“Flash of Light” – Tugboat Captain

Short and expansive, with bassoon

“Flash of Light” – Tugboat Captain

“Flash of Light” may be the most expansive, fully-developed two-minute song I’ve ever heard. It unfolds without any sense of hurry: fully 43 seconds of the two minutes operates as the introduction; there is, additionally, an instrumental break, an engaging structure, and a sophisticated sense of melody. At the same time, there is no chorus, which is one sly way to shorten a song. The imagistic lyrics are haiku-like in their brevity and allusiveness, hinting at unexplored depths with impressive conciseness–another way of creating an impression of something weightier than the time clock might seem to indicate.

Let’s get back to that drawn-out introduction. I’m not often a fan of long intros, and initially looked askance at the unusual intro/body-of-song ratio. But this one launches with a pleasing mixture of mystery and urgency: first, an in-the-distance keyboard pounding around some synth squiggles in a sort of pre-introduction; this swells at 0:21 into a more dramatic soundscape, a siren-like electric guitar now reinforcing the pounding motif; and everything now engaging the ear so thoroughly that the pull-the-plug ending at 0:42 feels momentarily disconcerting. But this drop is its own kind of wonderful, the song collapsing on the third beat of a measure idiosyncratically expanded to 6/4 as the singing starts. This might better be framed as a new, 2/4 measure, which adds emphasis to a melody otherwise being offered on the downbeat. In any case, what a melody it is, brought to melancholy life via the wistful tones of front man Alexander Sokolow, punctuated by some Beatlesque chord changes (cf. 0:46-0:48). Also, there’s a bassoon in here somewhere. The band has a bassoon player.

And hm–I risk explicating out of proportion to the song’s succinctness don’t I? It’ll only take two minutes of your time to investigate so go do. And maybe you’ll figure out on your own the location of “the first ever four-part bassoon drop in the indie-rock genre,” as noted by the band on their Bandcamp page. They take their bassooning seriously.

Tugboat Captain is a four-piece from London. “Flash of Light” is a single released in January. A second single, “Deep Sea Diving,” was released in mid-March. The band’s debut album, Rut, appeared in 2020. You can check everything out on Bandcamp.

“Slow Passage” – Thomas Charlie Pedersen

Upbeat melancholia

“Slow Passage” – Thomas Charlie Pedersen

Here’s another song that packs a lot of presence into a relatively short package. Like many people alert to life’s bittersweet qualities, I’m partial to minor-key compositions, so I’m on board here from the song’s opening arpeggios; syncopated finger picking adds to the appealing vibe of upbeat melancholia. Thomas Charlie Pedersen’s forthright vocal style recalls something intangible about rock’n’roll records from the late ’60s or early ’70s, and this elusive nostalgia, too, feeds the song’s bittersweet complexion.

The song’s aural impact, in fact, is strong enough to do what many great rock songs do, which is render lyrical specifics unnecessary: the sound of the words is not only enough but in its own way more necessary than intelligible meaning. I’m never sure if this aligns with a musician’s intention or not but I enjoy songs like this in which you can easily enough discern individual words and short phrases but can’t decipher the bigger picture lyrically speaking. This forces the listener away from concrete analysis and into a looser state of attentiveness, in which the song might more easily induce an emotional rather than an intellectual response.

Thomas Charlie Pedersen is a Danish musician who showed up last year on Fingertips as half of the sibling duo Vinyl Floor. “Slow Passage” is the third of 15 tracks on the album Employees Must Wash Their Hands, set for release next week. This will be Pedersen’s third solo album; Vinyl Floor, meanwhile, have five full-length releases to date. You can check out Pedersen’s previous albums on Spotify; the new one will be up there on April 14.

MP3 via the artist.

Free and legal MP3: Sløtface (wistful midtempo rocker)

So yes I guess every now and then I am engaged by a song’s lyrics, however much that is not normally the case for me here.

