1. “Sun bleached BBQ grill, red to pink” – Gabriel Birnbaum. A beautiful, hazy, pseudo-tropical, mildly melancholy lo-fi rumination that, paired with the title, evokes such a specific place and time that I feel like I have been in the song that I am hearing.
2. “The Actor” – Brief Candle. Snappy hip-hop drum samples, lazy pad synths, delicate guitar, and found clips of spoken French come together into a relaxing, groove-heavy instrumental composition. The vibe throughout the song is impeccable.
3. “Noah” – Joshua Crumbly. Grief does not go Point A to Point B in a straight line, and so neither does this elegy for a friend. This composition is anchored by a persistent, insistent bass pattern. Rhythms emerge, waver and disappear above that line; melodies flutter, flitter, and fade. Vocals turn into instruments. Sighs turn into statements. Ultimately, a lovely rumination.
4. “20 Grand Palace” – RJD2. RJD2 was the first instrumental hip-hop artist that I found, and I have enjoyed his work for a long time. This swaggering, confident, blast-of-fresh-air track opens amid flute flutters and string sighs before a long bari sax introduces a get-down bass line, triumphant horns, and more string sighs. It’s pretty much everything I could want out of instrumental hip-hop. Love it.
5. “Kora” – GoGo Penguin. While my discovery of GoGo Penguin was more recent than of RJD2, their incredibly tight fusion of piano-led jazz, hip-hop drumming, post-rock structures, and densely constructed moods has had me enjoying their work immensely for the last few years. They are a laser-locked-in crew here, taking a syncopated, punchy lead piano line that is intended to evoke the African instrument the kora in its rhythm and melodic structure, and turning that bit into a full-blown banger.
6. “Mendocino” – Jeremy Fetzer (feat. Duane Eddy). This instrumental desert-rock piece is a big ‘ol slice of mood served up hot. This has all the allure of spaghetti western tracks, plus a pop of funky bass/low guitar work, high-drama string chops, and an overall sense of fully-earned cool. Radness.
7. “Passengers” – Sleepersound. If post-rock has too much bombast for you, but you love the stretched-out canvases, Sleepersound has an antidote. This sleepy, almost slow-motion track includes the short snatches of post-rock tropes (big distortion bursts, mournful/soaring vocals, stomping drums) every now and then amid the dreamy, bleary main body of the track. It gives the track a sort of knowing smile–“we know how to do this, but we’re not actually doing it”–that I deeply appreciate. If you like Empire! Empire!, The Album Leaf, or Radiohead’s most experimental moments, you’ll be thrilled with this.
8. “Une île” – Under the Reefs Orchestra. A loping, swaying, baritone-sax-heavy intro slowly builds into a deep, thick groove over six minutes before evaporating back into a reminiscence of the earlier sway. The highlight is heavily distorted and thundering. It’s jazzy, post-rocky, fun, and interesting.
9. “Theme” – Jeremy Talon. More instrumental hip-hop here, of the slick, jazzy, low-key funky style. Works hard at sounding like it’s not working hard. Wears designer suits without tie or belt. Has a real Rhodes in its garage.
10. “Their Love Was Alive Before They Were Dead” – Joshua Van Tassel. Lives in the space between contemporary composition and ambient work; the lead piano is mysterious and evocative, while the strings both ground the sound and enhance the mystery of it. It’s beautiful, but a little unsettling–just like the title.
11. “Change It All” – Camel Power Club. A low-key, relaxed, subtly cynical pop song with smooth vibes and a lovely breathy vocal performance. That big ‘ol bass sound is like catnip to me.
12 “I Found Out” – Jonathan Russell, Jackson Browne, Artists for Peace and Justice. Here’s the PR lede on this one: “Today, Jonathan Russell, of The Head And The Heart, shares the video for his song “I Found Out” from the benefit album Let the Rhythm Lead: Haiti Song Summit Vol. 1, a collaborative project of songwriters including Russell, Jenny Lewis, Jackson Browne, Paul Beaubrun, Jonathan Wilson, Habib Koité, and Raúl Rodríguez along with members of the Haitian roots band Lakou Mizik.” Russell’s voice is as lovely as ever, the arrangement is fun and friendly, and the vibe is great. The lyrics are, well, your-mileage-may-vary Head and the Heart lyrics. Overall, a memorable tune for a good cause.
