Fifty years ago, John Schlesinger’s film Midnight Cowboy changed perceptions of sexuality. To this day, it is the only X-rated film named Best Picture by the Academy. Harry Nillson’s anthem “Everybody’s Talkin’” is inextricably linked to the film it appears in, and the song served as a guidepost, defining generations trying to find themselves.
Beyond the film, the legendary Harry Nilsson has become recognized as a master of the craft, particularly after his genius had time to gestate in other’s talent. Such is the case with the pure, brilliant talent assembled here for This is the Town (Vol. 2): A Tribute To Nilsson. The collection is a fitting tribute to this songwriter’s prolific genius. This deep dive into one of American music’s greatest catalogs is now available on limited edition orange vinyl via Royal Potato Family. Kenny Siegal revisits the producer’s seat in this follow-up to This Is the Town (Vol. 1), working his magic in Old Soul Studios in Catskills, New York.
Mikaela Davis takes her classically trained harpist swagger to the strut of “Take 54.” Etienne de Rocher’s subtle “Wasting My Time” is so right that it feels like Nilsson’s watching somewhere, whistling along. Robin Zander’s growling rock in “Ambush” makes sense as Cheap Trick takes the vibe right back to 1969, a country in confused chaos.
“This Could Be The Night” from Bart & The Bedazzled is a perky bit of sunshine that contrasts against the standout smokey jazz of “City Life” from Lauren Ruth Ward. Colored with subtle horns and just enough grit, the dark side of the city comes back into focus as clear as Ward’s vocal stylings.
Invisible Familiars’ “Old Forgotten Soldier” recalls the era in which this music came into being; ethereal vocals and soft piano wrapped with driving bass punctuate the truth of the times. Now we just have veterans suffering from PTSD who served in the Middle East. Has anything changed in fifty years? “I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City” by Valley Queen is that moment when people will think Buck from Midnight Cowboy is strolling nearby. Drifting into the city with Belle-Skinner’s ukulele, “Open Your Window” is like sitting on the stoop, waiting for the sunset in Greenwich Village.
The essence of New York City resonates through each beat of “Driving Along” as a beat box throwdown from Adam Matta. The joy of albums like this is discovery, and wow! I plan on shaking Adam Matta’s hand at a show soon. Aching violin and a haunting cello embrace Nina Violet, even though we know “I’ll Never Leave You” is not true. “Turn On Your Radio” is a night light in Nilssons’s lyrics, sung with stunning grace by Arc Iris.
Closing out This is the Town (Vol. 2): A Tribute To Nilsson with “The Puppy Song” (Phoebe Siegal) makes sense. The point? Usually, genius in art is recognized too late, after a talent is taken from the world too young, leaving only songs behind. Like Midnight Cowboy, who fifty years ago won an award that made the establishment rethink what real genius on film could look like, the folks at Royal Potato Family show they know what genius sounds like.–Lisa Whealy
You had me at gothic folk, Charming Disaster. Ellia Bisker (vocals, ukulele, piano, music box, glass jars, percussion) and Jeff Morris (vocals, guitar, piano, ratchet set, canned air, percussion) honor the legacy of artists like The Decemberists and their iconic 2009 effort The Hazards of Love with Spells + Rituals.
This saga is complete in eleven songs. Haunting, nuanced entrances are key to suspending disbelief. Bisker’s vocals are enchanting, luring listeners into an eerie place. Her vocals intertwine with Morris on the lead single “Blacksnake,” where the tale begins. Starting with imagery of the temptress should tell listeners where this is going, but the fun is in the journey. It’s a testament to love, an all-consuming power transfixing us; melodic and hypnotic, against all reason, these lovers chase the dream.
Don Godwin (bass, drums, horns, backing vocals, percussion), Heather Cole (violin) and Jessie Kilguss (harmonium, recorded at Charlie Nieland Productions) create an out-of-this-century trip to somewhere else. Don Goodwin co-produced the record with Charming Disaster and mixed the record; Randy LeRoy mastered the record at Tonal Park in Takoma Park, Maryland. Illustrations from Magda Boreysza and graphic design from Jeff Morris add to the tone of this release beautifully.
