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.

Free and legal MP3: Sass (terrific grunged-out pop)

“11:11” – Sass

Maybe what we all really need right now is some guitars. In which case, the Minneapolis band Sass is at your service. And we’re not talking mindless, mathematical thrashing. What Sass delivers, guitar-wise, runs the gamut from amiably ringing riffs and sparkly plucking to full-on crunches and delightfully distorted squonks. For the guitar-starved who also likes a good pop song, this is a veritable buffet of aural delight.

And this is indeed a terrific if thoroughly grunged-out pop song, full of melodic spunk, lyrical thrusts, and self-possessed forward movement. And did I mention guitars? Given the fitful ruckus, “11:11” requires a special someone to pull it all together, vocally, and Sass has you covered here too, in the person of front woman Stephanie Jo Murck. Often we speak of a singer’s vocal range in terms of dynamic register, as in how low to how high a voice can go. Murck’s range, alternatively, is tonal, encompassing everything from blasé yearning to full-throated howling, a range that aptly complements the variegated guitar work. There’s nothing show-off-y going on here, which is one of the song’s special powers—the dynamic performances here all hit the ear as matter-of-fact. Murck’s narrator seems to have made a misstep in a fledgling relationship after previously assuring herself she didn’t need anyone to be okay. Now she’s not so sure. It’s a complex circumstance to cover in less than three and a half minutes, and a good part of the complexity is portrayed as much by sound as by words; there’s an “I can’t go on; I’ll go on” vibe in the air. Sporadic moments of chaos convey it; sustained histrionics would ruin it.

You will hear without effort the obvious moments of ramshackle guitar splendor the song has in store for you; let me here draw your attention to a few subtler things this deft band makes happen along the way. There’s the smeary line drawn by one of the guitars from 0:28 to 0:32;  the odd group of slightly off notes woven in from 1:17 to 1:20; and the squeal at 1:35, which leads into this lyrical highlight:

I am unreasonable
Let me push and
Never be pulled
But that’s impossible

Murck lets loose on this last line, the guitars screech a while, and then we’re back to a more restrained tone, revisiting the line “I thought I’d be fine alone,” and it somehow hits the ear as especially poignant, perhaps because this time it’s followed by the lines “I’d watch a new TV show/Learn to dance and paint and sew.”

Sass was founded in 2016. After a couple of early singles, they released an EP in 2017 and their first full-length, Chew Toy, last year. You can listen to and buy all their music via Bandcamp. “11:11” was released this month, and is a track from their upcoming album, Heart to Heart. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Thrillhouse (subtle hooks, accumulated majesty)

“Lesser” – Thrillhouse

As we collectively ponder just how to put one foot in front of the other without falling into a pit of grief, recalling a disregarded sense of normal wrenched away from us, let’s take a deep breath. Music remains accessible. It helps. As the hackneyed but undeniable truism reminds us: Don’t look back. You’re not going that way.

So. We’ll take it one song at a time, and “Lesser” is a worthy place to start—a smart 21st-century rocker paved with subtle hooks and accumulated majesty.  The throbbing beat set against an unresolved chord in the introduction grabbed me quickly, while the song’s unfolding changes and idiosyncratic twists—most notably the spoken-word pre-chorus (first heard at 0:52; listen to how the melody is implied without being sung)—keep the ear and heart engaged through to the end.

Other impressive moments and touches: the anthemic guitar line appearing at 1:08, and again only at 2:51 (what great restraint to use this only after one particular lyric); the telegraph-signal synth that emerges from the background around 1:38, and gets something of its own solo around 2:27; the unexpected percussive effect at 2:39; the wonderful squiggle of a synth solo in the coda (beginning at 3:26).

Thrillhouse is a trio based in Brighton. “Lesser” is their second single, released earlier this month. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Liza Anne (concise, cathartic)

“Devotion” – Liza Anne

“Devotion” is a crashing wave of a song, two minutes and twenty-four seconds of concentrated intention, with Nashville’s Liza Anne singing about re-establishing her sense of self after a break-up. If she sounds more than a little agitated, it reflects the mindset of someone waking up to how diminished she had become within the relationship—working now, as she sings, to “find the bits of me I shook off/to appease you.”

Launching off a three-note bass line introduction, “Devotion” means business from the start, with as authoritative an opening line as I’ve heard in a while: “I’m gonna try because I need to/Be the woman who doesn’t need you.” Liza Anne’s voice is conspiratorial, fluttery, attention-grabbing; the music throbs and itches, with guitars scratching around the edges. The chorus lays out the song’s central thesis in an impressive 15-second journey from calm reflection (“Devotion/Return to me”) through expansive supposition (“Who I was before I was in love”) into cathartic, idiosyncratic declaration (“I’ll do anything for her now/She’s my longest love”)—the last lines, which refer to herself, an uninhibited outburst more spoken than sung, an endearing cross between Debbie Harry and Annabella Lwin, for you old-school folks.

