“Jennifer Valentine” – Field School

Fuzzy and melodic

“Jennifer Valentine” – Field School

Power pop is never too far below the surface here on Fingertips, and early-ish 2023 gives us another wistful/tuneful bit of the same, this time of the fuzzy/lo-fi variety. “Jennifer Valentine” is a song exquisitely in tune with itself, telling an archetypal story of unrequited love with the powerfully shy tenderness of an introverted teen-ager. Power pop is the perfect vehicle, as the genre all but aches with innocent, unrealized passion, with its characteristically sweet, succinct melodies, often tinged in minor keys, forever hinting at the despair that lurks below desire.

This representative power-pop vibe hinges frequently, if not always, upon a vocalist with some bit of sugar mixed with the melancholy (or melancholy mixed with the sugar, depending on the individual circumstance). On “Jennifer Valentine” it embodies via the awkward combination of hesitancy and assertion in singer/songwriter Charles Bert’s reedy, mixed-down delivery. That opening salvo about how the singer wrote the name of his beloved “a thousand times” is quintessentially middle-school (you need a handy notebook and pen, after all), as are the progressively grandiose sentiments the song expresses: the singer goes from “Your name should be up in lights/Above the city burning bright” to “Electromagnets realign/Whenever you were walking by.”

And let’s not overlook the flawless choice of name here, with its sing-song-y dual dactyls and guileless imagery; what after all is more innocent and passive-assertive than sending a valentine to someone you have a crush on? This song is a valentine to a Valentine.

Field School is the pandemic-induced solo project launched by Bert during lockdown; its initial output consisted of three five-song cassettes, which were eventually released as digital EPs in 2022. Bert has otherwise been a member of the Seattle-based band Math and Physics Club since 2004. “Jennifer Valentine” was originally on the Hey Satellite EP, released in April 2022; it reappears on the full-length When Summer Comes album, from November 2022, which collects recordings from the original cassettes onto one album. MP3 via KEXP.

(And hey if you are a power pop fan you might want to go back and check out my Power Pop playlists on Spotify, which aim to unite both classic and contemporary power pop into one seamless listen. You’ll see there that I enjoy stretching the genre a bit to get beyond the usual suspects: while every song on these mixes features sparklingly catchy, power-pop-infused melodies, not every song is going to be found on standard power pop playlists. (Which is just as well because a lot of standard power pop playlists are just plain off base. Don’t get me started.) Anyway: Volume 1 is here; you can look for Volumes 2 and 3 once you’re there. Note a news flash: the original studio recording of “Starry Eyes,” as seminal a power pop song as there is, is no longer available on Spotify. This should tell you all you need to know about the efficacy and stability of streaming if you’re a committed music fan. Use it but don’t count on it!)

Free and legal MP3: The Color Forty Nine

Plaintive bilingual waltz, w/ horns

“What Would I Know? / ¿Yo Que Sé?” – The Color Forty Nine

A song with a recurring instrumental motif separate from the central melody is, to my ears, almost always a worthy enterprise. When that recurring instrumental motif is performed by a plaintive trumpet, as with “What Would I Know? / ¿Yo Que Sé?,” all the better. What I’m talking about specifically is the trumpet melody first heard in between the lyrics at 0:27, and which continues to ground the song in alluring melancholy the rest of the way. The horns—there is more than the one trumpet as we get going—have a beautiful Mexican vibe, reinforcing the song’s bilingual setting. The music, with its 3/4-time sway, lulls the ear while the English lyrics offer impressions and hints; this is one of those songs where you feel what’s going on at a level below concrete awareness. Which is to say I have no idea what the song is actually saying but that doesn’t seem to matter; I still get it.

The lyrics alternate between Spanish and English while the music alternates between major- and minor-key melodies. Every touch along the way seems ideal: the violin that weaves itself into the mix, the group vocals that bolster the chorus (which consists only of the song title, in both languages), the ongoing shifts in the horn charts, the false ending at 3:27, the subsequent coda. With its gentle folk-music sensibility and expressive craft, the song washes over the spirit, seeming to carry with it a sort of wisdom of the ages.

