If you happen to know that Hamilton Leithauser is the lead singer for the perpetually underrated New York City band The Walkmen, you may also happen to know that he doesn’t usually sound like what you hear when “Here They Come” starts. Typically Leithauser presses against the upper range of his vocal register, with a scuffed-up sort of zeal that does battle with the band’s bashy atmospherics.
This starts as another thing entirely: we hear a growly baritone, accompanying a finger-picked guitar. This goes on for 35-some-odd seconds, at which point, if you listen carefully, something in the background lightens up—you can kind of hear a higher vocal harmony in the distance, and the elusive sound of maybe a melodica? Then, just after his voice turns growliest, on the lines “all my candy’s gone” (1:02), bang: Leithauser converts to his familiar upper register, the music acquires a ramshackle beat, and off we go into the epitome of a sing-along chorus. This is, I feel, impossible not to like, but maybe that’s just me.
The verse returns at 1:26, now swinging along in the song’s revised setting. Leithauser’s transformed voice, just this side of hoarse, is for me the source of the song’s deepest charms—despite the tale of woe recorded here, something about a friend who can’t cope with the messy realities of life, the music’s effervescence coaxes a smile. Maybe that’s the point.
From the album The Loves of Your Life, released last month. MP3 again via KEXP. Note that the Walkmen have been on hiatus since 2014 but have not officially broken up. Old-timers may remember that that the band have been featured twice on Fingertips, in 2004 and 2008.
When Cleveland begins the verse, her reverbed voice mimicking the slide guitar, she luxuriates in the deliberate pace of the melody, and in the general lonesome-western vibe, even as the acoustic guitar continues its tense support.
So one thing I’ve learned after reviewing songs here for the past (now) 16 years is that one of my signature sweet spots is when contradictory elements coexist in one piece of music. An easy example of this from the realm of pop music is a song that sounds happy but has sad lyrics.
Another example: songs with slow melodies and fast accompaniments—such as this one, from Shana Cleveland. Note that musical juxtapositions such as this often happen a bit below conscious recognition. For instance, only after sitting down to write this, a process that involves a lot of close listening, did I actively notice what was going on musically beyond a basic “Hey! I like this!” Once I was paying closer attention, however, I found that the song announces itself right from the start, with that leisurely slide guitar motif working against a rapid-fire acoustic guitar, mixed far enough down that the ear picks it up more as rhythm than notes or chords. When Cleveland begins the verse (0:18), her reverbed voice mimicking the slide guitar, she luxuriates in the deliberate pace of the melody, and in the general lonesome-western vibe, even as the acoustic guitar continues its tense support. Once you notice it it’s not subtle at all, but because a piece of music by necessity presents itself as a whole—the ear is forced to listen in real time—separate elements are easy to overlook, whether in isolation or in conjunction with other elements. This is in fact precisely what I make an effort to listen for in doing these reviews; my intention all along has been less to say “I like this” (anyone can do that) than to try to tease out as precisely as possible what it is I’m liking about it.
Another enjoyable bit of subtlety in “Face of the Sun” is how the verse and the chorus are differentiated more by choices in accompaniment than in melody or structure—first, the introduction of backing harmonies (0:56); and second, the insertion of a conspicuous chord change in between the two sections of lyrics (1:10-1:13). This is surely as nuanced a way to say “Here’s the chorus” as you are usually likely to hear. Even in its closing moment, the song offers us a subtle gesture: that descending guitar line starting at 3:21, four notes long, strongly implies one last resolving note that it pulls up short of delivering. And yet as that last note is held for a few seconds, the ear manages to hear resolution in that unresolved. This is a very subtle effect, which I may be entirely imagining, but it feels aligned with the song’s sense of playful mystery, so there you are.
Shana Cleveland, based in Seattle, is the lead guitarist and vocalist for the group La Luz (who have been featured here previously, in February 2013). “Face of the Sun” is a track from her recently released second solo album, Night of the Worm Moon. You can listen to a few more songs from the album, and buy it (digital, CD, vinyl, cassette) on Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.
This is one of those mysterious little songs that works perfectly for no precise reason.
This is one of those mysterious little songs that works perfectly for no precise reason. The music has a chuggy, sloppy-tight New York City sound but lacks both a discernible chorus and, even, any kind of proper hook; melodies, meanwhile, kind of slide around in an elusive way, when words aren’t being out-and-out spoken-sung. Meanwhile, the lyrics, often a series of imponderable questions, twinkle with aphoristic charm but don’t seem to add up to any bigger picture narrative or statement. Through it all, Gabriel Levine flaunts a singing style that veers towards the neighborhood of off-key.
And it’s all a wonderful thing. It starts with some serious string playing, and even as the strings take a quick back seat to that Sweet-Jane-ish guitar riff and reverberant bass line, they’re always in the background, and the occasionally-heard cello fill is an atmospheric bonanza. (As often as we encounter strings in rock songs, we don’t often find a real rock’n’roll sound blended adroitly with individual stringed instruments.) The song seems to turn on the linchpin of the one line that’s clearly spoken (0:56): “You’ve been asking everyone to get out of your way/But there never was anyone in your way.” We don’t know who is talking to whom here but this line just kind of zings you with its unexpected magnetism. From there on in, Levine has firm command of this slippery, winsome tune (which also clocks in, as the previous song did, at 2:40, for all your song-time fans), and we are all better off because of it.
Levine is front man for the Brooklyn-based band Takka Takka; Gabriel & The Hounds is essentially a solo project, but one in which he called on the services of any number of locally-sourced musician friends. The project’s name was inspired by the classic Kate Bush album Hounds of Love, which is as worth being inspired by as, pretty much, anything yet recorded, if I may say so. The Gabriel & The Hounds album is called Kiss Full of Teeth and it is coming out at the end of the month on the Ernest Jenning Record Co., based in Brooklyn.