Much of the album needs the body of work to be fully appreciated, as most songs do not stand alone. Yet “Wishing Well” can stand alone: Morris takes the vocal lead and contributes a lighter musical tone to the yellow brick road where these characters find themselves. Cluttered with heaviness and confusion from the bass line, brighter lyrics contrast brilliantly, lightening the mood. Hitting on themes like ambition and fame, the duo shows that whistling a happy tune does not help put sunshine back in the devastated landscape.
The tango “Devil May Care” shows why these two musicians found each other, as masterful pizzicato violin work surrounds harmonies. Perfection slides into angst, crafting a caustic cavalcade of not-so-thinly-veiled metaphor in “Blue Bottle Blues.” This is one of the most impactful tracks of the album: speakeasy smooth, this is a calling out of all the ills of society.
Fans of rock opera as a genre know that the best way to fully immerse in the story is to listen front to back, and the steampunk “Heart of Brass” marks the turning point where the gears shift into place and the engine of the album starts to hum. “Bride of Frankenstein” plods towards a cool monster mash, putting Nick Cave firmly in the vibe. To touch on each cut here will spoil the magic of discovery, and there’s still a lot to discover for those who are intrigued.
The album shines as a masterclass of musicality. Each note fully breathes in its absinthe, intoxicating the listener. Charming Disaster has crafted a gothic folk opera that is definitely going to find its audience in Spells + Rituals. Usually the strange and unusual takes time to find its home, but I am sure glad you found me, Charming Disaster. —Lisa Whealy
Chelidon Frame‘s NowHere Nowhere NoWhereis one of the most interesting albums I’ve ever heard. It’s a brilliant instrumental piece of art that sonically depicts (not evokes, or suggests, but straight-up maps out) various landscapes, people, events, and stories. It’s no good as working music or ambient music because it demands to be listened to. It is a fully conceived piece of art in the way that films are fully conceived pieces of art. It’s hard for me to explain it, and I don’t really want to explain it, because trying to describe it would not do it justice. This album is a totally unique experience to everything I’ve ever heard before, and it’s massively impressive. Do yourself a sonic favor and check it out.
Olof Cornéer‘s Waves, Breaths & Dead Cities is a fascinating and difficult-to-explain work. Part of this is that I’m new at contemporary classical reviewing, but another part is that this is that I’ve rarely ever heard anything like this. The three parts of Waves, Breaths & Dead Cities are (de-)constructed so as to have only one note of one instrument of the wind quintet enter at a time, rarely relying on layering so much as leaning on the impact of each note entering.
It’s not experimental tonally (there are melodies! the scale seems like a regular scale!), but it’s highly experimental structurally. The structure, insofar as it exists, is highly obscured: on first listen this sounds like a large collection of notes one after another. With no through-played accompaniment or background elements, this can feel somewhat like points of light hitting a screen. But with repeated listens the whole of it comes together and starts to build a mood. It’s hopeful, of sorts–not gleeful or even happy (per se), but there’s a persistent underlying uplift that carries through.
The second set of three tracks are the “Night Gestalt” reworks that build in a little more of the backdrop of the notes with some electronic hum/hush/roar. It’s a nice companion piece to the stark versions that proceed it. This collection is fascinating and unlike any I’ve ever heard before; it’s worth a try if you’re into experimental, evocative work. The record drops July 4th.
Monomotion‘s Fujisanis a cross between the dignified chillwave of Teen Daze and the maximalist post-dub of Odesza. The 7-song record is essentially one 24-minute song split into parts; the pace shifts, the ideas change, but the overall mood remains the same throughout. Because Monomotion spends so much time carefully developing the mood, it’s a pleasant experience instead of a monotonous one.
Opener “North Cascades” introduces the friendly, relaxed mood through piano, airy synths and staccato beats; “Mango (with FEYNMAN)” cranks up the secluded-glen vibes in the synths and throws a four-on-the-floor bass thump into the mix for a more club-ready downtempo track. “Seed” is the chillout moment, largely eschewing percussion and bass for a 158-second ambient float. There’s some minimal rhythmic work thrown in, but this is a lovely ambient track at its core.
