Lovely bittersweet chamber pop
Here’s another indie-rock darling reemerging after a hiatus. In this case, the Antlers were a group that had truly hit the big-time–glowing reviews, two appearances on The Tonight Show, etc.–and yet decided to put the enterprise on ice for quite a while.
While operating generally within their familiar soundscape–a reverby, unhurried package of tender vocals, acoustic orchestrations, and electric atmospherics–the Antlers are here in 2021 with perhaps a less angst-driven sound. “I think this is the first album I’ve made that has no eeriness in it,” front man Peter Silberman has said, of the new record, Green to Gold. No eeriness, and maybe a gentler tone overall, but there remains an underlying aura of bittersweet tension that seems all but inherent to Silberman’s wavering tenor. Even a song as pure and lovely as “Solstice” doesn’t deliver an unalloyed feeling of contentment as much as the sense of a slightly apprehensive respite and/or a determination to keep the spirits up in the face of life’s inevitable travails.
But pure and lovely this surely is: Silberman delivers a deeply gratifying verse melody, that fragile voice of his navigating strong upward and downward intervals, the melody in the process exploring the breadth of the octave–an often effective songwriting maneuver. The accompaniment here is provided by deftly arranged stringed instruments and bolstered by a digital wash blurring backing vocals into white noise. The song is little more than the bewitching verse melody and a chorus comprised of wordless vocals and the two-word lyric “Keeping bright bright bright.” And yet even this super simple chorus feels rich with craft and intention, with strings providing both rhythm and texture. A beautiful effort from beginning to end.
“Solstice” is the third track of 10 on Green to Gold, which was released in March on Anti- Records. This is the first Antlers album since 2014’s Familiars. The Antlers were previously featured on Fingertips in 2009, when the Silberman solo project first became a genuine band. MP3 via KEXP.
“900 Hands” traffics in the best kind of nostalgia: elusive, sweetly sad, and oddly inspiring.
“900 Hands” traffics in the best kind of nostalgia: elusive, sweetly sad, and oddly inspiring. Sounds from the ’60s float through the song without sidetracking it; I’m hearing something timeless going on here too. Don’t miss both the opening and closing moments, which serve further to wrap this lovely, backward-glancing song in the 21st-century present.
I especially like the authoritative balance achieved throughout between reverb and clarity, which doesn’t call extra attention to itself but is highly unusual. The reverb dial is a siren song that lures more than a few musicians into the deadly rocks of stale muddiness. (They’re muddy, but they’re rocks, and they’re stale. Don’t ask. I just needed a metaphor.) With “900 Hands,” we get the warm, inviting feeling of reverb without the gummy aftertaste. (Is that better, metaphorically speaking?) The vocals, in particular, are simultaneously shaded with echo and crystal clear, somehow. Center this all around a chorus that posits a gorgeous, melancholy melody over a bustling bottom end and I’m all in. Oh, and that chord that unresolves the chorus right before it resolves, minor-key-ishly? That one you first hear at 0:44? It’s completely straightforward, and I would listen to that for days on end.
Elskling (“darling” in Norwegian, if the internet is to be trusted) is a musical project launched by Norwegian-born, San Franciso-based Marte Solbakken—with, as it turns out, a number of interesting Fingertips-related connections. Solbakken wrote the first Elskling songs while holed up in her boyfriend’s NYC apartment during the unpleasant winter of 2011. Her boyfriend, it turns out, is Van Pierszalowski, of Waters (Fingertips, June 2011) and Port O’Brien (August 2009). Meanwhile, this debut Elskling song was recorded by Jason Quever, of Papercuts (April 2011, May 2014) and mixed by Chris Chu, whose band Pop Etc used to be called the Morning Benders and were featured here three different times back in the day. So it turns out Solbakken not only knows how to write a great song, she knows who to hang out with—a not to be underestimated skill of its own.
“Say Goodbye” weaves a knowing spell, breaking no new territory but doing what it does with great bittersweet panache.
