When Cleveland begins the verse, her reverbed voice mimicking the slide guitar, she luxuriates in the deliberate pace of the melody, and in the general lonesome-western vibe, even as the acoustic guitar continues its tense support.
So one thing I’ve learned after reviewing songs here for the past (now) 16 years is that one of my signature sweet spots is when contradictory elements coexist in one piece of music. An easy example of this from the realm of pop music is a song that sounds happy but has sad lyrics.
Another example: songs with slow melodies and fast accompaniments—such as this one, from Shana Cleveland. Note that musical juxtapositions such as this often happen a bit below conscious recognition. For instance, only after sitting down to write this, a process that involves a lot of close listening, did I actively notice what was going on musically beyond a basic “Hey! I like this!” Once I was paying closer attention, however, I found that the song announces itself right from the start, with that leisurely slide guitar motif working against a rapid-fire acoustic guitar, mixed far enough down that the ear picks it up more as rhythm than notes or chords. When Cleveland begins the verse (0:18), her reverbed voice mimicking the slide guitar, she luxuriates in the deliberate pace of the melody, and in the general lonesome-western vibe, even as the acoustic guitar continues its tense support. Once you notice it it’s not subtle at all, but because a piece of music by necessity presents itself as a whole—the ear is forced to listen in real time—separate elements are easy to overlook, whether in isolation or in conjunction with other elements. This is in fact precisely what I make an effort to listen for in doing these reviews; my intention all along has been less to say “I like this” (anyone can do that) than to try to tease out as precisely as possible what it is I’m liking about it.
Another enjoyable bit of subtlety in “Face of the Sun” is how the verse and the chorus are differentiated more by choices in accompaniment than in melody or structure—first, the introduction of backing harmonies (0:56); and second, the insertion of a conspicuous chord change in between the two sections of lyrics (1:10-1:13). This is surely as nuanced a way to say “Here’s the chorus” as you are usually likely to hear. Even in its closing moment, the song offers us a subtle gesture: that descending guitar line starting at 3:21, four notes long, strongly implies one last resolving note that it pulls up short of delivering. And yet as that last note is held for a few seconds, the ear manages to hear resolution in that unresolved. This is a very subtle effect, which I may be entirely imagining, but it feels aligned with the song’s sense of playful mystery, so there you are.
Shana Cleveland, based in Seattle, is the lead guitarist and vocalist for the group La Luz (who have been featured here previously, in February 2013). “Face of the Sun” is a track from her recently released second solo album, Night of the Worm Moon. You can listen to a few more songs from the album, and buy it (digital, CD, vinyl, cassette) on Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.
At once woozy and perky, “I Bet High” presents us with a brief but much-needed shot of good spirit and motion to counter the tar pit of despair many of us have fallen into since 11/9.
“I Bet High” – Pop & Obachan
At once woozy and perky, “I Bet High” presents us with a brief but much-needed shot of good spirit and motion to counter the tar pit of despair many of us have fallen into since 11/9. But blink and you’ll miss this one: no sooner does the listener feel fully embraced by the chunky, freewheeling vibe then the song plunks to a close.
So while I like this a lot there is no hiding the fact that “I Bet High” is an odd song, with an ad hoc feeling to both structure and texture. The tinkly electric guitar sounds like some kind of far-away-in-time instrument; Emma Tringali sings with a tone mixing come-hither-ness and a playful shove, awash in reverb; and the entire song bounces along without much of a rudder—the verses melt into a charming if woolly indistinctness, while the chorus glides through our awareness before we even realize that’s what we just heard. In the end, the song’s playful, “look-at-what-I-just-found” sensibility is central to its appeal. Put it on repeat and enjoy.
Pop & Obachan is a studio duo and a six-piece live band, led by Tringali and Jake Smisloff and based in upstate New York. “I Bet High” is a track from their debut album, entitled Misc. Excellence, which was recorded in their apartment on a tape deck and released last month. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp. Thanks to the band for the MP3. [MP3 no longer available.]
This quiet, off-kilter electric ballad all but hypnotizes me, for reasons I’m still unraveling.
This quiet, off-kilter electric ballad all but hypnotizes me, for reasons I’m still unraveling. I like the cold opening, I like the smoky clarity of Jeni Magana’s voice, how she uses reverb to add texture without adding muddiness, and I feel especially engaged by the low-register electric guitar work, breathing a nonchalant semi-atonality into the bottom of the mix. Everything is simple-sounding, and it’s a short song, but it glides by without giving you a firm handhold to breathe out during. This is a fetching dynamic; I have gladly kept this on repeat for quite a while.