By Liza Anne’s own account, “Devotion” was written in 10 minutes; there are occasionally arguments to be made, in rock’n’roll, for not over-thinking things. The song was released as a single back in October. Her debut album, Fine But Dying, dates back to October 2018; check it out via Bandcamp.

MP3 via The Current (see note below).



(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.)

Free and legal MP3: Pieta Brown (feat. Mark Knopfler) (Warm & steady, w/ luminous guitar work)

“The Hard Way” – Pieta Brown (feat. Mark Knopfler)

Warm and steady guitar work drives “The Hard Way,” and who is a warmer, steadier guitar player than Mark Knopfler? A brilliant stylist, Knopfler is at the same time an impressive team player, willing to figure out the best way to contribute to a song without taking it over. I can’t completely figure out how much my enjoyment of this song, and Knopfler’s part in it, is due to the nostalgic rush of that guitar sound of his. I mean, he just has to do that little lick at 0:20, and my god, it’s like the late ’70s come flooding back in all their innocent glory. It presents like a call back to one of MK’s greatest guest appearances of the era, on Dylan’s Slow Train Coming, in particular the song “Precious Angel.” It’s odd how nostalgia can sometimes slay you even over things you didn’t really have particular feelings for at the time.

Anyway: back to the current century, shall we? Pieta Brown has been releasing albums of well-crafted, acoustic-oriented music since 2002—music that floats around an engaging gray area where folk, blues, jazz, and Americana interweave. She sings with an intimate sort of slurriness, sounding maybe like a cross between a young Rickie Lee Jones and Shawn Colvin; in “The Hard Way,” the lyrical phrases are spread out against the song’s steady pulse, generating a restrained urgency that is ongoingly echoed in Knopfler’s flourishes. The words emerge with such intentionality that small phrasing choices acquire lovely consequence (as a small but distinct example, how she sings the word “sending” at 1:16).

“The Hard Way” is the sixth track on Brown’s new album, Freeway, her first for Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records. I’d like to think of it as the first song on the second side, as this is the kind of smart, organic music one can imagine living on a vinyl record, even if as of now it exists only digitally. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy it, via Bandcamp. Note that Knopfler also appeared on a song from Brown’s previous album, 2017’s Postcards. And, for the record, note too that Brown was previously featured on Fingertips way back in March 2006. MP3 via The Current (see below).



(MP3s from 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 still urge you to buy the music. It’s still the right thing to do.)

Free and legal MP3: Seazoo (energetic Welsh rock)

Launched off a satisfying, off-kilter progression of four crunchy guitar chords, “Throw It Up” is a friendly, non-stop slice of catchy-quirky indie rock, courtesy of an up-and-coming Welsh quintet.

“Throw It Up” – Seazoo

Launched off a satisfying, off-kilter progression of four crunchy guitar chords, “Throw It Up” is a friendly, non-stop slice of catchy-quirky indie rock, courtesy of an up-and-coming Welsh quintet.

Let’s start back with those guitar chords. First: guitars! Slashy, crunchy guitars. Such sound must be honored here in 2019. I love all sorts of instruments, and am fine with many and varied electronic devices, but I will unceasingly repudiate the extremist cultural rejection of the guitar as an instrument in popular music. And will therefore celebrate with a bit of extra oomph those musicians and bands that still find guitars attractive and useful. Me, I can’t help seeing the lack of guitar in today’s pop world as an admission that performative musical aptitude is no longer a contributing factor in songs that are fed into the Pop Industrial Complex. This is not a news flash, of course. And it’s not to say that there aren’t other talents involved in what emerges onto today’s Hot 100. But as an old-school music fan my ears respond to music that at some level sounds palpably related to individual human capacity, connecting the heart, body, and soul. Maybe that’s just me.

But hey—turns out this is only a semi-unrelated tangent. Although it’s hard to discern from listening to the song, “Throw It Up” was inspired by people front man Ben Trow has seen who are re-thinking their attachments to some of the 21st-century conveniences and technologies that we’ve been sold over the last decade or so. The song, he says, is “about making the decision to reject something in an attempt to improve well-being.”

“Throw It Up” in any case is a fast-paced smiler, enhanced by Trow’s plainspoken vocal style, which conveys a steady bemusement even as the song rushes by. And my paean to guitar work notwithstanding, I love as well the keyboard sounds that founding co-member Llinos Griffiths weaves in and around the general crunch—you’ll hear her in earnest starting around 0:58; the keyboards get emphasized further in the chorus, and then have a wonderful showcase during the instrumental break starting at 1:46, tracing out noodly, sonic pathways and nuances I can’t begin to find words to describe. Maybe even better are the skidding, sci-fi flares going up in the background around 2:08. Did I say this was a guitar song? Actually maybe not.

Online as of mid-August, “Throw It Up” is the first Seazoo release since their debut album, Trunks, in 2018—which by the way you should definitely check out on Bandcamp. Based in Wrexham, the band began as a duo, but radio play led to invitations to perform live, which led to Trow and Griffiths realizing they needed an actual band, which they now have. By all accounts they are currently finishing up a second album, which I hope you are now eagerly awaiting.