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.
The story of a phoenix is often associated with the idea of rebirth. Many of my generation might think of the scene out of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where Dumbledore’s phoenix, Fawkes, burns to ashes in front of Harry only to be reborn from the ashes…no? Just me?
For Javier Santiago, the life of a Phoenix has a much more personal association. Born and raised in Minneapolis, MN, Santiago has spent his late-teens and early to mid twenties moving from coast-to-coast, finding his sound, and gaining some impressive accolades in the process. He grew up in a musical family and was raised by parents who already had a solid foothold in the Minneapolis/St. Paul music scene. In 2007, Santiago was selected to study at the Brubeck Institute in California followed by the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. He was given the chance at these prestigious institutions to rub shoulders with some of the greatest living musicians in the world such as Christian McBride, Robert Glasper, Eric Harland, and Joshua Redman to name a few. Beyond being a regular performer in some of NYC’s most well known venues, Santiago has established himself as a prolific composer, arranger, and producer commanding a unique blend of Jazz, R&B, and Hip Hop.
Phoenix was released in late June of 2018 and features eight original Javier Santiago compositions realized by an impressive personnel including Santiago on Rhodes and synthesizers, saxophonists Dayna Stephens and Ben Flocks, guitarist Nir Felder, bassist Zach Brown, and drummer Corey Fonville. Also featured is vocalist J. Hoard as well as Nicholas Payton and John Raymond on trumpet.
“River Song” opens the album with sound of a solo synth bass pumping underneath more synths and drums that slowly fade in. The solo bass with a rhythm clearly influenced by hip hop marks a transition from Santiago’s previous discography that includes four volumes of beats. Slowly a new sound–a new life–is fading in. It is a sound that is hinted at in his 2015 EP, Year of The Horse, but which is fully formed in this opening track. A boom-bap snare and thick bass trudge along almost as a sort of funeral march for the previous life of this composer before they are lost amid the vocal performance of J. Hoard. The phoenix is beginning its rise from the ashes.
The third and title track of this album is the true center piece. This ten-minute triumph soars from the beginning. Solos are passed around the banding giving everyone a chance to contribute their voice to this powerful track. Fonville keeps a busy and driving beat throughout almost the entire tune before the groove takes a sudden change about 45-seconds before the track concludes, slowly tapering off the immense amount of energy that has built up.
A true highlight of the album and my favorite from the project is the closing track, “Alive.” After having spent the seven previous tracks establishing and showcasing his ability to effortless blend genres into a mature and modern sound, Santiago leaves us with a composition in a more old-school style. Fonville adds a plays a swing groove which gives the melody a charming and vintage quality. Nicholas Payton’s forceful trumpet performance leaves the listener with their jaw dropped as the album comes to a close. It is an interesting but effective choice closing the album on this note. Started with a quasi-808 bass, Phoenix weaves its way through Santiago’s influences finding its way to a comfortable and classic sound.
Santiago’s career is still young, yet Phoenix is an impressive collection exhibiting the already touted and celebrated musicianship of this Minnesota native. The album carries an intense amount of energy and expansive harmonies. A new life was born with this project, one of impressive skill and unearthly vigor. When the inevitable comes, Javier Santiago will rise from the ashes again, revitalized and renewed, just as he always has.
Hailing from Toronto, Witch Prophet sings from experiences lived as a queer, Ethiopian/Eritrean singer/song writer. Since it’s release in May, her debut LP has exponentially climbed in popularity being featured on lists of “albums you might have missed” in publications such as Pitchfork and Bandcamp. What may have once flown under the radar, The Golden Octave is a display of confident artistry and a formal introduction to the life of Witch Prophet, a.k.a. Ayo Leilani.
Leilani posses the ability to seamlessly drift between thumping dance rhythms and laid back, simultaneously straddling several genres. She creates a welcoming opening to the album in “Loops.” Featuring only a capella vocal loops, this organic and raw opening track is an outlier to the variety of production styles that are heard through the rest of the album. Despite its unique composition, “Loops” feels far from out of place and serves as evidence for Leilani’s flexible vocal style creating cohesion within an album featuring six different producers.
