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.
The gracefully descending minor-key melody, this thing hits the ground like archetypal Jayhawks, which is more or less equivalent to archetypal Americana.
Have you heard this before? Of course you’ve heard this before—even if not this exact song. This is not a new sound. But my god, how sweet and solid this is, and how indicative that we lose something consequential when we demand only that everything be so friggin’ new all the time. I mean, come on: it makes no more sense to demand that everything only be new than to demand that everything only be old. Surely we desire and deserve a blend, much as we desire and deserve artists presenting visions and stories from all points on the adult human life spectrum, not just from those under the age of 25. The insidious pressure to require music to sound somehow continually “new” can always be sensed when writers approach a veteran band like The Jayhawks: if a new album is favorably viewed, there are always statements lauding the idea that the band “didn’t just revisit the past”; if unfavorably viewed, it’s either because they’re “stuck in the past” or tried too hard to reinvent themselves. You can’t win for losing when the New police are on patrol. So many witches to burn.
Anyway: that opening acoustic strum, the gracefully descending minor-key melody—this thing hits the ground like archetypal Jayhawks, which is more or less equivalent to archetypal Americana, complete with (say it with me) jangly guitars. As with a lot of Americana when it’s really good, there’s a lingering strain of ’70s country-rock in the air (think Poco, or Pure Prairie League), contributing to the music’s uncanny ability to feel mournful and jubilant at the same time. If Gary Louris’s silvery tenor shows some fetching wear around the edges, it serves merely to accentuate the beautifully crafted melodies he, yet again, sings for us.
The Jayhawks, from Minneapolis, have been playing in one incarnation or another since 1985, with one mid-’00s hiatus. The band still features two original members—Louris and bassist Marc Perlman—while the other two are veterans in their own right: keyboard player Karen Grotberg first played with the band from 1992 to 2000, then rejoined in 2009, while drummer Tim O’Reagan has been on board since 1995. “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces” is the lead track on the new album, Paging Mr. Proust, which was produced by Peter Buck, Tucker Martine, and Louris. It was released at the very end of April and can be purchased directly from the band, if you are so inclined, via their website. MP3 via the good folks at KEXP.
“We Stared at the World” begins as a gentle song oscillating mysteriously between the electronic and acoustic.
“We Stared at the World” begins as a gentle song oscillating mysteriously between the electronic and acoustic. Front man Andy Sheppard fills our head with his conversational tenor. Listen attentively and you may begin to hear a variety of openings in the muted landscape, soft sounds implying larger worlds. Urgency arrives un-urgently: halfway through the song all sorts of things start happening, and the layers of instrumentation become more overtly fascinating and gratifying–guitar sounds, string sounds, a determined parade of clicking-clopping percussion sounds.
And, actual drum sounds. It took me a while for it to register but this halfway point is where we begin to hear what sound like real drums being smacked with real sticks. It’s a sound that I think gives the song such a satisfying climax, during the final iteration of the chorus, beginning around 2:47. There’s something about the various juxtapositions on display right here (the organic vs. the electronic, the gentle vocal vs. the percussive accompaniment, the melodic vs. the beat-driven) that together strike me as both powerful and poignant, but also fleeting: in 12 or 13 seconds everything’s gone, replaced by 30-plus seconds of ambient tinkling and droning, a kind of sonic after-image, rendering everything previously heard abruptly dreamlike. I like that a song ostensibly about staring turns out to be so indirect, even inscrutable.
Given the band’s name, Find The Others is an ironically elusive project. It appears to be a one-man operation (the album credits Sheppard as the only performer), even as the press photo features two people (and a blank third). Web resources identify Sheppard’s location alternately as either Toronto or British Columbia, so let’s at least assume he’s Canadian—even as he shipped himself off to Iceland to work with Valgeir Sigurðsson (Sigur Rós, Björk, Feist, Nico Muhly, and then some). The end result was the album Empire of Time, on which you’ll find this song. The album was released back in April 2015; I heard it much later in the year via Insomnia Radio.
There is sweetness here, and pining, and a sense that it won’t end well because, well, nothing does in the long run.
And speaking of the Kinks (of whom we really can’t speak enough), here we are treated to two fleeting lyrical references to the great British band, reinforcing a lovely song with a (now that I think about it) distinctly Daviesian brand of conflicted nostalgia. Even without being able to make too much of the lyrics here (and I can’t), there is sweetness, and pining, and a sense that it won’t end well because, well, nothing does in the long run.
Effortlessly melodic, “Second Nature” is propelled by a rhythmic, gently plucked electric guitars emphasizing the “on” beats (one and three) versus rock’n’roll’s classic backbeat (two and four) orientation (cf.: “It’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it”). One clear lyrical feature here is the purposeful repetition of words and/or sounds in successive lines (e.g., “Sick to death/Sick in bed/Sic the dogs on us instead”), which may or may not be intended as a subtle augmentation of the title phrase but in any case adds to the song’s tender urgency. And I suggest you pay attention to the saxophone when it shows up (1:47, briefly; then, closing the song out from 2:31)—not just because you don’t hear a lot of saxophone in 2015 rock’n’roll but because there seems something inexplicably moving about hearing this instrument presented in such a straightforward way, something about the pure sound of it that captures the subtle heartache of the entire track. And throughout of course there’s the obvious contribution of Longo’s gentle, agile tenor, which lends memorable complexion to every upward sweep of melody.
