Under certain ineffable conditions I become a bit of a sucker for speak-singing in a rock’n’roll context (Cake perhaps my favorite example), and this one seems to hit the right buttons for me, general veneer of offbeat frenzy notwithstanding (or maybe because of it; hard to say). In any case there is no ignoring the sense of frantic drama that suffuses “Dog Stay Down”: from the wordless guttural chants in the introduction through the deft if semi-feverish vocal stylings of Angus Rodgers and the splatty horn charts, the song spools forward with an unhinged but somehow charming panache that grows more appealing with each listen. Those last 20 seconds introduce an extra level of loopy.
I have no idea what Rodgers is singing about, by the way, and it doesn’t remotely matter. Actually I’ll go out on a limb and say that lyrics in general tend to strike me as semi-irrelevant, in terms of their specific denotation. My ears require vocals on the one hand (I’m not much of an instrumental fan), but on the other hand I realize my enjoyment of words in a rock song has more to do with the voice as sound and the words as rhythm and texture than with what a singer is specifically saying. And here in fact is one of my perennial problems with standard music writing: so many reviews of albums focus so intently on lyrics that you’d almost never know the words were actually being sung, and accompanied by melodies and arrangements. More to the point, such writing tends to overlook the unique power of music, ignoring what’s most potent in the listener experience, which at its core is about sound waves, not verbiage. Or so says me. In any case, even were I able to discern all the words here, in “Dog Stay Down,” which I can’t (and at this point there’s no looking them up online), I really wouldn’t want or need to. The cathartic vibe speaks for itself.
Opus Kink is a six-piece band from Brighton, England. “Dog Stay Down” is a track from their debut EP, ‘Til the Streams Run Dry, which was released in October.
Boy, is there something to be said for veteran musicians who still feel the urge to create. “Demon In Profile” is as enticing a slice of stylish, urgent rock’n’roll as I’ve heard in a good while, and is unimaginable as the product of anyone who hasn’t been at this game a good long time. Actually it’s unimaginable as the product of anyone who isn’t the Afghan Whigs, a band that in its day created one of the more singular catalogs of music in the popular and semi-popular realm.
The Cincinnati-based band did have a bit of an alternative-rock cultural moment in the early ’90s, moving up from Sub Pop Records to a major-label deal with Elektra, and then in 1993 releasing the widely acclaimed album Gentlemen. The Whigs always had a distinctive if somewhat elusive sound, funneling a grunge-y crunch into a musical landscape that tipped its hat to something soulful and unrestrained. Front man Greg Dulli combined a dramatic baritone with larger-than-life bravado, all excess and attitude. Never, however, quite hitting the mainstream, they did what they did until 2001, with one personnel change along the way, at which point they broke up, amicably. Ten years later, they were back, and in 2014 released their first album since 1998. They appear to mean business in their 21st-century incarnation, which includes only Dulli and bassist John Curley from the original lineup.
“Demon In Profile” slips in with a welcoming piano refrain that harkens back to AOR radio days (Al Stewart? Journey? something), then morphs assuredly into a midtempo rocker that’s equal parts swing and menace. Horns mix with electric guitars in a very satisfying way, undergirding melodies that feel inevitable and haunting; every section of this impressively concise song feels all but perfectly conceived. Dulli, meanwhile, sounds as in command as ever, and early on delivers the especially suggestive line “It was all that I wanted/Now it’s killing me.” If an all-out rock’n’roll dude like Dulli can stomp his way through middle age without keeling over I imagine he’ll continue to have some pretty interesting things to say.
“Demon In Profile” is the third of 10 songs on the new Afghan Whigs album In Spades, which was released earlier this month. The band is back on Sub Pop Records after all these years. You can listen to and purchase the album (available in vinyl as well) via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.
With its ’60s-esque, shuffly optimism and good-humored horn charts, “You’re Not Alone” feels like a wondrous balm during a stupidly fractious season. And for all its bright-eyed presence, one of the best things going on here is the melancholy that simultaneously weaves through this soul-satisfying song. From the dusky catch in vocalist Amanda Tate’s voice (I hear here a lovely echo of the late great Kirsty MacColl) to the minor-key moments etched into the catchy chorus, “You’re Not Alone” comes across less as mindlessly rosy than sensibly wistful about life’s beauty in and around its unpreventable angsts.
