Power pop is never too far below the surface here on Fingertips, and early-ish 2023 gives us another wistful/tuneful bit of the same, this time of the fuzzy/lo-fi variety. “Jennifer Valentine” is a song exquisitely in tune with itself, telling an archetypal story of unrequited love with the powerfully shy tenderness of an introverted teen-ager. Power pop is the perfect vehicle, as the genre all but aches with innocent, unrealized passion, with its characteristically sweet, succinct melodies, often tinged in minor keys, forever hinting at the despair that lurks below desire.
This representative power-pop vibe hinges frequently, if not always, upon a vocalist with some bit of sugar mixed with the melancholy (or melancholy mixed with the sugar, depending on the individual circumstance). On “Jennifer Valentine” it embodies via the awkward combination of hesitancy and assertion in singer/songwriter Charles Bert’s reedy, mixed-down delivery. That opening salvo about how the singer wrote the name of his beloved “a thousand times” is quintessentially middle-school (you need a handy notebook and pen, after all), as are the progressively grandiose sentiments the song expresses: the singer goes from “Your name should be up in lights/Above the city burning bright” to “Electromagnets realign/Whenever you were walking by.”
And let’s not overlook the flawless choice of name here, with its sing-song-y dual dactyls and guileless imagery; what after all is more innocent and passive-assertive than sending a valentine to someone you have a crush on? This song is a valentine to a Valentine.
Field School is the pandemic-induced solo project launched by Bert during lockdown; its initial output consisted of three five-song cassettes, which were eventually released as digital EPs in 2022. Bert has otherwise been a member of the Seattle-based band Math and Physics Club since 2004. “Jennifer Valentine” was originally on the Hey Satellite EP, released in April 2022; it reappears on the full-length When Summer Comes album, from November 2022, which collects recordings from the original cassettes onto one album. MP3 via KEXP.
(And hey if you are a power pop fan you might want to go back and check out my Power Pop playlists on Spotify, which aim to unite both classic and contemporary power pop into one seamless listen. You’ll see there that I enjoy stretching the genre a bit to get beyond the usual suspects: while every song on these mixes features sparklingly catchy, power-pop-infused melodies, not every song is going to be found on standard power pop playlists. (Which is just as well because a lot of standard power pop playlists are just plain off base. Don’t get me started.) Anyway: Volume 1 is here; you can look for Volumes 2 and 3 once you’re there. Note a news flash: the original studio recording of “Starry Eyes,” as seminal a power pop song as there is, is no longer available on Spotify. This should tell you all you need to know about the efficacy and stability of streaming if you’re a committed music fan. Use it but don’t count on it!)
One of the reassuring things about power pop, besides its indelible if elusive charm, is that it never quite goes away–largely because it never fully arrived in the first place: a relentlessly niche-y genre, power pop has yielded relatively few big hits over the decades. And although you may see a recurring set of words and phrases used in efforts to describe the sound–upbeat, melodic hooks, often of the sing-along variety; jangly and/or crunchy and/or chunky guitars; sweet-sounding vocals; concise songwriting–we always land eventually in “I know it when I hear it” territory.
So, even here in the year 2023, a good 50 years on from power pop’s formative era, the song “Forever Far Out,” from the veteran DC band Dot Dash, reads as power pop all the way: there’s the chunky guitar line, the upbeat ambiance, a lot of melodic resolution, sweet-toned vocals, and succinct craftsmanship, with the song clocking in under three minutes. Favoring melodies that repeatedly resolve is an underrated commonality among most power pop songs, and Dot Dash does that here before you know what’s hit you: the first verse unfolds in three lines, taking you from tension to resolution in 10 seconds flat. The chorus is a bit cagier on the resolution front but resolution still arrives, and is followed up with some wordless “oo-oos”–a feature, it should be noted, that is rarely out of place in power pop.
Bonus: there’s a bridge (1:39), apparently an endangered concept in 21st-century songwriting, and (extra bonus points) it’s an instrumental bridge, as in no singing. As with everything here it doesn’t waste time. That squalling guitar note that leads us back to the chorus is worth the price of admission, simply as something you pretty much never hear these days.
Dot Dash is a D.C.-based trio, formerly a quartet, with six previous albums to their name. “Forever Far Out” is the lead track from their seventh, entitled Madman in the Rain, released in November. You can check the whole thing out, and buy it, via Bandcamp. The band was previously featured on Fingertips in 2015; read the review and you’ll find out where the name came from and other fun facts. MP3 via the band.
The Beths’ front woman Elizabeth Stokes has one of those appealing, unassuming singing voices that conveys the illusion that she’s merely talking most of the time. The fact that she accomplishes this in the midst of something so noisy and melodic makes the effect all the more fetching. At their best this New Zealand foursome is deliriously likable.
“Silence is Golden” is the Beths at their most frenetic, which right away is a bit of a wink in a song with this particular title. Stokes sings of craving quiet in a too-loud world while her band crashes their way through two minutes and fifty-five seconds of hepped-up power pop, with its emphatic, punctuating drumming and scratchy guitar work. And it’s only fitting somehow that a song about the joys of silence leads into a clamorous guitar solo (2:03): 20 seconds of madcap squalling that will make your head spin.
“Silence is Golden” is the third of 12 tracks on the Beths’ new album, Expert in a Dying Field, all of which is worth hearing. Check it out, and buy it in a variety of formats if you like it, via Bandcamp. MP3 again via KEXP.
Following the introduction’s ringing, ricocheting guitar line, “Maybe” gets right to it: “Sanity/When will you come to me/Truly does nobody/See what’s all around.” I can relate. The troubled lyrics are delivered by a voice with a comfortable, power-pop purity to it, which reinforces the song’s dual nature, its vibe both itchy and leisurely, an effect embodied by the way the half-time melody is set against a deft, double-time bass line. What hits the ear is a song at once upbeat and melancholy.
Fed up with the state of the world and/or his relationship, the song’s narrator seeks solace in the tried and true; “Side two of Abbey Road/I’ve come to put you on,” he sings. The song’s denouement pays additional tribute: “And in the end,” we hear, “the love you generate/Hopefully will negate/The hate.” One can always hope.
Everything you hear here arrives courtesy of Paul Desjarlais, who is not merely the singer and songwriter but in fact the only member of the “band” Pseudonym—which is, come to think of it, quite the clever and effective stage name. “Maybe” is a track from Before The Monsters Came, the sixth album Desjarlais has recorded as Pseudonym, which was released in August. You can listen to it and buy it, digitally, via Bandcamp. MP3 via the artist.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
“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.
“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.
Seasonally evocative power pop
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.