Lead single “Ecocline Patterns” is the core of the record, the place where high drama and chill tendencies come together in a unique way. Monomotion has minimalist tendencies and maximalist urges; despite these contrasting concerns (or maybe because of them), the song and the record feel perfectly balanced between both–the maximalist highs are satisfying, while the minimalist lows aren’t just throwaway moments to provide a lead-up to the payoff. Monomotion has attended to both with equal care, and this provides a satisfying experience in Fujisan. Highly recommended for fans of Teen Daze, Com Truise, and Odesza. Fujisan comes out 7/26, but you can pre-order it now.
Carried– Cenes. Beautiful, ethereal, weightless, floating classical pieces that feature no percussion and very little form; they come, create an atmosphere of gentle hush, and then fade away.
Sauropoda– L’eclair. Funky nu-disco but not kitschy. I’m just as surprised as you are.
d / on the night when the moon sheds dew – TAKAO MINAMOTO. Hang drum compositions that include a wide variety of other instruments to create dense, layered, moody compositions. These diverse works transcend the mystical sound of the hang drum and show that it is more than a one-trick pony.
Persuasion System / Iteration– Com Truise. Teen Daze-style instrumental chillwave, but more heavily indebted to ’80s nostalgia, vaporware and synth-pop. It’s perfect working music: sonically interesting but not disruptive, forward-moving but not chaotic, melodic but not insistently attention-grabbing. It’s mixed and mastered excellently, too.
1. “Inana” – Camel Power Club. Crossing “Wraith Pinned to the Mist”-era Of Montreal bass lines, squiggly Vampire Weekend synth melodies, and old-school Lord Huron vocals, this tune creates one of the most sunny and infectious tunes I have heard in a long time.
2. “Blindfold” – Martha Hill. I love stacked vocals, and I love it when stacked vocals compose the majority of the track. Hill is a little more orthodox than Imogen Heap in her aesthetic tastes, but fans of Heap will find much to love in Hill’s all-vocals-everywhere approach to indie-pop. The first verse and chorus are just fantastic.
3. “Time Stamp” – A Starving Viking. A simple folk tune with an engaging vocal line, a subtle-yet-strong arrangement, and a travelin’ song mood. It takes a lot to get me hooked on a folk song these days, but A Starving Viking nailed it.
4. “Thirty Days” – We Are Strangers. Anyone who plays the lead melody of the track on a theremin is going to catch my attention. The world-weary track has the light touch of an early Josh Radin song but a much more concrete and earthy approach to the vocals. It’s a solid indie-folk/adult alternative track reminiscent of Peter Bradley Adams in some respects.
5. “We Stole Your Head” – Mountain Head. The low-key vibe of Spoon, the bluesy rock of the Black Keys, and the richly arch electro of Spiritualized all come together into a great slowburn rock track. The chorus is absolutely ace.
6. “Mystics” – Frank LoCrasto. If you told my 18-year-old self that 13 years later I’d be covering instrumental retro tropicalia for fun, my 18-year-old self would definitely not have believed you. But lo, here we are: LoCrasto’s command of the specific vibe of ’70s/’80s tropicalia is impressive–the synths touch the right feel, the hand percussion is spot-on (which is a big deal, coming from me), and the overall piece is just fun.
7. “Oussou I Need You” – Nate Kohrs. I’m on a big sci-fi kick these days, and boy, do sci-fi books love gritty urban settings (either on earth or in space somewhere). This instrumental piece could fit excellently into the soundtrack of a sci-fi novel, as tension, mystery, grit, electronics, and ghostly sounds combine to make a perfect build-to-big-event track. The layering here is excellent.
8. “Let It Go” – Kelly Lee Owens. I’m still real green when it comes to writing about electronic music, but man if this doesn’t sound to me like old-school, original-vibes techno from Detroit. It’s got that raw, I-don’t-care-this-will-take-as-long-as-it-takes vibe. Aggressive, minimal, impressive.
9. “Observable Future” – Carmen Villain. A subtle, simple beat and two intertwining flutes provide the majority of this 8-minute tune. It’s a mesmerizing bit of low-key flow.
10. “Sleeper” – Trentemøller. This is an impressive bit of downtempo electro magic that manages to be quiet but also intense: the build here is highly unusual, moving through thick synths and acoustic percussion into various moments. The sound is liquid, amorphous, but still focused–it’s both smooth and tough. It’s really, really cool.
