Monday, March 29, 2010

Spring Break

Fingertips will be on spring break this week. New selections will return on or around April 6. In the meantime, a few suggestions:

* Catch up on older featured songs. From the feedback I get, I know that lots of people don't manage to listen to all three songs every week, even when they intend to. You can go back here on the blog and listen via the play buttons next to each song, or you can go to the main site's "This Week's Finds" page and use the media player there.

* Read the playlists essay. Yeah, okay, it's long--about the length of a feature in a traditional magazine. I trust that your attention span is up for it.

* Listen to some music offline, and mindfully. This is a radical idea, and is based on a blog post I recently read by an L.A.-based musician named Eric Jensen. He suggests both making a special place you can listen to music and setting aside a special time when you can give it your full attention. I really like this idea and may even put my old turntable back into action so I can listen from a comfortable couch, with a glass of wine, and an album cover in my hand.

* Or, just go out for a walk. Never a bad idea, any time of year.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Fingertips Flashback: Novillero (from June 2005)

Here's an entirely overlooked gem from 2005, with far more musical and lyrical sophistication than one dares to expect from a largely unknown band. But it's kind of what keeps us music seekers on the prowl. You never know what you might yet find.

[from "This Week's Finds," June 5-11, 2005]

Aptitude" - Novillero
Anchored by a swinging piano riff, appealing chord progressions, and what seems an unusually hard-headed philosophy for a pop song, "Aptitude" is both immediately enjoyable and lastingly affecting. A quartet from Winnipeg founded in 1999, Novillero sounds like the real thing to me, capable of delivering music that is at once melodically and lyrically astute--no mean feat in our mash-up culture. The chorus is especially marvelous, rendered all the more effective for its jaunty bouncing between major and minor chords. Even better, it builds with each iteration--first delivered in a restrained vocal-and-piano setting, the chorus next arrives with the full band fleshing out the harmonics, and the third time with vocalist Rod Slaughter (he's also the piano player) singing an octave higher, adding a keening edge to both the music and lyrics. This works particularly well as the song has now shifted its focus: what began as a world-weary warning about how we are all limited by our inherent capabilities reveals itself (if I'm hearing it right) rather poignantly as a philosophy borne from disappointment in love. Complete with nifty horn charts. "Aptitude" is on the band's cleverly titled second CD, Aim Right For The Holes In Their Lives, which was released in the U.S. last week on Mint Records. The MP3 comes from the band's web site.

ADDENDUM: The band has since become a quintet, and was featured again on Fingertips in 2008, when their most recent album was released. Things have been quiet on the Novillero front since their last stage appearances in Canada in mid-2009.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Playlist Nation: The Unbearable Lightness of Sharing (a Fingertips Commentary)

Quick question for you: do you make playlists?

Okay, kind of a stupid question. If you're reading this, you're probably more than a little interested in music, which means you have an iPod, which means yes, of course, you make playlists.

Next question: do you share your playlists? All sorts of web sites have sprung up over the last five years that encourage you to do so. Some are stand-alone communal playlist sites, others are on-demand streaming sites that offer a playlist creation function (e.g. Lala, Mog, and even MySpace now, with the acquisition of imeem). Go to these places and you'll see there are plenty of playlists posted. Someone, surely, is sharing.

Even so, playlist sharing is not at this point a mainstream activity the way that simply listening to an iPod is a mainstream activity. You yourself may share playlists all the time, or you may not even be aware that it's something you can do.

Leading to the big, final question: do you listen to other people's playlists? While you don't in theory have to be a playlist sharer to be a playlist listener, the blanket assumption of playlist sharing is that people who are sharing theirs are also listening to the playlists of others.

And so it is that playlist sharing is becoming, in theory, its own kind of music-consuming experience. With all these playlists available, people don't have to stumble around online looking for songs to listen to; they can also tap into other people's playlists. And in so doing will no doubt find out about music they didn't otherwise know.

Which--bing bing bing--turns out to be a big part of why sites that offer online playlist sharing think they are valuable. The communal playlist site 8tracks sums it up with a pithy tagline: "Share your mix. Discover new music."

It all sounds great, and the future of music cognoscenti, ever furious to second-guess the future before it arrives on its own, are all over it. Wired's Eliot Van Buskirk in late November wrote an article focused on 8tracks with a headline that said it all: "Playlists Could Be Free Music's Killer App."

The article focused on the economics involved: because playlist-sharing sites can launch with much less of an onerous licensing burden than an on-demand listening site, playlist sites are more likely to thrive and ultimately become the best place for people to listen to free music, whereas on-demand may ultimately be available only via a subscription. But Van Buskirk was implicitly enthusiastic about the communal playlist concept as a music fan too; at the end of the article he shared a playlist he himself made on the site. is spiffy at first glance. I like how simple it looks, how easily it draws the visitor in. Each playlist is just eight songs (thus the name), so that sounds manageable, yes? You can either click on one of the 24 intriguing graphic squares on the home page, each leading to a playlist, or you can browse by genre. Once drawn in, however, watch out.

Want to browse by genre? 8tracks gives you seven all-purpose genres on the main page. Okay, so let's start with "alternative rock"; click it and you'll see the eight most recent lists with that genre tag, out of (yipes) 21,000 more. And let's stop right there because a human being cannot "browse" 21,000 items of any kind, never mind playlists, even if they each have only eight songs. (Another barrier to effective browsing: because of its licensing arrangement, 8tracks cannot tell you what songs are on any given list, can only mention three of the artists included.)

