Bittersweet & irresistible
With dusky charm and old-school vibes, “California Baby” is a bittersweet, irresistible head-bobber. Sometimes it’s just not complicated: a crisp, unassuming acoustic strum acquires percussion at 0:06, vocals two seconds later, and we’re off; this, friends, is how you handle an introduction if you have a modest ego and would rather not waste time. The moment Biell opens her mouth, the song coalesces around her warm, slightly-raspy tone, reminiscent of Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee) minus maybe a smidgen of edginess. The instrumentation, anchored by good-timey piano vamps, rocks and rolls with nostalgic panache, underscoring lyrics hinting at the isolation imposed by the pandemic and/or the poignancy of the unrecapturable past. You choose. An electric guitar twangs in for a quick solo halfway through but does not overstay its welcome. Nothing about this sad-breezy gem overstays its welcome, making it all the more welcome.
Based in Seattle, Carrie Biell released four LPs between 2001 and 2007, did a bunch of touring, and took time off in the 2010s to concentrate on being a mother to her newborn son. In 2016 she formed the band Moon Palace with her twin sister Cat. The band still exists, but the lockdown of 2020 and 2021 gave Biell both the time and the inspiration to write and record enough songs on her own to give rise to a new solo album. “California Baby” is a track from that forthcoming record, entitled We Get Along, which is scheduled for release in February.
Jangle and fuzz-driven anthem
From its evocative, unhurried introduction, an ear-catching blend of jangle and fuzz, “Stop Pretending” is an immediate success, a song so crafty and well-crafted that its origins—written and recorded in two days this April, under lockdown conditions—seem all but miraculous. The end result sounds to me like the pandemic’s first true classic, a song at once languid and incisive, both musically and lyrically:
This life is dangerous
There’s no need to build those walls
Our love is all we have
Who knows where we’re heading
The song offers no solutions but the notion that we must make the effort to be present with what actually is, and tap into our basic goodness, even when the bad people are being awful. The music feels like a balm to the soul, with Jessica Dobson’s guitar noise and distortion churning below a soothing melody and heartfelt vocals. The instrumental break at 2:39, all growl and gristle, is weirdly lovely. Guitars get the job done. Oh and don’t miss the dog at the very end.
Deep Sea Diver is the Seattle-based duo of Dobson and husband Peter Mansen. Dobson played all the instruments but the drums and the “noise synth”; she engineered and mixed the track as well. Deep Sea Diver has released two albums and two EPs to date. Dobson has played with Beck, Spoon, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, among other artists, and was a member of the Shins for a while in the early ’10s.
MP3 via KEXP. You can buy and support the band via Bandcamp; while there you can also explore the rest of their catalog.
With its lead vocals buried almost cartoonishly in reverb, “Awkward Waltz” displays a joyful zing greater than the sum of its garage-rock-y parts.
With its lead vocals buried almost cartoonishly in reverb, “Awkward Waltz” displays a joyful zing greater than the sum of its garage-rock-y parts. This may have a lot to do with the old-school organ that floats through the mix, and it may have to do with the inherent appeal of a minor-key melody presented in a foot-tapping context. Or, maybe it has to do most of all with the irrepressible “oh-oh-oh” vocal descent we hear throughout the song from Austin-born singer Maria-Elena Juarez, each time delivering a frisson of catharsis, surf-punk style.
In any case, this is half-goofy half-serious fun, a song with a seeming simplicity belied by its unabashed devotion to an aural landscape that sounds more and more timeless as each new half-generation rediscovers it. Listen to drummer Davy Berruyer (who is from France, for goodness’ sake) and remind me again why electronic percussion exists. I know there’s a good reason but it’s slipped my mind in the presence of such precise and evocative pummeling. Listen to Christopher Garland and recall for a brief shining moment why we all used to love electric guitars so much—fingers on steel, sounds squealing and bending in direct relationship to sheer physical force. Juarez, meanwhile, mirroring the lead guitar with her bass, both grounds the song and frees it to splay towards its roiling conclusion. (Note that the crucial, aforementioned keyboards are supplied here by Yann Cracker, drummer Davy’s French pal.)
Acapulco Lips (coined to play coyly off the word “apocalypse”) is a trio based in Seattle. “Awkward Waltz” is the lead track off its self-titled debut album, which was released in mid-April on the brand new (?!) record label Killroom Records. You can listen to the album and purchase it via Bandcamp.
A singularly satisfying piece of concise, four-piece, garage-flavored rock’n’roll that launches off a sweet, nostalgic guitar lick and lopes along with off-handed grace.
It’s easy to think of garage rock as muddy, loud, and hard-driving but that’s not the extent of the garage palette by any means. Within the general auspices of a raw sound and humble recording circumstances, a top-notch band can create many kinds of magic, the most reliable, to my ears, being that grounded in melodic flair. (This is something often overlooked: how unerringly melodic a lot of garage rock turns out to be.) And not everything has to be fast and loud. Here we have a singularly satisfying piece of concise, garage-flavored rock’n’roll that launches off a sweet, nostalgic guitar lick (or, interlacing licks) and lopes along with off-handed grace.
