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: Patrick Boutwell (crunchy, complex power pop)

Rhythmic imbalance is central to the crunchy charm of “Scotch the Snake”; the melody wants to soar but is repeatedly hemmed in by the offbeat beat.

Patrick Boutwell

“Scotch The Snake” – Patrick Boutwell

We get un-clap-along-able hand claps in song one, and extended bits of 7/4 time in song two. 6/4 too. It’s my lucky week.

Of course there’s more to the crunchy, incisive “Scotch the Snake” than an asymmetrical time signature, but the rhythmic imbalance remains central, and keeps straight-ahead catchiness at bay—the melody wants to soar but is repeatedly hemmed in by the offbeat beat. And it’s kind of a good thing: we get the big guitar riffs and plaintive tenor lead of classic power pop without, quite, that genre’s simplicity (or over-simplicity). Another wrinkle here: what appears to be the verse delivers the big melodic hook, as soon as the singing starts; and what appears to be the chorus feels more bridge-like, connecting the payoff delivered each time by the verses. It’s an extra way that “Scotch the Snake” keeps the ear pleasantly off-balance.

As it turns out this is the second song heard here in recent months that offers up the aural vocabulary of power pop while undermining the genre’s tendency to be ear-candily catchy (see, previously, Cotton Mather). I’m not saying this is a national trend (if only) but I like it in any case.

Boutwell is front man for the Rhode Island-based band The Brother Kite, which one or two Fingertips veteran followers might (possibly?) remember from the early early days—they were not only featured here in 2004 but the following year the band’s song appeared on the one and only Fingertips compilation CD (Fingertips: Unwebbed, of which I still have a batch in my closet). (Anyone want one?)

“Scotch the Snake” is a track from Boutwell’s album Hi, Heaviness, which was released at the beginning of March. The phrase is Shakespearean, from Macbeth, where it refers to temporarily debilitating but not actually destroying something dangerous. You can hear the whole thing on Bandcamp, and choose to pay for it whatever you’d like. Thanks to the valiant Powerpopulist blog for the head’s up on this one. And thanks to Patrick himself for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: The Spectacular Fantastic (folk rock meets power pop, & then some)

Like a mutant folk-rock/power-pop amalgam from 1974’s re-imagined version of 1991, “Wasting All My Time” takes off seemingly in mid-riff, all forward motion and melodic processed guitar.

specfan

“Wasting All My Time” – The Spectacular Fantastic

Like a mutant folk-rock/power-pop amalgam from 1974’s re-imagined version of 1991, “Wasting All My Time” takes off seemingly in mid-riff, all forward motion and melodic processed guitar. And is it just me or is it both weird and comforting how the song on the one hand rocks reasonably hard but on the other hand seems only casually to display a rhythm section? I mean, there’s drumming, for sure, and there’s a bass (if you listen carefully!; I think), but they seem elusive for such an upbeat song—the percussion presents as almost an aural illusion, perhaps willed into existence by the guitars and the fact that of course a rock’n’roll song needs percussion (it’s got a backbeat; you can’t lose it). Intentional or not I’m finding the effect oddly ingratiating. Not that drumming is overrated by any means. But maybe a little.

And talk about an oddly ingratiating effect: listen as well (actually the two phenomena are connected) to how the duo of Mike Detmer and Jonathan Williams, doing musical business as The Spectacular Fantastic, manage somehow to turn the rhythm guitar into its own kind of lead guitar. All those crunchy-ringy accompanying chords you hear after the actual lead guitar moves out of the way seem not only to anchor the song percussively (thus allowing the drums to take a bit of a backseat; see above) but to my ears, give the song uplifting direction more forwardly than typical rhythm guitar work. Perhaps Detmer’s mixed-down vocal style contributes to the circumstance but it’s a fun ride and I have now over-analyzed it far more thoroughly than necessary. The song is a scruffy, well-crafted delight.

