Well-crafted, sample-forward tropicalia
Speaking of trumpets (see previous post), here we have that trusty brass contraption contributing to an entirely different aural universe. The trumpets on display here evoke the tones heard in Latin horn charts, while tracing a languid melody, against a swaying beat, that sounds like shade on a sunny beach day.
This is music as constructed collage; Havana Swim Club mastermind Dan Koch utilizes samples from vintage and/or global vinyl to create what he labels “nostalgic instrumental dream pop.” However digitally manipulated it is, “Lagoon” flows with a well-constructed sense of purpose and a gratifying feeling of space. One of the savvy things Koch does is reveal the song’s principal melody only once near the beginning (0:34-0:54) and once near the end (3:04-3:27). The rest of the song functions as variations to the main theme: there’s the theatrical introduction, itself a riff on the second half of the primary melody; there are dream-like snippets of the main motif, offered in minimalist segments; there indecipherable voices, shimmering sound effects, and subtle countermelodies and electronic flourishes, all nodding in the direction of the primary theme without delivering it. In the song’s second half we are teased by the return of the introduction (2:00), but the central melody remains withheld until just past the three-minute mark. At this point, the returning trumpet solo sounds luxurious and triumphant, and yet doesn’t overstay its welcome–one simple pass through the melody and the song shuts itself right down.
The evocatively-named Havana Swim Club is, as noted, the project of the Seattle-based Koch, who is a founding member of the indie rock band Sherwood. “Lagoon” is a track from the debut self-titled Havana Swim Club album, which was released last week. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy a digital copy, via Bandcamp. MP3 via the artist.
I am reminded of Björk’s “Bachelorette”–not in sound or feel but in the way that both of these songs are driven by the power of one confident melody.
Launched off a series of melodramatic piano chords, “My Man” blends the feeling of an old-time torch song with something unexpectedly up-to-date. If you don’t notice the subtle hints before this, check out the transition between verses from 0:38 to 0:46 and you’ll hear the sounds of a song not content with all-out nostalgia, even if nostalgia is a potent part of the mix here. A later instrumental break (1:45), concise and slightly twisted as it is, offers definitive proof.
At its heart, this is a very simple song: there is just one central melody, which swings fetchingly against the basic one-two rhythm, and with a resolution that alternates between two primary landing spots, one minor and one major. Beyond this, there are two places in the song where the melody receives a two-line addendum (first heard at 0:33), and there is the aforementioned instrumental break. Other than that, the song sticks to the business of its grounding melody, enhanced strategically by some wonderful vocal flourishes by Dayana Stoehr, the singer/songwriter who performs as Dallan. I am reminded of Björk’s “Bachelorette”—not in sound or feel but in the way that both of these songs are driven by the power of one confident melody. This is not easy to do, either because not many melodies are robust enough to support a whole song or because not many songwriters think this way. Or both.
Based in Switzerland, Dallan appears admirably disinterested in personal hype—it’s hard enough to discern her country of origin, and I wouldn’t know her real name if she hadn’t emailed me in the first place. “My Man” is a song from Dallan’s upcoming album, Overturn, which is set for release in August. Her previous release was the EP Decade, which came out in 2015; you can listen to it and purchase it via Bandcamp. You can furthermore listen to four other songs slated for the new album on her SoundCloud page. Thanks to Dayana for the MP3.
photo credit: Renato Serge Stöhr
“900 Hands” traffics in the best kind of nostalgia: elusive, sweetly sad, and oddly inspiring.
“900 Hands” traffics in the best kind of nostalgia: elusive, sweetly sad, and oddly inspiring. Sounds from the ’60s float through the song without sidetracking it; I’m hearing something timeless going on here too. Don’t miss both the opening and closing moments, which serve further to wrap this lovely, backward-glancing song in the 21st-century present.
I especially like the authoritative balance achieved throughout between reverb and clarity, which doesn’t call extra attention to itself but is highly unusual. The reverb dial is a siren song that lures more than a few musicians into the deadly rocks of stale muddiness. (They’re muddy, but they’re rocks, and they’re stale. Don’t ask. I just needed a metaphor.) With “900 Hands,” we get the warm, inviting feeling of reverb without the gummy aftertaste. (Is that better, metaphorically speaking?) The vocals, in particular, are simultaneously shaded with echo and crystal clear, somehow. Center this all around a chorus that posits a gorgeous, melancholy melody over a bustling bottom end and I’m all in. Oh, and that chord that unresolves the chorus right before it resolves, minor-key-ishly? That one you first hear at 0:44? It’s completely straightforward, and I would listen to that for days on end.
