Pretty much all of their work is exquisitely crafted and touching; some of it, like this new single, is soul-stirringly gorgeous.
The trio of Karen Peris, Don Peris, and Mike Bitts have been doing their beautiful and timeless thing, as The Innocence Mission, out there in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, since 1989. Pretty much all of their work is exquisitely crafted and touching; some of it, like this new single, is soul-stirringly gorgeous. Karen sings with a slurry, fragile power that augments the melancholy tones baked into the band’s melodies and chord changes. In her masterful hands, even a sprightly, upturned melody, such as when she here sings, “Some days we are not sure where we’re going” (0:21), can bring tears to the eyes from the poignant power of it all.
And, to be sure, this song draws on a deep well of feeling, rooted in the potency of life-long love, including love that extends beyond the grave. The song’s surface-level simplicity is its grace, that up-skipping, recurring melody its super power. Note too how intimate the recording sounds—husband and wife Karen and Don record the band in their house—yet also how well built and nimbly crafted. With care and vision and talent (and technology), The Innocence Mission manage to do this impossible thing: they make the internet seem peaceful, helpful, and generally Okay.
“On Your Side” is a song from the band’s eleventh album, See You Tomorrow, which was released last week. Listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp, where it is available digitally, on CD, and (most fittingly, to my ears) on vinyl. This is the fourth time the band has been featured here on Fingertips, dating all the way back to November 2003. 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.
Twisting and swinging with a melancholy pang, “Voices in the Field” is propelled throughout by organic percussion, and rendered fiery by the paired guitars that blaze and gyrate with character and intensity.
Boy is there something to be said for experience. You wouldn’t know it from most of the emails I receive here, touting the latest sensations, accentuating how young someone is or how quickly this or that band has racked up video streams (or both). And of course there’s always room for new talent. But there will always be an untouchable quality to the talent that can (sometimes!) develop with years of playing, years of living, years of developing a craft and a voice.
Calexico, formed by the duo of Joey Burns and John Convertino, have been at their dusty blend of cross-cultural indie rock since 1995. There’s a world of musical know-how in the sounds they make; even the way the instruments in the introduction slide in and out of the 6/8 beat here strikes me as something you can’t do if you’re out there collecting likes for a living, and that’s just in the first 20 seconds. Twisting and swinging with a melancholy pang, “Voices in the Field” is propelled throughout by organic percussion, and rendered fiery by the paired guitars that blaze and gyrate with character and intensity. The lyrics tell a poetic tale of dislocation, with enough detail not to mystify, enough obliqueness to intrigue—yet another sign of a sure, experienced hand.
“Voices in the Field” is from the album The Thread That Keeps Us, released in January on Anti Records. MP3 via KEXP. It’s the band’s tenth release, not including live and collaborative recordings. Calexico was featured on Fingertips once previously, way back in April 2004.
“Valley Boy” presents with a sonic depth and acumen that belies its pop-song length.
The well-regarded Montreal quartet Wolf Parade went on an indefinite hiatus in 2010. This fall they returned, and these were the first words from them we heard:
The radio’s been playing all your songs
Talking about the way you slipped away without a care
Did you know that it was all gonna go wrong?
Did you know that it would all be more than you could bear?
The song was written about a year ago, after two profound, near-simultaneous occurrences: the death of Leonard Cohen and the election of the 45th President of the United States. Wolf Parade has ably if enigmatically linked these two adjacent events in the rolling, quirkily anthemic, Bowie-esque rocker “Valley Boy.” With a theatrical quaver, vocalist Spencer Krug sings words that conceal more than they reveal, but the opening verse, repeated once at the end, blazes with clarity and pathos, providing a foundation of meaning for an otherwise inscrutable song. I have certainly yet to figure out the centrality of the “valley boy” reference, but I’m working at it, because it so clearly means something. The best I can surmise is that the song is wondering if, after death, Cohen has finally been able to release himself from the existential angsts he spent his life pondering. It may not be the writer’s intention but it kind of works, for me.
