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.
Haley Heynderickx describes her life as one of paradoxes. She grew up in Oregon in a religious household with a strong connection to her Filipino roots, yet overlapping across many cultural identities. She is now based in Portland, OR and is an artist whose “faith is not overt, but [whose] introspection and continued struggle for self-actualization are easily accessible and relatable.”
On her debut LP, Heynderickx mirrors a seemingly contradictory existence with an album of contrasting or incongruent elements. From top to bottom, the album effortlessly blends soft folk melodies, delicate acoustic guitar plucking, vocal styles hinting at jazz, folk, and soul, some more traditionally structured pop songs, and an occasional flourish of piano and horns. It is a beautiful trip all the way from the opening track, “No Face,” dripping in feelings of powerlessness heard through angelic vocal harmonies to one of the final two numbers on the album, “Oom Sha La La,” an upbeat and electric guitar driven anthem with a message of empowerment.
The album is beautifully mixed at Nomah Studios in Portland by Zak Kimball. His work on this album, I feel, is at its peak on the second track, “The Bug Collector.” Heynderickx lively acoustic plucking fades in, setting a foundation for a layered vocal performance with equal parts unison melodies and expansive, rich harmonized responses. As each verse passes, new textures are introduced while never overpowering the repeating guitar figure. Shakers, bells, trombone, and translucent pads all contribute to this song which seems to gradually grow out of nothing before culminating in an almost supernatural ambiance.
References to her religious past can be heard across various points of this album, especially in “Untitled God Song.” Although it eventually crescendos to feature drums and trombone, Heynderickx’s performance feels strikingly lonely. This is a theme heard across much of the album as many of the songs begin with unaccompanied vocal and guitar statements. Looking at “Show You a Body,” the mid point of the album, provides a good example of how Heynderickx’s accompanying band provides an atmosphere for her vocal melodies to sit in what feels like solitude. In “Show You a Body,” vocal statements are interrupted by out of time and esoteric swells from the band. From there, the familiar sound of the nylon strings on Heynderickx’s guitar appear between more of these interruptions, sounding like the wind picking up and rustling leaves in the process.
I Need to Start a Garden is released on the Portland, OR label, Mama Bird Recording Co. This album may be a debut LP, but it has such a sense of cohesion and maturity that it is hard to believe that is is just the begin for Haley Heynderickx. Even with the contrasting elements that make up the album, there is a sense of continuity felt through the emotional weight poured into each song causing the listener to live the moments of heartbreak, confusion, gloom, and beauty right along with Heynderickx.
Haley Heynderickx is currently in the middle of a long line of tour dates. To find a show near you and explore more of her music visit her website, www.haley-heynderickx.com.
What comes to mind when you think about the harp? Maybe it is the magical timbre it adds to the orchestra. Perhaps you think of the sound of traditional Celtic melodies such as Greensleeves. Or maybe it is just the classic tranquil and heavenly sound that it contributes to any arrangements it is featured on. Los Angeles-based harpist, Mary Lattimore is breaking this mold one album and collaboration at a time.
Lattimore experiments with effects and her harp creating vast and varied ambient landscapes with harp as the unexpected main character in this ongoing and thriving endeavor. While the tools of choice on her earlier albums included nothing more than effects and looping pedals along with her harp, her latest album, released in May on Ghostly International, features new sounds that move beyond the harp. Lattimore’s voice, synths, piano, guitar, and percussion are all new additions in her arsenal of sounds.
While the harp remains the main voice on much of the album, the opening two tracks, “It Feels Like Floating” and “Never Saw Him Again,” are immediate displays of Lattimore’s experimentation with new sounds. The almost 12-minute opening track thickens in texture until the harp becomes a background instrument and eventual cannot be heard for about the last three minutes of the song where rich synth harmonies take center stage. “Never Saw Him Again” follows a similar formula. A captivating melody and ostinato are established early in the track, but when layered harmonies featuring Lattimore’s voice enter it is clear the harp is in the role of accompanist.