Jeni Magana is a Brooklyn-based musician doing musical business, succinctly, as Magana. “Get It Right” is the lead track on her debut EP, entitled Golden Tongue, which was released last week on Audio Antihero Records. Magana was previously in the Brooklyn band Oh Odessa, which released one album in 2012.
You can both listen to Golden Tongue and purchase it via Bandcamp. MP3 once again via Magnet Magazine.
A slowed-down girl-group number with both nostalgic flair and the spark of unfamiliarity.
Current indie rock nodding aurally to late ’50s or early ’60s rock’n’roll has become commonplace, although I’m still getting a kick out of it, because first of all I never anticipated it and second of all it’s a fun sound, especially for anyone who likes a good tune with his or her music. Many of the melodies that pre-Beatles songwriters wrote sounded resolutely similar to one another but melodies they were, and if a new generation of musicians sees fit to excavate the vibe to see what charms may remain, I for one will not wag my finger and scold them for not being “new” enough.
“Call Me in the Day” is a kind of slowed-down girl-group number, the days-of-yore production limitations mimicked here by the reverb-enhanced lo-fi setting; add the slinky bass and the punctuation of echoey, low-register guitar riffs, which bring surf-rock undertones to the proceedings, and all sorts of nostalgia is in the air. And yet a spark of unfamiliarity shines through. First, the rhythm section grabs the ear, the way the old-school bass line is paired with a humble but decisive snare drum, the drum less supportive than finding its own way in the empty spaces. This brings a band awareness to music that had been previously crafted by non-performing songwriters. And what really snaps me to attention are the harmonies, beginning at 0:39. There’s something abruptly pure and clean about the sound of the two women here singing together that both transcends the muddier feeling of the production and ties it all together. The interplay of the voices now justifies the song’s leisurely pace. It just feels good. And then comes an 80-second instrumental break, and by then I’m so on board with the slinky groove that this feels good too. I’ve talked in the past about the pleasures of finding latitude in short songs by cutting back on verses and adding instrumental breaks; this is an upstanding example of that.
La Luz was founded in Seattle just last year. Their first recording was the EP Damp Face, which was released in September. “Call Me in the Day” is the lead track; it was recently made available as a free and legal MP3 via Fullerton, Calif.-based Burger Records, which this week re-released Damp Face as a cassette. You can hear the whole EP, and purchase it, via Bandcamp.
Those of you who may be tired of the 21st-century music scene’s relentless worship of beat over musical substance might find a way out with SVIIB.
It was last year at this same time that School of Seven Bells unveiled their two-person versus three-person incarnation—a personnel change with more import than most since SVIIB was therein losing one of the two identical twin vocalists who together were central to the band’s indelible sound. As it turned out, one Dehaza (Alejandra stayed, Claudia left) was certainly better than none, and the band’s glistening swirl of rhythm, electronics, guitar, and voice remained intact, as we saw from “The Night,” the lead track from duo’s Ghostory, which was released in February.
Less than a year later comes an EP, Put Your Sad Down, with five new songs (four originals, plus a cover of the ’60s underground psychedelic classic “Lovefingers”). This is a band with something to say, and a singular way to say it; they take the 21st-century predilection for glitchy beats and shoegazey reverb and transmute it into something powerful and timeless. While the band has not abandoned its fondness for muscular soundscapes, there is at the same time something pleasantly minimalist about the texture this time—Dehaza’s voice feels more exposed here (listen at 1:39, for example), the instrumental layers more precise. Band mate Benjamin Curtis seems largely to have put his guitar down on this tune, opting for a boppy low end, featuring the robust bounce of a kinetic bass synthesizer. Those of you who may be tired of the 21st-century music scene’s relentless worship of beat over musical substance might find a way out with SVIIB—even as their melodies scan more like incantations than flowing tunes, they never seem to lose touch with the musical nature of, well, music. The band’s prevailing uniqueness remains itself an impressive accomplishment.
SVIIB is based in New York City, and has been previously featured on Fingertips in November 2008 and, as mentioned above, in December 2011. You can listen to the whole Put Your Sad Down EP via SoundCloud; purchase it via Amazon. MP3 via Epitonic (just like the old days!). (Note that the MP3 may not work with the Fingertips ex.fm player here but it definitely exists and can be downloaded.)
