At his best, Sam Beam writes the sorts of songs that sound eternal—exquisite melodies fragile enough to break into rainbows, strong enough to support the universe.
At his best, Sam Beam writes the sorts of songs that sound eternal—exquisite melodies fragile enough to break into rainbows, strong enough to support the universe. This is one of them. How could he have written this thing that must surely have already existed! And how much is yet left to be done with an acoustic guitar! (Who’d have thought, in this mean-spirited moment in our planet’s history? Or maybe that’s exactly why.) And not that this is a simple guitar-and-voice presentation; on the contrary, Beam has over the years developed a gift for enveloping his guitar within an ensemble of textures while neither overwhelming it nor over-relying on it. You never lose track of this as an acoustic song, but hear how well he places the bass, the piano, the percussion, all definitively in there yet never obviously or individually emphasized. Even the graceful backing harmonies enter gently, mixed exactly to where they will have impact and no higher. The lyrics, meanwhile, float through the air with elegant purity—phrases ebb and flow, creating emotion beyond the reach of reason.
Nothing further need be said. This song has been out since August, so you may have heard it already. If so, now you can have a free and legal MP3 of it (again, via KEXP); if not, waste no more time and by all means listen. The song is track six on the album Beast Epic, Beam’s sixth full-length studio album as Iron and Wine, not including collaborative projects. Iron and Wine has been twice previously featured on Fingertips, but not since 2007.
Some alchemical mixture of voice, texture, and melody puts me in my happy place when I hear them.
All music fans, I’m pretty sure, have certain sounds that are so irresistible to them that bands who manage to hit that aural sweet spot have a more or less limitless appeal—just about anything they record sounds terrific. The Toronto-based quartet Alvvays (pronounced “Always”) is one of those bands for me. Some alchemical mixture of voice, texture, and melody puts me in my happy place when I hear them.
It all begins with Molly Rankin’s voice, with its enchanting blend of purity and depth, her honeyed tones retouched by the flawless application of reverb. Add in the band’s knack for finding contemporary homes for nostalgic melodies and I am smitten. Beyond these immediate characteristics, the band delivers likewise at a deeper level. Check out the juxtaposition of the staccato bass line with the ongoing wash of guitar noise, the bass guiding the ear through the indeterminate din that floats just beyond the surface prettiness; “ice cream truck jangle collides with prismatic noise pop” is how the band describes the general ambiance and sure, why not.
Then we have Alvvays’ ongoing attentiveness to the words employed within their sonic environment of choice. Despite the reverb and the noise, Rankin is rarely mixed beyond comprehension, which allows us to appreciate her heedful language. Note the way the words in the second part of the second verse mirror the words in the same position in the first verse, but altered into slant rhymes: “metaphorically” for “rhetorically,” “psychology” for “astrology,” “mood” for “moon.” Another sign of attention to language is the title selection—rather than rely on the most repeated phrase, which would be “no turning back,” the band names the song after a phrase heard (just barely) once. And speaking of “no turning back,” one of the few places in which Rankin muffles her words is here. With its delivery broken this way—“No turning/There’s no turning/There’s no turning back”—the phrase, at first, to my ears, sounded like “There’s no teddy bears.” Whether she did this on purpose or not, and I suspect she did, it adds poignancy to a tale of a love that’s disappeared.
Alvvays was previously featured on Fingertips in November 2014, some months after their debut release. The band’s second album, Antisocialites, comes out in early September on Polyvinyl Records. You can check out one other song from the new album, and purhase it, on Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.
While there is something of the archetypal lonely West in the air, there’s also something unsettled about this song, something that doesn’t want to be entirely constrained within the strummy conventions of so-called Americana.
Melancholy yet upbeat folk rock, “Nowhere” is buoyed by graceful melodies and an even more graceful vocalist, in front woman Tina Karkinen. It is in fact the combination of the rough-edged electric guitar work and Karkinen’s easeful vocal tone that gives me such a good feeling as this song unfolds, and accentuates the impression that there is not any one thing that makes “Nowhere” stand out but rather its nuanced elements working together.
And while there is something of the archetypal lonely West in the air, there’s also something unsettled about this song, something that doesn’t want to be entirely constrained within the strummy conventions of so-called Americana. Swaying Wires is from Finland, for one thing, so their take on this kind of music is legitimately unconventional. If you listen closely you’ll see that the song builds mutably—there are wordless breaks between verses and then the verses themselves change musically with each iteration. One of the song’s most intriguing vagaries happens in the chorus, which on the one hand is rooted in a melody that circles with a gratifying momentum, but on the other hand goes harmonically off the rails in two different places—first in a subtle way (at 2:04; listen to the underlying chord around “made to last”) and then more unsettlingly (at 2:20, in and around the phrase “in a silent movie”). The juxtaposition of Karkinen’s cozy voice and these moments of quiet but willful dissonance is mysterious and persuasive, underscored by that hammering electric guitar. The song compels (and rewards) repeated listens.
