Words by Art Jipson
Every month Off Shelf contributor and Your Tuesday Afternoon Alternative host Art Jipson brings you the best singles of the month and puts together a playlist for your enjoyment. Below you’ll find nine highlighted songs that stood above the rest, which is followed by the entire playlist. Please follow our Spotify account so you don’t miss any future playlists!
The past few years have led to several albums from Jeff Tweedy – ‘Warm’ (2018), ‘Warmer’ (2019) and now ‘Love is the King’ (2020); these records released under his own name rather than as Wilco. During this time Tweedy has also released two books — Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc. (November of 2018) and the more recent short book on song writing, How to Write One Song: Loving the Things We Create and How They Love Us Back (October 2020). It is apparent that Tweedy has been and continues to be creatively productive. Added to this is the music he has made with his son since 2014 under the Tweedy family name and the music that has been made by Wilco (the excellent Summerteeth has recently been reissued) and sure, we can argue that Jeff Tweedy has been busy. ‘Love is the King’ and the track ‘Troubled’ reveal an intimate canvas that Tweedy has been exploring with his solo records and in the family project Tweedy. ‘Troubled’ with its almost Stonesian guitar – think Wild Horses – draws a listener into its orbit. What does being bothered, concerned, nervous, anxious feel like for ourselves and those around us? This song captures that poetic personal energy without being ponderous or boring. Tweedy’s most important gift is not revealed in the loudest moments but rather the quiet ones that stirs the soul. Also, recommend ‘A Robin or A Wren.’
Seven years since their last record, Magik Markers have returned with an album that was made off and on over four years. This excellent lo-fi drone rock record has a clear nod to many indies during the time since the group’s ‘Surrender to the Fantasy.’ ‘You Can Find Me’ drives along with a bounce that will bring a nod to your head and hopefully a smile to your lips. The energetic yet lo-fi feel of the stellar ‘You Can Find Me’ is delivered with a brash tuneful guitar line that sits in an unexpected highlight, with joyously crashing choruses that express the desire to hold on to a perfect moment forever because so few of them come along for us. The album as a whole expresses a need for us to hold onto the best moments and lose the ones that bring us anxiety and concern. Also, recommend ‘Find Your Ride’.
This Is the Kit is the “band” name used by English singer songwriter Kate Stables. She has an impressive catalogue of intriguing and unique folk and dare I say Americana music. She has a gift for building a melody that is set again unexpected rhythms, drums and syncopation. Aaron Dessner of The National produced her 2015 breakout record, ‘Bashed Out’. In 2017 she released the intimate ‘Moonshine Freeze’. Stables’ latest record ‘Off Off On’ is another intimate yet energetic album. One of the stellar tracks on the new record ‘This is What You Did’ explores relationship dynamics within a literate and sophisticated exploration that is not bogged down in the usual traps. On ‘This is What You Did’ and the rest of the record there is an energy and restlessness that is rooted in Stables’ remarkable talent for explaining life experience – good or bad, pleasant or not-so-pleasant. The ability to examine conflict without feeling heavy handed or perceptions of victimness is a rare observational ability. The music complements the narrative – is it storytelling? – in the songs. The circling and cycles of ‘’This is What You Did’ mirrors the lyrics in the song and make them all the more potent. Also, recommend ‘No Such Thing’ and ‘Keep Going.’
Bruce Springsteen – ‘Letter to You’ from ‘Letter to You’ (self-released)
Reuniting with the E Street Band has rejuvenated Springsteen’s music! In the title track, ‘Letter to You’, there is a reminder of what Springsteen could capture in a rock and roll song. While many will see Springsteen as connected to the past rather than the music of the present, ‘Letter to You’ moves with a freshness that recall him at his best. It has been a busy past few years for Springsteen: a memoir in 2016, a musical in 2017, the 70s feel of Western Sky in 2019 and now a clear cut mostly rock and roll record with ‘Letter to You.’ The song propelled by the E-Street Band members illustrates what has always been compelling about the music, a swagger based on guitar, drums, keyboard combination that directly and simply communicates knowledge, patience and persistence. While a very different sound than the previous album, the unmistakable effort to grapple with mortality remains a heady mix. What does it mean to have more miles behind us then in ahead? Also, recommend ‘Burnin’ Trains’ and ‘Song for Orphans.’
The number of terrific singles from Big Stir Records could easily fill multiple columns – maybe that task is something that I can convince my editor to let me do one day. Until then we can recognize the stream of infectious indie and power pop being released by this terrific record label. One recent example is the catchy Nick Frater single ‘California Waits.’ With a classic combination of vocals, guitars, drums, bass, keyboards – this song is propelled by a high energy weaving of all those instruments. This song will lead to head nodding and the inevitable sway that a great pop song establishes in the listener. A song likely about not learning to drive – one imagines because the protagonist lives in a California community where that was not a necessity. Part Marshall Crenshaw, part Tommy Keene ‘California Waits’ shakes with shimmy and beat that we can all use more of in our music experience.
