“Loved Out” – Albert Shalmers

Melodic flair w/ old-school production

“Loved Out” – Albert Shalmers

“Not a social media guy” by his own admission, Albert Shalmers is committed to the music in an old-school kind of way. He writes, plays all the (actual) instruments, records and mixes himself, and at the same time steers away from what he deems “modern production tricks,” which can make songs sound “boring and flat” and in any case don’t help you as a musician, he says. I don’t at all disagree, while adding that there could be a chicken-or-egg thing going on here in that the people who lean too heavily on “production tricks” may be doing so because the songs they are capable of writing and performing are uninteresting and uninspiring to begin with.

I, meanwhile, completely appreciate another old-school method Shalmers employs, which is reaching out with a personal email and then backing it up with a song that speaks for itself, minus any long-winded narrative about why he wrote it and the many layers of deep personal significance it has. Everybody has a story; not everybody has a good song.

“Loved Out” is indeed a nifty piece of work, marrying melodic flair to a lyrical deftness that strikes my ear as particularly refreshing: the song delivers its lines in absorbable nuggets, allowing the ear either to tune in to catch the developing story (there is one) or to take in passing phrases that feel meaningful on their own. In either case, the words are powered by three separate, equally strong melodies–in the verse, the chorus, and (talk about old school), a genuine bridge (starting at 2:06) with its own melodic hook.

I could quibble with one or two production moments here–probably the inevitable result of being a bit too much on your own?–but on the other hand I really appreciate some of his choices, such as the wall of backing vocals that suddenly reinforces the hook at 1:17. The fact that the song works on two levels–Shalmers notes that it’s actually about his love-hate relationship with the 21st-century music business–is a bonus. I’m glad that he had the wherewithal to transform his “loved out” feeling into something this worthy and appealing.

After spending some number of years as a session musician in Toronto, Shalmers has recently begun writing and recording his own music. “Loved Out” is his third single to date. He hopes to have an album out by year’s end. MP3 courtesy of the artist.

“Sunday” – Sea Lemon

Sprightly air, melancholy center

“Sunday” – Sea Lemon

Shall we pretend, at least for the length of time it takes to read a couple of paragraphs, that we are here for the music, for the way it makes us feel, the alchemy involved in the interaction of melody and chords and arrangements of sound with our own individual physical and metaphysical presence? We are here, in other words, for the inner experience of listening versus the outer experience of posturing, marketing, keeping up with what’s “trending” and who’s “rising” and all of that technology-induced bullshit. Oh I know the social-media hustling is (sadly) its own real thing that plenty of people are caught up in, some quite happily, but that doesn’t make it reasonable or humane or (more to the point) remotely music-oriented. Just stream the song, and download if you’d like to. You don’t have to share it, you don’t have to tell anyone else what you’re doing. Just have your own experience; enjoy the internal adventure instigated by a wonderful song.

And “Sunday” is indeed a wonderful song, its sprightly, Cure-ish air belying a melancholy center. One of the song’s signature musical moves is how consistently the lyrics enter past the first beat of the measure. There must be a music-theory name for this but in any case the ongoing effect is both engaging–your ear is unconsciously anticipating a melody once the measure starts without it–and subtly bittersweet, for the same reason. It happens throughout the song but most prominently in the chorus (first heard at 0:42), where the initial hook is the bouncy guitar line, its six careful notes filling up two measures and then the first beat of the third before the lyrics rush in. I’ll point your ear as well to the satisfying way the nearly one-note vocal melody feels like the ideal response to the guitar’s prelude.

Sea Lemon is the musical alias of Seattle singer/songwriter Natalie Lew. “Sunday” is her debut single, self-released; an EP is expected some time later this year. MP3 via KEXP.

photo credit: Raphael Gaultier

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: Ciel

Melodic splendor, w/ squonky noise

“Pretty Face” – Ciel

Launching without an introduction, “Pretty Face” brings us promptly into the compelling world of vocalist/guitarist Michelle Hindriks, a Netherlands native, transplanted to Brighton. Her lightly accented English and pellucid tone combine with irresistible potency, all the more so when we reach a chorus that ravishes with its melodic sweep and splendor. The subtle double-tracking of the lead vocals here adds to the poignant beauty.

At the same time, tune your ear further down into the mix and track if you can what Jorge Bela Jimenez’s guitar is doing, which is quietly and intermittently going crazy in a “don’t mind me” kind of way. You won’t hear it at first unless you listen for it. By the chorus’s third iteration (2:05), Jiminez is becoming less restrained, setting up the all-out assault that breaks free at 2:43, and carries us through a memorably squonky coda.

