Free and legal MP3: Sløtface (wistful midtempo rocker)

So yes I guess every now and then I am engaged by a song’s lyrics, however much that is not normally the case for me here.

“New Year, New Me” – Sløtface

“New Year, New Me,” already pithily arranged, strips down even further, shortly after the halfway point, allowing front woman Haley Shea to draw attention to the following lyrics:

I keep playing my own therapist
And I’m convinced I’m good at it

Packed into these lines is the layered theme of this appealing midtempo rocker. With a blasé crispness suited to the matter at hand, Shea initially sings of the inevitable disappointments of unfulfilled new year’s resolutions. But this isn’t a cynical pity party. If, yes, we annually set ourselves up for failure by making new year’s resolutions in the first place, then maybe this inevitability is itself worth pondering. Most of us want to be better people but at some point have to confront the reality that you don’t get there via new year’s resolutions. Being convinced that one can be one’s own therapist is a poignant part of the wistful predicament, but recognizing that this is what one keeps trying to do is, maybe, a first step towards actual change. And maybe approaching the self with compassion rather than reproof offers a new hope, having nothing to do with making fated-to-fail “resolutions” (a word Shea does not in fact employ here).

So yes I guess every now and then I am engaged by a song’s lyrics, however much that is not normally the case for me here. As for the music, the first thing I like a lot is the laid-back lead guitar line, which comprises the introduction: it’s concise, melodic, and self-assured. The verse unfolds so casually as to seem spontaneous, with a couple of nicely-placed chord changes (e.g., 0:25), then launches into the chorus on a riff itself so understated as to be nearly nonexistent (0:37)—a musical reinforcement, perhaps, of the self’s predicament here: does stasis make change impossible, or is there some oh-so-gentle way to accept the self that can lead to transformation?

Sløtface is a band based in Stavanger, Norway. Although consistently identified as a punk pop (or a pop punk; is there a difference?) band, Sløtface (original name Slutface, and that’s still how you pronounce it), presents more accurately as a band that knows how to write and perform crafty, accessible rock songs, their guitar-laced volume consistently tempered by musical know-how and Shea’s approachable vocal style. Note that Shea has American parents, but grew up in Norway; the band’s other three members are Norwegian. “New Year, New Me” can be found on Sløtface’s new album, Sorry For The Late Reply, released late last month via Nettwerk/Propeller Recordings.

MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Papercuts (buoyant wistfulness)

Opening with a brisk, dynamic, and hummable instrumental riff, “How To Quit Smoking” advances quickly from there into a verse so confidently melodic as to recall some lovely, imaginative amalgam of Belle & Sebastian and The Smiths.

Papercuts

“How To Quit Smoking” – Papercuts

Opening with a brisk, dynamic, and hummable instrumental riff, “How To Quit Smoking” advances quickly from there into a verse so confidently melodic as to recall some lovely, imaginative amalgam of Belle & Sebastian and The Smiths. Papercuts’ master mind Jason Quever sings with the barest hint of a British accent that he actually doesn’t have and a baked-in wistfulness augmented by vocals that are mixed down into the center of the rhythm section. He sounds to me like someone singing on a budding spring day about how he actually misses the autumn.

This one is propelled by a classic backbeat as well, but note what a different vibe we get compared to the Van Etten song which came before it this month. Despite Quever’s gentle presence the song bounds forward with a determination reinforced every time the opening riff cycles back through. There’s an extra songwriting trick in here that, to my ear, adds to the song’s pluck: the way that in most of the verses, the third lyrical line picks up without any rhythmic space from the second line—listen at 0:36 for an example (the second line ends with the words “on the ceiling,” the third begins with “Read a book,” directly on the next beat, in the same measure). This is a small gesture that you’re probably not intended to notice, but it’s a wonderful flow-enhancer in just the right place.

Quever has been recording as Papercuts since 2004, including one record for Sub Pop in 2011. Long based in San Francisco, he recently moved to Los Angeles. His latest album is Parallel Universe Blues, on which “How To Quit Smoking” is the third track. It was released on Slumberland Records in October 2018. You can listen to the whole thing on Bandcamp, and then buy it there in your preferred format (digital, CD, vinyl). Papercuts has been featured on Fingertips twice previously, in 2011 and 2014. The MP3 this time comes courtesy of The Current.


(Note that MP3s from The Current are available in files that are 128kbps, which is below the iTunes standard of 192kbps, not to mention the higher-def standard of 320kbps. I personally don’t hear much difference on standard-quality 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 the right thing to do.)