13. “Hung the Moon” – Grace Joyner. Whoever’s doing bass on this Grace Joyner record is absolutely smashing: this second single from Joyner’s upcoming Settle In is approximately half bass and half everything else (which is how I like it). Beyond the excellent bass work, notable aspects include: the nostalgic, melancholy synths; the cooing, engaging lead vocals; and the steady, ’80s-inflected drums. If you’re looking for a pop song with some gravity, Joyner’s got it for you.
14. “All the Time in the World” – Joy Ike. Of the many Coronavirus tunes that have emerged, this one (and, uh, the whole album that The Mountain Goats recorded in social isolation–John, you’re setting the bar too high) are the most evocative and realistic. I could imagine listening to this joyfully funky and soulful track after this is all over, which is high praise from over here–I’m going to shed pretty much all traces of social distancing after this is over, and this is one that may not get the boot. (Be prepared if you see me: I’m coming in for the hug.)
15. “The Coast” – Stealing Signs. We all need a little bit of unbridled enthusiasm in this tough moment, so here: have a concoction that throws Vampire Weekend, Prince, midwestern emo, and surf rock into a blender set to froth. It’ll put some fizzy in yr system.
Few albums that I’ve heard this year give such clear insight into the creative process of the artist as Chassol‘s Ludi. Chassol hears everything as music, from a basketball bouncing (“Dribbles and Beats”) to conversations (the excellent “Your Hands”) to spoken word monologues (“I Think the Game, pts. 1-4”) to children’s games (“Savana, Celine, Aya, pts. 1-2). And the 30 (!!!) songs on Ludi demonstrate that by layering the sound of the inspiration over the music it inspired, with a sentence of a person’s voice becoming the tone, rhythm and meter of a jazz run on piano or a drum fill or bass riff. This happens over and over: “Ouverture,” “Sirine”, “Esatabemakuru,” “Tetris Crystal,” on and on and on. It is an absolutely fascinating deconstruction and reconstruction of the sonic world we experience all the time.
To be clear, these are not often people singing; these are people talking, laughing, conversing, playing around. Chassol mimics these sounds, tones, and rhythms with instruments and then builds songs of all lengths (fragmentary, short, medium, long) out of these bits of inspiration. Chassol sees this whole process as an unusual sort of game: strange games appear everywhere in the album. People-who-are-mimicked-into-music try to explain hand games (“Your Hands”), play hand games (“Savana, Celine, Aya”), try to explain RPGs (“I Think the Game”), and teach a word game (“Game Rule”), among the more obvious examples. So Chassol sees the world as musical inspiration, and it’s a game to turn that musical inspiration into songs. (I imagine that Ludi is related to the term “ludic”, which means “of, relating to, or characterized by play.”)
With those keys in mind, the rest of the album clicks into focus; the album isn’t held into place by genre as much as it is by the lived experience of that process. “Rollercoaster, Pts. 1-2” open with a herald-like vocal celebration before cascading into a manic Electronic Light Orchestra piece; it evokes the excitement of the rollercoaster climbing its initial hill and then plunging into the rest of the ride, signaled by found sounds of the rollercoaster that point the way. In some ways this isn’t a very subtle record: almost every map has a clear and obvious key. But the lack of subtlety allows for an immediately accessible joy: this is a hugely relatable album, a celebration and honoring of everyday life. I can see and hear myself in this record, hands up on the rollercoaster, playing basketball, playing word games.
It’s that hugely relatable factor that does the final trick of the record: if you took out the vocal clips and just left the musical work in, you’d have an impressive album of speedy, funky, piano-and-bass-led jazz. “I Love Vertigo” without the sung vocals is still a rad piece of punchy, funky work. “Your Hands” would be a novel, staccato, challenging piece without the vocals, but the challenge of it is cut down significantly by having the spoken vocals over it. The record’s concept grounds the work and reveals the treasures of the songs.
Ludi is an album unlike any I’ve ever heard. It is a testament to the immense creativity of Chassol, the confidence he has in his vision, and the perseverance needed to make a 30-track album that spans 62 minutes. This is a fascinating, impressive, deeply comforting and human record. It’s amazing. Highly recommended.
On Eerie Gaits’ second record Holopaw, John Ross details the earthy joys and ominous overtones of his hometown of Holopaw, Florida. The instrumental project blends ambient, folk, and synth-pop into an immersive mix; the songs range from sun-dappled and celebratory (“The Rainbow Trout and the Wicker Creel”) to reverent and restrained (“Out in the Tall Grass”) to eerie and ominous (closers “Oia,” and “99, 100”).