11. “Stars” – Alex Tiuniaev. This is the first piece in a five-piece piano suite about outer space. How can I not be into that? The piece itself is an adagio walk, a elegant piece of sonorous magic that eschews harsh dissonance in favor of delicate resonances and harmonies. It’s a lovely bit of piano
12. “Solid Influence” – Go Gracious. A big, bold, charming, Bastille-esque pop anthem about a partner’s drinking problem. The video is an equally charming take on the “dancing in public places” genre.
13. “Feel Nuthin’” – Keon Masters. A solo album from a member of IC faves Brave Baby is on the way, and this is the excellent lead single. Pulling fragments of Generationals bass lines, Vampire Weekend Afro-blitz, ’90s kit beats, and ’80s soaring pop vocals, this is summery indie pop par excellence.
14. “Mary Always” – Khruangbin. Khruangbin’s unclassifiable instrumental work is always fascinating. Here we have hand percussion, ’70s-style guitar modifications (or maybe they’re keys?), easy-going bass, and a solid groove created by the whole arrangement. Very interesting.
15. “Jagged Mountain Melts at Dawn (part I)” – Prana Crafter. Who doesn’t want 9 and a half minutes of woolly, foresty, psych guitar unspooling at a patient pace? This gentle, exploratory, moody-yet-organic psych is really interesting to me; it defies the conventions of being multi-colored and flashy as well as being cold and slow, fitting nicely in between those two.
Helsinki 8.12.18is a work of mind-bending originality from Jonah Parzen-Johnson. Parzen-Johnson’s oeuvre is baritone saxophone with synthesizer accompaniment; this idea alone should give you a sense of what type of unusual territory we are entering into. On the one hand, Parzen-Johnson does what many musicians of all genres aspire to do: he creates spectacularly interesting soundscapes and populates them with all sorts of sounds and feelings. On the other hand, the first draft of this review had me comparing “You Don’t Get to Finish” to a coastal jungle adventure and “Find the Feeling” to a hardboiled detective narrative. You can compare Parzen-Johnson’s work to less adventurous contemporaries for safe RIYLs, but why would you? This is boundary-smashing, genre-dismissing work of the highest order and if you’re here for that, I’m here for that.
My favorite is opener “Everything is Everything Else,” where Parzen-Johnson’s lead saxophone melody sounds like a lost gospel tune. The warm, phased synthesizers kick in and give that gospel melody a beautiful space to play around in. The results are a surprisingly emotional, surprisingly evocative tune for synthesizer and bari sax. He follows it with three other long pieces that show off various sonic soundscapes: ominous, ambient, percussive dread (“It’s Better If You Don’t”); dense, intricate, pounding post-rock (“Find the Feeling”); and tropical, enigmatic, soundtrack-esque brilliance (“You Don’t Get to Finish”). All of them show off Parzen-Johnson’s main skills: he can wring almost any sound imaginable out of his saxophone, he knows how to place those sounds in context to create strong atmospheres, and he can build to real high-point moments in a piece. If you’re a fan of adventurous, unique, never-heard-that-before type of music, you need to check out Helsinki 8.12.18.
Sometimes sounds just feel right, like a crackling fire spreading warmth through the soul on a snowy winter night, or a sun burning daylight down on tall pines, or mountain tops glowing in the darkness. Grover Anderson taps into those sounds. With The Frontman, Anderson returns to the gold rush hills of his Americana roots in Calaveras County on his follow up to 2017’s From the Pink Room.
Grover Anderson and The Lampoliers (Marshall Henry – guitars, organ; Anthony Delaney – bass; Josh Certo – percussion) bring eight songs to life with lush, majestic beauty. The backing band craft the foundation of this storyteller’s saga of life and love, while an array of guests color tracks shifting through folk, country and Americana.
Wandering into The Frontman, “The Good” brings on a sense of ease and comfort with each note. This is no-pretense traveling music, as the violin and authentic songwriter vocals bring to mind the great Glen Campbell (“Wichita Lineman”) who painted soundscapes that surpassed the confines of genre. Austin Broder (ofThe Risky Biscuits) lends his fiddle to the composition. I’m not a huge fan of country music, but If that song is country music, I am definitely a fan of that.
