Bittersweet & irresistible
With dusky charm and old-school vibes, “California Baby” is a bittersweet, irresistible head-bobber. Sometimes it’s just not complicated: a crisp, unassuming acoustic strum acquires percussion at 0:06, vocals two seconds later, and we’re off; this, friends, is how you handle an introduction if you have a modest ego and would rather not waste time. The moment Biell opens her mouth, the song coalesces around her warm, slightly-raspy tone, reminiscent of Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee) minus maybe a smidgen of edginess. The instrumentation, anchored by good-timey piano vamps, rocks and rolls with nostalgic panache, underscoring lyrics hinting at the isolation imposed by the pandemic and/or the poignancy of the unrecapturable past. You choose. An electric guitar twangs in for a quick solo halfway through but does not overstay its welcome. Nothing about this sad-breezy gem overstays its welcome, making it all the more welcome.
Based in Seattle, Carrie Biell released four LPs between 2001 and 2007, did a bunch of touring, and took time off in the 2010s to concentrate on being a mother to her newborn son. In 2016 she formed the band Moon Palace with her twin sister Cat. The band still exists, but the lockdown of 2020 and 2021 gave Biell both the time and the inspiration to write and record enough songs on her own to give rise to a new solo album. “California Baby” is a track from that forthcoming record, entitled We Get Along, which is scheduled for release in February.
Contemplative, textured ballad
A gentle series of piano chords lays the groundwork for this contemplative, textured ballad from the bilingual Washington, D.C. rapper/singer Ya Minko, himself not above throwing a bit of Beatles into the downbeat mix (note in particular the beginning and the end). I am admittedly a sucker for major-to-minor chord transitions, and “Chambres Vides” (translated: “empty rooms”) gives us such moments both in the verse and the chorus. An additional, more unusual transition is also employed here, which is some alternating between French and English lyrics. (Okay I guess I’m kind of a sucker for French lyrics as well.)
Born in Gabon, Ya Minko moved to the U.S. after high school. He is self-taught on ProTools, and I give him a lot of credit for (I know this is one of my key words here) the restraint he employs throughout, resisting unnecessary vocal effects and beat augmentations. Listen, as an example, to how effective that one wood-block-y percussive sound is that he injects in the chorus (first heard at 0:51): it just does its steady thing, once per measure, on the third beat, as the music tracks through its lovely chord progressions underneath the recycling melody, with its repeated, melancholy triplets . I would go as far as to say that that one percussive sound, nearly a musical note but not quite, is what gives the song’s primary major-to-minor moment (launching from 0:57) extra impact, as that sound becomes a constant against which the switch is performed.
Another nice moment comes during the second half of the chorus, which is by and large a repeat of the first run: if you listen carefully, you’ll hear, with increasing volume, a sort of string-like bass line that mimics at the bottom of the mix the melody Ya Minko is singing (it becomes more apparent starting around 1:17). Small touches, to my ear, are so much more effective than gaudy sound effects and pop-production clichés. As for the “Strawberry Fields Forever” callback in the coda (starting at 2:30), it functions as icing on the serene and melancholy cake that the song serves up. Ya Minko tells me the instrumentation for the track was conceived by a Las Vegas producer named Mantra, so props to him here as well.
“Chambres Vides” is the lead track from Ya Minko’s four-song EP, Catharsis, which you can listen to and download, for free, via SoundCloud.
Launched off a sneaky, descending riff, “How To Be Kind” exploits the underutilized tool of the interrupted verse.
So immediate is this song’s command that it feels familiar and fresh simultaneously, right from the opening bars.
Launched off a sneaky, descending riff, “How To Be Kind” exploits the underutilized tool of the interrupted verse. Check it out: the first verse begins with an amiable echo of the intro’s riff, and proceeds melodically through a standard four measures. At 0:24-0:25, the vocals resolve the first section and launch directly into what sounds like a repeat trip through the same melody with new lyrics—standard operating procedure in a rock song, or pretty much any song for that matter.