Sophie Barker is not a name you’re likely to recognize but you may well recognize her voice—she sang a number of songs fronting the musical outfit Zero 7, which helped popularize the so-called downtempo (or chillout, or downbeat) genre early in the millennium. (She co-wrote and sang, for one, the widely-heard song “In The Waiting Line.”) Personally, I never warmed to Zero 7, and I think it was because of my irrational prejudice against “producer music.” Zero 7 was/is the brainchild of two British producer/remixer types, and to me that eliminates the main thing I get out of music, which is a sense of personal connection to a musician who is playing an instrument and/or singing a song. This is just me, I will note. You are entitled and even encouraged to feel otherwise.
Anyway, so if Sophie Barker now comes along with a similarly chilled-out sound but is singing and performing her own material, rather than as a hired hand on a musical “project,” I find my heart much more open to it than I was to her Zero 7 performances. “Say Goodbye” weaves a knowing spell, breaking no new territory but doing what it does with great bittersweet panache. (New territory, as I’ve said many times, is way overrated.) Barker has a lovely voice, at once plainspoken and rich, with a thrilling upper register that she unleashes largely in the chorus (although don’t miss how she sometimes flits into it briefly, as for instance when she sings the words “Will you” in the line “Will you be standing by me?” at 0:45). With its offhand melodies and melancholy bursts of harmony, “Say Goodbye” shimmers with feeling, and, to me, shows the potential power of this kind of composition when sung truly from the heart.
“Say Goodbye” is from the album Seagull, Barker’s third solo album, released last year in the UK. She is currently playing in the US. No word yet on whether the album is slated for a US release, but the promotional MP3 suggests something might be in the works. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.
You won’t get too far in reading about Scott Matthew without Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons, coming up (and I, oops, have just added to the pile). But here’s the funny thing about that kind of RIYL short-cutting: its inherent superficiality, typically connecting a singer to someone else he or she sounds like, can be drastically misleading. I, for instance, don’t much care to listen to Hegarty, despite his obvious depth and talent. I don’t connect with his music, for whatever reason. But Matthew—whose theatrical, husky tenor bears a passing resemblance to Hegarty’s singular voice—is here singing a song I like a lot. Let us note once and for all that RIYL is a defective recommendation engine.
Anyway, “Sinking”: a languid, off-center ballad, at once minimal and luxurious, backed by piano, layered vocals, and the delicate strumming of a ukulele I can only, and unexpectedly, describe as lovely. The song’s unusual sense of pace is rooted in a 3/4 time signature at once deliberate and unsteady, and amplified by the drawn-out melody line, which extends to nine rather than the typical eight measures. And I would not want the Antony comparisons to distract anyone from the vividness of Matthew’s own voice, both musically and lyrically. To the extent that one can follow them, the words he croons are striking. The song is a keeper.
Born in Australia, Matthew moved to Brooklyn in the late ’90s. He was in a short-lived band called Elva Snow in 2002 with Morrissey compatriot Spencer Cobrin, then wrote music for a few movie soundtracks, including John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus. A self-titled solo debut emerged in 2008. “Sinking” is from Mitchell’s third album, Gallantry’s Favorite Son, which was released in March on Riot Bear Records.
“God is Love” – The Innocence Mission
Karen Peris, long-time front woman for the Innocence Mission, has an idiosyncratic purr of a voice, part velvet part parchment; it alternately soothes and cracks, sometimes doing both at once. She has an unplaceable accent and likes to sing of simple things out there from her Lancaster County abode, comfy in the 20-plus-years’ presence of her bandmate husband Don and his bandmate childhood friend Mike Bitts. The trio’s new album, My Room in the Trees, their ninth, is full of the outdoors, of weather and leaves and water and quiet neighborhoods. It is lovely, and this is one of the lovely songs on it, but with more of a toe-tapping beat than most of the others, with jazz-flecked acoustic guitar chords, gentle percussion, and what sounds like a hushed horn or woodwind but is actually a combination of pump organ, chromatic harmonica, and melodica, all played by Karen.
And given our fractious age, with tolerance and intolerance locked in misery on the cultural dance floor, I feel a need to comment briefly on the subject matter. Despite the title’s centrality to the lyrics, this is not an overtly religious song; its spiritual message in fact is so deeply ecumenical as to unify all but the most strident fundamentalists fuming away on the two extreme sides of the God-existence argument. I’ve seen one online review take the song to task for its lyrical simplicity, a criticism that never fails to amuse me. Ninety percent of all songs have simple lyrics. That’s why they’re songs. They rise or fall on the depth of the music, which can also appear simple in many cases. This song’s simplicity is part of its allure; purity has a place in our ears and hearts. Not a lot of indie music explores this place; I give these guys a lot of credit for making it look, and sound, as easy and comfortable as a conversation with old friends.
