When will the critics understand that rock’n’roll was never about being original; it’s about being good. “Going Nowhere” is very good.
For a while there in the late ’90s and early ’00s, until it more or less died as far as the hipsters are concerned, rock’n’roll was increasingly taken to task for not offering up anything “new” or “original,” as if this most derivative of musical genres was ever truly about being new or original. Lazy critics yawning that this band or that wasn’t doing anything you hadn’t heard before was always beside the point. Good rock’n’roll was never really about being new or original; it was about being good. Much of rock’s goodness has always been grounded in visceral impact: does a song grab you? Does it work precisely because you don’t need to analyze it or philosophize about it or fit it into this or that intellectual construct? If at the same time a rock song can integrate its influences in ear-catching ways, then, well, we’re moving beyond good to great.
And so here comes the Austin quartet Toma, doing precisely this: taking a variety existing aural elements, integrating them in engaging ways, and crafting a song that grabs the ear quite firmly. I might even partially contradict what I just said and note that a band can in fact sound if not original then at least semi-original if it manages to combine its influences in new-seeming ways—although this point is always going to be difficult to demonstrate conclusively. But with “Going Nowhere,” my ear hears a bracing amalgam of ’80s synth pop, up-to-date production, and classic rock’n’roll (“it’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it”). And the synth pop vibe is really more a feel than a particular sound, as you will no doubt notice that “Going Nowhere” ends up being anchored in solid guitar lines.
As for this so-called “up-to-date production,” I’m referring both to the vocal effects and the background electronics the band works into the fabric of the presentation without unduly disrupting things. There is no particular way to describe this with any specificity, but it could be the thing that makes me happiest about “Going Nowhere.” The ability to use tools as tools rather than gimmicks is one that just might organically arise here in the later ’10s, as a kind of natural corrective to the overkill with which digital tools have been used by the mainstream music industry. Or, it might not. Lord knows I’ve been wrong before.
“Going Nowhere” is a song from the band’s debut album, Aroma, which is due out this week. MP3 via Magnet Magazine
A glistening synth pop delight with a rock-solid core, “Tired of Winning” is one of those effortless-seeming songs that is not nearly as easy to put together as it looks, or sounds.
A glistening synth pop delight with a rock-solid core, “Tired of Winning” is one of those effortless-seeming songs that is not nearly as easy to put together as it looks, or sounds. It is also one of those songs that illustrates how central a singer’s voice is to the success or failure of the end result, a fact that is strangely overlooked at the indie rock level. By which I mean: there are way too many bands out there whose music I just can’t take seriously (sorry!) because the singer has a voice that I will simply call “unpleasant,” to cover an array of sins. And I don’t mean that a voice has to be as pretty as James Benjamin’s voice is here, with Sea Span, but I do mean that if you are singing in pursuit of some kind of public following your voice has to have some significant singerly qualities to it. Tom Waits is a great singer so, you know, I cast the net wide in terms of aural characteristics. Singers I can’t warm to are those without presence and/or without character and/or without a palpable sense of sonic purpose in their tone. More bands than you may realize disqualify themselves right there.
In the meantime, however, yes, Benjamin has a lovely voice used to lovely effect here, so much so that I can not only overlook the vocal manipulation I believe I’m hearing, I can (gasp) applaud its tasteful usage. And maybe that’s all I’ve been waiting for when it comes to auto-tune and related processing effects: for singers to learn to use them as honest sonic enhancements versus either cynical corrections or pandering nonsense. Here amid the summery groove and simple melodicism of “Tired of Winning,” whatever Benjamin is running his voice through adds to the ethereal momentum of the composition, furthering the song’s cause versus distracting from it. At least, to my ears.
“Tired of Winning” is the fifth of six singles that the Philadelphia-based Benjamin has released in 2016 under the name Sea Span. It came out in May. The first five singles are all available to listen to and purchase via Bandcamp; additionally, four of them, including the latest, “Refugees,” can be listened to and downloaded, for free, via SoundCloud. Thanks to the artist for the MP3. And note that the fact that I have previously been watching CSPAN all week and live here in Philadelphia has no bearing on my selection of this song at this exact time; and that rather than being tired of winning I am terrified of losing. But that’s probably another song.
Whatever musical amalgam this is, whatever sub-sub-genre today’s musical classifiers want to slot this into, I like rock’n’roll that sounds like this and am grateful there are still bands out there doing whatever this happens to be.
An offbeat blend of the quirky and the anthemic, “Let It Go” has a stop-starty vibe that fidgets against its 4/4 time signature in an appealing way. Add some tasty suspended chords into the framework, augment with synth sounds hijacked from the ’80s, and finish off with an impossible-to-resist shouty group-singing chorus and the song sends me into a very happy place. Whatever musical amalgam this is, whatever sub-sub-genre it falls into, I like rock’n’roll that sounds like this and am grateful there are still bands out there doing whatever this happens to be.
