And so begins On Queue 2019! As we start the new year, each post will focus on a specific record label and three releases from the label that I think standout. Let's jump in with Daptone Records.
Daptone Records is a prolific independent funk and soul label based in Brooklyn, New York. It was started in 2001 by Bosco Mann (Gabriel Roth) and Neal Sugarman. The distinctive analog sound that has come to be associated with this label began with its core band, The Dap-Kings. Roth acts as the bass player and bandleader of this group. In 2007 this group, in collaboration with Mark Ronson, provided the instrumental accompaniment for Amy Whinehouse’s undisputed classic, Back to Black. A converted home in the Bushwick neighborhood has been the scene for this distinguished sound to grow, and without any help from computers. The studio acoustics are not enhanced by digital reverbs and everything is recorded and mixed on analog tape by Roth. Having proven themselves time and time again, the Daptone recording studio and personnel have become sought after entities.
The Menahan Street Band was my introduction to Daptone Records. Back in 2013 during a deep YouTube tangent, I stumbled upon a video of Donald Glover/Childish Gambino at Amobea Records going through what was in his record bag on that day. He pulled the debut album from this Brooklyn-born band. Thank you, Mr. Glover, for opening up this whole new world for me.
There is a chance you have heard The Menahan Street Band without realizing it. The classic soul sound has drawn the attention of some the most active hip-hop artists on the scene right now. The likes of Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, 50 Cent, and Kid Cudi have all pulled samples from the band’s two full-length studio albums.
The band is comprised of members from the Dap-Kings, El Michels Affair, Antibalas, and The Budos Band–all members of the Daptone family. It is a classic set up of guitar, bass, drums, organ, trumpet, and saxophone playing loop-based grooves in the bedroom of a Brooklyn apartment on Menahan Street. The band is not trying to reinvent the wheel. This is a sound that is battle-tested and has survived all the way to the new vinyl age we are living in right now. The Menahan Street band is a collection of incredibly talented musicians that are playing a familiar sound, but they do it with incredible swagger and prowess.
Make The Road By Walking strikes a beautiful balance between powerful backbeats and bass lines, striking melodies, and quirky sense of humor. “Tired of Fighting” begins with drums and congas in a laid back pocket setting the gritty funk tone of this track along with woozy guitar slides that appear throughout much of the album. Dave Guy on trumpet (who you now see playing with The Roots on tour and every night on Jimmy Fallon) and Leon Michels on saxophone provide the buttery harmonized melodies on top of this punchy rhythm section.
“Home Again!” is a cheerful soul track with an infectious bounce. The warmth of the changes, instrumentation, and analog tape all combine for this highlight of the album. “Going The Distance” plays in my ear with a slight sense of comedy. It begins with the dark funky feel that is heard through the majority of the album. As the song develops, a triumphant bass line and horn crescendo lead into a sixteenth note based groove that gives off vibes of something like the Rocky movies to my ear.
Simplicity is the key with this band and this album. The power of good chord changes and simple patterns that are played with unbelievable feel is put on full display. There are no frills with instrumentation or recording tricks, just good songwriting. After their second LP, the band has gone on to back other vocalists on Daptone Records, but I’m crossing my fingers a new full-length MSB project is in the works. The world needs it.
One of the vocalist the Menahan Street Band went on to work with was Charles Bradley. The incredible story of this soul journeyman unfortunately came to an end in the fall of 2017 when the singer lost his battle with stomach and liver cancer. Daptone released Black Velvet in November of 2018 as a compilation of the stray tracks that accumulated over the decade the singer spent with the label and with the Menahan Street Band backing him.
It was an incredible case of right time, right place for Bradley who got his big break in his mid-50s. He grew up in a house stricken with poverty and neglect. He worked many odd jobs throughout his life across the entire country, but never left his love of singing. He sang in many small venues under the name “Black Velvet” as a James Brown impersonator. In 2002, Bradley had made his way to New York right as Daptone and their revivalist style were hitting their stride. Bradley introduced himself to co-founder Gabriel Roth and the rest is history.
Time and time again on his albums, Bradley effortlessly turns the pains and sadness in his life into powerful and heart-wrenching music. Yet, one of the more memorable moments on this latest release is the voiceless “Black Velvet.” Acting as what feels like a tribute, the tune spans three and a half minutes and searches for words the entire time. A guitar with a heavy level of tremolo meanders through the whole tune, almost like a weeping melodic replacement for the lost member of the group.
“(I Hope You Find) The Good Life” is a noticeable departure from the usual pained and weathered tone of the narrative and voice of Bradley. The singer pleads with a lost lover who he needs to let go of spending much of the song simply talking to this person.
Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” makes an appearance on the album, but with a new coat of paint. The horn section takes control of this classic tune turning it into a driving soul track. It’s moments like this that are both the beauty and slight downfall of this album. The nature of the compilation album allows us to see the development of his style while signed to Daptone, but also creates a somewhat disjointed mix of tunes.
I wish I had the opportunity to see Bradley in concert. Even in interviews and videos you can immediately tell that his true energy and spirit of this music was only on full display in the live setting. This tribute album is a wonderful celebration of a man who never lost sight of the true happiness singing and being on stage brought him.
In Yorba, the word Akokán translates to “from the heart.” If there has been any thread between the Daptone records I’ve described thus far, I think “from the heart” may perfectly describe it. Then it is without surprise that one of the newest editions to Daptone Records has created a sizable buzz among their listeners, including a Grammy nomination for Orqesta Akokán’s debut LP.
The album’s driving force is its vocalist, Jose “Pepito” Gomez along with the producer, Jacob Plasse and arranger, Mike Eckroth. Unlike most of the other releases on the label, Daptone made a road trip to the band’s home turf in Havana, Cuba and to EGREM recording complex and the Areito Studio to record the album. The spirit of analog recording is certainly preserved at the national record label of Cuba. The studio was founded in 1964 and had a complete monopoly on music production in the country for roughly its first 20-years of operation. The result is the most extensive catalog of Cuban music in the world that is continuing to grow.
This is the first time the label has moved beyond the American roots of its traditional sound and homage to history. This new group is an amalgamation of Cuban musicians, many of who have lived through the period of Cuban music the album aims to emulate and preserve. The mambo tradition is alive and kicking with a lively percussive punch on this release.
A favorite of mine on the album is “La Cosa.” The rhythm section and horns each display their own aptitude while accompanying each other providing rhythmic stabs behind the melodies. When the trumpets step forward the saxophones join the congas and timbales and vice versa.
The arrangements by Eckroth are the glue of the entire album and are just plain stunning. Like I mentioned before, much of the band are veteran wind and rhythm players from some the legendary mambo bands of Cuba, but there are a few young players from New York as well. Certainly these players are incredibly well versed in mambo music, but there is always the risk of conflicting sounds and styles due to the geographical and generational differences. The listeners, and for that matter the musicians, have no time to contemplate this as the arrangements come at you with such energy and power that the 40-minutes the album lasts flies by with infectious joy.
I know very little about the history and tradition of Cuban music, but that takes nothing away from my experience with this album. I’m ready to dive into the roots of how we got to this album, the stories of the musicians in the orchestra, and the larger history of this music. Taking a risk and moving away from the American tradition for a moment was an extremely successful endeavor for Daptone. It is hard to think of a group and an album that better represents this unique label than Orquesta Akokán.
It is closing in on its 1-year anniversary, but the rich combination of organic and electronic that takes the reigns of Nils Frahm’s first major release since 2015 continues to fascinate my ear with the incredible proficiency in both production and minimalist composition that Frahm brings to the table.
The quality of recorded sound is the driving interest for Nils Frahm and has been since his very early introduction to music. His father was a photographer designing record covers while Frahm was immersing himself in the music of classical and contemporary composers. This duality that tugged on him for his early development as a musician shaped his unconventional approach to the piano sound which features an eccentric combination of classical and electronic music.
After his 2015 release, Solo, Frahm embarked on a mission to create a studio room from his dreams. The location was in the Funkhaus, a well known 1950s-era recording complex that sat in East Berlin. For two years he outfitted this with the gear that was most important to his sound–an arsenal of pianos, synthesizers, strings, percussion, and even down to a custom bult mixing desk. Funkhaus became a place where Frahm’s interest with the quality of sound could blossom through the various natural reverb chambers and vintage gear available to him.
The result was All Melody. While it sits in one’s ear with a somber tone, there is never an overwhelming sadness felt. The rhythmic energy in synths and voices heard from one track to the next keeps the energy moving forward. Despite the seemingly disparate timbres for the main voices in the project, All Melody is a structurally sound and cohesive body of work.
