The truth plays saxophone in Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. Frontman and singer Karl Denson fuses groove funk, blues, gospel, soul and jazz into soul music on fire. KDTU’s Gnomes & Badgers via Seven Spheres Records delivers a dark, magical, animalistic view of the world from this master craftsman of song.
In the five years since his last release, what has changed? As Roland of Gilead in The Gunslinger would say, the world has moved on. Those five years have inspired a shift in sound textures for Denson, twisting his work into a surreal musical garden. This is an angry Karl Denson who has collected eleven satisfying tracks of funktastic jazz and blues-driven groove. An essence of gospel connects with the hellish political and social times depicted in the lyrics throughout the record colored with funky horns. Strutting in, opening with “What If You Knew” like a maniacal pied piper, the party’s on. From “Gossip” to “I’m Your Biggest Fan,” this gnome’s head is twisting in dark self reflection.
Accepting this full flight into KDTU reality are guitarist DJ Williams and lap steel guitarist Seth Freeman. Chris Littlefield plays trumpet while organist David Veith throws in with former Greyboy bassist Chris Stillwell and explosive drummer Zak Najor. Featured guest appearances on Gnomes & Badgers from Chuck Leavell (The Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers), Austin producer and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Quesada, NOLA R&B royalty Ivan Neville, guitar-slinging singer-songwriter Lukas Nelson, and New Orleans guitar hero Anders Osborne make this record a beast to be reckoned with.
Hendrix’s soul lives in the spaces between each note of “Change My Way,” bleeding through every bit. This song should get dropped into a time capsule to define the world’s current insanity for future historical study. Haunting, from start to finish. Tripping back in with trademark positivity, “Can We Trade” brings a toe tapping vibe back into the recording, as gang vocals are working it out with horns on this cut. Saxophones wrap all around this dance through the forest. Definitely dividing the album into two camps, “Smart Boy” is the classic horn-driven song structure that fans of the jazz man love. Filled with stellar piano and organ work, this is the standout funk track of the album.
“Something Sweet” is a doorway into a place where soul lives eternally. But it’s not just soul, it’s speakeasy jazz club bump’n’grind with gospel vocals. Have I mentioned the word genius lately? Close your eyes, listen. Its a transformative sexperience. Whiplashing from that musical history trip into the present, “Time to Pray” is an ominous, head-shaking, toe-tapping, guitar-driven flash.
Gnomes & Badgers is a masterclass in musicianship, and it seems unfair to single out any one particular sound other than the collective. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe wants fans to “Just Remember” wandering away from Gnomes & Badgers. Achingly hopeful, KTDU’s universe is heading back to the silence which comes at the end of the record with subtle beauty. Denson points out through his art that no matter how exceptionally messed up the world is right now, new ideas can bring new possibilities for positive, hopeful change. —Lisa Whealy
March’s Independent Clauses Spotify playlist continues to scour for unusual music: video-game mashups, trumpet ensembles, twee instrumentals, organ drones, hang drum music, experimental vocal ambience, and more.
Zelda and Chill – Mikel. Iconic video-game music mashed up with low-key beats for a maximum chill experience. Lots of video-game mashups are jokes, but this is pristine and excellent. Highly recommended.
Layers– AAESPO. One of my favorite discoveries of March, AAESPO’s brass compositions have the “rushing water” feeling of many of Michael Gordon’s experimental compositions, but they aren’t stretched out to hour-long efforts, nor are they abrasive. Instead, these are dense, melodic, enthusiastic approaches to layering standard and modified horn (primarily trumpet) sounds. These are beautiful and unique; I would wager that many contemporary listeners (including myself!) will have had no prior experience to music of this type but will find many connections to other types of music they do like. Highly recommended.
Scenery – Snail’s House. Twee instrumental music that lives in the space between Lullatone’s heavily descriptive twee scenes and more abstract post-rock like The Album Leaf.
Luminous Emptiness– Hang Massive. Dreamy, delicate, comforting music made on the hang drum, a sort of tiny version of a steel drum.
Sunset & Formosa– DJ Dister. Funky, groovy instrumental beats with jazz and trip-hop influences.
Siren Islandsand Bird Under Water– Arooj Aftab. If you like Julianna Barwick’s great clouds of vocals but think they’re just not experimental enough for you, Arooj Aftab has your back. This is truly inventive and complex music for those who love outsider sounds, full of noodling synths, manipulated vocals, distant sounds, atmospheric washes, and all sorts of unusual combinations of those.
