“Dog Stay Down” – Opus Kink

Offbeat frenzy, with horns

“Dog Stay Down” – Opus Kink

Under certain ineffable conditions I become a bit of a sucker for speak-singing in a rock’n’roll context (Cake perhaps my favorite example), and this one seems to hit the right buttons for me, general veneer of offbeat frenzy notwithstanding (or maybe because of it; hard to say). In any case there is no ignoring the sense of frantic drama that suffuses “Dog Stay Down”: from the wordless guttural chants in the introduction through the deft if semi-feverish vocal stylings of Angus Rodgers and the splatty horn charts, the song spools forward with an unhinged but somehow charming panache that grows more appealing with each listen. Those last 20 seconds introduce an extra level of loopy.

I have no idea what Rodgers is singing about, by the way, and it doesn’t remotely matter. Actually I’ll go out on a limb and say that lyrics in general tend to strike me as semi-irrelevant, in terms of their specific denotation. My ears require vocals on the one hand (I’m not much of an instrumental fan), but on the other hand I realize my enjoyment of words in a rock song has more to do with the voice as sound and the words as rhythm and texture than with what a singer is specifically saying. And here in fact is one of my perennial problems with standard music writing: so many reviews of albums focus so intently on lyrics that you’d almost never know the words were actually being sung, and accompanied by melodies and arrangements. More to the point, such writing tends to overlook the unique power of music, ignoring what’s most potent in the listener experience, which at its core is about sound waves, not verbiage. Or so says me. In any case, even were I able to discern all the words here, in “Dog Stay Down,” which I can’t (and at this point there’s no looking them up online), I really wouldn’t want or need to. The cathartic vibe speaks for itself.

Opus Kink is a six-piece band from Brighton, England. “Dog Stay Down” is a track from their debut EP, ‘Til the Streams Run Dry, which was released in October.

Free and legal MP3: Savannah Gardner

Hymn-like solemnity, down-home allure

“Heartbreak River” – Savannah Gardner

There’s a hymn-like solemnity to “Heartbreak River,” with its dignified pace, swelling vocals, and down-home vibe. There’s also something that cumulatively touches the soul here, although I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what it is. Gardner is a young singer/songwriter with an ache in her voice and a depth to her presence, so part of the song’s persuasiveness lies in her performance.

And me being a melody guy through and through, I’m also moved by the solidity of the tune itself, which has a steady majesty, and culminates in a resolution in the chorus as mighty and unshakable as they come: the first half (0:45-0:59) a thoroughgoing set-up for the second half, the second half (1:00-1:14) the unhurried and inevitable conclusion. You see the resting point coming from a mile away and it’s all the sweeter as a result.

As suits the song’s humble power, the arrangement feels easy and tasteful, grounded in simple piano playing, with intermittent violin countermelodies, the occasionally audible guitar lick, and the recurrent punctuation of layered backing vocals. These voices rise and fall with restrained drama (and perhaps a bit of vocal processing?; if so, I like the effect a lot), becoming increasingly central to the song’s complexion. The violin, for its part, hangs back a bit, curbing what might be a natural tendency in this sort of song to pour on the syrup; when it moves front and center for the short coda (3:24), it carries with it the heft and poignancy of a bygone time.

Savannah Gardner, born to British parents, was raised in California, but lives now in the Cotswolds. “Heartbreak River” is a single released back in May; her new single, “Take Me Home,” came out late last month; you can check it out via YouTube. Thanks to Savannah for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Alan Dweck

Stately authority, passionate restraint

“Before” – Alan Dweck

Simple, elegant, and powerful, “Before” is a walking-paced blues-based rocker that converts familiarity to strength through its stately authority. The song reveals itself at its own pace and is concise in its melodic offerings—which is polite way of saying the verse and the chorus are sung to pretty much the same tune–and yet not once does it seem to drag or bore.

Everything in “Before” arrives unruffled and inevitable—instrumental tracks laid down with offhand precision, the underlying beat betraying a subtle swing, and, at the center of attention, Dweck himself with his resonant voice, at once world-weary and hopeful, an underlying fire close to the surface but never fully burning through. Encapsulating the song’s atmosphere of passionate restraint is the lead guitar, content largely with simmering background flourishes. We get a brief solo at 1:42, and an extended one at 3:02, elegiac and resolute, shining with intention but still that sense of something being held back. I mean this in a good way; I am consistently a fan of restraint when it comes to both songwriting and performing, as it almost always speaks to a level of artistry out of range of the “more is more” and/or “look at me!” approach.