The most killer track to my ear is “A Place.” For me, this represents the most effective and musical use of delay I have ever heard and I have a hard time believing it will be dethroned anytime soon. When played through a pair of nice monitors or headphones, the incredible sonic architecture is put into full perspective. The pulse of the track is an articulate synth chord that is panned right of center. As this chord progression continues the layers of delay grow to populate the rest of the sonic field in a rhythmic and meticulously charted manner. Vocal textures join the rounded tone of the synth as well as a harmonized and syncopated flute melody.
“My Friend the Forrest” recalls back to the impressive catalogue of solo piano works Frahm has released in his career. The piano, muted and surrounded by a subtle but expansive blanket of reverb, speaks with the voice of both the stings and the hammers and levers. It is a texture that gives a new and warm life to the piano. Melodically, this track is oozing with soul and a bluesy riff that repeats throughout the song.
The beauty of this album is in the fine details. Frahm knows how to used recording technology and the mechanics of his instruments to his advantage making somewhat simple musical ideas come to life with intense emotion and detail. Unrelenting exploration of space and texture have lead to this beautifully ambitious release that has aged well this year.
Number eight. I remember being hipped to Vulfpeck in Sweetwaters Café in 2012 and since then time has flown by. It has been an extremely sonically rewarding experience to follow this band that has done so much for the community that I grew up in. They really have inspired a community and brought a new energy to the concept of the modern funk band. With their eighth studio release I feel a bit of nostalgic energy back towards the early days of the band with the four core members, especially Theo Katzman, having a more pronounced presence compared to some of their more recent releases.
The first four songs feature the vocal talents of Theo Katzman and cover the bases in terms of your “pop anthem subgenres:” we open with a quasi gospel rock feel in “Half of the Way,” an almost disco joint with “Darwin Derby,” a singer-songwriter vibe with “Lonely Town,” and a ballad with “Love is a Beautiful Thing.” This fourth track was originally featured on Katzman’s latest solo project, Heartbreak Hits.
The structure of Vulfpeck seems too simple to be so out of the ordinary. The band notably splits royalties evenly among all parties on original tunes and then has a more traditional payment structure for covers. Covers have become a staple of the ongoing Vulf project in both the album and live show setting. The band has often covered many songs on solo projects of Katzman and frequent collaborator, Joey Dosik.
There is an effortless sense of community that comes from this practice that is infectious when listening through headphones or live. The familiarity the musicians have with each other carries over into the audience filling the room with positive and comedic energy. Watching the progression of the band has meant seeing this energy skyrocket to an all-time high with this latest release.
The second half of the album feels like a window back into the early catalogue of Vulf. Basic band setups with drums, keys, and bass dominate this second half with whimsical melodies over heavy bass lines throughout. “Soft Parade” has a polyrhythmic, three-against-four feel in the bass that gives it some nastiness as I envision a carousel go ‘round and ‘round.
“Lost My Treble Long Ago” is the Joe Dart feature of the eighth studio release. Speed, agility, and precision–Dart is at his finniest on this heavy funk tune. “Disco Ulysses (Instrumental)” is perhaps a sneak peak at what is to come in 2019. As we saw with numbers like “My First Car” and “Christmas In LA,” Vulfpeck likes to draw out the life of a tune by releasing the instrumental before the vocal version. Both versions in all the cases of this strategy can stand alone as hits showing the talent level of the musicians associated with Vulf.
I’m absolutely a fanboy of this band. Driving way out of my way or planning trips to see this band or its members perform an unnecessary number of times is something I’m guilty of. But it is the energy I was talking about that keeps me coming back. When you are in a room with them or they are in your headphones you have no choice but to smile and nod your head. The music, the personalities, the cult following–Vulfpeck is the real deal and still feel as fresh and new as ever.
A video that seems to always show up on my Facebook feed and suggested videos on YouTube is one by Vox called “How J Dilla humanized his MPC3000.” It must be my history on the internet that is feeding the algorithms, but I literally see this video 5-10 times a week on my feeds and, I’ll admit, I have a hard time not watching it every time it comes up.
The basic premise of the video is explaining how J Dilla’s main compositional tool, the MPC3000, shaped his sound and a generation of music to follow. One of the collaborators and producers that worked heavily with Dilla during this time was Madlib, the producer behind the cult classic Madvillainy record along with MC, MF Doom.
Released in early November of 2018, Madvillain Vol. 1 takes the idea of humanizing this style of production to an extreme level. Abstract Orchestra is a Hip-Hop Big Band from the United Kingdom that is steadily building a loyal and supportive fanbase. The group is led by saxophonist, Rob Mitchell and is dedicated to bringing a new energy to some of the most storied music in hip-hop’s canon.
This album comes on the heels of their summer 2017 release, Dilla, exploring the music of the legendary producer in the same manner they do with the music of this infamous duo. The group takes straight-ahead and modern arranging techniques and applies them to the loop-based music of Madvillain. The album begins with “Accordian,” an arrangement of one of the most popular tunes on the original album. It is a bouncy and bright take on a track that originally drags with a slumbering quality. A strong backbeat, swinging sax harmonies, and a muted trumpet solo add a jazz characteristic to the mix.
“Raid” has to be my favorite arrangement on the album. The opening sample features “Nardis” as played by the one and only, Bill Evans. After this opening statement, the magic of live ensemble looping kicks in. The ensemble bounces heavily in the pocket and with some incredible rhythmic accuracy. As the track wears on, the beautiful orchestration of the arrangement takes the foreground.
The lo-fi feeling that is so present throughout the entirety of the original project is lost with Abstract Orchestra’s interpretation. This is certainly not a negative. More than anything it is a reminder of the importance the technology Madlib used was to his signature sound. The power and precision that the musicians in this group play with deserves to be heard through the high quality and clarity of this mix.
As someone who is a sucker for quality big band arrangements, this album was an immediate purchase and addition to my collection. The somewhat sinister quality of the Madvillainy is kept, but with a new twinge of brightness and forward energy. Just as Dilla and Madlib humanized the technology behind their legendary sound, Abstract Orchestra is taking it another step further. Perhaps this step moves the music outside the immediate realm of hip-hop, but the swagger of their original source material is never out of site.
I feel like I’ve heard Makaya McCraven’s name at least once a week for this entire calendar year, and rightfully so. It has been a busy year for the Chicago based drummer and producer.
Having gone to school in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts and being somewhat tuned in to the jazz scene there, the name of this extraordinarily original drummer was constantly being brought up. McCraven, while born in France, was raised in the Pioneer Valley where he was quickly noticed and mentored by some of the geniuses that reside in and around the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The community included the likes of Marion Brown, Archie Shepp, and Yusef Lateef.
It feels like a common story these days for jazz musicians and students of his generation and younger to have a love for jazz along with an obsession for hip hop and great MCs and producers. McCraven was no different. Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Nas, and Biggie were frequently in McCraven’s ears as he was growing up. Perhaps it is a common listening pallet for those of his generation, but there are few that have been able to harness the characteristics of this genre crossover with such mastery as McCraven has done time and time again.
Where We Come From grew from a residency in London during October of 2017 and is a true testament to his musical roots. McCraven was joined on stage at London’s Total Refreshment Centre by Theon Cross (tuba), Joe Armon-Jones (keys), Nubya Garcia (saxophone), Kamaal Williams (keys) and Soweto Kinch (saxophone and voice). Two days of live shows were recorded and brought to be mixed and mastered for another two days in London. On the fifth and final day was “Fresh Roasted.” This event brought together some of London’s most prolific producers for a live beat-making and remixing showcase. The stems from the earlier performances were chopped up on stage and put on the album contributing to its certain mixtape feel.
The recordings were originally meant to be bonus material for McCraven’s second 2018 release, Universal Beings. Listening through to the result of this 5-day musical escapade, however, it becomes apparent how cutting any of the material from these London sessions would be nearly impossible.
McCraven is known for his jam session style of performing–he and the other musicians improvise the entire show resulting in mostly loop based material. It is a format that places the musicians at a heightened level of awareness that can be felt in any of his projects, and especially this one. The spirit of the live performance is preserved in this record. The energy level is almost overflowing from the first note and the audience voices their admiration for the group.
It is an extremely innovative record, sure, but with the musical background McCraven comes from it feels like this project has been living inside him for years. Where We Come From is a brilliant displayed of everything that is crucial to the musical identity of Makaya McCraven.
