A heavy beat offsets a desultory piano line, synthesizers at once ferocious and distant blaze around the edges, guitars eventually squonk onto the scene, all while Van Etten sings poetically of longing, nostalgia, and destiny.
Rock’n’roll evolves, shifts, mutates—and persists. Anyone who doubts this need only listen to “Seventeen,” which performs the magic trick of weaving a classic-sounding song out of strands and blocks of sounds and textures that never quite existed in music’s “classic rock” heyday. A heavy beat offsets a desultory piano line, synthesizers at once ferocious and distant blaze around the edges, guitars eventually squonk onto the scene, all while Van Etten sings poetically of longing, nostalgia, and destiny—lyrics at once concrete and slippery, a deft interweaving of adult and teen-aged introspection that as a listener you intuit more than comprehend. The song rumbles and, eventually, roars. A master of subtle melodic gestures, Van Etten along the way crafts a chorus that slays with muted glory.
Some commentators hear Bruce Springsteen in the anthemic energy of this song, and while I get the comparison, leaving it at that diminishes Van Etten’s accomplishment. She’s no knock-off. The entire album in fact strikes my ear as a brilliant example of how to be a 21st-century rock’n’roller—taking the bones of archetypal rock music (“Seventeen” has a backbeat; you can’t lose it) and then planting your own individual 2019 self, with all its accumulated know-how and influences, right into the heart of it. Since we last heard from SVE (2014’s Are We There), she has become an actor, a film composer, a mother, and a graduate student in psychology. Which is just to say that she has quite a formidable self to align with one type of creative expression or another. When it came time to record a new album, she opted for a producer, John Congleton, known for synth-pop stylings, and arrived at the studio inspired by the dark, reverberant music of Portishead and Nick Cave. Something arresting was bound to come of all of this, and it did in the form of the enigmatic but majestic Remind Me Tomorrow, which was released in January on Jagjaguwar Records. That’s where you’ll find “Seventeen.”
Van Etten feels like an old friend by now because of the Eclectic Playlist Series, but this is only the second time she’s had a download featured here; if you missed “Serpents” back in 2011, you’re in luck: the free and legal MP3 is still available. Meanwhile, you can listen to Remind Me Tomorrow, and then buy it, on Bandcamp, where it is available digitally, on CD, or on vinyl. And in case you missed it, another song from the album, the brilliant “No One’s Easy To Love,” closes out (and provides the title for) this past month’s playlist, here.
MP3 via KEXP.
High Places is one technopop duo which is clearly not in it just to twiddle knobs or to woo the dance crowd.
We are greeted by what sounds like a heavily synthesized beat, but right away there are clues that things are not what they may seem. There’s something spacious about the sound itself, even as the clipped precision of the beat speaks of serious computer manipulation. And then there’s the odd fact that the beat unfolds for all of seven seconds before the vocals start. Wow—a technopop/electronica song without a mindless, overlong introduction. Bonus points to High Places, a duo which is clearly not in it just to twiddle knobs or to woo the dance crowd.
And then there are the words themselves: “The brackish water/Swirling around/In a basin I left in the yard”—a stark, organic image, spoke-sung by Mary Pearson with, now, a new element in the mix: a chime-like keyboard tracing a C minor octave in a repeating pattern. Keep your ear on that, as it becomes the backbone of multi-instrumentalist Rob Barber’s jittery, multifaceted soundscape, which takes shape before our ears between 0:32 and 0:48 as new elements are layered in. Pearson doesn’t begin fully singing until 1:20 (and a lovely, careful voice she has, too), at which point she settles mostly on a motif that echoes the melody given us by the C minor synthesizer. Nothing about this song is very song-like in any pop sort of way, but likewise does it rise above typical club fodder in the sculpted precision of its sound and the dreamy introspection of Pearson’s vocals. Barber’s sounds often originate in organic instruments (Pearson has a degree in bassoon performance, of all things), and if that isn’t necessarily clear to the casual listener what is noticeable, and notable, is the striking texture he creates—a propulsive yet elusive setting that sounds on the one hand like little more than a beat and yet on the other hand feels fully like music. In what amounts to a bit of aural sleight of hand, the song makes do with only two chords, as far as I can detect. I for one don’t even miss a third.
High Places was founded in Brooklyn in 2006, but has since relocated to Los Angeles. “Year Off” is from the album Original Colors, the band’s third, set for release in October on Thrill Jockey Records. MP3 via Pitchfork. A duo with a definite visual flair, the band has a blog featuring photographs from their travels, which is well worth a visit. They were previously featured on Fingertips in January 2010.