Free and legal MP3: Katy Vernon (Americana, w/ ukulele, and grandeur)

“Undertow” has a casual but distinctive grandeur about it; listen, for instance, to the lap steel intro: sure, a standard motif in country or Americana music, but the tone here is both keening and a little whimsical.

“Undertow” – Katy Vernon

December approaches, which means that it’s time here to take stock of those songs I’ve been listening to for a good part of the year but which somehow never broke through to a feature. This can happen for any number of random reasons, often just because a song doesn’t seem to want to fit in with the other songs being presented in a given month. (No one else might, but I always listen to each group of featured songs as a linked set; I like them to work well when heard, in order, one after the other.) Needless to say this is all an idiosyncratic mess, but it’s my mess.

So, here at long last is Katy Vernon, a London-born singer/songwriter/ukulele player who has been living in Minneapolis since the late ’00s. “Undertow” has a casual but distinctive grandeur about it; listen, for instance, to the lap steel intro: sure, a standard motif in country or Americana music, but the tone here is both keening and a little whimsical. It sets your ears up for something wonderful, somehow. Maybe this has something to do with the lap steel’s partner here, which is Vernon’s omnipresent ukulele, a less standard companion. When she starts singing (0:12), her voice traces a stately verse melody bookended by two half-interval descents; this feels grounded and inevitable but, after the second pass through, primes us for something grander, which we receive in the chorus.

Now then, the chorus. First, that lap steel swell that brings you in is pretty great. Second, you are not imagining it if you hear a strong melodic echo of June Carter’s “Ring of Fire” here—it’s not only that upward leap by thirds, tracing a D chord, on “Took me down” (0:36), but also the follow-up descent (“way along the shore”); the melody is quite similar to the chorus melody in the Carter classic but the altered rhythm and feel transform it into something distinct. And, whether intentional or not, the way Vernon veers off into new territory in the resolution (starting with the words “till you” at 0:52) keeps sounding like a deft and welcome surprise. I can attest that the song is definitely a grower; I’ve been listening since March, when the Current featured the download in the “Song of the Day” feature. Something about it kept it hanging around, prompted me eventually to investigate the rest of the album (which is good!), and now, finally, here you go.

“Undertow” is the ninth of 12 tracks on Vernon’s third album, Suit of Hearts, which was also released in March. But, to make things nominally current, the last track on the album is called “Christmas Wish,” and has just been put online as a single. Visit Vernon’s Bandcamp page to listen to everything, and buy what you’d like.



(MP3s from The Current are available in files that are 128kbps, which is below the established 192kbps standard, not to mention the higher-def standard of 320kbps. I personally don’t hear much difference on ordinary equipment but if you are into high-end sound you’ll probably notice something. In any case I always encourage you to download the MP3 for the purposes of getting to know a song via a few listens; if you like it I still urge you to buy the music. It’s still the right thing to do.)

Free and legal MP3: Clem Snide (mad genius Journey cover)

With just a guitar, his voice, and some exquisitely placed piano fills, Clem Snide front man Eef Barzelay finds the vulnerable heart of an almost willfully silly song.

Eef Barzelay

“Anyway You Want It” – Clem Snide

Clem Snide front man (and, sometimes, only member) Eef Barzelay has taken Steve Perry and Neal Schon’s words and somehow stripped them of their (let’s face it) feebleness, mining them down to the spirit in which they were theoretically intended but which neither Perry himself nor Journey as a band was capable of displaying. This is some kind of mad genius.

I mean, ponder these lyrics—

She loves to move
She loves to groove
She loves the lovin’ things

—and then listen to Barzelay sing them (starting at 0:28). He has removed irony as a stance here; he means these words, and his half-bold, half-shy delivery makes them work, which is all the more remarkable when you note that “lovin’ things” was there to rhyme with the word “everything” from the previous line. With just a ukulele, his voice, and some exquisitely placed piano fills, Barzelay finds the vulnerable heart of an almost willfully silly song. He removes Journey’s instrumental hook—that barreling seven-note riff that screams “Look out! Chorus approaching!”—and adds, crucially, a repeat round of the chorus’s lone lyric. You’ll hear this first at 1:15: how he takes the melody up to the top end of the chord, at once relieving it of its claustrophobia (in the original it’s basically a two-note melody) and adding poignancy via a descending melody that fades each time it descends; he barely bothers to enunciate the “it” at the end of each phrase. As a belted, arena-rock assertion, “Anyway you want it, that’s the way you need it” is all but devoid of sense; as a tentative disclosure, the words have an elusive, confessional air.

But I can’t help thinking that Barzaley has opened a can of worms here. I mean, if he can sing these words and make them sound good and right and true, then it might well be that all sorts of awkwardly written songs out there are actually pretty darned good. They’re just waiting for the right interpreter. Barzaley, at least, is doing his part—this cover of “Anyway You Want It” is from an EP called Clem Snide’s Journey, which transforms six of Journey’s most familiar songs. The EP was inspired by his covering “Faithfully” for the Onion’s A.V. Club (see video below), and came into being via a Kickstarter campaign. The EP was self-released this summer, and is available digitally via the band’s Bandcamp page for six dollars.

Free and legal MP3: Remate (breezy international indie pop)

There’s something ineffably marvelous about this Spanish-language bit of international indie pop. On top of its lazy, head-bopping beat, we get a fuzzy guitar, a chipper cello (courtesy of Julia Kent, of Antony & the Johnsons), chimey percussion, hand claps, and, among other things, a ukulele played by Stephin Merritt.

Remate

“Gigante” – Remate

Ha, so look—the British Sea Power folks have finally moved beyond their predilection for one-name names and they are joined this week on Fingertips by two musicians employing one-name names. Everything connects; you just need the right cords. (Not to mention chords.)

In any case, there’s something ineffably marvelous about this Spanish-language bit of international indie pop. On top of its lazy, head-bopping beat, we get a fuzzy guitar, a chipper cello (courtesy of Julia Kent, of Antony & the Johnsons), chimey percussion, hand claps, and, among other things, a ukulele played by Stephin Merritt. (Merritt was brought into the project by producer LD Beghtol, who had collaborated on the Magnetic Field’s magnum opus, 69 Love Songs.) I like how the song manages to be at once kitchen-sinky and tightly disciplined, and I like most of all Remate’s breezy-breathy-earthy tenor, and how he kind of calls the meeting to order with his laid-back phrasing and the culminating repeated question: “¿Donde está?” Maybe “Where is she?,” maybe “Where is it?” but in any case, “¿Donde están?”—where are they? But whoever or whatever he’s looking for, he sounds actually less concerned than maybe bemused, an affect amplified when the echoing synth line we first heard after the repeated question becomes an almost lighthearted chorus of “la-la-las” towards the end of the song (2:21).

Remate is a Madrid-based musician whose upcoming album, recorded in NYC, features songs that are each about a different adult-movie actress who uses the last name “Luv”—“14 songs of misspelled love or something like William Shakespeare on the porno industry,” in Remate’s words. The album is called Superluv: Por Lo Que Tiene de Romantico and will be out on Everlasting Records in Spain in January; a US release slated for the spring.