It spans only three medium-length tracks, but packs an emotional knockout punch.
Stuart Howard, known as Lapalux to most, was signed to electronic music juggernaut Flying Lotus’ label, Brainfeeder, in 2010 after a simple cold email to the producer and founder. Since then, a steady stream of EPs and remixes have been released with widespread praise for the precision and attention to detail Lapalux brings to the table.
The concept for this limited edition cassette revolves around loops. Lapalux likens the process of making a record to the cycle of life. He states making a record is “a never ending cycle and a slowly developing loop, much akin to the feeling of what it is to be alive, to die, and the afterlife.” The movements of this project fit this form: ABOVE represents life, BETWEEN represents death, and BELOW represents the afterlife.
A 4-track tape record is the instrument of choice. Lapalux has established a voice that is a masterful blend of analog and digital traditions. The whole project was recorded live and in one take with Lapalux manning the fader controls of the tape recorder. The tape contained loops of short music ideas he had recorded and then played back at varying speeds. The result is an intensely rich and introspective collection of ambient tracks.
“ABOVE” evolve the most of the three tracks–where we begin is far darker than where we end. In many ways this makes sense to me as from Lapalux’s perspective, or for anyone reading this post’s perspective for that matter, life is the the process where progression can be traced. We have no sense of “reality” for the other processes portrayed in this project.
The opening track begins with a single sound mimicking a tolling bell. It is gritty, dissonant, and dark, painting a grim picture of life from the early moments of the track. Slowly a repeating three-note figure fades in and the bell melts into the background become engulfed by the wet reverb of this repeating figure. I hear something a little different every time I listen–sometimes this figure is being sung by a choir, sometimes it feels like like a guitar, sometimes all I can hear is the static that sits in the background and the crackling tape noises. This is the core of beauty in minimal music for me– it’s a simple pattern and takes so many forms and the shift between these forms is triggered by such the smallest and, what feels like, most insignificant events. By the time “ABOVE” fades out, the opening bells have given way to a bright landscape of many open intervals and major sonorities.
In the final thirty-seconds, however, the faint sound of the bells grows once more leading into “BETWEEN” or the representation of death. This bell becomes analogous to a heartbeat as it opens with force and strength, but struggles to remain heard and beating at the end of its life.
“BETWEEN,” as one might predict, is rather dark. The sound of waves that have been pitched down create a sinister opening and are joined by a dark bass drone. A similar ambiguous choir-like instrument sets a new pattern of four notes that continue through the track. In perhaps an effort to simulate a rising towards heaven, sounds are added from the bottom up. The last layer to be populated is a shrill series of squeaks that grow in number and intensity during the last couple minutes of the track. As the track fades out the sound of waves remain. Somehow they have also risen now being played at a truer pitch painting a calm and peaceful scene to end this representation of death.
In my eyes, “BELOW” perfectly captures the uncertainty of the afterlife. The duration of this third and final track transforms these two locations into sonic modes, keeping one foot in each in a careful balancing act. It is a meditative uncertainty that seamlessly transitions between a muddied darkness and a warming glow. A loop of two synth chord stabs fades in with a trail of reverb following each attack. The initial attack is highlighted by a deep harmony, but what resonates are shimmering harmonics–immediately heaven and hell are presented as separate but linked modes competing for our attention.
As of late I have been fascinated by records that treat the mix or sound design as an instrument on a record. The quality of sound, mic placement, recording medium–the attention to these aspects of recorded and electronic music can sometimes make or break the musical content. Lapalux has taken an old and forgotten (to most) recording device building an album whose identity is directly connected to this piece of equipment. A profound and meaningful concept is combined with genius production yielding a powerful, while brief, spiritual window.
Son Lux has left me speechless time and time again. The Son Lux project consists of Rafiq Bhatia, Ian Chang, and Ryan Lott. Lott, a composer from Los Angeles, started the group and with the help of Bhatia (guitar) and Chang (drums), the group has forged a captivating sound blending electronica and rock beautifully.
In February of 2018, the group released their sixth full-length album, Brighter Wounds. A masterpiece in itself, the group treated this project as they have their other releases. This structure includes an intricate series of remixes and reworked versions of track and small motifs from their full-length releases.
The band writes, “Brighter Wounds is at the center of a body of work, where songs often appear in different iterations. This has been a trademark of the Son Lux project from the start to investigate songs from each album from multiple angles and present the results.” Yesterday’s Wake is the continuation of this investigation.
The EP consists of two reworks (All Directions II and All Directions III) as well as two brand new songs that are ripe with “DNA” from the album.
All Directions II builds slowly as a meditation on a single string melody. The texture grows and brightens as the short opening track evolves. It is an orchestral opening that borrows from the bands earlier work such as “No Crimes.”
“Delivery” is the first new full song on the EP and it is mesmerizing. A beautiful mix of electronic and acoustic instruments blends together creating a hypnotizing descending line. Tonally and metrically it is hard to place the tune from the beginning. Instead, Lott’s vocals lead us to a heavy drop of frantic and punchy drums laced with driving bass lines and synths. The dry and crisp mix on Lott’s vocals stands in the foreground of this maximalist texture.
“All Directions III” takes the same string melody from the opening of the EP and recontextualizes it. Slightly faster with a noticeably more jagged accompaniment, this rework feels like and interlude leading into the centerpiece and title track of the EP.
The fourth and final track “Yesterday’s Wake” is dripping with gospel influence. An organ is the main character from the beginning remaining steady with the chord progression and a flurry of distant drums and strings play in the periphery. Lott sings with a much more somber and reserved delivery–his words quiver with emotion as the final verse comes to a close.
Needless to say, if you are unfamiliar with Son Lux’s earlier work, start from the beginning. What makes this group so special to me is the way you can trace the progress and evolution of their sound through their structure of remixes and reworks. While it stands alone as a brilliant EP, its full brilliance is reviled when you are able to recognize the musical ideas that return from projects past to create this grand work of art.
I think many people can vividly remember where they were during election night of 2016. No matter who you supported in the election, the outcome was a shock and if anyone tells you otherwise, they are lying. That feeling of shock heightens your senses and movements, conversations, sights, smells, pretty much everything presents itself with greater clarity and greater impact.
The day after the election, Gabriel Kahane boarded a trail in Penn Station in New York City. The Brooklyn musician has had a quiet but steady rise crafting a sound that falls somewhere in between classical art songs and pop music and has been often appeared in musical theater productions. The impressive list of collaborators listed on his website includes Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird, Blake Mills, Chris Thile, Punch Brothers, and Paul Simon. On November 10th, 2016, however, it was just Kahane boarding the Lake Shore Limited Amtrack line having left his phone and connection to the outside world at home and was ready to listen.
For the next 13 days, Kahane, traveled west across the country talking to his fellow travelers on the train. He would strike up conversations in the dining car and record these conversations from memory in a diary. By the end of his journey, he had collected 70,000 words of memories and conversations that turned into Book of Travelers.
Kahane’s tenor vocals wind up and down his range often soaring into falsetto. His piano language is, for me, the most intriguing part of the album. He is able to find a perfect balance of space, form, and instability. “November” opens the album and introduces the voice and piano as two forces often working in harmony, but a clear division and tension shines through in select and strategic moments perhaps mirroring the divisions so apparent in the country during the time of this journey. In the manner of a hymn, piano and voice move together in harmony in the early moments of this track. As early memories of this journey are sung by Kahane, unstable and dissonant colors are added to the hymn.
Kahane’s reflections range from the tragic story of a man paralyzed with fear of returning home in “Baltimore” to the bittersweet “Little Love,” where contemplations as to what is to come with the process of aging are old over a quietly swinging piano accompaniment. The album plays out as a collage of memories with Kahane drifting in and out of a conversational tone–the melodies can sometimes feel interrupted such as an incomplete memory.
A truly striking moment of Book of Travelers comes in “What If I Told You.” Unlike many of the other tracks on the album that shift between conversation and reflection, the song plays out almost as a verbatim conversation. Kahane is talking to a black woman named Monica. Her family is an upper class family that has ancestral ties to southern slavery. She is taking the train south to Mississippi to a funeral despite her sons’ fear of racial violence towards her in that region of the country.
It becomes clear to Kahane during his hours of conversation in the dining car that much of the division present in the country is manufactured online and by a class of media that benefits from the dramatic void being created by this separation. We are being taught to fear real connection and real conversation. Book of Travelers is a beautiful attempt at combating this trend as a raw and emotional portrait of the United States during a time of profound unrest.
