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

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

Free and legal MP3: Christine Fellows

Joyful/serious protest

“Unleashed” – Christine Fellows

The plucky ukulele riff that opens this one, as steadfast and persistent as ukulele riffs often are, hints not at the muscular romp to follow. But after the intro and a preliminary uke-backed verse, the band kicks in, and drives “Unleashed” forward with a gleeful vigor. That terrific bit of syncopation she dishes out at the end of each short verse—spelled out first in the ukulele prelude, starting at 0:20—adds to both the glee and the vigor.

“Unleashed” appears to be about rising up in resistance to injustice, and if so, it is surely one of the friendlier-sounding protest songs I’ve heard. The ukulele helps, to begin with. But Fellows herself has one of those congenial singing voices, a singing voice with the approachable tone of a speaking voice. It’s actually perfect for a protest song; she makes you inherently want to join in.

The lyrics add to the welcoming vibe. She positions resistance to tyranny as not merely humane but joyful; one line that stands out, both for its tone and its content, is: “We enrage our enemies/With rousing elegies.” I could not help but think of President Obama here, how the right wing extremists could listen to his eloquent calls for justice and respond only with unheeding rage. Fellows frames this crazy-making situation with such good-natured zest that it reinforces the important idea that we are not responsible for the reactions of others, only for our own actions. Which means: keep it up with the rousing elegies.

If “Unleashed” is a resistance pep talk, the Winnipeg-based Fellows doesn’t, in the end, shy from somber reality. Her final words, over a portentous drone from the cello, are “And the tide is rising.” On the one hand, she may be referring to the tide of the resistance, but the words unflinchingly bring climate change to mind. In other words, the tide of resistance had better be rising, and soon. She can rouse us into action with a good-spirited zing of a song but let’s remember the stakes.

“Unleashed” is a track from Roses on the Vine, Fellows’ seventh album, in a recording career dating back to 2000. She was actually one of the earlier artists featured on Fingertips, appearing back in August 2004. Her new album, released last month, is available in name-your-price fashion via Bandcamp.


photo: Lesandra Dodson

Free and legal MP3: Annie Dressner (UK-based expat singer/songwriter)

Annie Dressner has one of those plainspoken voices that sounds like she’s singing and not singing at the same time. It works especially well with a song like “Falter,” which itself is simultaneously simple and maybe not so simple.

Annie Dressner

“Falter” – Annie Dressner

Annie Dressner has one of those plainspoken voices that sounds like she’s singing and not singing at the same time. It works especially well with a song like “Falter,” which itself is simultaneously simple and maybe not so simple. An obvious complication is the time signature hiccup that Dressner employs in the intro and the verse, before allowing the song to slide into a more familiar groove.

Less obvious is the push/pull of the lyrical content. The song reads to me as a poignant testament to our imperfect lives. What might initially sound like a pep talk to the self (“Stop wasting time! Get to the finish line!”), comes across to my ears as a bittersweet recognition that there’s something inevitable to our falling short of our dreams, and that we go on anyway. The wisdom we gain through aging and perseverance may be more valuable than what we thought we wanted as young dreamers. Perhaps I’m reading more into it than is there? I’d like to think not. The hints I see suggesting the more complex reading are sprinkled throughout; if I try to explain in detail this would get too long, and potentially embarrassing, as I could well be off base. Let me just note that the title is, in fact, “Falter”: the apparent weakness itself, not the pep talk. Also, the chorus launches off the plaintive question “Can’t you get it right?”; expressed with the implicit negative, it becomes rhetorical: no, we can’t get it right. We’re human.

More to my usual concerns—I don’t often get caught up in lyrics but it could be that distinctive quality in her voice that focused me in this direction—the chorus is propelled by a wonderful feeling of musical inevitability, having to do with the unresolved chord at the outset, and the series of chords that bring it invincibly to resolution. I like too the unhurried, almost mournful guitar solo (starting at 1:58) that inserts itself between two iterations of the bridge, delaying the payoff of one last chorus, and (perhaps) adding subtle irony to the words “almost at the finish line,” since she ends up singing that twice.

