Heartfelt & sophisticated
A crystalline, synth-driven call to inner action, “Take It If You Want It” stares down the existential mayhem of our 21st-century world and attempts to find a place and a way to live in it regardless. The song’s superpower is the glistening deftness of the presentation: the ’80s-inspired arrangement is tight and inventive (don’t miss the acrobatic bass line), the lyrics are precise and sincere without being dogmatic, and Curtis’s voice is rich, expressive, and disciplined. The overall vibe is heartfelt and sophisticated; if Kate Bush were interested in writing a catchy pop song that wrestles with spiritual precepts, it might sound something like this.
In any case it is certainly a Bushian vocal that, after a brief percussive intro, opens the song with echoey urgency. Curtis has an effortless melodic flair; from the opening lines of the verse the ear is hooked, and the song progresses through its interrelated parts–verse, pre-chorus, chorus–with a enviable sense of inevitability. Not all the lyrics will be immediately legible but, as with the most well-crafted songs, certain phrases will pop; one particularly indelible couplet is unambiguous: “The fascists are ascending/Disaster is impending.” A close listen reveals this as a voice in the head that the narrator is attempting to grapple with. I’d say a lot of us are grappling with that voice here at the end of 2022.
Born in California and based in Tacoma, Washington, Shannon Curtis is a singer/songwriter with a rich catalog to explore. Good To Me is her tenth full-length release in the last 10 years, following three previous EPs and an acoustic compilation album. “Take It If You Want It” is the opening track on the album Good To Me, which is something of a concept album, centering on an inner journey Curtis led herself on during the perilous, pandemic-jostled year 2021. The album, by the way, will next year be followed by a companion book, which Curtis describes as “a step-by-step roadmap for cultivating personal peace and power in hard times.” She notes further that the songs on Good to Me came from her own process of working with and through the steps described in the book. More on the album in the follow-up review, below. (Yes, this month I’m giving you two songs from the same album, with one palate cleanser in between. Keep reading!)
Large & meditative at the same time
In a new twist here on Fingertips I am this month featuring two songs from the same artist. This strikes me as a win-win: it relieves me of the need to select just one song from an album I really like, while also relieving me of the need to lower my standards in order to find three MP3s to offer in a given month. As recently noted, I’m sensing a decline in the availability of free and legal downloads–at least, in the availability of free and legal downloads that live up to my admittedly idiosyncratic standards. I may use this strategy moving forward, as the situation allows, in order to continue to offer at least three songs in any given update.
So yes, I really really like this new Shannon Curtis album, start to finish. The sonic palette, shot through with ’80s atmosphere (the good kind!), is immediately engaging, and Curtis’s prowess as a singer is continually on display–she can go light and airy one moment, and reach grainier middle tones at another. Reverb abounds but with ongoing restraint; the music feels spacious without losing definition. And I am impressed ongoingly by Curtis’s songwriting chops–the effortless melodies and artfully structured songs provide consistent delight, and reward repeated listens. As for the album’s cohesiveness lyrically, the songs reward as much attention as you’re willing to pay to them. For those who want the deep deep dive, there will also be the companion book, as noted above. (The book will initially be available to her community of supporting members, and then released more widely next year.) I applaud Curtis for the seriousness of her purpose and her concurrent capacity to translate her journey into a series of such accessible songs; and yet the beauty of the project is that you don’t have to engage with the details to be moved by the music.
“Good To Me” is the title track, and everything I’ve said about the album overall applies here. I love the ’80s synthesizers and big round percussion, in particular for how mindfully and cleanly produced these potentially over-the-top effects are employed; the song feels both large and meditative at the same time. And from beginning to end, the songcraft is exquisite, with verse and chorus melodies that interrelate and build on each other, and resolve with aplomb. The album was jointly produced by Curtis and her husband, Jamie Hill; Curtis is credited with the concept, the arrangements, the programming, and the performance, Hill with the synthesizers, sound design, and additional programming. This was a pandemic project through and through, conceived of and created during a time when Curtis, very active in recent years as a house-concert musician, was stuck in her own house during the extended lockdown.
MP3s here courtesy of the artist herself. You can listen to the whole thing on Bandcamp, and buy it there too, for a price of your own choosing. Be generous!
To show you I’m not averse to music sounding rather more up-to-the-minute, here’s a three-minute, forty-two-second slice of 2019 pop goodness from the Brooklyn quartet Charly Bliss.
To show you I’m not averse to music sounding rather more up-to-the-minute, here’s a three-minute, forty-two-second slice of 2019 pop goodness from the Brooklyn quartet Charly Bliss. Of course my idea of pop goodness in 2019 is not necessarily what appears on your basic “Top 50” Spotify playlist, but whatever. The public wants what the public gets, as Paul Weller tartly framed capitalism’s fatal flaw some 40 years ago.
In my little world, the public gets something like “Capacity,” and wants it. From the start, the contrast between the buzzy heft of the synth bass line and Eva Grace Hendricks’ girl-ish vocal style arrests the ear. (She has self-described her vibe as “overgrown teenybopper.”) The song then leads you through three distinct sections, each more enticing than the last, culminating in a chorus that hooks us, somewhat unusually, by slowing things down (0:49), with Hendricks luxuriating in a dreamy melody line with a gratifying resolution and a punctuating drum roll worthy of an arena rock band.