“Hello From the Edge of The Earth” and “Baltic Birch” shift the album in a darker direction. The gentle repetition of “Hello From the Edge of the Earth” leads into the more dizzying texture of “Baltic Birch,” another moment on this album where the extended instrumentation adds an impressive depth to Lattimore’s music. The over nine-minute track slowly crescendos to feature electric guitar and a detuning effect on the harp which disorients the listener away from the serenity of the ambient landscape.
Each track on this sophomore LP paints an extremely vivid and wordless picture of a moment or place seen by Lattimore since beginning the album at Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin, California, where she was awarded a residency. The final picture painted on the album, “On the Day You Saw the Dead Whale,” blends together the array of voices we have heard throughout the album and puts them working together, contrapuntally. Piano and harp melodies blend together with the space in between their phrases being filled with airy synth pads. It’s a final showcase on Hundreds of Days revealing the new landscape of harp music Lattimore is creating within the indie scene.
Sudan Archives is the type of artist that gets me excited. Really excited.
This 24-year-old violinist is creating some of the most original and inventive music in the country. Armed with a violin and looping pedals, her voices floats above a symphony of mysterious string sounds and beats. There are no rules for Sudan Archives and she is completely self-made as a musician. She first picked up a violin in fourth grade. At the age of 17, Archives and her stepfather did not see eye-to-eye about her future as an artist. He saw Archives and her twin sister as the next great pop performing duo, but in meetings with record executives, Archives saw herself in the producer’s chair.
She was kicked out of her house, but made her way to L.A. to enroll in Pasadena City College to study ethnomusicology. It was here where she began to create MPC beats with fiddle music and R&B vocals overtop which caught the attention of Stones Throw Records headman, Peanut Butter Wolf. Archives has now released two EPs on the label.
The lead single and true masterpiece on the EP is “Nont For Sale.” It displays the flexibility of Archives’ vocal performance abilities. She effortlessly shifts between lively R&B melodies and a spoken rap-like delivery all over a harmonized pizzicato ostinato. Stuttering hi-hats and strong kick contribute to the blurred line between hip-hop and Archives’ genre-bending violin technique. The subject matter of the song oscillates between personal narratives and issues of colonialism. “This is my time, don’t waste it up. This is my land, nont for sale.” she sings in the chorus.
“Beautiful Mistake” follows a similar lyrical theme. While being deeply personal and intimate in celebrating the imperfections of one’s self, “I’m a beautiful mistake,” Sudan Archives simultaneously tackles larger world issues such as addressing issues of power dynamics and authoritarianism with lines like, “they don’t know/they just fuckin’ old people tryin’ to steal all your gold.” Musically, there is a similar feeling of ostinato using the violin, but with much more percussive complexity. More intricate layers and polyrhythms make for an intriguing groove.
Her experimentation goes beyond the sonic landscape of her music. In addition to this modern take on West African music, her fashion and music videos also take on a contemporary aesthetic with clear West African influences. Her background in ethnomusicology helps pave the way for these influences and her research to find their way into the music.
Sudan Archives’ story shows that lessons don’t matter, money doesn’t matter, and if you have the drive, connections can be made no matter your prior status in the industry. It really comes down to the matter of desire. Sudan Archives is writing her own rules as she goes and with two brilliant EPs under her belt, this is just her beginning.
Kiefer’s music exists in an interesting sphere of the LA beats scene that is bursting at the seems with talent and sub-genres. While Kiefer cites the the MPC-created, sample-driven style of J Dilla as a major and audible influence on his music, Kiefer relies on almost no samples when producing. As a result, Kiefer’s piano technique is on full display giving his music the genuine and emotional sound that is rarely heard outside of live performances.
