Sturdy, succinct, melodic
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Son’s voice has a depth and elasticity that brings Thom Yorke to mind, if the Radiohead front man were content singing an easy-going melody these days.
Even here in 2019, a song will sometimes, still, arrive with a kind of purity—an individual artist, minus any management or PR apparatus, reaching out, with enough skill to assemble an articulate and easy-to-navigate email, but minus the weight and hype of an all-out media barrage. Sadly, artists who take this DIY path often end up disregarded by current standards—emails ignored, with few social media followers and no Hype Machine love, they exist in a veritable Slough of Despond, 21st-century style. And lord knows not every on-their-own musician is making music worthy of widespread attention. But it can happen, and when it does, I feel the world brighten.
Take this track by a musician who calls himself Son. Based in London, he was born and raised in Belarus, which I only know because I asked him. As of now, not a whole lot of info about the guy is available online, and even if there were, his moniker of choice is all but impossible to Google. But, all the more reason not to concern oneself with anything but the music. And the music is excellent: a swaying ballad with heft and purpose, “Y&M” launches with little fanfare, but takes its time unfolding (note, for instance, the nine-second gap between the first and second lines of the verse). The early cymbal rolls add to the anticipation of something about to happen. Son’s voice has a depth and elasticity that brings Thom Yorke to mind, if the Radiohead front man were content singing an easy-going melody these days. And while “Y&M” may not operate on a five-star level across the board—I’m not sure, for instance, we need that long second of absolute dead air at 2:44—the fact that this thing was written, produced, recorded, mixed, and mastered by this anonymous Londoner is pretty stunning. And, I have to say, I’m kind of okay with the break in the music after all given that it is followed by a one-minute guitar solo of serious thought and power.
“Y&M”—short for “you and me,” as repeated in the chorus—was released in January. Thanks to the artist for the MP3. If you want to support him, you can buy the track on Bandcamp.
“Bed Bug” is so approachable that you may not notice the slurry of indistinct noise that leavens this languorous tune.
Ambling at a walking 4/4 pace, “Bed Bug” is so approachable that you may not notice the slurry of indistinct noise that leavens this languorous and crafty tune. There are instruments to discern, for sure—drums, guitar, bass: the traditional suspects—but there’s also that special dream-pop sauce of amorphous sound blurring the background into something that you hear and don’t hear at the same time. Note in particular how it rises in volume at the chorus (first iteration at 0:44), an indecipherable swirl underpinning the lovely melody, which by the way ends with a kind of unresolved resolution (1:06-1:11) (a neat trick in and of itself).
I’d also have you tune into the lead vocals here. Dream pop/shoegaze tends historically to lean on reverb, but it hasn’t here been allowed to nullify the rich, faraway tone of lead singer Anna Vincent. There’s a moment or two where she arches up to a high note (try 0:57, for one), and the way her voice just melts into it is super appealing to me, for mysterious reasons. Too much reverb there would have lost the nuance of it. I like too the song’s casual way with a guitar riff. It’s right there in the intro: a simple, one-step-down, two-note refrain, and from there it insinuates its way into the verse, at four-measure intervals, like a friendly face spied at a bit of a distance. One last, more general thing I appreciate is how “Bed Bug” keeps varying the landscape on us: not only is the verse presented in two different settings (the second time through—1:43—the sonic palette is stripped down and drum-forward) but so is the chorus, which offers us a hazier variant the second time we hear it (2:10).
Heavy Heart is a quartet from London. Released in January, “Bed Bug” was the first single the band put out since an experiment they ran in 2016 in which they wrote, recorded, and released one new song each month for the entire year; the results were then gathered into one full-length album in 2017, entitled Keepsake. You can check out all the band’s recordings and purchase them at Bandcamp. They also now have a brand-new single, “Dowsabel,” which you can listen to there or on SoundCloud.
Sparkly, melodic indie rock
With its sparkly veneer and heavy undercurrent, “Someone Else For You” is two minutes and twenty-eight seconds of uprushing melody and impressive craft. Time is saved from the get-go: the song launches with no introduction, which feels like walking into a movie that’s already started. Momentum continues via a verse that essentially fakes right and goes left—the way the first line ends, with the words “into the city” (0:02), leads the ear to expect a similar pause at the end of the next line (0:05-:06). But, instead, the melody flows through an unexpected chord change, on the words “things to say” (0:08), before resolving back in a place that satisfies musically even as the lyrics suggest conflict, referring to words that “always came out wrong” (0:11). Best of all, look where we are now: just 12 seconds in, already treated to an eight-measure verse melody and lyrical intrigue before most songs have emerged from their opening vamps.
And why not? When you have a lead singer with Katie Heap’s rich tones and easy assurance, there’s no point in delaying her entry. The second verse runs through the same territory but now with a wash of wordless backing vocals layered below. The chorus arrives with an extra bashing of drums at 0:25; with its repeating, descending conclusion, it’s more concise melodically than the verse. This provides a clearing for the guitars to emerge from the background, surging first below the lyrics (0:32) and then out into the open at 0:38. The song now carries a heaviness one might not have anticipated from the head-bobbing opening.
Deft touches dot the rest of the song, from the head-clearing acoustic blip at 0:52, to the quiet iteration of the chorus the second time through (1:07), the feedback-y bridge (1:25), and, maybe best of all, Heap’s effortless octave leap at 1:47, after which she finishes the song in her impressive upper register.
Talkboy is a six-person band from Leeds. “Someone Else For You” is their third single, released earlier this month. You can download this one, as usual, from the above link, and then check the other songs out over on SoundCloud.