“Take It If You Want It” – Shannon Curtis

Heartfelt & sophisticated

“Take It If You Want It” – Shannon Curtis

A crystalline, synth-driven call to inner action, “Take It If You Want It” stares down the existential mayhem of our 21st-century world and attempts to find a place and a way to live in it regardless. The song’s superpower is the glistening deftness of the presentation: the ’80s-inspired arrangement is tight and inventive (don’t miss the acrobatic bass line), the lyrics are precise and sincere without being dogmatic, and Curtis’s voice is rich, expressive, and disciplined. The overall vibe is heartfelt and sophisticated; if Kate Bush were interested in writing a catchy pop song that wrestles with spiritual precepts, it might sound something like this.

In any case it is certainly a Bushian vocal that, after a brief percussive intro, opens the song with echoey urgency. Curtis has an effortless melodic flair; from the opening lines of the verse the ear is hooked, and the song progresses through its interrelated parts–verse, pre-chorus, chorus–with a enviable sense of inevitability. Not all the lyrics will be immediately legible but, as with the most well-crafted songs, certain phrases will pop; one particularly indelible couplet is unambiguous: “The fascists are ascending/Disaster is impending.” A close listen reveals this as a voice in the head that the narrator is attempting to grapple with. I’d say a lot of us are grappling with that voice here at the end of 2022.

Born in California and based in Tacoma, Washington, Shannon Curtis is a singer/songwriter with a rich catalog to explore. Good To Me is her tenth full-length release in the last 10 years, following three previous EPs and an acoustic compilation album. “Take It If You Want It” is the opening track on the album Good To Me, which is something of a concept album, centering on an inner journey Curtis led herself on during the perilous, pandemic-jostled year 2021. The album, by the way, will next year be followed by a companion book, which Curtis describes as “a step-by-step roadmap for cultivating personal peace and power in hard times.” She notes further that the songs on Good to Me came from her own process of working with and through the steps described in the book. More on the album in the follow-up review, below. (Yes, this month I’m giving you two songs from the same album, with one palate cleanser in between. Keep reading!)

“Good To Me” – Shannon Curtis

Large & meditative at the same time

“Good To Me” – Shannon Curtis

In a new twist here on Fingertips I am this month featuring two songs from the same artist. This strikes me as a win-win: it relieves me of the need to select just one song from an album I really like, while also relieving me of the need to lower my standards in order to find three MP3s to offer in a given month. As recently noted, I’m sensing a decline in the availability of free and legal downloads–at least, in the availability of free and legal downloads that live up to my admittedly idiosyncratic standards. I may use this strategy moving forward, as the situation allows, in order to continue to offer at least three songs in any given update.

So yes, I really really like this new Shannon Curtis album, start to finish. The sonic palette, shot through with ’80s atmosphere (the good kind!), is immediately engaging, and Curtis’s prowess as a singer is continually on display–she can go light and airy one moment, and reach grainier middle tones at another. Reverb abounds but with ongoing restraint; the music feels spacious without losing definition. And I am impressed ongoingly by Curtis’s songwriting chops–the effortless melodies and artfully structured songs provide consistent delight, and reward repeated listens. As for the album’s cohesiveness lyrically, the songs reward as much attention as you’re willing to pay to them. For those who want the deep deep dive, there will also be the companion book, as noted above. (The book will initially be available to her community of supporting members, and then released more widely next year.) I applaud Curtis for the seriousness of her purpose and her concurrent capacity to translate her journey into a series of such accessible songs; and yet the beauty of the project is that you don’t have to engage with the details to be moved by the music.

“Good To Me” is the title track, and everything I’ve said about the album overall applies here. I love the ’80s synthesizers and big round percussion, in particular for how mindfully and cleanly produced these potentially over-the-top effects are employed; the song feels both large and meditative at the same time. And from beginning to end, the songcraft is exquisite, with verse and chorus melodies that interrelate and build on each other, and resolve with aplomb. The album was jointly produced by Curtis and her husband, Jamie Hill; Curtis is credited with the concept, the arrangements, the programming, and the performance, Hill with the synthesizers, sound design, and additional programming. This was a pandemic project through and through, conceived of and created during a time when Curtis, very active in recent years as a house-concert musician, was stuck in her own house during the extended lockdown.

MP3s here courtesy of the artist herself. You can listen to the whole thing on Bandcamp, and buy it there too, for a price of your own choosing. Be generous!

“Silence is Golden” – The Beths

Hepped-up power pop

“Silence is Golden” – The Beths

The Beths’ front woman Elizabeth Stokes has one of those appealing, unassuming singing voices that conveys the illusion that she’s merely talking most of the time. The fact that she accomplishes this in the midst of something so noisy and melodic makes the effect all the more fetching. At their best this New Zealand foursome is deliriously likable.

“Silence is Golden” is the Beths at their most frenetic, which right away is a bit of a wink in a song with this particular title. Stokes sings of craving quiet in a too-loud world while her band crashes their way through two minutes and fifty-five seconds of hepped-up power pop, with its emphatic, punctuating drumming and scratchy guitar work. And it’s only fitting somehow that a song about the joys of silence leads into a clamorous guitar solo (2:03): 20 seconds of madcap squalling that will make your head spin.

“Silence is Golden” is the third of 12 tracks on the Beths’ new album, Expert in a Dying Field, all of which is worth hearing. Check it out, and buy it in a variety of formats if you like it, via Bandcamp. MP3 again via KEXP.

“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.