Free and legal MP3: Static in Verona (power pop earworm)

Everything about the song is a testament to craft, which strikes my ear as a particularly special thing in such an onrushing tune as this.

“Poor Juliet” – Static in Verona

Maybe there’s a technical term for the upbeat, syncopated melody featured in “Poor Juliet”‘s verse—the easy-to-listen-to but tricky-to-pinpoint movement, which shifts emphasis from the third beat (the ET of “Ju-li-ET”) in the first measure to the second beat in the second (the SET of “so up-SET”). Perhaps it has something to do with matching four syllables against three beats of rhythm? In any case the un-technical term would be “earworm,” because ever since hearing this song, this is the part that has relentlessly been playing in my head.

Which is almost unfair to the song, since the chorus goes on to deliver an irresistible dose of power pop melodicism that is otherwise the killer hook here (1:01). We’re dealing with a classic chord progression, to be sure, but it’s pumped up by the sparkling beat, the background organ, and some ear-catching intervals (i.e., the jump up from “don’t” to “let” at 1:07 and the jump back down from “other” to “girls” a moment later). Everything about the song is a testament to craft, which strikes my ear as a particularly special thing in such an onrushing tune as this. (As I now think about it, it seems more common to find smartly crafted tunes working in more deliberate tempos, maybe?) A good example: the subtle changes made to the second verse (e.g., the backing vocals that echo the lyrics [first heard at 1:27], or the alterations to the original melody), which may be neither necessary nor expected in a song this concise (run time 2:42).

Static in Verona is the band name the Chicago musician Rob Merz has been employing since 2009. He was previously featured here on Fingertips back in 2015 for the song “Blindfold,” itself another slice of pithy power pop goodness. As for the Juliet here, yes it’s the legendary one, but with a twist—in the song, according to Rob, her father saved her and is doing his best to offer solace in the wake of her grief. Oh and the connection between the tragic title character—famously a resident of Verona, Italy—and his band name (generated from a random incident near Verona, Wisconsin) was unintended.

“Poor Juliet” is a track from the new Static in Verona album, Sometimes You Never, released last month. You can listen to the album and buy it for a price of your choosing via Bandcamp. While you’re there, check out the previous five Static in Verona releases, all also available for whatever you’d like to pay. Thanks to Rob for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: The Daily Spreadsheets (layered, hymn-like)

A ringing guitar tone, carefully paced, sets the stage for this subtly unusual rocker.

“I’ll Never Change” – The Daily Spreadsheets

A ringing guitar tone, carefully paced, sets the stage for this subtly unusual rocker. Hang with this one for a while; what “I’ll Never Change” may lack in a certain polish it makes up for in its cumulative power.

The structure is fairly simple. The song alternates between two melody patterns; the second one may be considered the chorus if only because it concludes with the title line, “I’ll never change.” After a relatively naked run-through to start us off (0:09), we get introduced, at 0:27, to the layered vocals that will characterize the rest of the song. The vocal texture deepens as we go, via both blankets of harmony and intertwining countermelodies.

The song grows hymn-like as it proceeds, starting especially at the coalescing harmonies we hear at 1:30. Has it occurred to you yet that there’s been no percussion? No worries, the drums are coming, right after that itchy guitar solo that disrupts the vibe (in a good way) at 1:49. The drumming that starts at 1:53 delivers a modified Spector beat, which is both unanticipated and wonderful (maybe because I’m a sucker for that beat, in whatever form it takes). From here the song continues on its determined path, with one addition—a chord shift at 2:13 that alters the feel of the now-familiar melody in an appealing way, and sets up the song’s closing section, which includes two satisfying endings: the vocal closure from 3:07 to 3:12, and the instrumental denouement that follows.

The Daily Spreadsheets is another one man band this month, the bailiwick of Brazilian musician Henrique Neves. You can hear a few of his other tracks over at SoundCloud, including a brand new remix of “I’ll Never Change.” Thanks to Henrique for the MP3.