A reverbed composition centered on an elegiac, six-note descending melody, with all sorts of vague ghosts from rock’n’roll past floating through the soundscape.
Off a hauntingly familiar piano riff—“Cold as Ice,” maybe, but backwards—“Observations” launches into a reverbed composition centered on an elegiac, six-note descending melody. Minor-key, of course. All sorts of vague ghosts from rock’n’roll past float through the soundscape, as typically happens when the Raveonettes come to town. (I will remind you that the duo’s very name is rooted deep-down in rock’n’roll history: The “Rave On”-ettes.) A good part of the group’s charm is that one is never sure what particular musical obsession will catch their interest at any given time. In addition to bursting on the scene with a major-label debut intent on somehow mashing together My Bloody Valentine and Buddy Holly (My Buddy Valentine?), this is a band that recorded their entire first release in the key of B-flat minor, and then their next album (the aforementioned major-label debut) all in the key of B-flat major.
This time around we appear to be in the ’70s, maybe. Beyond the inverted Foreigner riff, “Rhiannon” is in the air. At first the guitar has an Eric Clapton-ish aspect (e.g., 0:49, 1:09). But then the fuzzy/hazy guitars—nothing ’70s about them—make their entrance, and the cross-pollination begins, full of that special kind of elusive white noise that lets you know this is in any case a Raveonettes record. Male vocalist Sune Rose Wagner takes the lead here, his buzzy tenor dripping with reverb, with partner Sharin Foo floating Christine McVie-ishly in the background.
“Observations” is the semi-lead track from the band’s upcoming album, Observator, which is due out on Vice Records in September. The album is the band’s sixth, or seventh, if you count their eight-song debut as an album rather than an EP. It was recorded with producer Richard Gottehrer at Hollywood’s Sunset Sound recording studio, where any number of ’60s and ’70s classics were born, including Pet Sounds, Exile on Main Street, and albums by the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, and Neil Young. This is the fourth time the band has been featured on Fingertips, with a first appearance dating all the way back to the dark days of 2003.
MP3 via Vice Records. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.
“The Wrecking Ball Company” both pulls you in and develops slowly. Somehow you don’t mind.
Fingertips favorite Marissa Nadler returns with a swaying ballad sung over a mournful, triplet-based accompaniment (ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, that is). While the music is inspired by the classic blues progression, a wonky chord slips in to keep your ears shiny; meanwhile, the rhythm is torchy and the mood spooky-gorgeous. Nadler lives in the spooky-gorgeous, with a dollop of reverb.
“The Wrecking Ball Company” both pulls you in and develops slowly. Somehow you don’t mind. It’s just guitar and voice for the first almost-minute. And then we arrive, at 0:54, at the song’s signature moment: first we get a muted gong-like cymbal roll and then Nadler hits a high C-sharp with a wordless “Oooh.” If you’re listening with the right kind of attentive inattention, your spine should tingle right about then. If not, go back and try again. Another moment of note: 1:31, when the bass and drum officially start keeping the beat you were already keeping in your head. The song right here is in an interesting place—the verse has kind of ended but then extends unexpectedly before cycling us through the introductory arpeggios again (complete with wonky chord). As the second verse starts, the simple addition of the sparse rhythm section deepens the song’s sad sway, which deepens again when we get to the second instance of the C-sharp “Oooh” (2:37), wrapped now in elusive harmony, which includes both Nadler’s own voice and that of Mike Fiore, a fellow Boston singer/songwriter, who records as Faces on Film. Fiore’s voice is blended in such a way as to add to the sound without quite registering as a male harmony. We’ll hear more from him—subtly—during the song’s lovely minute-long vocal coda, featuring a series of wordless melodies over some ghostly guitar work and slippery chord changes. I never anticipated how Radiohead-like Nadler might be able to get but here you are. Pretty sweet.
“The Wrecking Ball Company” is from an eight-song album entitled The Sister, which came out at the end of May, and serves as a subtle companion work to her self-titled album of 2011. Both albums were self-released on Nadler’s Box of Cedar label. This is Nadler’s fourth time here, having been previously in 2007, 2009, and 2011. MP3 via Spinner.
“Ivory Coast” floats along on a gentle bed of guitar and percussion, in an atmosphere at once muddy and lucid.