Musically, “Valley Boy” presents with a sonic depth and acumen that belies its pop-song length. There are dissonant motifs and churning textures; there are also moments of clearing, and some attentive, Television-ish guitar interweavings. Krug has been quoted as saying, intriguingly, that “the band itself is almost a fifth member of the band,” as a way of describing and/or explaining the group’s authoritative sound. I like that.
“Valley Boy” is from the new Wolf Parade album Cry Cry Cry, the band’s first since 2010. It was released early last month on Sub Pop. MP3, again, via KEXP.
“Demon In Profile” is as enticing a slice of stylish, urgent rock’n’roll as I’ve heard in a good while, and is unimaginable as the product of anyone who hasn’t been at this game a good long time.
Boy, is there something to be said for veteran musicians who still feel the urge to create. “Demon In Profile” is as enticing a slice of stylish, urgent rock’n’roll as I’ve heard in a good while, and is unimaginable as the product of anyone who hasn’t been at this game a good long time. Actually it’s unimaginable as the product of anyone who isn’t the Afghan Whigs, a band that in its day created one of the more singular catalogs of music in the popular and semi-popular realm.
The Cincinnati-based band did have a bit of an alternative-rock cultural moment in the early ’90s, moving up from Sub Pop Records to a major-label deal with Elektra, and then in 1993 releasing the widely acclaimed album Gentlemen. The Whigs always had a distinctive if somewhat elusive sound, funneling a grunge-y crunch into a musical landscape that tipped its hat to something soulful and unrestrained. Front man Greg Dulli combined a dramatic baritone with larger-than-life bravado, all excess and attitude. Never, however, quite hitting the mainstream, they did what they did until 2001, with one personnel change along the way, at which point they broke up, amicably. Ten years later, they were back, and in 2014 released their first album since 1998. They appear to mean business in their 21st-century incarnation, which includes only Dulli and bassist John Curley from the original lineup.
“Demon In Profile” slips in with a welcoming piano refrain that harkens back to AOR radio days (Al Stewart? Journey? something), then morphs assuredly into a midtempo rocker that’s equal parts swing and menace. Horns mix with electric guitars in a very satisfying way, undergirding melodies that feel inevitable and haunting; every section of this impressively concise song feels all but perfectly conceived. Dulli, meanwhile, sounds as in command as ever, and early on delivers the especially suggestive line “It was all that I wanted/Now it’s killing me.” If an all-out rock’n’roll dude like Dulli can stomp his way through middle age without keeling over I imagine he’ll continue to have some pretty interesting things to say.
“Demon In Profile” is the third of 10 songs on the new Afghan Whigs album In Spades, which was released earlier this month. The band is back on Sub Pop Records after all these years. You can listen to and purchase the album (available in vinyl as well) via Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.
Launching off a concise, Buddy-Holly-ish acoustic-guitar riff, “Boiling the Ocean” bottles an elusive variety of bygone rock’n’roll sounds into an artisanal blend that feels at once comfy and idiosyncratic.
Launching off a concise, Buddy-Holly-ish acoustic-guitar riff, “Boiling the Ocean” bottles an elusive variety of bygone rock’n’roll sounds into an artisanal blend that feels at once comfy and idiosyncratic. It’s a simple-sounding, toe-tappy song, it’s under three minutes, and yet there’s all this movement and depth about it, due to at least two elements I’ve uncovered with repeated listens.
First, the overall song structure seems normal at first (verse/chorus/verse) but bewilders (in a good way) upon closer inspection. The verses operate with two distinct and unequal parts, and after we spend time with the chorus (about more in a moment), we only revisit “part two”—part one, which opened the song, is never heard from again. The second complicating feature is the chorus itself (starting at 1:17), also in (at least) two parts, which feels like its own mini-adventure: advancing from the punchy, titular phrase and an indecipherable descending-line lyric that follows, it seems to keep receding from view, grounding itself in a notably unresolved moment (the minor chord that arrives first at 1:28 and the percussive episode that follows) before revisiting that chord (1:37) and sliding out the back door. What kind of chorus was that, exactly? No time to wonder: an assertive, repeating series of four guitar chords, with bashy drumming, provides aural slight of hand and brings us back to where we started. But not really. From here the song repeats in a truncated fashion, as we get only part two of the verse and then only part one of the chorus, with one strategic addition (the “I walk” line at 2:31) brought in from the otherwise complicated part two.
