Neko Case is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of a voice.
Neko Case is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of a voice. The more confident she has grown as a songwriter and singer over the years, the less clear her intentions, the more obscure her references, the more involuted her song structures. There is no explaining “Hell-On,” the title track to her new album, unless you are somehow blessed with an intuitive understanding of lines like this:
Just at sorrow’s waterline
I drape you on tomorrow’s plate
Ferrous, metal marrow spilling
Not yours but mine
I’m an agent of the natural world
Say what? But: keep listening. You won’t understand it any better but you might grow to understand that understanding is besides the point. Case is indeed an agent of the natural world, otherwise known as a force of nature, and there is something in her haunted melodies and cryptic utterances that command not merely respect but something approaching exaltation. “Hell-On” begins like an oddball Waitsian waltz, tip-toes through an unremitting series of puzzling declarations before shifting time signature and tone at 1:52 and again at 2:24 before finding its way back to 3/4 time at 2:54 for a finish that matches the deliberately sung, vaguely off-kilter opening section. You listen once and you have little idea where you are or what she’s doing. Any sense it begins to acquire with repeated listens is sub-rational at best. She seems so determined in her opacity that she swallows the title phrase of the song beyond recognition (the lyrics at this point [3:27] go: “Nature can’t amend its ways/Boils hell-on and then replays”)—as a listener, then, your not knowing what she’s talking about is compounded by your not even apprehending the sounds she’s making.
A lesser artist might lose me here. (Alas, we live in a world dominated by lesser artists.) Neko is the real thing. I haven’t yet had the chance to listen to the entire album but what I’ve heard so far has wowed me; I’m pretty sure this is not nearly the best song on the album, but it’s the available free and legal MP3 (via KEXP) and you should still have it. Then go on to Bandcamp and listen to the entire album. Furthermore: please consider the radical act of buying the actual album for actual money (it’s only $8), in support of actual music.
Firestations is a London-based five-piece with a straightforward mission statement: “We write simple alt-pop songs and then mess them up.”
Lord knows I am not going to single-handedly upend the 21st century’s predilection for unabated idiocy, whether on the airwaves or in the White House, but as long as I can I will stand up here for music that is well-crafted, both catchy and interesting, and sonically fresh without pandering to mindless trends and/or soulless technology.
Which is I guess a somewhat grumpy way of saying I love this song. With its propulsive (but not head-banging) beat, “Receiver” launches off a riff that repeats itself from 0:04 through to when the verse starts at 0:32, yet feels regenerative via the off-kilter interval leaps and syncopated shuffle it makes in the second of its two measures. And while you almost don’t notice the wordless backing vocals that accompany the resolute riff they’re also what keeps the ear gratified as the song builds a subtle nervous energy.
Once the lyrics arrive, it’s never quite clear where we are, structure-wise. There’s something that seems like a verse at 0:32, which repeats musically at 0:47; the vocals here are multi-tracked and wonderfully processed (one layer sounds like a whisper, the other like a megaphone). We are led through this to a stand-alone lyric (“I won’t be fine”? hard to decipher), at which point the opening riff and wordless vocals return. The tension is even higher now, and it breaks, at least somewhat, at 1:16, with what feels like a chorus (“You are the receiver/You get the message”), even if, musically, it’s not too far from the opening verse. Note the staccato synth line that bops and boops in the background, adding texture and oomph; it’s around now that the song for me goes from good to great. The electronics later come to the foreground (1:58) to introduce and accompany a satisfying guitar solo, constructed out of chords rather than pyrotechnics. Still later (3:04), the electronics and guitar collide and disintegrate and then land in a coda that first revisits the introduction then dissolves on a radio-receiver-like flourish.
Firestations is a London-based five-piece with a straightforward mission statement: “We write simple alt-pop songs and then mess them up.” That’s pretty much what took me two long paragraphs to say. “Receiver” is a track from their their second full-length album The Year Dot, coming out in April on Lost Map Records. Thanks to the band for the MP3.
“See You Around” moves me in some mysterious way. Every time I re-listen, I seem initially to forget anew what it was I saw in it, only to remember again as the song takes off.
An odd, enticing chugger of a song, “See You Around” has the relentlessness of a run-on sentence, packing a lot of action into a short amount of time.
We begin with a bass solo, which doubles as an introduction; when the singing starts, at 0:12, the first line is “Words keep pouring from your mouth”—and from that point, front man Gabriel Rodriguez sings without pause until 1:20. There don’t seem to be verses, and there’s no apparent chorus, just an edgy flow of words that hook you in through a few well-placed harmonic shifts (0:38, for one; 0:55 another). After Rodriguez finally takes a break, he starts up again with the more accurate observation “Words keep pouring from my mouth” (emphasis mine).
