Hushed, impressionistic storytelling
Brandon De La Cruz sings with a hushed authority, his voice cracking against the muted beauty of this simple-seeming song. A two-line verse is answered by a two-line chorus, the former resolving the latter with matter-of-fact grace. Whatever story is being told here is being told obliquely, like a camera focusing only on discreet details, with no establishing shot.
We can, however, flesh out the story via the title: in mythology, Salmacis was a nymph who lusted after Hermaphroditus, the child of Hermes and Aphrodite. When he rejected her and went to bathe in her pool, she sprang upon him; when he still resisted, she prayed to the gods that the two of them should be always together. The gods, in classic “be careful what you wish for” manner, granted her her desire, and they were merged into one body. (Thus, clearly, the etymology of the English word “hermaphrodite.”)
This background renders De La Cruz’s impressionist account evocative in the extreme. We get body words–hands and arms and lips and legs–and, in the repeated chorus, words of union (collide, link up, entwined, seam). Consciously or not this song is in every possible way the antithesis of the prog-rock deep cut “The Fountain of Salmacis,” from the 1972 Genesis album Nursery Crime: concise versus expansive, humble versus baroque, quiet versus clamorous. Nothing at all against Genesis; let’s just say this goes in another direction.
“Salmacis” is one of eight tracks on the album Visions of Ovid, being released this week. With a long-standing interest in mythology, De La Cruz this time has fashioned an entire album riffing on ancient stories. Based in Portland, De La Cruz has been more or less stuck in New Zealand for a year, having chosen an unfortunate time to visit friends early in 2020. (But there are probably worse places to be stuck!) He has been previously featured on Fingertips both in 2011 and in 2013. MP3 via the artist.
I’ve got one more artist with a Fingertips track record for you this month, as the Portland duo Pure Bathing Culture returns with another glistening piece of indie rock, this their third feature here, dating back to 2012. Whereas in previous incarnations the duo presented their guitar-based material wrapped in a cloud of hazy electronics and constructed beats, they are now embracing their inner Fleetwood Mac and going all in on sprightly riffing and buoyant melodies. (Seeing them in person definitely adds to the Buckingham-Nicks vibe, Sara Versprille white-gowned and witchy up front, Daniel Hindman working guitar magic under a balding, curly-haired pate.)
“All Night” is as upbeat as these guys get; the song’s momentum receives an added push thanks to its persistently on-the-beat melody—in the verse in particular, there are a limited number of quarter or eighth notes, and little in the way of syncopation. Over time this lends a subtle breathlessness to the proceedings, reinforced by Versprille’s recurring yelp in the chorus at the end of the lyric “Till black in the sky turns blue.”
Most of all the song in particular, and Pure Bathing Culture more generally, presents an ongoing affirmation on the power and purpose of the electric guitar, despite its relegation to the scrap heap of history by 2010s mainstream pop. Sure, Hindman still tucks his licks in and around a glossy bed of bounce and reverb, but if you have any questions about the intensity of his instrumental commitment, even here in 2019, listen closely to the last 60 seconds of this song, where he out-Buckinghams Buckingham and maybe even out-Knopflers Knopfler in the process. Personally, I think he gets faded out a bit too gently and too early but even in those closing seconds you can feel the heat of his playing.
“All Night” is the sixth of 11 tracks on the band’s album Night Pass, their third, which was released in April and produced by Portland crony Tucker Marine. Listen to it and buy it, in your format of choice, via Bandcamp. There’s even a tote bag for you tote bag fans. MP3 once more via 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.)
Lovely, warm, and rhythmic
A Fingertips favorite from the earliest days, Portland-based Laura Veirs has been making wonderful, left-of-center singer/songwriter music since the dawn of the 21st century—since 1999, in fact, to be accurate. Probably most well-known in the wider world for her collaboration with Neko Case and k.d. lang on the 2016 album case/lang/veirs, Veirs held her own there with two powerhouse singers, because what she may lack in vocal brawn she more than makes up for with warmhearted presence.
“Everybody Needs You,” the second track on Veirs’ new album, The Lookout, springs to a rhythmic 4/4 groove, with a melody that feels at once syncopated and steady, lyrics a series of separated declarations over a starry, organic-sounding blend of acoustic and electronic sounds. Her voice is so friendly and nonchalant that you may not end up noticing that what she’s saying makes no sense that I can discern—that is, I can make out the words, most of them, but they don’t add up to something understandable. But, in a weird way, this somehow renders the song’s central, repeated message all the more poignant: “Everybody needs you”—no matter who you are or what you think you’re up to or whether we even understand you or not.
