Free and legal MP3: Amanda Palmer (theatrical cry for justice)

While piano-based, the song’s musical palette expands in all directions, with textures both rough and intimate, accompanying a lyrical bombardment that feels all too real and up-to-the-minute, painting a picture of a culture on the brink of physical and emotional self-destruction.

Amanda Palmer

“Drowning in the Sound” – Amanda Palmer

As an artist, Amanda Palmer is such an deft navigator of our brave not-so-new social media world that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that she is a dynamic and gifted musician. The relentless energy with which she shares herself online in multi-faceted ways—creating one of the only robust and truly successful (both emotionally and financially) artist-fan communities of the 21st-century to date in the process—is as admirable as it is, to me, if I’m honest, exhausting-sounding. I can’t imagine how she manages a life that includes paying heed to 12,000 active online patrons, and would be skeptical if not outright cynical about her efforts were it not for that previously stated reality: she is a top-notch singer/songwriter/musician, and somehow (somehow) doesn’t let the potentially immolating realities of an artistic life lived on social media derail or cheapen her creative output.

Here’s her latest: a song, called “Drowning in the Sound,” that is as raw and scintillating as her best music can be, with an added wrinkle: the song was initially crowd-sourced, with the lyrical ideas and inspiration coming from 600 of her Patreon supporters. Oh, and she wrote it as part of a two-day songwriting exercise in August 2017. While piano-based, the song’s musical palette expands in all directions, with textures both rough and intimate, accompanying a lyrical bombardment that feels all too real and up-to-the-minute, painting a picture of a culture on the brink of physical and emotional self-destruction. It’s not fun, no; but the music, with its sophisticated, stop-start dynamics and Bush-ian theatricality, engages the spirit. Palmer’s voice, an agile alto with a spoken-word quality, is more than up to the wide-ranging performance, which includes portions rendered in falsetto, as if things weren’t dramatic enough. I guess if I’m going to hear about the end of the world, I’d rather it come from a song than from cable news: there’s something in the singing and the craft of it that manages yet to inspire hope, which is a crucial element in any effort any of us can take to rescue humanity from prospects that here in 2019 look on the dim side.

“Drowning in the Sound” was originally released in September 2017 as a fund-raiser for victims of Hurricane Harvey. The song has resurfaced recently as a lead single for Palmer’s first album in six years, There Will Be No Intermission, which will be released on March 8, 2019, which is International Women’s Day. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Amanda Palmer (theatrical and anthemic, w/ bigass beat)

The theatrical Palmer here draws from the showy end of the new wave era, creating anthemic 21st-century rock’n’roll in the process.

Amanda Palmer

“Want It Back” – Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra

There are those who love each and every thing Amanda Palmer does, and every word that flows from her mouth and/or fingertips, and there are enough such people to have allowed her to smash all sorts of internet records when she raised a gazillion dollars on Kickstarter recently. And then there are people like me, who are inclined to be standoffish in the face of such extroverted theatrics. There’s only one minor problem with this formula. Amanda Palmer knows how to write music, and how to deliver it. I’d be dumb to ignore her just because I’m an introvert and/or social media skeptic. She is an undeniable talent, and still exploring her limits.

This actually has a lot to do with why her model of mega-fan-engagement and digital self-exposure may not in fact be transferable or even helpful to others. Few indie artists have her multifaceted chops. Case in point: “Want It Back,” with its electro-orchestral intro, its bigass beat, its simple, unstoppable melody, and its casual but carefully built soundscape. At the center of it all is Palmer’s stagy presentation, rooted in her commanding voice and adroit way with words, especially in terms of how they sound and scan in a song. Yes, she’s got all that “punk cabaret” cred but the real power, I feel, comes from how well she draws from the showy end of the new wave era (think Lene Lovich, or Adam Ant) and funnels it into keenly crafted anthemic 21st-century rock’n’roll. I may never feel that comfortable in the midst of the crowd-sourced, share-a-thon currently passing for normal in the digital world, but a good song is a good song, and I’m delighted to listen and, um, share.

“Want It Back” is one of two songs Palmer has released early from an album due out in September (the other, also worth hearing, is available for an email address via her web site). The album, entitled Theater is Evil, is part of a large-scale release strategy, including a companion art book and a multi-faceted tour, that was made possible in part by her million-dollar crowd-funding effort (about which more here). Palmer has been previously featured on Fingertips in 2008, and also in 2004 as part of the Dresden Dolls.

photo credit: Kyle Cassidy

Free and legal MP3: Jesca Hoop (not all vocal processing is evil)

The song’s dizzy momentum is bewitching, and for all the electronic processing, its human core is both obvious and dazzling.