Annie Dressner was born and raised in New York City; she moved to the UK in the early 2010s. Her new album, Broken Into Pieces, was released last week. You can both listen to it and buy it via Bandcamp. Thanks to Annie for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Hatchie (catchy dream pop)

Breezing in on a vibe that explores the overlap between the Cranberries and the Sundays, “Sure” overflows with melody and nostalgia.

Hatchie

“Sure” – Hatchie

Breezing in on a vibe that explores the overlap between the Cranberries and the Sundays, “Sure” overflows with melody and nostalgia. And yet, the magic trick here is that Hatchie mastermind Harriette Pilbeam manages to put forth her music in a crisp, contemporary package. Which doesn’t (thankfully) mean she’s pandering to any of today’s all-but-listenable trends (over-processing, mindless digital rhythms, affected vocalizing). This is as solidly constructed a piece of music emerging from the remnants of the pop-rock spectrum as one can hope to encounter in the ongoing nightmare that is the year 2018.

I’m hearing a coy type of syncopation as one of the keys to this song’s earworm-y success. After the chiming, guitar-filled intro, the drums kick in at 0:22, and if you listen you’ll see that we get a direct second beat but in place of an equally accented fourth beat (which would be the classic backbeat rhythm), there’s a stuttered, off-center accent. This manages both to move the song along and to play with the flow in an agreeable way. Added to this is the way the lyrics in the verse begin only on the second beat of the measure, which creates a pleasant, head-bobbing lag, the hesitation pulling us forward rather than backward. Resolution comes with the sturdy descent of the chorus, melody now planted on the first beat, even as the drumming underneath stays with its offbeat swing.

And hey that’s a rather wordy explication; I could also just say: it’s really catchy.

Pilbeam is from Brisbane, which partially explains her easy way with this type of melodic, history-embracing music—Australia is one of a handful of countries (Sweden is another) that has figured out how to maintain cultural interest in rock’n’roll’s organic development long after the combined machinations of the mainstream American music industry and fad-obsessed internet crowds have left it for dead. “Sure” was originally released as a single in November 2017, and became more widely available with the release of her Sugar & Spice EP in May 2018. Hatchie is finishing up a US tour as we speak, with dates upcoming this month in LA and Brooklyn, among other places.

Free and legal MP3: Mikaela Davis (harp-based midtempo rocker; it works!)

Davis’s harp insinuates itself into “Other Lover” so naturally that I find myself smiling a great big smile.

Mikaela Davis

“Other Lover” – Mikaela Davis

I can’t claim exhaustive expertise about harps in rock’n’roll. (And I mean harp harps, not harmonicas.) Basically all I know is 1) you don’t hear them very often; and 2) Joanna Newsom made a splash with the instrument back in the ’00s, which intimated that the harp was going to become the next hip thing but I guess it hasn’t. Now as much as I admire Newsom’s instrumental skills (not to mention her opinions about Spotify, which she has called “a villainous cabal”; you won’t find her music there), I have yet to acquire a taste either for her voice (it’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it things) or for her elusive songwriting tactics, and because she plays the harp and has that voice and writes those songs I’ve kind of intertwined all those things in my head to the extent that Mikaela Davis can come along, play the harp in an incisively crafted rock song and I almost can’t compute the circumstance. Doesn’t a harp have to involve all sorts of other idiosyncrasy?

Apparently not. After immediately making its presence known with a dreamy introduction that feels half sumptuous, half portentous (listen to the bottom of the mix), Davis’s harp insinuates itself into “Other Lover” so naturally that I find myself smiling a great big smile. Who knew a harp could work like this, could be the easy, arpeggioed backbone of a catchy, invigorating tune? There’s so much to admire here, beginning with the song’s basic structure, which draws us in through the ongoing push/pull of its half-time/double-time melodies—first two lines of the verse in half time, second two in double time, followed by a chorus in which the half-time/double-time change happens within each lyrical line.