“Shoot My Mouth Off” hinges musically and viscerally on the major-to-minor modulation on which verse turns to chorus (first heard at 0:55); it’s here that the song’s generous embrace of rock’n’roll past and present feels most emphatic, here where singer Shane Herrell glides across the subtle threshold of greatness. Don’t miss the bass line’s important punctuation marks in the chorus, and note too that Herrell is the bass player. Bands with singing bass players, in my experience, often give us beautifully textured songs. And Bread & Butter sport a lineup I don’t think I’ve seen before: a foursome in which neither guitar player sings; not only does bassist Herrell take lead vocals but drummer Mason Lowe sings back-up. Don’t underestimate the musical value of this arrangement.
Bread & Butter is from Seattle, with five songs released to date. You can hear them all on the band’s web site. “Shoot My Mouth Off” dates back to February, and is available as free and legal MP3 via KEXP, which is where I first heard this.
Someone is still making something that can be called rock’n’roll.
While rock’n’roll has been dying as a cultural force since the turn of the millennium, the 2010s seem truly to be delivering the death blow. The sound of the music that the young and the trendy want to be listening to seems to have little to do with the sound of rock’n’roll (admittedly an amorphous and multifaceted concept by now anyway) and a whole lot more to do with the interrelated sounds of EDM and indie pop. And I’m not saying this as a judgment, I am merely reporting. If you want a clear sign, look no further than the venerable and ongoingly trend-savvy blog Gorilla vs. Bear, which was founded in the early ’00s as a bastion of indie rock, and has adroitly morphed into something rather different.
That said, however dead as a mainstream phenomenon, rock’n’roll is not finished as an artistic pursuit. There are always going to be those who want and need more organic sounds and performances than today’s EDM-fixated indie pop is interested in providing, and, thankfully, still bands out there stubborn enough to furnish it. Like the Seattle trio The Pharmacy, whose career has pretty much spanned rock’n’roll’s death-knell phase, as the threesome sprang to life in 2002 and, in August, will be releasing their fifth album, entitled Spells. “Masten Lake Lagoon,” an initial single from the album, is not only unapologetic rock’n’roll, it is unapologetically melodic and well-crafted. Which may not be our culture’s current sweet spot but is always mine. Buoyed by scratchy guitars, grounded by a deep and supple bass line, and highlighted by a brisk sing-along chorus, “Masten Lake Lagoon” also has the gumption to veer into an extended, multi-sectioned instrumental, which takes us from 1:20 all the way to 3:01, growing more riveting by the moment; the squall of guitars that closes it out all but brings me to my feet even as I just sit at my desk writing this.
Long live rock’n’roll, 21st-century style.
(The Pharmacy were previously featured on Fingertips in February 2012.)
Seattle singer/songwriter takes a star turn
“Swift Arrows” – Shelby Earl
With its slow, triplet-induced swing, “Swift Arrows” nods in the direction of the ’50s while staking out idiosyncratic 21st-century territory all its own. I don’t think I overstate my case to say that Shelby Earl has one of the best voices I’ve heard in my 10 years on call here at Fingertips—soft and hard and sweet and strong all at the same time, it’s a voice that does nothing obvious to call undue attention to itself, which makes her able, delicious yet elusive tone all the more effective, to my ears.
And she’s not just a voice; she’s an impressive songwriter too. I hear the song’s greatness pivoting on the moment when the titular phrase enters. The fuller phrase Earl sings is “one poison-tipped swift arrow,” but listen both to how the song is written and to how she negotiates the phrasing: the words “one poison-tipped” swoop dramatically, in relative alignment with the beat, while “swift arrow” veers irregularly, almost a melodic afterthought. And yet these last words grab the ear in a most affecting way, which I think has to do with how, as a singer, Earl manages on “arrow” to accentuate the first syllable (as one would merely speaking it) while extending the second both out and upward. This strikes me as tricky, and while I’m not sure she gave this any particular thought, it is the moment I return to over and over again. Beyond the singing and the songwriting, I’m likewise enjoying Damien Jurado’s production, with its curious union of the minimal and the baroque. There are strings, woodwinds, and deep dramatic bells and drums in the mix, and sometimes the sound rises to challenge—perhaps even to bait—Earl’s voice, but more often than not we’re just hearing those basic piano triplets in the background. The song even reduces to silence at one point (2:01). The end result is something both familiar and a little odd. Works for me, to say the least.
“Swift Arrows” is the title track to Shelby Earl’s second album, and I can confidently report that she is the real thing, a bona fide star, at least here in the Fingertips firmament. She was previously featured in October 2011 for the song “Evergreen,” and also stopped by for an notably thoughtful Q&A the next month.
The MP3 is no longer available but you can listen to the track here, via SoundCloud:
“The Value of Nothing” glows with the energy of something unfussed over.