The Color Forty Nine is a San Diego-based quartet. The Spanish lyrics here are sung by guest vocalist Rubén Albarrán of the band Café Tacvba, from the suburbs of Mexico City. “What Would I Know? / ¿Yo Que Sé?” is a song from The Color Forty Nine’s second album, String Ladders, which was released last month.

Free and legal MP3: Walk in Wardrobe

Sweet & ambling earworm

“Apology” – Walk in Wardrobe

Sweet and ambling, with a melancholy undertone, “Apology” is a simple, triplet-based tune, without a set chorus, that grows in stature and impact as it unfolds. Things feel at once thoughtfully put together and completely relaxed, which often makes for an endearing musical cocktail.

While not elaborately recorded, the song has a nice share of small but gratifying touches. It starts with some nice acoustic finger-picking, but rather than stay in that lane, there is, soon, a double hit of percussion–a steady tom-tom starting at 0:10 and then, just as the singing starts, perfectly timed finger-snaps. Whether organic or digital, the snaps add a pleasing touch to the rhythm section, working nicely into the fabric of the sound without drawing too much attention. And at this still-early point in the song it might be starting to occur to you what a potent voice singer Atticus Flynn has—gentle but substantive, with an ever-so-slightly roughed-up tone that lends dynamic authority to lyrics that he doesn’t always render intelligible. Note that this is not a criticism!: that the words, when they are decipherable, can sometimes hit the ear as a bit clunky becomes less relevant in the face of Flynn’s potent delivery. Then again, an occasional line pops as compelling, such as “I wouldn’t put a ripple in his sea,” which is a potent way to express that thought.

Another notable ingredient: the extra chords we get in the lead-in to the second verse (1:08-1:21); that there seems something purposeful about this is corroborated the next time the song arrives at that point, as this is when the violin joins in (2:17) and embarks on an extended solo. All in all this is a singular creation, worth spending a bit of time with, although I’ll warn you it becomes quite the earworm with a small amount of exposure.

Walk in Wardrobe is the project of Australian musician Frankie Haubrich, currently based in Vancouver. He wrote the song and plays all the instruments, with Flynn handling the vocals for this first recording. “Apology” was released in April. MP3 via the artist.

Free and legal MP3: Land of Talk

Tranquil backbeat, emotional intensity

“Weight Of That Weekend” – Land Of Talk

At once gentle and intense, “Weight Of That Weekend” finds Elizabeth Powell, the primary force behind Fingertips favorite Land of Talk, pondering something serious and yet just out of the song’s lyrical spotlight. The music offers contradictory sensations, its tranquil backbeat intermittently jarred by measures of 7/4 (in the verse) and 6/4 (in the chorus). As a singer Powell embodies this duality, with a voice feathered with ambivalence but likewise resolute.

And just after I asserted that I don’t usually listen to lyrics (see previous entry), along comes a song in which the lyrics are a seamless, central part of its texture and allure. Without an introduction, the song launches on as terse a description of being gaslighted as any you’re likely to encounter:

Always come at me from a different angle
Make me think I don’t understand
how I’m feeling

(Note that the “how I’m feeling” part is where you first hear the 7/4 measure momentarily suspend the flow.)

From here the lyrical power accumulates through what is being alluded to without being said, the words a series of understandable phrases that nonetheless never quite reveal their direct meaning. The music amplifies the unsettled atmosphere with a chorus, dominated by suspended chords, that remains unresolved musically, adding to the subtle ache of Powell’s effort to rise above troubled circumstances: “This is a prayer for love” is the insistent conclusion.

Powell by the way is a formidable guitarist; that she plays acoustically here, with restraint, is its own sort of statement. And don’t miss the French horn that wafts into the mix somewhere around 2:25, an unexpected and somehow exactly appropriate addition.

“Weight Of That Weekend” is the fourth track on the new Land of Talk album, Indistinct Conversations, which was released at the end of July on Saddle Creek Records. This is the band’s fourth full-length release; three EPs have been interspersed over the years. You can listen to a few of the new songs and buy the album via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

This is the fifth time Land of Talk has been featured here, with their first review dating back to April 2007, and their most recent appearance ten years ago to the month, in August 2010.