Gentle synth lines guide the way through various fields: backdrops of synth washes (“The Lure Follows the Line”), prominent guitar lines (“What’s Eating You”), and acoustic guitar work (“Saw You Through the Trees”). It’s a beautiful record (even with the slightly unsettling ending) that treats Holopaw with loving reverence. If you’re looking for a lush, thoughtful ambient-adjacent record, Holopaw is a good bet.
Bill Withers said we all need someone to lean on with his iconic 1972 track “Lean on Me.” His death March 30, 2020, from heart complications left a void ready for Leslie Mendelson’s “Lay It All on Me,” the final single from the albumIf You Can’t Say Anything Nice…, which dropped April 17 via Royal Potato Family.
Created by filmmaker Jeff Preiss (Iggy Pop, REM), the music video captures an artistic sensibility representative of our time: together/apart. What feels most authentic is the visual expression of disconnection. The songwriter’s warm lyrical embrace and almost violent attack on her instrument starkly contrast against the empty seats and vacant room. Stunning visuals blend black, white, and color, with the layered camera work creating an all-inclusive feel. Mendelson’s open struggles with depression allow her an authentic intimacy when connecting with audiences, even in this video form: vulnerable and plaintive honesty shines through each vocal, making her more accessible to listeners. Like Carly Simon, Mendelson strikes a genuine connection through her music. —Lisa Whealy
Guerraz‘ Battery E.P.balances torrential and patient in a two-man post-rock game. Opener and title track “Battery” runs a solo guitar riff and variations for a whole minute–much longer than the listener expects–before crashing in with acrobatic drums that punch the song up to the next level. It’s this ability to wait before the big payoff that gives this four-song outing its tension and power.
The guitar here is thick and crunchy, but not so distorted as to turn into a big wall of distortion; there’s a good amount of reverb/phase on the guitar to give thickness to the sound, but not so much that it swallows up the songs. The drums are crisp and tight in their production–they’re particularly excellent in “Eyes,” where they provide almost all the forward motion for the song amid the several single-note sections.
The gently-psychedelic “Hebron” is by turns churning and pensive, dropping almost to nothing around five minutes before ramping up for the big conclusion of the 7-minute piece. Closer “Rafah” gets funky with some syncopated twists to the Guerraz formula, creating some neat groove. Overall, the EP is a solid introduction to the Guerraz sound with some strong tunes to boot.–Stephen Carradini
Honestly, hearing that an artist is from “the music city” does nothing for me. The historic city holds no mystical power in my opinion; it’s more the city of false hopes and broken dreams. So when Nashville-based Ellen Starski’s Sara’s Half Finished Love Affair landed, I tuned in.
The follow up to 2018’s When Peonies Prayed for the Ants produced by Lucas Morton (Crystal Bowersox, Hush Kids) and Matt Hoffman is eleven tracks of a songwriter’s defining moments. The tunes are crafted handily around notes wrapping like flowered vines into the sun. Beautifully grounded bass lines define the music. The opener “Come To Me Lover” seems like fluff, so hold on: this artist’s brilliance lives in the dark places.
“The Satellite That Changed Its Tune” is a dance through metaphor. Starski’s vocals are a mix between Cindi Lauper and early Madonna in her phrasing. Uncluttered instrumentation is perfect as an accompaniment to an angelic voice singing of truth in relationships. Wandering a new path, “Never Met A Ghost” defines the heavy, haunting, dark theme of relationships. This is really cool. But is this song part of the record’s story, or the artist’s, or maybe both? “Pure Intention” may answer that question, if sequencing helps shape the story. The song builds with a crescendo and empties into an echo of nothingness.
Halfway points are usually a resting place, and “More” really says that in a song. This may be the most traditional Nashville sound on the record; not as brave as some of the statements of unique, eclectic songwriting here, but good nonetheless. Greatness is lurking right beneath the surface: “Follow My Lead” vibes into the groove, with its Nancy Sinatra, “These Boots Are Made For Walkin” attitude. Country faerie dust seems to pass over “All My Fears,” with its soaring vocals. “No Ending” dances through, with an almost Eurythmics feel to the musicality of the song. “Find Your Way” is heavy-handed yet purposeful. Starski’s voice is hugely versatile: it needs no framework to soar and can resonate in its lower range, echoing with the essence of Annie Lenox.
