Incisive cover of a ’70s nugget
A song about losing both parents and contemplating suicide is not standard top-40 material but Gilbert O’Sullivan fashioned a catchy ditty of it back in 1972; the song was later declared the fifth most popular song of the ’70s, according to none other than Casey Kasem. Those were the days(?).
Fifty years after the song was originally recorded, NYC-based singer/songwriter Perry Serpa has pulled it out of the oldies stack, to terrific effect. While not making any flagrant changes, Serpa manages to excavate the mature heart of a song initially a bit too jaunty for its own good. He’s slowed it down slightly for one, ditched the vampy piano and sunny acoustic guitar fills for another, and, crucially, reduced the sappy swelling of strings to the sound of individually articulated violin lines. But maybe the most impactful change is the shift in vocals: O’Sullivan sang with a bright, poppy tone that fought with the content; plain-dealing and world-weary, Serpa dives into the song’s poignancy by staying ever-so-slightly above it. Where O’Sullivan gave pep the aura of hopeless defeat, Serpa delivers melancholy with an undercurrent of tenacity. At the risk of offending originalists, I like this version quite a bit better than the well-known one.
Serpa’s incisive cover is one of ten tracks on his new album, Laying Low in the Highlands, scheduled for release next week. Serpa was last featured on Fingertips in 2018, with a track from that album of his that created the fictional classic album Nick Hornby wrote about in his novel Juilet, Naked. (If you never heard it, and/or never heard about this project, go back and check it out. It’s well-done and worthwhile.) With his band, The Sharp Things, Serpa has also been here in 2013 and 2014. Thanks to Serpa for the MP3.
Annie Dressner has one of those plainspoken voices that sounds like she’s singing and not singing at the same time. It works especially well with a song like “Falter,” which itself is simultaneously simple and maybe not so simple.
Annie Dressner has one of those plainspoken voices that sounds like she’s singing and not singing at the same time. It works especially well with a song like “Falter,” which itself is simultaneously simple and maybe not so simple. An obvious complication is the time signature hiccup that Dressner employs in the intro and the verse, before allowing the song to slide into a more familiar groove.
Less obvious is the push/pull of the lyrical content. The song reads to me as a poignant testament to our imperfect lives. What might initially sound like a pep talk to the self (“Stop wasting time! Get to the finish line!”), comes across to my ears as a bittersweet recognition that there’s something inevitable to our falling short of our dreams, and that we go on anyway. The wisdom we gain through aging and perseverance may be more valuable than what we thought we wanted as young dreamers. Perhaps I’m reading more into it than is there? I’d like to think not. The hints I see suggesting the more complex reading are sprinkled throughout; if I try to explain in detail this would get too long, and potentially embarrassing, as I could well be off base. Let me just note that the title is, in fact, “Falter”: the apparent weakness itself, not the pep talk. Also, the chorus launches off the plaintive question “Can’t you get it right?”; expressed with the implicit negative, it becomes rhetorical: no, we can’t get it right. We’re human.
More to my usual concerns—I don’t often get caught up in lyrics but it could be that distinctive quality in her voice that focused me in this direction—the chorus is propelled by a wonderful feeling of musical inevitability, having to do with the unresolved chord at the outset, and the series of chords that bring it invincibly to resolution. I like too the unhurried, almost mournful guitar solo (starting at 1:58) that inserts itself between two iterations of the bridge, delaying the payoff of one last chorus, and (perhaps) adding subtle irony to the words “almost at the finish line,” since she ends up singing that twice.
Annie Dressner was born and raised in New York City; she moved to the UK in the early 2010s. Her new album, Broken Into Pieces, was released last week. You can both listen to it and buy it via Bandcamp. Thanks to Annie for the MP3.
“See You Around” moves me in some mysterious way. Every time I re-listen, I seem initially to forget anew what it was I saw in it, only to remember again as the song takes off.
An odd, enticing chugger of a song, “See You Around” has the relentlessness of a run-on sentence, packing a lot of action into a short amount of time.
We begin with a bass solo, which doubles as an introduction; when the singing starts, at 0:12, the first line is “Words keep pouring from your mouth”—and from that point, front man Gabriel Rodriguez sings without pause until 1:20. There don’t seem to be verses, and there’s no apparent chorus, just an edgy flow of words that hook you in through a few well-placed harmonic shifts (0:38, for one; 0:55 another). After Rodriguez finally takes a break, he starts up again with the more accurate observation “Words keep pouring from my mouth” (emphasis mine).
