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.
Dreamy, seductive pandemic ballad
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.
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.
Authoritative (Australian) Americana, with trumpet
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.