Anderson lays the lyrical imagery and wit on thick in “Standing Water.” The musical poetry with twang sounds like Lukas Nelson and The Promise of The Real. Henry’s guitar soars perfectly, leaving space for guest Chelsea Sue to sprinkle in a feminine vocal touch. “Parallel” welcomes guest Kiel Williams (of The Risky Biscuits) on pedal steel. Tangible angst bleeds through simple words. Uncluttered, this cut has room to feel pain. Most everyone has known a broken heart and the space left between two hearts that once beat together.
In the world of storytelling, each chapter has its perfect place. Sequencing plays an integral part in The Frontman. Uptempo redemption breathes on the rapturous symphony of “Evergreen.” Joining Anderson’s vocal with Nathan Semprebon’s (of The Risky Biscuits) is genius, plain and simple. Broder’s fiddle joinsJimbo Scott (of Poor Man’s Whiskey) on this gem. Reminiscent of Jason Isbell’s textural “Last of My Kind” from 2017’s The Nashville Sound, this track combines the best of Americana, roots and country into something cool.
A soft resting place, “On Comfort” brings back images of great singer-songwriters like James Taylor who needed few words and less time to say what needed to be said. This acoustic flicker is not to be underestimated. Wandering towards the end of a rich record, fourteen-year-old Joshua Swank plays cello alongside Broder’s fiddle on “The Archives.” The vocal delivery brings Glen Campbell back to life again. This time, however, this song haunts the soul on another level as each metaphor unfolds. Each note speaks volumes, reinforcing the musician’s vision.
“Wasps” features guestsNate Nathan on piano and Williams on electric guitar. The band delivers a honky-tonk vibe and a downhome groove, but this ain’t no “tears in my beer” country tune. Instead it’s more of a “throw your dog in the truck with the kids and ease on down the road, it’ll be alright” sort of track. Closing out with the title track, “The Frontman” is brilliant. Grover Anderson and The Lampoliers really want to leave an honest impression of who they are as a band.
Anderson is a storyteller extraordinaire. In From the Pink Room, Anderson told his fans how this troubadour got his wish. Now, The Frontman gives listeners an idea of how the view has changed after stepping into the sun. This album makes me curious to hear what happens next with Anderson’s work.–Lisa Whealy
Independent Clauses has been around for 16 years. In many states, this blog would now be able to drive a car. That’s a pretty amazing thing to me. This is also the year where the blog has officially been in my life longer than it’s not been in my life: I’m 31, and the blog has been running for 16 years of my life and not running for 15 years of my life.
I decided that for the grand turning of 16, I would get responsible with the blog. 16 is a big age full of new responsibilities for many teenagers, and so it’s fitting. To that end, I link-checked the last 8 or so years of the blog, fixing broken Soundcloud links, lost album art, and other such tragedies for hundreds and hundreds of posts. I updated the back-end of the blog (woohoo latest PHP version!). I moved the blog to my own hosting off shared hosting (thanks for hosting us for years, Chris!).
In one of the bigger changes that I made, I’ve closed comments on the blog. I haven’t ever had that many comments on IC, and the vast majority of the comments we’ve received in the last few years have been spam. I’ve been paying for Akismet monthly to keep spam comments off the site (thanks, Akismet! You were great!), but the time has come to acknowledge that people who talk about IC do it on social media and not in comments. So I’ve turned off comments here, but I am still up and open for comments on Twitter, Facebook, and in email.
One of my goals for this year is to look into getting a new visual identity for Independent Clauses. We haven’t ever had a full, consistent visual identity; our logo was designed in the mid-’00s by a designer whose name I can only remember as Calvin. (Sorry, Calvin.) Chris Krycho designed this WordPress theme in the early ’10s. We’ve never had versions of the logo that were specifically designed for display on social media sites. I can’t remember when I invented our current slogan. So I’m looking to do a big refresh on everything visual for the blog. If you know someone who may be interested in this proposition, let me know. I don’t have a clue what this might cost but I’m happy to talk with people about it.
So that’s 16 years, y’all–getting responsible, doing important backend work, making the future of the blog more nice for people. I still love new music. I still want to write about it. Here’s to 16 more years.