“See You Around” moves me in some mysterious way. Every time I re-listen, I seem initially to forget anew what it was I saw in it, only to remember again as the song takes off, and in particular when it arrives at the first shifting point, from 0:38 to 0:40. The song in that moment acquires some ineffable emotional capital that proceeds to grow as it careens to its early finish.
Rodriguez is a Manhattan-based musician who has played for years in the live version of the band Cults. He released his first album as Hideout in 2014. “See You Around” is from the new Hideout LP, So Many Hoops/So Little Time, released in February on Small Plates. “See You Around” is not the single, or featured track, but it’s the one that caught my ear. You too can listen to the whole album, and buy it, via Bandcamp.
“Everything Breaks” manages the uncommon trick of being both lovely and urgent. Each of these aspects, as it turns out, seems to hinge primarily on the song’s consistent—and subtly edgy—alteration between minor and major keys. We hear it right away in the crisp, ringing piano intro, and the minor/major shifting is only deepened and underlined by the addition of vocals. There’s a breathlessness to the proceedings, a sense that the song just has to burst out as is and be done.
And then too there’s the way the song unfolds lyrically as an elegiac litany of facts, descriptions, and/or circumstances, creating a kind of beauty-meets-tragedy atmosphere, even if it is difficult to apprehend exactly what is being sung about and why. With its graceful confluence of lyrical and melodic portent, “Everything Breaks” grabs the ear so quickly and securely that we feel grounded without even a chorus to provide its steadying influence.
The Sharp Things, previously featured on Fingertips in November 2013, are an expanding and contracting NYC ensemble, active since the ’90s, and currently in a nine-piece phase. “Everything Breaks” is the lead track on Adventurer’s Inn, released earlier this month. This album, the band’s sixth, turned out to be a personally notable and heartbreaking effort for front man Perry Serpa, as it is the last album the Sharp Things were able to record with drummer and band co-founder Steven Gonzalez, Serpa’s best friend since childhood. Gonzalez died in September from complications related to a lifelong struggle with cystic fibrosis.
Thanks to the band for the MP3.
A stimulating combination of breezy and portentous, not to mention melodic and dark, “Mrs. Marquis de Sade” finds the elusive Brooklyn band The Cloud Room doing its New York City rock’n’roll thing with renewed vigor, even after all these years.
A stimulating combination of breezy and portentous, not to mention melodic and dark, “Mrs. Marquis de Sade” finds the elusive Brooklyn band The Cloud Room doing its New York City rock’n’roll thing with renewed vigor, even after all these years. (Many of you may remember them for their rather brilliant breakthrough song, “Hey Now Now,” featured here, and lots of other places, back in 2005.) This is a band with the enviable ability to have a “sound” without so much as breaking a sweat, based largely on the fortuitous way front man J Stuart’s Bowie-esque croon floats so naturally on top of Devon Johnson’s scratchy guitar rhythms and John Petrow’s athletic bass lines.
The sound is so strong and consistent that it transcends the material: “Mrs. Marquis de Sade” is not originally a Cloud Room song, but was written by filmmaker and songwriter Devon Reed as part of a project he conceived to support the non-profit organization 826 Valencia, about which more in a moment. The band clearly makes this one their own. I especially like how the chorus is split in two sections, creating an extra climax via the second, higher-ranging melody, during which Stuart conjures more than one rock’n’roll ghost (I’m hearing Richard Butler in particular) before handing center stage to a fabulously tuneful guitar line that
I’m guessing was added by the band and in any case seals the wonderfulness of this brisk and oddly catchy number. (Editor’s note: Turns out I was wrong. Reed wrote the guitar lick too. More power to him!)
As for the project itself, Reed wrote a bunch of songs and then managed to corral an impressive list of top-tier indie artists to record them. The final product is an album called You Be My Heart, which will be released next week. 826 Valencia is a literacy organization focused on inspiring children to write, co-founded in San Francisco by the writer Dave Eggers. Among the other artists who recorded Reed’s songs for the album are Fingertips veterans Marissa Nadler, Bowerbirds, Saturday Looks Good to Me, and The Spinto Band. You can listen to a few songs from the album via SoundCloud. In the meantime, I should also note that The Cloud Room did end up releasing a long-anticipated second album in 2012, which was called Zither and kind of came and went without much fuss. You might want to listen to it at Bandcamp, where it is also for sale.