Sweet, unhurried, and reverby, “Ivory Coast” floats along on a gentle bed of guitar and percussion, its purposeful melody sung with an engaging mix of muddiness and clarity. The verse opens with singer Sarah Versprille sounding a bit far back in the mix, but harmonies added in the second half of the line (0:17) seem to sharpen her presence even as the vocal layers remain kind of blurry and indistinct. That’s kind of a cool trick, actually.
Another cool trick: the verse’s opening melody is seven measures long, an unusual and ear-catching length. The melody then repeats, this time in ten measures, another unusual length. This isn’t anything you will necessarily be aware of, but it adds to the song’s depth and character. In the chorus, we get a twist not only on length of melody (five measures this time) but with time signature, as one measure of six beats is inserted, coinciding with the song’s defining chord change (first heard at 0:54-0:56). With the elusive air of a major-minor alternation, the chord change is concise and melodramatic, and yet comes and goes with an insouciance that almost makes you feel as if you didn’t hear it right. And speaking of chord changes, another signature moment is a chord change added to the second line in the second verse, at 1:33. It comes and goes quickly, but leaves a penetrating aftertaste. This is one artful song.
Versprille and band mate Daniel Hindman became Pure Bathing Culture upon moving from New York City to Portland in early 2011. They played their first show in January 2012. “Ivory Coast” is from the duo’s debut, self-titled EP, which was released this week on Father/Daughter Records. And to show you how well-crafted this song is, check out the simple, acoustic, un-reverby version the two of them perform for the music site Natural Beardy:
Buzzy, reverby gorgeousness.
A masterly slice of buzzy, reverby gorgeousness, “Kill For Love” is half Jesus & Mary Chain/New Order mashup, half resplendent dance-club shimmer. There are bleepy, twittery synthesizers, scronky guitars, a rigorous (but seemingly handmade) drumbeat, instrumental melody lines, and a fuzzed-up soundscape. On top of it all we get the subtly radiant voice of Ruth Radelet, who sings without pretension and with a wonderful touch of smoke.
Overall the song seems built on a series of simple gestures that read aurally as elegant. An example is in the drumming, and how the song begins with a distinct, pulse-like pounding, which unconsciously draws us in with its heart-related sonic imagery. At 0:49, an insistent high-hat adds a metallic blur, out of which a number of new background sounds emerge. This is not complicated but it is incisive. More songs would be this relatively simple if they knew how; it’s kind of like that old saw about how I would’ve written you a shorter letter but I didn’t have the time.
Chromatics is/are (so difficult to select the right verb form in this case) a Portland, Ore.-based band that began as a punk-rock outfit in Seattle in 2002. Personnel changes led to a major reboot in 2007, with the album Night Drive, on the Italians Do It Better label, which introduced Radelet as vocalist and Johnny Jewel as the band’s mastermind. Kill For Love, released in March, continues in this mode. You can listen to the entire album, blended together without breaks between songs, via SoundCloud. If nothing else, be sure to check out the opening track, which is a splendid if unexpected reworking of Neil Young’s “My My Hey Hey (Into the Black).”
MP3 via SoundCloud; thanks to Pitchfork for the head’s up. And actually I was first alerted to this song via Matt Pond’s Twitter feed, so thanks to him too.
“Primitive Girl” doesn’t aim to change the world or blow your mind but it feels wise and it warms the heart, and there’s something to be said for that.
I’m not sure what makes M. Ward so M. Ward-y. I’m also not sure I’m a completely huge fan of M. Ward-iness; but the man without question has something going for him, and I find myself falling for some of his songs without completely knowing why. This is one of them.
So yeah we get those reverbed, slightly-processed, just-woke-up vocals. That’s an important part of the M. Ward sound. You can clearly picture the scruffy, pillow-crushed head of hair that goes along with the voice. We also get the brisk, no-nonsense musical setting that Ward likes to offer, in this case a percussive, immediately likable blend of keyboards and drums. Built upon the olden-days effect of beginning and ending each verse with the same two lines, “Primitive Girl” doesn’t aim to change the world or blow your mind but it feels wise and it warms the heart, and there’s something to be said for that. Note that the song wraps up within about two minutes, after which comes a wistful, Tom Waits-ish coda that, on the album, segues directly into the next track. As a standalone MP3, it ends abruptly, be forewarned.
“Primitive Girl” is a song from A Wasteland Companion, M. Ward’s seventh solo album, released this week on Merge Records. The album does feature She & Him compatriot Zooey Deschanel on a couple of tracks, but this one is all him, no she. MP3 via the good folks at 3hive.