Launched off a world-weary acoustic strum, “Let Go” turns almost magically beautiful, all resolute melody and intimate, affecting vocals. The song has the bittersweet allure of something that has come down through the decades, not just the months. And it has the feeling of a take recorded with what happened to be handy: “strum this guitar,” “sing in that mic,” “the lyric sheet’s over here if you need it.”
Even when things open up sonically near the one-minute mark, the song retains its tenacity, never filling the space up with more than is necessary, leaning in the chorus on twangy, unresolved chords for drama. And then–speaking of drama–there’s the unusual way the song comes nearly to a halt at around three minutes, finishing with a slow, reflective minute of voice and a guitar strummed even more sparingly than we heard in the intro. The uniting force from start to finish is Bentham’s appealing and penetrating soprano, which holds its silver tone at both ends of the volume spectrum.
Deemed “enigmatic” by her own press material, the Newcastle-based singer/songwriter Brooke Bentham started making and performing music as a teenager, and did her first recordings while still in college. After a flurry of singles and EPs in 2017, beginning with the moody, potent single “Oliver,” she hit a songwriting wall. Her much-anticipated full-length debut, Everyday Nothing, did not emerge until 2020. Three years later we have new music by way of the EP Caring, which is where you’ll find “Let Go,” and three other songs. The EP was released in March; check it out on Bandcamp.
The fine line between mysterious and ominous
Any song that opens with the words “There were dark clouds” is unlikely to be super cheery. But however moody a scene “To Supreme” sets, the song retains an underlying spirit of curiosity and resolve, treading the fine line between mysterious and ominous in an agreeable way. Much is established simply via Will Ranier’s plainspoken voice; he sounds like a guy pondering his circumstances with a friend more than a guy undone by dark forces.
While not exactly peppy, the song does stride along with a midtempo pace, anchored by a steady acoustic rhythm guitar and some bass notes on the piano. Intermittent visits from a muted trumpet (played by Ranier) add to the reverberant atmosphere. But clearly the key to the song’s aura is the pedal steel providing fills between lyrical lines, each new echoey flourish different than the previous one. I especially like the discordant notes pedal steel guitarist Raymond Richards sprinkles in midway through (1:26-1:32)–another touch that lightens things away from the sinister.
In the end, perhaps the biggest mystery here is what the title is about. The lyrics do little to enlighten. “Supreme” is where “they” tell the narrator he “should go.” And he “followed their advice,” which led him “into the neon light show.” What the what? Then again, it doesn’t take much search-engine-ing to discover that Supreme is a pizzeria and bar in Seattle, which is where Ranier lives. I can see a songwriter building a mystery around a word laden with as much baggage as “supreme” (there’s the being, the Court, the leader, to start in the obvious places).
Ranier is a musician with a varied discography. “To Supreme” is a track from his forthcoming album, Wobble in the Moon, to be released June 30. While this is only his second solo album, he has one previous album with his band, Will Ranier and the Pines, and nine albums credited to Stuporhero, a duo comprised of Ranier and his wife, Jen Garrett.
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.
A heartfelt knockout of a song, “Some Of Us Are Brave” is one part gospel, one part old-school soul, and one part acute, up-to-the-minute clarion call for empathy and empowerment. Singer/songwriter Danielle Ponder is a former public defender from Rochester, New York who turned full-time to music in 2018. “Some Of Us Are Brave” is the title track to her 2022 debut album; it takes its name from a landmark Black feminist essay collection from 1982 entitled All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies.
There’s much to love about this song, beginning with the potency of Ponder’s voice, which is introduced through a filter that nods at vocal stylings from the ’30s and ’40s. The filter fades after thirty seconds, and Ponder proceeds to use her obviously powerful instrument with artful restraint–super appealing to my ears, which have always been allergic to the sort of singing a music teacher I once knew referred to, with delightful disdain, as “con belto” (cf. bel canto). With Ponder, the wonderful moments are moments of phrasing–such as her “what a pity” at 0:44, or the “I know” at 1:37, among many others–that might glide by an inattentive listener and yet cumulatively contribute to the overall magnetism of the performance.
On point as well are the production choices, which reinforce the theme of potent restraint. I especially like the way the song shifts at 0:53, and not necessarily in the direction one might anticipate. The introductory section as it develops might seem to be leading to something explosive; instead the song slides into a velvet groove that begins with subtle electronic touches before opening into the bass-forward, trip-hoppy soundscape that dominates the rest of the song. One last indication of the song’s predilection for subtle power is the outro (starting at 3:09), which features a meditative, arpeggiated synth line and lyrics of calm but persuasive force.
MP3 via KEXP. And hey if you can’t help wanting some stormier vocalizing, be sure to check out the entire album on Bandcamp, where you can buy it either digitally, on CD, or on vinyl. Ponder does in fact cut loose from time to time, and in her hands it’s pretty great as well.
After a gentle, lullaby-like opening, “Anna” develops into a brisk, melodic composition that, backbeat notwithstanding, I’m tempted to call a ballad. What, after all, is a ballad? Traditionally, it’s a poem, typically suitable for singing, in which a story is told, often a romantic and/or tragic one. Note too that ballads often are set to an ABCB rhyme scheme, which is what “Anna” employs as well. I say it’s a ballad, and a splendid one at that.