MP3 via Magnet Magazine.
One must be a gifted vocalist and songwriter both to evoke Marvin Gaye and Brian Wilson within the span of one musical breath.
Wow, just listen to how little is required to create a deeply satisfying groove: keyboard, bass, drum. It helps that the keyboard is tracing a series of elegant, Stevie Wonder-ish chords and that the bass and drum are so tightly locked as to sound like one mysterious instrument, but still, I would send anyone who thinks music is about “making beats” to the first 22 seconds of “ETC.” Music is about making music.
That said, Francis and the Lights are a special case to begin with—an elusive ensemble trafficking in soulful postmodern minimalist funk, masterminded by Francis Farewell Starlite, about which not much more is known. Lots of musicians say they want their music to speak for itself but Starlite walks the walk. He doesn’t aim to be mysterious as much as straightforward, influenced, he has been happy to admit, by the classic writer’s guide The Elements of Style; in the spirit of “omitting needless words,” Starlite does not offer an online bio nor talk much about himself because he feels it comes across as “begging.”
Of course if more artists could manage Starlite’s singular style of succinct, emotive, genre-bending music, they too might find promotional talk unnecessary. As in previous visits here in 2008, Francis and the Lights spin a compelling song out of odd, ambiguous elements: verses like overheard inner arguments, hypnotic and diaphanous; a two-part, unresolved chorus linking a throaty question (“What will we do from here?”) with a soaring, inconclusive Beach Boys reference (“And will we be happy?”). One must be a gifted vocalist and songwriter to evoke Marvin Gaye and Brian Wilson within the span of one musical breath.
“ETC” is a single, as yet unconnected to a larger release. Thanks to Francis for the MP3.
A complex, expertly composed pop song, as artful as it is accessible.
Gifted and accessible, Liam Singer is the kind of musician for whom Fingertips exists. We are assaulted by endless sound, we are inundated by generic, laptop-fueled creations, we have abandoned meaning for virality and melody for sensation, and yet even here, in this crazed inferno, exist some (hat tip to old friend Italo Calvino) who are not inferno. I try to find these folks every week or so, to give them space and help them endure, and Liam Singer pretty much epitomizes the mission.
Here’s a guy who can begin with a keyboard refrain all but Bachian in its playful convolution (in what appears to be 6/4 time no less), find a melody to sing on top of the refrain, add a chorus too severely syncopated ever to sing along with, float woodwinds and angelic backing vocals through the artfully conceived soundscape, use a cello without showing off, and wrap the whole enterprise up in less than three minutes. And it’s seriously beautiful. As the lyrics glide in and out of comprehension, there’s an air of something out of time here. The title refers not to a “stranger I know” but is the beginning of a sentence addressing this stranger, and as such conveys the flavor of some centuries-old ballad (an impression reinforced by the apparent use of the pronoun “thy”). At the same time there’s something not only modern but brand-new seeming in the song’s sprightly lift and distinctive construction. A winner start to finish.
“Stranger I Know” is the first track made available from the album Arc Iris, which is scheduled for release in July by Hidden Shoal Recordings. Singer was born in Oregon and is based in Queens, NY; this will be his fourth album. He was previously featured on Fingertips in September 2010. MP3 via Hidden Shoal.
Those of you who may be tired of the 21st-century music scene’s relentless worship of beat over musical substance might find a way out with SVIIB.
It was last year at this same time that School of Seven Bells unveiled their two-person versus three-person incarnation—a personnel change with more import than most since SVIIB was therein losing one of the two identical twin vocalists who together were central to the band’s indelible sound. As it turned out, one Dehaza (Alejandra stayed, Claudia left) was certainly better than none, and the band’s glistening swirl of rhythm, electronics, guitar, and voice remained intact, as we saw from “The Night,” the lead track from duo’s Ghostory, which was released in February.