Kiefer, whose full name is Kiefer Shackelford, honed his voice on piano at UCLA. He is trained as a jazz musician, but he has been very vocal about the importance of not falling victim to a tunnel vision mentality he feels can be associated with being “only a jazz musician.” There is a strong sense of dedication to tradition when it comes to studying jazz. Kiefer cites Duke Ellington, who called his music “American music,” and Miles Davis, who called his music “social music,” as legends of what we call “jazz music” who were not necessarily playing jazz during their time. Ignoring these parts of tradition, to Kiefer, is where the “only a jazz musician” bubble is created. Collaborations with Kaytranada, Anderson .Paak, and fellow member of the Stones Throw Records artist roster, MNDSGN, shows Kiefer’s commitment to remaining musically innovative and curious.
Happysad is overflowing with head-nodding groves underneath melodies that wander up and down the keys of his piano and synths. “What A Day” and “Socially Awkward” are nothing-held-back showcases of Kiefer’s piano chops. Pocket bass groves on “Highway 46” and “Thinking Of You” provide a sophisticated grasp of the low end most likely perfected through the influence of Kiefer’s once teacher and former bassist for Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, and Michael Jackson records, Abraham Laboriel.
The exceptional balance of this record is rounded out by tracks such as “Memories of U” and “Agoraphobia.” These almost ballad-like additions to the album are perfect examples of the emotiveness gained from Keifer’s jazz-style approach to production which puts an emphasis on melodies recorded live by the producer himself. Keifer told Zane Warman of Bedford and Bowery that Abraham Laboriel was constantly reminding him to “play from the heart.” While it is not always a broken heart that is heard on this album, these slower and more open tracks are a window into the intimate emotions expressed amongst the complete emotional arc heard on Happysad.
Kiefer’s sophomore album, while not as explicitly dripping in feelings of loneliness as his debut LP, Kickinit Alone, still displays an impressive level of sentiment and continued mastery fusing jazz piano with thumping boom-bap beats. In an interview with Bandcamp, Kiefer confessed, “I’m very emotional, very sensitive, and for a long time I saw my own sadness as a weakness.” With Happysad, Kiefer embraces many emotions, some once seen as a weakness, creating this masterful collection of beats.
The scars of heartbreak do not hide themselves on Matt Dorrien’s latest album. It is an intensely honest performance and a textbook example of how a somewhat simplistic musical approach can be elevated to genius levels with phenomenal storytelling. In The Key of Grey takes the listener to the wee hours of the morning in a dimly lit piano bar, drink in hand, and sorrows aplenty.
Dorrien was once known as Snowblind Traveler and was releasing guitar–based folk records. He was ready to begin a new chapter in his musical life and wanted to experiment with songwriting on the piano which was the first instrument he ever learned. In the beginning stages of this album, Dorrien moved to Portland from San Francisco with his girlfriend. He was ready for a fruitful creative life in Portland with his girlfriend, whose keyboard would be the instrument of choice. This plan was not meant to be as Dorrien and his girlfriend broke up. His girlfriend returned to San Francisco, but left her keyboard with him in Portland as a parting gift. This gift, Dorrien says, was “both the melancholy and the medium that became the building blocks of these songs.”
The album opens with the heart wrenching plea of “Baby I’m So Lost.” The lumbering groove of this record floats by while lyrics of utter despair and helplessness are paired with slothful melodies played by saxophone and clarinet. “I Can’t Remember,” the first song written for the album, follows a similar structure both musically and narratively. It is an exploration of the tidal wave of emotions that follow a breakup. More so than in “Baby I’m So Lost,” Dorrien expresses utter confusion for how he ended up in this situation, completely unaware to the love he once felt. Slide guitar adds the sense of weeping so suited for this song soaked in heartbreak.
Sandwiched between these two tracks is “Underwear Blues”–a bouncy and lighthearted gesture towards a past one-night stand. Dorrien recalls falling head-over-heels for someone with a voice so pretty he wanted to cry. He pours his heart out to her, but seems to do this despite his being convinced she is bound to leave him very soon, a relapse into a familiar state of loneliness to follow.
