“The Only Heartbreaker” – Mitski

Maybe you’re the only one trying

“The Only Heartbreaker” – Mitski

Famously adored by a sizable silo of fans for her emotionally acute lyrics, Mitski has a secret weapon hiding in plain sight: the gorgeous tonal quality of her singing voice. Overlookable, perhaps, in the context of the synths and beats often surrounding it, her vocal power seems particularly on display throughout her latest album, the terrific Laurel Hell, which was released in February. It could also be that the 31-year-old singer/songwriter continues to deepen as a performer as the years go by.

“The Only Heartbreaker” delivers a melancholy interpersonal message over a rapid pulse. The New York Times last month referred to it as a “catchy pop song,” but is it, really? It’s got a body-stimulating beat, but little about Mitski’s delivery here signals “catchy pop song,” starting with the fact that the melody, already moving at half the pace of the rhythm, is consistently stretched in and around the song’s momentum. The potentially anthemic chorus repeats one line–“I’ll be the only heartbreaker”–in such an in-between-the-raindrops kind of way as to be quite difficult to sing along with.

As for the melancholy, the song’s narrator feels elusively aggrieved from the start, singing, “If you would just make one mistake/What a relief it would be.” The simple but emotionally potent idea here is that the singer feels to be the only one ever messing up in the relationship. One particularly striking lyric, however, hints at further depth: “I’ll be the water main that’s burst and flooding/You’ll be by the window, only watching.” As Mitski explained to Rolling Stone, “Maybe the reason you’re always the one making mistakes is because you’re the only one trying.”

You can listen to Laurel Hell on Bandcamp, and buy it there in a variety of formats, some with different packaging options. MP3 via KEXP.

“Greenhill” – Naomi Keyte

Understated acoustic gem

“Greenhill” – Naomi Keyte

Unlike many listeners with an affinity for acoustic-oriented singer/songwriters, I do not embrace this style of music indiscriminately. In fact, as much as I can appreciate musicians with acoustic guitars up front, I am more often than not unmoved by performers of this type, who seem frequently to allow the intrinsic sonority of their instrument to stand in for musical value. Which I guess is a kind way of saying “using pleasant sounds to cover up mediocre songwriting.” By that measure, however, when I do come across a musician presenting in this setting with a strong sense of self and craft I am overjoyed. Someone’s still got it.

The Australian singer/songwriter Naomi Keyte, from Adelaide, definitely has it. “Greenhill” is an understated gem, which first and foremost requires the direct attention of the listener. You’ll have to bring it on your own; Keyte has too much integrity and composure to pander or preen like so many of the TikTok-addled musicians who clutter my inbox. Keyte, rather, sings lyrics resonant with domestic details in a near hush, relying on propulsive finger-picking to add momentum to a song replete with what presents as a sort of still-life-in-motion. She herself has described “Greenhill” as “a love song to a house and its inhabitants,” written specifically about life during lockdown. The melody’s downward pattern feels as introspective as the lyrics, lower notes sometimes all but swallowed out of earshot.

The chorus is a particular thing of beauty, from the lovely subtle upturn Keyte’s voice takes at the end of the word “road” (e.g., 0:54) to the elegant way she eliminates the stopping point between the second and third lines, which grabs the ear on the one hand but also mirrors the words she’s singing about the air rushing in through the windows. The second time we hear the chorus (1:59) the arrangement opens up to include drums, piano, and double-tracked vocals, which settles the song into a deep new place. Listen too, at this point, for the male voice blended deftly into the background, via Ben Talbot-Dunn, who also produced the song.

“Greenhill” is a single released in October; Keyte recently dropped a new single, “Gilian”; both songs are slated to appear on a forthcoming LP, and both are available via Bandcamp. The new album will be her second; her first, Melaleuca, was released in 2017, and can also be found on Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Carrie Biell

Bittersweet & irresistible

“California Baby” – Carrie Biell

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.