And okay, not all genres have quite that many playlists. R&B has only 2,100, synthpop a mere 200. So maybe the thing to do is to scope out the genres first, narrow down to one you'd like? Good luck with that. You are then invited to click through page after page of genres, 50 per page, with literally hundreds and hundreds of choices, in no discernible order, and with nonsensical overlaps (there's "R&B" and then there's "r & b," for instance). There are standard genre names like indie, soul, jazz, and reggae and then an astounding assortment of less standard things like rain, bastard pop, fuck you, and bob. All told there are 77,000 (and counting) playlists to sort through.

I don't mean to bog down on details, but in the end, pundit pronouncements aside, these are the details that comprise a user's experience. And the details are preposterous. is the future of nothing. No doubt it's a brilliantly busy place but the web is filled with brilliantly busy places; the internet is heaven for splinter groups. This doesn't make any one of them worthy of widespread attention, never mind a "killer app."

And, the larger point: the idea that the future of music hinges upon masses of people sharing playlists online is absurd. Yes, there are already apparently thousands upon thousands of people doing it on countless different sites, but numbers of users in this case are not only irrelevant but actively misleading in terms of the success and value of the overall concept.

I know that we are trained on the web to believe it's all about eyeballs or followers, that it's the sheer number of people doing something that makes it a winning concept. But this is an advertising-centric goal only. If the intent is to attract advertising, then yes, attracting many visitors is a logical aim.

Not so with the sharing of playlists. In this case, the more people who do it, the less helpful it is. There are already way too many playlists online to be useful, and if playlist advocates have their way, we've just gotten to the tip of the iceberg. Lord help the Good Ship Music when it plows straight into this one.

The situation is almost poignant, because in theory and aspiration, the playlist is a wonderful idea. I'm sure there are any number of delightful playlists buried among's 77,000, or on any of the other playlist-sharing sites that exist. Used properly, with restraint and constraints, playlists could be an invigorating part of a thriving music industry.

But it doesn't look like we're heading in that direction. And, as it turns out, having too many playlists online is only part of the problem.

I. The Rise of the Playlist

To be better prepared for the rest of the argument, let's rewind a bit.

Music has been online for more than a decade now and we are still trying to wrap our collective arms around how this impacts the ways we find, listen to, and absorb the songs that musicians continue to give birth to. (They just don't stop, these people. All those songs. I mean, honestly.)

So, okay, we all know the obvious things: how music, once digitized, became effortlessly reproduceable, and how that led to the ability to transport songs into physical and logistical contexts far beyond the old idea of putting a record on a record player and sitting down in one particular room to listen to it.

Forgetting for a moment the havoc this has played with the economics of the music industry, let's concentrate on the one underlying revolutionary circumstance here: no longer requiring a physical object to exist, songs no longer had to stay where the people who created and recorded them put them.

Thus piracy. Thus the iPod. Thus all the present-day dreams of "music in the cloud." A song does not need a physical object to exist. The very idea seems to excite and confuse people.

Apple was the first company to figure out what to do with this new reality in a significant way, and therefore the first company to get the physically-oriented record companies to play along. The iPod has been something of a success, yes?

Towards the goal of helping average consumers deal with these ghosts of songs, these songs unmoored from their physical contexts, someone somewhere along the way at Apple decided that the experience would include a new organizational and conceptual element: the playlist.

It seems obvious enough now but it was new with the first iPod: this idea that consumers were henceforth going to be actively deciding not only when to listen to any given song but in what context. The menu hierarchy on the iPod put "Playlists" at the top of the "Music" menu, above "Artists," "Albums," and "Songs." Apple's designers--due either to research or intuition or both--understood the ramifications of song-as-electronic-file and that people, now that they could, would inherently want to group songs together for all different sorts of reasons, and listen to them in these new and shifting contexts.

The iPod playlist was, of course, a direct descendent of the mixtape that avid music fans, in the cassette age, would make for themselves and their friends--a carefully selected and ordered group of songs, culled from a variety of albums, ideally to be listened to in one sitting.

But the playlist of the '00s left the mixtape of the '80s and '90s in the dust functionally speaking. Making a mixtape was actual work, occurring in real time and consuming physical space, and limited physical space at that--typically 60 or 90 minutes' worth of magnetic tape. You had to record songs before you could hear exactly how they sounded together, and you had to play them in their entireties to record them.

A playlist, on the other hand, is made with a few clicks and drags. It can be as long or as short as the maker wants it to be. And because shorter is harder--the narrowing down to cassette length for a mixtape was always tricky--playlists err on the long side.

The playlist as a result is a far more elastic concept than the mixtape, and making playlists a much more common activity than making mixtapes used to be. You don't need a lot of time, you don't need a lot of thought. You can dump all 203 Kinks songs you have into one playlist called "The Kinks." You can find a few dozen extra-quiet songs and put them, in no particular order (why bother? you'll shuffle it anyway) in a playlist called "Headache." These kind of things work fine for your own purposes.