And that’s a lot of structural gobbledygook simply to say that the Minders have put together a dynamic little song here that feels both old and new, both catchy and ambiguous. And this is all a good thing.
“Boiling the Ocean” is a track that became available this spring as a download from the annual PDX Pop Now! Compilation; the song opens disc two of the 42-song offering, about which you can read more here. The album is released each year in conjunction with the PDX Pop Now! music festival, which happened last month. Note that the Minders are 20-year rock’n’roll veterans, initially springing from the renowned Elephant 6 collective. They have been based in Portland since 1998, and have a new album themselves due out next month, called Into the River. You can download a free and legal MP3 from that album, “Summer Song,” on SoundCloud.
The gracefully descending minor-key melody, this thing hits the ground like archetypal Jayhawks, which is more or less equivalent to archetypal Americana.
Have you heard this before? Of course you’ve heard this before—even if not this exact song. This is not a new sound. But my god, how sweet and solid this is, and how indicative that we lose something consequential when we demand only that everything be so friggin’ new all the time. I mean, come on: it makes no more sense to demand that everything only be new than to demand that everything only be old. Surely we desire and deserve a blend, much as we desire and deserve artists presenting visions and stories from all points on the adult human life spectrum, not just from those under the age of 25. The insidious pressure to require music to sound somehow continually “new” can always be sensed when writers approach a veteran band like The Jayhawks: if a new album is favorably viewed, there are always statements lauding the idea that the band “didn’t just revisit the past”; if unfavorably viewed, it’s either because they’re “stuck in the past” or tried too hard to reinvent themselves. You can’t win for losing when the New police are on patrol. So many witches to burn.
Anyway: that opening acoustic strum, the gracefully descending minor-key melody—this thing hits the ground like archetypal Jayhawks, which is more or less equivalent to archetypal Americana, complete with (say it with me) jangly guitars. As with a lot of Americana when it’s really good, there’s a lingering strain of ’70s country-rock in the air (think Poco, or Pure Prairie League), contributing to the music’s uncanny ability to feel mournful and jubilant at the same time. If Gary Louris’s silvery tenor shows some fetching wear around the edges, it serves merely to accentuate the beautifully crafted melodies he, yet again, sings for us.
The Jayhawks, from Minneapolis, have been playing in one incarnation or another since 1985, with one mid-’00s hiatus. The band still features two original members—Louris and bassist Marc Perlman—while the other two are veterans in their own right: keyboard player Karen Grotberg first played with the band from 1992 to 2000, then rejoined in 2009, while drummer Tim O’Reagan has been on board since 1995. “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces” is the lead track on the new album, Paging Mr. Proust, which was produced by Peter Buck, Tucker Martine, and Louris. It was released at the very end of April and can be purchased directly from the band, if you are so inclined, via their website. MP3 via the good folks at KEXP.
There’s no particular point in trying to parse this song; better to let it wash over you, repeatedly.
Now then, everything I just said about elusive songwriting? Um, maybe never mind. Yo La Tengo is back in town and they are long-reigning masters of elusive pop songs. They may have partially invented the genre. The blurry singing, the fuzzy background, the vehement guitars, the incomprehensible lyrics? It’s all here. And damn if it isn’t pretty lovable somehow.
There’s no particular point in trying to parse this song; better to let it wash over you, on repeat, the way the droning guitar washes over the noodling guitar in the introduction. It’s jarring at first but it works. Over time you may register how the fleeting dissonances and the modest melodious moments congeal into one hypnotic whole. Ira Kaplan whispers his way around a tune that does its best to hide its moment of gratifying resolution. While the guitars seem often to be playing in another song altogether, it’s their long, lyric-free interlude—beginning around 3:18—that to me anchors the song, and renders its mysteries mysteriously meaningful. This episode starts as two plicky, plunking guitars soloing against each other, but at around 3:34 the lower of the two begins an anvil-like repetition of one chord, with one dissonant hiccup at 3:49. The solo guitar, at once meandering and forceful, all but stumbles into a truly satisfying resolution (4:05) and after that, the song just makes sense. The chorus melody had itself given us a taste of resolution back when first heard (1:54) but note how much richer it seems the second time (4:37), reinforced by the synthesizers that join the song for the home stretch.