Above and beyond the general coolness of the song, allow me to draw your attention to the instrumental break that begins at 2:02. On top of a chugging bass line we first hear a rather homely synthesizer sketching out a pleasant, alternative melody over a minimized background in a one-finger-plunking kind of way. The way the interval-happy melody perseveres through eight measures, and nearly 20 seconds, is almost notable by itself but check out what happens next: the melody repeats with a fuller, more driven accompaniment and with the synth line fleshed out with two hands. The melody is transformed from pleasant to essential, and the song is given an unexpected, interstitial-based climax. Leading into one more chorus, this moment is then bookended by another unforeseen move as the song withdraws in size and volume, fading out with a delightful lesson in the value of less over more.
“Let It Go” is from Young Blame, an EP the Tins released in July. The Buffalo-based trio has one full-length and another EP previously to their name. You can listen to and purchase the EP
via Bandcamp. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.
A giddy, glittery synth-pop trifle with yet a deeper purpose and conviction.
One of music’s many great mysteries is how, sometimes, under the right (mysterious) circumstances, a seemingly light-as-air pop confection can acquire the weight and power of something more significant, simply by doing what it does. And while I know that not everyone listening will hear it the same way, one of my founding principles hat Fingertips is that quality is not necessarily as subjective as is commonly assumed; continual effort has been made here, against all apparent odds, to explore how this might be.
So where exactly within this giddy, glittery synth-pop trifle am I sensing a deeper purpose and conviction? Let’s start with the introduction, which aligns with any number of classic grooves by shrewdly adding elements as it develops; I especially like the wooden-block-like sound that joins in at 0:16 and the psychedelic-organ-like tone that blossoms at 0:24. And then, the song’s backbone: a 15-note descending run that starts for the first time at 0:48. Listen with half an ear and it’s a standard-seeming downward melody; pay closer attention and it traces a marvelous, run-on, deviant scale. Likewise front man Farzad Houshiarnejad can be heard as an airy tenor belting out a bubble-gummy tune or, upon closer inspection, a canny and creative singer. And then maybe best of all, check out the metamorphosis that begins at 2:56, when the vocals fade into a stuttering, minimalist-style loop, which leads to a bass-and-drum interchange around 3:10, which (anyone see this coming?) opens into a kick-ass, old-fashioned guitar solo. As the vocals rejoin, it feels as if genre and time-frame have evaporated, and maybe that’s it, maybe it’s how this innocent-seeming song morphs from the particular to the nearly universal that allows it to pack its unexpected punch. I like it, in any case.
Night Panther is a trio based in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. “All For Love” is single the band released a bit earlier this month via SoundCloud. You can download it the usual way, via the song’s title above, or at the SoundCloud page, where you can also talk directly to the band, if you are so moved. This appears to be the band’s fourth single; no longer releases have yet been issued.
photo credit: Kelly Kurteson
Wall-of-sound-like illusions attached to a swaying, arena-friendly beat, with a soupçon of craftiness.
Attaching wall-of-sound-like illusions to a swaying, arena-friendly beat, the synth-flavored rock’n’roll of “Hey Judas” is big-bodied from the get-go. And that’s even before we get to the wordless sing-along at the end of the chorus, which graduates from arena- to stadium-sized.
And yet note how it’s not really that easy to sing along with, that wordless sing-along part (1:16). It’s comprised of unexpected leaps and sly intervals and finishes not with a grand finale but with an evasive syncopation. It’s a large gesture at the center of a large-gestured song and yet is also some wonderfully subtle music hiding in plain sight. As such it has a kind of ripple effect on the rest of the song. I’m listening more closely. Some of it is indeed as straightforward as it seems (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). But there are synth lines here, lyrical flourishes there, melodic angles elsewhere that dance through “Hey Judas” and give this swelling, swaggering tune an intriguing soupçon of craftiness. I kinda like that.
Fine Times is the Vancouver-based duo of vocalist/keyboardist Matthew Moldowan and bassist Jeffrey Josiah Powell. Most recently together in a band called 16mm, the two emerged as a band in their own right late in 2010 and shortly thereafter, apparently, producer Howard Redekopp (The New Pornographers, The Zolas, Tegan & Sara) gave them access to his spiffy collection of vintage synthesizers. So the unmistakable ’80s keyboards here are nothing if not authentic. (For good measure, check their worthy cover of “Enola Gay,” below.) “Hey Judas” is a track from the duo’s self-titled debut, which was released this week on Light Organ Records. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.
photo credit: Mathew Smith
I’m not sure how much is electronic and how much is organic but the sound is sweet and buoyant, with some great fat bass licks and an early smattering of shiny, retro-future synth squiggles.