But here's an interesting thing. Most individual iPod users understand the inherent quantitative limits of playlists. On one's own iPod, there comes a point of diminishing returns--so that even in our own private, relatively limited digital music universes, playlists stop being useful when there are too many of them. Playlists can't be effortlessly organized like albums (by artist; artists in alphabetical order), and when something can't be obviously organized, there exists a practical limit to how much of this something can exist before, basically, all hell breaks loose.

So imagine the kind of hell we're talking about when theoretically millions of people are throwing their playlists online in uncountable, unstoppable numbers.

II. What's Not to Like

And so, yes, a big part of the problem here in Playlist Nation is sheer volume, as already noted. But even if we could somehow manage the crazy numbers of them--who knows, maybe someone will figure out an effective filtering system--online playlist sharing still fails as a music listening experience.

The first reason relates to the playlist's origins in the iPod. By its nature, the iPod playlist is a casual, impromptu affair, often little more than a quick dumping together of songs for very personal reasons or, just as likely, for no particular reason at all.

And now, via online playlist sites, people are being encouraged to share these not always brilliant groupings of songs with the whole wide world. Unlike mixtapes of old, which were typically created with a specific purpose and usually for a specific person, playlists online are created with unnerving randomness and launched onto the internet at breakneck speed. (Note that on 8tracks, if you filter by most recently posted, the first eight playlists you see on the front page have all been posted within the last hour.)

Certainly there must be people out there creating thoughtful, well-designed playlists, but if so they are drowning in a flood of real-time frenzy. The briefest of visits to any playlist sharing site will be enough to familiarize you with the Stupid Playlist Tricks that predominate in that world. (The most common problem is the way-too-long playlist but that is hardly the only type of silliness on display.)

And then, as a sort of maladroit pièce de résistance, playlist sharing online takes widespread poor design and adds to it the bane of anonymity. Online playlists are presented by an endless array of screen names and avatars. It passes for social online but it's still anonymity. ("Nobody knows you're a dog," as the famous cartoon caption read.)

And anonymity defeats the point of sharing playlists. Think, again, of the mixtape's very reason for being: it was one individual's deliberate effort to put a limited number of songs together for one particular friend or, sometimes, a small group of friends. There was nothing anonymous here. This was human-to-human connection. In theory the main reason you wanted to listen to a friend's mixtape was exactly because of the friendship, because someone you liked and respected chose these particular songs for you to listen to. The music discovery was a by-product of the friendship, not the other way around.

What's more, a mixtape's very physicality was part of its essence. It was a three-dimensional object that sat on your desk or near your stereo or in your car, a reminder of your friend and the work that went into it. An online playlist is ever so much more ignorable, just something else to blip across your ever-changing screen, something else to glance at quickly and/or ignore and/or delete. Even if it comes from a friend, it's far easier to overlook, not deal with, never listen to.

And if instead it is just a list of songs from an anonymous stranger, where on earth is the inducement to pay attention through 30 or 40 or 60 or (way) more minutes of unfamiliar songs? When playlists are created by anonymous screen names on web sites accumulating dozens of new lists by the hour, there is no authentic connection, and little motivation to listen very carefully for very long, if at all.

III. Many to None

As it turns out, however, the lack of long-term motivation to listen to playlists may easily coexist with the continual motivation to create playlists. This is something that online playlist proselytizers and entrepreneurs either don't understand or to which they turn a willfully blind eye.

That was indeed something of a dirty secret of the mixtape era--the fact that they were all too often more fun to give than to receive. Coming up with the songs, crafting the order, nailing the segues, even writing the titles down just right, and then handing it over to a friend--for serious music fans, that's really where the fun was. Being at the receiving end? Often, somehow, less fun.

The dirty secret of the mixtape era becomes a flagrant lunacy in Playlist Nation, beginning with how this is always called "sharing" ("Share your playlists!") when this is actually not sharing in any proper sense of the word.

True sharing requires both sides to be partaking in what is being shared, requires a more or less equivalent desire to give on the part of the giver and to receive on the part of the receiver. Playlist "sharing" is unilateral sharing--a giving that is largely ignored or lost in the torrent of everything else that's ongoingly uploaded. Here, the giver gives and prays to the heavens above that someone, anyone, might want to receive.

Media theorists have long since noted how the internet has upended the traditional "one to many" broadcasting model with a "many to many" paradigm. I contend the academicians have overlooked the perhaps equally significant "many to none" paradigm.

And the more the "many," the likelier the "none" at the other end. Once put online, a playlist is merely some more lines of text and buttons in a continual tsunami wave of text and buttons. Spurred by boredom, random listeners may stumble upon random playlists. But this isn't connection. This isn't "social." It's web surfing. It's not much different than Chat Roulette. Next!

For all I know, most of the people who post playlists aren't even expecting any listeners. A playlist may be seen as nothing more or less than another mode of self-expression, like joining an offbeat Facebook group or choosing an avatar. And at that level there's nothing much wrong with it. (Or, maybe there is.) But in any case, playlist sharing cannot be considered a serious new way of encountering music, not if the vast numbers of playlists put online to be "shared" are rarely if ever heard by anyone but their creators.

IV. The Stunning Conclusion

The lack of substantive sharing when it comes to online playlists belies a selling point pushed by playlist-sharing sites and many music futurists alike--the underlying idea that music is an inherently social activity, that people naturally and incessantly want to share music with each other, that we are indeed perpetual music sharing machines, at long last enabled by web 2.0 technology.