What Are You– Underground System. Do you ever wonder what LCD Soundsystem would sound like if the lead singer were female? Try “Just a Place” for the answer; the band nicks the vocal patterns, lyrical fragments, rubbery bass rhythms, extended jam philosophy, and the call-and-response vocal structure to create the best tribute to LCD Soundsystem I’ve ever heard. The rest of the record is a compelling mix of bass-guitar-heavy dance music, electro burbles, atmospherics, and fun.
The Untuning of the Sky – Sarah Davachi. Layered organ drone is not something I ever thought I would be really into, but lo, here we are. Davachi’s drones are at times warm and inviting (“Spanish Banks”) and elsewhere menacing and tough (“Rainbands”). I’m not sure where one would start if one wanted to get into organ drone as a genre, but this seems like as good a place as any.
Party Starter – Antone. This is about as minimalist as dusky, club-friendly EDM gets; it’s stripped down to bare bones in terms of number of sounds going on in the tracks. But what Antone does with minimal beats and synths is amazing. I kept coming back to the album over and over, not fully sure of what was drawing me. Was it the melodies? Was it the vibe? Was it the groove? Was it the subtle chiptune bits? I have no idea. But it kept me coming back over and over. Highly recommended.
Spring – Teen Daze. This two-song single from Teen Daze in advance of an upcoming album is about as good a teaser as you could invent. Jamison comes back from his adventures and experiments to this project with a rejuvenated look at the core things that make Teen Daze great: the almost-fully-solved tension between electronic and acoustic, the deliciously dreamy vibes, the dense textures that give way to soaring-but-delicate melodies, the thoughtful layering and mixing to bring it all together. The two tracks here push all of those elements further, deepening the oeuvre that Teen Daze has developed over his career. These are just beautiful, excellent tracks.
Powerhouse– Hyde Park Brass. I used to be in marching band as a teenager, which de facto means I’ve been a low-key fan of drum corps ever since. Hyde Park Brass are basically a drum corps (they also include saxophone, a slightly unusual choice) but they’ve got pop sensibilities and real smooth integration of their instrument sections going on. These are tight, fun, interesting brass tracks. They even group-sing in one of them! If you’re into brass or adventurous takes on traditional forms, go for this.
Nick Box – discography. Box’s music is right on the boundary of piano composition and post-rock, as Box loves a huge build to a giant conclusion. But there’s also delicate moments that rely heavily on the piano itself for gravitas and emotion; it’s not all big rushes of multiple instruments. If you’re in the Lights & Motion school of cinematic post-rock, you will love Box’s work.
Death Will Tremble to Take Us– Death Will Tremble to Take Us. A post-rock album of the Explosions in the Sky / Godspeed! You Black Emperor vibe; it hits all the right notes and is a good addition to the collection of those who like this style.
Pictorial – Killbody Tuning. A combination of heavy post-rock that can power through riffs at great intensity and slowcore work that stretches pensive, restrained concepts out over great lengths. Those who are interested in The Angelus will love this.
Silver & Gold – Frances Luke Accord. Basically perfect folk-pop of the calm, Simon and Garfunkel persuasion. If you love lithe melodies, meticulous construction
The Lost Music of Canterbury: Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks – Blue Heron, Scott Metcalfe. On a whole different angle of vocal music, here’s a ton of music in a medieval traditional style that is astonishingly, surprisingly beautiful. I have an interest in choral music from my childhood days as a boy choir member, but I’m still surprised by how enigmatic and beautiful these pieces are.
Ape Shifter – Ape Shifter. I wanted to know what an instrumental classic rock/riff rock album would sound like. Now I know: it’s like classic rock but without vocals. I don’t know what I was expecting other than that, honestly. I enjoyed listening to this.
The rest of the work on the list I didn’t actually get to listen to much, and I moved it on over to the March List.
In the third installation of what my January playlist looked like, I’m going to be brief. These were things I listened to less frequently for a variety of reasons (some of which simply because I found them late in the month). I have sincere hopes that I’ll be faster when getting up my recap of the February list. But who can say? On to the music:
Vastness – Christopher Sky. Minimalist composition with a bent toward including clunking, clanking, noisy backdrops that emphasize randomness and technological efforts amid the sometimes-highly-melodic, sometimes-ambient structures.
Jacco Gardner’s Somnium. This is a dusky, psychedelic, full-band adventure. There’s lots of spacy synth, groovy bass, existential dread, and overarching awe. A very cool experience.
Abyssinia & Abyssina Rise – Te’Amir. Combines traditional African sounds and rhythms with instrumental hip-hop vibes to create a deeply unique and interesting fusion.