Jesca Hoop

“Born To” – Jesca Hoop

With all of the vexation I’ve been feeling these last couple of years regarding Auto-Tune, I’ve forgotten something important: I’ve never had anything against vocal distortion per se. There is absolutely nothing wrong, to me, with the artful use of filters, effects, and so forth. Any number of favored musicians and wonderful songs have employed such tools. In its proper place, Auto-Tune may offer a new range of possibilities for artful vocal distortion as well. (Hint: its over-use by and domination of today’s top 40 does not qualify as “its proper place.”)

I’m not sure whether Jesca Hoop is here using Auto-Tune or some other processing system (probably the latter; perhaps a vocoder), but the main point to my ears is that you can hear, viscerally, the quality of her singing voice (not to mention her songwriting voice), regardless of what she’s doing to process the sound. And this blending of the natural and the man-made appears to be part of the song’s purpose from the very start. The opening riff—brisk and complex and almost thrilling—is played on acoustic guitar and yet set in a hazily processed soundscape. Her voice arrives in a similar brew, full of both spirit and artifice. The song’s dizzy momentum is bewitching, and for all the electronic processing, its human core is both obvious and dazzling. Contrast this to the cynical, sheep-like use of Auto-Tune in the pop world, effecting little more than the addition of a metallic/robotic edge to the vocal that will sound fad-like and pointless once we emerge culturally from our trance-like attachment to it.

Hoop is an adventurous singer/songwriter who was born in Northern California, grew up Mormon, lived as a homesteader in Western wilderness areas, worked for five years as the nanny for Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s children (no, really), and picked up and moved to Manchester, England in 2009 at the encouragement of Elbow’s Guy Garvey. “Born To” is a song from her forthcoming album, The House That Jack Built, scheduled for release in June on Bella Union. Hoop was previously featured here in 2007.

Free and legal MP3: Scott Matthew (minimal yet luxurious, off-center ballad)

Scott Matthew

“Sinking” – Scott Matthew

You won’t get too far in reading about Scott Matthew without Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons, coming up (and I, oops, have just added to the pile). But here’s the funny thing about that kind of RIYL short-cutting: its inherent superficiality, typically connecting a singer to someone else he or she sounds like, can be drastically misleading. I, for instance, don’t much care to listen to Hegarty, despite his obvious depth and talent. I don’t connect with his music, for whatever reason. But Matthew—whose theatrical, husky tenor bears a passing resemblance to Hegarty’s singular voice—is here singing a song I like a lot. Let us note once and for all that RIYL is a defective recommendation engine.

Anyway, “Sinking”: a languid, off-center ballad, at once minimal and luxurious, backed by piano, layered vocals, and the delicate strumming of a ukulele I can only, and unexpectedly, describe as lovely. The song’s unusual sense of pace is rooted in a 3/4 time signature at once deliberate and unsteady, and amplified by the drawn-out melody line, which extends to nine rather than the typical eight measures. And I would not want the Antony comparisons to distract anyone from the vividness of Matthew’s own voice, both musically and lyrically. To the extent that one can follow them, the words he croons are striking. The song is a keeper.

Born in Australia, Matthew moved to Brooklyn in the late ’90s. He was in a short-lived band called Elva Snow in 2002 with Morrissey compatriot Spencer Cobrin, then wrote music for a few movie soundtracks, including John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus. A self-titled solo debut emerged in 2008. “Sinking” is from Mitchell’s third album, Gallantry’s Favorite Son, which was released in March on Riot Bear Records.

Free and legal MP3: Shayfer James (theatrical, w/ bounce and menace)

Like a soundtrack to a malevolent carnival, “Weight of the World” is part bounce, part menace.

Shayfer James

“Weight of the World” – Shayfer James

Like a soundtrack to a malevolent carnival, “Weight of the World” is part bounce, part menace. Shayfer James has a theatrical baritone—rich and emotive, with a flair for phrasing; to enjoy this one you’ll have to be okay with a singer you can hear breathe and just about can see spit. But what the song may lack in subtlety it makes up for, I think, in exuberant catchiness. The swinging, syncopated chorus is all but irresistible, with its cavorting melody, inexorable chord progression, and those ghostly moans in the background.

Underneath it all James blends the cabaret and the barrelhouse with his vampy piano work. Even after all these years, tinkling authentic ivories remains a rare skill in rock’n’roll, and almost always lends a bit of show biz to the proceedings. Which I mean as a compliment, just to be clear.

James is a New Jersey-based singer/songwriter who actively cultivates the charismatic/mysterious rogue image—a kind of Tom Waits for the new millennium, complete with fedora. (His online bio labels him “the portrait of vagabond royalty.”) It’s a tricky posture for a youngster from the suburbs but he does have both unconventional family history (his oldest sibling is six years younger than his mother; long story) and impressive stage presence; there’s a good chance that if he sticks with it, he’ll grow into the part.