Salt Lake City duo I DON’T KNOW HOW BUT THEY FOUND ME (often called iDKHOW) have a knack for combining several styles and genres. On ‘Leave Me Alone’ they combine pop slide, 80s funk, indie and alternative rock music. The record that ‘Leave Me Alone’ comes from, Razzmatazz, is surprisingly their debut. The full album reveals a command of songwriting and composition that one would not expect in a debut record. Think more of an angular Duran Duran or slinky David Bowie with a hint of The Killers in the vocal. The song has a kitchen sink feel, the band has incorporated all of their influences together in a heady mix that feels slightly menacing while also joyful. The song has a feel of slamming synths together with a slap bass part that keeps the song moving along even if the lyrics are a cry for being left alone. Also, recommend ‘Nobody Likes The Opening Band’.
It is all too easy to make fun of the label bubblegum. Is that the same as dream pop? What if a band combines elements of shoe gaze, dream pop and bubblegum? I dare you to apply just one of these labels to the band after listening to Lunchbox! ‘I Really Want to Know’ is a cannot get it out of your head infectious treat that feels as if it was made with delight, joy and happiness. Part confection, part dream pop, part bubblegum – Consider it a lo-fi indie version of bubblegum. What can be wrong with surging guitars, a jumping bass line that makes you want to dance, tittering trumpets, smooth keyboards, just the right hit on the drums and a vocal that is pitch perfect on top of all the other instruments? Nothing is wrong with that. This song is as bubblegum with a side of indie pop that melts into your consciousness – because even hours after hearing it you realize that you have been humming the song for hours. Also, recommend ‘Dream Parade’.
Midnight Oil has returned with a fantastic song from a musical project that draws its emotion from the concerns and plight of indigenous peoples. The term “Makarrata” is a concept in Aboriginal Australian Yolngu that is a process of reconciliation and community building to discover and release personal and social peace that leads to actions to create justice following conflict. This idea and the spirit of this idea is what motivates the band so many years after their last release of new music. Midnight Oil has always embraced a social justice philosophy and lyrical concern. This album marks an effort by the band to collaborate much more with artists of indigenous descent and identity. While political and social commentary in the hands of so many musicians can feel awkward and tired, Midnight Oil avoid those mistakes by keeping the focus on the songs and the reasons behind the songs rather than posturing. Moreover, the songs are good. ‘Gadigal Land’ is a great straightforward rocker that benefits from the melding of creativity with indigenous artists. And while it describes challenges, the song and the arrangement convey hope. Similar to the classic ‘Beds are Burning’, ‘Gadigal Land’ has a relentless feel that is empowering. Also, recommend ‘First Nation’.
The spirit of Dayton legends Brainiac lives in many genres and bands. The frenetic breakthrough of that band has found a home in the Baltimore noise rock band Dope Body. Although the band briefly parted ways in 2016, they continued to play shows and record. Is that really a break up? Their latest record displays the group’s incorporation of various elements of glam, new wave, and art rock within their noise rock terrain. ‘Lethargic’ is one of the terrific intense songs on ‘Crack a Light.’ This song combines the band’s interest in energy and intensity of song composition without an over-emphasis on slick production. Dope Body has always know that too much production can drain the life from a tune. How to create immediacy while still holding on to something dark and furious. The song crackles with a distant electricity that pulls the listener into its orbit. Also, recommend the compelling ‘Curve’ and the catchy ‘More.’
No one writes songs about unexpected subjects in the same way that John Darnielle does on The Mountain Goat records. He writes about hobbies, tweets and goldfish to name a few interesting subjects. In the latest album from The Mountain Goats, recorded before the pandemic lockdowns in Memphis, the band made one of its loosest albums that lyrically continues Darnielle’s wry humor and interest in personal satisfaction and meaning in the smallest experiences. On ‘As Many Candles as Possible’ there is a story that follows a quirky narrative that is relatable. The song begins with a series of plucked strings that then flows into a solid rock and roll format that has a dark feel until the chorus amps up the drum cadence and discordant elements. Yet, a clear melody propels the song forward. Let’s hope that Darnielle and his bandmates can continue their incredibly productive pace. Also, recommend the almost rockabilly ‘Corsican Mastiff Slide’ and almost 70s-like ‘Pez Dorado’.
If you have recommendations for future editions of this column, please contact Dr. J at firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember the brief before you contact us, the music either needs to be released in the particular month or is a song that should be celebrated as a “missed” catch.