Ambitions – Prins Thomas. Prins Thomas has the unluckiness of being in my listening habits at the same time as a Teen Daze record; in any other month this would have been my prize find. Ambitions is a diverse electronic record that has no shortage of its titular element. Opener “Foreplay” includes birdsong prominently, grounding the record in an unusual natural vein. The slow-moving opener gives way to the moody “XSB,” which includes a rattlesnake rattling in its opening salvo. That rattlesnake rattle turns into a consistent shaker over a groove-heavy beat and rubbery bass line, and then the record is off to the races. Thomas includes what sounds like electric bass and electric guitar in the track, giving the record an organic, easily-relatable feel. Single “Feel the Love” is a straight-up nu-disco cut, changing up the mood entirely.
However, it’s the 12-minute title track and nearly-11-minute “Fra Miami til Chicago” that are the real heart of the record (as they should be, given that they take up almost half the run-time of the record). “Ambitions” turns a loping, uncertain bass line into an ostinato groove–it seems like he was challenging himself to make something out of this odd bass work. To turn this weird rhythm and strange melodic pattern into something, he stretches the track way out, layering sounds slowly to get the listener’s ear accustomed to everything as it arrives. The careful construction allows the each individual part of the track to shine instead of introducing them all together and losing the clarity of each individual bit. The oddly titled “Fra Miami til Chicago” is one of the least complex and most heavily moody tracks here. It’s a low-slung, dusky, spartan techno jam that would be a perfect comedown or outro track in a club. These two and the rest of Ambitions show Prins Thomas working at a very high level. Highly recommended.
Mush– Nikitch & Kuna Maze. This EP is a solid work of jazzy, sample-laden, beat-heavy lo-fi progressive house. There’s a honest-to-God flute solo in “Bruk.” There’s a spoken word sample about truth at the beginning of “JPS.” It’s pretty rad.
Bvrth – Bvrth. This electro album has a lot of different things going on: woozy psych (“Oblivian”), grumbling near-industrial (“Eye Gouger”), sleek techno (personal favorite “Warden”), spacy ambient (the beginning of “Stonesend”) and more. The mix is always very good: the sounds have room to breathe, but it’s pulled together in a way that makes it feel very tight and cohesive. It’s a fun, interesting album that fits in well with Prins Thomas, Nikitch & Kuna Maze, and Teen Daze.
Fireflies – Laura Masotto. I love music that uses looping pedals; I don’t know what part of my brain loves ostinato patterns, but whichever section covers that is well developed. Masotto’s violin works here are solo pieces, but they have the complexity, pattern, and dense layering that a looping pedal can provide. Masotto’s pieces are romantic and mysterious, full of big emotions; the looping pedal gives her room to set a frame and then deliver big payoffs over it (“Lisboa” does this well). If you’re interested in contemporary classical solo work, this is a great add to your collection.
Ströme– Martin Kohlstedt. Not to be confused with his earlier work Strom, Strömeis a work of high concept and execution. Writing primarily for choir (“SENIMB,” “TARLEH”) and piano (“AUHEJA”) with other instruments supporting, Kohlstedt has created a unique piece of composed music. The vocals are often used texturally, creating ambient drones and murmuring backdrops for the piano to pair with and proceed through (“SENIMB”, “NIODOM”). A few tracks break the mold: “TARLEH” is a beautiful, hectic chorale in a traditional vocal style; “JINGOL” is similar. Closer “AMSOMB” opens with a consistent digital beep before adding in elegant, rushing-water piano; the vocals whisper in before opening up into an adventurous bit of soaring. The whole work is fascinating, complex, and unqiue. Highly recommended.
Celeste – Lena Raine. Fans of NES/SNES games, chiptune, and video game soundtracks will find a treasure chest of sonic goodness in this instrumental video game soundtrack from 2018. It’s a high-drama affair that feels like it could support a game happening in outer space, a magical fantasy, or some weird far-future version of Castlevania. The soundtrack clocks in at 101 minutes, so there’s tons to explore here. The game itself is a Canadian/Brazilian platformer, so you may want to check that out as well.
I am a huge Teen Daze fan, which means that I’m incredibly picky and specific about any new Teen Daze work. (It is a tragedy that sometimes it is harder to please your biggest fans than it is the casual fans. Sorry, In League with Dragons.) Yet even while being incredibly picky and specific, it’s hard to find anything to knock in Bioluminescence. From the title to the last second of the album, Jamison Isaak shows that he understands exactly what he’s been building in Teen Daze and that he knows how to further the project’s vision.
