While piano-based, the song’s musical palette expands in all directions, with textures both rough and intimate, accompanying a lyrical bombardment that feels all too real and up-to-the-minute, painting a picture of a culture on the brink of physical and emotional self-destruction.
As an artist, Amanda Palmer is such an deft navigator of our brave not-so-new social media world that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that she is a dynamic and gifted musician. The relentless energy with which she shares herself online in multi-faceted ways—creating one of the only robust and truly successful (both emotionally and financially) artist-fan communities of the 21st-century to date in the process—is as admirable as it is, to me, if I’m honest, exhausting-sounding. I can’t imagine how she manages a life that includes paying heed to 12,000 active online patrons, and would be skeptical if not outright cynical about her efforts were it not for that previously stated reality: she is a top-notch singer/songwriter/musician, and somehow (somehow) doesn’t let the potentially immolating realities of an artistic life lived on social media derail or cheapen her creative output.
Here’s her latest: a song, called “Drowning in the Sound,” that is as raw and scintillating as her best music can be, with an added wrinkle: the song was initially crowd-sourced, with the lyrical ideas and inspiration coming from 600 of her Patreon supporters. Oh, and she wrote it as part of a two-day songwriting exercise in August 2017. While piano-based, the song’s musical palette expands in all directions, with textures both rough and intimate, accompanying a lyrical bombardment that feels all too real and up-to-the-minute, painting a picture of a culture on the brink of physical and emotional self-destruction. It’s not fun, no; but the music, with its sophisticated, stop-start dynamics and Bush-ian theatricality, engages the spirit. Palmer’s voice, an agile alto with a spoken-word quality, is more than up to the wide-ranging performance, which includes portions rendered in falsetto, as if things weren’t dramatic enough. I guess if I’m going to hear about the end of the world, I’d rather it come from a song than from cable news: there’s something in the singing and the craft of it that manages yet to inspire hope, which is a crucial element in any effort any of us can take to rescue humanity from prospects that here in 2019 look on the dim side.
“Drowning in the Sound” was originally released in September 2017 as a fund-raiser for victims of Hurricane Harvey. The song has resurfaced recently as a lead single for Palmer’s first album in six years, There Will Be No Intermission, which will be released on March 8, 2019, which is International Women’s Day. MP3 via KEXP.
The plucky ukulele riff that opens this one, as steadfast and persistent as ukulele riffs often are, hints not at the muscular romp to follow. But after the intro and a preliminary uke-backed verse, the band kicks in, and drives “Unleashed” forward with a gleeful vigor. That terrific bit of syncopation she dishes out at the end of each short verse—spelled out first in the ukulele prelude, starting at 0:20—adds to both the glee and the vigor.
“Unleashed” appears to be about rising up in resistance to injustice, and if so, it is surely one of the friendlier-sounding protest songs I’ve heard. The ukulele helps, to begin with. But Fellows herself has one of those congenial singing voices, a singing voice with the approachable tone of a speaking voice. It’s actually perfect for a protest song; she makes you inherently want to join in.
The lyrics add to the welcoming vibe. She positions resistance to tyranny as not merely humane but joyful; one line that stands out, both for its tone and its content, is: “We enrage our enemies/With rousing elegies.” I could not help but think of President Obama here, how the right wing extremists could listen to his eloquent calls for justice and respond only with unheeding rage. Fellows frames this crazy-making situation with such good-natured zest that it reinforces the important idea that we are not responsible for the reactions of others, only for our own actions. Which means: keep it up with the rousing elegies.
If “Unleashed” is a resistance pep talk, the Winnipeg-based Fellows doesn’t, in the end, shy from somber reality. Her final words, over a portentous drone from the cello, are “And the tide is rising.” On the one hand, she may be referring to the tide of the resistance, but the words unflinchingly bring climate change to mind. In other words, the tide of resistance had better be rising, and soon. She can rouse us into action with a good-spirited zing of a song but let’s remember the stakes.
“Unleashed” is a track from Roses on the Vine, Fellows’ seventh album, in a recording career dating back to 2000. She was actually one of the earlier artists featured on Fingertips, appearing back in August 2004. Her new album, released last month, is available in name-your-price fashion via Bandcamp.
photo: Lesandra Dodson
The easy glide of the music, propelled by a melodic, rubbery bass line, disguises the open-ended harmonics on display, as melodies manage to flow and lack resolution at the same time.
Laura Burhenn, doing musical business as The Mynabirds since 2010, has emerged as one of indie rock’s fiercest truth-tellers, and this song, although released in August, becomes more relevant by the day.
I’d rather have cuts on my knees
Than blood in my mouth
From biting my tongue
And keeping it down
“Shouting at the Dark” is one of nine songs that Burhenn wrote and recorded in the immediate aftermath of January’s inauguration and the Women’s March that followed. The title alone speaks volumes as the United States has been plunged into an amoral miasma that seems now the inevitable consequence of capitalism finding its most reliable partner in widespread stupidity. Anyone with a heart still beating in his or her chest is shouting at the dark for the better part of the day these days.