In the closing moment’s of “Loop,” Witch Prophet bridges the human and bright opening of the album into the dark and driving tone of “Time Traveler,” produced by fellow Toronto native, Sun Sun. A line heard in “Loop,” “What if I told you just who I was / Would you be more careful knowing what I am capable of?” is heard in “Time Traveler.” It is an ominous question which is effectively recontextualized across these differing sonic landscapes.
Sparkling with chopped samples of jazz piano, “Indigo” is my favorite moment off the LP. As the piano shows its range and speed, Leilani maintains the grounded and level quality of her vocal lines that ties the album together. There are no flashy gimmicks as telling her story as clearly and poetically as possible is the main objective.
The soul-infused beats are balanced by occasional moments of 90s house-inspired production. “Reprogram” is one of these moments. Dreamy synths and crackling percussion repeat behind equally mesmerizing vocal statements.
Leilani carefully guides you through the warm atmosphere of this album. In times of comfort, you feel connected to the narrative of her life and as though she is speaking directly to you. If encountered by harsh realities or darkness, she is there to see you back to tranquility. This moving album, ten years in the making, leaves you overwhelmed with a sense of authenticity and curiosity.
I stumbled across a track on Soundcloud a little over a year ago amidst one of those deep Soundcloud binging session which are so easy to get lost in. It was getting late, my eyes and ears were starting to glaze over–I had gotten so deep to the point where everything was sounding the same. The track was titled “fog” by an artist named quickly, quickly. It’s a special moment when you hear a song that sits with you so profoundly it gives you a strong visceral reaction and “fog” certainly did that for me. To later find out quickly, quickly was a 16-year-old kid from Portland, OR made this discovery that much more remarkable.
Now 18-years-old, quickly, quickly has just released his debut EP. While only five tracks in length, the project shows an incredible sense of maturity and growth in his production style from an already impressively rich sound that has lived on Soundcloud these past two years. He can do it all. Listening to his music, you’ll hear him featured on vocals, guitar, bass, piano, and drums, all of which he can play with a simply unreal amount of musicality. This is paired with a control of playful and attention-grabbing electronics giving his music a unique timbre with a soulful and human feel. This caught the attention of prolific Australian-born producer, Ta-Ku, who released Over Skies as the second release of the new creative project he founded, 823, which showcases musical and visual artists.
As the EP opens it feels like we are waking up. There is a bright shimmer in the background of ambient noise and conversation. It is an unassuming snapshot into the producer’s surroundings from which electric piano grows yielding a melody, prominent bass line, muffled bass drum. This first track, “Stilted,” is fleeting, just as many of the tracks on the EP feel. They are, without a doubt, complete thoughts, but feel like only glances into the life of this composer. Each track brings an intricate texture to the listener’s ears, but never to the point of over saturaturation.
The second track, “Swingtheory,” is about as hard and driving as the relatively laid back EP gets. It’s upbeat and reminiscent of a 90s boom-bap style in its groove. Combined with hazy chords, it is a mixture of old and new-school that is a refreshing addition to the album.
“Ghost” is one of the most popular singles from the EP and has been one of quickly, quickly’s most popular tracks on Soundcloud since it’s release about a year ago. With acrobatic bass lines, rich piano chords, and interesting sound design choices, it is perhaps the best example of this young producer’s musical maturity beyond his years. About halfway through the track a high lead synth enters playing an impressive solo. This moment along with the rest of the track is a window into the eclectic range of influences quickly, quickly is drawing from throughout this project. Whether it is jazz, hip hop, or R&B, he shows a deep understanding for these traditions in his sound.
He is touted as “the Portland wunderkind” by Ta-Ku’s 823 label and in my opinion this is an understatement. This young producer is gaining significant buzz and this EP is a clear indication of the heights quickly, quickly can reach. My only problem with the EP is it’s length–I’m left literally begging for more. The Portland wunderkind is on the come up and I, for one, can’t wait to see his next move.
As a composer and producer, the majority of my inspiration comes from visual images and media. I rarely sit with a musical idea by itself and there is almost always an image or setting present in my mind. Because of this, I have found that my ear has become more naturally drawn to composers and producers who work, to an extent, in the same manner. Some of my favorites recently have been the work of composer, John Luther Adams and his pieces that are deeply rooted in nature, the incredible soundscapes created in Tim Hecker’s albums (I highly recommend the Red Bull Music Academy interview with Hecker where he goes in-depth on the importance of fog machines), and all things Flying Lotus. Also on this list is the subject of this here post, Range Rover Sound Test (RRST).