Teen Daze emerged as an electronic music project that fit neatly into the zeitgeist of the blink-and-you-miss-it chillwave moment. Most of the first-era chillwave artists have moved on to other sounds (psych or motorik or techno or indie-rock or whathaveyou) or retired altogether. Teen Daze is no exception to the moving on, but the direction in which the project has moved has honed in on what made chillwave great.
Compare “Treten” (opener of TD’s excellent full-length debut All of Us, Together) to “Near” (opener of Bioluminescence). “Treten” has reverb-heavy synths floating in the background, click-whoosh percussion, bloop-bloop bass, and a perky melody. It’s a great piece of electro that shows restraint in relation to more club-ready electronic genres and far more motion than ambient works. It nails a pleasant, warm, summery feeling. It is ideal chillwave.
Now listen to “Near”: It opens with reverb-laden pad synths, then layers in a synthesizer that sounds much like a violin. There’s a subtle-but-steady marching beat that contrasts against the free-flowing reverb synths. (This rhythmic tension comes from the much more patterned A World Away.) Then piano delicately joins. More percussion layers in. A thumping beat comes in for roughly ten seconds, then the track fades out. By its conclusion, it’s a dense, satisfying track that could have been expanded for much more time. Instead, it gives you everything you need to know about the track, teases you with what it could be, and opens up into the sophisticated, complex arrangement of “Spring.” “Near” is not only an introduction to the album and “Spring” (that would sell the track short), but it’s a perfect opener to the album. It’s much more patient as a track than “Treten” and points toward the songwriting maturity that Jamison Isaak brings to Bioluminescence.
The maturity is manifested in the attention to detail evident in “Near”. For the ten seconds that the beat is thumping, the track could fit in a lot of different albums of Teen Daze’s discography. But the way it gets there is unique to Bioluminescence. The track still offers all the joys of chillwave (warm sounds, a space between ambient and techno variants, easygoing vibes) but in a way that expresses sonic development in the track and previews the sonic development of the album.
And boy, is the album sonically developed. Far from being an upgrade on ambient, Bioluminescence is chock-full of complex, highly-coordinated arrangements. “Spring” is the chillwave song that everyone wanted to write, perfectly locked in to a space of relaxation while still including multiple melodic and percussive lines. The impressive bass work of “Hidden Worlds” can be called funky. The opening beat of “Ocean Floor” is either impressively sampled, intricately played on real percussion, or both; any 10-minute techno track would be jealous for that beat as the backbone of a club banger. The delicate, romantic, ballad-esque approach of “Longing” will woo old-school Teen Daze fans and send them on a trip back into the TD archives to find more like it.
Soincally, Teen Daze has long been about the connections and tensions between electronic and acoustic. Conceptually, Isaak has recently been focusing on the climate problems we have created for the world. In labeling this work Bioluminescence, Isaak points toward both of those ideas: bioluminescence itself is naturally-produced light (light that we usually assume comes from electricity). Bioluminescence also points obliquely to Jamison Isaak’s high regard for the luminosity and wonder of the biological world.
Isaak expresses that reverence for the natural via electronic music, and in particular electronic music that sounds very organic and acoustic. I mentioned the violin-like sounds and piano already; the piano in particular comes through on the record and provides the connection point between the natural and the electronic (“Drifts” and “Endless Light” in particular). The connection between the electronic and the acoustic, foregrounded in the title, is what makes this album so special. It’s not just a highly-sophisticated, beautiful collection of electronic music; it’s a collection that is written with a clearly-evident theme and purpose in mind. When the conceptual and sonic ideas of a record line up in beautifully-constructed tracks, there’s little to critique–this is a record that sets out with lofty goals and achieves them.
I started following Teen Daze because I liked chillwave then, and I love it now. Teen Daze is in touch with all of the elements that make chillwave so great, but has vastly expanded on them sonically and conceptually. Bioluminescence is a totally satisfying record that leaves nothing on the table: Jamison Isaak calls his shot and nails it with this one. This record is Teen Daze at the height of its powers so far. If you’re interested in any sort of electronic music, this is a must-hear that may well end up on your end-of-year-lists. I know it will be a strong contender for mine. Highly recommended.
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.