Ghostly International is an Ann Arbor-founded and now Brooklyn-based independent record label that has released some of the most widely recognized experimental-pop and techno music in the last 20 years. It is also the home to a wide range of visual artist, designers, and technologists. The label was started in the late 1990s on a backbone of love for Detroit techno and the Detroit underground music scene by Sam Valenti IV and Matthew Dear. The open-ended aesthetic of the label has allowed an impressive roster to grow along with a loyal fan base.
Shigeto is, without a shred of doubt, one of the most important musical idols/inspirations in my life. From a musical and production standpoint his sound is intricate and enticing, but his pull from my perspective comes more from his overall career and how he has structured his “business.” I see all of his endeavors as serving a larger goal of giving back to the communities that have fostered his development. These endeavors have mainly revolved around the Detroit and Ann Arbor, MI scenes and, being a fellow Ann Arbor native, I feel incredibly fortunate to have benefitted from many of his projects.
Most recently, the Portage Garage Sounds label (founded by Zach Saginaw aka Shigeto, and his brother Ben Saginaw aka Kenjiro) residency on Thursday in Ann Arbor has been a must-go for my friends and me. A chance to unwind, sit with friends, dance, or observe some incredible DJing chops, it is a perfect example of how seriously Shigeto takes cultivating and curating a thriving scene for a community close to him to enjoy.
No Better Time Than Now was my introduction to the work of this producer, drummer, and DJ despite it being his third full-length release. The myriad of influences fly by in a dizzying wave as this album progresses. It disorienting in the most positive sense of the word and all stems from his unbelievable grasp of rhythm and time. “First Saturn Ring” acts almost as a powering on sequence, a feeling made stronger by the slowly intensifying synth arpeggios and soulful chord changes. After booting up, “Detroit Part 1” sets a pace of driving sounds and beats that are carried through the rest of the album.
A new world and new structure is built with each track often with light and subtle touches of beauty. This process is no more present than it is in “Miss U” and “Safe In Here.” The most beautiful track to my ear is “Silver Lining.” A grove is slowly built behind textured piano and kalimba samples. The rich, tape soaked sound hugs the listener bringing to life the portrayal of a silver lining shining through.
The variety within Shigeto’s catalogue never fails to amaze me. I can always find my way towards new elements to tune into within his music and there is something to fit every mood. But like I said, if there is one thing I take away from Shigeto it is how he has built his career and how he chooses to give back. Thanks, Shigeto, and see you on Thursday.
I’m a sucker for music that comes from visual artists. The way I almost always hear music and write music is grounded heavily in visual imagery. I think this draws me to artists whose creativity lies in both of these worlds. I found Tycho’s music at a time where my desire to seriously pursue music grew and my awareness of what was sonically inspiring to me was consistently at a heightened state. Awake, the third studio album for Tycho, became influential in the growth of my understanding production methods, sound design, and generally my preferred musical aesthetic.
Scott Hansen is the mind behind Tycho, and ISO50 for his photographic and design pursuits. The most striking aspect of his music will always remain the effortless blend of organic sounds, vintage hardware, and modern aesthetic into a singular and unique voice. It is this well documented post-rock and ambient mixture that feeds into the driving bass and rhythm under colorful and broad colors and textures.
There are a few qualities of this album that standout to me as being products of Tycho’s experience with visual art–the awareness and use of texture along with the uncanny sense of space and depth throughout the record. There is never an element out of place or jarring with entrances or exits. Everything has a place and a role in the building of tension or the changing of perspective. “Awake,” the opening and title track for this album, is a perfect demonstration of the masterful build Hansen can conjure in this album. The way the album is mixed, the listener is able to enjoy the intimacy of the drums and guitar attacks while simultaneously gazing in the deep landscape created by beautiful reverb.
“Dye” slowly crawls towards euphoria as Hansen and his band reach a climactic arrival in the final minutes of the track. With a strategic thinning of texture before this moment, the arrival of echoing guitar chords carries a surprising amount of emotional weight.
I hear the opening of “See” in a similar light and quality as the opening of “Awake.” There is the mesmerizing duality of intimacy and vast open space heard with the opening and echoing guitar notes. The claps that begin the track carry with them a slight grit or crackle that settles in perfectly to the clean and pure mix that follows. It is a moment when the seamless connection between organic sounds and modern aesthetics is clearly exposed for the listener to enjoy.
This is one of the first albums where the importance of listening to a project front to back struck me. In a time where music is created to fit a model that is geared towards on demand streaming and short attention spans, the message an artist is trying to convey across an entire project is often lost. Each of the eight tracks on Awake can stand alone as a beautifully crafted song, but there is certainly a macro sense of build and development felt when these track are woven together. It’s beautiful, it’s colorful, and it’s a strikingly emotional release that has the ability to invoke strong imagery while you listen. Close your eyes and enjoy.