This is the first release under for Ani Bharadwaj under this name. Prior to this album of ambient work, Bharadwaj gained a significant following producing music under the name “weird inside.” This included an EP, As We Know, which tells the producer’s life story, but backwards had he not made certain decisions. Beyond his music, Bharadwaj is also a talented animator and filmmaker. Samples of his visual work can be found on his website, www.weirdinsi.de. Music and visual art seem to feed off of one another in Bharadwaj’s creative world, which yields vibrant imagery in all mediums.
The concept for CRUISE CONTROL was built around driving. Each track of this entire composition, to me, acts as it’s own slowly evolving world. When the three to five minutes of a world has completed, a new one begins, yet somehow there are no jarring transitions and there is a feeling of a continuity.
There is something new to focus your listening towards every time play through this album. I attribute this to the meticulously organized layers that each of these tracks–each of these worlds–is comprised of. “Traction” and “Miles To Go” are two instances on the album where a sophisticated groove is tucked away from plane sight in the frequency spectrum. In “Traction,” the stalwart and haunting melody is in the foreground and is heard over what sounds like rain pouring on top of windows. At roughly the 40-second mark of this track, a syncopated and fast-paced tick or snap appears among the sounds of rain. Yet “Traction” never looses its sense of stillness as rich bass, gleaming arpeggios, and this haunting melody steadily crescendo seeming to always drown out the feeling of a steady groove.
The same idea of a “hidden groove” appears but on the opposite end of the frequency spectrum on “Miles To Go.” Starting with guitars dripping in reverb and playing in polyphony, a foundation is established for this evolving landscape. A bass drum pattern can be heard peaking out of the thick curtain of reverb, but just as in “Traction,” the sense of stillness is never lost. We remain firmly in one key and transfixed by one pattern. These hints of percussion subtly nudge the tracks forward to their completion.
Pulse is not always hidden on this album. In “I-275,” a clear rhythm in both the percussion and the harmonic motion is established early. The theme of evolution is not lost even in a clearly metered tune. At just under 6-minutes long, this is the longest number on a relatively brief album, and every last second is used to create a steady build on the original rhythm established by a shaker and pulsing piano chords. By the final minute of the track in a subtle manner, an eclectic texture has been built.
Bharadwaj’s creativity in the sources of the sounds for his music has always been something that pulls me towards his work. In “Shifting,” the chords of the song are created from the sound of car exhaust. The song sounds eerily alive to me, almost as if the car is breathing in and out while a distant piano provides yet another meditative melody.
Grab a friend, hit the road, and turn up your stereo, CRUISES CONTROL is an ode to the open road and begs for you to experience it.
Let’s try that word association game:
RRST, is a.k.a. --> weird inside, is the creation of --> Ani Bharadwaj, who is a frequent collaborator with --> Zack Villere, who once made music as --> froyo ma, including a 2015 EP titled --> Pants, which has the track --> “spent missing,” featuring the one and only à Charlotte Day Wilson.
Wilson is a 25-year-old soul singer hailing from Toronto. The February release of her latest EP, Stone Woman, marked a shift in her recent career. Wilson’s impressive vocal talent had been heard across a range of project, many of which have come from fellow Canadian musicians. She has been featured on albums by Daniel Caesar, River Tiber, and BADBADNOTGOOD. While these are all impressive interpretation of Wilson’s soulful voice, Stone Woman gives her the chance to shape the production and representation of her voice within the context of her own narrative–in this case Wilson maps out the fall of a relationship.
An immediate feeling of cold and raw emotion is set with the opening and title track. The minimal production leaves space for simple and repetitive vocals, but I do not view this a let down. Wilson is grounded in this vocal range and emotional subject and the opening track gently introduces the listener to her story of heartbreak.
This soft-spoken opening number leads into “Doubt,” a true highlight in this small collection of songs. Her range in both her vocals and production open up revealing compelling synths that meander underneath her harmonized vocals: “what have I done for your love?/ I’m selfish and dumb for your love.”
