Sturdy, succinct, melodic
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.
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.
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.
It’s gorgeous stuff, grounded in a melody as stern and lustrous as a sermon, all minor chords and heart-rending turns.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Sparkly, melodic indie rock
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.
Some alchemical mixture of voice, texture, and melody puts me in my happy place when I hear them.
All music fans, I’m pretty sure, have certain sounds that are so irresistible to them that bands who manage to hit that aural sweet spot have a more or less limitless appeal—just about anything they record sounds terrific. The Toronto-based quartet Alvvays (pronounced “Always”) is one of those bands for me. Some alchemical mixture of voice, texture, and melody puts me in my happy place when I hear them.
It all begins with Molly Rankin’s voice, with its enchanting blend of purity and depth, her honeyed tones retouched by the flawless application of reverb. Add in the band’s knack for finding contemporary homes for nostalgic melodies and I am smitten. Beyond these immediate characteristics, the band delivers likewise at a deeper level. Check out the juxtaposition of the staccato bass line with the ongoing wash of guitar noise, the bass guiding the ear through the indeterminate din that floats just beyond the surface prettiness; “ice cream truck jangle collides with prismatic noise pop” is how the band describes the general ambiance and sure, why not.
Then we have Alvvays’ ongoing attentiveness to the words employed within their sonic environment of choice. Despite the reverb and the noise, Rankin is rarely mixed beyond comprehension, which allows us to appreciate her heedful language. Note the way the words in the second part of the second verse mirror the words in the same position in the first verse, but altered into slant rhymes: “metaphorically” for “rhetorically,” “psychology” for “astrology,” “mood” for “moon.” Another sign of attention to language is the title selection—rather than rely on the most repeated phrase, which would be “no turning back,” the band names the song after a phrase heard (just barely) once. And speaking of “no turning back,” one of the few places in which Rankin muffles her words is here. With its delivery broken this way—“No turning/There’s no turning/There’s no turning back”—the phrase, at first, to my ears, sounded like “There’s no teddy bears.” Whether she did this on purpose or not, and I suspect she did, it adds poignancy to a tale of a love that’s disappeared.
Alvvays was previously featured on Fingertips in November 2014, some months after their debut release. The band’s second album, Antisocialites, comes out in early September on Polyvinyl Records. You can check out one other song from the new album, and purhase it, on Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.
A sparkling nugget of melodic, full-bodied rock’n’roll, 2017 style, “Oh Oh” is a good example of a song where my ear is caught more by a “moment” than an all-out hook.
A sparkling nugget of melodic, full-bodied rock’n’roll, 2017 style, “Oh Oh” is a good example of a song in which my ear is caught more by a “moment” than an all-out hook. For me, it happens in the pre-chorus, first heard at 0:47. After the long descending melody of the verse, the music here feels inordinately satisfying, an effect boosted by lyrics that shine with both denotation and connotation: front man Adam Olenius sings “Don’t say that it’s over/’Cause nothing ever is,” and it pops with both energy and poignancy in this setting.
As for actual hooks, “Oh Oh” has them, but they’re sneaky. We actually get the main one in the introduction—it’s the guitar riff/”Oh oh” combination heard at 0:15—but, interestingly, it doesn’t come across as a hook right there; the guitars are subtle, deeper down in the mix than your classic guitar riffs tend to be. This hook requires context, it seems. When the riff returns (1:03), it feels closer to completion. When it finally gets reassembled, with the “Oh oh”s on top (1:57), well what do you know? I think we have ourselves a hook.
All that is semantic, of course: hooks, moments, riffs, whatever—I’m just trying as ever to put words onto what is going on in a piece of music, trying to translate the listening experience into writing. Dancing about architecture, in other words. As usual.
From Stockholm, Shout Out Louds have been together since 2001. The band was featured previously on Fingertips in 2009, for the dramatic, slow-building “Walls.” “Oh Oh” is the first single from the band’s upcoming album Ease My Mind, their fifth, due out on Merge Records in September. MP3, one more time, via KEXP.
Funneling sounds and melodies born in the power pop origin years of 1967 through 1974, “Real Enough to Believe” combines Byrdsian jangle and Beatlesque chords with the melancholy, inside-out tunefulness of Big Star.
Emmett Kelly, the L.A.-based singer/songwriter doing musical business as The Cairo Gang, has a preternatural knack for pop rock at once knotty and charming. Funneling sounds and melodies born in the power pop origin years of 1967 through 1974, “Real Enough to Believe” combines Byrdsian jangle and Beatlesque chords (um: 2:18!) with the melancholy, inside-out tunefulness of Big Star.
Interestingly, Kelly combines these archetypally ear-friendly elements into a song that is neither power pop nor catchy in any obvious way—the pace is a bit too relaxed, the verse melody too spread out, and the chorus too subtle, what with its 10/4 time signature. Full of lovely melodic turns but resisting efforts to sing along, “Real Enough to Believe” feels, somehow, like the embodiment of thought, and not just because the lyrics are generally difficult to understand. Many songs are inscrutable lyrically but retain a sense of narrative or action. This one feels to be floating in the realm of reverie in such a way as to be somehow commenting on the process of thinking itself. Maybe I’m being influenced, or misled, by a handful of phrases that do make themselves heard—“thinking only of the time”; “it’s too far off to be real enough to believe”; “with some people it’s plain to see”—but I sense this as an unusually introspective song. To my ears, the music, with its gentle knobs and declarative intervals, reflects the rumination in a nuanced and gratifying way.
“Real Enough to Believe” is a track from The Cairo Gang’s second album, Untouchable, released in March. You can buy the album via Bandcamp. The Cairo Gang was previously featured on Fingertips for the song “Ice Fishing,” one of my favorites of 2015. The MP3 comes, as will two others this time around, from the generous gang at KEXP.
“Nothing Ever Lasts” starts cranked to 10 (or maybe 11), equal parts commotion and grace, and never lets up.
“Nothing Ever Lasts” starts cranked to 10 (or maybe 11), equal parts commotion and grace, and never lets up. I like how much the song accomplishes, dynamically, despite the sonic onslaught. In and around the foundational wall of sound, there is freight-train percussion below, a minimal, anthemic synth line above, and Matilda Bogren’s buried but endearing vocals.
Even with her voice mixed down, as the genre usually demands, Bogren steals the show for me, with a few astute moves. First, note the unexpected deviation in the verse—the way the she finishes the first two lyrical lines with an unresolved upturn (first heard around 0:24). In my experience, this kind of shoegaze or dream pop or whatever we might call it is happy enough enshrouding a sing-song-y melody in mud and volume, pushing aside the need for any further songwriting tricks. So that caught my attention. And check out, too, how crisply she manages to enunciate the last syllables of each line in the verse, despite how muffled the words. I may be easily amused but that’s kind of fun.
And then, one more subtle device arrives, first at 0:46: the repeated use of a wordless vocal tag (that is, the “ah-ah-ahh/oh-oh-ohh” part). This, again, strikes me as unusual for the genre. Normally, when a band opts for noise on top, melody below, there are actual words it seems to want you to strain to hear, or not hear. I find the “ah-ah-ahh”s in this context not only charming but a little cheeky.
Echo Ladies is a trio from Malmö. “Nothing Ever Lasts” appears to be their second single, and arrived as a 7-inch last week via the Swedish label Hybris. Thanks to indefatigable Powerpopulist blog for the head’s up.
photo credit: Ebba Ågren