Across all Ghostly International releases, a common trait is an unbelievable attention to the quality of sound. There is so much to learn from the mixing techniques of the roster of Ghostly artists and each of their individual styles. Lusine’s Sensorimotor has emerged, to me, as one of the most compelling releases on this label for its meticulous attention to detail.
Jeff Mcllwain has released many projects for Ghostly since 2003, but this latest release seems to lean in a more meditative direction, almost as if beautifully suspended in time. “Canopy” is the stunning opening track to this album. It begins with a slow fade in of bells and music box chimes creating a shimmering cloud. As if born from this cloud, a pulsing and gritty melody appears. It is an almost five-minute build that leads into my favorite track on the album.
“Ticking Hands,” is more rhythmically driven than the opening statement from Sensorimotor, but presents an equally visceral profile. The featured vocalist on this track is Mcllwain’s wife, Sarah. Through the processed vocals and somewhat sporadic melodic plucks of the track, a story of separation appears. The couple wrote the track together “as a king of catharsis of the time we spend apart when I’m touring.”
The driving rhythmic pulse continues for the remainder of the album with a few exceptions such as “Chatter” that hark back to the opening thoughts of the album. “Won’t Forget” reintroduces a heavy groove after “Chatter” with masterful vocal chops and a chord progression that leaves a pop-influenced silhouette on this attention grabbing track. “Flyaway” is a thumping and pulsing synth anthem that is paced perfectly, gradually adding layers that compliment an already captivating rhythmic foundation.
I discovered Lusine completely by accident and I am forever grateful for this discovery. The Texas-raised and Seattle-based musician can evoke personality and emotion from the warm melodies and arsenal of electronic tools at his disposal. The most compelling elements of his previous releases seem to have converged on this 2017 release finding the perfect balance of experimentation and strong musical reflexes.
And so begins On Queue 2019! As we start the new year, each post will focus on a specific record label and three releases from the label that I think standout. Let's jump in with Daptone Records.
Daptone Records is a prolific independent funk and soul label based in Brooklyn, New York. It was started in 2001 by Bosco Mann (Gabriel Roth) and Neal Sugarman. The distinctive analog sound that has come to be associated with this label began with its core band, The Dap-Kings. Roth acts as the bass player and bandleader of this group. In 2007 this group, in collaboration with Mark Ronson, provided the instrumental accompaniment for Amy Whinehouse’s undisputed classic, Back to Black. A converted home in the Bushwick neighborhood has been the scene for this distinguished sound to grow, and without any help from computers. The studio acoustics are not enhanced by digital reverbs and everything is recorded and mixed on analog tape by Roth. Having proven themselves time and time again, the Daptone recording studio and personnel have become sought after entities.
The Menahan Street Band was my introduction to Daptone Records. Back in 2013 during a deep YouTube tangent, I stumbled upon a video of Donald Glover/Childish Gambino at Amobea Records going through what was in his record bag on that day. He pulled the debut album from this Brooklyn-born band. Thank you, Mr. Glover, for opening up this whole new world for me.
There is a chance you have heard The Menahan Street Band without realizing it. The classic soul sound has drawn the attention of some the most active hip-hop artists on the scene right now. The likes of Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, 50 Cent, and Kid Cudi have all pulled samples from the band’s two full-length studio albums.
The band is comprised of members from the Dap-Kings, El Michels Affair, Antibalas, and The Budos Band–all members of the Daptone family. It is a classic set up of guitar, bass, drums, organ, trumpet, and saxophone playing loop-based grooves in the bedroom of a Brooklyn apartment on Menahan Street. The band is not trying to reinvent the wheel. This is a sound that is battle-tested and has survived all the way to the new vinyl age we are living in right now. The Menahan Street band is a collection of incredibly talented musicians that are playing a familiar sound, but they do it with incredible swagger and prowess.
Make The Road By Walking strikes a beautiful balance between powerful backbeats and bass lines, striking melodies, and quirky sense of humor. “Tired of Fighting” begins with drums and congas in a laid back pocket setting the gritty funk tone of this track along with woozy guitar slides that appear throughout much of the album. Dave Guy on trumpet (who you now see playing with The Roots on tour and every night on Jimmy Fallon) and Leon Michels on saxophone provide the buttery harmonized melodies on top of this punchy rhythm section.
“Home Again!” is a cheerful soul track with an infectious bounce. The warmth of the changes, instrumentation, and analog tape all combine for this highlight of the album. “Going The Distance” plays in my ear with a slight sense of comedy. It begins with the dark funky feel that is heard through the majority of the album. As the song develops, a triumphant bass line and horn crescendo lead into a sixteenth note based groove that gives off vibes of something like the Rocky movies to my ear.