“New Year, New Me” – Sløtface

“New Year, New Me,” already pithily arranged, strips down even further, shortly after the halfway point, allowing front woman Haley Shea to draw attention to the following lyrics:

I keep playing my own therapist
And I’m convinced I’m good at it

Packed into these lines is the layered theme of this appealing midtempo rocker. With a blasé crispness suited to the matter at hand, Shea initially sings of the inevitable disappointments of unfulfilled new year’s resolutions. But this isn’t a cynical pity party. If, yes, we annually set ourselves up for failure by making new year’s resolutions in the first place, then maybe this inevitability is itself worth pondering. Most of us want to be better people but at some point have to confront the reality that you don’t get there via new year’s resolutions. Being convinced that one can be one’s own therapist is a poignant part of the wistful predicament, but recognizing that this is what one keeps trying to do is, maybe, a first step towards actual change. And maybe approaching the self with compassion rather than reproof offers a new hope, having nothing to do with making fated-to-fail “resolutions” (a word Shea does not in fact employ here).

So yes I guess every now and then I am engaged by a song’s lyrics, however much that is not normally the case for me here. As for the music, the first thing I like a lot is the laid-back lead guitar line, which comprises the introduction: it’s concise, melodic, and self-assured. The verse unfolds so casually as to seem spontaneous, with a couple of nicely-placed chord changes (e.g., 0:25), then launches into the chorus on a riff itself so understated as to be nearly nonexistent (0:37)—a musical reinforcement, perhaps, of the self’s predicament here: does stasis make change impossible, or is there some oh-so-gentle way to accept the self that can lead to transformation?

Sløtface is a band based in Stavanger, Norway. Although consistently identified as a punk pop (or a pop punk; is there a difference?) band, Sløtface (original name Slutface, and that’s still how you pronounce it), presents more accurately as a band that knows how to write and perform crafty, accessible rock songs, their guitar-laced volume consistently tempered by musical know-how and Shea’s approachable vocal style. Note that Shea has American parents, but grew up in Norway; the band’s other three members are Norwegian. “New Year, New Me” can be found on Sløtface’s new album, Sorry For The Late Reply, released late last month via Nettwerk/Propeller Recordings.

MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Liza Anne (concise, cathartic)

“Devotion” – Liza Anne

“Devotion” is a crashing wave of a song, two minutes and twenty-four seconds of concentrated intention, with Nashville’s Liza Anne singing about re-establishing her sense of self after a break-up. If she sounds more than a little agitated, it reflects the mindset of someone waking up to how diminished she had become within the relationship—working now, as she sings, to “find the bits of me I shook off/to appease you.”

Launching off a three-note bass line introduction, “Devotion” means business from the start, with as authoritative an opening line as I’ve heard in a while: “I’m gonna try because I need to/Be the woman who doesn’t need you.” Liza Anne’s voice is conspiratorial, fluttery, attention-grabbing; the music throbs and itches, with guitars scratching around the edges. The chorus lays out the song’s central thesis in an impressive 15-second journey from calm reflection (“Devotion/Return to me”) through expansive supposition (“Who I was before I was in love”) into cathartic, idiosyncratic declaration (“I’ll do anything for her now/She’s my longest love”)—the last lines, which refer to herself, an uninhibited outburst more spoken than sung, an endearing cross between Debbie Harry and Annabella Lwin, for you old-school folks.

By Liza Anne’s own account, “Devotion” was written in 10 minutes; there are occasionally arguments to be made, in rock’n’roll, for not over-thinking things. The song was released as a single back in October. Her debut album, Fine But Dying, dates back to October 2018; check it out via Bandcamp.

MP3 via The Current (see note below).

(MP3s from the Minneapolis public radio station The Current are available in files that are 128kbps, which is below the established 192kbps standard, not to mention the higher-def standard of 320kbps. I personally don’t hear much difference on ordinary equipment but if you are into high-end sound you’ll probably notice something. In any case I always encourage you to download the MP3 for the purposes of getting to know a song via a few listens; if you like it I as always urge you to buy the music. It’s still, and always, the right thing to do.)

Free and legal MP3:Coincidence Bizarre (sleek, sonorous hip-hop)

A concise and atmospheric number from an anonymous Los Angelese-based ensemble.

Coincidence Bizarre

“Invisible Man” – Coincidence Bizarre

“Invisible Man” is a concise and atmospheric number from a group or ensemble or collective that calls itself Coincidence Bizarre. Outside of their location in Los Angeles, the folks behind this effort are keeping themselves purposefully hidden. Meaning, I can’t even paper over my congenital lack of hip-hop knowledge with information about the artist. With an upfront understanding that my musical affinities are rooted in melody and therefore my ears have always felt at sea in the hip-hop world, I find myself engaged by the sleek and sonorous “Invisible Man.”