“Weight of the World” is the lead track on Counterfeit Arcade, an album James self-released at the end of November, his second full-length release. You can both listen to it and buy it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Johan Agebjörn (with Sally Shapiro) (nimble, ravishing neo-italo-disco)

Tasteful, exquisitely crafted, melodic, and pleasantly melodramatic, “Casablanca Nights” plays like the soundtrack to a movie made in the near future about the fading past.

Johan Agebjorn

“Casablanca Nights” – Johan Agebjörn (with Sally Shapiro)

I have no particular feelings either way for the sub-genre of italo-disco, but I do have a huge music-crush on the exquisitely crafted, pleasantly melodramatic neo-italo-disco work done together by the Swedish producer Johan Agebjörn and the singer known as Sally Shapiro. (They have been featured here twice previously, both for songs credited to Sally Shapiro, which has also been the name of their duo.)

“Casablanca Nights” plays like the soundtrack to a movie made in the near future about the fading past. Agebjörn specializes in melding a shiny, club-like expansiveness with a bittersweet sort of introspection. Some of this effect is due to the airy brilliance of Shapiro’s vocals, but a lot of the music’s depth of spirit comes from Agebjörn’s deft arrangement. In what is almost an aural illusion, he here crafts a driving dance beat out of nothing that’s actually moving with any particular drive or power. Many of his individual motifs are slow, even tentative—a compact, haunting synth line here, a desultory guitar line there, and to cap it off a jazzy noodle of an electric piano solo. The only sustained, powerful drumming we hear is the in-retrospect-ironic pounding that opens the song and lasts all of three or four seconds. In many ways “Casablanca Nights” is a glittering mirage.

And what about that chorus? Almost breathtaking, it effects its magic in large part via a shifting sense of tonal center—each new lyrical line, every four measures, starts from a place either a half step below or a half step above the previous line’s start point. A half step change in this context sounds ravishing and theatrical. Don’t miss also the marvelous effect of the male vocal singing the same note as Shapiro (might be Agebjörn, not sure), blending so nimbly as to sound more like an aural shadow than a separate voice.

“Casablanca Nights” is the title track to first album Agebjörn has released under his own name. Shapiro (alas!) does not sing on every track (just four of 11); he has brought in a variety of other artists to help him with the others. The album came out last week on Paper Bag Records. MP3 via Paper Bag.

Free and legal MP3: Niki and the Dove (dark yet resplendent synth pop from Sweden)

At once sludgy and resplendent, “The Fox” thunders and sparkles, blending darkness and light in a most uncommon and indelible way.

Niki and the Dove

“The Fox” – Niki and the Dove

At once sludgy and resplendent, “The Fox” thunders and sparkles, blending darkness and light in a most uncommon and indelible way. Rock’n’roll advances rarely via the bolts from the blue most critics and bloggers seem to demand, much more often through absorption, and there is something in “The Fox” that reverberates with a number of classic influences, from Kate Bush (the fox reference is just part of it) and Siouxsie Sioux and Björk to David Bowie and Radiohead. This is good stuff. Theatrical too. Equal effort is paid here to catch the ear—to be “pop,” essentially—and to challenge it. Check out that abrupt segue between the lighthearted glissando that opens the song and the chunky, lagging, deep-voiced guitar (or guitar-like sound; no guitarist is associated with the band) it bumps into. That’s part of what the whole piece is about—interesting, off-kilter, carefully constructed musical moments, hung onto a sturdy framework of melodic and synthetic know-how. The song has great flow—it really pulls me in—and yet nearly any slice of it, all the way through, has its own singular DNA. Did I mention this is really good stuff?

Niki and the Dove is a Stockholm duo, featuring Malin Dahlström and Gustaf Karlöf, founded in February 2010. There have been no albums released to date; the band, furthermore, seems inclined to mystery and minimal information. What can be said is that they signed with Sub Pop in March, and “The Fox” is the first Sub Pop single. While the label is coy about it, there does appear to be an EP—also entitled The Fox —on the way in June.

Free and legal MP3: Patrick Wolf (both channeling and reinterpreting K.Bush)

“Army Dreamers” – Patrick Wolf

I can count on one hand the number of cover songs I’ve posted here on Fingertips over the years; I’m not at all against them in theory, but I don’t usually feel compelled to talk about them. It’s more of a “Oh, that’s interesting,” and on we go. But this was a no-brainer from the opening drum-and-piano salvo. How different from the original and yet immediately exactly right. Wolf here has done the near impossible with a cover version: he has revealed the depths awaiting us in a song that even its writer hadn’t quite plumbed.