With his throwaway stage name and kick-ass growl, Tucson-born, Seattle-based Eddie Spaghetti is not quite the rock’n’roller you’d expect to be writing a song based on an Oscar Wilde quotation he had just read (“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”) But I surely will not discourage serendipitous cultural intermingling; that’s kind of all I do here week after week.
Spaghetti reports that he read the quote while in Australia, knew it was a song, then wrote the thing back in his hotel room in about 20 minutes. “The Value of Nothing” glows with the energy of something unfussed over—uncomplicated on the one hand, highlighted on the other by the supplemental, unaffected touches that can happen when a creator isn’t over-thinking things. The song launches off a lonesome-prairie vibe produced by adding harmonica flourishes to a prog-rock-y electric guitar; after this, the ramshackle vigor is generated largely by a hoedown style acoustic guitar and dry, snare-filled drumming. (I like the little yelp that gets things going at 0:50.) Accentuating the itchy drive are lyrics sung largely in between the beats. But check out the chorus, and how he empowers offhanded phrases by now re-aligning with the beat:
You know the price of everything, don’t you honey
But it ain’t about, it ain’t about the money
I find something slippery attractive in the rhyming of the tossed-off half of these lines. One more sneaky-good thing here is how the electric guitar insinuates itself back into the song, culminating in a snaky solo (2:08) that feels like we’ve wandered into a trippy Outlaws song.
Spaghetti was born Edward Carlyle Daly III, and has been known previously as front man for the cowpunky garage rock band the Supersuckers. “The Value of Nothing” is the title track of his fourth solo album, but first album featuring all original songs. The new album is coming in mid-June on Bloodshot Records. You can download the song via the link above or over at SoundCloud. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.
The fuzzy, voluminous surface can’t disguise the catchy song lurking beneath, and obviously doesn’t want to.
The fuzzy, voluminous surface can’t disguise the catchy song lurking beneath, and obviously doesn’t want to. Listen, right at the start, to how that ominous electronic swell that opens the song delivers us first into a goth-y electronic beat and then into an instrumental melody—some kind of processed guitar, maybe?—with enough soaring and plummeting desire to break your heart (and don’t miss the extended “wrong” note it almost but doesn’t quite end on, at 0:36, which seems about perfect). This melody—succinct, well-crafted, and affecting—tells you just about everything you need to know about “No Fear,” and immediately sets it apart from the endless number of tunes I hear these days with long, introspective introductions in which nothing friggin’ happens.
And okay, I’ll avoid that particular soapbox for now (just barely), and get back to the various extroverted pleasures “No Fear” offers, which include: the way front man Danny Wahlfeldt sings from within a chorally muffle of distortion, which is oddly captivating for no good reason; the way the introduction’s fetching melody returns, in abbreviated form, in the middle of the song (1:31), something you don’t hear much of today largely because few songs bother with instrumental melody lines; and the general way Grave Babies here unites a variety of disconnected rock’n’roll genres from the ’80s and ’90s and ’00s, not all of which have been known for their pop sensibilities, into something concise and accessible.
“No Fear” is from the album Crusher, the band’s second, coming later this month on Hardly Art Records. Note that Grave Babies are not to be confused with the band Brave Baby, which was featured here in December.
photo credit: Angel Ceballos
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.
A fuzzy-buzzy mix of guitars and electronics, crafted by actual human hands.
A fuzzy-buzzy mix of guitars and electronics, “Coroner’s Office” succeeds where a lot of this kind of lo-fi fuzz-buzz (to my ears) fails, and this is because David Chandler and Leah Rosen may love the DIY thing but they also love the pop song thing. This is a real, complete song; even if partially electronic and programmed, it feels actually crafted by actual human hands. Developing over a sturdy, repeating four-chord progression, the same one for both the verse and the chorus, “Coroner’s Office” is generously sprinkled with delightful songwriting moments. Such as: the back-door, idiosyncratic hook we get here at the end of the verse with the repeating lyric “This is really real” (first heard at 0:39). And check out how the melody, which feels simple note to note, has the winsome tendency to leap up and down.
Note too how well Chandler’s blasé, wavering voice serves this kind of melody, and how well his phrasing serves the lyrics. Such as (0:57): “But you don’t know what she’s capable of/In the back of an old Chevrolet,” and listen to how he phrases that exactly as he might speak it, running the “know what she’s” part together whereas most singers would be tempted to accent the “know,” which makes sense singing but not talking. I appreciate too how his voice may be somewhat muffled but is still entirely present, the lyrics intelligible rather than turbid.
And then there are the tangential sounds, like the bright bell-like synth we get at 1:14 in the chorus, and then that wind-like synth that sweeps in at 1:50, and, further, that even more bell-like sound that chimes in at 1:58. This is what adds texture and heft.
The Seattle-based duo came together via Craigslist, each looking for a bandmate. Their mutual love of pioneering alternative rock bands (Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, New Order, Pavement, Jesus & Mary Chain, et al) spawned Lux in early 2010. A first EP emerged five months later. Their self-released debut album, We Are Not The Same, is coming in early April.
photo credit: The Ripper