I look out my window and I know I have seen this day before: 45-degress, overwhelmingly grey, driving rain…I guess that is what happens when the list of places I have called home includes Michigan, New England, and the UK. Some Time entered my life on one of these gloomy days in March of 2018. Snow was falling but not sticking while I watched construction trucks slog back and forth out of my window at Amherst. The campus felt quiet despite this industrial noise and that left room for this album complete the painting that was this dreary day.
It opens with a sorrowful cry from the saxophone (Hayden Chisholm). In “Fata Morgana,” we are immediately thrown into an environment of melancholic beauty that does not cease until the record has completed. It is a sonic world where climatic tension and build is not common. Rather, the quiet meditation with each song exploration of this delicate sound unfolding naturally and peacefully.
Each track ebbs and flows with a comforting warmth and a frigid bite. “ ‘t Wout” opens with solo piano which trembles with a pensive energy before harmonized saxophones enter and driving pulse ensues.
There is an obvious and meticulous attention to detail with this album. Gooris, who is a rising star in the Belgian jazz scene, has channeled all of his energy into ensuring all aspects Some Time reflect the dream atmosphere created with the compositions. The pacing of the album’s track list, the aesthetic of the mix, and the impressionistic album artwork all convey homogenous bittersweet and hazy tone.
A tour de force on the album is “Rêver.” The opening saxophone solo leads into a response from the piano free in time before a simple bass line sets the tempo. The eight-minute track cycles through everything from improvised solos to almost chamber music-like lines and counterpoint between the saxophones. There is the sense of a slowly building momentum with the drum groove gradually intensifying in the latter half of the song. The increase in activity is slowed to a stop with the next track, “Earthings,” a lucid and plodding display of dark saxophone tones.
My favorite moment of Some Time comes with the “Close” and “Open.” The opening saxophone duet sets forth a process of recontexualization among motifs and drum patterns. A piano motif at the end of “Close,” closely related to the opening saxophone duet, is heard in a syncopated and almost free rhythm in relation to the sixteenth note based drum groove. The piano continues through the division of the two songs. The drums reenter clearly outlining the beat with a hip-hop infused groove that is joined, once again, by a saxophone duet. While mirroring each other in instrumentation and density, “Close” and “Open” provide an inventive repurposing of musical material that so strongly adds to the character of the project.
I wish I could find more information on this brilliant trio and the composer, Wout Gooris. The internet presences of the young pianist is stark, but his other releases follow a similar compositional style. It is early in this young musician’s career and I’ll be following his moves closely from now on.
Between 2016 and 2018 I was on the road a lot. Between school on the East Coast and summer employment on the West Coast, I logged a lot of miles in the Honda Civic and grew to love the cross country road trip as a form of travel. Among the many hours that the stereo was on, two albums were consistently played for the early morning shift of driving: the olllam’s the olllam (featured in On Queue July) and The Party, a quasi-concept album from a small-town Saskatchewan named Andy Shauf.
Shauf was raised in a musical family that owned an electronics and music store which allowed him to hone his musicianship on many instruments from an early age. He often played Christian music at his church, but this was not the environment Shauf wished to be making music in. As he moved through high school, he played with a number of pop-punk bands before moving to the capital of Saskachewan to record his first record and tour through the small DIY venues across Western Canada.
After a couple bedroom-produced albums and EPs, The Party is a strong and realized work with a thematically intriguing and cohesive narrative arc. The album seemingly revolves around one night where 10 songs guide us through the events a particular party. All aspects and personalities typical to your average awkward house party are explored through the understated and delicate vocals and mellow instrumental arrangements played entirely (with exception of the strings) by Shauf.
The album opens with “The Magician.” The protagonist is already unsure, unsettled, and unaware of what is to come of the rest of the evening. Hiding his true self from everyone is his preferred state of being. We arrive at the party in “Early To The Party,” and face everyone’s nightmare of arriving before anyone else, feeling like a burden to the host, and finding anything to do to pass the time. The noticeably more mumbled tone of Shauf’s vocals gives the character a decidedly anxious guise.
The feeling of being out of place is intensified during “Twist Your Ankle.” We’ve moved into a reflective mindset during the morning after the party. Drunk and stumbling around, our protagonist pursues a love interest who wants nothing to do with the character. Embarrassed and dejected, regret fills his head.
Perhaps the most impressive track, “Quiet Like You” outlines the conversation between our main character and his best friend’s girlfriend who has recently broken up with his friend. In his gleefully drunken state, our protagonist makes attempts to win her over in a flirtatious conversation that throws his best friend under the bus. All of this to see her fall back into the arms of his friend at the end of the song.
The merry bounce of “Quiet Like You” is balanced out with the weight of tunes like “To You” in which the protagonist invites his friend outside to leave the party in order for him to confess his true feelings that straddle a romantic line. The song opens with the protagonist talking to his friend named “Jeremy.” The gender of the friend is never explicitly reveled, but clues hint at this romantic interest being towards a male friend named Jeremy. “Yeah / Tell the guys and laugh it up / Why am I even surprised?” says our narrator after being rejected.
There are few albums I have obsessed over more than this one. Each listen through I find new elements that I fall in love with. You can listen to the story, the beautifully crafted instrumentals, or how these two interplay to create the scene of the party. The narrative is hypnotizing in its simplicity. Everyone has faced the characters in this album during their lifetime and have felt the butterflies of anxiety that come with the simple but powerful experiences described. The music portrays this simplicity with stripped down lyrics, melodies, and arrangements that thrust a feeling of insecurity to the foreground. I find myself revisiting this album and the story of this party often, just as I revisit my own memories sporting a similar cast of characters.
On Queue October pT. 2: Alexandre Desplat, Bernard Herrmann, Ryuichi Sakamoto/Alva Moto/Bryce Dessner
Full disclosure, I was rooting for Phantom Thread for best score at this year’s Oscars. I can’t say I was surprised Alexandre Desplat walked away with the award and now, closing in on a year removed from the release of The Shape Of Water, this score has really grown on me.
I came to realize my original gripe with the academy’s decision came while considering the pure music–I had strong feelings and would still argue Jonny Greenwood’s music from Phantom Thread, when separated from the image, held my attention and interest in a more captivating and enthralling manner. When I gave the Desplat’s score the attention it deserved (i.e. considering it in association with the beautiful visuals of Guillermo del Toro’s film) I realized how much attention was put on the color and timbre of the score resulting in a perfect sonic interpretation of the dark, enchanting, and unnerving world where the story unfolds.
Desplat is a giant in the film scoring world. The French-Greek composer has collected two Academy awards and seven nominations for his work. He frequently provides the soundtracks for the brilliantly quirky films of Wes Anderson. Desplat’s filmography for both English and French films is extensive, but I have a hard time finding another one of his scores that accompanies a film with such convincing and accurate representations of the film’s characters.
The film begins with the title theme, “The Shape of Water,” it is a bubbling and mystifying cue filled with a feeling of “fairy tail turned dark.” The steady harp motif that rises and falls behind the melody throughout paints a picture of bubbles or maybe of the hypnotizing motion of waves rising and falling.
The flute, piano, accordion, harp, and other instruments in the upper registers lift the score to tell the love story above the looming evil, heard in the strings, that seeks to tear Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and the amphibian creature (Doug Jones) apart. Low strings in “The Creature” feel as though they elude to the infamous theme from Jaws as flute stays near its lower range.
We are introduced to Elisa’s leitmotif in “Elisa’s Theme,” a playful theme that warms the listener. The plucky flute lines in this theme can be heard later in the score during “Overflow Of Love.” Elisa’s leitmotif returns slightly altered and seems to stop and start almost as if lost for words or for breath.
This feeling of desire continues in “Underwater Kiss,” in which Elisa’s theme and the opening title theme are passed back and forth giving the listener an idea of this conflicted love story.
The brilliance of this score lies in the subtle changes in timbre and phrasing that shift the audience between the excitement of love and an overwhelming sensation of fear in the blink of an eye. With the love story between human and creature, not much is said, but it is clear what is felt. For Desplat, what he says (the melodies) may appear simple, but how he speaks in this score makes all the difference.
Vertigo has quickly vaulted to the top of almost all film junkies’ rankings of Alfred Hitchcock films, although at its release it wasn’t necessarily a box office hit. Many attributed this to the tragic nature of the ending while Hitchcock was quick to blame his aging lead, James Stewart, who he felt may have not been a convincing love interest for 25-year-old, Kim Novak.
