Great Songs: September and October 2020

Will Talbot, Scarlet Staff

The Pandemic has slowed down the cycle of album releases, especially from independent artists. However, a lot of promising, underrated bands and solo artists I have eagerly anticipated new work from have delivered in the past few weeks. Here are the fresh tracks from the past two months that I have been playing on repeat!

“20/20” by Knuckle Puck

The aptly-titled title track that opens the Chicago-based pop-punk band’s third full-length studio album opens with a chill drum beat and acoustic guitar riffs and then rollicks into infectious verses and an anthemic chorus, led by the assured vocals of Joe Taylor and the twirling soundscapes of reverbing guitars from Kevin Maida and Nick Casasanto. A breakdown 2/3rds of the way through the song builds the momentum for the final chorus perfectly, and the song ends with an outro in which Taylor repeats some of the song’s most memorable lines. The lyrics of the song relate a lot to my experiences this year, in which the Pandemic’s interruption of many of my normal activities led me to realize how special the enjoyable moments of my life are, and how I shouldn’t sacrifice golden opportunities for an ever-elusive sense of perfect stability. Some of my favorite lines from the song are “We’ll never get a second chance / By staring down these falling grains of sand” and “Cause I can finally see clearly / As if my vision’s 20/20 / That everything is temporary”.

“myrtle ave.” by Mxmtoon

The Californian singer followed up her excellent EP “dawn” from earlier this year with a quieter but equally impressive sequel in “dusk”, from which “myrtle ave.” is the standout track. The song features the more laid-back, intimate production that is common on the EP. Her soothing voice is backed by reverbing electric piano, strumming bass, and eventually a slow, lo-fi-influenced drum beat and searching long guitar strums that create tension in the verses before the chorus releases this tension with her backing vocals and harmonies entering with beautiful touches of electric piano. Her signature ukulele touches come to the fore as the drumbeat stops and eventually restarts in the bridge. The song’s lyrics describe how, despite the despair and discord that looms all around her, one person helps her get through things through their centering kindness. We all need a person like the one she describes to help us relax and realize the simple joys of life in these times plagued by the specters of a pandemic and an incredibly divisive political climate leading up to a consequential election. My favorite lines from the song are “Windows frame and clouds up in the atmosphere / Our tiny little world that could just disappear / Outside, there’s chaos and confusion, can we stay right here?” and “My mind was out of space/It’s so crowded, it’s so crowded/But somehow you erased/All the chatter, didn’t matter anymore”.

“Living Apology” by Movements

The Californian post-hardcore band released their sophomore album “No Good Left to Give”, the follow up to 2017’s excellent “Feel Something”, with this b-side in the middle of the tracklist being my favorite piece from the album. Dense chords from guitarist Ira George lead transform into a driving chorus with Pat Miranda’s emotive vocals and Spencer York’s signature complex drum patterns. Three strong chords, a mini-breakdown that shows the band’s great tightness, leads to the frantic chorus in which the strain in Miranda’s voice shows clear. After the second verse, eerie chords lead to a sparse bridge (that reminds me of “Are We the Waiting” by Green Day, another great b-side) in which Miranda drops the title of the song, and then York re-enters to build the momentum for Miranda’s heart-wrenching screams. The restatement of the chorus, followed by a bass riff from Austin Cressy, ends the song. In the lyrics, Miranda describes how he has to be protective of himself in an often chaotic and uncertain life, yet a lot of pain results from this shielding. I can relate to the song’s theme because there are opinions and feelings I often wish I could share, but do not because I am afraid others will take it the wrong way and not like me as much. My favorite lyrics from the song are “A harsh world for a gentle soul/A tight mask makes a dented skull/Keeping secrets that you can’t let go/Afraid to face the side that no one knows” and especially “And I’ll skim the in-between/Find the semblances I seek for safety/Make sure no one sees/This identity is bound to break me/Stay quiet about it/There’s no way around this/I’ll cover my tracks, it’s the perfect reaction”.