Well, talk about happy music, isn’t this a happy beat? Fifteen seconds in, not a lot has really started, and I’m already smiling. I’m not sure how much is electronic and how much is organic but the sound is sweet and buoyant, with some great fat bass licks and an early smattering of shiny, retro-future synth squiggles. The vocals accumulate over the course of the first minute as little more than a gathering mumble and then, right on cue, comes the first lyric: “We get to this place/After standing in line with everyone in the world.” I’m still smiling.
I can’t really tell you what happens from here on in, but I like it. The beat goes on; the song glides by; stray lyrical bits penetrate; the vocals get a bit frantic in a neo-Talking-Heads kind of way. What I like about Shannon Fields, who does musical business as Leverage Models, is that he creates such a vibrant, chewy sound from his rhythms and keyboards. I mean, that’s so much of what pop music has reduced to in this age of free music: rhythms and keyboards. I am aghast at the number of songs thrown up on SoundCloud that are the most unremarkable constructions that nevertheless attract comments of unadulterated if generic support (“Awesome beat!” “Cool vocal!”). If we keep hearing unremarkable as good we are not going to know anything anymore. But I digress. Fortunately talent still finds a way, some of the time. Fields has a gift, even if I can’t quite describe it or know what it actually is. “Cooperative Extensions” has the feel of a jolly, nebulous, 21st-century adventure (this is the first song I can think of that has a lyrical reference to clicking on a link) and each time it ends I feel inclined to hit the play button again not because the next listen will unlock the mystery (although there’s always hoping) but because it just wants to keep playing and playing.
Fields has recorded two EPs as Leverage Models over the last 18 months or so, and seems affixed to what Hometapes, his record label, calls “two-word identifiers” (the previous releases were Interim Deliverable and Forensic Accounting). “Cooperative Extensions” is the title track from the forthcoming debut full-length album, for which I can’t find a release date. Note that Leverage Models was previously featured on Fingertips in January 2011.
“True Grit” is slick and stylized even as it likewise feels heartfelt and handmade.
A delightful splash of retro-y synth pop, “True Grit” is slick and stylized even as it likewise feels heartfelt and handmade. With its well-crafted blend of electronic sounds—pulse-like, percolating, plucky; wooshy and shimmering—the song floats in the airiest of spaces yet remains grounded and determined. First we get a fully-developed, Eurythmics-like instrumental melody; then comes Dan Armbruster, singing with New Romantic aplomb, cool and hot at the same time, telling us far less with his words than with his tone. The song appears to pivot on the melodramatic, non-sequitur-ish “Sometimes the English countryside remembers war”; yeah, I’m not sure what that’s about either but it glides by with marvelous ease.
The song hinges on that lyric largely because it’s one of the few lines that emerges from Armbruster’s mouth with purposeful clarity. For most of the song, he obfuscates with elegant panache, singing words that you can only almost understand. It’s an underrated pop song trick, not unlike pairing sad words with happy music: pairing a smooth-as-silk sound with not-quite-intelligible lyrics. The ear is captivated and, perhaps, happier this way than if it also has to process a storyline. Works for me, anyway.
Joywave is a quintet from Rochester that formed in 2010. “True Grit” is one of seven songs on the band’s debut EP, Koda Vista, a work indirectly inspired by the rise and fall of hometown behemoth Eastman Kodak. You an stream the album on Joywave’s Bandcamp page, which also offers a variety of corporate-themed purchase options, one of which includes credit towards the purchase of Eastman Kodak Company stock.
If Depeche Mode had lightened things up a bit and laid off the synthesizers, they might’ve sounded something like this.
Elegant and elegiac, “Motorhead” has the sweet sad momentum of an old synth-pop anthem and yet—it takes a while to realize this—there aren’t really a lot of synthesizers here. This is mostly guitar rock, even though that fact is skillfully disguised by the pounding of a piano-like keyboard and the strategic use of glockenspiel in the introduction. And then maybe the coolest misdirection of all is the human drummer here who mimics an electronic beat but is indeed an actual person (Henrik Holmlund, to be specific) with drum sticks.
Even though the lyrics are in English and are understandable word by word (if not thought by thought), I am not sure where the title comes from and whether it has anything to do with a) the old metal band Motörhead or b) the Hawkwind song “Motorhead” that inspired the band’s name in the first place or c) Lemmy Kilmister, who wrote the song while in the latter band but later founded the former band. I do know that the lyrical climax is at once jarring and potent, which is when the initial lyric “Before the time has come/And we end up in bed” (0:59) is altered one minute later to “Before the time has come/And we all end up dead.” I also know that singer Johan Landin has a wonderful, effortless baritone, hitting the elusive sweet spot between blasé and theatrical. If Depeche Mode had lightened things up a bit and laid off the synthesizers, they might’ve sounded something like this.