Free and legal MP3: Erin Rae

Dreamy, seductive pandemic ballad

“Candy + Curry” – Erin Rae

A heartwarming example of the good stuff that can emerge from bad circumstances, the woozy, unhurried “Candy + Curry” was written in the Tennessee countryside by Nashville-based Erin Rae in the midst of 2020’s disconcerting and long-lasting lockdown. The song grabs and holds attention to an unusual degree for such a languidly paced piece of music. This seems to relate to textural touches employed—including a persistent high-hat “drone,” boosted by a bicycle-bell-like chime—that convey a feeling of being carried along on a gentle breeze on a blue-sky day, or maybe just turning slow circles in a fragrant meadow, watching puffy white clouds float by. For 50 seconds or so the bass is the most prominent instrument heard, the other vague sounds providing a bare, white-noise-y background. A cello is the first to make its presence known (around 0:50); and, just when you’ve settled into the dreamy pace, a siren sounds at 1:27. No doubt a synthesizer of some sort but it starts as a genuine-sounding siren, only to perform a bit of a magic trick by transforming what is typically an alarming sound into something friendly and encouraging.

The smart, poignant lyrics, full of resonant short-cuts, reflect both the uncertainty of pandemic life as well as some of its hidden if quirky charms–or, at least, the potential charms available to those lucky enough to have shelter and good health in the midst of the widespread disaster (which, thankfully, was/is still most of us). Rae’s clear, somewhat quizzical tone serves both the words and music fabulously. I urge you to listen to this one a few times; it gets better and better as you grow familiar with it.

“Candy + Curry” is the lead track from Rae’s forthcoming album, Lighten Up, scheduled for a February release. She has two previous full-length albums to her credit, dating back to 2015. You can check her out on Bandcamp, where you can listen to two more pre-release songs from the very enjoyable Lighten Up.

Free and legal MP3: Chloe Mae

Dreamy, with a swing

“Falling” – Chloe Mae

Its dreaminess tweaked with a bit of a swing, “Falling” is an engaging song that highlights Chloe Mae’s supple and subtly potent voice. I’m hooked at the start by the Sundays-eseque character of the verse, its bi-level, 6/8 melody quickly revealing Mae’s voice as one to be reckoned with (check out the high E she hits around 0:31, a wonderful bit of passing dissonance).

But it’s the chorus that slays me for good here, the way its simple two-note melody, describing a descending major third interval, is answered a half step up and an octave higher with wordless vocals now offering an ascending minor third interval straddling the original two notes. That’s what’s going on technically but what counts is how satisfying this sounds, turning the chorus’s unusual reticence, melodically (how many choruses repeat just two notes?), into its superpower.

Things get pleasantly psychedelic in the second half, synthesizers moving from background to foreground, lyrics repeating the phrase “Falling back to you” as a sort of mantra with a synthesizer countermelody below and higher-pitched synth noodles above. Everything wraps up in a tidy 3:10. I suggest repeated listens, to allow its charms to sink further in.

Chloe Mae is a singer/songwriter from Brisbane. “Falling” is her second single, released in August.

Free and legal MP3: Ruby Gilbert

Authoritative (Australian) Americana, with trumpet

“No Vacancy” – Ruby Gilbert

With an authoritative Americana brio reminiscent of early Neko Case, Ruby Gilbert is the real deal, her depth of voice matched by a knack for composition and presentation. From its opening acoustic strum–minor-key and assertive–“No Vacancy” feels at once sturdy and adventurous, with its casually resourceful chord changes and, yes, that trumpet. About which more in a moment.

Gilbert begins a story of frustrated romance with an incisive opening couplet: “My baby’s only got eyes for me/But he’s got his sights set on leaving.” The underlying premise here seems to be that all romances, however brilliant at first, will come to an end; the song’s narrator seems oppressed by this hard-won knowledge (“I don’t get no rest,” she sings, “I hear it in my head, tick and tock”).

The ache of being left alone is mirrored in the song’s musical landscape, which aligns with that particularly appealing strain of Americana music that I hear as “lonesome.” I’m not sure precisely what may generally create this impression–something in the spaciousness of the mix, I’m guessing, and/or some well-placed slide guitar lines; reverbed vocals help–but “No Vacancy” ups the ante with artful flourishes from an echoey trumpet, courtesy of Eamon Dilworth. I wouldn’t have realized this in advance but damn if that trumpet doesn’t (somehow) sound like the epitome of “lonesome Western sound.”