Hollywood gossip aside, it is safe to say Bernard Herrmann’s score, the fourth collaboration between these two masters of their craft, is a major contributor to this film’s infamous milieu. One must look no further than the legendary opening title sequence to hear this. Saul Bass created a spiraling animation that is accompanied by music that, quite literally, has vertigo. A repeated pattern of major thirds seems to spiral into a never ending abyss.
The plot has been compared to that of Proust’s “Tristan und Isolde,” which was famously made into an opera by Richard Wagner and premiered in 1865. This is widely considered as the pivotal moment in music history where classical music was no longer reliant on a tonal center or common practice harmony–it is the foundation of 20th century music. These sentiments, and even quotes from Wagner’s opera, fill the score adding to the eerie glow of the story and setting. Whereas tonality relies on the use of half steps and a mixture of minor and major intervals, Herrmann’s opening gesture with equally spaced major thirds immediately disorients the listener in an unsettling vortex that cannot be shaken, not even during moments of great desire and passion.
Herrmann cleverly uses leitmotifs associated with love and obsession throughout the film. These themes and motifs grow, transform, and mature as the plot unfolds. It takes a psychological toll on the listener as the score seems to point the audience towards a certain conclusion while having to sit hopelessly as the plot unfolds.
The most famous moment of the score, besides the opening sequence, is “Scene D’Amour.” The climax erupts as Stewart and Novak embrace for a kiss. We hear the love theme as it cycles through emotions of joy, romance, haunting fear, and back again. Herrmann so brilliantly, through his uses of motifs and orchestra, is able to communicate this love will not last for ever.
My favorite quote from Herrmann reads, “to orchestrate is like a thumbprint.” The importance of color in his music and to his ear is what made him one of the greatest film composers of all time. his style was well suited for the eerie thrillers that Hitchcock became so well known for and Vertigo was certainly the the pinnacle of this collaboration. Herrmann’s contribution to this film deepens the picture so beautifully that the music has, as Alex Ross puts it, “found a life outside the film.”
Before getting into the score, if you have the opportunity to see “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda” I cannot recommend it enough. It is an incredibly well thought out biographical documentary about Ryuichi Sakamoto. Rather than just starting from the beginning and move forward with the story of his life, we see him in the present day as he works on a new album and fights a caner diagnosis while working on the score for The Revenant. Through this struggle, we hear about moments in his life and his story is told.
But back to the matter at hand, The Revenant. For those that have seen the film, the images and landscapes we see are breathtaking. The vastness and power of nature is put on full display. The three composers masterfully create a soundscape that is representative of the immeasurable landscape, which at times can be hauntingly silent, and the slow and painful death that Leonardo DiCaprio inches towards.
Much of the power in this score lies in the mix. The opening theme is a simple two chord motif that sits in the air with wind noise underneath it. This two chord motif appears throughout the score. It feels a slow and painful heart beat–each instance takes increasingly more effort. After three or four cues of mainly ambient drones or reverb soaked chords, “Killing Hawk” introduces the gritty and percussive sound of col legno strings when stringed instruments are hit with the wood of the bow rather than the hair. It is an unnerving attrition to the soundscape.
“Goodbye To Hawk” melds together strings and synthesizers playing slowly swooping melodies in front of synth basses that pulse in the manner of a funeral march. The use of synthesizers is a surprising choice in a film that is so deeply rooted in nature. There is an uncanny balance between these instruments and devises that enhances the sense of a churning expanse rather than a confusing muddle of voices.
One of Bryce Dessner’s contributions to the soundtrack is perhaps the most emotional cue of the whole film. “Imagining Buffalo” does not waver from the minimalistic theme of the soundtrack, but the additive process and layering of strings creates a rising chorus of beautiful dissonance. Low and high strings call and respond to one another while a middle range drown stabilizes the chord. Like many of the cues on this soundtrack, I am left in astonishment of the emotional power of a single, drawn out chord.
The color palate of the soundtrack is as cold as the wind that sweeps through Alejandro D. Iñárritu’s western. It becomes hard to make a distinction between beauty and terror as you sit within the slowly evolving textures. In many ways this mirrors our experience with nature–the beauty of the natural world can become a source of unrelenting terror and pain without warning.
Better late than never? Isn’t that what they say? Sometimes life gets in the way of those self-imposed deadlines that you set for your small blog. Get ready for that one-two punch of posts this week and then boom, right back on schedule.
Music For Touching entered my life through one of those “if you bought this, then try” emails. It came in hot and unapologetic. The preview track, “Crybaby (A),” is an in-your-face pop number whose bass line immediately hypnotizes you. Add in catchy melodies and the bombastic baritone saxophone sounds of previous On Queue cameo mention, Colin Stetson, and you have a perfect representation of this avant-garde pop hit.
When the Brooklyn-based indie group, Mobius Band, broke up in 2010 after two releases on Ghostly International, the three members all began pursuing new projects. Peter Sax began recording as Ladies and Gentlemen, Noam Schatz became LOLFM, and Ben Sterling created Cookies. This new period of uncompromised creative output resulted in Music For Touching, a brilliant display of comforting and familiar pop melodies dressed in an experimental edge giving a new sense of humor, grit, and unexpected splendor to the popular music canon.
The album–best played front to back and uninterrupted due to the creative and seamless transitions heard throughout–draws from a range of disco, hip hop, classical pop, and electronic timbres that blend with the voices of Melissa Metrick, Areni Agbabian, Ashley Giorgi, and Ben Sterling.
In my opinion, the true anthems on this record are “Go Back,” “Crybaby (A),” and “Kathrine.” Cookies cleverly spaces these more upbeat and slightly less experimental moments relatively evenly throughout the 10-track work. They become almost aiming points that are found through a weaving path of art songs and interludes. The opening track, “1000 Breakfasts With You,” is rich in trap influence and juxtaposes the serene vocals with distorted guitars and synths in a minimalistic style before leading into “Go Back.”
“Spill Of Sugar” and “Music For Touching” align closely with the idea of ballads. They both act as palate cleaners placed in between maximalist and experimental soundscapes like “Introduction” and “Human Problems.” I am most impressed by the pacing of this project. When it comes to experimental music, I find that my attention can be lost in moments of oversaturation. The experimental edge makes a positive impression on me in this release due to the moments the listener is given to recover or recharge. An intensely catchy pop melody and structure gives way to a gritty experimental take on pop. Rinse and repeat.
This is the only release from Cookies thus far. The band has gone silent since the media buzz that formed around this album in late-2014. There is no shortage of sonic and formal creativity keeping this album playing on my queue frequently. I’m keeping my fingers tightly crossed for a Sophomore project from Cookies.
I love this next story. Shout out to Harry Shapiro for hipping me to this gem of a record.
The setting is a town of 600 in Alaska steeped in Tlingit tradition. In Kake, Alaska, which sits on an island in the Southeast part of the state, Archie James Cavanaugh was born and raised. The small town was brimming in musical talent and housed a forty-piece jazz orchestra. Smaller groups of varying genres came from this group and is where Cavanaugh credits his early musical exposure and interest.
Cavanaugh’s musical promise grew through his years in school. He took guitar lessons from local legends and never lost sight of his dream to record and album. Soon, Cavanaugh decided to assemble a professional band and travel to a recording studio in Portland, OR in order to make this dream a reality. The result was an incredibly elegant and well received debut album whose best tracks rival those of any major label release of the time. In fact, many mistook the “A&M” printed on the album to be the major label when it actually stands for “Archie and Melinda,” a nod to his wife who co-wrote the album.
Cavanaugh is deeply religious and in touch with the traditions of his Tlingit community. This can most prominently be seen in the album artwork: an image of a raven that represents Tlingit mythology in which a raven opens Pandora’s Box. Sickness and disease spread into the world and turning it from white to black. For such a dark story, the album has no lack of joy and pulse within the sound. “Light Unto The World” is a soulful gospel number that rings with a religious enthusiasm heard in Cavanaugh’s voice and the deep and lively connection within the band.
The album opens with the most well known and strongest track, “Take It Easy.” An acrobatic and catchy bass line is soon joined by guitar chords and glide with an exceptional ease within the groove. The title and theme of the song match perfectly with the vocal style Cavanaugh brings to the entire album. He is laid back and sings with a confidence that and be felt reverberating through the entire band.
The impressive musicianship on every track lifts up even some of the, perhaps, less captivating moments of the album. “High Rise” features the distinctive and funky organ and horn writing in the album, but the other true highlight of the album comes with “Make Me Believe.” The band plays a tight groove during the hook of this love song that made waves all the way in Japan where it was released as a limited edition single.