The Lookout is Veirs’ tenth solo album, including one of children’s songs. It was once again produced by Tucker Martine, who happens also to be her husband. If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to her many offerings, allow me to suggest 2010’s July Flame or 2004’s Carbon Glacier.
MP3 via KEXP.
The lyrics, meanwhile, are awash with the empathy currently struggling to re-establish itself in a world seemingly gone vicious and unreflective.
A lovely strain of uplift runs through “How It Feels,” the latest offering from a band with currents of melodicism and humanity consistently twinning through their music. Maybe it’s there in the plinky, upturning synth line that, recycling, impels us forward, or in the inscrutable, airy, Lindsay Buckingham-ish declarations of the verses (“Feel the noise add up under my skin/Look around as if I only just noticed,” et al.). And then, the thing that really grips the heart: the chorus, which only subtly alters the verse melody, but with the incisive entry of a female singing partner, joining only for the phrase “But I wanted to tell you” (it’s “And I wanted to tell you” the second time, sung the same way). Notice the delightful little leap on the word “tell,” and the guileless conversion of “you” to “ya,” which itself feels like the hug the song is benevolently aspiring to offer via words and music.
“How It Feels” opens itself to us as it goes. Listen for the synth insertions—ambling, flute-like, nearly dissonant—that begin between verses (around 1:19) and proceed to work themselves into the mix. A later instrumental break finds a guitar infiltrating with neither warning nor fuss (2:23), like a long-lost relative at a family reunion. The lyrics, meanwhile, are awash with the empathy currently struggling to re-establish itself in a world seemingly gone vicious and unreflective. This too shall pass, and in the meantime, we hold onto each other, those of us who believe in good hearts.
“How It Feels” is a single offered up by Ages and Ages back in October. It was recently featured as a free and legal download via KEXP, which is my source here. The band is from Portland, Oregon; they have released three full-length LPs to date, the most recent, Something to Ruin, in 2016. They have been previously featured on Fingertips in 2011 and 2014. The band lists five members in its core, but with a couple of dozen others in its “extended family.” There are six people in this photo because I’m not sure.
Launching off a concise, Buddy-Holly-ish acoustic-guitar riff, “Boiling the Ocean” bottles an elusive variety of bygone rock’n’roll sounds into an artisanal blend that feels at once comfy and idiosyncratic.
Launching off a concise, Buddy-Holly-ish acoustic-guitar riff, “Boiling the Ocean” bottles an elusive variety of bygone rock’n’roll sounds into an artisanal blend that feels at once comfy and idiosyncratic. It’s a simple-sounding, toe-tappy song, it’s under three minutes, and yet there’s all this movement and depth about it, due to at least two elements I’ve uncovered with repeated listens.
First, the overall song structure seems normal at first (verse/chorus/verse) but bewilders (in a good way) upon closer inspection. The verses operate with two distinct and unequal parts, and after we spend time with the chorus (about more in a moment), we only revisit “part two”—part one, which opened the song, is never heard from again. The second complicating feature is the chorus itself (starting at 1:17), also in (at least) two parts, which feels like its own mini-adventure: advancing from the punchy, titular phrase and an indecipherable descending-line lyric that follows, it seems to keep receding from view, grounding itself in a notably unresolved moment (the minor chord that arrives first at 1:28 and the percussive episode that follows) before revisiting that chord (1:37) and sliding out the back door. What kind of chorus was that, exactly? No time to wonder: an assertive, repeating series of four guitar chords, with bashy drumming, provides aural slight of hand and brings us back to where we started. But not really. From here the song repeats in a truncated fashion, as we get only part two of the verse and then only part one of the chorus, with one strategic addition (the “I walk” line at 2:31) brought in from the otherwise complicated part two.
And that’s a lot of structural gobbledygook simply to say that the Minders have put together a dynamic little song here that feels both old and new, both catchy and ambiguous. And this is all a good thing.