Only here, after two measures, the verse melody is interrupted (0:29) as we transition without fuss into what appears, upon reflection, to be the chorus, although when you first hear it it sounds like an intriguing augmentation to the verse. And here is where “How To Be Kind”‘s low-key Wilco-ness turns up a notch. Front man Colin Halliburton doesn’t sound like Jeff Tweedy per se but projects a charming Tweedy-like aura as the song ambles its way along, all soft piano fills and drumming that finds an edge between gentle and bashy.
In the end, that edge speaks for the song as a whole, as it achieves through vibe and craft an appealing balance between geniality and purpose. It was, again, Wilco that most notably pioneered the use of the language of Americana to transcend the genre. These guys aren’t going that far, necessarily, and there’s no saying that they have to or need to. But I am feeling something of that nonchalant vigor in the air, of music with a depth that belies its laid-back surface.
The Roseline is a five-man band from Kansas. “How To Be Kind” is a song from their fifth album, entitled Blood, which is coming out in this week.
photo credit: Stevie Jackson
A fetching constant throughout is Tulk’s warm, strong singing voice, with a tone at once earthy and buoyant.
While tinged with a bittersweet air “Universal Code” likewise comes across as friendly and comforting. Piano-based rock music can have that effect on me, I think. Maybe it’s just because I grew up playing piano, and hearing a good amount of piano music in the house. Or maybe—just maybe—there is something built into the sound of a piano, perhaps its unique capacity to be at once melodic and percussive, that feels human-scaled and reassuring.
More to the point, see what Tulk is doing with the piano here—two things I am noticing in particular: first, the incisive, eighth-note motif that opens the song, with its accents on the one and two beats (at once basic and somewhat unusual), right away asserting the instrument’s rhythmic potency, and racing the pulse a bit; second, the song’s central chord change, heard first at 0:14, which is a homely but affecting up-step from G major to A minor. Written into the right context, moving up just one tonal interval can be a poignant thing. Which is to say he had me at hello, basically.
Which is not to say there are not engaging elements throughout, of course. The instrumentation is deftly done—the song expands beyond its piano foundation, with subtle electronic flourishes and offbeat vocal layering, without losing its piano-centric-ness, which seems its own sort of accomplishment. And then what’s this?: a coterie of reed instruments sidle in somewhere along the way, and become undeniable past the two-minute mark. An appealing constant throughout is Tulk’s warm, strong singing voice, with a tone at once earthy and buoyant.
“Universal Code” is the lead track on Embers, Tulk’s third full-length album, released in March; he has also put out two EPs. You can listen to the entire album as well as purchase it via Bandcamp. Born in Australia, Tulk, who identifies himself on his web site as a “writer, philosopher, and musician,” is based in Boulder, Colorado. MP3 courtesy of the artist.
“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.
Jaunty, off-kilter piano tale
Does the inexorable sound shift that’s been made right before our eyes and ears on the pop music front in the 2010s render music that feels more organic, hand-made, and melodically inclined entirely obsolete by this oh-so-futuristic year of 2014? On the one hand, rock’n’roll does seem really most sincerely dead in many different quarters here in the mid-’10s, replaced in the hearts and minds of today’s mainstream by sounds far more polished and formulaic and beat-driven. On the other hand, against all odds, plenty of organic, hand-made, and melodically inclined music is in fact still being created and recorded and not just by the oldsters of my generation but by good-hearted folks in their 20s and 30s as well.
A marvelous case in point is the off-kilter, Randy-Newman-meets-Tom-Waits jaunt of “Cold Chicago Morning,” from the British singer/songwriter/artist/filmmaker Oly Ralfe, who performs as Ralfe Band. The opposite of glossy and beat-driven, “Cold Chicago Morning” is launched by a clever, extended piano melody that mixes time signatures and advances unexpected chords even as it keeps your head bobbing nicely along. Ralfe sings with a smoother croon than his older progenitors, while still conveying a scuffed-up sensibility. Stick around (why wouldn’t you?) and see how the piano returns (first at 1:27) to deliver the song’s singular musical moment: an ear-catching line that ascends up a non-traditional scale only to tumble back, as if down a staircase. Calling upon neither gimmickry nor condescension, the music, while not necessarily Beatle-esque, is positively Beatle-like in its straightforward inventiveness.