(Side note: Henrique first contacted me via Fluence, which is a place where you can pay a nominal fee to have me do a review of your song. There is no guarantee at all that this leads to a feature on Fingertips; in the vast majority of the cases, it doesn’t. But it does guarantee that I will listen closely to a song and give my relatively detailed reaction. You can learn more about this and submit a song at this link: https://fluence.io/fingertipsmusic)

Free and legal MP3: Washed Out (very appealing synth pop)

“Too Late” – Washed Out

I’m trying to figure out what Ernest Greene’s secret is. The man who does musical business as Washed Out—and let’s remember that he is credited with more or less inventing chillwave—offers up what appears on the surface to be standard-issue 21st-century electronic pop: beat-heavy, bass-forward, easy-on-the-ears, all sounds seemingly emerging from digital sources. Why is this song so good and so many similar efforts so forgettable?

I have a few ideas. First of all, never underestimate the power of a good voice. I am continually surprised by how many submissions I get that discourage me as soon as the singing starts. Not everyone who tries to sing is a good singer; not all voices are created equal. Greene’s voice has a tone at once rich and hazy, and whatever manipulative effects are employed, a listener never loses track of the appealing human voice producing the  sounds. (Boy do I wish that anyone still tempted by Auto-Tune would discover the potential of other ways to deal with voice in the digital realm. Greene should teach a master class.)

Digging deeper, there is something too in the actual notes he sings. I don’t have perfect pitch and my knowledge of music theory is incomplete at best but I do think that Greene has the happy inclination to sing what may be suspended notes, or in any case are notes appealingly off the underlying chord. You hear this as soon as he opens his mouth (0:40), singing “I saw you there”: there, that’s the note I’m talking about. It’s not in the chord backing the melody here. He doesn’t in fact meet up with the chord until the end of the next phrase (“waiting outside“); how warm and cozy that feels is a side effect of how much he has otherwise been hanging the melody in suspension. He draws some extra attention to this inclination when he gets to the word “shy” at 1:03. The subtle tension created by these notes is seductive.

Another thing going on here to the song’s benefit is the dynamic range of the percussion. I don’t know if any of this comes from a three-dimensional drum kit or not but the effect is three-dimensional because Greene offers up shifts in volume in the elements of the beat.  A lot of electronic beats, however seemingly intricate, are flatter in this regard. You can hear a purposefully dramatic incidence of this in the intro, at 0:15. But all through the verse section, what you actually have, underneath the blurry trappings, is an old-fashioned backbeat (emphasis on the second and fourth beats of the measure), effected via the dynamic range. It’s not that this is impossible or even difficult to do electronically; it may just be that music makers right now don’t really care to do it.

Lastly, Greene is comfortable getting a little odd. And a bit of oddness can be extremely welcome, especially in a musical era marked by click-oriented efforts to be “catchy.” Here we get a distinctly odd chorus (1:20): the beat disappears; the vocals layer into a vibey mist; the lyrics are punctuated by what sound like distorted, synthesized cellos; and for good measure we get some digitized hand claps before it’s done.

“Too Late” is a single released in April on Sub Pop. Washed Out was featured previously on Fingertips back in August 2011. MP3 once again via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Pinewood (ear-pleasing mystery)

“Riverbank” – Pinewood

Fleet, spacious, and impressive, “Riverbank” gathers a solemn momentum through the determined repetition of its underlying finger-picked riff. The riff materializes from the quiet haze at 0:09 in the introduction and it literally doesn’t stop, accompanying the song straight through to the end, with one brief, well-placed shift (heard first at 1:07, repeated just once more at 2:34). The riff, warm and resolute, is augmented by a carefully curated soundscape, including a homey variety of percussion, what sounds briefly like a string section (1:12), a distant murmur of voices (2:08), an intermittent mandolin, and a great bottom-register buzz that sounds familiar but I can’t identify it—it’s often there deep in the background but can be heard a bit more clearly at around 1:50. (Maybe some kind of flanged bass guitar? Amplified mouth harp??)