Lyrically the song veers into unexpected territory. By Hindriks’ account, she was inspired by a number of documentaries she found herself watching under lockdown about a variety of cults, and one particular story about a man who lost his wife to a cult–how he knows she’s still out there, but forever separated from him. While it’s not a direct experience many of us (thank goodness) can relate to, it can stand as a metaphor for living with the grief of heartache and separation.

Ciel has put out two EPs to date, most recently Monument, in April 2020. “Pretty Face,” released last month, is the second single the band has released since then. Check out the full discography on Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Talkboy

Sturdy, succinct, melodic

“Stupid Luck” – Talkboy

Sturdy, succinct, and melodic, “Stupid Luck” has everything going for it: a catchy tune, crafty textures, appealing vocals, and an outstanding development-versus-length dynamic–a concept I just made up but I like the idea of it. What I mean is that the song covers a lot of compositional ground in a short amount of time. That’s the best of both worlds from my idiosyncratic point of view. This is in fact the kind of song that can reaffirm one’s sense of faith in this whole endeavor–that is, the endeavor of a group of musicians banding together, still, and still trying to put something of interest and value out into this wounded world.

Right from the start the song soars, via an intro that channels bygone guitar tones, augmented by some space-age keyboard flourishes that then frame the shift we get with the opening verse, which begins with a half-time melody and stripped-back instrumentation as vocalist Katie Heap sings over fuzzy guitars that progress through some very satisfying chords. The verse repeats with fuller production, leading to a chorus boosted by nostalgic background “aahs” and a generally agreeable wall of subtle sound. By now this song is as sturdy as can be; that Beatlesque chord the song lands on at 1:07 is just another splendid touch.

And there’s still much to enjoy in this three-minute gem. Listen for the altered textures when the verse comes back around 1:15, the momentary guitar squeal as 1:23, the augmented backing vocals around 1:32, and the semi-psychedelic bridge (1:57) leading to an honest to goodness guitar solo (2:31). And, in one of the finer if subtler songwriting moments of the whole thing, the song revisits the verse near the end with a cleared-out musical palette that transforms the former verse into a coda that ends directly on the titular phrase–a rarely achievable and quite gratifying maneuver.

Talkboy is a six-piece band from Leeds. They were previously featured on Fingertips in February 2019. “Stupid Luck” is a single from their forthcoming EP, due for release in February 2021. Their brand new single, “Sky is Falling,” is available to listen to via SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Smug Brothers

Charming, GBV-adjacent indie rock

“Every One is Really Five” – Smug Brothers

They are probably tired of Guided By Voices comparisons, but what the heck: here is a scruffy indie-rock band from Dayton who specialize in inscrutable yet melodic lo-fi compositions, many not even two minutes long (sample song titles here: “Antenna Chariot Quarterfinals,” “Fuel for the Maypole Osmosis”). Oh and the drummer used to be in Guided By Voices. So, you can’t blame me for using GBV as at least a point of reference.

That said, if Smug Brothers are inspired by Guided By Voices, they also seem somewhat more interested in recording songs you don’t have to try quite so hard to like (or feel like a failure if you don’t). Although still lo-fi, the mix is a bit cleaner, the melodies super-agreeable; this is the sound of a band inviting you very happily down its rabbit hole rather than seeming indifferent to whether you’ve dropped in or not. Charming from beginning to end, “Every One is Really Five” launches off rock’n’roll’s primal backbeat, yet puts us from the start in the middle of a mundane but intriguing scenario: “I recall/You were heading the other way/I recall/I was just starting my day.” You might wonder just what is going on here, and you probably won’t really find out—by the time the chorus gives us the titular assertion that “every one is really five,” I’m not sure that will make any more or less sense than the rest of it. But the completed couplet—“We’re all just lucky to be alive”—is sung with such poignant good humor that you can let the whole thing make sense in that way that has nothing to do with how unintelligible the words mostly are. This is one of music’s super powers and these guys have it going. The song chugs along with a general sense of band noise in the background until around 1:30, when a couple of nonchalant guitars decide to speak up, just a bit—clanging out some measured melody lines before fading back into the good-natured swirl of sound.