Another moment of melancholy with a twinkle of comedy shines through in “Dayton, Ohio – 1983.” Dorrien dreams of Los Angeles and a woman he has fell for there, but can not escape the grasp of Dayton, Ohio. He sings, “there’s nothing in Dayton, it’s really quite sad / I live here in Dayton with my own mom and dad / they’re perfectly loving, it’s not them you see / there’s just somewhere I’d rather be.” The melody of the chorus meanders by as if the thought of Los Angeles and what could be has completely possessed Dorrien.
In The Key of Grey leaves nothing to be uncovered. Matt Dorrien wears his heart on his sleeve through all ten beautifully crafted songs of this album. Great storytelling has he power to transport people. Whether it is transporting back to the golden era of songwriting or to the tear-soaked nights of a heart wrenching break up, Dorrien’s beautifully honest lyrics and poignant melodies cement his place among songwriting greats.
In 2002, French musician, Boris Billier started the first major shift in his career. A sound technician for cinema since 1998, Billier left this industry to focusing on soundfield based composition. For the next 10 years, he travelled choosing live publication of his music rather than recorded. He cites having traveled “with his own auditoriums” as he played his compositions for small audiences anywhere except for concert venues. 2012 marked the next transition for Billier, this one towards making music using what he calls “more usual tools” with a specific interest in the piano. Many of Billier’s collaborations up to this point were with contemporary theater groups. These collaborations continued all throughout Europe, but Billier began releasing music online under the pseudonym of Aries Mond. Come On Let’s Wait is Aries Mond’s debut album released on Eilean Records.
Since 2014, Eilean Records has been releasing music focused mainly in the electronic and electro acoustic genres. It is made clear on their website that the definition of what it means to be electronic, to the label, is fluid. Aries Mond’s debut album is part of Eilean Records’ ongoing and foundational “map project.” Despite the non-profit and independent record label being based in France, “eilean” is the Scottish Gaelic word for “island.” The label is built around the idea of an imaginary island where 100 points or locations exist. Each release on this label represents one of these points. The musical artist shapes what this region of the island looks like–the colors, the shape, all the details–and when all 100 locations of the island have been defined and the map is full, the label will end. Come On Let’s Wait defines location #18 on the island.
Location #18 sits in isolation off the northwestern shores of the island. This secluded point is defined by Aries Mond’s use of one of his favorite “more usual tools,” the piano, the sounds of which dominate the frequencies of this album. Set in the winter time to a white and grey backdrop, the album unfolds slowly and deliberately. It is hard for me to see the location of this album on the map and not hear the album unfolding like a tide. The first six tracks seem to build in to a brilliant shimmer which is the seventh track, “So Long.”
The album opens with “Come.” There is an exploratory element to this track. The sound of the piano is introduced and found along with the distant and glitchy atmosphere created in the periphery. The second track, “Again,” reminds us that we are not alone. If the piano was the main character introduced first, the subtle noises and breaths made by a female mouth and a male hum are the supporting characters for the rest of the album. The use of space and silence within these tracks and throughout the album creates the push and pull of the tides. There is a nonlinear but noticeable build in texture, pulse, and sometimes (but rarely) volume leading into “So Long,” which is what I hear as the high tide of the album. A jovial voice overtakes the piano which gleams brightly before exhaling into “Once Again,” the album’s closing number. A steady pulse remains mirroring the consistency of the tides, but distance and space return. The piano retreats until it is nothing more than an echo in the final moments of the album.
Even though the medium through which Billier chooses to perform his music has changed since 2002, the spirit in which he wishes his music to be heard is still very much alive in Come On Let’s Wait. This album is an intimate experience. You are subjected to the sounds of whispers and breathing that are so close an element of claustrophobia could very well set in. The listener is pulled in extremely close to the piano; every element of the mechanical structure of the piano becomes an instrument and a color of the landscape. There is solitude ingrained in this album that forces you to bask in the loneliness of location #18, far from the crowds of familiar concert spaces on the mainland, just as Boris Billier wishes.