And hey are there any long-time Fingertips followers long-time enough to remember The Spectacular Fantastic from way back in the day? Two of the Cincinnati-based band’s songs were featured here in 2005, in June and in October. The band was a bit more of a band back then but not necessarily that much; it’s always been Detmer’s baby and I’m pretty sure Williams has been around for most if not all of it as well. Since 2002, The Spectacular Fantastic has recorded seven full-length albums and four EPs. The new one, Circling the Sun, released February 29th, is the first TSF recording since 2009. You can buy the CD via 75orless Records; the band is also distributing the digital files for free—you can listen and/or download the album here.

Free and legal MP3: Cotton Mather (lost-lost Texas power pop band returns)

Here’s Cotton Mather’s front man Robert Harrison asking the musical question: is it still power pop when the hooks are this subtle and/or convoluted?

Cotton Mather

“The Book of Too Late Changes” – Cotton Mather

As regular readers of Fingertips know, I have an eternal musical soft spot for the elusive genre of power pop. My devotion is rooted in the genre’s unabashed melodicism, drive, and, for lack of a better word, song-iness—which is to say power pop doesn’t strain against the conventions of songwriting, it embraces them. As such, power pop has long offered me a safe space from which to observe forces at work on our musical culture that are far beyond any one person’s control. As I see it, music’s long-term destiny as a mass medium has involved a concurrent movement towards compositional simplification on the one hand (think Brahms to Beatles to Bieber) and movement away from beauty on the other (think of classical music’s embrace of atonality, and rock’n’roll’s evolution into beat-driven performance—which can of course be wonderful and compelling but does not usually care about or aim for the value of loveliness). Power pop, of all genres, seems to me to say: “This may not be complicated but it’s still gorgeous.” Oh and you can often dance to it.

But now here’s Cotton Mather’s front man Robert Harrison asking the musical question: is it still power pop when the hooks are this subtle and/or convoluted? Normally power pop is a brisk swatch of ear candy, buoyed by an ineffable sense of depth and yearning. “The Book of Too Late Changes” appears at first to be all angles and incompletions; follow the drumming alone and your head may spin a bit. You will in any case be hard-pressed to sing along. But, I say power pop nonetheless. In fact, I believe “The Book of Too Late Changes” represents an attentive reinvigoration of the genre, with as much punch and drive and melody as your grandfather’s power pop, and yet now with all sorts of tangential twists and turns, with glorious moments and motifs replacing sing-along choruses, all the while embracing the general jangly vibe the genre almost always celebrates. See if you hear what I hear.

Cotton Mather is a Texas band with a semi-legendary history; their 1997 album Kontiki was called “the best album the Beatles never recorded” by The Guardian, in the UK. But the band called it quits without fuss in 2003 (and were featured here on Fingertips that same year). Harrison re-emerged in 2007 at the head of a project called Future Clouds and Radar (likewise featured on Fingertips, in 2008). Prompted by a Kickstarter-funded deluxe re-issue of Kontiki in 2011, Cotton Mather re-formed and played some live gigs, first to support the album then just because. Eventually, Harrison was struck with the improbable idea of recording a 64-song cycle based on the I Ching. “The Book of Too Late Changes” is the first song to emerge from what is envisioned as a multi-record vinyl recording. For the time being, the songs will be released individually as they are recorded.

MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: The Cairo Gang (catchy/complex brilliance)

“Ice Fishing” is a semi-garage-y, amorphously psychedelic bit of guitar-driven power-pop brilliance that keeps getting better and better with repeated listens.

The Cairo Gang

“Ice Fishing” – The Cairo Gang

“Ice Fishing” is a semi-garage-y, amorphously psychedelic bit of guitar-driven power-pop brilliance that keeps getting better and better with repeated listens, being that rare combination of catchy and complex. Plus, it’s a song about ice fishing, which is about as refreshing a topic for a pop song in 2015 as can possibly be imagined (after of course dancing and fucking).