Smug Brothers have existed in one form or another since 2004, at that point consisting of Kyle Melton and Daryl Robbins. Drummer Don Thrasher (great name for a drummer!) came on board in 2008. The lineup went through a major turnover in the 2017-2018 time frame; Melton and Thrasher remain, the others are new to the party. Because these guys love their sub-2:00 songs, their discography presents a challenge in determining what’s an album versus what’s an EP; they can put 11 songs on a 20-minute record. In any case, they’ve released 15 different stand-alone recordings, six or seven of which seem to be full-length endeavors, including their most recent, Serve a Thirsty Moon, which was released earlier this month via Gas Daddy Go Records. You can check it, and the entire Smug Brothers catalog, out via Bandcamp. “Every One is Really Five” is the 21st track on the 21-track album.

Free and legal MP3: Sarah Lee Langford (authentic country goodness)

It’s gorgeous stuff, grounded in a melody as stern and lustrous as a sermon, all minor chords and heart-rending turns.

“Growing Up” – Sarah Lee Langford

I’d like to think I’d have noticed the beauty and strength of this song no matter when I first listened. But as it turned out, “Growing Up” crossed my desk while I was in the middle of watching the Ken Burns documentary on country music that recently aired on PBS. Were my ears therefore more open to the backwoods twang of the song more than they might previously have been? Quite possibly. The documentary, an extraordinary work, demonstrates two things: one, that you don’t have to think you like country music to be absorbed by the film; two, that understanding the history and the context of music can profoundly impact your reaction to it. And so while I might not go and listen to a bunch of George Jones records now (although maybe I might!), I find myself with an unprecedented (for me) regard for a lot of the music that has been conveniently if often simplistically labeled “country.”

And “Growing Up” surely has the earmarks of something you’d likely want to give this label to, complete with brisk Mother Maybelle guitar work, ghostly pedal steel lines, a shuffling front-porch beat, and vocals stripped of all gloss and pretense. It’s gorgeous stuff, grounded in a melody as stern and lustrous as a sermon, all minor chords and heart-rending turns. Langford lets the melodic descent do a lot of the work for her, but listen to how potently she wields standard country melisma (stereotypically employed in yelpy little yodels) to beautiful effect (e.g., “pill” at 0:52, “pocket” at 1:45, “up” at 2:04, and many others). As fine a singer as she is, she also lets the music breathe around her, allowing her top-notch backing band to stretch out in and around the verses, with restrained honky-tonk spirit and that steel guitar floating through the atmosphere.

“Growing Up” is a track from Two Hearted Rounder, Langford’s debut album, coming out next week on Cornelius Chapel Records.

Free and legal MP3: Charly Bliss (enticing, contemporary pop rock)

To show you I’m not averse to music sounding rather more up-to-the-minute, here’s a three-minute, forty-two-second slice of 2019 pop goodness from the Brooklyn quartet Charly Bliss.

Charly Bliss

“Capacity” – Charly Bliss

To show you I’m not averse to music sounding rather more up-to-the-minute, here’s a three-minute, forty-two-second slice of 2019 pop goodness from the Brooklyn quartet Charly Bliss. Of course my idea of pop goodness in 2019 is not necessarily what appears on your basic “Top 50” Spotify playlist, but whatever. The public wants what the public gets, as Paul Weller tartly framed capitalism’s fatal flaw some 40 years ago.

In my little world, the public gets something like “Capacity,” and wants it. From the start, the contrast between the buzzy heft of the synth bass line and Eva Grace Hendricks’ girl-ish vocal style arrests the ear. (She has self-described her vibe as “overgrown teenybopper.”) The song then leads you through three distinct sections, each more enticing than the last, culminating in a chorus that hooks us, somewhat unusually, by slowing things down (0:49), with Hendricks luxuriating in a dreamy melody line with a gratifying resolution and a punctuating drum roll worthy of an arena rock band.

There are in fact any number of engaging production touches fortifying the composition from beginning to end. I like how the active, noodly synthesizer that enters after the song’s first section proceeds to weave in and around Hendricks in the song’s double-time second section. Or how about that one strummed guitar chord that acts as the gateway to the chorus (0:48), which is at once out of the blue and just kind of wonderful? No doubt we can credit a lot of this to the band’s bringing Joe Chiccarelli on board as producer; he’s a veteran who has worked with an incredible variety of artists over the years, from Elton John and U2 through to My Morning Jacket, the Strokes, and the Shins. Expertise!: what a concept.

The four members of Charly Bliss, meanwhile, have known each other quite a long time for relative youngsters—Eva H.’s brother Sam is the drummer; bassist Dan Shure is a friend from childhood; and Shure introduced relative newcomer Spencer Fox, the lead guitarist, to the others back in the second half of the ’00s.