And that is to take nothing away from Kate Bush, whom I love unabashedly. But she wrote and sang “Army Dreamers” for her 1980 album Never For Ever, which found her in transition between the lush, piano-based, teenaged sounds of her first two records and the more complex, Fairlight-fueled, experimental direction she would develop fully with The Dreaming and Hounds of Love. Her original was a delicate, string-filled waltz, with a hint of weird around the edges. (But, note, a #1 record in the U.K.) Wolf–an intense, theatrical character in his own right–has done nothing as much as show us how Bush herself might have recorded this once she truly hit her stride. The martial rhythm, the creative synthesizer flourishes, the inventive percussion, the ghostly backing vocal (whether real or synthesized, an obvious homage), not to mention the exotic counter-vocal, are all evident Bushisms. But perhaps Wolf’s most splendid and mysterious accomplishment is singing in his shadowy baritone–not doing an imitation, not in fact remotely sounding like her–and yet all but channeling the great and mighty KB. Thirty years later, he delivers a cover that sounds at least as authentic as the original.

“Army Dreamers” is a track from a massive compilation album put out by the Spanish music collaborative Buffetlibre in support of Amnesty International. For five euros, you get 180 MP3s from 50 musicians from around the world, including Marissa Nadler, Ra Ra Riot, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and the Antlers. All songs are exclusive and previously unreleased. Visit Buffetlibre for more information.

Free and legal MP3: Kate Miller-Heidke (cheeky, theatrical, Australian)

“Politics in Space” – Kate Miller-Heidke

This has nothing to do with NYC, and maybe little to do with Planet Earth. A classically trained soprano, Australia’s Miller-Heidke took a left turn out of the conservatory and didn’t look back; she traces her musical lineage not geographically but aesthetically, and maybe even psychologically. Artists like Lene Lovich and Kate Bush and Björk come to mind once Miller-Heidke turns herself loose, and the process of singing becomes intertwined with something resembling performance art.

But the cool thing is none of this is remotely ponderous–wacky, humorous, and cheeky, yes, but not ponderous. (Listen to how she briefly puts her “conservatory voice” to use—around 1:04—and you’ll see how cheeky.) Musically, the song hues to a deliberate beat, with relatively austere accompaniment—there’s a rubbery bass, a deep drum beat, a simply strummed acoustic guitar, hand claps, and not much else—except, that is, for the backing vocals. Turns out this song is all about the backing vocals, pretty much. (“Pretty much.”) Follow them all the way through and you’re in for a smile or two.

Miller-Heidke has had hit records in Australia, and also reaped praise last year for her performance in Sydney of Jerry Springer: The Opera. Previously featured on Fingertips in 2005, she has not had any music released in the U.S., until now. (Although some may know her from the live-recorded song “R U Fucking Kidding Me? [The Facebook Song],” which has had some viral success on the social media circuit.) Curiouser, an album originally released in Australia in October ’08 (and actually recorded in Los Angeles), will be released here this month on SIN/Sony Australia. Thanks very much to Victoria, at Muruch, for the lead. MP3 originally from somewhere else but remains online courtesy of Art Nouveau magazine.

Free and legal MP3 from Amanda Palmer (Dresden Dolls’ singer goes solo, produced by Ben Folds)

“Astronaut” – Amanda Palmer

The smoky alto is back, likewise the melodramatic delivery and foreboding lyrics, but Amanda Palmer arrives this time without the Dresden Dolls, the self-proclaimed “Brechtian punk cabaret” duo of which she is half. The Dolls have a compelling sound, to be sure, but perhaps it was time to see what Palmer could do when freed of the band’s intriguing but restricted soundscape–an idea that so delighted Dresden Dolls’ fan Ben Folds that he actively sought the job of being Palmer’s producer for her solo debut.

And so the Foldsian piano pounding (by Palmer) that opens this, the album’s lead track, seems no accident, but neither does the Palmerian left turn the song takes after 20 seconds of it—with the strings still echoing off the soundboard, we dive into 40 seconds of brooding quiet, which announces that Palmer has not left her bravado in her “punk cabaret” kit bag. We lean in, we wonder exactly what she’s talking about (“Is it enough to have some love/Small enough to slip inside a book”), we get closer still and then bam, we get whacked on the head a second time, when the volume and beat return, at 1:02. “I am still not getting what I want,” she sings, a thematically charged line in Palmer’s oeuvre if ever there was one, as the song leaps back to life and soon picks up an unexpectedly welcoming bounce. When Palmer belts, her voice has this commanding way of sounding off-key and on the right note at the same time. She is in fact a very precise singer and writer; whether or not I get their meaning, her words are a rhythmic pleasure, scanning with a finesse not typically found in indie rock. And she even effects a musical climax based largely on the metric foot she employs, in the bridge that starts at 2:53, which sticks with a rat-a-tat trochaic meter (ONE-two, ONE-two, ONE-two etc.) until we are pretty much beaten into submission. It’s both an impressive display of lyrical discipline and a way of adding a driving anguish to the song below the level of consciousness.

The CD Who Killed Amanda Palmer was released earlier this fall on Roadrunner Records.