There are in fact any number of engaging production touches fortifying the composition from beginning to end. I like how the active, noodly synthesizer that enters after the song’s first section proceeds to weave in and around Hendricks in the song’s double-time second section. Or how about that one strummed guitar chord that acts as the gateway to the chorus (0:48), which is at once out of the blue and just kind of wonderful? No doubt we can credit a lot of this to the band’s bringing Joe Chiccarelli on board as producer; he’s a veteran who has worked with an incredible variety of artists over the years, from Elton John and U2 through to My Morning Jacket, the Strokes, and the Shins. Expertise!: what a concept.
The four members of Charly Bliss, meanwhile, have known each other quite a long time for relative youngsters—Eva H.’s brother Sam is the drummer; bassist Dan Shure is a friend from childhood; and Shure introduced relative newcomer Spencer Fox, the lead guitarist, to the others back in the second half of the ’00s.
“Capacity” is the lead single from Young Enough, the band’s second album, released earlier this month on Barsuk Records. You can buy it in a variety of formats via the record company. MP3 via Barsuk.
Crisp, warm, vibrant, lovely
Shimmering with warmth, “I’m Just About Done” offers an object lesson in the power of crisp, skillful production to bring a song to life. It’s a fine song to begin with, and Matt Longo is a gifted singer, but a number of little decisions are made along the way that add to the potency of both the singer and the song.
First smart decision: to begin the song without an actual introduction but in a way that still feels like an introduction, which is affected by starting the verse slowly and starkly, with minimal accompaniment. We can right away sink into the tender qualities of Longo’s voice, and be introduced to a melody that gains power as the song’s true tempo kicks in (0:08) and, even better, when the drum joins the piano and guitar (0:29). Note that even now the full rhythm section hasn’t come on board; this is a moment that waits for the beginning of the second verse (0:45), and to me, that kind of discipline pays off, giving the song a kind of wordless “story arc” that is less available to songs in which the band roars in full steam from the get-go.
Lovely things continue to happen. Horns slide in shortly after the rhythm section enters and move to the forefront of the accompaniment by 0:51. I love the grace of the horn lines here, how they embrace and enfold the melody rather than offering a more traditional kind of “horn chart” burst. And these in turn lead to the song’s last major building block, which is the female vocal harmony that enters the second time we hear the chorus (1:16), sung beautifully by Brigit Kelly Young and mixed with tantalizing discretion—as vibrantly as she sings, you can also rather easily not hear her as well, if you don’t focus on her, and for me there is more power in robust singing mixed down than there would be if her voice had been given more volume. Note that in seeking to point out some of the winning nuances of “I’m Just About Done,” let me not forget that it is still Longo’s skill as a singer and songwriter that carries the day. There are moments when the combined sweetness of the melody and the voice give me the chills.
“I’m Just About Done” can be found on Longo’s EP You Bet Your Life, which was released last month and is available in full as a free download via Bandcamp. He has one full-length release to date, which came out in December 2011, and was previously featured on Fingertips in January 2011.
A smartly-crafted song with lots of melody and guitars may sound like a relic or—maybe?—it could be a clarion call for a change of musical/cultural course.
As DIY- and/or electronics-focused as rock’n’roll has become in the 21st century, sometimes it does an ear good (my ear, anyway) to hear a band that aims for a big, brash, well-produced sound. Yes, “We Were Children” brings to mind music from a bygone era—either the ’70s or the ’90s, depending on your frame of reference—but this is only because of how thin and/or muddy and/or manipulated is the characteristic sound of the here and now. A smartly-crafted song with lots of melody and guitars may sound like a relic or—maybe?—it could be a clarion call for a change of musical/cultural course. This is a young band; as the lyrics clearly state, “We were children in the mid-’90s.” If it also brings to mind Mott the Hoople covering early Radiohead, well, let’s see, we can either take it as a sign that pop culture has run out of steam or is yet again reinventing itself via the past.
The title phrase by the way is nearly all that’s clear about the lyrics, which employ ordinary nouns like magazine and suitcase and clothes in the opening verse to spin a quickly mysterious story in bashy, quasi-glam-rock-y style. The chorus withdraws into an introspective, semi-whispered refrain full of simple, one-syllable words. We are both attracted and bewildered. Who is the “stranger”? “These things happen”—what things? The words acquire an anthemic cadence, even as the music holds back. Meanwhile, guitars are everywhere, lead and rhythm and solo, with effective bits of squonk and drone. Front man Johnny Lloyd emotes with a natural swagger, his voice operating at both high and low volume without losing character or presence. By the time (2:27) we hear the chorus sung in all-out mode, with elusive sing-along backing vocals, it’s as if that’s what we’d been hearing all along. Nicely done.
Founded in Camden in 2009, Tribes released its debut full-length album, Baby, in the UK in January, after releasing two EPs in 2011. The album is getting a US release on Universal Republic next week.
photo credit: Martin Zähringer