Which these guys, recording together since 1989, surely are. My Room in the Trees was released last week on Badman Recording Co.
Just the sort of lovely, bittersweet song that Tracey Thorn, known best as half of Everything But the Girl, seems born to sing. A Jacques Brel-like waltz with both pathos and humor, minimally scored with piano and strings, “Oh, The Divorces!” deftly captures the exquisite sorrow of marital demise, viewed from that stage in life when one’s friends begin to break up, in seeming droves. “Who’s next?/Who’s next?” she sings at the outset. “Always the ones that you least expect.”
The nicely sculpted lyrics are a particular treat, and not just because they emerge from Thorn’s dusky yet velvety alto, although that doesn’t hurt. At once matter-of-fact and ever so slightly sly, some of the words shine with almost Sondheimian savvy (“And this one is different/And each one of course is/And always the same/Oh, the divorces”). There’s something gratifyingly grown-up about this song–from the wise, hurt depth of Thorn’s singing to the wistful (and yet also sometimes almost ironic) bowing and plucking of the violins–and those rock’n’rollers who persist in championing loud and aggressive music as the only legitimate means of expression are so incredibly missing the boat I’m beginning to feel sorry for them, rather than annoyed. (Although I’m still pretty annoyed. Essay to follow. But read Azzerad’s first if you haven’t.)
“Oh, The Divorces!” is the lead single from Thorn’s upcoming Love and Its Opposite, slated for a May release on Merge Records. MP3 via Merge. This is her second solo record since EBTG went on hiatus in ’02. Thorn remains married to band mate Ben Watt–happily, one hopes.
“It’s not my job to create happy music,” says Emily Jane White, a San Francisco-based singer/songwriter. “I’m okay with that.” This may be a tricky stance to maintain for a long career, but you and I can be okay with that too for now if the end result is something as lovely, stark, and textured as “Liza.” Sure, there’s surface-level sadness in the air, but the music, while reasonably simple, offers an enticing depth of sound and spirit right from the outset.
“It’s not my job to create happy music,” says Emily Jane White, a San Francisco-based singer/songwriter. “I’m okay with that.” This may be a tricky stance to maintain for a long career, but you and I can be okay with that too for now if the end result is something as lovely, stark, and textured as “Liza.” Sure, there’s surface-level sadness in the air, but the music, while reasonably simple, offers an enticing depth of sound and spirit right from the outset. The introduction alone is mysteriously satisfying, with its evocative blend of picked electric guitar and violin, and that repeat musical line at the finish, which makes me feel like I’ve just heard an entire story in 24 seconds.
Certainly White’s subtly toasted alto is well-suited to the “not happy” vibe, but I’m actually enjoying more her phrasing and delivery than her tone. It’s not too hard to sound gloomy; it’s hard to sound interesting while also sounding gloomy. I like her off-handed delivery, the way she manages to sound like she’s just deciding what to sing as she sings it, rather than reciting lyrics committed to memory–a particular feat in a song featuring not many lyrics in the first place. And why does the abrupt entrance of the drumming, at 1:51, sound like precisely the thing that needed to be there? Curious. The first verse, re-sung, is transformed by that insistent drum beat, which soon drives the violins into a double-time swirl, creating the feeling of a chase through the woods. The subsequent slowdown (2:56) is likewise sudden but somehow wonderful. We hear the first verse yet again. And that repeat finishing line from the introduction gets an extra repeat at the end of the song, exactly as required.
“Liza” is from White’s second full-length, Victorian America, set to be released next month on Milan Records. MP3 via Pitchfork.
Memorably sung, sadly swinging ballad
“Flowers (Eurydice’s Song)” – Anaïs Mitchell
Slow down and breathe with this one—it’s a burner and a keeper. And don’t be worried that the song is part of a so-called “folk opera” that reworks the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in Depression-era America. In fact, I probably shouldn’t even have mentioned that. Forget I said anything.
