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.

Free and legal MP3: Kate Davis (bass-led indie rock charmer)

Fittingly enough, “Open Heart” has its central aesthetic attribute hiding in plain sight: a bass guitar more or less playing lead.

“Open Heart” – Kate Davis

Fittingly enough, “Open Heart” has its central aesthetic attribute hiding in plain sight: a bass guitar more or less playing lead. Which makes sense when you are hip to Kate Davis’s unusual background: she came to the fore musically as a teenage bass prodigy. Jazz was her thing, but as it turned out she also played the internet pretty well—an impromptu, breezily recorded version of “All About That Bass,” with Davis singing and playing the upright bass, uploaded in 2014, now has more than 18 million views.

But the New York City-based Davis apparently had no interest in being painted into a corner of standards and retro recordings. As her personal tastes veered more and more towards indie rock bands such as Beach House and TV on the Radio, she eventually knew she had a whole other kind of music in her. “Open Heart” is a deft example of what can happen when someone with serious training and chops discovers the potential in the seemingly simplified landscape of a rock song. A surface listen may detect nothing obviously abnormal in “Open Heart,” but once you pay closer attention, you’ll realize, on the contrary, that there’s actually very little that is entirely normal here.

Davis singing over her lead-like bass playing is just the start of it. Then there’s what the bass is specifically doing, which entails a lot more fret work than a typical rock song necessitates. The lyrics, too, have a sort of surreal directness to them, as an imagined doctor’s visit, leading precipitously to a heart transplant, is conflated with a love gone astray, delivered in a deliciously matter-of-fact way (“Hold tight/Oh we’re taking your heart out now”). Musically, there is flawless movement from verse to pre-chorus to chorus; as “Open Heart” unfolds, Davis’s skill as a writer of melody and crafter of song becomes clearer and clearer. Notice in particular how the heartbeat pulse of the bass leads us effortlessly from the contemplative verse through to a chorus that opens in double time and concludes, over a wonderful chord progression, in half time—all without Davis seeming to break a sweat.

As for that heart-mimicking bass line, that turns out to be one of a number of adroit touches that feel satisfying and almost comic, in a musical way. Another is how the music extends and momentarily freezes—we might call it a sustain—at the end of the line “the injury you sustained” (2:02). There’s also how the recurring phrase “Deep breath” is articulated with more or less the opposite affect: more of a short gulp. I like too the removal of the omnipresent bass for the last iteration of the verse (starting at 2:22), which somehow creates a sensation of an angel passing through the hospital room, conferring the stark recognition that being alive involves accepting pain.

Davis’s career as an indie rocker was first launched with a high-profile credit she earned with Sharon Van Etten (they wrote “Seventeen” together); I’m anticipating a new level of acclaim when her debut album Trophy is released in November on Solitaire Recordings. “Open Heart” will be track two on the record; you can listen to three other songs in advance over on Bandcamp, and pre-order it there as well.

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And, even as Kate has moved past this, I’m offering up the Meghan Trainor cover because it’s really impressive. I love musicians who both know how to play their instruments and know how to perform—not always the same skill.

Free and legal MP3: Marti West (gauzy surface, robust depth)

Underneath the gauzy surface lies a robust and rewarding composition.

“Give Me Light” – Marti West

It might nearly be its own genre: music featuring delicate male vocals in an acoustic setting. I am not inherently a fan of this sound—which can get too whispery-slight for my ears—but it turns out I’m a big fan of “Give Me Light,” because underneath its gauzy surface lies a robust and rewarding composition.

The song launches with urgent finger-picking, strings held relatively high up on the guitar neck; the aura is of reverberant glass. West adds vocals at 0:17, in a tenor register mirroring the spangly guitar line. The verse melody is concise and potent, circling towards a solid but unresolved end point, which leads in turn to a chorus (0:49) pitched around the same melodic space, with now the added sway of percussion. And listen here to how carefully the lines this time build one by one into a firm resolution (the steps proceed from 0:55 to 0:59 to 1:03), so satisfying in its payoff precisely because of the subtle uncertainty propagated by the earlier unresolved melodies.

Another thing I appreciate here are the careful harmonies West provides for himself, which begin in the chorus. Note how they start as same-note harmonies, then separate into beautiful, affecting intervals as the phrase “Give me light” unfolds, twice. Note too how the harmonies then draw back into the melody on the closing phrase (first at 1:03 and then, as the chorus repeats melodically, at 1:17). In an elegantly crafted song like this, these harmonies provide their own gorgeous hook. Yet more elegant craft: the electric guitar that floats in, twice, as structural support (1:24, 2:45)—and, all the better, each guitar break is its own construction, not just one solo repeated.

Born in England, West lives in Göteborg, Sweden. He has previously released two EPs and one eight-song mini-album. “Give Me Light” is the first single to be released off his next EP, coming later this year. You can listen to everything, and buy what you like, on Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Alejandra O’Leary (squonky midtempo rocker, w/ melodic twists)

Combining an assured employment of squonky guitars with satisfying melodic momentum, “Wires” quickly brings the ear back to the heyday of early ’90s alternative rock at its most accessible.