“See You Around” moves me in some mysterious way. Every time I re-listen, I seem initially to forget anew what it was I saw in it, only to remember again as the song takes off, and in particular when it arrives at the first shifting point, from 0:38 to 0:40. The song in that moment acquires some ineffable emotional capital that proceeds to grow as it careens to its early finish.
Rodriguez is a Manhattan-based musician who has played for years in the live version of the band Cults. He released his first album as Hideout in 2014. “See You Around” is from the new Hideout LP, So Many Hoops/So Little Time, released in February on Small Plates. “See You Around” is not the single, or featured track, but it’s the one that caught my ear. You too can listen to the whole album, and buy it, via Bandcamp.
The song develops not by clearly going from A to B and back again but by gliding into separate but related segments.
Slow songs are tricky things. Songs that move “too slowly” (whatever that ends up meaning, or feeling like) can violate our sense of needing to get things done, or at least needing to feel like something is happening. And yet a slow song can also be delicious in its deliberation and restraint. But: what makes a slow song slow, anyway? A song can have a slow-moving beat but fast-moving melodies; a song can have a normally-paced beat but still feel slow.
“Black Cat White Cat” works both sides of this fence with aplomb, first establishing the prominence of an unhurried 1-2 beat and then contradicting that impression with first-verse lyrics that move largely in double-time. Soon, in what appears to be a kind of chorus (although seemingly wordless), the bass continues its deliberate, spread-out line but the guitar now rings out with a lead constructed of strung-together triplets (first heard at 0:52). Later the guitar fills space between languid lyrics with urgent oscillations of a different timbre (1:48 and following). That there is no obvious overall structure further contributes to the sense of slowness, I think. The song develops not by clearly going from A to B and back again but by gliding into separate but related segments. The faster-moving melody of the first verse never repeats; the thing I thought of as the wordless chorus disappears until the song’s final quarter (3:20), and there evolves into an indecipherable but dramatic interaction between skyscraping vocals and a truly foundational guitar riff.
Holding everything together are two related things: the interval-oriented melody, which floats us up and down the octave via archetypal arpeggios; and singer Anna Gebhardt’s soaring, searing voice, in which I hear rich echoes of the perennially underrated Tanya Donelly. (And if that comparison means anything to you, seriously, don’t miss this song.)
A native of rural Nebraska, Gebhardt studied voice at Drake University and stayed in Des Moines to start the trio Annalibera. “Black Cat White Cat” is a single from their forthcoming album, Nevermind I Love You, which is due in March via the Des Moines-based label Sump Pump Records. The band has one previous release, a three-song self-titled EP that came out in 2013. You can pre-order the new album (with a vinyl option) via Bandcamp.
photo credit: Bruce Bales
Even when it isn’t quite like anything else you’ve heard it always manages to be at least a little like something else you’ve heard. This is fun and as it should be.
With confident cockeyed momentum, “Great White Shark” is a fun-house blend of thoughtful art pop and something bashier and more direct. A dignified violin break collides with a chugging, minimal rhythm section; articulate guitar lines locate clearings between earnest chunks of elusive lyrics; a basic verse melody repeats, with reappearing variations, while something resembling a chorus slips in once or twice; the song, while pushing five minutes, passes in something of a fever dream. Welcome to what has become of rock’n’roll in the mid-’10s, devolving and evolving simultaneously into whatever two people in Brooklyn (it’s almost always two people in Brooklyn) feeling like recording. Even when it isn’t quite like anything else you’ve heard it always manages to be at least a little like something else you’ve heard. This is fun and as it should be.
Anyway, I have listened to this song like a thousand times and I am left with two conflicting impressions: 1) its various complexities (in structure, nuance, texture, rhyme) continue to elude me; 2) its sturdy simplicity is grounded in the relentless recurrence of a basic three-note, ascending melody. And I am guessing that if I can train my brain to hold these two antithetical notions simultaneously, I may achieve some new level of enlightenment. Or, at least, would be better able to explicate a song named “Great White Shark” only, it seems, because the phrase slides quickly by in a lyric two-thirds of the way through the song.
Hollands is the married couple of John-Paul and Jannina Norpoth. John-Paul is the multi-instrumentalist, Jannina, classically trained, plays violin. Both are children of professional musicians. Among their favorite artists, according to the band’s Facebook page, are Igor Stravinsky, Frank Zappa, and Randy Newman—a mighty trio if ever there was. “Great White Shark” is a song from Restless Youth, their full-length debut, which was released last month. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it (vinyl is an option!) via Bandcamp. MP3 courtesy of Magnet Magazine.