Swaying Wires is a quartet from Turku, on the southwest coast, Finland’s oldest city and former capital. You’ll find “Nowhere” on I Left a House Burning, the band’s second album, which was released in January on the Brighton, UK-based indie label Battle Worldwide. MP3 via Insomnia Radio.
And here we have, at the tail end of 2014, a song that somehow shocks me into here-and-now Okayness. Nearly (but not quite) as glistening as the kind of brain-free indie pop that makes my teeth grind, “Nobody Dies” is instead a song shot through with humanity and depth that leaves me laughing and winded, like emerging, twirling, from the salty, numbing North Atlantic on a warm summer day. Partly it’s the sweet subtle resonance of Daisy Victoria’s voice, and partly it’s the heroic melody, and the way it continually brings that voice upward in gratifying, unforeseen ways, but mostly it’s just how big and sweeping and genuine this feels, in an almost Kate Bushian way (minus, it should be noted, Kate’s all-out strangeness).
Hints that this is no mere dance-beat trifle come quickly (a beat-free intro juxtaposing water drips and echoey guitars) and often (even as the beat sets in, the mix is full of nuance and texture, devoid of ear-squashing processing). Some (most?) of the aural effects sound refreshingly guitar-based, in fact, while the drumming is sticks and skins as far as I can tell. And please understand that I am not now and never have been against electronics and beats and anything else that can be employed to make great music. But great music only and always originates in the human heart and soul. Something isn’t genuine just because it’s acoustic any more than something is automatically soulless just because it’s electronic. My particular glee regarding “Nobody Dies” has to do with how Victoria here has managed, in a sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing kind of switcheroo, to take an aural language too often employed to create soulless product and find within it the glow of life. I love this in uncountable and unaccountable ways.
Daisy Victoria is a singer/songwriter based in Norwich (UK). “Nobody Dies” is the title track to her second EP, released last month. You can listen via her SoundCloud page, and also there download this song in higher-quality .wav format, if that makes you happy.
Thanks to Lauren Laverne at BBC Radio 6 for the head’s up, and thanks to Daisy for the MP3.
Jessy Bell Smith has a magical lilt in her voice, and “John Mouse” is a magical, lilting song, all forward momentum and earnest, recycling melody.
Jessy Bell Smith has a magical lilt in her voice, and “John Mouse” is a magical, lilting song, all forward momentum and friendly, recycling melody. Verse and chorus are barely distinguishable as Smith, once set in motion, seems not to want to break the spell of this odd, oblique little tale. A mouse has been killed, to begin with. The narrator seems conflicted about it. After that, little is unambiguous, lyrically.
Musically, on the other hand, “John Mouse” is steadfast and definitive, with the feeling of a olden-days folk ballad re-booted by a traveling-carnival rock band with more interest in horns and tooting keyboards than electric guitars. There in the midst of the song’s light-footed élan, Smith manages to convey the sensibility of both ringmaster and empath, laying an almost poignant tenderness atop her “Step right up!” confidence.
Note by the way that it’s rare for a song to have both this trustworthy a backbeat and this offbeat an arrangement. When the backbeat disappears, starting at 2:09, the song’s idiosyncratic pith comes more fully into focus. This is fun in its own way but when the drumming returns 30 seconds later is when she really owns you. I think there’s a lesson in that but I’m not exactly sure what it is.
A singer/songwriter from Guelph, Ontario, Jessy Bell Smith has also somewhat recently become a member of the veteran Toronto band The Skydiggers. “John Mouse” is from the album The Town, released at the end of February via Choose My Music, a British music blog with a small, associated record label. The album was a limited-edition CD and appears now to be sold out; you can check out two other songs via Bandcamp, and download one of them via SoundCloud, thanks to the Guelph-based Missed Connection Records. Smith’s one previous release appears to have been a very lo-fi EP called Tiny Lights, in 2004. Two of those songs landed on this finally-recorded album. Thanks to the record label for the MP3. Thanks to Lauren Laverne for the tip.
“Cost/Amount” is a tight little package of a song, with a pop-rock heart that feels either anachronistic or timeless here in 2013 (it’s a fine line sometimes), but it is Kendall Jane Meade most assuredly who holds it together.