“Boiling the Ocean” is a track that became available this spring as a download from the annual PDX Pop Now! Compilation; the song opens disc two of the 42-song offering, about which you can read more here. The album is released each year in conjunction with the PDX Pop Now! music festival, which happened last month. Note that the Minders are 20-year rock’n’roll veterans, initially springing from the renowned Elephant 6 collective. They have been based in Portland since 1998, and have a new album themselves due out next month, called Into the River. You can download a free and legal MP3 from that album, “Summer Song,” on SoundCloud.
While rock’n’roll may be past the point of reinventability, there is the occasional band that comes along and gives it a good ride.
There’s something intriguingly old-school about “Bad Tattoos”—the hand-constructed beat, with its slightly fuzzy and very insistent bass line; those penny-whistle synth bursts; and a female lead singer full of soul and swagger, who happens to perform with the name Jimi Hendrix. At the same time, the song’s sonic landscape and general drive feels entirely of our 21st-century moment. While rock’n’roll may be past the point of reinventability, there is the occasional band that comes along and gives it a good ride. The Portland sextet Thanks appears to be one of these bands. If nothing else, how often, I am realizing as I listen to this, do you hear a stompy, minor-key rocker these days? Not very often, I assure you.
I like too how embedded and cloaked the guitar work is here; more than a minute passes before you hear the guitar, and it arrives with such muted self-assurance (1:04) that it immediately seems as if it had already been here and you just weren’t paying attention. Through most of the rest of the song, the metallic, low-register splendor of Andrew Hanna’s guitar provides both motion and density to a song with a gratifying number of moving parts. By the time the recurring guitar line coalesces into a bit of a solo (2:50), you will have thoroughly forgotten that this song was ever anything but a guitar rave-up. But go back and listen to the beginning; surprise!
“Bad Tattoos” is a track from the annual and always engaging PDX Pop Now! Compilation, the 2015 version of which was released in early June, in advance of the PDX Pop Now! music festival, scheduled for later this month in Portland. More information about the 42-track album is available here. “Bad Tattoos” is also slated to appear on Thanks’ next release, No Mercy in the Mountain, their second full-length, and an album they are at this moment raising money for on Kickstarter.
The new wave era pop rock that inspires them was typically fabricated with glistening studio sheen back in the day; that a song like “Sometimes” pushes forward with an almost homely plainness adds to its appeal in an odd and refreshing way.
The Portland duo DoublePlusGood (three guys in the photo, yes, I don’t know why) traffic in almost heart-breakingly straightforward and melodic synth pop. The new wave era pop rock that inspires them was typically fabricated with glistening studio sheen back in the day; that a song like “Sometimes” pushes forward with an almost homely plainness adds to its appeal in an odd and refreshing way.
And note that while couched in a lo-fi feel, “Sometimes” does not confuse lo-fi with mere muddiness. On the contrary, one of the song’s many charms is the aural accessibility of all of its sounds—there’s nothing going on that can’t be singled out and understood by the ear, which is actually an unusual accomplishment in an age when it is far too easy to layer and overlap till the cows come home. And bonus points here for the late-arriving bridge (singing begins at 2:48), with its darker, lower-register melody, and its eventual and artful meshing with the friendly and by now inevitable-sounding chorus.
“Sometimes” is a track from the the PDX Pop Now! Annual Compilation, which was released in June, in advance of the PDX Pop Now! music festival, scheduled for this weekend in Portland. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.
How interesting to find “You’re Not Really Here” closing off an album as otherwise clamorous as WL’s debut, Hold.
Spacious and oh so deliberate music from a band that happens to know a thing or two about dense noise and churning rhythm as well. Which of course, to me, makes the quiet, ruminative stuff all that more compelling—how interesting to find “You’re Not Really Here” closing off an album as otherwise clamorous as WL’s debut, Hold. It’s almost as if the ambient noises you can hear in the background at the beginning of the song are the band’s guitars cooling off, audibly, the way an automobile engine makes those clicks and clacks after you’ve shut it down.
And yet, interestingly, this song was the first thing the group ever wrote, when as yet a duo, and singer/bassist Misty Mary’s vocals on this track were recorded at that first meeting/rehearsal with guitarist Michael Yun. The din was yet to come. But it is very much Mary’s voice that seems to be the secret weapon tying the music’s dynamic range together. Airy but precise, it is a voice as much at home getting enveloped by harsh waves of distorted guitars as it is floating more vulnerably above the minimal backdrop presented on “You’re Not Really Here.” I like that she enunciates her consonants and doesn’t seem to lose her speaking voice in the process of singing; listen for instance to how she fully sings the “r” sound in the word “here,” in the titular phrase that closes each verse. There’s something dreamy about its concreteness, if that makes any sense at all.