Instead, just listen: to Mitchell’s indelible voice—part pixie, part pop star—and her incandescent phrasing; to the unhurried viola which accompanies her so balefully (note to self: the viola is one underutilized instrument) and turns the song on one unexpected note (1:47); to the ache and pain that exists around this piece but never, completely, in it. In much the same way, the song unfolds with its simultaneously steady and hesitant gait and never quite coalesces into any solid verse or chorus structure. The mighty myth that underpins the music provides all the structure we need, and Mitchell’s lyrics, in service to it, can be stunning in their understatement. Here’s how Eurydice recalls what may have been her last living moment: “Walking in the sun, I remember someone/Someone by my side turned his face to mine/And then I turned away, into the shade.” By and large she uses short, concrete words and trusts her splendid voice to add layers of meaning. Listen, for one example, to how she sings the simple word “now” at 1:09. I don’t think you can teach that.
Hadestown is the name of the theatrical work that the Vermont-based Mitchell wrote in collaboration with composer Michael Chorney. It premiered in Vermont in December 2006, and went out on a partially fan-supported tour of New England in 2007. The recording, for Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records, features a variety of prominent indie music voices—including Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Petra Haden, and Ben Knox Miller (the Low Anthem)—along with grizzled folkie Greg Brown and Ms. DiFranco herself. The album, well worth checking out, will be released next month.
And here’s a real new year’s treat—a song as good as anything you’re likely to hear over the coming 12 months. On the one hand, it’s a quiet bit of singer/songwriter fare; on the other hand, oh my, what an exquisite tune. Cook plays an electric guitar here—the old-fashioned kind, with f-holes—not an acoustic one, and its rich, rounded tones lend an immediate depth to the song, and nicely complements her ever-so-slightly-dusky voice.
But it’s sheer songwriting prowess that makes this one shine. Cook, based in Austin, works wonders in particular with asymmetricality. Listen, first of all, to the melody line at the beginning of the verse (0:12), and how those three words (“All the girls”) are set apart, separated by a measure and a half from the rest of the line, which then streams out without a break through the lyric’s end. There’s great power in that quiet lack of regularity, and Cook uses it again, in a different way, at the opposite end of the structure. After the first two lines of the chorus, in which her words emerge in two-syllable clusters at the beginning of each measure, she proceeds to extend the second line four extra measures, partially mirroring the two-syllable clustering but now filling in the empty spaces with an uneven but luscious melody. Much more delightful to listen to than to read about.
“Hotel Lights” is from Cook’s album Let The Light In, produced by Alejandro Escovedo and slated for an early March release. This appears to be her third album but details are sketchy. Thanks to Bruce at Some Velvet Blog for the head’s up.
Not many lo-fi, reverb-drenched songs sneak through the Fingertips filter (certainly not as many as are out there) but this one struck my ears as a keeper, for at least a couple of reasons.
Not many lo-fi, reverb-drenched songs sneak through the Fingertips filter (certainly not as many as are out there) but this one struck my ears as a keeper, for at least a couple of reasons. To begin with, there’s that appealing acoustic guitar riff in the introduction–appealing because it moves musically (many lesser songs will use an acoustic guitar as a kind of place-keeper, via monotonous strums) and because the chords themselves are refreshing (i.e. not just basic chords, but inversions, which are played higher up the neck). Second, there’s Neveu’s cloud-like voice and the layered way she’s recorded it; such soft tones she sings with, but that doesn’t keep her from experimenting with some intriguing harmonic intervals. Third and maybe best of all, this is one sturdy melody, from the ancient undertones of the folk-like verse to the distilled beauty of a chorus that hinges, poignantly, on a suspended chord.
The 26-year-old, Berkeley-based Neveu has played in the bands Calico Horse, Clock Work Army, and Indian Moon. She is currently preparing a solo album, on which “My Cosmonaut” is slated to appear. She offers a nice assortment of free and legal MP3s–both her unreleased solo stuff and band songs–on her web site. And Radiohead fans may also want to check out her charming, front-porch cover of “Idioteque,” via Lefse Records. When it emerges, the solo album will be out on Lefse.