Dweck is a veteran musician based in London whose career has taken him around the world, playing for the art of it rather than the commerce—an assumption I’m making based on the fact that there is little in the way of a solid informational trail to follow online beyond the press release describing him as “a globe-trotting artist” who “has continued to move people throughout the years.” “Before” is a single released in August, without a lot of tangential explanation; whether an album is forthcoming is as yet unknown. Wherever he’s been and wherever he’s yet going, the man is well worth listening to in the here and now; don’t miss this one.

Free and legal MP3: Talkboy

Sturdy, succinct, melodic

“Stupid Luck” – Talkboy

Sturdy, succinct, and melodic, “Stupid Luck” has everything going for it: a catchy tune, crafty textures, appealing vocals, and an outstanding development-versus-length dynamic–a concept I just made up but I like the idea of it. What I mean is that the song covers a lot of compositional ground in a short amount of time. That’s the best of both worlds from my idiosyncratic point of view. This is in fact the kind of song that can reaffirm one’s sense of faith in this whole endeavor–that is, the endeavor of a group of musicians banding together, still, and still trying to put something of interest and value out into this wounded world.

Right from the start the song soars, via an intro that channels bygone guitar tones, augmented by some space-age keyboard flourishes that then frame the shift we get with the opening verse, which begins with a half-time melody and stripped-back instrumentation as vocalist Katie Heap sings over fuzzy guitars that progress through some very satisfying chords. The verse repeats with fuller production, leading to a chorus boosted by nostalgic background “aahs” and a generally agreeable wall of subtle sound. By now this song is as sturdy as can be; that Beatlesque chord the song lands on at 1:07 is just another splendid touch.

And there’s still much to enjoy in this three-minute gem. Listen for the altered textures when the verse comes back around 1:15, the momentary guitar squeal as 1:23, the augmented backing vocals around 1:32, and the semi-psychedelic bridge (1:57) leading to an honest to goodness guitar solo (2:31). And, in one of the finer if subtler songwriting moments of the whole thing, the song revisits the verse near the end with a cleared-out musical palette that transforms the former verse into a coda that ends directly on the titular phrase–a rarely achievable and quite gratifying maneuver.

Talkboy is a six-piece band from Leeds. They were previously featured on Fingertips in February 2019. “Stupid Luck” is a single from their forthcoming EP, due for release in February 2021. Their brand new single, “Sky is Falling,” is available to listen to via SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: The Arthur Brothers

Mid-’60s vibe

“Sun Gun” – The Arthur Brothers

Arriving in 2020 straight from 1965 or so, “Sun Gun” pays nifty homage to a variety of classic British rockers from an era when sturdy melodies poured out of rock bands like sunshine in August, tinged by an awareness of the psychedelia on the near horizon. The Zombies, the Kinks, early Pink Floyd, they’re all in here, in the jangly guitars, the sweet spacey sing-along chorus, the swell of background harmonies, and the general sense that tea was involved along the way. If you’re not careful you’ll notice a soupçon of young-ish David Bowie in the air, or maybe Marc Bolan, and in any case the Arthurs make a nice case for grounding the entirety of glam rock, by all accounts arising in the early ’70s, in those earlier mid-’60s sounds.

The trick in all this is not to sound like a tribute band, and although it’s hard to point to any one thing they’re doing that shifts things into the 21st century, I am nevertheless getting a strong whiff of present-day creativity here. At which point I should note that the original version of this song on the album is more than nine minutes long, during which it definitely becomes its own sort of trip. (Here’s a link to the full version if you’re curious and have some extra time on your hands.) Personally I didn’t think the song quite justified its length; and yet, oddly, now that I’ve been living with the shorter version, I do have a sense that it could be longer. (Some people are never satisfied it seems.)

In any case, what really sells me on “Sun Gun,” in either length, is the brilliance of the classic-sounding chorus, which gathers an impressive amount of heft as the song progresses. This is partially due to restraint—we only hear the chorus three times in this edited version. The verse melody is different but with a similar rhythm and feel so it works to reinforce and familiarize the ear while at the same time allowing the chorus when it pops in to feel extra memorable.

The Arthur Brothers self-identify as an “artistic alliance” grounded in the work of brothers Matt and Danny Arthur and songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist J.C. Wright. They are based in London. “Sun Gun” is the final track on their debut album, Nine, which was released last month. You can listen to the album and buy it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Thrillhouse (subtle hooks, accumulated majesty)

“Lesser” – Thrillhouse

As we collectively ponder just how to put one foot in front of the other without falling into a pit of grief, recalling a disregarded sense of normal wrenched away from us, let’s take a deep breath. Music remains accessible. It helps. As the hackneyed but undeniable truism reminds us: Don’t look back. You’re not going that way.