The story being told, obliquely, is worth unpacking. The Dutch singer/songwriter Jori, who records as Cloud Cukkoo, tells of seeing a homeless man on a Dublin street, on a cold day, collecting coins in a Starbucks coffee cup with the name “Anna” on it. “Not even the cup was his,” she says. She wrote this song in response; in it, she alludes to his hardships as the man addresses the (imagined) woman whose name graces the discarded cup. It’s a simple but striking premise, brought to life with even-handed production, an incisive chorus, and Jori’s deceptively formidable voice–don’t let the song’s catchiness distract you from her lovely depth of tone. I especially appreciate the clean soundscape, driven by rhythm guitar, unfussy percussion, and well-placed keyboards: a beautiful aural counterpoint to the hyperactive, over-processed pop songs that grab clicks and followers in our mixed-up world.
Originally from a country village in the Netherlands, Jori relocated to Berlin in 2022 to be able to take part in a more diverse and vibrant creative community. She has some older material up on Bandcamp but doesn’t seem to be using that site at this point; your best bet for checking her music out is over on Spotify. “Anna” was just released last week; MP3 courtesy of the artist.
Heartfelt & sophisticated
A crystalline, synth-driven call to inner action, “Take It If You Want It” stares down the existential mayhem of our 21st-century world and attempts to find a place and a way to live in it regardless. The song’s superpower is the glistening deftness of the presentation: the ’80s-inspired arrangement is tight and inventive (don’t miss the acrobatic bass line), the lyrics are precise and sincere without being dogmatic, and Curtis’s voice is rich, expressive, and disciplined. The overall vibe is heartfelt and sophisticated; if Kate Bush were interested in writing a catchy pop song that wrestles with spiritual precepts, it might sound something like this.
In any case it is certainly a Bushian vocal that, after a brief percussive intro, opens the song with echoey urgency. Curtis has an effortless melodic flair; from the opening lines of the verse the ear is hooked, and the song progresses through its interrelated parts–verse, pre-chorus, chorus–with a enviable sense of inevitability. Not all the lyrics will be immediately legible but, as with the most well-crafted songs, certain phrases will pop; one particularly indelible couplet is unambiguous: “The fascists are ascending/Disaster is impending.” A close listen reveals this as a voice in the head that the narrator is attempting to grapple with. I’d say a lot of us are grappling with that voice here at the end of 2022.
Born in California and based in Tacoma, Washington, Shannon Curtis is a singer/songwriter with a rich catalog to explore. Good To Me is her tenth full-length release in the last 10 years, following three previous EPs and an acoustic compilation album. “Take It If You Want It” is the opening track on the album Good To Me, which is something of a concept album, centering on an inner journey Curtis led herself on during the perilous, pandemic-jostled year 2021. The album, by the way, will next year be followed by a companion book, which Curtis describes as “a step-by-step roadmap for cultivating personal peace and power in hard times.” She notes further that the songs on Good to Me came from her own process of working with and through the steps described in the book. More on the album in the follow-up review, below. (Yes, this month I’m giving you two songs from the same album, with one palate cleanser in between. Keep reading!)
Large & meditative at the same time
In a new twist here on Fingertips I am this month featuring two songs from the same artist. This strikes me as a win-win: it relieves me of the need to select just one song from an album I really like, while also relieving me of the need to lower my standards in order to find three MP3s to offer in a given month. As recently noted, I’m sensing a decline in the availability of free and legal downloads–at least, in the availability of free and legal downloads that live up to my admittedly idiosyncratic standards. I may use this strategy moving forward, as the situation allows, in order to continue to offer at least three songs in any given update.
So yes, I really really like this new Shannon Curtis album, start to finish. The sonic palette, shot through with ’80s atmosphere (the good kind!), is immediately engaging, and Curtis’s prowess as a singer is continually on display–she can go light and airy one moment, and reach grainier middle tones at another. Reverb abounds but with ongoing restraint; the music feels spacious without losing definition. And I am impressed ongoingly by Curtis’s songwriting chops–the effortless melodies and artfully structured songs provide consistent delight, and reward repeated listens. As for the album’s cohesiveness lyrically, the songs reward as much attention as you’re willing to pay to them. For those who want the deep deep dive, there will also be the companion book, as noted above. (The book will initially be available to her community of supporting members, and then released more widely next year.) I applaud Curtis for the seriousness of her purpose and her concurrent capacity to translate her journey into a series of such accessible songs; and yet the beauty of the project is that you don’t have to engage with the details to be moved by the music.
“Good To Me” is the title track, and everything I’ve said about the album overall applies here. I love the ’80s synthesizers and big round percussion, in particular for how mindfully and cleanly produced these potentially over-the-top effects are employed; the song feels both large and meditative at the same time. And from beginning to end, the songcraft is exquisite, with verse and chorus melodies that interrelate and build on each other, and resolve with aplomb. The album was jointly produced by Curtis and her husband, Jamie Hill; Curtis is credited with the concept, the arrangements, the programming, and the performance, Hill with the synthesizers, sound design, and additional programming. This was a pandemic project through and through, conceived of and created during a time when Curtis, very active in recent years as a house-concert musician, was stuck in her own house during the extended lockdown.
MP3s here courtesy of the artist herself. You can listen to the whole thing on Bandcamp, and buy it there too, for a price of your own choosing. Be generous!
Maybe you’re the only one trying
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.
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.
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.