“Capacity” is the lead single from Young Enough, the band’s second album, released earlier this month on Barsuk Records. You can buy it in a variety of formats via the record company. MP3 via Barsuk.

Free and legal MP3: Papercuts (buoyant wistfulness)

Opening with a brisk, dynamic, and hummable instrumental riff, “How To Quit Smoking” advances quickly from there into a verse so confidently melodic as to recall some lovely, imaginative amalgam of Belle & Sebastian and The Smiths.


“How To Quit Smoking” – Papercuts

Opening with a brisk, dynamic, and hummable instrumental riff, “How To Quit Smoking” advances quickly from there into a verse so confidently melodic as to recall some lovely, imaginative amalgam of Belle & Sebastian and The Smiths. Papercuts’ master mind Jason Quever sings with the barest hint of a British accent that he actually doesn’t have and a baked-in wistfulness augmented by vocals that are mixed down into the center of the rhythm section. He sounds to me like someone singing on a budding spring day about how he actually misses the autumn.

This one is propelled by a classic backbeat as well, but note what a different vibe we get compared to the Van Etten song which came before it this month. Despite Quever’s gentle presence the song bounds forward with a determination reinforced every time the opening riff cycles back through. There’s an extra songwriting trick in here that, to my ear, adds to the song’s pluck: the way that in most of the verses, the third lyrical line picks up without any rhythmic space from the second line—listen at 0:36 for an example (the second line ends with the words “on the ceiling,” the third begins with “Read a book,” directly on the next beat, in the same measure). This is a small gesture that you’re probably not intended to notice, but it’s a wonderful flow-enhancer in just the right place.

Quever has been recording as Papercuts since 2004, including one record for Sub Pop in 2011. Long based in San Francisco, he recently moved to Los Angeles. His latest album is Parallel Universe Blues, on which “How To Quit Smoking” is the third track. It was released on Slumberland Records in October 2018. You can listen to the whole thing on Bandcamp, and then buy it there in your preferred format (digital, CD, vinyl). Papercuts has been featured on Fingertips twice previously, in 2011 and 2014. The MP3 this time comes courtesy of The Current.

(Note that MP3s from The Current are available in files that are 128kbps, which is below the iTunes standard of 192kbps, not to mention the higher-def standard of 320kbps. I personally don’t hear much difference on standard-quality equipment but if you are into high-end sound you’ll probably notice something. In any case I always encourage you to download the MP3 for the purposes of getting to know a song via a few listens; if you like it I still urge you to buy the music. It’s the right thing to do.)

Free and legal MP3: Talkboy

Sparkly, melodic indie rock


“Someone Else For You” – Talkboy

With its sparkly veneer and heavy undercurrent, “Someone Else For You” is two minutes and twenty-eight seconds of uprushing melody and impressive craft. Time is saved from the get-go: the song launches with no introduction, which feels like walking into a movie that’s already started. Momentum continues via a verse that essentially fakes right and goes left—the way the first line ends, with the words “into the city” (0:02), leads the ear to expect a similar pause at the end of the next line (0:05-:06). But, instead, the melody flows through an unexpected chord change, on the words “things to say” (0:08), before resolving back in a place that satisfies musically even as the lyrics suggest conflict, referring to words that “always came out wrong” (0:11). Best of all, look where we are now: just 12 seconds in, already treated to an eight-measure verse melody and lyrical intrigue before most songs have emerged from their opening vamps.

And why not? When you have a lead singer with Katie Heap’s rich tones and easy assurance, there’s no point in delaying her entry. The second verse runs through the same territory but now with a wash of wordless backing vocals layered below. The chorus arrives with an extra bashing of drums at 0:25; with its repeating, descending conclusion, it’s more concise melodically than the verse. This provides a clearing for the guitars to emerge from the background, surging first below the lyrics (0:32) and then out into the open at 0:38. The song now carries a heaviness one might not have anticipated from the head-bobbing opening.

Deft touches dot the rest of the song, from the head-clearing acoustic blip at 0:52, to the quiet iteration of the chorus the second time through (1:07), the feedback-y bridge (1:25), and, maybe best of all, Heap’s effortless octave leap at 1:47, after which she finishes the song in her impressive upper register.

Talkboy is a six-person band from Leeds. “Someone Else For You” is their third single, released earlier this month. You can download this one, as usual, from the above link, and then check the other songs out over on SoundCloud.