“Cold Chicago Morning,” from the 2013 album Son Be Wise (Highline Records), was recently released as a single; my attention was drawn to it via the ever-excellent Lauren Laverne over on BBC Radio 6.
Morris—21 and British—emerges here as a young Kate Bush for the Lorde generation, with an elastic tone that ranges from sweet to muscular.
“Skin” launches off an ear-grabbing tick-tock rhythm, glides into a precisely calibrated duskiness, and builds unerring drama and interest from the knowing interplay between an itchy drumbeat and melancholy, softly-voiced piano chords. Morris—21 and British—emerges here as a young Kate Bush for the Lorde generation, with an elastic tone that ranges from sweet to muscular, and an elusive speech idiosyncrasy (listen to her “r”s) that seems only to add character to her already formidable presence.
I am not sure whether to thank Morris or her producer (Ariel Reichtshaid, who has worked with everyone from Cass McCombs and Vampire Weekend to Skye Ferreira and Kylie Minogue), but I love how adeptly “Skin” transcends “girl-at-piano”-type rock music. Part of this has to do with how obliquely the piano is employed; it never goes away, but it is very much an ensemble player here, creating the sense that every chord that does come forward is there for a purpose, not just because the singer plays piano. And then there is the song itself, and its subtly indelible chorus, which would not be as effective as it is without its unusual setting. First, there’s a pre-chorus (first heard at 0:51), followed by a chorus involving two asymmetrical iterations of its central motif. The second time (1:12), the “We break the rules” melody is repeated, after which new lyrics blossom without warning into the song’s pivotal moment: “We break our hearts and pretty much everything.”
From the seaside city of Blackpool, in North West England, Morris was signed to Atlantic Records when just 19. “Skin” was released in January, available as a free download via SoundCloud, and will apparently end up on her debut album, scheduled for release this summer. Morris has been releasing a series of EPs since late 2013; the latest is due out next month. A new single from the forthcoming EP, “Do You Even Know,” is available to stream via via SoundCloud.
Piano-driven ensemble pop
So very many decades after Jerry Lee Lewis first started pounding (and pounding) the ivories, the piano remains kind of a rock’n’roll outlier, in that when I hear rock’n’roll with a piano in it, I tend to think, “Oh, a piano.” This does not happen with a guitar, or a synthesizer. It doesn’t even happen that much for me with a violin these days, which is weird, and another story. A piano changes the texture of rock’n’roll, gives it a non-electrified sound powerful enough to drive the song’s core yet tender enough to offer both chiming atmosphere and melodic nuance.
That said, the piano, while giving “Can’t Get Started” its splashy opening, is hardly the only thing going on within the ensemble-pop sound of The Sharp Things. The most noticeable “ensemble-y” touches here are the various string voices you’ll hear if you listen carefully (some are unorthodox) and the group vocals, an effect that can either be tiresome or brilliant, depending to a good extent on the melody being group-sung. In this case, I love the collective vocals, which are effected with a beautiful, almost whispered restraint that accentuates the coiled energy of the verse melody’s center point—the way it gathers itself each time for that one aspiring, upward leap it takes (0:20, 0:37, et al.). Because of the discipline on display with the group vocals, the couple of moments when the voices break through for a sudden “hey!” are all the more potent.
The Sharp Things are a Brooklyn-based outfit that has often shape-shifted since its founding in the late ’90s, all the while fronted by singer/songwriter Perry Serpa. Currently they do business as a nine-piece band. “Can’t Get Started” is from the album The Truth is Like the Sun, due out later this month. It is the Brooklyn collective’s fifth album. Thanks to The Sharp Things for the MP3.