It is through word of mouth occurrences, like Harry’s suggestion to me, that this private press release has given Cavanaugh a couple of hits and a little bit of stardom. It has been a slow rise for this masterpiece, but it seems to be starting to get some of the recognition that it deserves. The 26-year gap between his first and second release is a good indicator of the pacing associated with the career of this talented performer. While it might not be immediately apparent from the Native American artwork and title, Black and White Raven is a window into ‘70s soul music rich in vibrancy and funk.
If you are ever given the opportunity to see a Peanut Butter Wolf live DJ set, don’t hesitate and immediately get tickets. There are few people who have the ability to turn DJing, often viewed as a passive action with little skill other than buttons needed, into an eclectic display of music history and musicality. Once I saw Peanut Butter Wolf live, I went home and drove into any recorded set I could possibly find. I stumbled across one done for Bandcamp Weekly earlier this year. The set featured many new and old gems signed to Stones Throw Records including a single from a then upcoming release by Jerry Paper. October 12th was a long awaited release day for me and Like a Baby did not disappoint.
Born Lucas Nathan, Jerry Paper is based in LA and draws on his experience moving from New York city to the West Coast while exploring themes of “the endless human cycle of desire and satisfaction.” The laid back and low volume album bristling with wavy synthesizers and reverb soaked vocals is co-produced by Matty Tavares, a member of BADBADNOTGOOD. Those familiar with the jazz fusion and free improvisational style of this band and Tavares voice on keys and synths will feel right at home.
There is an undeniable dreamy timbre through the entire album. It is a pleasant blend of psychedelic rock meeting wistful synth textures of electronic music. For lovers of lo-fi, there is more than enough to enjoy. The album begins as though it is powering on. “Your Cocoon” (the single featured in Peanut Butter Wolf’s set) climbs up to speed into a wash of funky drums and plucky guitar accompaniments.
“A Moment” has an undeniable bossa nova flavor to it made clear through the driving brushes on drums and the silky background vocals. “My God,” another single from the project, is a melancholy meditation on the true importance of financial worth. Many of the narratives sung through the album are sometimes hard to decipher due to the unique and thick processing done to Jerry Paper’s deep vocals. This does nothing to take away from the album and adds a mystique that compliments the sound.
I feel like there is a definite embrace of what may be seen as “cheesy.” It is a quirky sound, but it is so refined and self-aware that it sets itself apart in its own category. The album is as pleasing to listen to as it is filled with deep commentary on the reality of our surroundings allowing the listener to sit back and relax or interact in a more thought provoking manner. It is a soft-rock masterpiece that has been well worth the wait.
Shout-out to Mimi Harding for putting me on to this one. Go check out her music, art, and writing!
Courtney Bryan is a pianist and composer whose music can be heard in a wide variety of contexts. From solo pieces to large orchestral works and everything in between, she is a prolific composer and performer in both the new music and jazz styles. Bryan made her way from Oberlin Conservatory to Rutgers University before pursuing her DMA at Columbia University with experimental music legend, George Lewis, as her advisor. This Little Light of Mine stays true to the eclectic musical background of this New Orleans native.
The album is an exploration of some of the most famous African-American spirituals through the process of re-composition and improvisation. While thoroughly rooted in the jazz idiom, Bryan adds other experimental elements to the tracks. Throughout the entire album, the often untouched spaces between jazz, classical, gospel, experimental music are explored.
We are welcomed to this album by Bryan’s bouncy and virtuosic performance on “Steal Away” before being introduced to the rest of her band, made up of New Orleans musicians, on “Oh Freedom.” With danceable tempos and improvisation, these opening tracks lay the foundation of jazz that is built upon of the rest of the album.
The title track, full of gospel style, is given a little extra swing and a hint of second line influence creating a modern take on one of the most well known spirituals of all time. The final track, “Eternal Rest,” ends the album as we began, with solo piano. To my ear, Bryan’s background in classical music is heard in this performance. It feels as though the harmonic language of Robert Glasper met the impressionistic style of Debussy. It is a gorgeous way to end the tour de force which is this album.
Bryan’s experimental voice shines through in “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” and “Balm In Gilead.” The former is one of the most haunting moments of the album. “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” begins with silences before a whispering voice speaks the title of the song sending a chill down one’s spine. A disorienting chorus of whispers slowly builds with different utterances of the phrase are panned left and right covering the listener’s ears in an opaque blanket of sound. The melody of this spiritual finally enters with a female singer accompanied by the whispering, gasps, and wails. It is an unforgettable moment of the album.
Like myself, you might be familiar with “Balm In Gilead” through versions sung by the legendary voices of Mahalia Jackson or Paul Robeson. Bryan strays from the familiar beauty of these versions for a reharmonized version with a looming darkness embedded into it. Beginning with a dissonant accompaniment to a familiar melody, the track melts into piano chaos played in the extreme ranges of the piano. It is unmetered chaos that seems to find a way to tug at the same heartstrings that Mahalia Jackson and Paul Robeson so often tugged.
No matter the track or what tradition it is rooted in, I can’t help but feel a sense of something heavy and overbearing weighing me down as I listen. From the livelier and rhythmically complex pieces such as “Oh Freedom” and “No Hiding Place” to the mellow sounds of “Give Me Jesus” or “Go Down Moses,” Bryan conveys a heavy sense of melancholy through harmony, timbre, and her unique re-compositional techniques.
Brimming with themes of justice, rebellion, redemption, and hope, This Little Light of Mine is a genre-bending exploration of some of the most foundational elements of American history and American culture.
My favorite Ann Arbor hang as of late has been Wazoo records. I was up there a couple weeks ago and stumble across an album with an eye-catching watercolor cover. A single flower in the horizon of the landscape stood there with eloquent cursive writing dawning “Gladys Knight & The Pips” across the top.
Gladys Knight, for much of my life, has been one of those names that you know and recognize, but it doesn’t carry weight or much meaning. Other than stumbling across the group’s work through samples, I knew little about the history and importance of the group other than their being signed to Motown Records. At four dollars for the record it was time for me to change that.
I Feel A Song falls right in the heart of this Atlanta-born family act’s active years. The band had just recently moved from Motown Records to Buddah Records leaving after nearly a decade of steady growth and success. This turned out to be a very smart move, both creatively and commercially for the band. This third release on Buddah Records garnered two major hits, “I Feel A Song (In My Heart)” and “The Way We Were,” which charted extremely high both in the US and the UK.
It is the versatility of Knight’s voice that makes this album, and all of her performances for that matter, so captivating. As heard on this 1974 release, she can effortlessly transition between gritty soul and elegant ballads with ease. This goes for both her vocal timbre as well as her sense of rhythm which is second to none.
For soulful numbers like “Better You Go Your Way” and “Don’t Burn Down the Bridge,” her voice transitions between a melodic instrument and a member of the rhythm section. Each syllable is carefully placed and emphasized in a manner that fits into the tight pocket laid down by the band.
When the band shifts gears to tracks like “The Way We Were” and “The Need To Be” and to more of a ballad tempo, the band remains firmly locked in a tight groove, but Knight’s role suddenly changes. Her sense of rhythm is still glaringly brilliant, but it is used to stretch and bend time created by the band and the classic Motown string arrangements. Drama and beauty in these slower numbers are found in the tension and release created by the conflicting sense of time combined with sumptuous harmonies rather than precise grooves in the up-tempo moments of the album.
It might have been the album art that first pulled me into the world of Gladys Knight & The Pips, but I’m now thoroughly hooked on the sound. I will certainly be back at Wazoo soon to dig for more from this icon group.
I remember being in Hill Auditorium in 2014. I was there to see Chance The Rapper, who was then starting to make serious waves in the scene. We arrived as a quiet act went on stage to open. It was an artist who called herself “Noname Gypsy” and who had been featured on Chance’s mixtapes. It wasn’t until Chance retweeted her album in 2016 that I would be reintroduced to her genius. There seems to be a pattern forming where two year gaps separate my encounters with Noname. With each encounter the separation gets harder to bare.
Room 25 is Noname’s sophomore project and a much anticipated one at that. Her first mixtape, Telefone, strongly established her as one of the most promising young voices in hip hop. Since its release, Noname has spent an extensive amount of time touring around the world performing with a live band. The spirit of a live band is very present in this latest release and gives it a sense of life that sets it apart in the world of hip hop.