Closing Sara’s Half Finished Love Affair with the title track, Ellen Starski makes a bold move. This overtly orchestral cut is short and sweet, yet feels like part of a larger idea. Her expectation is clearly that we will be back; nuanced with a final twisted bit of unexpected instrumentation that is almost worthy of the Talking Heads. Yes, I am curious, and you should be too. —Lisa Whealy
Tom Hades‘ Parade of Planets EP is a perfect follow-on to one of my favorite releases of last year: Traversable Wormhole’s Regions of Time. Both have a sci-fi theme and both love pounding bass in their tough, punchy techno cuts. Hades’ “Sadr” is a no-nonsense techno banger, throwing down bass hits like punches (my favorite way) and accentuating with no-frills beats plus a small amount of swirling synths. This is body-shakin’ stuff.
“Nahn” gets appropriately spacey and tense before dropping into the heavy groove. It’s got lots of ominous, richocheting snares to keep the dark vibe going even in the groove. “Rigor” starts off with piano and pseudo-theremin, sounding very cold, distant, and properly like the dark between stars. It kicks off into a less-punchy version of Hades’ work (read: still very punchy) that has a rattling percussion line keeping the thing going. It’s a lot moodier than the previous two tracks, and the change of pace is nice. There’s a rework of “Sadr” by Oliver Deutschmann to round things out. Overall, a very solid release of some deep, heavy techno.
Matt Karmil‘s techno is stripped down to (almost) the bare minimums of the form: staccato beats; limited layers of synths, often as few as a single synth; and squiggly, almost-naked melodies that sneak out of the locked-in mix. STS371 opener “Smoke” has one complex sample that serves as the melody put on repeat, accented by some tape hiss, an 808 thump, and some distant squelchy bass. (A high-hat comes in later for the “big finale.”) It is economy making the most of its limited resources: the vibe it creates is almost hypnotic in its approach. You can hear the variations in the tape hiss as part of the song. It’s attention to detail in its most fine-pointed version. Karmil revels in making a tiny amount resources saturate a space and create a vibe. I love it.
This is immaculately designed work; every sound has been adjusted just so to meet Karmil’s exacting requirements. The synth washes that take up the first 90 seconds of “Hard” have been manipulated perfectly to keep the vibe of “Smoke” going but move the work in a dreamier direction. The chopped-up back-beat of “210” uses snips of distortion to rough up the sound and serve as subtle percussion. The nearly-ten-minute “Breezy” is the absolute minimum of techno, with a high-hat, a kick, and a distant arpeggiator playing off each other for over a minute on the outset; seven minutes later, the synth has become a modulated siren wail and a bass kicks in a few notes here and there over the high hat and kick. It’s a subtle journey, y’all.
There are some slightly bigger moments: the conclusion of “Still Not French” has lead synths gently trading off blips over a helicopter-chopper rhythm synth, the beat, and other sounds. Lead single “PB” has a lot of things going on, for a Karmil song: a sample of someone breathing, phasing synth sounds, bass arpeggios, bass lines, relatively complex beats; the whole thing comes off like a tune from a spy movie. It’s still nothing in terms of the tracks needed to make a maximalist ODESZA-like track, but it’s a veritable orchestra from Karmil. It’s great.
If you’re into minimalist techno, you already probably know Karmil and this is just an encomium for a friend. But if you’re a fan of other types of electronic music, you may not know Karmil, and I would strongly suggest that you get to know his work via STS371. —Stephen Carradini
Van Darien’s Levee is a reminder of the roots of country music. Not Nashville, but deeper, into the grit and dust, whose emotions create an ache that resonates through each note. For me, it’s a clear reminder of the Chicago Tribune’s 1998 article from staff writer Dahleen Glanton, which reminds us that this genre was born in the blues, wrapped with folk. Darien’s move to Nashville may have put her in the lap of country music, but the soulful Texas blues of Levee make this songwriter shine.
Did the isolation of her youth growing up west of Fort Worth in Weatherford, Texas, contribute to the folk-rock edge of her haunting, Stevie Nicks vocal quality? Her deep alto vocals, recorded mixed simply at Nashville’s Glass Onion Studio by producers Steven Cooper and JD Tiner, keeps everything simple, like sunsets across the vast Texas horizon.
After opener “Ponderosa,” the percussive force of “Gone” maintains a rock edge reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt. Guitars may overpower the vocals in the mix here, but in the end, what resonates is the sweet spots of Van Darien’s vocals woven through like leather and lace. Title track “Levee” bleeds strong yet feminine perseverance; authentic emotions soar with connections roaring like a river through the soul. This vulnerable yet strong sound defines the album.