Simplicity is the key with this band and this album. The power of good chord changes and simple patterns that are played with unbelievable feel is put on full display. There are no frills with instrumentation or recording tricks, just good songwriting. After their second LP, the band has gone on to back other vocalists on Daptone Records, but I’m crossing my fingers a new full-length MSB project is in the works. The world needs it.
One of the vocalist the Menahan Street Band went on to work with was Charles Bradley. The incredible story of this soul journeyman unfortunately came to an end in the fall of 2017 when the singer lost his battle with stomach and liver cancer. Daptone released Black Velvet in November of 2018 as a compilation of the stray tracks that accumulated over the decade the singer spent with the label and with the Menahan Street Band backing him.
It was an incredible case of right time, right place for Bradley who got his big break in his mid-50s. He grew up in a house stricken with poverty and neglect. He worked many odd jobs throughout his life across the entire country, but never left his love of singing. He sang in many small venues under the name “Black Velvet” as a James Brown impersonator. In 2002, Bradley had made his way to New York right as Daptone and their revivalist style were hitting their stride. Bradley introduced himself to co-founder Gabriel Roth and the rest is history.
Time and time again on his albums, Bradley effortlessly turns the pains and sadness in his life into powerful and heart-wrenching music. Yet, one of the more memorable moments on this latest release is the voiceless “Black Velvet.” Acting as what feels like a tribute, the tune spans three and a half minutes and searches for words the entire time. A guitar with a heavy level of tremolo meanders through the whole tune, almost like a weeping melodic replacement for the lost member of the group.
“(I Hope You Find) The Good Life” is a noticeable departure from the usual pained and weathered tone of the narrative and voice of Bradley. The singer pleads with a lost lover who he needs to let go of spending much of the song simply talking to this person.
Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” makes an appearance on the album, but with a new coat of paint. The horn section takes control of this classic tune turning it into a driving soul track. It’s moments like this that are both the beauty and slight downfall of this album. The nature of the compilation album allows us to see the development of his style while signed to Daptone, but also creates a somewhat disjointed mix of tunes.
I wish I had the opportunity to see Bradley in concert. Even in interviews and videos you can immediately tell that his true energy and spirit of this music was only on full display in the live setting. This tribute album is a wonderful celebration of a man who never lost sight of the true happiness singing and being on stage brought him.
In Yorba, the word Akokán translates to “from the heart.” If there has been any thread between the Daptone records I’ve described thus far, I think “from the heart” may perfectly describe it. Then it is without surprise that one of the newest editions to Daptone Records has created a sizable buzz among their listeners, including a Grammy nomination for Orqesta Akokán’s debut LP.
The album’s driving force is its vocalist, Jose “Pepito” Gomez along with the producer, Jacob Plasse and arranger, Mike Eckroth. Unlike most of the other releases on the label, Daptone made a road trip to the band’s home turf in Havana, Cuba and to EGREM recording complex and the Areito Studio to record the album. The spirit of analog recording is certainly preserved at the national record label of Cuba. The studio was founded in 1964 and had a complete monopoly on music production in the country for roughly its first 20-years of operation. The result is the most extensive catalog of Cuban music in the world that is continuing to grow.
This is the first time the label has moved beyond the American roots of its traditional sound and homage to history. This new group is an amalgamation of Cuban musicians, many of who have lived through the period of Cuban music the album aims to emulate and preserve. The mambo tradition is alive and kicking with a lively percussive punch on this release.
A favorite of mine on the album is “La Cosa.” The rhythm section and horns each display their own aptitude while accompanying each other providing rhythmic stabs behind the melodies. When the trumpets step forward the saxophones join the congas and timbales and vice versa.
The arrangements by Eckroth are the glue of the entire album and are just plain stunning. Like I mentioned before, much of the band are veteran wind and rhythm players from some the legendary mambo bands of Cuba, but there are a few young players from New York as well. Certainly these players are incredibly well versed in mambo music, but there is always the risk of conflicting sounds and styles due to the geographical and generational differences. The listeners, and for that matter the musicians, have no time to contemplate this as the arrangements come at you with such energy and power that the 40-minutes the album lasts flies by with infectious joy.
I know very little about the history and tradition of Cuban music, but that takes nothing away from my experience with this album. I’m ready to dive into the roots of how we got to this album, the stories of the musicians in the orchestra, and the larger history of this music. Taking a risk and moving away from the American tradition for a moment was an extremely successful endeavor for Daptone. It is hard to think of a group and an album that better represents this unique label than Orquesta Akokán.