“Falling Apart” further utilizes dreamy synth and string arrangements. It is a song about cold and fragile emotions, but sung through the warm and comforting voice of Wilson. This duality that can be heard throughout the EP and gives the project a unique melancholy.
The final track on the EP, “Funeral,” brings closure to the story of this relationship. Similar to how the EP opens, “Funeral” begins by featuring minimal production, allowing the story and voice to shine through. A simple chord progression repeats at a steady rhythm making the listener bask in the reality of where the relationship has ended up. As through much of the EP, stunning vocal harmonies are used as a pad underneath Wilson’s soulful recounting of parting ways with the troublesome person and feelings of love towards them.
Stone Woman is a powerful collection of songs. While not the type of soul that would get you on the dance floor, the EP is a well-crafted storybook with harmonies and melodies that give you the chance to sit and really grasp the story presented. When asked about how she knows when a project or a song is finished in an interview with The Fader, Wilson commented, “a physiological response is how I judge other music.” As I sit here with goose bumps and a lump in my throat as the saxophone solo at the end of “Funeral” fades out, I can’t wait for the next chapter in Charlotte Day Wilson’s story.
Ok, let’s try this again. This one might be a little tougher. Let’s see where we end up:
Charlotte Day Wilson, is a featured vocalist on the album --> IV, by BADBADNOTGOOD which also features --> Colin Stetson who is based in Montreal but is originally from --> Ann Arbor, MI and attended --> the University of Michigan School of Music, much like members of --> Vulfpeck, the funk group featuring --> Joe Dart on the fender bass who is now on tour with frequent Vulfpeck producer and engineer --> Tyler Duncan, the co-founder of --> the olllam
We made it.
the olllam is a project that has excited, fascinated, and inspired me since the release of their self-titled album all the way back in 2012. It is a project dreamt up by John McSherry, a native of Belfast and legend of the low whistle, and Michiganders Tyler Duncan and Michael Shimmer. Early on, Duncan was a talented piper and won many prestigious Irish music competitions propelling him to early notoriety in the Irish music scene. When Duncan was 13, he met his idol, John McSherry, who became a mentor to Duncan. After becoming the first low whistle player to be accepted into the University of Michigan jazz studies program and having success as a producer and through other bands, this ongoing partnership and collaboration between McSherry and Duncan culminated into an incredible record and band, the olllam.
The album is a testament to the positive effects modern technology has had on the creative process. Much of the album was created via skype conversations that connected Duncan in Ann Arbor to McSherry across the pond in Ireland (to see this process in action, see the documentary on the group posted below, simply a must watch). The genius that is Joe Dart was brought in to round out the group and contribute his bass playing to the album. The final product is a groove-oriented album fusing traditional Irish timbres with an insane rhythm section-driven vibe.
Every track has a very simple and stripped down sound allowing the virtuosity of all four performers to be highlighted. There are no tricks or gimmicks, just catchy melodies and intense groove. “the devilll for my hurt” is one of my favorites on this album. The looming guitar ostinato gives way to a rhythmically complex and intriguing tune that cycles through variations of the original 7/8 groove. Each instrument has its moment to take the reins of groove–be that the flowing melody of the whistle and pipes, a stop time section for featuring drums, or a flurry of arpeggios in the keys–the complexity and urgency of the groove is tamed by each musician.
Tracks such as “the tryst after death” provide a more laid back response to “the devilll for my hurt.” The song opens with a four-on-the-floor bass drum pattern and syncopated chords that set a foundation for the whistle to explore. It is a perfect example of the simplicity that makes this album undeniably great. There is so much space within the track that could have easily been filled with countermelodies, synth pads, or many various effects, but the space becomes part of The Olllam’s sonic footprint. This track and the album as a whole becomes about the interplay of individual musicians creating memorable moments– i.e. Dart’s bass against McSherry’s whistle–rather than an oversaturated and over-composed dialogue.
The band’s name is a reference to early Irish folklore and the character of an “ollam.” An ollam is a master, or a member of the highest rank, and is a distinction that is usually given to someone of with social stature equal to or close to that of a king. The band brings together four masters of their respective styles which naturally blend into a genre that seems to have been pioneered and created by this group. This is an album I find myself always returning to for long drives and creative inspiration.