I believe this view has no basis in fact or history. Yes, there is beyond doubt a percentage of music fans out there who are keen on active sharing--who constantly seek out new sources of music anywhere they can--but strong anecdotal evidence, not to mention the occasional research paper, suggests that this segment is an overwhelming minority.

The reason more people don't share music more often? It's all but heresy to suggest it, but what the heck, I promised a stunning conclusion: people don't share music more often because for most people, the connection to music is not primarily social at all but, rather, internal and personal.

This contradicts what the music futurists and social media mavens are telling us (24 hours a day), but I contend that most engaged music fans do not relentlessly look to their friends either for new music suggestions or to make suggestions to them. Some do, quite joyfully, but they are the vocal minority. And many who do enjoy sharing their musical discoveries with friends tend to have very specific friends with whom they do this. They are not parading with their music down the hallways of their lives on the off chance someone might connect.

Because at its core the music makes a personal connection in your own individual mind and heart and spirit. When you sense another who understands, you share. But this is not a "contagious" activity that spreads willy-nilly throughout one's (actual or virtual) friend base.

Age is a factor in this to be sure. It seems more natural to share music with friends when you're in your teens and 20s than later in life. You might do a bit more parading at that age. But even for those in their teens and 20s now, things will change later. The futurists forget this, time and again--the fact that people's behaviors evolve naturally with age, the fact that the future does not turn into what everyone does in their teens and 20s, and that the internet doesn't change that. People with plenty of time on their hands to make lots of playlists--and maybe even listen to other people's playlists--will find that time diminishing as they get older, work longer hours, have children, shift focus, etc.

And this may be the ultimate and entirely unremarkable reason why playlist sharing, however much of a side activity it may be for some people, has no significant mainstream future: because listening to playlists takes too much goddamned time. Never mind that there are too many to listen to; I'm talking about how any one given playlist itself represents a serious time commitment.

So much of what we do online has been streamlined, designed for speed, created for zippy convenience. But even in its digital form, released from the plodding cassette tape, a playlist maintains one crucial, analog-like reality: to experience it, one must listen to it end to end. Forgetting those nonsensical 200-song playlists for a moment, let's remember that even a modest 15-song playlist takes maybe an hour to listen to.

Playlists are time sucks because they're attention sucks too: if you're not listening relatively closely, it defeats the purpose of even listening at all. The underlying point is to discover new music, right? You just can't do that if you're not paying attention. And isn't that an endemic problem online? That no one is in fact paying attention to anything for very long? A playlist is really kind of an oddity, a dinosaur, a relic from the day when people actually had more than two or three minutes to devote to any one thing before moving on. (Next!) Maybe that's one of the reasons they're flooding online but making no impact. We'd love to think we had that kind of time. We'd love to think we could pay that kind of attention.

And yet. The fact that random, frenzied playlist sharing is an exercise in collective expressive futility should not, in the end, blind us to the beauty and power of a good playlist, which generates from the beauty and power of sharing music in a genuine social context rather than the often artificial "social" context of "community" web sites. "Many to none" is outlandish; one to one, or one to few, is another matter.

So that's where we can and should take the playlist idea moving forward. Forget publishing playlists so that "someone" may see them--this is an empty gesture that feeds the ego while missing the place where music matters: the soul. For the sharing to have meaning, it should start not from "what are my favorite songs that I need to tell the whole world about?" but from "What friend do I want to reach out to, with music?"

And here's your assignment: think of a good friend of yours, perhaps someone you haven't been able to connect with for a while. Make a playlist with this person in mind, and either send it to him or her via a link to one of the available playlist-making tools (I recommend using either or, or--a radical idea, I know--just burn the thing onto a CD and send it to him or her in the old-fashioned mail.

And if this seems like a little too much work all of a sudden, never mind even the playlist. Simply take one song you've recently discovered and really love, think of one particular friend who might also love it, and send it via the transmission method of choice (email, tweet, Facebook, etc.).

Don't let the music futurists brainwash you into thinking you're "supposed" to do this all the time, with all of your friends. This is not a grand, public gesture. This is not a "look at my great taste in music" bit of online territory-marking. This is, simply, true connection. We are not here for anything more, or anything less.

(This is a full re-post of the essay that was published on the main Fingertips site on Monday. The only difference is that this version lacks the footnotes of the original.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Free and legal MP3 from Annuals (exuberant, unusually structured, relentlessly attractive)

"Loxtep" - Annuals
     Fingertips veterans from Raleigh, Annuals have been featured three previous times over the past four years and somehow are still only in their early 20s. I promise at some point to stop pointing out how young they are. But geez, just listen to the conviction with which they render their exuberant, unusually structured, complex yet relentlessly attractive 21st-century rock'n'roll. I need to keep noting their relative youth because otherwise you'd never know.
     "Loxtep" is another shot of Annuals adrenaline, and if it again features a characteristic shift in dynamics, note how this pliable sextet continues to explore different ways to affect that shift. This time, it's not a straightforward matter of going from soft to loud, or slow to fast; instead, when the band crosses the dynamic borderline, at 1:08 (and can't you sense it coming, as it gets closer?), the tempo does not increase, and while the volume does to an extent, the song isn't as much louder after the change as deeper, and more intense. Basically, the rhythm section has kicked in, both drum and bass adding bottom to the mix that wasn't there before (the most significant percussion we heard in the first minute was, charmingly enough, castanets). But at the same time, strange stuff is happening, such as that funky-sounding synth joining in (1:21) apparently for the fun of it.
     I won't begin to try to untangle further "Loxtep"'s structure--which features among other things a series of musical reconfigurations of previously heard motifs--except to point out how, at around 3:05, the song manages to turn something that wasn't the chorus (namely, the lyrical phrase beginning with "lying around") into a sort of second, de facto chorus. Here's a band that is truly reimagining what a pop song can be even as you can still sing and dance along. "Loxtep" is from Sweet Sister, a five-song EP the band will release next month on Banter Records. MP3 via Banter.