We begin with an emphatic one-two punch: an itchy guitar line borrowed from 1979 and a lead vocal of heart-melting purity. Kendall Jane Meade has one of those voices that makes me stop in my tracks—all the more so because she doesn’t stop in hers; she sings with a fetching matter-of-factness I much prefer to the vocal preening we often get from people who know they have a good voice.
The entire song is a wonderfully matter-of-fact exercise, in fact: verse-chorus-verse, with an instrumental break, all finished in little over two minutes. It’s a tight little package of a song, with a pop-rock heart that feels either anachronistic or timeless here in 2013 (it’s a fine line sometimes), but it is Meade most assuredly who holds it together. In the right frame of listening mind, small moments of phrasing can be thrilling; me, I love how Meade ever so slightly delays the word “pity” (0:21), I love how plumply she manages to sing the not-easily-singable word “cost” (first at 0:35), and I love the one time she lets her voice unleash a tiny bit, in the phrase “clearer to me” (0:51), and how that moment highlights the clarity of words to follow like “wrong” (0:59) and “song” (1:01). It can be the small, small moments that turn a small song into something deep and delightful.
“Cost/Amount” is one of four songs on the Cost/Amount EP, released this week on Kiam Records, the New York-based label founded and run by singer/songwriter Jennifer O’Connor. Meade has been performing as Mascott since back in 1998, and has worked additionally with lots of other folks, including Sparklehorse, the Spinanes, and Helium. One interesting bit of music industry trivia is that Meade herself used to run Red Panda Records and once upon a time (okay, in 2005) released a Jennifer O’Connor album there. (Bonus trivia: a song from that album was featured here at the time; we come full circle, sort of.) The Cost/Amount EP by the way features three other songs, one of which is a fetching cover of “They Don’t Know,” one of Kirsty MacColl’s lasting gifts to the world.
photo credit: Debora Francis
Here is a crafty duo from Portland—Daniel Hindman on guitar, Sarah Versprille on keys and vocals—that appears to understand the power of restraint
Immediately warm and welcoming, “Pendulum” punctuates its laid-back opening groove with a concise guitar riff—but only twice. It’s a sturdy, time-honored three-chord descent, the kind of riff with which a typical rock band might pound you into submission. Here, then, is a crafty duo from Portland—Daniel Hindman on guitar, Sarah Versprille on keys and vocals—that appears to understand the power of restraint; they use the riff only in the intro and in the chorus and each time we hear it repeated just the two times. Instead of walloping you with it, they caress you.
And then there’s the matter of singer Versprille, and the sweet vigor with which she sings. Even through a smeary blanket of reverb, her voice has a cloudless purity. It too feels like a kind of caress. Oh, and when we only heard the riff twice in the introduction, it was followed by an ancillary instrumental melody gliding gracefully down and partially back up a full octave. That turns out to be the climactic melody line in the chorus, and as in the intro, it follows those two iterations of the riff; but see here how the riff now weaves itself artfully below the emphatic melody line. The entire song, upon repeated listens, feels like one grand and artful weave, and Hindman’s guitar lines turn out to be just as much the cause of delight as his band mate’s vocals.
“Pendulum” is a song from the duo’s full-length debut, Moon Tides, due to arrive in August on Partisan Records. The pair previously released a four-song EP in 2012, and was featured here for the song “Ivory Coast” last May. Thanks to Lauren Laverne over at BBC Radio 6 Music for the head’s up.
Claudine Muno sings with persuasive sweetness, providing a strong handhold for the song’s inconstant melody lines.
With an acoustic heart and a blippy-trippy soul, “Give Up” moves with a purposeful stammer, creating dynamic momentum out of some intimate, creative percussion and an evasive, uneven melody. I am enchanted for reasons which remain unclear.
Things begin in a gentle swing, with singer Claudine Muno emerging out of muffled distortion. At 0:38, the track slides into place, but remains noncommittal, blurry in intent however crisp and engaging the sound. Muno sings with persuasive sweetness, providing a strong handhold for the song’s inconstant melody lines, which are abetted by her overlapping vocals. The layered percussion pounds and twitters as she purrs and mumbles, coming occasionally to the forefront with a trenchant phrase—when she sings, now in harmony and unison, “Stop pulling at yourself” (1:21), the song locks in with unexpected force, one of those moments you long to hear again, suspecting however that it’s not coming back (it doesn’t).