Elskling (“darling” in Norwegian, if the internet is to be trusted) is a musical project launched by Norwegian-born, San Franciso-based Marte Solbakken—with, as it turns out, a number of interesting Fingertips-related connections. Solbakken wrote the first Elskling songs while holed up in her boyfriend’s NYC apartment during the unpleasant winter of 2011. Her boyfriend, it turns out, is Van Pierszalowski, of Waters (Fingertips, June 2011) and Port O’Brien (August 2009). Meanwhile, this debut Elskling song was recorded by Jason Quever, of Papercuts (April 2011, May 2014) and mixed by Chris Chu, whose band Pop Etc used to be called the Morning Benders and were featured here three different times back in the day. So it turns out Solbakken not only knows how to write a great song, she knows who to hang out with—a not to be underestimated skill of its own.
A slowed-down girl-group number with both nostalgic flair and the spark of unfamiliarity.
Current indie rock nodding aurally to late ’50s or early ’60s rock’n’roll has become commonplace, although I’m still getting a kick out of it, because first of all I never anticipated it and second of all it’s a fun sound, especially for anyone who likes a good tune with his or her music. Many of the melodies that pre-Beatles songwriters wrote sounded resolutely similar to one another but melodies they were, and if a new generation of musicians sees fit to excavate the vibe to see what charms may remain, I for one will not wag my finger and scold them for not being “new” enough.
“Call Me in the Day” is a kind of slowed-down girl-group number, the days-of-yore production limitations mimicked here by the reverb-enhanced lo-fi setting; add the slinky bass and the punctuation of echoey, low-register guitar riffs, which bring surf-rock undertones to the proceedings, and all sorts of nostalgia is in the air. And yet a spark of unfamiliarity shines through. First, the rhythm section grabs the ear, the way the old-school bass line is paired with a humble but decisive snare drum, the drum less supportive than finding its own way in the empty spaces. This brings a band awareness to music that had been previously crafted by non-performing songwriters. And what really snaps me to attention are the harmonies, beginning at 0:39. There’s something abruptly pure and clean about the sound of the two women here singing together that both transcends the muddier feeling of the production and ties it all together. The interplay of the voices now justifies the song’s leisurely pace. It just feels good. And then comes an 80-second instrumental break, and by then I’m so on board with the slinky groove that this feels good too. I’ve talked in the past about the pleasures of finding latitude in short songs by cutting back on verses and adding instrumental breaks; this is an upstanding example of that.
La Luz was founded in Seattle just last year. Their first recording was the EP Damp Face, which was released in September. “Call Me in the Day” is the lead track; it was recently made available as a free and legal MP3 via Fullerton, Calif.-based Burger Records, which this week re-released Damp Face as a cassette. You can hear the whole EP, and purchase it, via Bandcamp.
Everything about this song seeks first to evoke a blurrily-recalled pop era—it’s kind of ’60s, kind of ’70s, without pinning itself down—and second, well, to razz it ever so humanely.
Spacious and glistening, “St. Croix” appears as a burst of lemony sunshine on what may be a rather cold and/or dreary day where you are, depending on your hemisphere and latitude. Not to mention attitude. In any case, “St. Croix,” mood-wise, is all swift, swaying sweetness, nailed together with one memorable, signature guitar riff. To the extent that the central lyrics might stand out as rather gooey—“You bring the ocean/I bring the motion/Together we make a love potion”; yes, really!—I can assure you they come to us purposefully, and playfully.
Because as it turns out, everything about this song seeks first to evoke a blurrily-recalled pop era—it’s kind of ’60s, kind of ’70s, without pinning itself down—and second, well, to razz it, ever so humanely. It’s all very post-postmodern; the approach is no longer ironic, but embracing: they’re laughing with the music, not at it. And gently! The band sprinkles the humor around the edges, where it barely intrudes, so as not to disturb those who want or need to hear “St. Croix” as a straightforward romp in the sun. But from the opening bongos to the very suspicious single-syllable “oh!” that peppers each verse but once (in addition to one “cell phone!”) to the aforementioned signature riff, which is both super-delightful and rather silly (running up and down an octave as if bounding a flight of rubbery, jangly steps) to the “uh-oh, the batteries are dying” ending, “St. Croix” cruises along with a smile both of joy and comedy. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.