Free and legal MP3: Allo Darlin’ (brisk, jangly, & wistful)

“Northern Lights” appears to move too quickly for its own lyrics, as sweet-voiced Elizabeth Morris has repeatedly to squeeze extra syllables into tight aural spaces. The effect is somehow fetching.

Allo Darlin'

“Northern Lights” – Allo Darlin’

Brisk and jangly, “Northern Lights” appears indeed to move too quickly for its own lyrics, as sweet-voiced Elizabeth Morris has repeatedly to squeeze extra syllables into tight aural spaces. The effect is somehow fetching. Listen, for example, to how she sings “suddenly came apart” (0:43), or how she handles the opening part of the lyric “And it makes me feel so alive” (1:09). The melodies, meanwhile, with their mid-stride minor-key modulations, have an undertow of wistfulness about them.

The song’s musical and lyrical fulcrum, to my ears, is the chorus lyric “This is the year we’ll make it right,” first heard at 1:12. The chorus presents us with a speedy gallop through a repeatedly descending, vaguely Christmasy melody line, its first two lines covering the same basic interval in such a way that the second line is subtly accentuated. The second time we get to the first two lines, in the second half of the chorus (is anyone still with me??), this moment feels extra-accentuated. And this is where we are when we get to “This is the year we’ll make it right.” And wouldn’t you know that everything else, moving forward, about the song—the “wait for me!” pace, the sweet-voiced singer expressing hopes and dreams, the lower-register guitar melody (consciously or not echoing the Blondie classic “Dreaming” starting at 1:23)—pretty much says hmm this also may not be the year you’re going to make it right. But, you can keep dreaming. (As luck would have it, Blondie will yet have the last word this week; see below.)

Allo Darlin’ is a London-based four-person band split between Brits and Aussies. “Northern Lights” is the third single from the band’s second album, Europe, which was released back in May on Slumberland Records, but the first I’ve found as a free and legal MP3. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead. You can download the song via the title above, or at the record company’s SoundCloud page. The band was featured previously here in October 2010. The three gentlemen in the band are still wearing the same shirts.

Fingertips Flashback: Ephemera (from November 2004)

Revisiting a previously featured song, this one from 2004.

Fingertips is going into its summer hiatus, which means no new songs will be posted until July 25th (or so). I won’t be entirely absent from the internet, and there may be a certain amount of activity around here, but a lot of it will be maintenance oriented and somewhat invisible.

To ease into the slowdown, I offer you a wistful summery song from the land of ice and snow. And okay it’s actually not a cheerful song—few songs entitled “Saddest Day” would be aiming in that direction—but it’s a lovely musical breeze on a hot July day nonetheless.

Ephemera

“Saddest Day” – Ephemera

[from November 22, 2004]

A three-woman Norwegian band channeling Astrud Gilberto via Frente—yes, the world can be a wonderful place when we all just mingle together peacefully and see what happens. Bright, silvery, and airy, “Saddest Day” is that sweetest of pop confections: a sad song wrapped in an upbeat package. Stars in their native country (they received the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy earlier this year), Ephemera have released four CDs to date; this spring, a compilation disc called Score was released for the U.S. market. Not yet out of their 20s, Ephemera has nevertheless been together for 10 years now. “Saddest Day” was originally from the band’s 2000 CD, Sun, which was their second; it is also found on a CD called Score, a compilation released for the U.S. market this past spring. The MP3 is on the band’s web site. Thanks to visitor Jeff for the head’s up.

ADDENDUM: Although the band’s site is still online, and the MP3 is still available there, things have been quiet in Ephemera-land since 2005. Vocalist Christine Sandtorv released a solo album in 2006 (on Ifemmera Records, it should be noted); the internet’s nosy robots pick up no other sign of musical activity from any of the three bandmates since then.

Free and legal MP3: Fast Romantics (no-nonsense rock’n’roll, both epic & wistful)

Not quite a “happy music/sad lyrics” song, “Funeral Song” alerts us to the overlooked and perhaps flummoxing idea that not all uptempo music is in fact happy in the first place.

Fast Romantics

“Funeral Song” – Fast Romantics

We all know how effective it can be to pair happy-sounding music with unhappy lyrics; it’s a great trick, at which pop music is singularly adept. A subtler variation of this is on display in “Funeral Song,” which alerts us to the overlooked and perhaps flummoxing idea that not all uptempo music is in fact happy in the first place. Brisk, expansive movement to a strong beat can embody defiance or determination or some other complex sense of real life being lived. This is an upbeat song but it’s not “happy music”…which would come to think of it be difficult to pull off with a first line like “I just got back from your funeral” anyway.