“Stupid Things” is from the new Yo La Tengo album, Fade, which was released this month on Matador Records. This is their 13th studio album. MP3 via Epitonic. For those keeping score at home, Yo La Tengo has been featured on Fingertips four previous times, most recently in July ’09.
No-nonsense rock’n’roll, both hard-driving and melodic, and yet too with an almost gracious sense of purpose.
No-nonsense rock’n’roll, both hard-driving and catchy, and yet too with an almost gracious sense of purpose. The opening keyboard riff sounds like a regular old piano, and gives the song an old-school swing that brings to mind the kind of radio-friendly rock made in the ’60s that was not itself Motown but existed only because Motown existed, if that makes sense.
And yet “Ghosts” is hardly a nostalgia trip; the feeling is more timeless than retro, more hybrid than homage. Front man Tom Barman speak-sings the verse in a way that both grabs the ear and fully informs you that he is not a rapper. (I don’t mean that as a criticism, just as an observation that rock singers have a particular way of speak-singing lyrics that is its own kind of thing.) The speak-singing interrupts the flow created by the catchy keyboard riff, drawing the song in on itself, creating both tension and anticipation—it is only a matter of time before that piano line returns, and when it does it finds itself in the center of the chorus, as much a part of the hook as the actual melody. The song’s last two minutes—right after the line “So chase the ghosts away ’til they’re gone”—crank up the drama and the noise as the band tips its hat more directly to its roots as an experimental outfit influenced by the likes of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. (I like the “hoo! hah!”—but sometimes also just “hoo!”—exclamations that now begin to interject into the proceedings.) And then everything just stops as if accidentally deleted.
Based in Antwerp, Belgium, dEUS was founded way back in 1991, but has recorded only seven studio albums to date, including two in the last two years. The only other remaining original member besides Barman is Klaas Janszoons, who plays keyboards and violin. The band, complete with its odd typography, remains relatively unknown in the U.S.; their records have only been sporadically released here. “Ghosts” is from the album Keep You Close, which came out a year ago in Europe. That album and 2012’s Following Sea were both released in the U.S. for the first time this fall, on the label [PIAS] America.
Purposefully bashy and crashy, “Wake and Be Fine” offers an insistent tumble of lyrics in the verse, offset by the comparatively soothing waltz of the chorus, wherein front man Will Sheff assures himself, and us, that we’ll “wake and be fine.”
Purposefully bashy and crashy, “Wake and Be Fine” offers an insistent tumble of lyrics in the verse, offset by the comparatively soothing waltz of the chorus, wherein front man Will Sheff assures himself, and us, that we’ll “wake and be fine.” The music itself reinforces the song’s theme and intention: the verses assaulting us with off-kilter semi-confusion, the chorus finding smoother footing, tapping into the consoling quality of the song’s partially disguised 3/4 time signature.
Normally uninterested in music videos, I will make an exception here and point you in the direction of the song’s visual presentation, below. It’s a stark yet dreamy black-and-white affair, with the lyrics, propaganda-like, commanding the viewer’s attention while the band, blurred and multiplied, plays in and around the words. Stay with it and you’ll see that the visual words begin to diverge from the sung words, which ingeniously enhances the song’s dream-scrambled chaos. Also interesting to note is that Sheff had the band play this song together, over and over, in a small recording space, waiting for a take in which no one made any mistakes at all, however slight. It took from 3 pm to 1 am, and I think knowing the determination and, even, slight desperation that informs the playing here adds to the vaguely surreal ambiance of the whole thing.
“Wake and Be Fine” is a song from Okkervil River’s new album, I Am Very Far, which due out next week on Jagjaguwar Records. This is the Austin-based band’s sixth album, and 13th year together. They have previously been featured on Fingertips in 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2008. MP3 via Jagjaguwar.