After many years of silence following the initial release of this project, the group is back on tour in Ireland this summer. I sit patiently now, watching the Irish tour unfold through social media, with my fingers crossed hoping a new olllam project is in the works. In the meantime, there are few better summer activities than lying on a quiet porch with the low whistles of Duncan and McSherry, the low end of Joe Dart, and the pocket of Shimmer to keep you company.
The sports airwaves are busy right now with the chatter of NBA free agency and the World Cup and for this reason I feel it is only fitting that the theme of this first July post be “superteams.” The idea of a superteam is, quite frankly, the reason why I cannot stand the NBA. Two teams have every elite player in the league on them? Sounds like a seven month snoozefest to me. While Lebron is moving out west to the Lakers, a different kind of superteam–one that I really can get behind–has been tearing up a European tour this past month fresh off the release of their debut album.
R+R=Now is a band comprised of some of the most prolific young musicians on the scene right now featuring the sounds of Robert Glasper on keyboards, Terrace Martin on synthesizer and vocoder, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah on trumpet, Derrick Hodge on bass, Taylor McFerrin on synth and beatbox, and Justin Tyson on drums. While Glasper was the mastermind in assembling this supergroup, no one sound or ego takes over. The group plays as one and seamlessly blends genres and the voices of the players, each of whom could be considered a visionary in their own right.
R+R stands for “Reflect and Respond,” a concept that Glasper grabbed from an interview with the great Nina Simone. The soul and jazz legend was pleading with her fellow musicians to do more with their music and more with their art. “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times,” said Simone. Glasper then added to this, “when you reflect what’s going on in your time and respond to that to that, you can’t not be relevant. So ‘R’ plus ‘R’ equals ‘NOW’.”
What is surprising about this album is how unattached from politically motivated messages it is. Even though the group seems to have formed around a very politically charged statement, this is an extremely spontaneous and meditative album. Each track was recorded in one take and follows the mood of the group without adhering to a specific genre or roadmap. “There’s something about the spirit of it,” says Glasper. “I don’t record until I’m ready and I don’t do extra takes just to do it–you burn out. We’d chill, watch some basketball, have some drinks, and hit record when the vibe was right.”
A highlight of this work to me is “Colors in the Dark.” While at just under five minutes it is one of the shorter numbers on the album, it is a great showcase of the open sound heard on the entire record. Starting with a bass solo by Hodge, the track steadily builds with each new layer sounding first like a solo voice before settling into the collective sound of the band. Martin’s vocals sung through the vocoder begin as a melody before shifting to an accompanying color underneath Glasper’s solo over the form. Tyson’s groove becomes steadily busier and eventually thunderous near the end of the track before giving way to a warm, floating, and lush transition into “The Night In Question” featuring the spoken word of none other than Terry Crews. The impressive list of vocal features also includes Omari Hardwick, Amanda Seales, Stalley, Yasiin Bey, Amber Navran and Goapele.
Collogically Speaking is refreshing. In a time where escaping the stress and uncertainty in the world that suffocates our lives is nearly impossible, this album provides an escape even if it is for just a moment. Eleven unique atmospheres are available to bask in to clear one’s mind of the heavy burdens are carried by nearly everyone at this moment in the history of the United States and the World.
It recently had its first birthday, but the 2017 release from the LA-based soul and new-school jazz group Moonchild has crept back into my queue with its infectious summertime vibe. The final track on Collogically Speaking, “Been On My Mind,” provides a great segway into spending some time with Moonchild’s third full-length album as Amber Navran, the band’s vocalist, is featured on this closing number. Navran is joined by fellow multi-instrumentalists Max Bryk and Andris Mattson to fill out this superteam’s roster.
The word I have always associated with Moonchild since being introduced to them in 2014 is “clean.” There is never an element or a sound out of place in any of their albums. Navran’s bright vocals float over boom-bap inspired drums, insanely rich and juicy chords, and bass face-inducing bass lines. There is no possible way to escape some level of joy and euphoria with Moonchild pulsing through your headphones.