Not that it’s clear what’s going on here lyrically, actually. Once the space-travel allusions start (metaphorical? or not?), I will admit to being lost. But this then (how convenient!) is another thing at which pop music is singularly adept: taking odd and/or indecipherable lyrics and making something bigger and grander out of them. And “Funeral Song” sounds big and grand to me, in a no-nonsense-rock’n’roll kind of way. The song’s central melodic descent—the three adjacent notes we hear first on the word “funeral”—is a purposeful, grounding gesture and yet also an off-kilter one: it’s used to open rather than close the verse, and the half-time melody (i.e., each syllable of the word stretches over two beats) plays with the rhythmic momentum just when it might otherwise be kicking in. The choral-like harmonies we first hear on this word/motif are used for emphasis throughout and add to the epic yet wistful feeling. As does the oddly long bridge section (1:57), which is fashioned upon the aforementioned three-note melodic descent, strung together in a condensed way that has the feeling of time-signature trickery but remains (I think) in 4/4 time throughout.

“Funeral Song” is from the band’s forthcoming album, Afterlife Blues, which will be their first full-length. An EP was previously released, in July 2010. Thanks to the band for the MP3, which you can alternatively download via SoundCloud.

Free and legal MP3: Dark Dark Dark (warm & wistful, w/ captivating piano line)

With its tender, ear-opening piano motif and graceful, ruminative momentum, “Daydreaming” is fully engaging throughout its almost five-minute length, which is a relative rarity in 21st-century rock’n’roll.

Dark Dark Dark

“Daydreaming” – Dark Dark Dark

With its tender, ear-opening piano motif and graceful, ruminative momentum, “Daydreaming” is fully engaging throughout its almost five-minute length, which is a relative rarity in 21st-century rock’n’roll. (When aiming for some kind of pop, few songs of this length manage without some dead spots.) Singer/pianist Nona Marie Invie is front and center from the start, her haunted voice offering up plaintive phrases, surrounded by warm acoustic instrumentation.

What exactly we are hearing in the background becomes a bit of a mystery, however, as the song progresses. Beyond the piano and the percussion there’s an accordion involved, and, according to promotional material, a banjo (that could be what we hear briefly at around 0:20); band members are also known to play clarinet and trumpet, but I’m not sure either of those account for that sound we get for a moment or two at 1:17. Invie’s repeating piano refrain, with its recurring blue notes, remains at the song’s backbone, but listen to how the accompaniment grows increasingly tense and solid after the three-minute mark. Her singing is nearly overwhelmed by the ghostly wash of noise—a clamor that is tamed only by the second round of her incisive, swooping “oo-oo”s as the song draws to its wistful close with one more half-iteration of the captivating piano line.

“Daydreaming” is not a new song, but it has arrived newly in my inbox. It comes from the Minneapolis ensemble’s second full-length album, Wild Go, which was released on Supply and Demand Records in October 2010, and then in Europe and the UK in April 2011 on Melodic Records. Featuring as many as seven members at certain times, Dark Dark Dark is currently touring in a five-person format.

Free and legal MP3: Rusty Willoughby (sad & gentle, like a lullaby)

A gentle 3/4-time lullaby, “C’mon C’mon” sways with wistful momentum, down but not out. “How many times must a broken heart still break?” Willoughby sings, in his old-fashioned, Nick Lowe-ian voice.

Cobirds Unite

“C’mon C’mon” – Rusty Willoughby

A gentle 3/4-time lullaby, “C’mon C’mon” sways with wistful momentum, down but not out. “How many times must a broken heart still break?” Willoughby sings, in his old-fashioned, Nick Lowe-ian voice. Cue the mournful cello. Keep the background sweet and clean. Pair Willoughby with a singer so in sync—Rachel Flotard, of Visqueen—that her harmonies feel like they’re also coming out of his mouth. This is one sweet sad humble centered song. This is a value judgment against neither gentleman, but consider Rusty Willoughby the anti-Kanye West.

The New York-born Willoughby has operated from Seattle since the ’80s, having fronted a series of well-regarded, left-of-center bands over the years, including Pure Joy, Flop, and Llama. “C’mon C’mon” is from the new album Cobirds Unite, released last week on the Seattle label Local 638.