The end result is an ear-pleasing mystery, at once calm and urgent, simple and complex, organic and manipulated, 1970s and 2020s, blended into a here-and-gone 3:05 composition. Such a spell is cast that the lyrics themselves seem to dissolve into the music, leaving wisps of impressions with little concrete information. Note how the song comes to an all but complete stop around 2:10, itself a somewhat mysterious turn of events. And then, later: bam, the thing ends with an abrupt shutdown.

Pinewood is the performing name of  Sam Kempe, a songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist based in Atlanta. “Riverbank” is one of four tracks on the debut Pinewood EP All Things With Symmetry, which comes out May 1.

Photo: Megan Varner

Free and legal MP3: The Sweet Serenades (both anthemic and understated)

One of the things I love most here is the ongoing tension on display between this song’s anthemic inclinations and front man Martin Nordvall’s palpable restraint in presentation.

“Out of Time” – The Sweet Serenades

Opening with a nostalgic electronic flourish, “Out of Time” pulses into an appealing synth rocker with a driving backbeat and a seductive sense of understated drama. In fact one of the things I love most here is the ongoing tension on display between this song’s anthemic inclinations and front man Martin Nordvall’s palpable restraint in presentation. The chorus, first heard at 0:31, has all the makings of an emotive earworm, but listen to how delicately Nordvall uses his baritone here—he’s all but whispering. He’s also setting you up: when the chorus returns (1:24), we get the same melody, but Nordvall now sings it an octave higher. See for yourself what a difference this makes. With that staccato bass line, revolving synthesizer riff, and now-majestic chorus, I’m getting a strong scent of the New Romantic movement here, which sounds oddly refreshing in 2020.

At the same time: this no mere ’80s retread. The Sweet Serenades have been at it since 2002, for many years as a duo; by now, Nordvall brings his own gravitas to the table. I’m always amused—and sometimes even entertained—by young musicians sporting some sort of throwback ’70s or ’80s look and sound. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that sort of homage; all musicians worth their salt are inspired by sounds that came before them. But I feel much more convinced when someone with an ear for a bygone time proceeds to sit with it, live with it, develop it. Musicians who learn to let their influences breathe in new ways often end up having the most, themselves, to say.

Nordvall hails from the village of Timrå, some four hours north of Stockholm. “Out of Time” is a track from the band’s forthcoming album, City Lights, which was recorded last year in Stockholm and due out in March. The Sweet Serenades were featured once before on Fingertips, in May 2009; the band was a duo back then.

Free and legal MP3: Theater Kids (Enticing groove, accomplished debut)

Musicians that have enough confidence in their material so that they don’t have to fill our ears with sounds in every moment are usually worth paying attention to.

“Pratfall” – Theater Kids

Delectably groovy and smoothly melodic, “Pratfall” is an accomplished debut single from Philadelphia duo Theater Kids, fronted by Benny Williams. Call me a sucker for a classic chord progression, but here we have a well-known harmonic pattern wrapped in a wonderful sort of DIY sleekness (an oxymoron? actually not) which is right in my wheelhouse.

There’s something wonderfully old-school in how the introduction slowly builds the song’s soulful sound-world in way in which each addition seems inevitable, and with Williams’ vocal entrance, at 0:32, feeling as much like a resolution as an opening salvo. The lyrics are set against the back end of each measure, creating that enticing little space at the end of each line where the new measure starts musically but not lyrically. A lot of presence is created here without a lot of sonic embellishment; one of the beautiful things this song does is allow a certain amount of space around the notes being played (the bass offers a particularly lithe example). Musicians that have enough confidence in their material so that they don’t have to fill our ears with sounds in every moment are usually worth paying attention to.