“American Steel” serves as a metaphor for the current situation: adapting to a new normal economically, socially, and culturally. The lyrics, stunning mix and masterful musicality create a folk Americana gold in its blend of instruments each working in harmony. Pure magic! Haunting that moment with the blues-rocker “Twisted Metal” is a bit of sequencing genius. Lulled into a state, grinding like Marcus King was nearby, this cut’s gritty vocals are priceless strut, Texas-style. “Low Road” rests in that New Orleans / East Texas blues space quite comfortably. Bringing piano up into the forefront, sultry jazz club stylings emerge from this multi-talented vocalist.
Heading out of the album, “Insanity” may be the only song that feels like a contemporary Nashville power-pop country compromise; a song where vocals could have literally gone crazy but don’t. Darien makes up for lost opportunities with “Cardboard Boxes” and shows the power of her voice when given free rein to breathe emotions out with each note. Rising and falling like each step into a new future, it’s easy to fall into that place where we have all been: walking into a new moment warmed by the memories of the past. “The Sparrow & The Sea” plays on the imagery of the two apart, a beautiful love story in duet.
Van Darien’s Levee lands in ta sweet spot formerly inhabited only by the likes great rock vocalists like Stevie Nicks: right between rock, blues rock, folk-rock and Americana. Some might say that’s country, but I think it reaches older and farther back to the core elements that make country what it is. —Lisa Whealy
I used to make a lot of mixtapes: for myself, for other people, for this blog. I transitioned to making playlists (as many of us did), but there’s something magic about the well-turned mixtape that a playlist can’t touch–even an immaculately created playlist. This is something inbetween–a playlist made in the spirit of a mixtape, with a beginning, middle, and end. It goes roughly slow to fast, introspective to extroverted. Enjoy!
1. “Deep Brown Eyes” – Racoon Racoon. Few acoustic songs feel as intimate and immediate as this delicate duet. The songwriting is tender and memorable, the lyrics lovely, and the recording immaculate. A triumph. Highly recommended.
2. “Arthur’s Hanging” – Feverist. I’m not much for TV (I’d end up with a TV review blog, inevitably; ain’t nobody got time for that), but if you’re up on Peaky Blinders then you’ll recognize this song from the titular scene. For those of you (like me) hearing it for the first time, it’s a cross between the melancholy instrumental and vocal sonics of The National and the spacious environs of a slowcore song. It’s a real slow burn, and it’s one that’s hard to look away from.
3. “No. 49 – A Long Journey (For Mika)” – Roy Dahan. Here’s a jaunty yet not flimsy piano piece. It matches the enthusiasm of the tempo and melody with counterpoints and minor-key depth. It’s got the sensibilities of a pop song but the sonic landscape of a classical piece. It’s a great piece.
4. “Near-perfect Synchronization” – Koki Nakano. This is a composition composed of piano, occasional spartan electronics, dancer, and environment. The dancer evokes his way through a strange yet beautiful field of uniformly-spaced, enormous vehicles while the piano delicately evokes the sounds of feet landing and bodies whirling. It is a full experience.
5. “Alapaap” – Juan Torregoza. A dreamy, surreal sort of meditation that feels like a cross between smooth jazz, vaporwave, and new wave (with some funk-lite thrown in), but the fusion of the aesthetics elevates all of the oft-maligned genres into something heady and engaging.
6. “Still Here” – Kllo. A skittering, punchy, ’90s-inspired beat is overlaid with heavy piano and smooth, emotional vocals to create a great track that pulls at lots of different tensions.
7. “SABAW ft. Serina Pech” – Kuya James. The Asian instrument samples that form the basis of this slinky, sinuous electro cut are immediately appealing, and the rest of the song builds on that immediate connection.
8. “Before the Light” – Zopp. I would guess it’s not a prerequisite to like jazz before understanding prog, but my discovery of how jazz works has had knock-on effects of creating a burgeoning appreciation for prog. I am as shocked as anyone. Astonishingly, Zopp is a duo, but I would never have guessed from the zinging, ping-ponging, go-everywhere-at-once sound. The amount of layers of work and number of ideas from just two people is impressive.
9. “Men Er Grah” – Darius. Darius’ stormy instrumental post-hardcore is on full display here in the first third of the tune, pitting turbulent guitars against a steady, stomping percussion beat. The heavy distortion never becomes distortion for its own sake, and instead reflects emotional states clearly. The song opens up into a big rock section (complete with searing guitar solo) before going into soaring post-rock mode. There are even more twists and turns after that–the track is nine minutes long. Mad props. Highly recommended.
10. “Tales of Termina (Guitar Playthrough)” – Ebonivory. This is a right ripping instrumental progressive metal track. The band is doing the thing that metal bands do, which is play through their songs. In a laundromat. As you do.
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.