The fine line between mysterious and ominous
Any song that opens with the words “There were dark clouds” is unlikely to be super cheery. But however moody a scene “To Supreme” sets, the song retains an underlying spirit of curiosity and resolve, treading the fine line between mysterious and ominous in an agreeable way. Much is established simply via Will Ranier’s plainspoken voice; he sounds like a guy pondering his circumstances with a friend more than a guy undone by dark forces.
While not exactly peppy, the song does stride along with a midtempo pace, anchored by a steady acoustic rhythm guitar and some bass notes on the piano. Intermittent visits from a muted trumpet (played by Ranier) add to the reverberant atmosphere. But clearly the key to the song’s aura is the pedal steel providing fills between lyrical lines, each new echoey flourish different than the previous one. I especially like the discordant notes pedal steel guitarist Raymond Richards sprinkles in midway through (1:26-1:32)–another touch that lightens things away from the sinister.
In the end, perhaps the biggest mystery here is what the title is about. The lyrics do little to enlighten. “Supreme” is where “they” tell the narrator he “should go.” And he “followed their advice,” which led him “into the neon light show.” What the what? Then again, it doesn’t take much search-engine-ing to discover that Supreme is a pizzeria and bar in Seattle, which is where Ranier lives. I can see a songwriter building a mystery around a word laden with as much baggage as “supreme” (there’s the being, the Court, the leader, to start in the obvious places).
Ranier is a musician with a varied discography. “To Supreme” is a track from his forthcoming album, Wobble in the Moon, to be released June 30. While this is only his second solo album, he has one previous album with his band, Will Ranier and the Pines, and nine albums credited to Stuporhero, a duo comprised of Ranier and his wife, Jen Garrett.
Plaintive bilingual waltz, w/ horns
A song with a recurring instrumental motif separate from the central melody is, to my ears, almost always a worthy enterprise. When that recurring instrumental motif is performed by a plaintive trumpet, as with “What Would I Know? / ¿Yo Que Sé?,” all the better. What I’m talking about specifically is the trumpet melody first heard in between the lyrics at 0:27, and which continues to ground the song in alluring melancholy the rest of the way. The horns—there is more than the one trumpet as we get going—have a beautiful Mexican vibe, reinforcing the song’s bilingual setting. The music, with its 3/4-time sway, lulls the ear while the English lyrics offer impressions and hints; this is one of those songs where you feel what’s going on at a level below concrete awareness. Which is to say I have no idea what the song is actually saying but that doesn’t seem to matter; I still get it.
The lyrics alternate between Spanish and English while the music alternates between major- and minor-key melodies. Every touch along the way seems ideal: the violin that weaves itself into the mix, the group vocals that bolster the chorus (which consists only of the song title, in both languages), the ongoing shifts in the horn charts, the false ending at 3:27, the subsequent coda. With its gentle folk-music sensibility and expressive craft, the song washes over the spirit, seeming to carry with it a sort of wisdom of the ages.
The Color Forty Nine is a San Diego-based quartet. The Spanish lyrics here are sung by guest vocalist Rubén Albarrán of the band Café Tacvba, from the suburbs of Mexico City. “What Would I Know? / ¿Yo Que Sé?” is a song from The Color Forty Nine’s second album, String Ladders, which was released last month.
Authoritative (Australian) Americana, with trumpet
With an authoritative Americana brio reminiscent of early Neko Case, Ruby Gilbert is the real deal, her depth of voice matched by a knack for composition and presentation. From its opening acoustic strum–minor-key and assertive–“No Vacancy” feels at once sturdy and adventurous, with its casually resourceful chord changes and, yes, that trumpet. About which more in a moment.
Gilbert begins a story of frustrated romance with an incisive opening couplet: “My baby’s only got eyes for me/But he’s got his sights set on leaving.” The underlying premise here seems to be that all romances, however brilliant at first, will come to an end; the song’s narrator seems oppressed by this hard-won knowledge (“I don’t get no rest,” she sings, “I hear it in my head, tick and tock”).
The ache of being left alone is mirrored in the song’s musical landscape, which aligns with that particularly appealing strain of Americana music that I hear as “lonesome.” I’m not sure precisely what may generally create this impression–something in the spaciousness of the mix, I’m guessing, and/or some well-placed slide guitar lines; reverbed vocals help–but “No Vacancy” ups the ante with artful flourishes from an echoey trumpet, courtesy of Eamon Dilworth. I wouldn’t have realized this in advance but damn if that trumpet doesn’t (somehow) sound like the epitome of “lonesome Western sound.”