Just how many satisfying chord progressions ferry this song forward is difficult to quantify. And just how comforting front man Emmett Kelly’s voice is is equally hard to measure with objectivity, but his warm blend of Robert Pollard, Elvis Costello, and Jonathan Richman is a beautiful thing to behold. But most beautiful is the song itself, a wondrously assured construction of heart-melting chords and generous melodies. “Ice Fishing” is in fact so melodically generous that one of the song’s best bits is all but a throwaway: the wordless melody that functions as a kind of unresolved bridge between 2:29 and 2:40. How much self-possessed momentum does a song have to have to effect something like that? And okay the best bit of all is the most gloriously obvious: the nonchalant two-line chorus (first heard beginning at 1:00), each line with its own distinct, bittersweet/wonderful hook.

The Cairo Gang is a five-piece band based in Chicago. “Ice Fishing” is from their new album, Goes Missing, released last week [6/23] on God? Records, a side imprint of Drag City Records. The album is the band’s fourth. MP3 via the record label. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Free and legal MP3: Star Tropics (seasonally evocative power pop)

I am taken with how all but onomatopoetic the song is, with the aforementioned chimy guitar line smartly mimicking rainfall.

Star Tropics

“Summer Rain” – Star Tropics

Urging itself into our lives at the ever-wonderful nexus of dream pop and power pop, “Summer Rain” features a ringing, evocative guitar line, a reverby backwash, a brisk backbeat, and a breath-filled, sweet-voiced lead singer. You don’t need any more description than that, right?

Well, okay, I’ll talk a little. First I am taken with how all but onomatopoetic the song is, with the aforementioned ringing guitar line deftly mimicking rainfall, and with the aforementioned sweet-voiced lead singer (Nikki; no last name provided) creating, for me, somehow, the sound-picture of a warm, grey-green landscape moistened by a gentle but persistent shower (note the summer rain evoked here is of the comforting old-school variety, not the terrifying climate-change-driven monsoons of the 2010s). Next I am oddly intrigued by the brief, willowy instrumental break two-thirds of the way through the song (2:22); when songs are this assured and on-point, I’m always interested in what they are going to do with a bit of leisure time, as it were. Here we get meander-y 25 seconds that begins with the guitar kind of refusing the spotlight that was seemingly aimed at it—rather than the confident chiminess of the intro we get unassertive arpeggios and, most intriguing of all, the distant sound of repeated notes played high up on the neck. The guitar is joined by a particularly low-tech kind of synthesizer, pushing out a wistful, air-toned melody that comes from an entirely different world than Planet Dream Pop but is all but heart-breaking and perfect.

Star Tropics is a Chicago-based four-piece with one previous 7-inch release to their name. “Summer Rain” is part of double-sided single released in March. MP3 via Insomnia Radio.

Free and legal MP3: Dot Dash (hard-edged power pop, w/ melodic lead guitar)

Concise, hard-edged power pop that puts the humble electric guitar at the center of the melodic action.

Dot Dash

“Rainclouds” – Dot Dash

Concise, hard-edged power pop that puts the humble electric guitar at the center of the melodic action. It’s rare enough to hear an electric guitar front and center here in the 2010s, never mind a guitar playing an actual melody, and really never mind a guitar playing a melody that does not echo or mirror any of vocal melodies otherwise in the song. Songs that manage this are usually well-built and worthwhile.

So there’s a good amount going on in this punchy nugget of a tune, which clocks in at a nifty 2:43 (the same clock time as Big Star’s “Thirteen” and ABBA’s “Waterloo,” among other pithy classics). One way that “Rainclouds” saves time is by only employing one verse: it opens the song, after the intro, and is never heard from again. The chorus, meanwhile, is an intricate construct featuring one sweetly satisfying melody (the part culminating in “…put the blame on me,” heard first at 0:45) that seems to have been planted in the song just so you’ll wait for it to come back. Which it then doesn’t do quite as often as you want it to. Speaking of which, when the verse is scheduled to return, it doesn’t, and instead we get the aforementioned guitar melody in full force—at 1:09, and repeated on the spot at 1:23. The hint we get that this has replaced the verse comes from the unexpected return of the verse’s wordless backing vocals during the repeat (1:29). This strikes me as kind of unusual, hearing “ah-ah-ahs” underneath a guitar melody rather than a vocal melody. Someone has surely done it somewhere before but I can’t bring anything to mind.