Ruby Gilbert is a singer/songwriter from Brisbane with a handful of recordings to date and, I hope, a bright future ahead. “No Vacancy” was released in March. She has an earlier single, “Slave,” from this past October, and a four-song EP, entitled Dearly Beloved, that came out in June 2018. You can hear everything, and buy everything at a price of your choosing, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Brandon De La Cruz

Hushed, impressionistic storytelling

“Salmacis” – Brandon De La Cruz

Brandon De La Cruz sings with a hushed authority, his voice cracking against the muted beauty of this simple-seeming song. A two-line verse is answered by a two-line chorus, the former resolving the latter with matter-of-fact grace. Whatever story is being told here is being told obliquely, like a camera focusing only on discreet details, with no establishing shot.

We can, however, flesh out the story via the title: in mythology, Salmacis was a nymph who lusted after Hermaphroditus, the child of Hermes and Aphrodite. When he rejected her and went to bathe in her pool, she sprang upon him; when he still resisted, she prayed to the gods that the two of them should be always together. The gods, in classic “be careful what you wish for” manner, granted her her desire, and they were merged into one body. (Thus, clearly, the etymology of the English word “hermaphrodite.”)

This background renders De La Cruz’s impressionist account evocative in the extreme. We get body words–hands and arms and lips and legs–and, in the repeated chorus, words of union (collide, link up, entwined, seam). Consciously or not this song is in every possible way the antithesis of the prog-rock deep cut “The Fountain of Salmacis,” from the 1972 Genesis album Nursery Crime: concise versus expansive, humble versus baroque, quiet versus clamorous. Nothing at all against Genesis; let’s just say this goes in another direction.

“Salmacis” is one of eight tracks on the album Visions of Ovid, being released this week. With a long-standing interest in mythology, De La Cruz this time has fashioned an entire album riffing on ancient stories. Based in Portland, De La Cruz has been more or less stuck in New Zealand for a year, having chosen an unfortunate time to visit friends early in 2020.  (But there are probably worse places to be stuck!) He has been previously featured on Fingertips both in 2011 and in 2013. MP3 via the artist.

Free and legal MP3: Phoebe Bridgers (moody but lively)

“Kyoto” – Phoebe Bridgers

She may not often be in the mood to give us an upbeat versus a downtempo composition, but when Phoebe Bridgers plugs into a faster rhythm is when, to me, her songs really shine. Outside of the terrific “Motion Sickness,” the compositions on her first album were much more deliberate—very attractive for those ready to comb carefully through lyrics and/or those who groove on a melancholy vibe, but less easy to focus on as a casual listener.

“Kyoto,” on the other hand, grabs immediately. I like the misdirect in the introduction—what starts in a hesitant, filtered mode finds a solid backbeat just after the singing starts (0:07), and sweeps us along from there. Bridgers has a delightful way with phrasing (check out as just one example the way she sings “my little brother” at 1:35), sounding as if the fleet tempo has caught her a bit by surprise as well. (She actually did write “Kyoto” as a ballad, but, she told NME in April, “at that point I was so sick of recording slow songs, it turned into this.”)

There is even a structural reason to enjoy the song’s pacing, having to do with the effect of matching downcast lyrics with lively music. Content-wise, Bridgers remains moody here, grasping at why she can’t seem to be happy anywhere, and signaling some thorny father issues. Setting such musings to a breezy tune, to my ears, amplifies rather than subtracts from their impact.

I’ve emphasized the song’s tempo but note that the chorus features a half-time melody, and encompasses a line that doesn’t maybe register as notable the first time around—“I wanted to see the world”—and yet turns into one of the song’s great moments, due I think to a combination of the alluring chord change that precedes it and the subtle but striking emotion with which Bridgers sings the words, especially the second time through (2:09), with a slight melodic twist at the end.

“Kyoto” is the third track on her second solo album, Punisher, which was released in April on the Dead Oceans label. We heard Bridgers on Fingertips last year, a lifetime ago, in combination with Conor Oberst, as part of the Better Oblivion Community Center.