Ruby Gilbert is a singer/songwriter from Brisbane with a handful of recordings to date and, I hope, a bright future ahead. “No Vacancy” was released in March. She has an earlier single, “Slave,” from this past October, and a four-song EP, entitled Dearly Beloved, that came out in June 2018. You can hear everything, and buy everything at a price of your choosing, via Bandcamp.
What a fluid and charming piece of work this one is, buoyed by an effortless sense of melody and the fragile but authoritative voice of the eponymous Orouni.
What a fluid and charming piece of work this one is, buoyed by an effortless sense of melody and the fragile but authoritative voice of the eponymous Orouni. A Parisian singer/songwriter whose self-proclaimed influences include the likes of Leonard Cohen and The Kinks, Orouni makes carefully composed songs in which the notes seem handcrafted, one by one, then sung with an ongoing aura of surprise and assurance. The chord change at 0:56, gentle and resolute, is emblematic of the song’s pervading ambience of precipitant redesign, which culminates at 2:37 with a trumpet solo. It is both unexpected and ideal.
“The Lives of Elevators” is a live performance, from a recently folded-up French music site called Findspire, the offerings of which remain available on YouTube. Watch the video and be lulled by the easy-going flow, as we check in visually with each musician, so locked into the groove that they somehow seem to be playing one thing but listening to another. I mean that as a compliment, even if that doesn’t sound like one.
Orouni has recorded three albums to date, which you can listen to and purchase via Bandcamp. I recommend a visit there. “The Lives of Elevators” is based on a 2008 New Yorker article of the same name, written by Nick Paumgarten, which itself is worth reading. The song is a new one, which might appear on the next Orouni album, which might be released this year. Plans are yet unclear. Thanks to Orouni for the MP3.
Wry rocker w/ old-timey, theatrical feel
With the oompah feel of a music-hall standard, “The Big Show” dresses its quizzical take on 21st-century life in a ramshackle aural stew as musically charming as it is lyrically caustic. Look no further than the opening salvo to see what we’re in for:
We say it like it’s true then watch it put down its roots
And blossom from the gossip into truth
We’re in the weeds up to our knees
It’s hard to tell the poison from the fruit
The chorus, meanwhile, has an uncomfortable resonance with the news we’ve been watching this week:
Look out below
The whole damn thing’s about to blow
Gone are all the good days but hey
At least we get to watch the show
We’ve got here a corollary to the happy music/sad lyrics phenomenon that pop can handle like no other kind of music—this is more like comic music/tragic lyrics but the underlying incongruity is the same, as well as the appeal. Singer Jay Purdy has the air of a mischievous master of ceremonies, and a voice somewhat resembling John Linnell from They Might Be Giants. Which adds to the whimsical vibe. Oh and be sure not to miss the last 40 seconds, which sounds as if we have landed in a cartoon. All we need to top it off is Porky Pig saying “Th-th-th-at’s all, folks!”
The Extraordinaires began as a duo in South Philly in 2004. They had expanded to a quartet by 2007, and in 2010 solidified into a five-man band. They have previously released albums that were produced as books bound in masonite (think of what a clipboard is made of; that’s it). “The Big Show” is a song from the band’s new three-song EP, Postcards, released on the Philadelphia-based label Punk Rock Payroll.
“Chinatown” sashays unexpectedly across your speakers with a jazzy spring in its step, complete with ’60s-pop female harmonies and not just a sax solo but a trumpet solo too.
“Chinatown” sashays unexpectedly across your speakers with a jazzy spring in its step, complete with ’60s-pop female harmonies and not just a sax solo but a trumpet solo too. This is an altogether smoother and more digestible environment than we have previously found Dan Bejar wandering around in; but if he has outwardly de-quirk-ified himself here, there’s something charming in the effort, and knowing, too. Because maybe the quirkiest thing of all in this freaked-out shoutfest of a world is to mellow out a bit.
Besides, once you get used to the chill groove, listen to Bejar and you’ll see he still sounds semi-crazy and mysterious, he’s just not flaunting it the way previous Destroyer songs might have. Less can be more—steering clear of his more obvious vocal kinks still allows him to show off his sweet, torn-sweater voice; his phrasing remains satisfyingly idiosyncratic and the lyrics as cryptic as ever. Unless it’s actually just about the movie Chinatown (“Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown”), in which case it’s still a little cryptic because he just can’t help himself. Oh and meanwhile, check out the way he manages to blend electronics and horns here. Except for those horns, just about everything else sounds non-organic. It’s spookily effective.
