said, ‘Stay in the car and I’ll grab what you want”: the lyric becomes the chorus–becomes, repeated, with that protracted “Ohhhh,” slyly majestic, a thing you can imagine transforming into some sort of cultural touchstone. And not that it will, but that it feels in the moment of listening exactly that powerful. In any case, “Stay in the Car” seems to get better and better the more I listen to it.

Kempner and Duterte were each previously known as separate artists with their own projects, Kempner at the front of the band Palehound, Duterte performing as Jay Som. You’ll find “Stay in the Car” on Bachelor’s debut album, Doomin’ Sun, which was released at the end of May on Polyvinyl Records. Listen to it over on Bandcamp, where you can also buy it as a vinyl record, a CD, a cassette, or the digital album. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Ciel

Melodic splendor, w/ squonky noise

“Pretty Face” – Ciel

Launching without an introduction, “Pretty Face” brings us promptly into the compelling world of vocalist/guitarist Michelle Hindriks, a Netherlands native, transplanted to Brighton. Her lightly accented English and pellucid tone combine with irresistible potency, all the more so when we reach a chorus that ravishes with its melodic sweep and splendor. The subtle double-tracking of the lead vocals here adds to the poignant beauty.

At the same time, tune your ear further down into the mix and track if you can what Jorge Bela Jimenez’s guitar is doing, which is quietly and intermittently going crazy in a “don’t mind me” kind of way. You won’t hear it at first unless you listen for it. By the chorus’s third iteration (2:05), Jiminez is becoming less restrained, setting up the all-out assault that breaks free at 2:43, and carries us through a memorably squonky coda.

Lyrically the song veers into unexpected territory. By Hindriks’ account, she was inspired by a number of documentaries she found herself watching under lockdown about a variety of cults, and one particular story about a man who lost his wife to a cult–how he knows she’s still out there, but forever separated from him. While it’s not a direct experience many of us (thank goodness) can relate to, it can stand as a metaphor for living with the grief of heartache and separation.

Ciel has put out two EPs to date, most recently Monument, in April 2020. “Pretty Face,” released last month, is the second single the band has released since then. Check out the full discography on Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Talkboy

Sturdy, succinct, melodic

“Stupid Luck” – Talkboy

Sturdy, succinct, and melodic, “Stupid Luck” has everything going for it: a catchy tune, crafty textures, appealing vocals, and an outstanding development-versus-length dynamic–a concept I just made up but I like the idea of it. What I mean is that the song covers a lot of compositional ground in a short amount of time. That’s the best of both worlds from my idiosyncratic point of view. This is in fact the kind of song that can reaffirm one’s sense of faith in this whole endeavor–that is, the endeavor of a group of musicians banding together, still, and still trying to put something of interest and value out into this wounded world.

Right from the start the song soars, via an intro that channels bygone guitar tones, augmented by some space-age keyboard flourishes that then frame the shift we get with the opening verse, which begins with a half-time melody and stripped-back instrumentation as vocalist Katie Heap sings over fuzzy guitars that progress through some very satisfying chords. The verse repeats with fuller production, leading to a chorus boosted by nostalgic background “aahs” and a generally agreeable wall of subtle sound. By now this song is as sturdy as can be; that Beatlesque chord the song lands on at 1:07 is just another splendid touch.

And there’s still much to enjoy in this three-minute gem. Listen for the altered textures when the verse comes back around 1:15, the momentary guitar squeal as 1:23, the augmented backing vocals around 1:32, and the semi-psychedelic bridge (1:57) leading to an honest to goodness guitar solo (2:31). And, in one of the finer if subtler songwriting moments of the whole thing, the song revisits the verse near the end with a cleared-out musical palette that transforms the former verse into a coda that ends directly on the titular phrase–a rarely achievable and quite gratifying maneuver.

Talkboy is a six-piece band from Leeds. They were previously featured on Fingertips in February 2019. “Stupid Luck” is a single from their forthcoming EP, due for release in February 2021. Their brand new single, “Sky is Falling,” is available to listen to via SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Pillow Queens (incisive rocker w/ a mysterious pull)

What begins abruptly and somewhat droningly transforms itself with repeat listens into an authoritative rocker with a hint of transcendence.

“Handsome Wife” – Pillow Queens

“Handsome Wife” exerts a mysterious pull. What begins abruptly and somewhat droningly transforms itself with repeat listens into an authoritative rocker with a hint of transcendence. If you want an aural handhold, listen for the muscular guitar line that rings out at 0:39, shifting the ear away from the background drone, tantalizing with its unresolved finish, implying a momentous chorus that we don’t yet hear, but will soon.