“Wires” – Alejandra O’Leary

Combining an assured employment of squonky guitars with satisfying melodic momentum, “Wires” quickly brings the ear back to the heyday of early ’90s alternative rock at its most engaging. This feels like a nice thing to hear with a fresh coat of 2019 paint. And, as with some of the best material from that era (think Belly, think Garbage), “Wires” isn’t content staying exactly in one place and phoning it in from there. Hang in through the chorus (0:50-1:05) and you get an even higher level of songwriting payout, as the melody there expands in buoyant, unexpected directions.

I love how the song feels slightly unhinged and tightly controlled at the same time, with O’Leary’s clear-toned voice steering us through its twists and turns. You may notice that the verse disappears after its second go-round, replaced by a repeating bridge-like section (1:51) that offers its own hooks. And if you’ve been patiently waiting for those crunchy guitars to break out, your dividend arrives at 2:45, when O’Leary leaves off in mid-lyric for a few moments of concluding instrumental frenzy.

O’Leary is a half-Colombian, half-Irish singer/songwriter based in Portland, Maine. “Wires” is the lead track from Everest, which will be released next week. You can listen to the album, and buy it, via Bandcamp. Her back catalog of three albums and an EP are also there and worth investigating.

Free and legal MP3: Lauran Hibberd (terrific rocker w/ old-school crunch)

With satisfying, old-school crunch, “Hoochie” is the kind of song that reacquaints the ear with how simple and vital a rock song can yet be, here in our beleaguered 21st century.

Lauran Hibberd

“Hoochie” – Lauran Hibberd

With satisfying, old-school crunch, “Hoochie” is the kind of song that reacquaints the ear with how simple and vital a rock song can yet be, here in our beleaguered 21st century: guitars still excite, catchy and uncomplicated melodies still delight, and can still be put in service of sardonic young folks, especially those possessed of the right combination of charisma and purpose, as young Isle of Wight singer/songwriter Lauran Hibberd surely is. (And that’s no typo: it’s Lauran with an “a.”)

One of the main glories of rock’n’roll, well illustrated by “Hoochie,” is how musical strength renders all in its path worthy of attention. I’m not sure, for instance, that the lyrics here would be all that impressive if stripped from the music and read aloud, but the point is that this doesn’t matter in the slightest. Riding on top of this heroic groove, nestled in their textured setting, and delivered with Hibberd’s casual aplomb, the words acquire a primal sort of substance that supersedes precise meaning on the one hand, and then (this is the extra magic) delivers a new level of meaning on the other. I’m not sure I can explain this properly, but for me, the lyrics in a great rock song often don’t need to be paid close attention to and yet, then, as they present as an intrinsic part of the sonic experience, become great in their own inscrutable way. This is why it’s not often necessary to pay close attention to lyrics, even as the words nonetheless become a pivotal part of the final package.

Anyway, give this one a few listens and maybe you’ll sense that extra magic going on here too. If I were still tracking my Top 10 songs of the year, I have no doubt that this would end up there in December. You can check out all of Hibberd’s releases, six songs to date, on SoundCloud. “Hoochie” is her latest and, to my ears, best—so far.

Free and legal MP3: Better Oblivion Community Center (jangly, literate, occasionally loud)

A loose-limbed paean to 21st-century chaos.

“Dylan Thomas” – Better Oblivion Community Center

When a song comes along that’s this affable and effective, you can begin to wonder why everyone doesn’t do this. It seems so straightforward!: lay down a jangly, toe-tapping groove, add in a friendly descending melody peopled by tumbly, literate lyrics, performed by same-note, male-female harmonies, and boom—terrific song. Consider the couple of interruptions from rambunctious guitars (for instance, at 1:22) a bonus.

By their own accounts, Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers, who together comprise Better Oblivion Community Center, did in fact find this song pretty easy to write—Oberst has been quoted as calling the song a “happy accident.” It sprung from a discussion of a Reply All episode (they are both big fans of this great podcast) that had to do with the conspiracy theories online that posit, in apparent seriousness, that the current American president is only pretending to be a colossal moron. Oh and the Dylan Thomas connection seems to do with the basic fact that Oberst is himself a long-time admirer of the Irish poet.

I assume fans either of Oberst or of Bridgers individually will dig this but I myself wasn’t either in particular and I dig it too, in a whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts way. Their blended voices in this relatively upbeat setting have a delightful elan that overshadows a draggy melancholy that, to my ears, can beset both of them on their own. Not that there’s anything wrong with draggy melancholy! Sometimes that’s just the thing. But, not a thing on this loose-limbed paean to 21st-century chaos.

“Dylan Thomas” is the third track on the Better Oblivion Community Center’s self-titled debut, released in January. You can stream it as well as buy it (digital, CD, vinyl) via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Sharon Van Etten (forceful, introspective rock’n’roll)

A heavy beat offsets a desultory piano line, synthesizers at once ferocious and distant blaze around the edges, guitars eventually squonk onto the scene, all while Van Etten sings poetically of longing, nostalgia, and destiny.