Free and legal MP3: Rae Morris (moody, w/ simmering momentum)

Morris—21 and British—emerges here as a young Kate Bush for the Lorde generation, with an elastic tone that ranges from sweet to muscular.

Rae Morris

“Skin” – Rae Morris

“Skin” launches off an ear-grabbing tick-tock rhythm, glides into a precisely calibrated duskiness, and builds unerring drama and interest from the knowing interplay between an itchy drumbeat and melancholy, softly-voiced piano chords. Morris—21 and British—emerges here as a young Kate Bush for the Lorde generation, with an elastic tone that ranges from sweet to muscular, and an elusive speech idiosyncrasy (listen to her “r”s) that seems only to add character to her already formidable presence.

I am not sure whether to thank Morris or her producer (Ariel Reichtshaid, who has worked with everyone from Cass McCombs and Vampire Weekend to Skye Ferreira and Kylie Minogue), but I love how adeptly “Skin” transcends “girl-at-piano”-type rock music. Part of this has to do with how obliquely the piano is employed; it never goes away, but it is very much an ensemble player here, creating the sense that every chord that does come forward is there for a purpose, not just because the singer plays piano. And then there is the song itself, and its subtly indelible chorus, which would not be as effective as it is without its unusual setting. First, there’s a pre-chorus (first heard at 0:51), followed by a chorus involving two asymmetrical iterations of its central motif. The second time (1:12), the “We break the rules” melody is repeated, after which new lyrics blossom without warning into the song’s pivotal moment: “We break our hearts and pretty much everything.”

From the seaside city of Blackpool, in North West England, Morris was signed to Atlantic Records when just 19. “Skin” was released in January, available as a free download via SoundCloud, and will apparently end up on her debut album, scheduled for release this summer. Morris has been releasing a series of EPs since late 2013; the latest is due out next month. A new single from the forthcoming EP, “Do You Even Know,” is available to stream via via SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Cate Le Bon (portentous melancholy)

The musical atmosphere is both minimal and somehow off-kilter, the rock instruments here played with a mixture of restraint and resolve, as if they’d been told to pretend they were a jazz combo, without playing any jazz.

Cate Le Bon

“I Think I Knew” – Cate Le Bon

No introduction, literally, prepares us for the woozy “I Think I Knew”—the song begins right on the words “There’s no talking to him,” but you quickly have to wonder: is it really his fault? It’s hard to make heads or tails out of the woman lodging this particular complaint; lyrics fade in and out of comprehension, due partly to Le Bon’s singular accent (she is Welsh), partly to her unforthcoming diction, and partly to the strangeness of the words themselves. The musical atmosphere, meanwhile, is both minimal and somehow off-kilter, the rock instruments here (bass, drum, electric guitar, keyboards) played with a mixture of restraint and resolve, as if they’d been told to pretend they were a jazz combo, without playing any jazz.

The song’s central motif is both its strongest and strangest: the repetition, in the chorus, of the line “I wish I knew.” She sings it six times in a row, never once quite aligned with the beat, and phrased continually as if blurting an idle thought rather than singing a lyric. (Only later in the song do we get the additional, titular phrase “I think I knew.”) Around the repeated words dances a flute-like synthesizer, which gives us the song’s instrumental hook (that descending scale first heard around 0:59), and then also kind of just scoots away with an abrupt, naive heedlessness.

In the second verse the song becomes a duet, featuring the Seattle-based singer/songwriter Mark Hadreas, who performs as Perfume Genius, and sings with enough fragile/mysterious affect himself that his opening line, too, becomes one of the only lyrically clear moments. Some relationship has taken an unhappy turn, to be sure, but how much more wonderful to listen to such a story when the words fade into a disoriented haze of regret and second thought rather than detail a concrete narrative of blame and/or self-pity. It can be no accident that the song rises above comprehensibility only at the beginning of verses and then at the end, when the duo sings together, with portentous melancholy, “This one to cut the heart in two, the other one to choose.”