Why? Not exactly sure. I like the gentle texture of its careful construction, the way there is always something of aural interest happening but without melodrama or turgidity. I like the wit on display. Even just the way it starts, with something resembling a jazz guitar noodle, gives me a good feeling. As a bonus, my ear notes not one but two hooks, one with lyrics (the “Skip along, Sam” part) and one instrumental (the little run on that same guitar, immediately following [e.g., 0:42]). And I do not at all underestimate the simple power of an appealing voice in this context. For better or worse (and it’s probably an age thing), the aural character of what strikes me as a typical rapper’s voice has been a longstanding turn-off for me. The sound to my ear is bratty and self-involved. (Just for context, I didn’t much like the bratty and self-involved vocal character of someone like Johnny Rotten either.) The rapper here, whoever he is, conveys depth and spirit, humanity and complexity. I want to listen to him, and he layers his voice within a cunning amalgam of samples, effects, and surprises. Don’t miss the eerie insertion of something choral-sounding in the mix (around 1:56) as the song trips along to its conclusion.

“Invisible Man” is the A side of a single released in mid-May. It is the only Coincidence Bizarre release to date.

Free and legal MP3: Mascott (succinct pop rock, nicely sung)

“Cost/Amount” is a tight little package of a song, with a pop-rock heart that feels either anachronistic or timeless here in 2013 (it’s a fine line sometimes), but it is Kendall Jane Meade most assuredly who holds it together.

Kendall Jane Meade

“Cost/Amount” – Mascott

We begin with an emphatic one-two punch: an itchy guitar line borrowed from 1979 and a lead vocal of heart-melting purity. Kendall Jane Meade has one of those voices that makes me stop in my tracks—all the more so because she doesn’t stop in hers; she sings with a fetching matter-of-factness I much prefer to the vocal preening we often get from people who know they have a good voice.

The entire song is a wonderfully matter-of-fact exercise, in fact: verse-chorus-verse, with an instrumental break, all finished in little over two minutes. It’s a tight little package of a song, with a pop-rock heart that feels either anachronistic or timeless here in 2013 (it’s a fine line sometimes), but it is Meade most assuredly who holds it together. In the right frame of listening mind, small moments of phrasing can be thrilling; me, I love how Meade ever so slightly delays the word “pity” (0:21), I love how plumply she manages to sing the not-easily-singable word “cost” (first at 0:35), and I love the one time she lets her voice unleash a tiny bit, in the phrase “clearer to me” (0:51), and how that moment highlights the clarity of words to follow like “wrong” (0:59) and “song” (1:01). It can be the small, small moments that turn a small song into something deep and delightful.

“Cost/Amount” is one of four songs on the Cost/Amount EP, released this week on Kiam Records, the New York-based label founded and run by singer/songwriter Jennifer O’Connor. Meade has been performing as Mascott since back in 1998, and has worked additionally with lots of other folks, including Sparklehorse, the Spinanes, and Helium. One interesting bit of music industry trivia is that Meade herself used to run Red Panda Records and once upon a time (okay, in 2005) released a Jennifer O’Connor album there. (Bonus trivia: a song from that album was featured here at the time; we come full circle, sort of.) The Cost/Amount EP by the way features three other songs, one of which is a fetching cover of “They Don’t Know,” one of Kirsty MacColl’s lasting gifts to the world.

photo credit: Debora Francis

Free and legal MP3: Connections (stellar lo-fi power pop)

“Mall Lights” is one of a series of lo-fi power pop gems on the band’s debut album, Private Airplane.


“Mall Lights” – Connections

In classic science fiction, everything in the future was always new. Even though the present moment of our actual experience always incorporates sights and sounds and objects and ideas from generations, even centuries, gone by, that reality was typically overlooked by writers and directors creating imaginary futures in science fiction novels and movies. Blade Runner notably shattered that perspective, and things have been a little better since. But the idea that the future must somehow be purely new, jettisoned of all previous history, remains a resolute mindset among a certain type of cyber zealot—the one who likes to stomp around calling anyone with any interest in attitudes and artifacts from the pre-digital age a “dinosaur,” a “Luddite,” or “afraid of change.” This person is a buffoon. Real-life human society does not discard its past whole-hog; the only way we truly grow, collectively, in fact, is to learn from our past, and, quite often, to preserve helpful ways of being and doing precisely because they will help us even in the face of changing circumstances.