Now then, there are some well-known one-note melodies in rock history (think “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” or “It’s The End of the World as We Know It”), but perhaps just as ear-catching and maybe somewhat trickier to pull off is the two-note melody, such as we get in the chorus (1:17). At this point Pamela Connolly’s fervent vocals, kicked up a register, convey a quivering air of vulnerability that pushes the song into greatness. The allure is heightened by elusive but perfectly sculpted lyrics:

I was young and I was honest
Me and all your father’s daughters
Laid beside the tide to take us
Kissed the bride and fought your favours
I may not be the wife you want
But I’m pregnant with the virgin tongue

I can’t tell you with any certainty what these words mean, and yet they vibrate with impalpable significance. I think this has to do with two attributes: first, the fact that each line itself is comprehensible, even as they don’t, together, become a digestible narrative; second, the words scan (i.e. match the rhythm of the melody) perfectly, with the opening four lines, including many one-syllable words, aligned in strict trochaic tetrameter (the academic term for what you might in your head associate with childhood rhymes—think, “Peter, Peter pumpkin-eater”; “Twinkle, twinkle little star,” etc.). I’d argue that songs with lyrics that properly scan are unconsciously more impactful than songs with scattershot accentuations. I wish more songwriters agreed.

The last piece of the snowballing puzzle here: the wordless bridge (2:27), in which Connolly’s voice retreats into a choir of reverb, dueting with a guitar line at first in sync and then offering a reassuring countermelody. Following this, the restated chorus sounds somehow more assertive and empowering, even as I still don’t know exactly what she’s singing about.

Pillow Queens are a foursome from Dublin. “Handsome Wife” is the lead single from their debut album, In Waiting, coming out on September 25. You can pre-order the album, and listen to a few more tracks, via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Juan Torregoza (instrumental with personality)

“Amber Eyes” – Juan Torregoza

Rock’n’roll instrumentals vaguely intimidate me; it’s like my mind doesn’t know what to do without words guiding the way. Which is kind of weird on the one hand, as I don’t usually listen too closely to the words of a song in the first place. I guess it’s that I like the sound of words with music versus music without a human voice in the mix. This is all to say that when it comes to instrumentals, I have even less of a thought process for selecting something to feature than usual. Occasionally, for reasons I can’t explain, one breaks through my awareness and says “Pick me,” and so I do.

And so here is “Amber Eyes,” from the NYC-based guitarist Juan Torregoza, which launches without fanfare into a deliberately plucked, 11-note electric guitar melody line, repeated with one variation on the final three notes, set against an itchy drumbeat. The personality and intention seem immediately appealing. After this settles in, some scrunchy guitar noises interject, with additional personality. This turns out to be the warm-up for the second lead guitar to add its counter-melody to the persistent 11-note through-line, beginning around 0:47.

If I had to guess what hooked me for good I’d say it’s probably that interval described when the second guitar kicks in, which sounds like a 7th (always an attractive interval). That 7th interval becomes a persistent thorn in the side of the first melody, in an aurally satisfying way. This goes on for a minute and a half or so, at which point (2:29) the second guitar retreats into 20 seconds of the scrunchy stuff, before returning undaunted to the opening interval. After 20 more seconds, the enterprise shuts itself down, having gone on long enough to register its ideas, and then knowing when it’s time to go.

“Amber Eyes” is one of six tracks on Torregoza’s EP Agimat, which was created and produced in April under quarantine conditions. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy it (for $4) via Bandcamp. The guitarist is currently part of two different musical projects in New York—the experimental ambient duo Dovie Beams Love Child and the band Subtropico Militia, which self-identifies its genres as reggae/dub/metal/hardcore. MP3 via the artist.

Free and legal MP3: Deep Sea Diver

Jangle and fuzz-driven anthem

“Stop Pretending” – Deep Sea Diver

From its evocative, unhurried introduction, an ear-catching blend of jangle and fuzz, “Stop Pretending” is an immediate success, a song so crafty and well-crafted that its origins—written and recorded in two days this April, under lockdown conditions—seem all but miraculous. The end result sounds to me like the pandemic’s first true classic, a song at once languid and incisive, both musically and lyrically:

This life is dangerous
There’s no need to build those walls
Our love is all we have
Who knows where we’re heading

The song offers no solutions but the notion that we must make the effort to be present with what actually is, and tap into our basic goodness, even when the bad people are being awful. The music feels like a balm to the soul, with Jessica Dobson’s guitar noise and distortion churning below a soothing melody and heartfelt vocals. The instrumental break at 2:39, all growl and gristle, is weirdly lovely. Guitars get the job done. Oh and don’t miss the dog at the very end.

Deep Sea Diver is the Seattle-based duo of Dobson and husband Peter Mansen. Dobson played all the instruments but the drums and the “noise synth”; she engineered and mixed the track as well. Deep Sea Diver has released two albums and two EPs to date. Dobson has played with Beck, Spoon, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, among other artists, and was a member of the Shins for a while in the early ’10s.

MP3 via KEXP. You can buy and support the band via Bandcamp; while there you can also explore the rest of their catalog.