Sharon Van Etten

“Seventeen” – Sharon Van Etten

Rock’n’roll evolves, shifts, mutates—and persists. Anyone who doubts this need only listen to “Seventeen,” which performs the magic trick of weaving a classic-sounding song out of strands and blocks of sounds and textures that never quite existed in music’s “classic rock” heyday. A heavy beat offsets a desultory piano line, synthesizers at once ferocious and distant blaze around the edges, guitars eventually squonk onto the scene, all while Van Etten sings poetically of longing, nostalgia, and destiny—lyrics at once concrete and slippery, a deft interweaving of adult and teen-aged introspection that as a listener you intuit more than comprehend. The song rumbles and, eventually, roars. A master of subtle melodic gestures, Van Etten along the way crafts a chorus that slays with muted glory.

Some commentators hear Bruce Springsteen in the anthemic energy of this song, and while I get the comparison, leaving it at that diminishes Van Etten’s accomplishment. She’s no knock-off. The entire album in fact strikes my ear as a brilliant example of how to be a 21st-century rock’n’roller—taking the bones of archetypal rock music (“Seventeen” has a backbeat; you can’t lose it) and then planting your own individual 2019 self, with all its accumulated know-how and influences, right into the heart of it. Since we last heard from SVE (2014’s Are We There), she has become an actor, a film composer, a mother, and a graduate student in psychology. Which is just to say that she has quite a formidable self to align with one type of creative expression or another. When it came time to record a new album, she opted for a producer, John Congleton, known for synth-pop stylings, and arrived at the studio inspired by the dark, reverberant music of Portishead and Nick Cave. Something arresting was bound to come of all of this, and it did in the form of the enigmatic but majestic Remind Me Tomorrow, which was released in January on Jagjaguwar Records. That’s where you’ll find “Seventeen.”

Van Etten feels like an old friend by now because of the Eclectic Playlist Series, but this is only the second time she’s had a download featured here; if you missed “Serpents” back in 2011, you’re in luck: the free and legal MP3 is still available. Meanwhile, you can listen to Remind Me Tomorrow, and then buy it, on Bandcamp, where it is available digitally, on CD, or on vinyl. And in case you missed it, another song from the album, the brilliant “No One’s Easy To Love,” closes out (and provides the title for) this past month’s playlist, here.

MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Laura Gibson (song as languorous dream)

Framed on top of a sparse but expressive rhythm section—buoyant bass riff meets stark tom-tom beat—“Tenderness” unfolds in no hurry, as a languorous dream.

Laura Gibson

“Tenderness” – Laura Gibson

Framed on top of a sparse but expressive rhythm section—buoyant bass riff meets stark tom-tom beat—“Tenderness” unfolds without haste, as a languorous dream. Gibson sings in a warm, rounded tone, augmented by an almost Holiday-esque ache, suggesting someone at once too shy to speak and yet brave enough to sing. “Don’t wake a swarm of bees beneath me,” she coos, not as fragile as she might sound.

The song supports her both musically and symbolically, employing sturdy sonic structures as almost aural sleight of hand—you don’t notice the droning guitars we get hints of in the background, but you feel them. And the strings: yes, you hear the strings, but really listen to them and feel what they’re doing, too—as for instance the intuited pathos of their downward-sliding notes (1:25 presents an example). In Gibson’s hands, even the straightforward idea of backing vocals feels freighted, unnerving; she asks, in the chorus, “Do you want tenderness?” and the lack of certainty over whether she’s still singing to the man she’d been initially addressing or now singing to herself is intensified by answering background voices so in sync with her idiosyncrasies (it’s all her, after all) that they register as the personification of voices in her own head, manifesting the depth of her interpersonal turmoil. (She proceeds, in the first chorus, from “Kiss your mouth for tenderness” to, in later iterations, “Curse your name for tenderness,” and then, “Break your leg for tenderness”; ouch.)

With its simple sway, “Tenderness” doesn’t break a sweat as much as glue you to your seat. More is revealed with repeated listening. I suggest not losing yourself too much in Gibson’s vocal tone to forget to listen to her phrasing, which can stun. Hear, for instance, how she sings the words “model of” in the lyric “You’re a model of reason,” at 0:47: I can’t quite absorb what she’s doing there or how she’s doing it. Or, listen to the upward swerve she effects in both the second and third verses, at the same moment in the fourth line of each—on the word “men” at 1:46, and “face” at 3:15. These are not moments you are necessarily supposed to notice, which makes noticing them all the more potent. And not all moments here are vocal. Maybe my favorite is the abrupt shutdown of the strings at 1:44, a muted reinforcement of the fierce words that have preceded it:

I’ve been taught, I should wait to be chosen
That I haven’t known love
Until I’ve been destroyed by love

“Tenderness” is a track from Goners, Gibson’s fifth album, which was released on Barsuk Records in October. Gibson’s song “La Grande” was featured on Fingertips in November 2011, and her song “Harmless” made its way into a playlist in May 2016. MP3 via Barsuk, where you can also buy the album, in vinyl, CD, FLAC, or MP3 format. Or go to Bandcamp, where you can listen in full before you buy the digital version.


photo: Timothy O’Connell/Fader