I would like to articulate why this sort of chill but steady groove, these sorts of carefully laid-together textures, combined with a sterling melody, affect my ears so much much more positively than the beat-centric, effects-heavy tunes, so often about the most surface-oriented subjects, that dominate both the hipster blogs and the pop charts. (This has been an unprecedented alliance; that’s food for a separate post.) But there’s probably no useful way to put this into words. It all would appear to come down to individual taste; but, what I guess I’m always on guard against is when individual tastes have been unduly shaped and warped by larger, profit-oriented interests. Paul Weller said it most incisively a generation ago, in a song in which the lyrics initially say “The public gets what the public wants,” only to have the line flipped later, as a conclusion: “The public wants what the public gets.” The internet has made this an all the more unwieldy and complicated situation, combining technology that can make and record music without regard to an individual’s actual musical talents, with algorithms that amplify surreptitiously, and with an audience now trained to respect and notice quantity more than quality at every turn.

I digress. This is all to say that underneath “Pratfall” I sense human and musical intelligence, and I want to remember to applaud that as often as possible. I am happy to know there are individuals out there who can absorb today’s inputs and influences and still create something that feels removed from the thoughtless hubbub of SoundCloud uploads and Spotify links.

“Pratfall” was released in September. Theater Kids have released a second song, “Echoes,” earlier this month. Check everything out via Bandcamp. Thanks to the band for the download.

Free and legal MP3: Strand of Oaks (anthemic indie rock)

This may be a slow build, but it’s not just a tedious beat; there are expressive lyrics, and, best of all, an impressively well-built melody.

Strand of Oaks

“Weird Ways” – Strand of Oaks

I am not often a fan of the slow build, I will admit that up front. In particular I usually run screaming from songs that have introductions that are both slow and long; bonus (negative) points for being overly repetitious. I’m always thinking, “This is a friggin’ pop song! Get to the point!”

But what we have here with “Weird Ways” is a slow build I’m down with. For one thing, the singing starts right away. This may be a slow build, but it’s not just a tedious beat; there are expressive lyrics, and, best of all, an impressively well-built melody. Things may not entirely cohere in your ear during this slow introductory section, but when the song opens up at 1:30, abetted now by riff and backbeat, we soon get re-introduced to the opening melody and can hear it now in all its anthemic glory. This is the kind of melody that feels classic as soon as you hear it in this setting.

A minute later, the song veers into misty reverie, but with enough texture and pulse to keep things interesting. A minute after that, a head-bobbing bridge, with layered vocals, leads into a big-time guitar solo. The bridge returns nearly a minute later, with additional drama in the vocal layers, culminating in a portentous sustain that closes things out. So much going on! But wait a minute. What happened to that anthemic melody? We hear the last of it at around the two-and-a-half-minute mark of a nearly six-minute song. As a listener, this is maybe slightly frustrating but also slyly engaging. Look, Strand of Oaks mastermind Timothy Showalter could have easily given us more of that haunting refrain but consciously decided not to. Part of it relates to the wise dictum of “Always leave them wanting more.” But he could have done that with, simply, a short song. “Weird Ways” is a long song, but only about a minute of it delivers its rousing, straightforward hook. Given that the lyrics, as much as I can follow them, talk about leaving something established behind while finding an unanticipated new path, I’m surmising that the music here is intended as thematic corroboration. Maybe ear-pleasing melodies come too easily for Showalter; maybe his soul is calling him in another direction. Or, maybe I’m reading too much into what is no more or less than an excellent 21st-century rock song.

Born in Indiana and based in Philadelphia, Showalter has now recorded five studio albums as Strand of Oaks, plus an adjunct album of demos, b-sides, and alternate takes. “Weird Ways” is the opening track on his most recent album, Eraserland, released earlier this year. MP3 via KEXP. You can buy Eraserland (digital, CD, vinyl) at Bandcamp. (Thanks to Glorious Noise for the screen cap!)

Free and legal MP3: Son (swaying ballad w/ heft & purpose)

Son’s voice has a depth and elasticity that brings Thom Yorke to mind, if the Radiohead front man were content singing an easy-going melody these days.