Matt Longo is a gifted singer/songwriter, based in Queens, NY, whose work has been featured here twice previously, in 2011 and in 2013. He is performing with the name Thin Lear this time around, partially inspired by an absurd image from a dream he had one night. A six-song EP is due out later this fall; you’ll be able to buy it via Bandcamp, and can listen there in the meantime to his past recordings.
“Sabbath” is as arch and distinctive as a rock song can hope to be in the year 2014 without sounding fey or contrived.
With sly hints of the old Hot Chocolate nugget “Every 1’s a Winner,” “Sabbath” chugs off the launch pad with delicious authority, featuring the splendid songwriting trick of beginning your lyric with the word “And.” I’m kind of a sucker for that one. And Ward White’s rounded, art-y tenor, a less adenoidal version of someone like David Byrne, it turns out I’m kind of a sucker for that too.
“Sabbath” is as arch and distinctive as a rock song can hope to be in the year 2014 without sounding fey or contrived. The verses feel like we’re already in the middle of the song, and lead us into a section (0:47) that bridges us without hurry to the chorus, accumulating lyrical lines while not quite coalescing musically; and the chorus, when it arrives (1:02), turns out to be less a chorus than a single sentence, rendered memorable by a vivid chord change in the middle (on the words “in front of my face,” at 1:08). The lyrics, meanwhile, feel rich and involving without easily forming a narrative. But any song that can include these lines—
And what of all these women?
They come and go but mostly go
And when they come believe me I’m the last to know
—is surely doing something right. And then, as word-oriented as White appears to be, he unexpectedly closes the song out with an increasingly scintillating minute-and-a-half of droning guitars and bashing drums. Fun!
The Brooklyn-based White has been releasing stylish, accomplished recordings since the late ’90s, floating around the edges of the NYC music scene without quite breaking through, even to the blogosphere. Which may also mean the man is doing something right. “Sabbath” is a song from his eighth solo album, Ward White is the Matador, released earlier this month. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.
In little more than three minutes, “Stormalong” propels us through a clean, invigorating piece of accessible but complex pop.
A minor hobby of mine as a listener is deciphering unorthodox time signatures. Of course, the more unorthodox they are, the less I can usually figure them out. “Stormalong” is one of those songs that seemed to resist precise mapping; outside of my suspecting that the rhythmic engagement of the introduction is based on alternating 6/4 and 7/4 measures, this one eluded me.
Turns out it was a trick of the ear. Vocalist Edward Sturtevant assures me that outside of the introduction, the rest of the song actually is in 4/4 time after all. What they did was place a lot of the accents on the off-beats—“to keep things interesting,” he says. It sounds so unassuming that way, but it’s worth noting that obscuring a song’s time signature has become an all but dying art in an age of digitized beats and laptop composition. “Keeping things interesting” is a modest way of acknowledging that one has enough craft and mastery to conceive of fiddling with rhythmic structure in the first place, never mind the talent to write and perform the end result. In little more than three minutes, “Stormalong” propels us through a clean, invigorating piece of accessible but complex pop. In addition to the rhythmic uncertainty, the song offers an eccentric two-part verse, a chorus that is unusually succinct and melodic (typically a chorus may be one or the other, or neither), and then an extended bridge section that is the only part that presents itself clearly in 4/4 time. Often either difficult to discern or difficult to interpret, the lyrics glide by without etching a firm picture in the mind’s eye, but the chorus’s central, allusive observation about the fine line between hope and despair is, combined with the musical bounty, strong enough to keep me eager to tease more meaning from the rest of the words as I continue to listen.
Time Travelers are a four-man band based in Brooklyn. As reported last time they were here, in August 2012, they got together in 2008 as sophomores at Bates College in Maine. “Stormalong” is the title track from the band’s soon-to-be-released EP, which will be their third to date.
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
An object lesson in how the delicate variations in computer-generated sound can be used for good instead of evil.
I enjoy my share of electronic-based music but I will admit I sometimes get weirded out by the immateriality of it all. Knowing that the sounds are all generated by the inscrutable insides of laptops and rectangular boxes with keyboards on them, if nothing else, makes my job here kind of hinky. It’s one thing to talk about the guitar and its aural character, and then maybe the bass, and the drums; it’s another thing to try to talk merely about sounds, the differences between which sometimes are so subtle that the line separating, even, beats and notes seems all but hallucinatory.