And so, you see, for all of the new sounds and innovative devices that have flooded the music world over the last 15 years, and for all the new micro-genres they have generated, there will always, in our lifetime at least, be people somewhere making music like this—people who plug their guitars into their amps and have a go at it. A lot of these people will produce music too redundant or too derivative or too uninspired to be worthy of attention. But then there will be the occasional band like Connections, a quintet from Columbus, Ohio, who plug their guitars into their amps, set up their drum kits, and wowee—the ears smile, the heart gladdens, and for two minutes or so at a time, all is right with the world. “Mall Lights” is one of a series of lo-fi power pop gems on the band’s debut album, Private Airplane. What makes this one work particularly well above and beyond the jangly guitars, resolute backbeat, and fuzzy ambiance is the song’s all but unending hookiness. The verse grabs me immediately with its grounded, NRBQ-ish musicality, its major-minor shifts, and its adroitly employed power chords. And yet this is mere set-up for the sublime chorus, which artfully skips the first beat of each measure until (0:45) its tail section wraps the tune up with a brilliant bow.

Connections didn’t invent any of this stuff; I’m guessing that fans of Guided by Voices in particular will hear a lot of that Ohio institution’s work in the lo-fi poppiness on display here. Note that Connections features two guys from 84 Nash, a defunct Columbus-based band whose 1997 debut was released by GBV patriarch Robert Pollard’s Rockathon record label, as well as one guy from the band Times New Viking. But as with any good music, however influenced by past masters, the end product transcends its roots. This is time-tested music produced by time-tested musicians, and the world is a better place for it.

Private Airplane was released in January on Columbus-based Anyway Records. Thanks to the band for the MP3, which is a Fingertips exclusive at this point.

Free and legal MP3: The Pharmacy (garage rock, w/ aspirations)

“Dig Your Grave” packs an unusual amount of variety into a two-minute song that might at least partially pass for garage rock.

The Pharmacy

“Dig Your Grave” – The Pharmacy

This is almost not a song. A scant two minutes to start with, “Dig Your Grave” uses the first 40 seconds on its three-part introduction. Then we hear an engaging, They Might Be Giants-esque verse and a very concise chorus (the words “Dig your grave” repeated three times) before returning to 20 or so more seconds of instrumental; we finish up with the chorus repeated a couple of times. So this thing is two minutes long and fully half of it doesn’t involve singing, and a good part of the singing that exists consists of just three words.

If it all manages to work—and I think it does, particularly in the context of this week’s three songs, as a follow-up to “Black Silk“—it does so on its ability to pack an unusual amount of variety into a narrow time frame. Most short songs, perhaps too aware of their shortness, don’t invest in introductions and instrumental breaks because there seems no time to fiddle with such frivolities. The Pharmacy does the opposite, honing the song down to one verse—although it may be two, sung back to back—so that the rest of the song still has space to breathe and develop. The “frivolities,” it turns out, offer a lot substance. Another way the song seems to expand beyond its clock time is through its rather distinctive mashing together of a very garage-rock-y vibe, complete with lo-fi-seeming vocal distortion, and a more aspirational sort of musicality. The keyboard motif that opens “Dig Your Grave” does not in any way shout “garage rock” at us, and neither does the song’s multifarious construction. And yet the chorus certainly does.

From Seattle, the trio The Pharmacy has been doing its lo-fi, neo-garage-rock thing for 10 years now. They have three albums to show for it and, in keeping with its lo-fi street cred, a bunch of 7-inch singles, a split cassette, and a demo CD-R. “Dig Your Grave” is the lead track from its latest 7-inch, which, at four songs, is more of an EP than a single. It comes to us from Kind Turkey Records, and they’re the ones offering up the MP3 as well.

Free and legal MP3: Haley Bonar (delightful, succinct, Neko-ish)

With the delightful and succinct “Raggedy Man,” clocking in at 2:12, Minneapolis-based singer/songwriter Haley Bonar, sounding not unlike Neko Case’s younger sister, gives us a deft lesson in how to imbue a short song with the depth and feeling of a longer song.