Despite its skeletal start, “You’re Not Really Here” does in fact acquire some evocative instrumentation, most notably the organ sound that presses forward at 1:38 (is it actually an organ? a cool guitar effect? don’t know), which lends a magisterial, classic-rock aura to this meticulous and haunting dirge.
WL—which can be pronounced “well” or, simply, “double-you ell”; the band is noncommital—is Mary, Yun, and drummer Stevie Sparks, who has worked regularly for various Danger Mouse productions, and has drummed as well for Daniel Lanois and the Avett Brothers, among many others (often using his given name, Steven Nistor). Both Yun and Sparks are originally from Detroit, while Mary came to Portland from Big Sur. Hold was released digitally and on cassette last month. You can listen to the whole thing and purchase it via Bandcamp.
Here is a crafty duo from Portland—Daniel Hindman on guitar, Sarah Versprille on keys and vocals—that appears to understand the power of restraint
Immediately warm and welcoming, “Pendulum” punctuates its laid-back opening groove with a concise guitar riff—but only twice. It’s a sturdy, time-honored three-chord descent, the kind of riff with which a typical rock band might pound you into submission. Here, then, is a crafty duo from Portland—Daniel Hindman on guitar, Sarah Versprille on keys and vocals—that appears to understand the power of restraint; they use the riff only in the intro and in the chorus and each time we hear it repeated just the two times. Instead of walloping you with it, they caress you.
And then there’s the matter of singer Versprille, and the sweet vigor with which she sings. Even through a smeary blanket of reverb, her voice has a cloudless purity. It too feels like a kind of caress. Oh, and when we only heard the riff twice in the introduction, it was followed by an ancillary instrumental melody gliding gracefully down and partially back up a full octave. That turns out to be the climactic melody line in the chorus, and as in the intro, it follows those two iterations of the riff; but see here how the riff now weaves itself artfully below the emphatic melody line. The entire song, upon repeated listens, feels like one grand and artful weave, and Hindman’s guitar lines turn out to be just as much the cause of delight as his band mate’s vocals.
“Pendulum” is a song from the duo’s full-length debut, Moon Tides, due to arrive in August on Partisan Records. The pair previously released a four-song EP in 2012, and was featured here for the song “Ivory Coast” last May. Thanks to Lauren Laverne over at BBC Radio 6 Music for the head’s up.
I have decided that composure is drastically underrated in the realm of rock’n’roll.
Ah if only all songs were as immediately interesting and engaging as “Don’t Come to Me.” This blog would write itself.
First we have the odd, sparse, toy-piano like pre-introduction, which folds itself underneath a descending guitar melody with a deceptively involved cadence—which, in turn, folds itself into a flowing yet syncopated arrangement with a vaguely islandy ambiance. The lyrics, starting up, have an affable, run-on quality even as they resist any kind of spilling-out feeling. All in all a measured jauntiness is in the air, and that’s what really delights me. Here is a song that bops with a spry bounce (it’s great to desk-dance to; try it!), yet with an abiding sense of control. I am deciding on the spot that composure is way underrated in the general realm of rock’n’roll. You can have most of those guttural screams and overheated guitar solos and such; me, I’m enchanted by restraint and discipline. And so naturally enough we end up here with a most disciplined and easy-going guitar solo (1:35) and a climax featuring nothing more or less than a serious of truly interesting chord changes (1:55). All this in service of a song with a chorus anchored by the lyric “Don’t come to me with your bullshit excuses.” I mean, isn’t control in this context deeper and more interesting than wild-ass bedlam? Maybe?
Nick Jaina is a Portland, Ore.-based musician, composer, and essayist. He has composed music for ballet, theater, and film. “Don’t Come to Me” is a song from his new album, Primary Reception, which will be released later this month on Fluff & Gravy Records, a record label and recording studio also based in Portland. It is his eighth album, not counting a release featuring music he wrote for the play Girl Who Drew Horses; all are available via Bandcamp, including an album of interesting covers he recorded that is available in its entirety for free. Another good song from the new album, “Strawberry Man,” is available as a free download from his web site. Jaina was previously featured on Fingertips in 2008