“Never” by Lydia Loveless

The alternative country singer from Ohio just released her new album “Daughter”, from which “Never” is my favorite track. This introspective, apologetic, regretful post-breakup song, in which she struggles with attempting to move on from a person she clearly loves dearly, opens with a simple organ riff and piano chords. Her powerful voice eventually enters and sets the exasperated, longing tone of the song. The backing band comes in for the second verse, with an intense drum beat, which includes several impressive fills, fitting in with sparse, creative riffage from the guitar. A piano interlude leads to the third verse. The bridge ensues, highlighted by the relatable refrain “I carry around this pain/I live with all the mistakes I made”, some skilled trading between the piano and guitar, and Loveless reaching into her upper register. A well-executed crescendo in a short verse leads to the powerful, extended final chorus, as she painfully expresses “You’re the blood in my veins and the bone in my back/And I know that I’m not ever gonna get you back” and the refrain from the bridge repeats.

“Gold Rush” by Kotaro Oshio

The Japanese fingerstyle guitarist’s lead single from his new album “Passenger” shows his wonderful talent of embracing both the rapid, percussive, and beautiful, chiming elements of his instrument. An at-first enchanting, then darkly driving intro leads to a chorus filled with intricate, syncopated riffs, dissonant chords, and alliterated percussive strums, with sections separated by well-executed rests that are preceded by passages that are not far off from the sounds of drum sets and electric guitar solos. Then, the verses blossom, with higher notes, including harmonics, making the listener feel like they are in a fairy tale, walking through a scenic meadow; but the chorus comes rollicking back to break the mood. In the middle of one more verse’s journey back to the meadow, an airy, almost completely percussive passage that reminds me of traveling through a tunnel, is presented. A complex alteration of one of the main riffs ends the song. The song has a genius in how it lives up to its title by capturing both wondrous awe and excitement as well as dark, harsh realities.

“Into the Spiral” by Fox Capture Plan

The Japanese jazz trio has been very busy this year, releasing multiple soundtracks. Yet this standalone single is their song that has caught the most attention from me as of yet. Fitting to the title, circular riffs from synths and Ryo Kishimoto on piano lead to a piano-led, simple chorus and a post-chorus full of strings. The song really picks up when a horn section enters with a shout chorus, trading riffs with the strings and then taking over to hit some soaring, cathartic harmonies that are enhanced by the limited use of electronic effects and the echoing of riffs from one instrument to another. Kishimoto again takes the spotlight for a solo, backed by buzzing synths and swelling strings as he shows off his technical abilities. His solo propels the song into a quick drum solo from Tsukasa Inoue. The song ends with a restatement of the epic shout chorus, with new licks from the strings adding extra spice. Throughout the song, the group does an excellent job of conveying the song’s titular theme by using hairpin dynamics (crescendos and decrescendos) to create an effect that reminds the listener of going deeper and deeper, around in circles.

“Reflection in the Mirror” by Jizue

The Japanese band continues to deliver their brand of instrumental music, mixing elements of classical, jazz, math rock, and world music on their newest album “Seeds”. But my favorite tracks on the album, such as “Reflection in the mirror”, see the band experiment with new styles. This track, sung in English (the band has released very few vocal tracks in the past, but included three on this new album), is Jizue’s attempt to make a pop-rock song in the vein of One Republic or Imagine Dragons, yet with their own unique touches. As a person who first got seriously into music through listening to pop-rock bands, it’s really fun to see a more experimental band I listen to simplify their style to create a fun track. The song is complete with handclaps, a singalong chorus featuring group vocals, and lyrics from the perspective of a lovestruck person expressing their affection. Yet the song still has the band’s unique feel, anchored by pianist Kie Kitagi’s staccato chords, her pretty solo that flows effortlessly from and to the neighboring parts of the song, and guitarist Noriyuki Inoue’s twanging guitars.