Less than a year later comes an EP, Put Your Sad Down, with five new songs (four originals, plus a cover of the ’60s underground psychedelic classic “Lovefingers”). This is a band with something to say, and a singular way to say it; they take the 21st-century predilection for glitchy beats and shoegazey reverb and transmute it into something powerful and timeless. While the band has not abandoned its fondness for muscular soundscapes, there is at the same time something pleasantly minimalist about the texture this time—Dehaza’s voice feels more exposed here (listen at 1:39, for example), the instrumental layers more precise. Band mate Benjamin Curtis seems largely to have put his guitar down on this tune, opting for a boppy low end, featuring the robust bounce of a kinetic bass synthesizer. Those of you who may be tired of the 21st-century music scene’s relentless worship of beat over musical substance might find a way out with SVIIB—even as their melodies scan more like incantations than flowing tunes, they never seem to lose touch with the musical nature of, well, music. The band’s prevailing uniqueness remains itself an impressive accomplishment.
SVIIB is based in New York City, and has been previously featured on Fingertips in November 2008 and, as mentioned above, in December 2011. You can listen to the whole Put Your Sad Down EP via SoundCloud; purchase it via Amazon. MP3 via Epitonic (just like the old days!). (Note that the MP3 may not work with the Fingertips ex.fm player here but it definitely exists and can be downloaded.)
Although obviously electric, the guitar has an organic glow to it, ringing with a palpably physical vibration, so different from the flat sounds that too often emerge from today’s laptop music.
At first, I’ll admit, this sounded a bit unvarnished for my tastes. But “Bad Lover” wins me over through the hypnotic power of its central motifs, not to mention the appealing, unaffected tone of lead singer Melissa Ahern. And even though I’m not sure I am on board with all of the production decisions made here, in the end, count me as a fan.
I think it’s that lovely descending guitar melody, itself comprised of delicate, ascending arpeggios, that worked steadily on my resistance. Although obviously electric, the guitar has an organic glow to it, ringing with a palpably physical vibration, so different from the flat sounds that too often emerge from today’s laptop music. I love how the guitar plays in and around the beat with almost a sense of swing, as its melody repeats and repeats through the length of the song. Note too that each iteration sounds distinct and handmade, with subtle variations in how the notes are being played and enhanced. With just the guitar playing, a sparse beat, and Ahern singing her counter-melody, we’ve got pretty much of a win right there.
But there is in fact more. For one thing, keep an ear on the bass, which asserts a melodic presence in the chorus starting at 0:55. A second guitar sound enters just after the two-minute mark, and this is when the song for me acquires a sense of rootedness. The second guitar scuzzes up the soundscape at first, comes front and center for a short instrumental, then grounds the rest of the song in the hint of its droney edge. At 3:22, the two guitars at last enter into direct relationship with each other, and their interactions, while not flashy, provide splendid closure to a subtly powerful piece. I don’t think these guys are perfect yet (and who is?), but there’s something wonderful, already, in the music of this still-developing duo.
Ahern and bandmate Andy Stack are half-siblings. Originally from Western New York, they are now based just outside New York City. “Bad Lover” is a song from their debut album, which they self-released with the help of the fan-funding sit RocketHub. You can listen to the album and/or purchase it via Bandcamp.
Combining a Fountains-of-Wayne-ish gift for melody with an idiosyncratic sense of presentation.
As homely as it is endearing, “The Human Beings” combines a Fountains-of-Wayne-ish gift for melody with an idiosyncratic sense of presentation. Over an assemblage of woodwinds huffy-puffy-ing in the background, front man Joe Darone offers up what appears to be a pathos-free elegy to the planetary tragedy that is human civilization. But, hey, at least you can sing along—well, part of the way. The verse and the chorus are as pithy and tuneful as can be; the entire lyrical section—verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/verse/chorus—wraps up in 1:40. The song plays out from there as an instrumental at once plucky and ominous, woodwinds interspersed with a muted sort of churning menace. As with the lyrics—“So they blacken the earth and blacken the ground/Now you’re not gonna find one of them around”—the music doesn’t end assuringly. My advice is to enjoy the unbridled melodicism, and find a bit of hope in a human creative urge so relentless as to feel compelled to dress up the apocalypse in such an appealing package.
Billing itself as “an indie rock manifestation,” Suit of Lights is a loose collective fronted by Joe Darone, operating out of New York City. Darone began his musical career as a teenager in the New Jersey punk band The Fiendz in the late ’80s. His Suit of Lights project began life in 2003. “The Human Beings” is a song from Shine On Forever, the third Suit of Lights album, released last month on Visiting Hours Records. You can check the whole thing out on Bandcamp, and buy it there as well. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.