Centimeter is a Stockholm-based foursome who have been together since 2004. Their first album, recorded in Swedish, was self-released in 2006. “Motorhead” is from their first English-language album, expected out later this year. MP3 via the band. They haven’t gotten much attention yet in the blogosphere so spread the word on this one.
Class Actress is here to show you that not all electropop is created equal, even though it often sounds that way.
Class Actress is here to show you that not all electropop is created equal, even though it often sounds that way. And it could be that this Brooklyn trio makes distinctive electropop in part because the songs come to life in a distinctive way—front woman Elizabeth Harper writes them non-electronically, on a piano or a guitar. When she’s done, she gives the song to band mate Mark Richardson, who does all sorts of magical laptop-y things to it. But Harper aims to be writing songs, not beats or (god forbid) jams. (Can we stop calling songs “jams” now by the way? Pretty please?) She has been quoted as saying that if a song can pass “the campfire test”—i.e., can be played on an acoustic guitar, anywhere—then it’s a good song. I for one wouldn’t argue with her.
So right away you can listen here to how the beat is not the song’s centerpiece. This is a refreshing turn of events. The introduction is succinct and asymmetrical; at 0:11 the singing starts, and we still haven’t sunk into the song’s groove, which, when it kicks in, kicks in with space and syncopation rather than a wash of lock-step rhythm. Note how Harper isn’t singing against a monochromatic electronic field but alternately purrs and emotes against a disciplined blend of sounds. The one I really like is the synth we hear during the instrumental break beginning at 1:49—a witty, multi-dimensional electronic tone playing a stuttery melody for maybe 10 seconds and that’s it, on we go. It’s unusual and enticing.
As a singer, Harper is both sultry and elastic; to my ears, it’s her vocal leap in the chorus that provides the cementing hook, her voice in its upper range becoming more instrument than narrator. “I want to keep you in my”—what, exactly? Lyric sites say “heart,” but the word is so indistinct it offers the hint of “arms” as well. The lyrical tag, “Ooh, I want it, I want it,” also emerges more as a moan than a clear statement, and I like that there, I like how it anchors the song in an effectually wordless melody right in the center of things.
“Keep You” has been floating around the internet since early summer, but it is in fact the lead track from Class Actress’s debut full-length album, Rapprocher, which will arrive next month on Carpark Records. Rapprocher is a French verb meaning “to come close to.” Class Actress was featured previously on Fingertips in November 2009. MP3 via Pitchfork.
A buoyant electronic concoction, achy melody atop a wash of synths, with something reverberant and inexact about the beat and something incomprehensible about the lyrics.
Washed Out is a mild-mannered-looking young fellow with the mild-mannered name of Ernest Greene who managed, via a handful of laptop-generated songs posted on MySpace in 2009, to give birth—inadvertently, of course—to an entire genre. Or maybe it was a sub-genre, or maybe it wasn’t really a genre at all as much as an ironically named, accidentally grouped cadre of bands who didn’t realize they entailed a movement until a blogger with nothing better to do pointed it out one day. And even though 2009 is ancient history now, in internet years, the semi-ironic, semi-concocted genre of chillwave continues to exist not merely as a point-of-reference label but, in a meta kind of way, as a symbol of both the artificiality of rampant sub-genre-ization and of the acceptance of the artificiality. Or something like that.
Anyway, okay: “Amor Fati,” Latin for “love of fate,” or, more to the point, “love of one’s own fate”; the phrase is Nietzsche’s, but hey, if the history of chillwave is too elusive for effective summary here, then forget about Nietzsche. I’ll stick to the song itself, which is a buoyant electronic concoction, achy melody atop a wash of synths, with something reverberant and inexact about the beat and something incomprehensible about the lyrics. Greene has said he doesn’t want his lyrics to be fully audible, that he’s after a mood, and wants the songs to take on life in a listener’s head. Objective achieved, but elusively: said mood is simultaneously hopeful and wistful, cool and warm, introspective and expansive, ’80s and ’10s. With hand claps.
I should note that after a couple of bedroom-constructed EPs, Greene was signed by Sub Pop. His debut full-length, Within and Without, released in mid-July, features a well-textured, fuller-fledged sound that might run counter to chillwave’s distinctly lo-fi origins, but to me illustrates a point always worth remembering: some who employ lo-fi techniques do so only of necessity, not out of philosophical conviction. Greene sounds like someone who deserves an actual studio. “Amor Fati” is the third track on the new album. MP3 via Sub Pop.