Refreshingly Randy Newman-esque, “American Health Insurance” starts wry, turns earnest, and engages the ear with chord changes last heard in the early ’70s.
Refreshingly Randy Newman-esque, “American Health Insurance” starts wry, turns earnest, and engages the ear with chord changes last heard in the early ’70s. McGill is exactly the kind of durable, skillful singer/songwriter who might’ve made a solid name for himself back in those halcyon days. Instead, in the 2010s, he joins the legions who release good music to an indifferent world, not actually as propped up by the endless supply of free digital music as proponents keep telling us is going to happen, any day now, just wait and see. And okay, so I’m especially disgruntled because I just today saw someone still passing along Cory Doctorow’s idiotic “My problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity” meme with a straight face, as if being merely one of a zillion artists throwing free content onto the web isn’t being dreadfully obscure in a whole new way.
Anyway. McGill does a nice job here, coming across as simultaneously weary and engaged, while the song smartly transforms from an ambling piano ballad into something more soulful, complete with spiffy horn charts. The title alone prompts a bit of a surprised smile, but despite the opening line, McGill himself has noted that the song is not actually about health insurance, but about how it feels to be an American in this insecure moment in history. And while that may not actually feel too good, I can’t help but be buoyed by McGill’s subtly spirited performance. He’s got one of those rounded voices that can get a little blurry if too reverbed, but we get a good balance in the mix, which stays generally crisp (horn charts will do that for you), and gives him a chance to stretch a bit—I like both his falsetto reaches and then, in particular, that stirring tone he achieves on the lyrics “when the house was on fire” at 1:42. I think we sometimes forget that half of a singer/songwriter’s job is singing, and maybe sometimes some of them forget that too. Not Mr. McGill.
“American Health Insurance” is from the album Gallows Etiquette, released a couple of weeks ago, its title taken from a Charles Simic poem. This is McGill’s sixth album, and his first after a trio of releases with him fronting a band called What Army. He was featured in that time frame here on Fingertips back in October 2009, for the wonderful song “Madeline, Every Girl.” Note that the Chicago-based McGill is also a member of the band Margot & the Nuclear So-and-So’s. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.
So everything’s kinda sorta interrelated this week. The piano connects “Starlight Town” to “And So On” (upbeat now rather than downcast) and Goldenboy front man Shon Sullivan used to play with Elliott Smith, bringing us back to Harper Simon. As for the unexpectedly potent Billy Joel melody echo at 0:48, while that doesn’t directly couple with the week’s other songs, it does relate to an overarching theme on Fingertips, as true this week as most: that music doesn’t have to “break new ground” to be both good and, still, in its own way, new. Sullivan himself is big into this idea; indeed, he has coined a term for it: “The New Familiar,” which, according to the band’s Facebook page, is “a genre of music of which the melodies, rhythms, & arrangements of pop rock songs are reminiscent to those of the past but blended in such a way & paired with a brand new sound & attitude.”
While his coinage may not catch on, and the syntax can use some work, the underlying credo is a sturdy one. Cultural critics can wring their hands about music somehow not being “new” enough anymore, but in the end such an attitude is closet nihilism, and nihilism is a dead end. We’re alive now and there is absolutely no reason to assume that we have collectively lost the ability to create worthwhile music, and no reason to assume that to be worthwhile, music can’t sound, well, familiar. “Starlight Town” is a smart, crisply-crafted tune, with a central piano lick, some hard-working violins, and an elusive air of the late ’60s or early ’70s about it. I’m finding something about the mix to be delightful, maybe in the way it manages to seem at once blurry and sharp, and how that circular piano line functions somehow as both the song’s teaser and its cornerstone.
Goldenboy is based in Diamond Bar, California, an enclave in the greater Los Angeles area. You’ll find “Starlight Town” on an album called (you got it) The New Familiar, which came out in November on Los Angeles-based Eenie Meenie Records. And, as the last knot in tying the week’s selections together, this one too is available via the good folks at Magnet Magazine.