Another sign of a well-built song: the second verse is put together against a subtly different backdrop than the first verse, underscored by a new harp technique, as Davis leaves off some of the arpeggios for a staccato plucking that calls more attention now to the bass line (which may not actually be a bass, but in any case delivers a heavier-sounding bottom this time). (Fun fact: the word arpeggio is derived from the Italian word for “play the harp.”) This is a sign of the canny production on display throughout. As merely one example, listen to the sounds accompanying the end of the chorus, on the repeated words “run away” (first heard around 0:54): we’re probably getting a harp’s natural glissando in there, but it sounds subtly augmented, and fully aligned with the lyrics. A more direct example of this is in the bridge, in which this wonderful swelling arises in the background starting around 2:34, which sounds mostly vocal, both involving the harp and imitating it.

Mikaela Davis is a Rochester, NY-based singer/songwriter. Classically trained, she spent four years playing in the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra before going to study at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music. Halfway through college, she decided she’d rather write and perform her own songs than play in an orchestra. After graduating, she made an effort to forge her path in Brooklyn, but eventually landed back in her hometown, where she found her footing and her voice.

“Other Lover” is a song from Davis’s first full-length album, Discovery, released on Rounder Records in July, available here. She has two previous EPs and one single available via Bandcamp. MP3 via The Current.

Free and legal MP3: Laura Veirs

Lovely, warm, and rhythmic

Laura Veirs

“Everybody Needs You” – Laura Veirs

A Fingertips favorite from the earliest days, Portland-based Laura Veirs has been making wonderful, left-of-center singer/songwriter music since the dawn of the 21st century—since 1999, in fact, to be accurate. Probably most well-known in the wider world for her collaboration with Neko Case and k.d. lang on the 2016 album case/lang/veirs, Veirs held her own there with two powerhouse singers, because what she may lack in vocal brawn she more than makes up for with warmhearted presence.

“Everybody Needs You,” the second track on Veirs’ new album, The Lookout, springs to a rhythmic 4/4 groove, with a melody that feels at once syncopated and steady, lyrics a series of separated declarations over a starry, organic-sounding blend of acoustic and electronic sounds. Her voice is so friendly and nonchalant that you may not end up noticing that what she’s saying makes no sense that I can discern—that is, I can make out the words, most of them, but they don’t add up to something understandable. But, in a weird way, this somehow renders the song’s central, repeated message all the more poignant: “Everybody needs you”—no matter who you are or what you think you’re up to or whether we even understand you or not.

The Lookout is Veirs’ tenth solo album, including one of children’s songs. It was once again produced by Tucker Martine, who happens also to be her husband. If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to her many offerings, allow me to suggest 2010’s July Flame or 2004’s Carbon Glacier.

MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Tracey Thorn (elegant electronic anthem)

What really renders this so potent is the gorgeous depth of the sound—a deft mix of a deep, subtly languorous disco beat, incisive percussive twizzles, and Thorn’s honeyed alto, arguably more commanding than ever.

Tracey Thorn

“Sister” – Tracey Thorn

Effortlessly brilliant, from the groove to the arrangement to the dusky authority of Tracey Thorn’s voice, “Sister” is as elegant and urgent an electronic anthem as you’re likely to hear this year (this decade?; ever?). That she even needs to write this here in 2018 is ridiculous, which she admits herself in the lyrics (“Oh, what year is it/Still arguing the same shit”), and yet with all the knuckleheads—real and fake—out there arguing in favor of white male supremacy, well, here she is, fighting (also from the lyrics) “like a girl,” which I take to be a powerful thing indeed.

And what really renders this so potent is the gorgeous depth of the sound—a deft mix of a subtly languorous disco beat, incisive percussive twizzles, and Thorn’s honeyed alto, arguably more commanding than ever. (One of many glorious vocal moments in this song comes right after the first “fight like a girl” line, where she first exhales the word “girl” into two syllables and then at 1:09 stretches the word with an extra sigh that penetrates the soul.)

Be warned that this is a long one, some eight-plus minutes, the last three or so committed to extending the groove rather than the content of the song. But none of it is mindless; there are shifts in sounds and effects, and a maintenance of the song’s nuanced tension that keeps my ear and mind engaged all the way through.

“Sister” is literally the centerpiece of Record, Thorn’s latest album—the fifth of nine songs, each a one-word title, mirroring the all but ironic simplicity of the album name itself. Record was released in March on Merge Records, and is her fourth post-Everything But The Girl solo release, her first since the wonderful 2012 Christmas album Tinsel and Lights. MP3 via KEXP. Thorn was previously featured on Fingertips in March 2010.