As gentle as it is insistent, “Five Days” feels intriguingly like a song with neither a beginning nor an ending.
As gentle as it is insistent, “Five Days” feels intriguingly like a song with neither a beginning nor an ending. We are enveloped in a warm, tick-tock groove before we quite get our bearings, and when the words start they tumble out in an unflagging stream, leaving singer Louis Shadwick with few obvious places to breathe. The concept of a verse or a chorus is quickly irrelevant here, as the words pour into a circular, sing-songy pattern that manages to seem on the one hand almost spoken and amelodic and on the other hand a fully engaging melody. This is a really unusual and captivating song masquerading as no big deal.
And while there can be few young British rock bands, whichever still exist at this point, that aren’t (rightfully) influenced (and/or intimidated) by the large shadow cast ahead of them by Radiohead, Fossa strikes me as wearing the influence as lightly and creatively as just about any I’ve heard. The band’s blending of acoustic and electric is managed so that you barely notice they’ve plugged anything in at all—at least until an honest-to-goodness electric guitar shows up at the two-minute mark and just about steals the show with its lovely, meticulous line. Although the meandering but purposeful chord progression that precedes the guitar (starting at 1:32) is pretty great too, as is the guitar again, later, when it turns clangy and anarchic.
Fossa is a London-based quartet. “Five Days” is the lead track off their debut release, a four-song EP entitled Sea of Skies. You can listen to it and buy it at Bandcamp.
Combining melodies that gaze back towards the ’50s with the structural intricacies of 21st-century indie rock and the crowd-pleasing sing-along-iness of timeless pop.
Long-time readers may be familiar with my affection for new rock’n’roll that tips its hat to the old while still standing with its feet planted in the here and now. This is my sweet spot, unabashedly so. The Van Doos pretty much knock the ball out of the park in this regard, combining melodies that gaze back towards the ’50s with the structural intricacies of 21st-century indie rock and the crowd-pleasing sing-along-iness of timeless pop. Instrumentation is rooted in classic rock, but listen closely and enjoy the disciplined crunch of the guitars, the delightfully elastic bass line, and the strategic use of castanets, among other things. I do love the strategic use of castanets.
(Now then, some might claim that any band using merely traditional rock’n’roll instruments, as opposed to laptops and digital manipulations and such, is by definition not standing with its feet planted in the here and now. I scoff at such short-sightedness and ask time to referee this battle. Come back in 30 years and we’ll see how things stand.)
Another wonderful aspect of “Airborne” is how much of a journey the song takes us on, in under four minutes, while still feeling easy to absorb rather than obtuse. The band employs an array of subtle flourishes to add depth while remaining approachable, from the sparse arrangement of the opening verse to the unexpected, simultaneous rhythm and key change at 1:00 to the offbeat structure of a song that seems not to have a chorus but a really enticing secondary verse, heard once (beginning at 1:05), immediately repeated, and then abandoned for the accumulating momentum of the rest of the song. Cool stuff, truly.
The Van Doos are a relatively new quartet from North Yorkshire, in the U.K. “Airborne” is a song from their forthcoming debut album, perspicaciously entitled Fingertips.
A meandering song with backwards structure and a sweet incisive melody.
Very pleasant wiggles and noodles, to a beat, for a full (but pleasant!) minute, lead us with a nice electronic swoosh into a more succinct synth line (1:11) that feels briefly like a more “normal” intro; a couple of evocative sighs later, the first verse at long last appears (1:26). And quite a sweet and incisive melody line we get, with its double-time descent and half-time re-ascent, playing off layers of chiming keyboards. Suddenly it feels like this meandering song is in fact a song that means a lot of business. But exactly what kind of business remains unclear. Without repeating the verse, a vigorous instrumental section leads us into an extended middle section that seems sort of like a bridge except we haven’t come across the chorus yet.
And no chorus in fact materializes. Back we go to the introductory sighs and then an exact repeat of the first verse (2:45), reinforcing just how tidy and attractive a melody this is. And now we finally begin to feel grounded as the melody recycles, with new words, two more times. We end with fading noodles over the now-assertive drum beat, left to contemplate what it was we just heard. What kind of song was that? The structure is partially backwards, and partially inside out. It begins at its vaguest and yet also holds the ear. The most memorable melody is repeated not at the beginning but the end. No chorus in fact materializes. This is all highly enjoyable, if in a vague and noodly way.