MP3 once again via KEXP. Listen to the whole album, and buy it if you like it, via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Pete Droge (feat. Elaine Summers) (Strong, gentle, lovely)

“Skeleton Crew” – Pete Droge (featuring Elaine Summers)

While singer/songwriters are relatively common here on Fingertips, I don’t end up featuring a lot of “man with a guitar” or “woman with a guitar” tunes. Not because I don’t like that kind of thing, but, truth be told, because I just don’t hear a lot that crosses the line from “nice” to “vital.” Because look: most acoustic-guitar-and-voice songs are by definition “nice.” But me, I want and need more from a song than niceness, especially now, and I think we get a lot more than that with this one, from Pete Droge, performing here with his wife and collaborator, the artist and musician Elaine Summers.

“Skeleton Crew” is a sad, sturdy song about resilience. Even as it sounds acutely relevant to our current moment —

We’ll get through this thing together
You lean on me and I’ll lean on you
Know that nothing lasts forever and ever

— in truth the song was started in November 2017 and had nothing to do with the pandemic (or, of course, our even more recent crisis). Launched off a concise, ear-catching guitar riff, the song is gracefully crafted, with its crisp, intimate guitar sound and well-placed vocal harmonies. The balance achieved between gentleness and strength, both musically and lyrically, is at the heart of the song’s loveliness and power.

Pete Droge had a moment or two back in the ’90s, with a major label record deal and some mainstream radio play; Allmusic calls him “one of the most overlooked of the modern-day Americana/rock/folk music movement.” But for whatever reason, probably having nothing to do with his talents and efforts, he faded off the scene as the new century turned. He was part of a short-lived “supergroup” called the Thorns, with Matthew Sweet and Shawn Mullins, which released an album in 2003.  Since then he has released four albums under his own name, on his own label. He has also done a lot of composing for a variety of media projects, from his home studio on Vashon Island, in the Puget Sound a short ferry ride from Seattle.

Speaking of which, Droge released “Skeleton Crew” in March as a fundraiser for a local charity, Vashon Youth and Family Services. He was kind enough to let me post the song here, but if you’re up for it, I’d suggest heading to Bandcamp and offering 50 cents or a dollar for the cause. And a big thanks goes out to visitor Scott for the head’s up about the song in the first place.

Free and legal MP3: Steve Earle & the Dukes (Fierce country stomper)

“Devil Put The Coal In The Ground” – Steve Earle & the Dukes

And here’s about the opposite of “nice” singer/songwriter music (see previous review): a rough-edged country stomper that functions simultaneously as a celebration of coal miner grit and an indictment of an industry racked by tragedy and exploitation.

Built upon a plaintive, insistent banjo riff, “The Devil Put the Coal in the Ground” finds the prolific and genre-bending Earle in backwoods mode, putting the instruments of bluegrass in the service of fierce country blues. Earle sings with his harshest growl while the fiddle and banjo articulate a rather terrifying jig. I warned you, it’s not very nice. But it’s arresting.

The lyrical motif is as deft as the situation described is insidious: the idea that coal was placed in such a difficult and unsafe location by none other than the devil himself. The devil of course exists in the human imagination as a being intent on making human life (and afterlife) as miserable as possible, often through the tragic force of temptation. For the sake of coal’s value as a resource, not to mention its role in generating diamonds, mankind has paid a price, at both the individual and the collective levels—there are the various calamities that befall coal miners on the one hand, and the environmental devastation wreaked by the mining industry on the other. And yet there have been benefits too, from a miner’s pride in his challenging line of work, to the way coal powered what has often been framed as “progress.” All this is covered, by implication, in the course of this less-than-three-minute song.

“The Devil Put the Coal in the Ground” is the third of 10 songs on the album Ghosts of West Virginia, released last month on New West Records. The music was inspired by the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia, and was initially created for a theatrical production at the Public Theater in New York City. Entitled Coal Country, the play opened in early March but shut down prematurely due to the pandemic. Earle was the music director and performed his songs on stage during the play.

Steve Earle I trust you know already but if not, please do give his catalog some attention. He has been one of America’s most talented and uncompromising singer/songwriters of the last 30 years, and one who seems always interested in growing as an artist and a human being. I’m partial to his early- to mid-’00s work, most of all Transcendental Blues, but you’ll find rewarding music on pretty much every release.

MP3 via KEXP.