So. We’ll take it one song at a time, and “Lesser” is a worthy place to start—a smart 21st-century rocker paved with subtle hooks and accumulated majesty.  The throbbing beat set against an unresolved chord in the introduction grabbed me quickly, while the song’s unfolding changes and idiosyncratic twists—most notably the spoken-word pre-chorus (first heard at 0:52; listen to how the melody is implied without being sung)—keep the ear and heart engaged through to the end.

Other impressive moments and touches: the anthemic guitar line appearing at 1:08, and again only at 2:51 (what great restraint to use this only after one particular lyric); the telegraph-signal synth that emerges from the background around 1:38, and gets something of its own solo around 2:27; the unexpected percussive effect at 2:39; the wonderful squiggle of a synth solo in the coda (beginning at 3:26).

Thrillhouse is a trio based in Brighton. “Lesser” is their second single, released earlier this month. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Nancy (psychedelic romp)

With a haunted, psychedelic flair, “When I’m With You” chugs to a friendly beat before busrting, in the chorus, into a wall-of-sound carnival of echoey organ and sing-along lyrics.

“When I’m With You (I Feel Love)” – Nancy

With a haunted, psychedelic flair, “When I’m With You (I Feel Love)” chugs to a friendly beat before bursting, in the chorus, into a wall-of-sound carnival of echoey organ and sing-along lyrics. The Brighton-based Nancy keeps personal details to a minimum but surely pours his heart and soul into music that manages to feel at once tightly designed and loosely thrown together. This warped melange of a song also performs the wonderful balancing act of sounding both vintage and up-to-date at the same time, adding idiosyncratic 21st-century frenzy to a classic core of melody and riff. The fact that the tune clocks in at 3:33 feels like a purposeful hat tip to the trippy ear worms that made their way to the radio back in the late ’60s. One half churning atmosphere, one half catchy pop song, “When I’m With You” does its business and gets out. Bands that feel the unaccountable need for beat-heavy intros and endless repetition should take notes.

Nancy is a musician who uses just the one name, and it might be an homage to Nancy Sinatra, but, as noted, details about the guy are sketchy. He doesn’t mind describing his music, however; this song he calls a “swirling head rush, a shot of adrenaline, an oscillating distorted cacophony of noise and melody.” I’ll go along with that.

“When I’m With You” was released early last month via B3SCI/Cannibal Hymns. And earlier this month, Nancy released two more tracks, which you can find up on SoundCloud. An EP is in the works for the spring.

Free and legal MP3: Bombay Bicycle Club (curiously satisfying, w/ a hypnotic groove)

Being obsessed with reuniting with your band in times of trouble seems, indeed, more righteous than just being another 21st-century guy eager for his lover’s body.

“Eat, Sleep, Wake (Nothing But You)” – Bombay Bicycle Club

Here, in the midst of a buzzy, quasi-anthemic piece of late-issue indie rock, I’m finding that the moment that sells me is when an abruptly perky synth lick grabs the ear at the top of the mix after the third of the three-word choral incantation (“wake,” first heard at 0:34). If you re-listen you’ll hear how well set up the moment is, a climax emerging from the rubbery noodling the synthesizer has been doing from the start. And yet when you first hear it it’s this marvelous upward prompt that punctuates and re-sets the piece in a curiously satisfying way.

In fact let’s call the entire song curiously satisfying, starting with how its hypnotic groove, emphasized by a nearly sub-aural bass line, is no mere sonic affectation, but is in fact germane to lyrics that speak of obsession so thorough as to render days a rote ritual of waking and sleeping, as if hypnotized. And even though this may seem to be about someone in thrall to an absent lover, front man Jack Steadman is actually here expressing his desire to get back together with his band mates, as Bombay Bicycle Club had been on a hiatus for a few years. This seems a helpful distinction, and to me accounts for the musical uplift of the aforementioned synth lick; being obsessed with reuniting with your band in times of national uneasiness (they’re from London) seems, indeed, more righteous than just being another 21st-century guy singing about his lover’s body.

I’m also taken with Steadman’s vocal delivery, which conveys a shaky determination, half resigned and half resolved, reminiscent of Conor Oberst on a sturdy day. The verses acquire a claustrophobic momentum, with Steadman barely taking a breath, but we are always led back to the chorus and that mind-clearing synth lick. Note too another song that does not overstay its welcome; I’ll never understand why some bands take the positive quality of insistence and depreciate it into redundancy. (In fact, all four songs this month clock in within the perfect 3:33 to 3:49 range. Well done, everyone!)