Free and legal MP3 from Tracey Thorn (Everything But The Girl vocalist returns w/ wistful, Brel-like waltz)

"Oh, The Divorces!" - Tracey Thorn
     Just the sort of lovely, bittersweet song that Tracey Thorn, known best as half of Everything But the Girl, seems born to sing. A Jacques Brel-like waltz with both pathos and humor, minimally scored with piano and strings, "Oh, The Divorces!" deftly captures the exquisite sorrow of marital demise, viewed from that stage in life when one's friends begin to break up, in seeming droves. "Who's next?/Who's next?" she sings at the outset. "Always the ones that you least expect."
     The nicely sculpted lyrics are a particular treat, and not just because they emerge from Thorn's dusky yet velvety alto, although that doesn't hurt. At once matter-of-fact and ever so slightly sly, some of the words shine with almost Sondheimian savvy ("And this one is different/And each one of course is/And always the same/Oh, the divorces"). There's something gratifyingly grown-up about this song--from the wise, hurt depth of Thorn's singing to the wistful (and yet also sometimes almost ironic) bowing and plucking of the violins--and those rock'n'rollers who persist in championing loud and aggressive music as the only legitimate means of expression are so incredibly missing the boat I'm beginning to feel sorry for them, rather than annoyed. (Although I'm still pretty annoyed. Essay to follow. But read Azzerad's first if you haven't.)
     "Oh, The Divorces!" is the lead single from Thorn's upcoming Love and Its Opposite, slated for a May release on Merge Records. MP3 via Merge. This is her second solo record since EBTG went on hiatus in '02. Thorn remains married to band mate Ben Watt--happily, one hopes.

Free and legal MP3 from Air Waves (snappy, lo-fi chugger, w/ great happy energy)

"Sweetness" - Air Waves
     Lord knows I don't think of Fingertips as me sharing playlists with the world (um, see essay), but I have to say I entirely love how the three songs this week interlock musically. In particular, check out the strummy warmth of the intro here and how welcome it feels after the swaying sadness of Thorn's tune. (And how perfect, somehow, that we first get that solitary drum beat, which functions as an instant head-clearer.)
     Front woman Nicole Schneit is another alto, but hers is a different instrument than Thorn's--a fuzzy, plainspoken, lo-fi voice, happy to get almost but not quite lost in the mix, happy to deliver a sing-song melody over a rumbling, chugging, two-chord accompaniment. I keep listening for a third chord but I don't think they get there, and it goes to show you how far a snappy melody and some good innocent instrumental energy will take you in a pop song...along with, okay, some "oo-oos" and other oddities in the background, including maybe bird noises. At least I think those are bird noises.
     Air Waves is a Brooklyn-based trio founded by Schneit; the name comes from a Robert Pollard song and is definitively two words, not one. To date the band has released one EP--in 2008, on Catbird Records; "Sweetness" is a new song, released on a compilation Winter Review 2010 disc put out in December by the label Underwater Peoples. The band has recently added a fourth member; a full-length album is expected later this year.

Monday, March 22, 2010

New Fingertips Commentary on the main site

I'll post the essay in full here in another day or two but for those interested in a head start, you can check out the new Fingertips Commentary essay right now on the main site. It's called "Playlist Nation: The Unbearable Lightness of Sharing," and it casts a skeptical eye on the idea of online playlist sharing. Fun!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fingertips Flashback: Blonde Redhead (from February 2005)

I like bands that stay creative and largely intact for the long haul. These guys have been around since 1993, and (see addendum) are very much still at it. Meant to post this Friday. Too busy reading SXSW tweets. Glad that's over.

[from "This Week's Finds," week of Jan. 30-Feb. 5, 2005]

"Misery is a Butterfly" - Blonde Redhead
Talk about a simple, repeated melody--"Misery is a Butterfly" succeeds, to my ears, largely because of the plain, recurring piano riff that serves as a backbone for this atmospheric, borderline melodramatic piece. There are strings, there's almost a dance beat popping up here and there, there are breathy-emotive vocals from guitarist Kazu Makino, there are Rachmaninovian chords, but time and again we get back to the piano riff, and everything seems all right again. Blonde Redhead is a veteran NYC-based trio that has gravitated over time from a Sonic Youth-style dissonance to a lusher sound that early fans of the band might not like very much. Me, I'm kind of intrigued by the still-somewhat-strange-ness of the whole thing. The song is the title track from the group's sixth CD, released last year on 4AD Records; the MP3 is found on the Beggars Group, U.S.A. web site.