Free and legal MP3: Judson Claiborne (Americana flavored, timeless)

“Song For Dreaming” – Judson Claiborne

A pleasantly droopy piece of Americana-flavored indie rock, with a sharp sense of melody and nicely integrated guitar work. Not only do the acoustic and electric guitars play beautifully in and around each other—the ear even loses track, somehow, of which is which at some points–but the lead electric lines are central to the song’s development. You don’t hear a lot of that kind of instrumental integration these days–what we hear instead all too often is a lot of what might be called instrumental hipsterism, when sounds are used merely to be unusual—and it lends something deep and timeless to this casually-paced song.

Judson Claiborne is a stage name adopted by the singer/songwriter Chris Salveter, of Chicago, who previously sang and played guitar for the band Low Skies. But the name also seems, maybe, to have turned into the band’s name; half the material I find online refers to Judson Claiborne as a band, an impression aided by current press material showing five people in a photo labeled Judson Claiborne. In any case, it’s Salveter up front, singing a melody with wistful leaps that accentuate both the warmth and idiosyncrasies of his informal, slightly quivering voice. He’s got a touch of Jim James in there, a touch of Roy Orbison even, for crying out loud, but he never goes too far, always retreats into seeming more like a guy who happened to wander up to a microphone and who’s happy just to play guitar than any kind of self-styled crooner.

The pseudonym and/or band name by the way comes from combining a first name his father had wanted to name him (his mother: nope, “too redneck”) and a last name from ancestors on his father’s side of the family. “Song For Dreaming” is from Time and Temperature, slated for release next month on La Société Expéditionnaire, a Pennsylvania-based label. MP3 via La Soc. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Free and legal MP3: Gold Motel(new Chicago band w/ ’60s flair)

Gold Motel

“Don’t Send the Searchlights” – Gold Motel

With a clipped, fleet Motown beat, an expansive girl-group-style sing-along chorus, and an oh-so-classic length of two minutes fifty seconds, “Don’t Send the Searchlights” has one eye quite obviously on our musical past. But at the same time there’s something lovely and casual going on that allows the music to transcend its influences; Greta Morgan, the band’s singer, songwriter, and keyboard player, has the sound of someone just kind of happening upon this song rather than sweating the historical details, and “Don’t Send the Searchlights” jumps and swings accordingly.

I think a good part of the song’s flair arises from the melodic intervals Morgan builds into both the verse and the chorus. You can hear an example when she sings “before we hit the dawn” at 0:18–from the “we” she jumps down a fifth to “hit” and then back up a fifth to “dawn.” This larger-than-normal interval creates a sense of movement and freedom, and in so doing reflects the lyrics, which on the surface extol the benefits of breaking off a relationship so it won’t turn sour (“Always leave before tomorrow comes/All the greatest loves are the unfinished ones”). But don’t believe everything she says. There’s something wistful playing at the edges of the song’s breeziness, and once again a melodic interval comes into play: the leaps she takes while singing both “goodbye” and “good guy” turn on the half-step difference between the first and second “good,” which turns the chord from major to minor. She may not be as happy as she’d like to believe she is. And the chorus ends musically unresolved–not typically a sign that all is well.

Formerly of the Hush Sounds (2005-2008), Morgan assembled the five-piece Gold Motel in 2009. “Don’t Send the Searchlights” is one of five songs on the band’s self-released, self-titled debut EP, which came out in December. Expect a full length in June. MP3 via the band’s site.

Free and legal MP3: Paper Route (majestic, wistful, full-bodied rock w/ electronic fuzz)

“Thank God The Year Is Finally Over” – Paper Route

A bracing blend of majesty and wistfulness, from its direct and poignant title straight through to an unexpected appearance by a harmonica in the outro. (The harmonica is surely one of music’s most wistful instruments.) There’s enough fuzz and noise along the way for shoegaze fans to appreciate but not enough to overwhelm the song’s simple but effective melody (note how the long descending line of the chorus sounds nicely late-December-ish), not to mention the octave harmonies in the vocals. (I love me my octave harmonies–that is, when the harmony vocal is the same note but one octave higher or lower.)

This band surely aims for a big-hearted sound, and yet more than ever, it seems, there’s a fine line between a band with big heart and a band with a shallow heart. Somehow. The fact that these guys are touring with the curiously popular Owl City doesn’t help the “big heart” case but listening with my ears (a good practice), I find something splendid in this smartly-paced piece of expansive, electronic-tinged rock. And that harmonica surprises every time.

Paper Route is a quartet from Nashville; their debut full-length CD, Absence, was released on Universal Records in April 2009. “Thank God The Year Is Finally Over” is from a free Christmas EP the band released in December. MP3 via Spinner. (The entire EP is available as a zip file here.)