“I Wish I Knew” is from Le Bon’s forthcoming album Mug Museum, slated for release in November on Wichita Recordings. The album was recorded in Los Angeles, where Le Bon relocated earlier this year. She has been featured once before on Fingertip, in January 2012. Thanks again to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Lisa Germano (gorgeous, sad, peculiar)

She sings in sighs; it seems you hear her every breath.

Lisa Germano

“And So On” – Lisa Germano

Lisa Germano is rivaled only by Tom Waits when it comes to the ability to insert sad, majestic melodies into squirrelly settings. Her songs tend to feel fractured, half-discarded. She sings in sighs; it seems you hear her every breath. In many if not most of her songs, she creates the disconcerting sense that much more is going on than either the words or the music quite reveals.

“And So On” is classic Germano—delicate and peculiar, gorgeous and heart-rending. Beginning with an unadorned piano and voice lament, the background shifts at 0:41 when Germano breaths out the words, “Oh, animals,” and that’s what we get—a barnyard full of chickens and cows and such, suddenly doing their thing in the background. “I just don’t want to know/The places people go,” Germano then sings, a line that seems somehow both to clarify and baffle; and by the way, check out both that chord under the word “places” and the lovely resolution it leads to, briefly. What a short and unusual journey this is. The chorus simply repeats the title phrase, as if its principal section was somehow excised and we are left both musically and lyrically with the afterthought. An acrobatic bass line temporarily wrestles the background spotlight from the animals, but they return in force the next time around. Are the animals the chatter that we try to fill our head with after a loss? Are our inner voices as confused and helpless as the voices of those without language at all? Are our emotions best expressed without words?

So far I’ve only got questions, no answers. But note that “And So On” is a song from a new album, called No Elephants, which is intended to be listened to as a whole, with a beginning and middle and end. The song is third from last. So on the one hand we are missing context but on the other hand, Germano is never all that straightforward—consider that she saw fit to put this song out there on its own, after all—so I’m guessing the entire album will likewise prompt more questions than answers. No Elephants is due out next month on Badman Recordings. MP3 again via Magnet Magazine. Site-related trivia note: Germano’s “It’s Party Time,” in May 2003 (note Web 1.0 format!), was the first song featured on Fingertips. She was also here in 2006.

Free and legal MP3:The Hermit Crabs

Strummy, melancholy Glaswegian pop

The Hermit Crabs

“Stop This Now” – The Hermit Crabs

This is a lovely, crisp bit of strummy, melancholy indie pop, and if it reminds you of Camera Obscura and/or Belle & Sebastian, well, all hail from Glasgow, where apparently this type of strummy, melancholy indie pop is a prevailing musical dialect. But I encourage listening above and beyond the similarities, and tossing aside genre generalizations because, as I have said time and again, it’s far less important for a song to sound different than for it to be good. “Stop This Now” is deliciously good—so good in fact that it is different, if maybe in more subtle ways than can be summarized via pre-established labels.

Everything happens quickly here. The pace is light-footed, the verse concise—one melodic line, repeated twice, each time ending on an unresolved note. We’re at the chorus by 0:25, and yet see how we’re still not at any resolution. The pace stays fleet but the melody itself slows down, with front woman Melanie Whittle now singing fewer words per bar. It’s this opening part of the chorus that just nails the song for me—that lilting, deceptively simple triplet of lines (“And I know/And you know/We both know”) displaying both rueful wit and anguished charm, unfolding across those lovely chords that keep not resolving until we get to the twelfth bar (0:42). And even then we don’t feel full closure until the guitars strum their way through to the sixteenth measure, as we tend to need eight eight or sixteen measures for our ears to feel settled. The second trip through the verse is fortified by some dandy guitar work, the chorus’s follow-up enhanced with a winsome countermelody. Pay attention, however, or the thing will pass you by—it’s all over by 2:18 (the song actually ends before the MP3 does).

