Tough and controlled but also ever so slightly unhinged, “Serpents” is a sizzling, guitar-driven drama.
Tough and controlled but also ever so slightly unhinged, “Serpents” slays me from start to finish. The intro is all guitars, an ideal combination of drone and drive, with an unresolved chord at the center. (And I have established my predilection for intros with unresolved chords.) Keep a particular ear on the lonesome slide guitar (played by Aaron Dessner, of the National) that leads directly into the verse at 0:22, with a slurred, two-note refrain. The refrain recurs throughout the song as a kind of bittersweet anchor, a classic-rock gesture boiled and condensed into an indie-rock leitmotif.
And then Van Etten enters and she hasn’t opened her mouth for more than five seconds and she’s nailing everything. Listen to how she sings the first line, “It was a close call,” dragging the word “call” in the subtlest way, not through different notes as much as through different shapes. And then, in the next line, the way the melody jerks unexpectedly upward and forward twice in the phrase “back of the room” is another “wow” moment disguised in nonchalance. Likewise the casual, nearly haphazard (but not really) harmonies that play out in the next line (beginning at 0:37), in and around our friend the guitar refrain, and how they—the harmonies, and the guitar refrain—lead us somehow into a sort of non-chorus chorus of surprising (but not really) intensity. With barely a moment to breathe we have been taken into a sizzling, guitar-driven drama, a kind of “Layla” for the smartphone set, the guitar riff shaved to its most essential two seconds, the sex more directly alluded to and yet, still, cleverly disguised—“You enjoy sucking on dreams,” the song’s narrator snarls, with a bit of a hesitation before the word “dreams”; she shortly thereafter finishes the line “You would take me” with the word “seriously,” also after a meaningful delay. Soon the upward-gliding guitar refrain has found a new home one octave further up, where it’s more of a wail, but still hasn’t found what it’s looking for. But I have found one of my favorite MP3s of the year.
“Serpents” is from Van Etten’s forthcoming album Tramp, her third, which will arrive in February. Note that Van Etten is backed here by some serious talent, including another Dessner (Bryce) on guitar, Matt Barrick (The Walkmen) on drums, and Wye Oak’s mighty Jenn Wasner on vocals. The album will be her first for the estimable indie label Jagjaguwar Records; MP3 via Jagjaguwar.
It’s the not-unfamiliar patient-talking-to-his-doctor motif but we are a long way here from “Doctor, doctor, can’t you see I’m burning, burning.”
It’s the not-unfamiliar patient-talking-to-his-doctor motif but we are a long way here from “Doctor, doctor/Can’t you see I’m burning, burning.” “Dr. Bill” oozes depth and power, thanks to some killer guitar work and a splendid fusion of lyrical and musical momentum. There is no chorus; there is even the feeling of being no melody, as singer Brad Armstrong creates the illusion that he’s merely talking. But this is purposeful deception, belied by the song’s careful, eloquent chord sequence, striking lyrics, and the melancholy descent traced by Armstrong’s voice in the first four lyrical lines. Note the lyrics themselves seem more like sentences than verses. He’s singing, he just doesn’t want you to realize it. As the song cranks up the intensity, the subtle melody begins turning upward.
Uneasiness weaves itself through the fabric of the song. You can hear it in the recurring chord change that launches the intro and likewise begins each lyrical line to follow—that shift from an opening minor chord to an unforeseen, unrelated major chord. From there we are taken through a progression featuring more major than minor chords but the underlying sense is disturbed—we’re feeling minor, even through the major changes—and it was set up by the opening gambit. The chords themselves unfold like a narrative, which reinforces a story that escalates both in the lyrics and in the subtext, as we learn perhaps as much about the patient/narrator via what he doesn’t say as from what he does. The way internal rhyme juxtaposes with a lack of end rhyme adds to the song’s ambivalent drive. A character seeking help while insisting he’s all right: what does this say about life for the majority of us, who do not seek help even as we sense that maybe we’re not all right? A strong and haunting song, this one. You could also spend a few listens concentrating merely on the evolving, fiery guitar accompaniment, but I’ll leave that to you, I’m running long as it is.
The Birmingham, Ala.-based quintet 13ghosts is here returning to Fingertips for a third time; Armstrong also visited for an early Q&A. The band is blessed with two strong singer/songwriters, the other being Buzz Russell, who fronted “Beyond the Door,” a great song that was reviewed here in 2008. They were also featured in 2006 but that song alas is no longer online. “Dr. Bill” is from the band’s album Garland of Bottle Flies, coming next month on Skybucket Records.
“I Didn’t Know What I Was Saying,” from the Prince Edward Island quartet the Robots, performs the unusual 21st-century trick of sounding influenced by Radiohead without sounding slavishly hypnotized. I don’t think we’ve heard enough of this sort of thing, actually—bands recognizing Radiohead’s seminal power while spinning the vibe into something very much their own.
With the year-end easing off of new releases comes the intermittent Fingertips tradition of revisiting my folder of songs that were seriously considered for review earlier in the year, to see what I might have unaccountably overlooked—heard at the time but didn’t really hear. There are always one or two goodies in there that are well worth (re)discovery.
For instance: “I Didn’t Know What I Was Saying,” from the Prince Edward Island quartet the Robots, which performs the unusual 21st-century trick of sounding influenced by Radiohead without sounding slavishly hypnotized. I don’t think we’ve heard enough of this sort of thing, actually—bands recognizing Radiohead’s seminal power while spinning the vibe into something different and worthy. Bands did this with the Beatles all the time (and still do). Not everyone gets to invent the wheel; we need folks who can work on the chassis and the engine as well. Here, the Robots take Kid A-ish intensity but reapply guitars: searing and itchy lead lines, dark and jumpy rhythm lines, rumbly background washes. Actual keyboards—not just synthesizers—enter the fray as well. The song’s disciplined vehemence is epitomized by its very structure, which places the semi-undiscernible verses all together in the first two-thirds of the song, followed by a chorus section of marvelous power; there, front man Peter Rankin lets a bit of his inner Thom Yorke out of the bag, while the churning background swells with an almost orchestral grandeur. As for that last 40 seconds, with its foghorn guitar and thrummy white noise, not sure if it’s necessary but it’s actually pretty interesting.
The Robots come from Charlottetown and released their debut full-length, Hey Buddy, Dummy, back in April on Halifax-based Night Danger Records.
A noisy, disciplined exercise in 21st-century genre-bending, this throbbing, neo-psychedelic lullaby probably kills in concert. Even on a recording, concisely churned and pummeled into three and a half minutes, even with Jason Russo’s restrained, whispery tenor, “Stranger” is a bracing, vehement number. The instrumental parts have an almost feral quality, even as the overall vibe is tight as a drum; when the five guys in this Brooklyn-based band crank up the volume, one gets the feeling that while any one of them may not know exactly what he’s going to play next, the other four always do. That’s what you get when you’ve been together for more than a decade. (Okay, there’s me again, singing the praises of experience over “hot-new-thing-iness.” It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it.)
Oh and then, after all that unfettered intensity, check out how the song ends, with that one homely, lonely gong-like cymbal. Unexpectedly smile-inducing.
Hopewell was featured on Fingertips in 2007 for the song “Tree.” “Stranger” is the latest MP3 available from the band’s Good Good Desperation CD, their sixth, released in May on Tee Pee Records. MP3 via Tee Pee.