“Let Go” – Brooke Bentham

Bittersweet allure

“Let Go” – Brooke Bentham

Launched off a world-weary acoustic strum, “Let Go” turns almost magically beautiful, all resolute melody and intimate, affecting vocals. The song has the bittersweet allure of something that has come down through the decades, not just the months. And it has the feeling of a take recorded with what happened to be handy: “strum this guitar,” “sing in that mic,” “the lyric sheet’s over here if you need it.”

Even when things open up sonically near the one-minute mark, the song retains its tenacity, never filling the space up with more than is necessary, leaning in the chorus on twangy, unresolved chords for drama. And then–speaking of drama–there’s the unusual way the song comes nearly to a halt at around three minutes, finishing with a slow, reflective minute of voice and a guitar strummed even more sparingly than we heard in the intro. The uniting force from start to finish is Bentham’s appealing and penetrating soprano, which holds its silver tone at both ends of the volume spectrum.

Deemed “enigmatic” by her own press material, the Newcastle-based singer/songwriter Brooke Bentham started making and performing music as a teenager, and did her first recordings while still in college. After a flurry of singles and EPs in 2017, beginning with the moody, potent single “Oliver,” she hit a songwriting wall. Her much-anticipated full-length debut, Everyday Nothing, did not emerge until 2020. Three years later we have new music by way of the EP Caring, which is where you’ll find “Let Go,” and three other songs. The EP was released in March; check it out on Bandcamp.

“Flash of Light” – Tugboat Captain

Short and expansive, with bassoon

“Flash of Light” – Tugboat Captain

“Flash of Light” may be the most expansive, fully-developed two-minute song I’ve ever heard. It unfolds without any sense of hurry: fully 43 seconds of the two minutes operates as the introduction; there is, additionally, an instrumental break, an engaging structure, and a sophisticated sense of melody. At the same time, there is no chorus, which is one sly way to shorten a song. The imagistic lyrics are haiku-like in their brevity and allusiveness, hinting at unexplored depths with impressive conciseness–another way of creating an impression of something weightier than the time clock might seem to indicate.

Let’s get back to that drawn-out introduction. I’m not often a fan of long intros, and initially looked askance at the unusual intro/body-of-song ratio. But this one launches with a pleasing mixture of mystery and urgency: first, an in-the-distance keyboard pounding around some synth squiggles in a sort of pre-introduction; this swells at 0:21 into a more dramatic soundscape, a siren-like electric guitar now reinforcing the pounding motif; and everything now engaging the ear so thoroughly that the pull-the-plug ending at 0:42 feels momentarily disconcerting. But this drop is its own kind of wonderful, the song collapsing on the third beat of a measure idiosyncratically expanded to 6/4 as the singing starts. This might better be framed as a new, 2/4 measure, which adds emphasis to a melody otherwise being offered on the downbeat. In any case, what a melody it is, brought to melancholy life via the wistful tones of front man Alexander Sokolow, punctuated by some Beatlesque chord changes (cf. 0:46-0:48). Also, there’s a bassoon in here somewhere. The band has a bassoon player.

And hm–I risk explicating out of proportion to the song’s succinctness don’t I? It’ll only take two minutes of your time to investigate so go do. And maybe you’ll figure out on your own the location of “the first ever four-part bassoon drop in the indie-rock genre,” as noted by the band on their Bandcamp page. They take their bassooning seriously.

Tugboat Captain is a four-piece from London. “Flash of Light” is a single released in January. A second single, “Deep Sea Diving,” was released in mid-March. The band’s debut album, Rut, appeared in 2020. You can check everything out on Bandcamp.

“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.