Monophona is a Portishead-ish trio from Luxembourg featuring Muno, DJ/producer Phillippe Shirrer (who goes by Chook), and drummer Jorsch Kass. Muno previously fronted a folk-pop band called Claudine Muno & the Luna Boots, which released five albums between 2004 and 2011. Muno is also an author (she has published seven books to date, in four different languages) and a teacher. Schirrer has previously released one album, called The Cocoon, in 2010; a subsequent single called “You Are All You Have,” released two years ago, featured Muno on vocals—if you listen you can sense what Muno brought to the table for the collaboration on Monophona. Kass was previously in a Luxembourg band called Zap Zoo. “Give Up” is from Monophona debut album, The Spy, which was released in Europe in November. You can download the song as usual by right-clicking the title above, or by going to the SoundCloud page. And while you’re at it, you can listen to the whole album, and buy it, via Bandcamp.
photo credit: Joël Nepper
Singer Noelle Indovino’s voice floats with airy grace above the swells and clatters of the electronic backbeat.
Despite the volume of lifeless electronica and/or electro-pop that has flooded the internet over the last 10 or so years, let us not ever give up on the basic sound, which in the proper hands can still deliver fresh and delightful music. File “Walk” under fresh and delightful, thanks in large part to the clear sweetness of front woman Noelle Indovino’s voice. Draped in a bit of reverb, she still sounds present and crisp, a tone rarely heard in the overcrowded world of DIY electronic duos. And apparently this is no accident. Tideup mastermind/producer/multi-instrumentalist Ben Guzman spent two years searching, via Craigslist, for the right female vocalist to buoy his electronics-oriented landscapes, inspired by music he admired from the Dirty Projectors. Indovino answered his ad in December 2011, as well as his musical prayers. Her voice lends a seductive humanity to Guzman’s adept textures, floating with airy grace above the swells and clatters of the electronic backbeat.
But Tideup isn’t just about a pretty voice. “Walk” is a sturdy song, with lovely, rubbery melodies and thoughtful touches like that vivid three-note melisma in the chorus at 1:53 (melisma: one syllable held through a succession of notes), the thoughtfully sparse instrumental break at 2:20, and what sounds like the ongoing addition of organic drumming on top of the electronic beat. Listen closely and you might also notice how the verse melody is different the second time through, always a sign of a thoughtful composition. And one of the most appealing extras in “Walk” stems again from Indovino’s singing—that lovely wordless vocal she offers us ahead of the verse, which is an unusual and enticing moment. Let this one wash over you a few times and you might start glowing.
“Walk” is a song from Tideup’s debut EP, In Curses You Came, which was released digitally at the beginning of the year. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy it, via Bandcamp. Guzman and Indovino are based in Orlando, Florida.
A singer/songwriter duet that’s as sturdy, genuine, and endearing a song as can be.
An easy-going singer/songwriter duet, “Whim” has all the makings of the kind of thing they will play too often on your local adult-alternative station (if you happen to have a local adult-alternative station), and therefore, alas, all the makings of a song I will not like very much: the acoustic guitars, the male-female vocals, the folk-based melody. Not that I have anything against any of those things per se, at all; I’ve just been negatively trained in recent years to expect only the most tiresome and ersatz material of this ilk based on what tends to get pushed for concentrated radio play. And yet “Whim” turns out to be as sturdy, genuine, and endearing a song as can be. Go figure.
The voices are good, to begin with. Not showy, but with impressive character. Balmer, an Austin-based musician, opens the piece, and right away I am charmed by his plainspoken tone. I often enjoy singers who sing with such clarity and ease that it sounds almost as if they are still talking; it’s a characteristic I find more often with women singers than men so here it’s especially engaging. Tadros, on the other hand, sings with unaffected richness; her first solo words here are “I was singing my song/When a man came along/Said he liked the sound of my voice,” and because as a listener I was coming to that same conclusion just as she sang it, the effect is powerful. I am won over. The stories each singer sings—simplified, but with well-chosen words—are parallel but dissimilar tales of asymmetrical relationships: in his case, the woman was in for a brief kick, then left; in her case, the man keeps her as a trophy, with no heart connection. Both of them take turns singing the same chorus: “I’m a whim, I’m a whim/Just a passing thought/In the mind of the girl (man) I love.” Note when Tadros takes the lead, the chorus’s melody slips into the space between their harmonies, a move perhaps too subtle for heavy-rotation radio play. The chorus ends with a lyric both unassuming and brilliant: “I ain’t much/When push comes to shove”—spot-on both as character self-commentary and as lyrics that scan with impeccable grace.
Tadros is an American singer/songwriter with an unusual interest in international music, prompted in part by her father’s Egyptian heritage. She was born in Laredo, got started as a musician in Austin, and now lives in Brooklyn. She released her second album, The Fits, in January. Balmer was born in Michigan and lives in Austin; his debut album, Dug In, came out in October 2012. They wrote the song together in a couple of sessions while at music festivals they were each playing.