ADDENDUM: The band's most recent album, 23, was released in 2007. (The title track from that one was also featured on Fingertips.) They last played live in 2009, but lo and behold, just last week, a teaser video--perhaps for a new song?--appeared on the trio's web site. Their eighth album is expected out later this year.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Free and legal MP3 from Judson Claiborne (Americana flavored, w/ an air of timelessness)

"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 from Ceremony (putting the pop into noise pop)

"Someday" - Ceremony
     Ever since My Bloody Valentine there have been no shortage of bands choosing to wallop our ears with washes of noisy guitars while teasing those same ears with muffled vocals, but not enough of them--either in the original shoegaze era or in its current "neo" phase--have bothered mixing a strong melody into the sonic assault. The duo calling themselves Ceremony, on the other hand, while making themselves inaccessible Googlistically speaking, have decided to put the "pop" back into noise pop.
      Springing from the same Fredericksburg, Virginia trio--Skywave--that ended up giving birth to NYC's A Place to Bury Strangers, Ceremony are loud, no question. But right away see how they take the noisy, rapid-fire beat and use it to as a framework for a melody both leisurely and tuneful. The first hint we get is the lilting--in fact, rather Cure-like--instrumental theme that emerges from the beat at 0:16. That's an ear-friendly hook before the singing even starts. The vocals, when they arrive, are buzzy but not buried; you can not only understand a good number of words, but the singer--either Paul Baker or John Fedowitz (both are listed with the exact same credits: vocal, guitar, bass, drum machine)--sings like he wants to be heard; he's got a portentous baritone, but he enunciates, while singing a catchy little tune when all is said and done. Rather audacious of him, especially on a song with this straightforward refrain: "Take my heart and my life/'Cause someday you'll be my wife." Borrowing a bit from a recent post by Michael Azzerad, one might argue that in a loud and angry age such as ours, using this particular aural toolbox to deliver an unironic, non-violent message of love and connection is more subversive than any effort to be just noisy.
     "Someday" was released on a 7-inch single in January, and will appear on Ceremony's debut second full-length album, Rocket Fire, to be released next month. Both releases are on Killer Pimp Records, which also hosts the MP3. Thanks yet again to the indefatigable Largehearted Boy for the head's up.

Free and legal MP3 from Emily Jane White (lovely, stark, textured, and sad)

"Liza" - Emily Jane White
     "It's not my job to create happy music," says Emily Jane White, a San Francisco-based singer/songwriter. "I'm okay with that." This may be a tricky stance to maintain for a long career, but you and I can be okay with that too for now if the end result is something as lovely, stark, and textured as "Liza." Sure, there's surface-level sadness in the air, but the music, while reasonably simple, offers an enticing depth of sound and spirit right from the outset. The introduction alone is mysteriously satisfying, with its evocative blend of picked electric guitar and violin, and that repeat musical line at the finish, which makes me feel like I've just heard an entire story in 24 seconds.
     Certainly White's subtly toasted alto is well-suited to the "not happy" vibe, but I'm actually enjoying more her phrasing and delivery than her tone. It's not too hard to sound gloomy; it's hard to sound interesting while also sounding gloomy. I like her off-handed delivery, the way she manages to sound like she's just deciding what to sing as she sings it, rather than reciting lyrics committed to memory--a particular feat in a song featuring not many lyrics in the first place. And why does the abrupt entrance of the drumming, at 1:51, sound like precisely the thing that needed to be there? Curious. The first verse, re-sung, is transformed by that insistent drum beat, which soon drives the violins into a double-time swirl, creating the feeling of a chase through the woods. The subsequent slowdown (2:56) is likewise sudden but somehow wonderful. We hear the first verse yet again. And that repeat finishing line from the introduction gets an extra repeat at the end of the song, exactly as required.
     "Liza" is from White's second full-length, Victorian America, set to be released next month on Milan Records. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

New Fingertips Contest: win Anaïs Mitchell's Hadestown

The latest Fingertips Contest is giving away three copies of Anaïs Mitchell's Hadestown. Hadestown is a full-fledged "folk opera," which originally came to life on stage in 2007. The story is based on the Orpheus myth, updated and tweaked to seem just right here in 21st-century, Great Recessionary America. Mitchell sings the part of Eurydice, and she's recruited some mighty interesting friends to fill out the cast for this special recording, including Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) as Orpheus, Greg Brown as Hades, and Ani DiFranco as Persephone. The music is as bleak and friendly and beautiful and creaky as Randy Newman doing his Tom Waits impression at a Kurt Weill convention.

More info on the Fingertips web site.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Free and legal MP3 from Efterklang (dexterous, affecting blend of pop brevity and classical complexity)

"Modern Drift" - Efterklang
     Beginning with compelling, quasi-minimalist piano lines, structured around two related melodic motifs, and brilliantly integrating strings and horns with electronics and percussion, "Modern Drift" is more composition than song. Consider this a good thing--a way of bringing some of classical music's attractive complexity into pop music's attractive brevity. Everybody wins. We just have to work on the fact that they only seem to be able to do this sort of thing in Scandinavia.
     I suggest listening to this song four or five times in a row just to let it begin to make sense in a wordless way. But if you want some handholds through the process, I recommend keeping an ear on each instrument that makes an entrance after the original piano lines--the percussion, guitar, strings, horns, and electronics. Each interacts with the underlying piano spine in a particular way, and each will come front and center in the piece at a particular time--for instance, the way the guitar begins a complementary echo of the piano at 1:28, or the very satisfying horn punctuation we begin to hear at 1:47. And listen how the strings step forward at 2:27 and create an unexpected bridge to the electronics that start at 2:45, which in turn offer a beepier version of original piano line, but now it sounds like this is home, this is where it was leading. And then the electronics withdraw and leave the unusual--but, somehow, quite natural-sounding--combination of strings and drums to bring this dexterous and affecting piece to a close. Pay attention and you'll also hear the guitar and piano return with background support.
     Efterklang is a quartet from Copenhagen that has been active since 2001. The name is a Danish word that means both "reverberation" and "remembrance." (Grieg, a Norwegian, once wrote a lyric piece for the piano called "Efterklang.") "Modern Drift" is the opening track from the band's third full-length album, Magic Chairs, which was released last month on the British label 4AD. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3 from Bettie Serveert (Dutch proto-indie band returns, faster and crunchy)