The laid back feeling of tracks such as the lead single, “Cure,” are balanced with more driving and bouncy numbers like “Every Part (For Linda).” The simple but head-nodding drum pattern remains in a steady pocket while the reputation in the chords is interrupted with a playful clarinet solo and effects that sound straight from a Gameboy adding to the lighthearted mood of the tune.
The group was formed after having met in USC’s jazz performance program. The collaborative songwriting process felt natural for this trio and their shared music taste and influences meant they were all speaking the same musical language. Three albums into their time together, they have started to gain the attention of some of their well known peers and influences. The likes of Robert Glasper, Stevie Wonder, Jill Scott, The Internet, Tyler, The Creator, and hip-hop production legend, 9th Wonder are some of the impressive co-signs on this band’s resume.
The trio once described their sound in an interview with Brownswood Recordings as “electronic Dilla soul,” a nod to the late great, J Dilla. Many of the aforementioned co-signs have styles deeply rooted in Dilla influences as well and this lineage can be heard especially on songs such as “Run Away” off Voyager. The stutter kick drum, back beat, and woozy synth sound creates a feeling that would fit right into the style of the iconic Dilla album, Donuts.
Voyager, just as Moonchild’s first two albums, is intensely hypnotizing. A dreamy landscape is created and it is hard to find a reason to leave. The instrumentation on this latest album has been added to since their sophomore LP adding more colors to their arsenal and new level of maturity in their sound. The warmth of this album is contagious and pairs well with a calm summer morning.
I know what you are thinking, one singer/songwriter does not really seem like it fits the theme of “superteam.” Hang tight, let me explain.
I walked into the scaffolding-lined entrance of The Ark (America’s finest listening room located in Ann Arbor, MI) having heard one of Sam Lewis’ songs…ok half of one of Sam Lewis’ songs. I stumbled upon the video for “One And The Same” through The Ark’s website and heard the first two minutes before buying my ticket. I was immediately pulled into a trance by this Nashville-based country and soul singer’s voice whose sound combines the timelessness of James Taylor with the rougher blues vocals of Johnny Cash. I was needed to experience the mysterious hooded figure that is seen in this music video for myself.
Ann Arbor was Lewis’ last stop in a stretch of shows that followed the May release of his latest album, Loversity. This 14-track album finds a sweet spot between the feel-good sound of country and soul music and a powerful punch of social and political commentary that hits you right in the gut. The country has changed a lot since Lewis’ music career began in 2009, and it is clear he has some strong feelings about this. Back in 2009, Lewis was working at a Walmart and would play small venues where he made connections with local musicians who helped him record his first album. By 2014, he had established himself in the Nashville scene and got his big break when Grammy winner, Chris Stapleton invited him out on tour with him in 2015. Lewis’ newest release has been highly anticipated and does not disappoint.
Lewis wrote 12 of the 14 songs on the album. “Accidental Harmony” and “Natural Disaster” were written by John Mann and Loudon Wainwright, respectively. Boasting a message of living in some sort of harmony, even if by mistake, “Accidental Harmony” and it simplistic arrangement fits neatly into the album.
“Great Ideas” is the third track on the album and is a great display of how Lewis’ wonderfully simple lyrics carry great weight especially in front of catchy and soul-filled instrumentals. “Take some of out great ideas/and help each other put them in motion/we won’t always be right here/if we never ever start a commotion.” When seeing him live, Lewis took mere seconds to introduce this tune simply stating, “here’s one about the First Amendment.”
Turning to a darker track off the album, “(Some Fall Hard) Living Easy” begs the listener to look a little deeper and reflect. “What’s your purpose? Are you a cure or disease?” sings Lewis. As the song continues the questions seem to get more pointed and difficult, but never in the tone of exasperation or wanting to quit. There is a hint of motivational energy. To ponder these questions is to work towards better days and to ignore them is to be complacent.
Loversity is rich with the feeling of community. To Lewis, the title embodies “love without boundaries.” Current events are driving the country apart, but Lewis is determined to send a reminder that we are in the struggle together. “This is the closest thing I’ll ever write to a concept album,” he says. “The idea is that we are all trying to get somewhere – all running from something and toward something. We’re all together in it, though.” It is a message embracing hardship by promoting a strong sense of unity. It doesn’t take million dollar contracts to build superteams, it takes great ideas and the genuine support of those around you to put them in motion.