Doesn’t the song’s very title aptly capture the underlying poignancy of our shared adventure?: it’s not “I’m With You” or “We’re in This Together” it’s “You’re Not Alone”—which cheers us even while acknowledging what may well be every thinking, feeling human being’s most primordial dread. Another sign of the song’s enjoyable thoughtfulness is the instrumental break we get at 2:22, a tamped-down, philosophical pause in the middle of an effort to otherwise rouse us a bit more head-bobbingly. I always appreciate unexpected musical turns of events like that.
People and Stars is the duo of Tate and David Klotz, the latter a former member of the LA-based band Fonda. Klotz, furthermore, has developed quite a resume as a music editor for television, with credits including Game of Thrones, American Horror Story, and Stranger Things. “You’re Not Alone” is the duo’s first release, in advance of an EP slated for later this year. MP3 via Insomnia Radio Network.
With its anthemic horn charts, melodic bass line, and a retro-y, bittersweet bashiness, “Raised the Bar” is as we speak blaring out of Top-40 radios everywhere in some alternative world in which politicians compromise and people still use taxi cabs.
Let’s start with a hat tip to the introduction, which not only gives us those groovy horns right out of the gate but seems to accomplish a whole lot in a short time. After just 10 seconds not only does the song take off but it feels we are already smack in the middle of things, thanks to the ear-catching sixth interval on which the verse melody quickly hinges (it’s there in the second and third notes we hear). That’s one good way to write a song, for those who need more than rhythm to get the spirit fluttering. Another good way is to employ most of the notes of the scale in your melody, which “Raised the Bar” does in the chorus, skipping just one note out of eight (counting the home note in both its lower and upper registers). (End of music theory lecture.)
The bygone feeling in the air here is, according to press material, no accident—Storrow set out on this new album to write straightforward songs in the tradition of the hits one might have heard on AM radio in the 1960s. Based in Montreal, Storrow worked on these new songs with a number of notable Canadians, including musicians from the Fingertips-featured bands Stars, the New Pornographers, the Dears, and Young Galaxy, in addition to the multi-faceted singer/songwriter Patrick Watson (himself featured here back in 2006).
“Raised the Bar” is the second track on Storrow’s new album, The Ocean’s Door, released earlier this month. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp.
Effortlessly delightful, “Nvr Surrender” is a chewy concoction of retro-y goodness, from the reverbed guitar effect in the intro through the assertive minor-key backbeat the song settles itself into and, perhaps most of all, front woman Kaylie Schiff’s layered, affect-free soprano. Schiff embraces this faux-’60s romp with an astute blend of earnestness and nonchalance—while the music itself is wrapped in a more or less compulsory shell of irony, she never lets irony seep into her tone. This seems important to me all of a sudden.
Also important: the subtle vibrancy of the arrangement. It’s easy to think, oh, it’s a retro thing, they’re just following the dots, but no not really. To begin with: that oddly hesitant piano descent that opens the song—what exactly is that? Its idiosyncrasy is compelling. And listen for the horns (or, horn-like sounds) that color the background in a variety of ways. They sound unexpectedly inventive. Likewise the string (or string-like sounds), which get kind of crazy here and there, but without being showy about it. And those chimes!: how perfectly restrained. And the wind! (The wind?) Holding it all together is the sturdiness of the melody, which proceeds with expert inevitability. Quite a spiffy tune, top to bottom.
Rumble is the Los Angeles-based duo of Kaylie Schiff and Richie Follin, who played previously together in the band Guards. “Nvr Surrender,” with its unexplained missing vowels, is the opening track of Rumble’s three-song EP, released in January. This is the band’s first recording, and seems to be called either Rumble or ep.1. You can listen via Bandcamp, and you can get the EP there for free if you hand over an email address.
This is a 21st-century tone poem, in a rather literal sense, as the song unfolds as an intersecting of tones: deep tones and high tones, tinkly tones and wobbly tones, soft tones and hard tones, musical tones and mechanical tones, vocal tones and instrumental tones.
Slow and sparse, “Easy” is likewise dramatic and oddly arranged, creating a sense of organic space despite (or, maybe, somehow, because of) the disconcerting, palpable electronic ambiance. This is a 21st-century tone poem, in a rather literal sense, as the song unfolds as an intersecting of tones: deep tones and high tones, tinkly tones and wobbly tones, soft tones and hard tones, musical tones and mechanical tones, vocal tones and instrumental tones. The most apparently natural tones in the song—the voice, the horn sounds, the hand claps—feel processed and edgy, while the most artificial of the tones—some of the machine-like background washes, for instance—come across as intimate and three-dimensional.