"Deny All" - Bettie Serveert
     Moving into their 20th year together, the Dutch band Bettie Serveert may at long last be outlasting the "college rock" tag they earned as a proto-indie band in the mid-'90s. In any case, when their new album, Pharmacy of Love, is released later this month, they will have released more albums in the 21st century than they did in the 20th. So the time is ripe for listening to this engaging, not-quite-place-able-sounding band with new ears. It's not 1995 anymore in any possible way that I can think of.
     "Deny All" presents the Betties at their fastest and crunchiest. Guitarist Peter Visser couldn't be having a better time, combining searing lead lines with exuberantly squonky chords--one moment barely choked out, another fraying with dissonance. Leave it, however, to the fetching Carol van Dyk to distract us rather unfairly from Visser's heroics. The Canadian-born, Netherlands-raised singer has always helped to give the band a subtly inscrutable sound; moving to Amsterdam at age seven, she apparently never quite mastered a native Dutch accent but didn't grow up speaking English as a North American either. If you don't listen carefully you might not notice anything unusual but then again, given that lucid voice of hers, at once bright and dreamy, why aren't you listening carefully?
     "Deny All" leads off Pharmacy of Love, the band's ninth album, due out this month on Second Motion Records. MP3 via Second Motion. Bettie Serveert was previously featured on Fingertips in December 2003 and January 2005 (the latter appearance still has a free and legal MP3 available, the very appealing "Attagirl," so check that one out if you have the time).

Free and legal MP3 from Steve Goldberg and the Arch Enemies (wistful-cheerful blast of horn-peppered indie pop)

"The Ballad of Cherry Hill" - Steve Goldberg and the Arch Enemies
     Wistful-cheerful blast of horn-peppered indie pop. When last we left Steve Goldberg, in 2007, he was a graduating college senior in Pittsburgh who recorded an album as a senior project with a revolving-door cast of fellow students. He has since come east to Philadelphia, pared the basic outfit down to four, and continues doing business as the Arch Enemies.
     While the basic sound remains intact--he comes across as a more extroverted version of Sufjan Stevens--the production value has improved, which has given his voice more depth and the music more oomph. I like that he has bothered to create two complete musical themes that are independent of the song's eventual melodies--these are the first two things we hear in the introduction (the pizzicato strings theme, then the horn section theme). One of the pleasing things about the song, then, becomes listening for how and when these themes recur, woven back into or between the primary melodies. (Even if you don't realize this is pleasing your ear, honest, it is.) Another perhaps unconsciously pleasing characteristic is the juxtaposition of downcast lyrics (here painting a scene of suburban alienation) and upbeat music. This itself is not an uncommon trick in pop music, but I like how Goldberg manages to bleed the two moods into each other a bit, thus further complicating the song's complexion--the lively music somehow lifting the words beyond mere despair even as the words simultaneously lend a bittersweet air to the music.
     "The Ballad of Cherry Hill" is from the band's four-song EP Labyrinths, which was self-released in January. Inspired by stories by Jorge Luis Borges, the EP is available for a price of your choosing, with no minimum, via the band's site. Thanks to Steve personally for the MP3.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Fingertips Flashback: The Fauves (from October 2004)

This was always one of my favorite, power-poppy Fingertips finds. Glad to see it's still around, as, apparently, is the band.

[from "This Week's Finds," Oct. 24-30, 2004]

"The Dirt-Bike Option" - the Fauves
Gruff but lovable guitar pop from an underappreciated Australian band. That is, in Australia they're underappreciated; here in the U.S., they're completely unknown. But there's no way I for one am not going to like the heck out of a song with a sing-along chorus featuring this lyric: "Ooh, the dirt-bike option paid off/We never settled with the workers that we laid off." The rumbly guitars balanced by spiffy harmonies in the chorus and a wonderfully cheesy organ line are further merits. Plus I am bound to be partial to a song that arose as follows: "The title came from listening to Terry [Cleaver; the bass player] bang on backstage at a gig in Bateman's Bay about a new computer game he'd been playing; one in which he had 'exercised the dirt-bike option'. Songs about computer games are boring so the main lyric dealt with the somewhat unrelated topic of messiah complexes and cults living in fortified compounds." It seems poetic justic, somehow, that the world-weary, self-deprecating Fauves have now lasted longer than the early 20th-century art movement after which they named themselves. Formed in Melbourne in the late '80s, the band scored some commercial successes in Australia in the mid-'90s, but have struggled more recently to get themselves heard--a reality implied by the name of the 2000 single ("Celebrate the Failure") which contained "The Dirt-Bike Option" as a B-side. The MP3 is available on the band's web site, along with a number of other enjoyable B-sides and rarities.