Dot Dash is a D.C.-based quartet that took its name from a song by the seminal British punk/art band Wire (dot dash is the letter “A” in Morse code). Front man Terry Banks and bassist Hunter Bennett were previously together in the band Julie Ocean. “Rainclouds” is from the album Earthquakes & Tidal Waves, the band’s fourth, released last month by The Beautiful Music, a label in Ottawa. The album was produced by the semi-legendary Mitch Easter, best known for his work on R.E.M.’s early albums, at his studio in North Carolina. You can listen to it as well as purchase it via Bandcamp. MP3 once again via Insomnia Radio.

Free and legal MP3: Static In Verona (one man band, big bashy power pop)

More gratifying evidence of power pop’s unanticipated third life in the 21st century.

Static In Verona

“Blindfold” – Static In Verona

Blessed with heroic chord progressions, wall-of-sound fuzz, background chimes, and a sweet-voiced singer, “Blindfold” offers up more evidence of power pop’s unanticipated third life in the 21st century. A genre all but genetically resistant to overt electronic manipulations, power pop does however seem to seduce any number of good-hearted bedroom rockers with guitars, laptops, and a decent microphone. As in this case: its big bashy extraversion notwithstanding, “Blindfold” is the product of Chicago-based Rob Merz, doing musical business as Static In Verona, and playing every last instrument his own self.

And I may be a sucker for this kind of thing, but the result here pretty much takes my breath away—some elusive combination of melodic invention, sturdy structure, and masterly conciseness (the song clocks in at a wonderful 3:33) that leaves me with little choice but to hit the repeat button, repeatedly. My music theory abandons me pretty quickly, so I can’t identify the type of chord that recurs here with great success (you can hear it at 1:13, 1:28, 2:30, et al.), but I can report that it is a Beatlesque/Brian-Wilson-y gesture that is well-known too for its memorable appearance in the extended piano coda to “Layla.” One of the greatest but most ineffable things about effective power pop is how the great exemplars, for all their straight-ahead catchiness, often weave some slight oddness or deviation into the fabric of the song. And so here: in addition to the chord in question, “Blindfold” also works with a shifty pre-chorus/chorus arrangement (the pre-chorus itself, first heard at 0:47, provides us with arguably the song’s strongest hook) and, further, sets off the chorus with an unusual, rhythmically separated mini-introduction—the “Be with you” part, which sounds maybe more normal than it actually is.

Rob Merz has been on the Chicago music scene for 18 years, most recently as a member of the band Ash Avenue. He has been recording by himself as Static In Verona since 2009. “Blindfold” is a track from the second Static In Verona full-length, Everything You Knew Before You Knew Everything, which has actually been out for almost a year. I just found out about it via a 2015 post on the Insomnia Radio blog. You can listen to the whole album via Bandcamp, where you can also buy it for any price you choose. Thanks to Merz himself for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Record/Start (crunchy, melodic, smartly-crafted)

“Rock From Afar” manages to funnel nostalgia through a contemporary filter, conjuring the past without wallowing in it.

Record/Start

“Rock From Afar” – Start/Record

Crunchy, melodic, smartly-crafted rock’n’roll, “Rock From Afar” is one of those rare one-man-band home recordings that sounds spacious and outgoing. (In that way it brings to mind the work of Devin Davis, for those with long Fingertips memories.) And while full of elusive homages to great moments in rock history, this song is likewise a rare bird for managing to funnel nostalgia through a contemporary filter: conjuring the past without wallowing in it, without losing the recognition that we live in the here and now and that that’s okay too.