The album opens with “Self” as an introductory statement. A boom bap groove and tasty harmonies that continue through the entire album are underneath the lyrical prowess of Noname. This short introduction sets the tone of the album as she states, “y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh? Maybe this your answer for that.” It is this soft-spoken power that is heard as Noname explores a period of her life through music.
Noname’s move to L.A. positions itself as on of the focal points of the album and within the broader context exploring a sense of self throughout the project. On “Prayer Song” we hear, “L.A. be bright but still a dark city.” This track also seems to be the most politically charged of the album. Noname effortlessly relates sex to the current state of the United States.
There is an unbreakable sense of community in this release. The community of collaborators such as Smino, Saba, and Phoelix are just a few of the talents that are brought on to help add additional voices to the album. To me, this Chicago strand of neo-soul and hip hop is the strongest, in both talent and collaborative energy, in the scene right now. Everyone is looking out for each other, promoting each other, and providing the support necessary for the growing success of this community.
There is no questioning Noname’s talent. This latest project is an intimate and thought-provoking window into her life communicated through a heavenly sonic landscape.
The first September post of On Queue is coming to you from the Pacific Northwest. As a Mid-Westerner, it’s hard not to get hypnotized by the mountains, the pines, and the long stretches of water surrounding Seattle. With the fires blazing around the area, there is a slight haziness hanging in the air adding another level of numinous scenery to the picture. It’s drawn my ear to the expansive sounds of some of the recent ambient releases climbing the charts.
Naturally, if we are talking about ambient music I’m sure everyone’s minds go straight to algorithms and software development, right? Ehhh probably not. For Icelandic composer and producer, Ólafur Arnalds, it is the cornerstone of his fourth studio release, re:member.
The album is the product of combining the distinct post-minimalist voice of Arnalds with the Stratus software develop over the course of two years in collaboration with audio programmer, Halldór Eldjárn. The program is used to to trigger a series of robots that connect the voices of three pianos. As Arnalds plays one piano, it triggers two other pianos to respond adding flourishes, sparkling melodies, and harmonies to accompany Arnalds. He is able to control values such as rhythm and tempo to create rich loops played seemingly by ghosts. All aspects of the album revolve around Stratus–even the album art is created through a generative tool connected to the pianos. As Arnalds puts it, “I spent two years making my pianos go bleep bloop.”
The album opens with the title track that acts almost as the window display of a store front for the rest of the album. Presented to the listener are the elements of the album, distinctly separated throughout the track, but strung together through the flowing sound Arnalds is known for. Solo piano, lush string arrangements, the uncertainty of the Stratus pianos, and driving rhythms inspired by hip hop and break beats are layered together pulling the listener in so each of these elements can be further explored.
The third track on the album, “saman,” strips away the electronics, machines, and accompanying strings to feature the solo piano. A series of repeated chord changes and melodic patterns are heard, but the sense of rhythm is not lost. By the end, the conversation between left and right hand has become syncopated and chords begin to grow. It feels like a reduction of the musical algorithm used for many of the other parts of the album. Tucked within blankets of piano textures heard through the rest of the album, “saman” stands in strikingly beautiful isolation.
Much of the magic of this album, for me, is in the mix. The meticulous control and design of the soundscape in this album creates its unique voice and seamless blend between man and machine. The personality of each piano is highlighted in the mix of the album–each piano is given a life and acts as a character. It is a refreshing feeling in a time where music can be so processed and a hyper-perfected sound is sought after. The mechanical systems of the pianos–the levers and hammers brought to life by robots–are given a voice.
The dominant landscape on the album remains in the vast, cold, and quiet sound that has been so present in this Icelandic composer’s work throughout his career. This latest album, however, introduces new voices and new sounds that contribute warmth and rhythm to this landscape. While perhaps sounding simply, this simplicity allows each note to carry an intense amount of weight. It is an optimistic blue sound that perfectly blends sadness and soothing. Arnalds speaks to the title of this album as the opposite of “dismemberment.” It is a journey with the mission of becoming one’s self again. For Arnalds, this means relying on the sounds of his childhood and the music that most influences him giving re:member its uplifting and organic voice.
Keith Kenniff is a prolific composer and multi-instrumentalist heard under a variety of monikers and styles. His most recent release, Veriditas, is heard under Helios, his signature behind melodious ambient and electronic music production. Released on Ghostly International, it is the first album Helios has released on this label, but his 11th project in total under the Helios name. In addition to the ambient and unrushed Helios releases, Kenniff’s music can also be heard as the post-minimalist classical piano music of Goldmund and as the electronic, industrial, and punk rock–inspired band, Mint Julep, that Kenniff formed with his wife, Hollie. Kenniff’s music has been featured in many ads and films and he maintains a library of music tailored for film and media placement. It is safe to say he is a busy man.
For such a high level of musical activity and output in Kenniff’s life, Veriditas suspends time and calms the mind. The music breaths freely offering subtle sonic suggestions to the listener, but leaving more than enough space for individual interpretation and meditation. Kenniff music, this album especially, is rooted in nature. As he explains in the linear notes, “While I’m not a very spiritual person as it relates to a religious belief, I do feel an overwhelming connection between the aesthetics I find pleasing in my experience of nature and my experience of writing music."
Percussion and guitars are put in the backseat on this album creating the static and calm environment that is heard on every track. There is an exceptional amount of attention to texture and harmony as these are the structures explored throughout the album. There is no indication that traditional song forms or structures are being implemented, but the textures heard throughout the album create a cohesive narrative and are just plain stunning–that is enough to keep me coming back every time.
The single and opening track from the album, “Seeming,” shows Helios’ talent for creating seamless evolution within a texture in order to evoke progress and forward motion. A deep and rich organ sound introduces a slow chord progression. Slowly a higher and slightly harsher sound enters and takes over as the chord progression changes and climaxes halfway through the track before returning to the organ as “Seeming” fades out.
There are no formulas to the endings of the tracks on this album. Seeing that traditional song forms are not used, many of the tracks end with fades or at what might seem like surprising times, but it is the evolution of the textures that dictate when each track must end. The result is an album with fleeting moments and other moments that continue on and feel as though they regenerate indefinitely. “Latest Lost” sparkles in a mysterious cloud for only a moment while “Upward Beside The Gale” features some of the most clear melodies over complex and diverse textures for over four minutes.
When you treat yourself to giving this album a listen, be sure to listen with nice speakers or headphones and allow yourself to make this album your only focus in that moment. Projecting your own interpretation to the music and allowing it to transport you is, in my opinion, the most important part of hearing this album in its entirety. Free from distraction and free from the worries of everyday life, Helios’ music quietly calms the mind and opens a connective path between yourself and nature that was previously unexplored.
This is not an ambient release, but I am confident in saying that I am not veering from the theme of this blog post by including it.
Texture based, expansive, rich, simplistic figures within lush sonorities–these are characteristics that the other two releases in this On Queue post contain and are common characteristics of most ambient releases. You Are Here is a genre-bending release containing these characteristics, but adds an infectious groove. It is equal parts folk, soul, hip hop, gospel, and experimental sound design that blend together to create this stunning album.
Producer, Matthew Thompson (who goes by VISTA) and vocalist, April George hail from the DMV and have found a way to gradually penetrate into an industry in which that beginning step carries with it such uncertainty and mystery. While working day jobs, working without a budget, without a label, and with one manager, the two DC musicians have managed to grow a supportive following. For those who have known the duo, this release confirms how underappreciated these musicians have been since the first of their three releases. For those being introduced to the duo for the first time (like myself), it is one heck of a hello.
The album opens with a short statement, “Little Things.” It places the listener in the meditative state that will take over the 18-minute duration of the album. Atonal pizzicato on a violin in a wide stereo field is the first sound heard–it is like the primordial goo of the album and everything grows from this. The next character introduced to the story is the electric piano–this will serve as one of the main voices in each track outlining the sophisticated harmonic changes. Finally, opulent strings provide accompaniment to April’s captivating voice.
“How To Get By” highlights the inventive production techniques this duo utilizes turning a simple voice note recording into a fully arranged and delicate lullaby. Simple drums and soulful bass solos add to the swirling texture of what could be my favorite number on the album.
“Own2” is upbeat with a head nodding bounce laid on top of the keys and synths that drip with reverb and dimension throughout the project. April’s melodies are simple in their composition, but travel so effortlessly up and down her vocal range creating an intriguing vocal layer.