Haley Bonar

“Raggedy Man” – Haley Bonar

Many songs that are less than two and a half minutes are wonderful in their shortness but, at the same time, feel a bit over-short. Which is to say, it’s easy enough to wrap up a song in two minutes or so simply for the sake of punching out a short song; it’s another thing to give a short song some real oomph, to make a song that’s short in length but long in depth and feeling. With the delightful and succinct “Raggedy Man,” clocking in at 2:12, Minneapolis-based singer/songwriter Haley Bonar, sounding not unlike Neko Case’s younger sister, gives us a deft lesson in how it’s done.

Her two primary tricks are melodic. First is the straightforward but underutilized technique of using a full complement of notes. In the first ten seconds of singing she covers six of the scale’s nine tones, counting the top and bottom of the octave as two separate notes, and she ranges across the entire octave. Melodies that incorporate a majority of the notes in the scale are inherently more expansive and interesting. A short song gains substance this way. The other melodic trick is her 16-measure melody line. Most pop songs involve melodies that are no longer than eight measures, and some are just four. A 16-measure melody feels complex and leisurely, and creates the aural illusion of more time passing—another great way to expand the feel of the song.

Bonar (rhymes with “honor”) further employs some subtler structural tricks that work to counter the song’s brevity, including her use of a series of unresolved chords (beginning at 0:57) right where the ear is expecting a chorus, and her stripped-down take on the main melody when it returns at 1:29. Short songs don’t usually have the time or inclination for this kind of presentational variety. Bonar even finds the wherewithal at the end for the introduction of a new wordless melody in the last 15 seconds, providing a coda for which short songs also don’t usually have time.

“Raggedy Man” is a track from Bonar’s album Golder, which was self-released in April, and funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign. Bonar was previously featured on Fingertips in 2008. Thanks to the artist for the MP3, which Fingertips is hosting.

Free and legal MP3: Bad Books (punchy power pop, w/ lyrical vigor)

Sounding like something the Breeders might have recorded for Beatles ’65, “You Wouldn’t Have To Ask” hangs its musical hopes and dreams upon that left-field chord we hear first at 0:07 and then keep waiting to hear a few more times, but to no avail.

Bad Books

“You Wouldn’t Have To Ask” – Bad Books

Sounding like something the Breeders might have recorded for Beatles ’65, “You Wouldn’t Have To Ask” hangs its musical hopes and dreams upon that left-field chord we hear first at 0:07 and then keep waiting to hear a few more times. But this song is so sturdy and succinct we actually hear it only once more, with emphasis (1:06), in the instrumental run-through of the verse. It’s a set-up chord, a place you go to but can’t stay at, so what we’re really waiting for is not the chord again as much as the payoff. Said payoff is delivered via that very Beatley chord progression from 1:39 to 1:41, which in turns sets up the equally Beatley set of concluding chords from 1:46 to 1:50. The song ends there on a dime because, well, it’s done its job.

And that would be enough already, but “You Wouldn’t Have To Ask” is much enhanced by its off-handedly brilliant lyrical conceit, which provides a truly great pop songwriting moment: the titular phrase is a powerful way of communicating both the connection and the disconnection between two people. If I had what you’re looking for I’d give it to you, the singer says: “You wouldn’t have to ask.” But a darker side is implied, since theoretically the other person knows this too; “You wouldn’t have to ask” may, therefore, be either pledge (“I’d give it without your asking”) or accusation (“You know I don’t have it, so why are you asking?”) and most likely a complex blend of both. Even in this short song, the complexities of the phrase are developed and deepened; I find the last iteration especially haunting, with the singer at the end now saying, “If I could help you/You wouldn’t have to ask.”

Bad Books is a project fronted by Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Kevin Devine and Andy Hull, of Atlanta’s Manchester Orchestra; other members of Manchester Orchestra comprise the rest of the band. “You Wouldn’t Have To Ask” is a song from the group’s self-titled debut, which was released digitally last month and physically this month on Favorite Gentlemen Recordings, a label founded in Atlanta by members of Manchester Orchestra. MP3 via Favorite Gentlemen. Thanks to the blog Eardrums for the lead.