Smoky with simmering passion, “Ace of Cups” is a minimal yet enticing brew of contradictions.
Smoky with simmering passion, “Ace of Cups” is a minimal yet alluring brew of contradictions, beginning with the way this clearly articulated song of precise, simple words and sentences adds nevertheless up to an oracular mystery. The “you” addressed in the lyrics is at one point a man, another point a woman. The ocean and/or sea seems at once a place that beckons and threatens. Likewise love is sung about as a force at one moment dangerous, another moment redemptive. Finally, Fink herself sings with a calm lucidity even while delivering the repeated lyric in the chorus, “You can fill up my cup/I’ll take it cool, I’ll take you rough.”
The music, meanwhile, is unhurried and contained, its gentle sheen contradicted subtly by two separate varieties of fuzzed-up keyboards—the soft, blurry sound you can hear at the end of the lines in the verses, and then the harsher, higher-pitched, buzzier synth that punctuates the chorus. Even the guitar solo (2:51) implies more than it reveals; a repeating III interval, its minimalist yearning continues into the rest of the song, adding a pining solidity to the chorus’s final repetition.
Some knowledge of the titular tarot card clarifies a little, but not much. The Ace of Cups is a card associated with emotional expression, including the possibility of love and intimacy, but typically with spiritual undertones. The love we are ultimately opened to with the Ace of Cups is love in the broadest sense, rooted in love of self and extending into love of life in all its facets. But, just as tarot cards themselves resist one easy interpretation, so too this “Ace of Cups.”
You’ll find the song on Fink’s forthcoming album Blue Dream, to be released in August on Saddle Creek Records, where it is now available for pre-order on CD and on vinyl. This is Fink’s third solo album. She remains best known as half of the duo Azure Ray, but on her own has been a Fingertips favorite over the years, featured here in 2005 (for the still-stirring song, “Bloodline“) and again in 2009, and also as half of the duo O+S, who were likewise featured in 2009. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.
photo credit: Bill Sitzmann
Joshua James is a young man with an old man’s voice. The words he sings are both cryptic and intense, which is a disconcerting combination.
Joshua James is a young man with an old man’s voice. The words he sings are both cryptic and intense, which is a disconcerting combination. Written out they look merely weird; this, for instance—
I heard a lady singing,
“We’re all bound together!”
I joined her side by saying,
“To dance beneath the heavens!”
—is not the only point in the song where you just go what the what? Or, here’s the chorus’s recurring assertion: “But my dog ain’t nothin’, he ain’t nothin’ like my lover/Ain’t nothin’ like my lover at all.” This dude is operating from foreign coordinates, and I don’t mean merely the fact that he splits his time between Nebraska and Utah.
But songs aren’t poetry; lyrics are not intended to stand alone on a page or a screen. Some kind of alchemy is at work in the way these words are sung by this voice to these melodies and this steady, drum-driven arrangement. There are no flamboyant hooks or striking sounds, but there’s an edginess in here somewhere, and a catchiness too, although both are difficult to pinpoint. The key, to me, is the internal rhyme he uses in the second line of the verse. He grabs you with it in the opening moments—“I am a liar, a dirty wire”—but mutes the effect in the second verse with an inexact rhyme (“baby” and “lady”). What he’s done, consciously or not, is set us up for the third verse—the ear was waiting for the return of a true rhyme (“I’ll be she’s pretty, queen of the city”) and even though that’s the only time we hear the title’s phrase, the song now seems effortlessly to have delivered us to this phrase, at just the right moment. Just don’t expect to understand what he’s talking about. One other thing he has mysteriously set up is the twist in the third iteration of the chorus, when the dog is abruptly replaced: “But my lord, you ain’t nothin’, you ain’t nothin’ like my lover/You ain’t nothin’ like my lover at all.” I’m not sure I will ever decipher all this but it feels righteous and deep. Impressive stuff.
“Queen of the City” is a track from James’ third full-length album, From the Top of Willamette Mountain, which was released last month on Intelligent Noise Records. The produced by Richard Swift, who has worked with the Mynabirds and Laetitia Sadier and is also now a member of the Shins.
For all its casual bounce and unsettled narrative arc, this is one potent song.
“My Mistakes” starts abruptly, almost as if, yes, by mistake. Initially the sound is thin—a processed acoustic guitar and some trebly percussion. Full sound arrives with the chorus at 0:36. When it does, keep your ear on the bottom of the mix, on that bouncing bass synthesizer, which anchors the song with its deep octave oscillations, the likes of which would be difficult if not impossible to create on a standard bass guitar. The unusual bass line adds unexpected jauntiness to an otherwise edgy song—Friedberger’s offhanded vocal and lyric style often gives the impression she didn’t write any of this down ahead of time. Those steel-drum-like synthesizers that accompany and follow the chorus are another odd, sprightly touch.
As for said chorus, it is profoundly wonderful, even as it does not seem to have a particular hook, is not blatantly catchy, and would surely disappoint those who continue to believe, against all cultural evidence, that something has to sound wild and different to be worthy. Part of its mysterious allure has, I think, to do with its delayed, and surprise, resolution. The first two times we hear it, the chorus ends on the line, “I thought he’d let me in for one last time,” and from there goes right into those steel-drummy sounds. This seems like enough of an ending until, the third time around (3:01), Friedberger sings the chorus through twice, and the power of the music and lyrics here, via the simple act of repetition, is unexpected and true. Equally unexpected and true is the saxophone that joins in at 3:30 and plays out the song. For all its casual bounce and unsettled narrative arc, this is one potent song.
“My Mistakes” is the first song that’s been made available from her forthcoming album, Last Summer. Friedberger, as many know, is one half of the brother-sister band the Fiery Furnaces (previously featured here in 2006 and 2008). Last Summer is Friedberger’s solo debut; it will be released in July on Merge Records. MP3 via Merge.