The album closes just as it opened, with a soft symphony of violin pizzicato. Just as in re:member or Veriditas, there is a sense that a single moment in time is greatly expanded to reveal the fine details and sonic treasures hidden in that moment. Although it is a brief album, these moments of violin pizzicato are the beginning and ending signals alerting the listener to sink into meditation.
Hailing from New Zealand, The Beths are making waves with their freshman album, The Future Hates Me. The band was formed from a close friendship starting with guitarist, Jonathan Pearce and lead vocalist and primary songwriter, Elizabeth Stokes in high school. These two met bassist, Benjamin Sinclair and drummer, Ivan Luketina-Johnston at the University of Auckland. The four were studying jazz and gigged together in many configurations. They eventually found their way to exploring a guitar pop sound that was reminiscent of their youth.
The Future Hates Me follows The Beths’ 2016 debut EP, Warm Blood. For a debut album, impressive is an understatement. Track after track and hook after hook the album is exploding with energy over crunchy guitars and rich vocal harmonies. It has all the makings of a summer album and is begging for group sing-alongs to accompany the playful pop-punk band.
The whole album is full of a dry sense of humor that stems from lead vocalist, Elizabeth Stokes. Most of the hits from this album are on the subject of a hesitancy towards love. She doesn’t want to overthink anything, she just wants to live. This attitude goes for how she writes her lyrics as well. As she told Rolling Stone, her writing process is in the form of stream-of-conscious writing. From these sessions she filters through to find what she feels is the best. There is no second guessing from her or the band. Interestingly enough, her boyfriend of three years and fellow band member, Jonathan Pearce, is the subject of many of her lyrics, but even this does not cause them to press her on her lyrical choices.
What does shine through, however, is a musical chemistry that is born from the band’s close friendship. Aggressive drum fills are able to blend with clean vocal harmonies which are enhanced with distorted guitars. This combination of sounds doesn’t necessarily want to mix well, but the band has studied and played together for so long that there is no room for anything to clash.
My favorite moment from the record and what one Rolling Stone reporter called “the song of the summer” is “Happy Unhappy.” It is a cheeky number that highlights everything there is to love about The Beths. It opens with a catchy vocal melody which gives way to Stokes’ vocal hooks with driving guitars that help convey the feeling of being unable to get over someone who really isn’t worth your time. It is one of those summer jams where the melody will stick with you for days while you play it on repeat in your car.
Stokes told Rolling Stone, “The Beths is almost reactionary to jazz school and trumpet. It’s a guitar band. We make guitar music. I like it that way.” It is a simple concept that leaves headspace for the organic stories told in the album to be heard. There are no hidden meanings, just the honest emotions of super-happy and super-sad fighting for their moment in the spotlight.
The story of Irene was introduced to the public back in the beginning of 2018 when producer, Medasin, released a 16-track mix on Soundcloud. It served as a teaser for an upcoming EP full of instrumentals and unreleased tracks. This was a pivotal moment in Medasin’s career as most of the music he had released to this point had been remixes. The otherworldly sound that Medasin brought to his popular remixes had clearly transferred to his original productions.
On August 10th, the long–awaited EP was released and our understanding behind the significance of Irene increased. Just four years ago, Medasin was struggling with addiction, his mental health, and the people he chose to surround himself with were not pointing him in the right direction. Those that cared for him could not find common ground with him in order to help make the changes he needed in his life. Irene was the person who was able to forge this necessary connection.
Irene works at Access Counseling Group in Plano, Texas. This is an outpatient rehab facility where Medasin was able to refocus his energy to creating his sound. In an interview with Billboard, the producer reflects, "the idea of Irene is essentially me elusively telling the story of where Medasin came from." The time spent with Irene was a pivot point in the producer’s life from a life of distraction to a life of creative innovation and Medasin does not take this for granted. A GoFundMe page was set up by the producer to raise $30,000 to fund Irene’s dream. This dream is to open a coffee shop near her facility that would serve as a communal and safe space for recovering addicts. With the growth of Medasin’s voice and platform in the music community, he hopes to rally his listeners behind this idea and help Irene’s dream become reality.
Medasin’s music has always impressed me with his use of Foley and auxiliary percussion that is so cleanly melded into the mix of many other layers of synths and drums. It is an uncanny sonic footprint that can be traced through all tracks of the project and his earlier remixes. After the short opening–almost a booting up sequence–in “Weird Summer,” a bouncy and animated tune begins in “Ramen.” Live percussion elements add to the brightness of the track while catchy melodies are layered on top of one another. The sonic qualities of the keys and organs hint at steel drums. The rhythms suggest this Caribbean vibe as well, but as the title indicates and as producer mentions in the same Billboard interview, it is more a reflection on the joy of getting lost in the taste of really good ramen complete with field recordings outside a Tokyo ramen shop. Field recordings give this album a personal touch. More of these field recordings can be heard in “Warm Blue,” with a more relaxed tempo, but equally striking melodies.
A string of impressive vocal features can be heard in the latter half of this album. “Work For You” featuring vocals from Kaz Moon–someone Medasin was turned onto by a manager of the Korean BBQ restaurant where the singer works–has some of the most intriguing sound design on the entire album. While minimal in the number of sounds in comparison to the rest of the project, this gives the floor to Kaz Moon’s voice to soar over top the track. Each element is meticulously picked and programmed to stay out of the way of the vocals while complementing them timbrely.
Irene is a thank you, a reflection, and a means of healing all rolled into one. Medasin is on a mission to give back to the woman that helped him so much and helped open the creativity of this talented producer to the world.
Please consider donating to the GoFundMe and help support Irene’s dream.
“Work For You (feat. Kaz Moon)” is featured on this month’s On Queue Monthly Mix. Listen here.
Be The Cowboy is the fifth studio release for Mitski. At the young age of 27 she has had a level of success that many artists can only hope for. In an interview with Pitchfork during a series of shows opening for Lorde, she remarked, “I can pay for my health insurance. I can eat. I can drink clean water. I can pay for a roof above my head. I’ve done it,” she tells me. “Now my goal is to only make music that I feel is necessary for me to make.”
Mitski has experience this success while remaining still somewhat anonymous and this is in part to her efforts to talk exclusively about her music in interviews. What we do know is she grew up moving frequently for her father’s job. She began by studying film at Hunter College but chose to shift her focus to music and enrolled in the Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase. It was here that she recorded her first two piano-based studio albums. It was her third studio album, Bury Me at Makeout Creek, that caught the attention of many publications in 2014.
Her latest triumph, Be The Cowboy, is full of references to a romantic life that has seen its share of struggles. Mitski’s desire to keep her personal life private makes the source of these feelings expressed in the album a mystery, but this does not take away from their effectiveness and rawness. It has been her relationship to music that, as she mentioned to Pitchfork, “has been the only one worth pursuing.” It is an album born from heartache, but the lack of insight into the specifics of this relationship does not bother the listener as the relationship worth exploring is unfolding as we listen.
“Nobody,” the lead single from the album, has emerged as the most popular track from this August 17th release. The song was born from Mitski’s experience living alone in Malaysia. The purpose of the trip was to decompress in a place where she had spent much of her childhood, but the unforeseen feeling of loneliness was overwhelming during her stay. She sings about opening windows in her apartment just to hear other people being alive and longing for the simple feeling of having another human being near her. It is a hauntingly sad story contained in one of the most infectious, catchy, and upbeat songs of the album.
To me, the final four songs are the perfect example of Mitski’s versatility and the perfect balance of tragic ballads and upbeat pop melodies that make up this album. “A Horse Named Cold Air” is dripping with dissonance as the piano wavers back and forth in a manner almost akin to a funeral march. The second and final verse of this short song creates the metaphor of a racehorse claiming “I thought I’d traveled a long way/But I had circled/The same old sin.” It is an unsettling song that leads into “Washing Machine Heart,” one of the liveliest moments of the album. Similar to “Nobody,” it carries a rather gloomy story of powerlessness and the negatives effects of over control on one’s self and environment.
“Blue Light” creates a seamless transition from the driving backbeat in “Washing Machine Heart” to the tragic finale that is “Two Slow Dancers.” This transition track is mirroring a feeling of unraveling. There is a sense of having no direction and just pure madness which fades into “Two Slow Dancers.” An electric piano trudges along while Mitski sings the story of two lovers reminiscing on their lost love together. They have only this short moment together before they must go back to their lives.
Mitski’s gift for story telling is clear. She conveys an enormous amount of emotion in a very compact form. As Vulture put it, “She can pack a lifetime into a single sentence.” Be The Cowboy is a journey from new love to breaking up that leaves the listener in a trance.