Nothing moves too fast to avoid scrutiny. Often there is little more than one sound going on at a time. Yet there remains something consistently evasive about the whole endeavor, probably epitomized by the unwieldy yet compelling “horns” (I assume not actual horns) that barge in at 0:57 to oppose the very idea of “easy” even as they offer an ongoing rejoinder to that lyric. Repeat listenings seem more to augment the mystery rather than resolve it, while continuing to yield moments that the ear missed during earlier plays, such as the weird, occult-ish vocal effect at 1:38, or, of all things, the perfectly normal-sounding guitar that glides in at 3:07.
Son Lux is the performing name of Ryan Lott, a composer and producer who has worked across an impressive range of genres, from indie rock to hip hop to contemporary classical. Among his past collaborators are Sufjan Stevens, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), Peter Silberman (The Antlers), Nico Muhly, and the quartet ETHEL. “Easy” comes from the third full-length Son Lux album, Lanterns, coming later this month on Joyful Noise Recordings.
A smoother, poppier version of “Stillness is the Move” by the Dirty Projectors, “Sonsick” succeeds both because of and in spite of its debt to the earlier song. The similarities are enough to be disconcerting, and yet San Fermin mastermind Ellis Ludwig-Leone seems less interested than Dave Longstreth in being difficult. I consider this a good thing. I liked “Stillness is the Move” quite a lot, but noted at the time that it was one of the more approachable things Dirty Projectors had recorded, and even so was still pretty thorny. “Sonsick” is the work of someone who doesn’t shy from accessibility.
Maybe it’s because Ludwig-Leone is a full-fledged contemporary classical composer as well that he approaches pop for what it is, or can be: a chance to make music people can listen to without an advanced degree. Not that “Sonsick” isn’t its own kind of interesting. (Take note, hipsters of all persuasions: music can be rich and approachable at the same time!) I’m entirely enjoying the more fluent melodic choices Ludwig-Leone makes in the verse than did Longstreth, and find the appearance of an honest-to-goodness sing-along chorus all but intoxicating. Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe, who sing together in the duo Lucius, add energy at once lovely and intense to a story that feels elusive but emotional, not purposefully nonsensical (as was “Stillness”). And do yourself a favor and keep your ears on the arrangement. Ludwig-Leone’s use of horns is novel if not unique in a pop setting; they sneak in via sustained background notes, and are used throughout in a flowing, textural way rather than in “horn chart” flares and bursts. Woodwinds glide in too as some point, creating the feel of a pocket orchestra by the end of the piece.
Officially, San Fermin is a “band” of three singers and one composer; the music on the album is all performed by hired guests. The third singer is Allen Tate, Ludwig-Leone’s friend and long-time collaborator; they met at 16 in rock’n’roll camp and were previously performed as a duo called Gets the Girl. Ludwig-Leone, 23, studied composition at Yale and has worked as an assistant to composer Nico Muhly. “Sonsick” is a song from the group’s self-titled debut album, to be self-released next month. Judging from the imposing bull adorning the album cover, I’m guessing that the band took its name from Pamplona’s famous annual festival. MP3 via Spinner.
What makes Andersson’s music so potent is that she has by now been living in New Orleans longer than she lived in her native country. She has absorbed both environments and is coming out swinging here. It’s a beautiful piece of work.
With its unconventional use of brass band and snare drum, “What Comes Next” quickly announces its boundary-free musical identity, blending traditional New Orleans sounds with an outlier sensibility that attentive listeners may just be able to link to Andersson’s home country of Sweden. Not that Sweden–with arguably the richest and most significant rock’n’roll history of any non-English-speaking country—has just one way of doing rock’n’roll. But from the outside looking in, one can hear generalized ideas and sensibilities that feel musically Swedish. What makes Andersson’s music so potent is that she has by now been living in New Orleans longer than she lived in her native country. She has absorbed both environments and is coming out swinging here. It’s a beautiful piece of work.