Son

“Y&M” – Son

Even here in 2019, a song will sometimes, still, arrive with a kind of purity—an individual artist, minus any management or PR apparatus, reaching out, with enough skill to assemble an articulate and easy-to-navigate email, but minus the weight and hype of an all-out media barrage. Sadly, artists who take this DIY path often end up disregarded by current standards—emails ignored, with few social media followers and no Hype Machine love, they exist in a veritable Slough of Despond, 21st-century style. And lord knows not every on-their-own musician is making music worthy of widespread attention. But it can happen, and when it does, I feel the world brighten.

Take this track by a musician who calls himself Son. Based in London, he was born and raised in Belarus, which I only know because I asked him. As of now, not a whole lot of info about the guy is available online, and even if there were, his moniker of choice is all but impossible to Google. But, all the more reason not to concern oneself with anything but the music. And the music is excellent: a swaying ballad with heft and purpose, “Y&M” launches with little fanfare, but takes its time unfolding (note, for instance, the nine-second gap between the first and second lines of the verse). The early cymbal rolls add to the anticipation of something about to happen. Son’s voice has a depth and elasticity that brings Thom Yorke to mind, if the Radiohead front man were content singing an easy-going melody these days. And while “Y&M” may not operate on a five-star level across the board—I’m not sure, for instance, we need that long second of absolute dead air at 2:44—the fact that this thing was written, produced, recorded, mixed, and mastered by this anonymous Londoner is pretty stunning. And, I have to say, I’m kind of okay with the break in the music after all given that it is followed by a one-minute guitar solo of serious thought and power.

“Y&M”—short for “you and me,” as repeated in the chorus—was released in January. Thanks to the artist for the MP3. If you want to support him, you can buy the track on Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Papercuts (buoyant wistfulness)

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

“How To Quit Smoking” – Papercuts

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.)

Free and legal MP3: Auditorium (brisk, elusive, unique)

“Never Wrote a Diver a Poem” is brisk and elusive, ending before the cavalcade of mysterious lyrics can quite register, before, it might seem, the song has truly taken full flight.

Auditorium

“Never Wrote a Diver a Poem” – Auditorium

Last heard here in January 2015, Spencer Berger is back with his unique, theatrical take on 21st-century rock’n’roll. “Never Wrote a Diver a Poem” is brisk and elusive, ending before the cavalcade of mysterious lyrics can quite register—before, it might seem, the song has truly taken full flight.

But boy what an incisive little piece this is, with its mix of arcane pronouncements (“Never helped a builder learn the dirt’s a liar”) and aphoristic gems (“‘Kindly’ is a word that makes me doubt my deeds”), set to a rolling melody that spikes almost astonishingly with a one-off hook (the “once in generation” segment, starting at 0:54) before cuddling back into its determined groove. And even while barely reaching 1:40, the song is concise enough to first offer up a wordless melody in the introduction and then, at the end, bring that motif back into the song, now with lyrics (1:24).

Above and beyond all this remains the singular allure of Berger’s singing voice, which is tinged with exotic drama, bearing little resemblance to anything you’re normally streaming in the 2010s (unless you happen to be a Bat Out Of Hell fan; I must inescapably join in with others who hear Meatlovian elements in Auditorium vocals). One would guess Berger’s distinctive sound has something to do with his unique background, having been a professional opera singer from the ages of nine through 12; as a child, he literally sang with Pavarotti. Based in Los Angeles, he began recording as Auditorium in 2011. His new album, The First Music, was released in January; you can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp. It’s a real one-man-band effort, as Berger not only sings all the vocal parts and plays all the instruments, he also recorded and mixed it himself.

(Note that the song I featured here two years ago, “My Grandfather Could Make the World Dance,” has also ended up as a track on the new album.)

Thanks to Spencer for the MP3.


photo credit: Liza Boone