The Sea and Cake are a Chicago quartet that has been recording since 1994, with a hiatus taken from 2004 to 2007. “Harps” is from a new album called Runner, which was written in a new way for the band. This time around, front man Sam Prekop put the guitar down and began songs with a synthesizer/sequencer. The songs went from Prekop to his three band mates remotely, and each was encouraged to do what he saw fit with it. The final songs were often quite different than Prekop’s early sketchings, and even within each song, the musical arc often moved in unanticipated ways. This no doubt has something to do with the unique path “Harps” takes.
Runner was released this week on Thrill Jockey Records. MP3, once again, via Magnet Magazine.
“House of Kiss” gives off a bright, circular vibe, and is probably as catchy as a song can be that so little resembles anything we might picture as a “hit song.”
Oddly engaging anti-pop pop from the eclectic, reclusive, semi-beloved Boston band Wheat. “House of Kiss” gives off a bright, circular vibe, and is probably as catchy as a song can be that so little resembles anything we might picture as a “hit song.” The structure is slippery at best. The song centers around an insistent, run-on lyric in which the narrator assures his partner or lover that he’s paying attention, really and truly. This seems neither like a verse nor a chorus, and it repeats, through the song, a total of seven times in just over three minutes. At first listen this “Don’t think twice” lyric seems all that makes an impression; the accompanying instrumentation appears unremarkable on the surface—guitars, bass, drum, mostly—and everything unfolds in 4/4 time.
But there are these in-between sections that trouble the flow of the song, some instrumental, some vocal, featuring melodies that lag well behind the beat. Keep an ear on the bass, which plays deft, fluid lines underneath the repeating “Don’t think twice” section but constricts itself during the slow sections. Eventually a sense of intertwining between the song’s vague parts emerges, most notably when one of the slower melodies is used underneath the main theme as a kind of counter-melody at 1:58. We eventually hear something resembling strings; and then a perky synthesizer riff. But for all its vagaries, the overall feeling is of a song marching on, of a magnet-like return to the “Don’t think twice” lyric. Eventually it occurs to me what a strong backbeat (i.e., emphasis on the second and fourth beats) there is and yet how the lyrical flow pays no attention to it. And this—the repetition over the ignored backbeat—may be what in the end lends “House of Kiss” an amusement-park-ride-like sense of flying around in a grand but yet almost dizzying circle. You get off a little wobbly but you kind of want to go back and have another ride.
A band since 1996, Wheat is neither prolific nor forthcoming, but the duo of Brendan Harney and Scott Levesque has appeared abruptly back on the scene late in 2011 with a “double a-side” single featuring “House of Kiss” and “The Used 2 Be In Love Blues.” Note that there is now an official third member of the band, multi-instrumentalist Luke Hebert. Two more double a-sides are due out in the reasonably near future, while the band’s sixth full-length album is moving somewhat more slowly towards a 2012 release, maybe. Wheat was previously featured here on Fingertips way back in 2004 (around the time of their one sort-of-hit, “I Met a Girl”) and also in 2007. Thanks to the band for the MP3 here.
This one starts in tentative, noodly mode—just a guy testing out some interesting acoustic guitar chords.
This one starts in tentative, noodly mode—just a guy testing out some interesting acoustic guitar chords. The first time I heard this, I’m all “When’s the song starting?” Second time, too. When I finally absorbed the idea that okay, this one just isn’t in a hurry, it was almost a magical transformation. Rather than being impatient for the song to begin, I realized the song had in fact begun, right there in this deliberate, exquisitely recorded introduction. I have no idea how Bjarke Bendtsen, doing musical business as The Migrant, knew that “2811 California Street” had to start this way, but now I’m right there with him. This is how the song has to start.
Forty seconds or so in, he puts the chords he had tested out into a rhythmic strum, over some elusive background percussion. Volume builds, and tension. The cymbal swell around 1:20 is first the climax and then the release that delivers us into the body of the song, via an opening melodic motif that is both simple and riveting—a figure that climbs first up and then two-thirds of the way back down using mostly accidentals, or what on a keyboard would be the black keys. This unassuming melody, first heard between 1:25 and 1:30, part upward yearning, part downward reassessment, becomes the song’s recurring anchor. The structure is otherwise ambiguous, and entirely secondary to the sonic textures on which Bendtsen builds the song, blending guitar, strings, percussion, and voice into something rich and memorable. Listen, for instance, to the substance offered by the entry of the strings around 2:26, how they seem to lift the sound into a new place with their simple rhythmic momentum. Later on they give us a quartet-like interlude, leading us to the culminating iterations of the central melody, delivered this last time without any words at all.
Bendtsen recorded his first album as The Migrant in 2010, after spending a few years traveling around the U.S. with a guitar, with a home base in Texas. “2811 California Street” is a song from Amerika, album number two for The Migrant, self-released at the end of October. The Migrant
was previously featured on Fingertips in September 2010.