I love how she works the martial drum work into a song that glides and swings so smoothly. I love the eccentric punctuation provided by the loose/tight horn section (very NOLA). And I love the swaying hook of the romantic chorus, which sounds like nothing the introduction or the verse of this song has prepared us for, musically, and yet once heard, it’s exactly where we should be. Peter Moren, of Peter Bjorn and John, provides some multi-faceted backing vocals here, often of the fetching octave-harmony variety.
Andresson has been in New Orleans since 1991, when, at 18, she moved there to be with guitarist Anders Osborne both musically and personally. To date she is probably best known for the one-woman-band video she made for her song “Na Na Na,” which to me better shows off her appealing personality than her songwriting. You can add to the more than one million views it’s gotten if you haven’t already, below. (Note that she made the video for potential venues, so they would know what to expect from her loop-oriented performances. She was not trying to go viral.) “What Comes Next” is the first available song from Andersson’s forthcoming album, Street Parade, arriving in April on the New Orleans-based Basin Street Records.
With horn charts and sass, “Alexander” walks that wonderful, fine line between earnest and goofy, from its purposefully rushed and over-eager intro to its throwback melody and an overall vibe blending of elusive strands of ’40s and ’50s pop into a 21st-century indie rock stew.
Among its assorted charms, “Alexander” features honest to goodness horn charts—that is, a fully developed and arranged horn section. Good horn charts almost always walk the fine line between earnest and goofy and that is true here too, thank goodness. The whole song walks that line, in fact, from its purposefully rushed and over-eager intro to its throwback melody and an overall vibe blending elusive strands of ’40s and ’50s pop into a 21st-century indie rock stew. Nicole Smith sings with a fetching combination of velvet and sass that magnifies the bygone vibe; there have been a precious few female rock’n’roll singers over the years who have been able to channel the pre-rock’n’roll era with conviction. Add Smith to the list.
But it all comes back to those horns (tenor sax, trumpet, and trombone, to be precise), which we first hear as emphatic punctuation in the succinct and splendid chorus. But don’t miss how they ingratiate their way into the second verse—along, I should note, with some well-placed finger snaps and a nifty shot of ’40s-style harmonizing. And while our ears don’t necessarily pick them up directly, there are strings at work here too—two violins, a viola, and a cello. Keyboardist Dan Marin wrote the horn charts, while guitarist Jesus Apodaca—whose day job is as a public-school orchestra teacher—arranged the strings.
The Royalty is a five-piece band that has been playing around the El Paso area since 2005. “Alexander” is the lead track from the outfit’s debut album, self-released digitally via Bandcamp earlier this month. Thanks to the band for letting Fingertips host the MP3.
The big party may be over down there—it’s Ash Wednesday now, after all—but in many real ways, the party never quite ends in that strange, troubled, and magical place. So here’s a bit of post-Mardi Gras stomp, courtesy of the forthcoming Rebirth Brass Band album.
So if you haven’t ever really felt connected to classic New Orleans music, there are only two reasons for this: 1) you’ve never been to New Orleans; or, 2) you’ve never watched Treme. I know, because it wasn’t long ago I qualified for both reasons. But no longer—I’ve been and I’ve watched. The music now sparkles and shimmies in a new way; it fires up my feet and my heart.
The big party may be over down there—it’s Ash Wednesday now, after all—but in many real ways, the party never quite ends in that strange, troubled, and magical place. So here’s a bit of post-Mardi Gras stomp, courtesy of the forthcoming Rebirth Brass Band album. What I love now, so much, about this music is how simultaneously casual and disciplined it is. But for the sax solo in the middle, it’s all ensemble work, and note the happy-hearted looseness about the playing, the way each melody line, enforced by the group playing it, continually frays around the edges by the sloppy-tight way the individual instruments blend together. This is even true with the vocals, which themselves become another instrument in the blend, half-melodic and half-percussive. Note too how the beat is at once strong and pliable—you can feel it even when the instruments are playing everywhere but the beat. Take the trumpets’ signature moment, that slinky I-V-IV-VI melody we hear first at 0:30: the emphatic blasts on the V and VI notes come entirely off the beat, yet this is exactly what makes you want to move your body.
Founded in 1982, Rebirth remains a fixture on the NOLA music scene, and continues to be notable and relevant for its signature blend of classic New Orleans brass band music with funk and soul and bop and hip-hop. “Do It Again” is from the album Rebirth of New Orleans, due for release next month on Basin Street Records. MP3 via the band’s site.