ADDENDUM: The band has definitely been active since 2004. Their most recent album came out in the fall of 2008, and late that year they played a few gigs, including a special 20th-anniversary show in Melbourne. They seem to be laying low since then.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Free and legal MP3 from Jump Into The Gospel (21st-century rock w/ timeless NYC sound)

"Flagship" - Jump Into The Gospel
     At once prickly and resounding, "Flagship" shows that even in 2010 there somehow remains a recognizable New York City rock-band sound. Certainly things have gotten more convoluted and diverse since the days you could trace a clear line from the Velvets to the New York Dolls to Television and the Ramones and Patti Smith, and the 21st-century alone has spawned a wide-ranging new generation of New York rockers (and note that "New York City band" does not equal "Brooklyn band," even though Brooklyn is of course part of New York City; anyone from New York knows this intuitively). And yet, as Jump Into The Gospel demonstrates, New York City rock endures, has a distinct vibe, and will apparently survive until the day the internet, because there's so much music here--and so much interaction and so much sharing and so much you-too-can-be-a-musician--kills music altogether. (And when that happens I suspect the New York bands will be the last to go.)
     So what sounds like New York here? Front man Louis Epstein, for one, all nasally and insistent and yet also edgily vulnerable. Second, the tick-tock beat, which functions just as well during the minimalist verse as it does during the expansive chorus, and is the sound of Manhattan's street grid, and timed traffic lights, and the unstoppable flow of pedestrians immune to the buses and taxis hurtling by. And then, New Yorkiest of all, for no reason I can articulate, that place in the chorus where the melody takes a further step down than you might initially anticipate (first heard at 0:29, on the third syllable of "situation." (Bonus points: the drummer's name is Chris Stein, the previous Chris Stein being Blondie's co-founder/guitarist/songwriter. Such a good NYC rocker's name it's been recycled.)
     "Flagship" is from the band's debut, four-song digital EP; all four songs are available for free at the band's site. Thanks to Some Velvet Blog for the head's up.

Free and legal MP3 from Kate Miller-Heidke (cheeky, theatrical pop from Australia)

"Politics in Space" - Kate Miller-Heidke
     This has nothing to do with NYC, and maybe little to do with Planet Earth. A classically trained soprano, Australia's Miller-Heidke took a left turn out of the conservatory and didn't look back; she traces her musical lineage not geographically but aesthetically, and maybe even psychologically. Artists like Lene Lovich and Kate Bush and Björk come to mind once Miller-Heidke turns herself loose, and the process of singing becomes intertwined with something resembling performance art.
     But the cool thing is none of this is remotely ponderous--wacky, humorous, and cheeky, yes, but not ponderous. (Listen to how she briefly puts her "conservatory voice" to use--around 1:04--and you'll see how cheeky.) Musically, the song hues to a deliberate beat, with relatively austere accompaniment--there's a rubbery bass, a deep drum beat, a simply strummed acoustic guitar, hand claps, and not much else--except, that is, for the backing vocals. Turns out this song is all about the backing vocals, pretty much. ("Pretty much.") Follow them all the way through and you're in for a smile or two.
     Miller-Heidke has had hit records in Australia, and also reaped praise last year for her performance in Sydney of Jerry Springer: The Opera. Previously featured on Fingertips in 2005, she has not had any music released in the U.S., until now. (Although some may know her from the live-recorded song "R U Fucking Kidding Me? [The Facebook Song]," which has had some viral success on the social media circuit.) Curiouser, an album originally released in Australia in October '08 (and actually recorded in Los Angeles), will be released here this month on SIN/Sony Australia. Thanks very much to Victoria, at Muruch, for the lead.

Free and legal MP3 from Josh Rouse (sprightly faux Latin pop w/ Paul Simon feel)

"I Will Live On Islands" - Josh Rouse
     I've had this song in the listening pile for a few weeks and maybe it's the (finally) receding snow that has allowed me to open my ears and enjoy this merry, warm-weather-inflected bit of lovingly crafted faux Latin pop. Perhaps I didn't quite realize how aggravating the song was previously making me, its breezy narrator imagining his imminent escape to island living. No matter the narrator is literally in prison; the metaphor hit home (Seriously: "I want to see some green/Get me out of this place").
     But spring appears to be springing, however slowly. It'll be May before all the parking lot piles melt around here but grass is at long last visible and this week I'm charmed by Rouse's bright, Paul Simonesque romp. And I at long last listened closely enough to understand that the point is the guy's infectious optimism, not his present confines. Should've featured the tune weeks ago. Anyway, musically, yes, the echoes of Simon are clear and, even, are emphasized by the singing voice Rouse adopts. (Listen to the way he sings the word "convicted" at 0:35--that's an homage, no way it's not.) But let's of course remember that Paul Simon himself was borrowing existing styles and rhythms, and Rouse, a transplanted American who has lived in Spain for five years, knows the original sources very well by now himself. If you want to see just how well, check out the Spanish-sung "Valencia," which has been quietly available as a free and legal download via Vanity Fair since the fall.
     Both songs are from the album El Turista, which is set for release next week on Yep Roc Records. The "I Will Live On Islands" MP3 is via Spinner.