Family of the Year is a quartet based in Los Angeles. “St. Croix” is the title track to the band’s second EP. A second full-length album, Diversity, is scheduled for early 2012. Both releases are via tinyOGRE Entertainment. The MP3 comes to us from Magnet Magazine.
With a melodic bass line, atmospheric piano refrain, and well-placed, chimed accents, “Ghost Maps” sweeps us without resistance into its briskly-rendered nostalgia before a word is even uttered.
With a melodic bass line, atmospheric piano refrain, and well-placed, chimed accents, “Ghost Maps” sweeps us without resistance into its briskly-rendered nostalgia before a word is even uttered. Once the singing starts, Ben Walpole, with his soft-spoken, Stuart Murdoch-y croon, manages the keen trick of being both front man and band member, his voice finding its central but not over-bearing place among the guitars and chimes and female harmonies and indistinct wash of background sound, all coursing along at a near-breathless pace. On the one hand this does make the lyrics somewhat harder to discern, but on the other hand, it renders the often wistful phrases that come to the foreground all the more redolent. The whole thing feels like someone rifling through a photo album too quickly to see anything but a Kodachromatic blur of oranges and yellows at once bleached and vibrant.
“Ghost Maps” is one of two singles the band has released in advance of its next album—you can download this one here, or both of them together via a .zip file on the band’s site. The album is to be entitled North College Hill and is slated for a release some time this fall on Datawaslost Records. It’s the Cincinnati-based septet’s sixth full-length album and their first since 2009’s This Story Is Old, I Know, But It Goes On. The band has been featured on Fingertips both in 2009 and in 2006. MP3 via Datawaslost.
For all its diaphanous reverb and sweet nostalgia, “Do You Really Wanna Know” has a tough little core that pushes the song, for me, past some of my built-in “twee” alarms.
I have recently discovered that not everyone here realizes that the three songs selected each week are not merely handpicked for inclusion but also packaged together in a particular order, intended ideally to be listened to in little sets of three. Well it’s true. And if you don’t have time for that this week, at the very least check out the segue between They Might Be Giants and Papercuts this time around. Is that pretty cool or what?
For all its diaphanous reverb and sweet nostalgia, “Do You Really Wanna Know” has a tough little core that pushes the song, for me, past some of my built-in “twee” alarms. Some of the latent toughness I attribute to its assertive beat, some to the emphatic double-time bass at the bottom of the mix. But in the end it’s probably Papercuts front man/master mind Jason Robert Quever himself who unexpectedly sells the song’s clout. For all of his whispery tenor-ness, Quever finds an extra edge in the chorus; that’s where I really bought in to what’s going on here. The melody gets all girl-group-y while his voice loses the whisper (sort of) and gains traction. The quivery guitar-solo thing he then does before the next verse is actually odder than it sounds if you’re not paying attention.
Papercuts is a band with just one permanent member—the San Francisco-based Quever—and four albums now under their/his belt. “Do You Really Wanna Know”—no question mark—is from Fading Parade, which was released last month, on Sub Pop Records. MP3 via Sub Pop.
Always with a vaguely nostalgic sound, The Ladybug Transistor by now operates kind of meta-nostalgically, since the band itself dates back to an entirely different musical age—born out of the Elephant Six Collective in 1995: pre-Napster, pre-MP3, very nearly pre-WWW.
>”Clutching Stems” – The Ladybug Transistor
Always with a vaguely nostalgic sound, The Ladybug Transistor by now operates kind of meta-nostalgically, since the band itself dates back to an completely different musical age—born out of the Elephant Six Collective in 1995: pre-Napster, pre-MP3, very nearly pre-WWW. They disappear for such long stretches at a time that I’d pretty much forgotten what an appealing sound they have, all sad-sprightly and ’60s-pop-influenced. Belle & Sebastian comes to mind also; although different bands in many ways, there’s a common vibe, both atmospherically and melodically, between this Brooklyn ensemble and Stuart Murdoch’s Scottish gang. Both bands offer up a powerful kind of nostalgia that remains somehow, also, both of-the-moment and timeless.