A quartet whose origins date back to 2005, Bombay Bicycle Club recorded four albums between 2009 and 2014, to a good amount of critical and popular success, did a bunch of touring, then decided to go their separate ways in 2016. Both singer/guitarist Steadman and bassist Ed Nash pursued solo projects, but after three years the group found its way back together. “Eat, Sleep, Wake (Nothing But You)” is their first new recording in five years, and will be found on their the album Everything Else Has Gone Wrong, which is due out early next year. The song was produced by John Congleton, known in recent years for his work with St. Vincent and Alvvays. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Diesel Park West (classic sound, smartly crafted)

Want to know just how instantly assured and well-built “Pictures in the Hall” is? Check out the way that Diesel Park West employs a mere two-second, slashing guitar riff for an intro.

“Pictures in the Hall” – Diesel Park West

Well here’s a terrific song from a veteran band I had previously managed not to know about, despite a history dating back to the ’80s. There’s always a world of music out there awaiting discovery, and it’s not always going to come to you via algorithm.

Want to know just how instantly assured and well-built “Pictures in the Hall” is? Check out the way that Diesel Park West employs a mere two-second, slashing guitar riff for an intro; it harkens back to something the Who or the Kinks might have done in the British Invasion days, and leads to an equally classic-sounding sing-song verse. This, in turn, is the kind of thing bands tend to pound into oblivion, but these guys keep the song moving; at 0:18, the music shifts tonally into a chorus tinged with Kinks-ian melancholy, before ending with an exclamatory upturn (0:30-0:36).

A lot of ground has been covered in less than 40 seconds, at which point we head back to where we started. This time around notice the barreling guitar line down below that links the lyrics together (e.g. 0:44). It was there in the first verse as well, but now that we’re settled in it’s somehow more noticeable, as part of a general sense of mischief in the air, which is reinforced by a few other goings-on, including an early bridge section (at 1:12, before the song is even half over), an abrupt key change (1:46), and, throughout, by front man John Butler’s ever-so-slightly unrestrained vocal style. The last bit of fun comes in the guise of that original guitar lick, the aforemenioned one linking the verses together earlier, now reimagined as a repeating, melodramatic descent (e.g. 2:10). That didn’t need to happen but the end result is meatier for touches like that.

“Pictures in the Hall” is the first single from Diesel Park West’s forthcoming album, Let It Melt, to be released at the end of the week on Palo Santo Records. This is the Leicester-based band’s ninth album; three of its four members were in the lineup all the way back to the ’80s.

Free and legal MP3: Lauran Hibberd (terrific rocker w/ old-school crunch)

With satisfying, old-school crunch, “Hoochie” is the kind of song that reacquaints the ear with how simple and vital a rock song can yet be, here in our beleaguered 21st century.

Lauran Hibberd

“Hoochie” – Lauran Hibberd

With satisfying, old-school crunch, “Hoochie” is the kind of song that reacquaints the ear with how simple and vital a rock song can yet be, here in our beleaguered 21st century: guitars still excite, catchy and uncomplicated melodies still delight, and can still be put in service of sardonic young folks, especially those possessed of the right combination of charisma and purpose, as young Isle of Wight singer/songwriter Lauran Hibberd surely is. (And that’s no typo: it’s Lauran with an “a.”)

One of the main glories of rock’n’roll, well illustrated by “Hoochie,” is how musical strength renders all in its path worthy of attention. I’m not sure, for instance, that the lyrics here would be all that impressive if stripped from the music and read aloud, but the point is that this doesn’t matter in the slightest. Riding on top of this heroic groove, nestled in their textured setting, and delivered with Hibberd’s casual aplomb, the words acquire a primal sort of substance that supersedes precise meaning on the one hand, and then (this is the extra magic) delivers a new level of meaning on the other. I’m not sure I can explain this properly, but for me, the lyrics in a great rock song often don’t need to be paid close attention to and yet, then, as they present as an intrinsic part of the sonic experience, become great in their own inscrutable way. This is why it’s not often necessary to pay close attention to lyrics, even as the words nonetheless become a pivotal part of the final package.

Anyway, give this one a few listens and maybe you’ll sense that extra magic going on here too. If I were still tracking my Top 10 songs of the year, I have no doubt that this would end up there in December. You can check out all of Hibberd’s releases, six songs to date, on SoundCloud. “Hoochie” is her latest and, to my ears, best—so far.