Bejar, from Vancouver, has been recording as Destroyer since back in 1996; he is also a founding member of the New Pornographers, and in 2006 became part of a second indie side-project/”super-group,” Swan Lake. “Chinatown” will be found on the album Kaputt, due out on Merge Records next month. MP3 via Merge. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.
After a church-like organ intro, “Hoping and Waiting” turns upbeat and unexpectedly contagious. I had to live with it a while for the catchiness to sink in, however; it’s not a completely obvious hook. But after listening to it on and off for a few weeks, I noticed that it was beginning to pop unbidden into my head. This is almost always a sign of a song that I am liking more than I initially realize I’m liking it.
The part that kept popping into my head: that particular place in the chorus where the melody takes a leap up on the word “heart” (first heard around 1:19). Talk about uplifting–just hearing that word sung with that upward leap settles something in my soul. And then the immediate follow-up, the word “anticipating” sung (on the second syllable) with that same up-leap. Brilliant. As for the operatic tenor interlude (2:42), it shouldn’t really work, but it does, precisely when (and because) the tenor ramps up into a classical frenzy concurrently with singer Noel Kelly repeating the lines “Did you feel? Did you feel? Did you feel?” Also brilliant. And then suddenly a trumpet that had been lurking in the background materializes front and center, adding the feeling of an offbeat fanfare to the closing measures. I like it.
The Hush Now is a quartet from Boston. “Hoping and Waiting” will appear on their second album, Constellations, due out as a self-release in October. (If you’re interested, the band started giving its self-titled debut album away for free online earlier this year; you can still grab it here.)
At once relaxed and intent, “She Comes to Me” is an instantly likable, subtly quirky acoustic strummer. And you should know that I don’t have a lot of patience for run-of-the-mill acoustic strummers, which strike me by and large as a little, shall we say, boring. Despite what you might hear being aired on those they-mean-well-but-they’re-really-sometimes-kind-of-dreadful “triple A” radio stations, songs are not good or wise or sensitive just because someone’s playing an acoustic guitar and has an evocative voice.
“She Comes to Me” is good and wise and sensitive because it has movement and energy, because it’s easy to listen to but difficult to pin down, because it is both aurally and structurally complex without being messy or silly. Unlike countless writers of run-of-the-mill acoustic strummers, Arcuragi here gives us a continually interesting melody, based on refreshing chord changes that don’t seem to follow a predictable pattern. The melody is in fact somewhat hard to follow at first, but not in the least off-putting or strained. The typical acoustic strummer is a more lockstep affair, with easy to digest, regularly repeating chords and a plain–if not outright predictable–melody. Another worthy point of differentiation is Arcuragi’s willingness to expand the instrumental palette beyond acoustic guitar, even as the acoustic guitar remains at the song’s aural center. I particularly like the choir-like harmonies and the high-profile trumpets that are at once unexpected and exactly right.
Adam Arcuragi is a singer-songwriter born in Atlanta, now based in Philadelphia. “She Comes to Me” is from his second full-length CD, I Am Become Joy, released in June on High Two Records. MP3 via High Two. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.
This one carries the wacky, group-sing, neo-hippie vibe of the Polyphonic Spree but with the added benefit of really solid songwriting.
“Say Yes” unfolds with a jaunty, trumpet-led rhythm augmented by a loopy backing vocal that brings the Star Trek theme song to mind. In the indie world, lots of songs pretty much end there–quirky, big-ensemble intro, and that’s all we get. To its credit, “Say Yes” develops resoundingly beyond its minute-long intro, presenting us next with a verse featuring a non-repeating melody that stretches out for more than 40 seconds, incorporating 18 measures of music. That’s all but unheard of in a rock band, but then again, Afternoons are an idiosyncratic rock band at best, being a seven-piece ensemble that includes two drummers, a trumpet player, and a classically trained opera singer. Three of the seven players were in the L.A.-based band Irving, which has been put aside now that that band’s side projects have apparently overshadowed the main act (another Irving offshoot is Sea Wolf).
The chorus, by the way, is nicely thought out too, and an apt counterpart to the extended verse: simply the words “say yes,” architected into the bouncy trumpet refrain of the introduction. For something this big-hearted and loose-limbed, “Say Yes” is a pretty tight composition. It will eventually appear on Afternoons’ debut CD, which is recorded but seems to lack, thus far, a release date. The band has been selling EPs at shows in L.A. but that’s about it so far. MP3 courtesy of Irving’s web site. Thanks to Filter for the tip.