If the specific sounds in “Mystery Colors” are, therefore, difficult to identify and/or distinguish, the collective result is nevertheless an introspective pleasure. Anthony Ferraro, the solo mastermind behind Astronauts, etc., is uncommonly adept at creating warmth and texture from the delicate variations in computer-generated sound—and then, double the achievement, turning this warmth and texture into tuneful pop. In physical-instrument-based rock’n’roll, a rapid procession of notes and rhythms typically creates drive or tension; but listen here to how a tranquil vibe is maintained over and above the brisk arpeggios and fidgety beats. A lot of this has to do with Ferraro’s soothing tenor and the silky melody he’s singing. Note in particular the vocal effect during the chorus (first heard at 1:41), when he layers his vocals in two different registers, which creates a kind of whisper effect that feels cozy and personal. The choral break at 2:11 is another nice touch; human voices cut through artifice like nothing else.
Ferraro is a Berkeley-based musician who was on a classical piano performance track until beset by arthritis. Electronic music saved his career, pretty much. I look forward to seeing where he takes it all. “Mystery Colors” is from his first EP, entitled Supermelodic Pulp, which was released last month. You can listen to it as well as buy it via Bandcamp.
Another dramatic, exquisitely crafted song from the Austin-based Shearwater, whose latest album will be released on Sub Pop next week.
When you have a voice like Jonathan Meiburg’s—a sad, echoed-out tenor that registers high but resonates deep—there is no sense avoiding drama. The voice announces it, needs it, revels in it. And his songs do tend effortlessly to convey drama, via a combination of careful unfolding, subtle evocation, and urgent unleashing.
“You As You Were” beings with one note—a D# on the keyboard, repeated rapidly by the right hand for 5 seconds before stepping down to a C# as the left hand begins to sketch out a thoughtful melody under the ongoing hammering of the dominant hand’s single note. A quiet bass drum has added a pulse but maybe you don’t even notice. The rest of the band lays back until past the 40-second point. Somewhere in here the singing has started. And yet the song doesn’t feel as if it has truly kicked in until 1:24, when the drums finally give us a backbeat. And even so there’s a sense of restraint, something being held back, and finally we see what it was when one of the earlier melodies returns with a variation that leads us to a previously unheard three-note descent starting at 2:28 that features the song’s highest notes and its clearest (if still vague) sense of climax. Note that the song seems all verse, with a couple of related melodies, each of which go through some variations; there is no obvious lyrical repetition even as some key words and images recur—river, blood, mountains, weather. The song seems to be about both the damage and the promise of a personal epiphany. The combination of music and poetry here is exquisite, and well worth close, repeated listens to get to the bottom of the drama.
“You As You Were” is a song from the album Animal Joy, coming out next week on Sub Pop Records. This is Shearwater’s seventh full-length (not counting the experimental, instrumental, self-released Shearwater Is Enron album from 2010). It is the band’s first album for Sub Pop; they have recorded previously for both Matador Records and Misra Records. The MP3 is available via Sub Pop, and note that if you click on the first Sub Pop mention in this paragraph, you’ll find another free and legal MP3 from the album that is also available, and also worth hearing.
Shearwater has been previously featured on Fingertips in May 2005, March 2008, and December 2009
Fuzzy and thumpy and semi-discordant, “For the One” is kind of cute in spite of itself.
Fuzzy and thumpy and semi-discordant, “For the One” is kind of cute in spite of itself. Let’s begin with Van Pierszalowski’s somewhat strangled, not-always-exactly-on-key tenor, which for all its shortcomings also has impressive presence and charisma. I’m not at all sure what separates voices that veer off key but remain somehow true from those that are simply off key and please stop singing, but Pierszalowski falls clearly in the former category, to me. His case is assisted by the vocal company he keeps, whether it’s him layered and multi-tracked or some other folk doing the honors; the various wordless background vocals that warble in the background above the lead singing add texture and character and an odd kind of cuddliness to the proceedings.
And then there’s the crunchy guitar sound. Pierszalowski’s type of precarious tenor goes oh so naturally with heavy, crunchy guitar. Maybe Neil Young has just conditioned us to believe this. Or maybe I could come up with an impromptu theory about how our ear takes in that high and unstable voice and requires something deep and heavy and grounded to counterbalance it, to allow us to feel that all is still okay with the world. These are some deep and heavy and grounded guitars, in any case. And don’t miss what may be the one of the longer one-note solos in rock’n’roll history, from 2:24 through the end of the song. Not a solo in the sense of always being front and center, but you can hear this one note on one particular guitar all 35 seconds or so; it’s the note that eventually ends the song. (An E, if you must know.)
Pierszalowski was last seen around these parts as front man for the band Port O’Brien, featured here in 2009. Port O’Brien split in 2010; Waters is a solo project that coalesced for Pierszalowski while finding himself in Oslo, where he seems to have settled for the time being. He grew up on the California coast, and spent some formative summers in Alaska, and at this point seems to have a life story impossible to trace with any geographical certainty. “For the One” is the opening song on the debut Waters album, Out in the Light, coming out in September on TBD Records.