Ex / Spells – kj. Great waves of sound with just enough motion to make this not drone but ambient. The work is extremely compelling–a thoughtful mixture of atmospherics, slowly-unfolding melody, tape hiss, and space. There’s a brittle, cold, nocturnal nature to this work that is engaging. Both records are highly recommended.
Charlie Dreaming – discography. On the other end of the mood spectrum from the kj work is Charlie Dreaming, offering a warm, rich, noble, major-key set of ambient drones. These are the sort of thing that the word ethereal was made for; these feel like transmissions from the glories of beautiful outer space findings, heaven, or similar otherworldly situations. Very beautiful.
Double Concerto for Violin and Bandoneon, No. 1– JP Jofre, Michael Guttman, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. A rollicking, adventurous piece for chamber orchestra. Lots of cinematic sweep, lots of character to the piece, and a lot of fun. Bandoneon is similar to an accordion in sound, making this have a unique flair that will appeal to those who like South American, European, and/or Middle Eastern uses of accordion or accordion-like instruments.
Ateş Yanmayinca – Aynur Dogan. Speaking of the Middle East, here’s some music of and inspired by the traditional Kurdish folk tradition. Middle Eastern music is a space that I know almost nothing about and am still trying to learn about, so I have nothing really to add except it’s very interesting and I’m enjoying learning about it.
Into the Void – Ogmasun. Instrumental post-metal that thrashes in all the right ways. Love it.
This world seems increasingly complicated, right? Why don’t you stop and sit for a while? Why don’t you listen to Are You Open?by Seth Walker, who’s inviting you in for some meaningful, authentic, heartfelt conversation? Full of vibe and truly genreless, this gem produced by The Wood Brothers’ drummer Jano Rix dropped February 13 on Royal Potato Family.
Listeners may wonder what impact the success of Walker’s critically acclaimed 2016 released Gotta Get Back had on the artist. The prophetic opener “Giving it All Away” sees heavy bass groove drive in to a percussive keyboard-laden groove, letting the listener realize that exploring new sounds and styles on Gotta Get Back created an ability to be truly open to the possibilities of creation on this new record.
This tenth studio album from Walker features a deepening appreciation and connection not just to sounds, but to the human spirit. Embracing what it means to be truly open in all ways, the songwriter embraces his soul with brilliance. Listening to “No More Will I” feels like a Pied Piper’s call to unite as the lead single on this collection of blues-infused music. “Inside” and “All I Need to Know” prove through completely contrasting stylistic choices that there is one concept we all share: regardless of it all, we are human beings.
There are few songs that call out truth so honestly like “Are You Open?” Sweet, tentative, and hopeful, this resonates with acoustic guitar and vulnerability. Are we sitting around a campfire on a starry North Carolina night, pedal steel guitar echoing into the night along with Walker’s vocals? “Something to Hold” is the story of life in my opinion. Only by letting go is there any way of finding out what is really meaningful in your life. Yeah, it may feel trite, but damn it is real. This troubadour has earned his place the Great American Songbook.
African and Latin textures infused in the music bring to mind the work of Paul Simon on his groundbreaking Graceland. “Hard Road” has diamonds on the souls of the shoes that are walking that hard road, consciously or unconsciously channeling rhythmic genius. The essence of the joy Simon captured with steel drums and Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s work has been reincarnated here for new generations to breathe in with each note. Easy, strolling beats coupled with an upbeat musicality juxtapose against lyrics which suggest that the best achievements in life are challenging. We all participate in life. Not everyone gets a trophy, but we can help others along in this human race. The blues-guitar driven “No Bird” soars with imagery. Yes, Walker has defined himself here.
Production choices and sequencing of this record add to the rich textures of the material; vibrant and alive, each song stands alone but supports each other like a loving family of musical thoughts. Is it the influence of Rix, with his life of New Orleans influences blended with Havana and Nashville? I like to think that we get to hear the results of all that beautiful juicy blender of gifts mixed into a spirited melody. This record is the best fresh ear candy I have heard so far this year.
Shifting from quick hits like “Underdog” and its throwdown jazzy aesthetic to close out the record with the soulful, acoustic “Magnolia,” one fact is certain. Even if there was no intention of writing a concept album, the universe is usually in charge of what comes out when artist opens his soul. Listening to Are You Open? by Seth Walker is like breathing an essence of honeysuckle rose on the breeze that’s carrying the rich resonance of Walker’s vocal delivery with birds and accordion as accompaniment.–Lisa Whealy
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.