What has me in love with this song in general is the juxtaposition of the rapid pace and the melancholy air, which is not a natural combination. The song’s fleetness also disguises its unusual construction: it seems to be built around a meandering, two-tiered chorus, without any otherwise repeating element in the song. I don’t hear a verse. What has me in love with this song in particular is the aforementioned chorus, which stretches beyond something simple and immediately singable, accumulating a quiet sort of grandeur as we are led to a truly wonderful melodic moment: front man Gary Olson singing, “And now that I’m not/It’s all coming apart” (first heard at 1:07). This is worth the price of admission. More goodness: the striking titular image, which implies an entire story in those two concrete words.
Always something of a free-floating outfit, the Ladybug Transistor has experienced any number of lineup changes over the years. One of them was tragic, as drummer San Fadyl, on board since 1997, died of an asthma attack in April 2007. The band has not recorded since then, until now. (Their last album, released in June 2007, had been recorded with Fadyl.) Three new members have joined three LT veterans; the end result is Clutching Stems, due out on Merge Records in June. The band was previously been featured in 2003 and 2007.
MP3 via Merge.
“Santa Needs a Holiday” – Strawberry Whiplash
Candy-coated holiday fare from the Glaswegian (that is to say, from Glasgow; but one must not miss the opportunity to use the word “Glaswegian”) duo Strawberry Lemonade, itself a syrupy-sweet side-project from Bubblegum Lemonade front man Laz McLuskey. (Call it twee if you must, but only if you must.)
Long-time Fingertips followers may remember that I don’t go crazy with the Christmas tunes in December–not because I have anything against Christmas tunes (not at all!; I love them only as much as a Christmas-music-deprived nice Jewish boy can) but because, truthfully, and alas, not much of what the genre offers year to year, new-musically-speaking, is very good. Trust me when I say I’m performing a public service by keeping most of what I hear out of your browser/inbox/hard drive/smart phone/whatever-the-hell-you-listen-to-music-in-or-on.
But this one is lovely in a jangly, lo-fi kind of way, full of melodic nostalgia and 21st-century indie-pop blurriness. Vocalist Sandra sings with a lightness befitting someone who operates resolutely without a last name, but listen closely and you’ll also hear a breathy roundness to her tone that brings (sigh) the late great Kirsty MacColl to mind. Perhaps best of all, the song traffics in its Christmasiness with graceful restraint. The one musical element that flavors the song seasonally is the descending guitar riff we hear at the end of the chorus, which smartly echoes the familiar descending bell motif delivered by any number of holiday standards.
“Santa Needs a Holiday” is found on the latest incarnation of annual holiday goodness put out by Santa Barbara-based Matinée Recordings. This year’s offering is an EP called Matinée Holiday Soiree, which also includes a song from Champagne Riot, a band featured here in 2008.
MP3 via Matinée.
A deeply groovy shot of neo-garage rock, “Gloomy Monday Morning” is both steeped in nostalgia and alive with freshly-minted energy. Sure, there’s a big-time Animals/Zombies/’60s-Kinks vibe at work here, but it’s almost like this New Jersey quartet is using the bygone sound as an instrument they’re playing rather than as a straitjacket limiting their buoyancy, if that makes any sense.
The song consistently works at two different, typically contradictory levels. For instance, while blatantly backbeat driven and cymbal heavy, “Gloomy Monday Morning” also employs subtle keyboard accents and a frisky bass line to catch the ear nearly below the level of conscious awareness. Even the backbeat isn’t as straightforward as it seems, working with a kind of stutter that both accentuates and deflects the two and four beat accent. Listen, also, to how a simple maneuver–that upward turn of melody that we first hear at 0:49 in the chorus, and then also in the third line of the second verse (1:08)–serves to break the song open. And what’s with that cymbal sound? It’s so persistent during the chorus and the bridge that it sounds less like an organically played cymbal than a sample played from a keyboard, and is used as a sort of wall-of-sound whitewash at that point more than percussion–a tactic that is, characteristically, somehow, at once heavy-handed and enigmatic. Even the title seemingly contradicts the song’s groove.
“Gloomy Monday Morning” is from the band’s third full-length album, Softly Towards the Light, which was released this week by the Brooklyn-based Ernest Jenning Record Co. MP3 via EJRC.