Free and legal MP3: Becca Richardson (delightful, confident debut)

“Wanted” is a cool delight from start to finish, smartly crafted and produced in a most matter-of-fact way.

Becca Richardson

“Wanted” – Becca Richardson

“Wanted” is a cool delight from start to finish, smartly crafted and produced in a most matter-of-fact way. What begins as a bass-driven groove expands fluidly into a succinct, three-part song, with strong hooks in all three sections—verse (first heard at 0:13), pre-chorus (0:47), and chorus (1:03)—with each part nestled snugly against the next, while also offering nuanced additions to the soundscape. The climax at the chorus is sneaky-great, featuring a sly two-step reveal: the central question “Doesn’t it feel good?” sounds like a stand-alone as it’s asked three times in a row, only then to show itself as incomplete—the full question turns out to be “Doesn’t it feel good to be wanted?” The shift is subtle but affecting.

I’m impressed throughout by the clean and dexterous mix. Calling on a judicious bag of aural building blocks, “Wanted” feels all the richer for how nonchalantly the blend works. Bass and drum get us going, synths and guitars join in, each entrance at once precise and casual. I like, as an example, the guitar chords that slash in as background accents starting at 0:32, and especially appreciate the dissonant chord we get at 0:34, first of a series of quietly off-kilter accents. The pre-chorus follows, highlighted by swelling backing vocals and an underwater-y synth line deep below. The chorus then anchors us with psychedelic guitar blurts.

Not to be overlooked through it all is the enticing suppleness of Becca Richardson’s voice. She sings in slightly different registers in each of the song’s three sections—subtly shy and sultry in the verse, open-voiced and full strength in the middle part, and in the third a higher-register version of sultry, minus the shy. Among Richardson’s strengths here as both singer and songwriter is how little she strains to call attention to how good she is. It’s an unorthodox stance in our YouTuber age, and that may be at least part of what lends an old-school vibe to a song that otherwise zings along with solid 21st-century chops.

Richardson is based in Nashville. “Wanted” is the opening track from her debut album, We Are Gathered Here, which was self-released in October. You can sample it and buy it on iTunes. MP3 via the artist.

Free and legal MP3: Lowpines (gorgeous 21st-century folk rock)

After the first chorus the song feels transformed into something silvery and resolute.

Lowpines

“Broken Wing” – Lowpines

Static and fuzz lead us counterintuitively into a smooth, minor-key strummer. The melody, at first, is lovely, but contained—the verse, in fact, concentrates on just two different notes. But emerging from the mouth of Oli Deakin, doing musical business as Lowpines, the song sounds, already, rich and wistful.

Then the chorus slays with pure beauty. Deakin’s already multi-tracked voice opens into a wash of vocal sound as the melody expands into gratifying intervals—note in particular the two different landing spots for the word “wing” on the chorus’s repeated end line, “Be my broken wing”: the first “wing” dips down below an expected descent and then the second one, also against expectation, finishes higher up, in an unresolved place, with Deakin’s phrasing lagging behind the beat in a way that somehow adds both lushness and regret to the palette.

After the first chorus the song feels transformed into something silvery and resolute. The background fills with a soft sort of loudness, buoying the song into grandeur. The return of the chorus, with its Moody Blues-like pathos, just about brings tears to the eyes. At one point a clarion synth line finds its way through the sumptuous forward-moving haze. At the end we get a slowed-down coda in which the song ends without resolution, as if in mid-thought. There is little to do now but go back and listen again.

Deakin, based in the UK, has been recording as Lowpines since 2012. Earlier Lowpines material, while still melodic, was characterized by a more whispery vocal style that brings the likes of Iron & Wine and Bon Iver and, grandfather of them all, Elliott Smith to mind: by now the almost cliched woodsy-folksy 21st-century troubadour sound. “Broken Wing” breaks past the claustrophobia often looming in that approach, and lands us in some new kind of folk-rock firmament. It’s the second track on the second Lowpines album, In Silver Halides, slated for release later this month. You can check out his previous discography—one other album, three EPs, two singles—over on Bandcamp.