The easy glide of the music, propelled by a melodic, rubbery bass line, disguises the open-ended harmonics on display, as melodies manage to flow and lack resolution at the same time. Guitars blend effortlessly with synthesizers, with a human touch consistently reasserting itself into the groove—I like, as an example, that little three-note background tweak we hear at 1:12. I like too the thoughtful, scaled-down guitar solo we get instead of a full catharsis at 2:28. Throughout I have the sense that Burhenn is at once welcoming and challenging us, much as she does in a video that dares to show the singer/songwriter dancing with a troupe of women who neither move nor look like professional dancers but (god forbid!) real-life women.
“Shouting at the Dark” is a track from the album Be Here Now, released in August on Saddle Creek Records. You can listen to some of it and buy it (including on vinyl) via Bandcamp. Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XxbG_Ili0NM MP3 via KEXP. This is the Mynabirds’ fourth appearance on Fingertips, dating back to 2010.
“Smoke ‘Em Out” is a righteous if elusive protest song, presented in a beautifully sculpted environment.
“Smoke ‘Em Out,” when released back in January, was positioned as a protest song, timed as it was to coincide with the massive Women’s March on Washington, the day after the U.S. president* was elected*. And you can surely sense righteous and rightful anger and frustration here. But as protest songs go, this one is elusive at best. The lyrics, as often with CocoRosie songs, scan as randomly associated words (but scan they do; the Casady sisters are masters of rhythmic authenticity), and together add up to little more than an intriguing mystery. But hell if they say this is a protest song, I’m all in. We need as many of them as we can muster.
We also need as many talented and idiosyncratic musicians as Bianca and Sierra Casady as we can encourage. Doing musical business as CocoRosie since 2004, the sisters have consistently trafficked in a quirky but captivating sound that blends a dizzying variety of musical elements together into something unusually gripping. While pundits like to point out their proclivity at creating an unusual mix of the lo-fi and the tightly produced, the amalgam of theirs I find personally gratifying is their simultaneous commitment to eccentricity and accessibility. This strikes me as a rare treat in today’s musical landscape, which has tended to polarize towards the almost fascistically formulaic on the one hand and the blatantly outre on the other.
Glitchy percussion, child-like synth lines, appealing chord washes, “Smoke ‘Em Out” has all of that just in the ear-catching introduction. When the lyrics start, the song incorporates Bianca’s rap-like delivery into a beautifully sculpted aural environment. The Casadys’ long-time friend Anonhi brings her distinctive voice to the impressively succinct chorus, but I think it’s actually Bianca’s lines after Anonhi sings (first heard at 1:42) that seals this song’s triumph. Her singing voice is here processed in an old-school, megaphonic way, and while mimicking the precision of her rapped verses in her first sung line, in the second line she holds back and releases her words exquisitely behind the beat; that this lyric coincides with a sneaky musical resolution has a lot to do with how satisfying the song feels.
Based in France, CocoRosie has been featured on Fingertips twice previously: in March 2007 and in April 2010. Longtime friends with Anonhi, the sisters previously worked with her on 2013’s Tales of a Grass Widow. Their most recent album was 2015’s Heartache City. “Smoke ‘Em Out” is so far a single only. MP3 via KEXP.
Stompy, sultry, vaguely threatening. A rave-up of a protest song. Prescient and relevant and delightful.
Stompy, sultry, and vaguely threatening, “Generals” is a wondrous rave-up of a protest song. And given that this was released last month, and recorded however many weeks or months before that, it sounds positively prescient. They might want to be singing this one in Texas, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and everywhere else that male politicians have been medievally attempting to trample on the rights of living, breathing citizens who happen to be women. “Calling all my generals, my daughters, my revolutionaires/We’ve got strength in numbers and they’re going to pay for it.” We can only hope. And I mean pay for it in November, at the ballot box, just to be clear.
I am an unabashed fan of Laura Burhenn, the Mynabirds’ Omaha-based front woman/mastermind—two songs from the 2010 debut album were featured here, in January and May of that year. (She also stopped by, virtually, for a Q&A in April.) I love her dusky, hungry voice, and how she embraces and embodies the past to create such spirited sounds in the here and now. “Generals,” all bass and war drum, has a harder edge than anything on the debut album, even as it retains a sense of poise and playfulness. It seems at once memorable and hard to get a grip on, probably because of how the verses chug to an adamant backbeat while the chorus, without effecting a time signature change, grinds to a heavy, half-time chant of a melody; and then the catchiest part turns out not to be in either the verse or the chorus, but is that “Haven’t I paid my dues?” bit between the two. Keep listening to this one, it burrows into the soul.
“Generals” is the first track made available from the Mynabirds forthcoming album of the same name, due out on Saddle Creek Records in June. MP3 via Magnet Magazine, or Burhenn will give you the download herself if you join her mailing list.
photo credit: Shervin Lainez