So—stay with me on this one—I’m thinking now that what sounds like a catchy, well-paced song is actually much more than that. With “Rock From Afar,” Simon Cowan, doing business as Record/Start, offers us a much-needed (not to mention delightful) way out of the dead-end technophilia of the early 21st century. Enough with having to pretend there is nothing of value to be had from the past, enough with entrepreneurs and venture capitalists so smug and myopic that they can’t credit or recognize anything they didn’t invent or fund. Life existed before us and life (if we don’t go all Interstellar on ourselves) will go on after us and the smartest and most valuable (not to mention most fun) people are those who partake of the whole buffet. Use the past to inform the present and aim towards the future.

That’s what “Rock From Afar” does and it’s a breath of fresh air in a musical age suffocating from the addictive beats and compressed mightiness required to keep the kids dancing and the fingers clicking. Cowan finds a brisk pace and rich texture far removed from the stifling dictates of today’s pop, with guitars that bleed into a kind of 2015 Wall of Sound, and melodies that sweep you pretty close to power pop heaven. One of my favorite moments is the abrupt break for a “woo-oo-oo” vocal that happens at 2:41, because of how precisely this moment embodies the seamless melding of past and present: this kind of “woo-oo-oo” is pure Beach Boys, but Cowan augments it with an ear-popping 21st-century affect that Brian Wilson probably wishes he could have invented 50 years ago but most certainly did not.

Cowan fronted the Manchester band Carlis Star during the latter ’00s. Record/Start, a solo project, came into being in 2014. “Rock From Afar” has been bumping around the internet for a few weeks, in advance of its official double-sided single (on cassette) release next month, via Post/Pop Records. Thanks to Insomnia Radio for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Centimeter (soaring power pop)

“Push Me Over” is a particular kind of power pop, which might be usefully labeled power power pop for its husky edge and determined drive

Centimeter

“Push Me Over” – Centimeter

A magical pseudo-genre that has never quite arrived nor disappeared, power pop exists through sheer force of will. At least since the Records assured us that the writ has hit the fan, if not before, there have been musicians who want to write songs that do this, whatever “this” exactly is. I’ve opined intermittently on the elusive charm of power pop (see in particular the post accompanying the Power Pop, Vol. 1 playlist), but every time a band rouses itself into full power pop mode, even now, at this disconcertingly late date, I feel energized and ready to wave the happy flag yet again. I mean, it was one thing for bands to offer up neo-power pop in the ’90s and early ’00s, but now that rock’n’roll has (who saw this coming?) been tickled to death by the cotton-ball assault of indie pop, bands that have the chutzpah to write melodic through-lines and play instruments (not to mention percussion) in three-dimensional space should be protected by the World Wildlife Fund.

Anyway: “Push Me Over” is a particular kind of power pop, which might be usefully labeled power power pop for its husky edge and determined drive; classic power pop often presents with a more obvious layer of sweetness. Yet sweetness is in the mix here too—in the background “oo-oos,” in the determined if not poignant piano line, in a chorus melody as plaintive as it is rousing, and perhaps most centrally (albeit also intangibly), in that lyrical lagniappe at the end of the verse, featuring the recurring phrase “if only for a while.” Through it all, singer Johan Landin proves once and for all that power pop is not merely an exercise for honey-toned tenors, as his expressive but controlled baritone delivers with its own kind of “what is the world coming to?” ache.

And maybe that’s the as-yet-undiscussed key to the mystery that power pop remains—that, at their best, power pop songs consistently exhibit this “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” pluck that, if not fully Beckettian, still pushes them deeper into the psyche than one might initially suspect they would go.

Centimeter, from Stockholm, were a quartet when first featured here on Fingertips in 2012, for the song “Motorhead”. They are now a trio. “Push Me Over” is a single that was released this summer, and it is the band’s first recording since their 2013 album 70.