Founded by Whittle, the Hermit Crabs have recorded one full-length album to date, 2007’s Saw You Dancing. “Stop This Now” is from the band’s third EP, entitled Time Relentless, which is out this month on Matinee Recordings. MP3 via Matinee.

Free and legal MP3: Bart and Friends (sweet, melancholy toe-tapper)

This one makes me picture Paul Simon writing about the leaves that are green, that kind of driven innocence, of someone intent on turning pop to poetry, or vice-versa.

Bart and Friends

“There May Come a Time” – Bart and Friends

A sweet, melancholy toe-tapper, “There May Come a Time” comes blanketed in a vague but powerful nostalgia. When Pam Berry sings, right at the start, of someday forgetting “all the words to every song,” I feel immediately transported back to some hazy, flower-filled moment in the past (in the ’60s, no doubt). And I am filled with a lost sense of longing, as if no one actually does write songs any more. Which of course isn’t true. But. I picture Paul Simon writing about the leaves that are green, that kind of driven innocence, of someone intent on turning pop to poetry, or vice-versa. We can, it seems, no longer truly get there, but we can sing about what it must have been like.

Now then, a song can’t do what I’ve been attempting to describe and not veer a bit towards the twee (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). A general kind of wavery-ness permeates here, both within the tone of Berry’s warm, unschooled alto and in the lead guitar, a mild-mannered electric which sounds as if it is being finger-picked almost the whole way through. But in the end this is much less about the quivering of too-tender emotion than the capturing of simple human performance. I like the string squeaks you can hear intermittently (the best one at 1:37)—sounds typically associated with an acoustic guitar, and in any case indicative of an organic sound. What I referred to a moment ago as wavery-ness is actually the result of honest, dynamic playing, recorded authentically, without any flattening or processing. And maybe that’s the most nostalgic thing of all.

Bart and Friends is the ongoing project of Australian musician Bart Cummings, and has featured a rotating cast of friends and fellow musicians, often from among Australia’s indie pop elite and/or semi-elite (including the Lucksmiths, the Shapiros, and the Zebras). After a 1998 debut and 2001 mini-album, Bart and Friends went on hiatus until 2010, when another mini-album was released. Ditto for 2011, and now, in 2012, an EP has emerged, with “There May Come a Time” as the title track. (You may now meditate on the difference between a mini-album and an EP.) The EP is out next week on Santa Barbara-based Matineé Recordings; MP3 via Matineé.

Free and legal MP3: Clare and the Reasons (introspective, w/ mysterious power)

Introspective and artfully composed, with a chorus both subtle and majestic.

Clare and the Reasons

“The Lake” – Clare and the Reasons

Introspective and artfully composed, “The Lake” is I guess pretty much the opposite of a headbanger, and seems a perfect rejoinder to the previous song, for those who listen to each week’s update as a three-song set (which in fact I recommend!).

This is one of those songs with mysterious power—a power based on small rather than large gestures. Built on a sparse, pulse-like riff (initially played on acoustic guitar, later on keyboard), the delicate verse is augmented by complex vocal countermelodies and deft orchestration. Clare Manchon sings with a rounded, whispery tone, spiced with old-fashioned flutters and an unplaceable almost-accent. She tells a tale of inscrutable departure, vaguely narrated but sharply observed. The chorus nails it all together, at once majestic and subtle, a grand hook built out of nearly nothing: a repeating phrase, different lyrically at the beginning of each line, sung in a lazy, irregular, repeating triplet pattern. It’s intoxicating stuff, especially the second time through (beginning at 2:35), when the chorus extends and extends, the musical repetition highlighting the bottled-up emotion of the melancholy circumstance.

Clare and the Reasons is a Brooklyn-based band led by Clare and Olivier Manchon. Clare is the daughter of veteran musician Geoff Muldaur and sister of singer/songwriter Jenni Muldaur. The band, a shape-shifting ensemble, was previously featured here in 2007. “The Lake” is from the third C&TR album, KR-51, to be released next month on Frog Stand Records. The album was recorded after an eight-month stay in Berlin, much of which time was apparently spent on moped—specifically on a 1968 Schwalbe model KR-51. Thus the name.