It’s plain to see what is going on in the world. While America begins crawling back from the pandemic’s crippling grip, Seth Walker offers up his music video for “We Got This,” directed by Gary Dorsey and based at Pixel Peach Studio in Austin, Texas. The Wood Brothers’ Jano Rix is back as producer on this standalone single from Royal Potato Family. Stark depression-era imagery creates the narrative, opening with parallels to our country’s current economic state. Dorsey beautifully uses historical references as a backdrop movie reel to each lyric’s progression through Walker’s songwriting, coupling the images with muted colors. Anthems are sometimes marched to a groove like this. A trippy blend of cartoon and realism, the video’s look brings fresh optimism as humanity aches to share together. A bluesy gem strutting through an imaginary animated world of our nation’s history, the takeaway here spotlights perseverance, ingenuity, and community. Yeah, despite the darkness, there’ll be some light. —Lisa Whealy
Detroit Michigan’s Protomartyr shines with their “Worm in Heaven” visuals. The track is part of the upcoming Ultimate Success Today, out July 17, 2020, from Domino Record Company. Eulogizing life as we knew it, this video is stunning in its harsh imagery, veiled innuendo, and muted reality. It captures our transition into our new reality, with its tension-filled first steps into that new present. Musically drifting into the realm where David Byrne and the Talking Heads dominated, Joe Casey’s plaintive vocals with Scott Davidson’s bass guitar build the foundation for Alex Leonard’s drums. Visual crescendos coincide with Greg Ahee’s guitar. This weirdly wonderful glimpse into our collective consciousness as we all venture into a new reality seems a quintessential homage to every moment home, alone, glued to the fears we all have shared as this brave new world unfolds. —Lisa Whealy
OK GO wrote “All Together Now” celebrating the bizarro world we are experiencing. For over fifteen years the band has been known for mind-blowing, out-of-this-world, choreography-driven music videos. Yet they’re changing their tune with “All Together Now,” directed by Damian Kulash, Jr. with editor Geoff Shelton. All we feel here in its authentic church-like reverence is breathtaking simplicity. Tim Nordwind, Dan Konopka, Andy Ross, and Kulash, Jr. share production credits with Shelton in this homage to the times in which we live. The band connects each metaphor-driven lyric with touchpoints in reality. Sure, without resting in each note, reveling in how spacious this mix feels, one might miss the warm embrace of this song. To say this was written as a result of California’s shelter-in-place order feels cliche, yet it is a fraction of the song’s truth. “All Together Now” catapults into that fan anthemic category with rock tracks like Queen’s. Each rising chorus reminds me this song is one for the ages.
Well, if I am (or you are) thinking that, maybe we have not been forever changed–despite the pandemic taking the lives of people I know and love. Read Damian’s personal letter describing his experience being one of the first cases of coronavirus in California. This puts the song under new scrutiny. Does this track mark the emergence of a redefined OK Go, artistically and musically, beyond anything previously released? I would say definitely yes. —Lisa Whealy
1. “Eurasia” – TENGGER. I love long, repetition-heavy electronic work with subtle variations, particularly when it’s got bouncy arpeggiator work, major keys, and good moods for days. This one is a joy to listen to.
2. “Ursa Maior” -Amphères. The melancholy, jazzy, walking-speed closer of an album of post-rock/dream-pop, this track shows off Amphères’ range by being evocative outside of song structure and big songwriting moves. This is a little track that wanders in, tells its tale, and wanders out. Lovely.
3. “Night” – Kelly Lee Owens. A dreamy arpeggio plus a quick blip of an alarm make for a woozy sonic palette forming the basis of this techno jam. Breathy vocals and staccato, syncopated bass rhythms fill in the rest of the track, which zooms along for five minutes. It’s a compelling, club-ready work.
4. “F Maj Pixie” – GoGoPenguin. My wife is incredulous that I’ve started reviewing jazz. This is partly because she’s never heard me listen to jazz (I listen on headphones while working), but also because there is a pretty enormous impasse between folk-pop and jazz. She said that if I ever find a jazz album that explains why I’m into jazz, she’ll listen to it. After hearing the three singles of GoGoPenguin’s latest, I feel like this record might be the one that explains it. The trio here is just fully locked-in, creating whirling, expansive, intricately interlocking work that is as much post-rock in its fervor as it is jazz in its specific instrumentation. The sudden half-time breakdown that closes the piece is hilariously hardcore for a jazz/post-rock piece. I love it.
5. “tremendoce” – Otis Sandjsö. The sound of the flute has grown on me over the years, but it’s never been my go-to instrument. Sandjsö & co. built a fun, tropical, ’70s psychedelia jazz jam around an excellent flute sample; the flute gives the whole piece its throwback vibe, while the rest of the work flips back and forth between beats and jazz runs.
6. “Thirds (Seeing Clearly)” – Brendan Eder. Peppy, funky bass meshes with playful woodwinds to create a snappy, fun, and elegant jazz-inspired piece. Minus the lead sax runs, it could be a supremely lush hip-hop beat. With the sax, it’s a minor adventure: slaloming through bright, sun-dappled ideas one after another.
7. “January / Eden, Come Slowly” – The Duke of Norfolk. It’s hard classify the work of The Duke anymore, what with all the electronic bits swirling about the ostinato acoustic guitar, the swooping clarinet, the heraldic trumpet, the soaring vocals, and more. What I can say is that there’s not many folks making such sweeping, all-encompassing music that retains a full heart and a full throat. (Disclosure: I managed the Duke from 2009-2014.)
8. “Train-Train” – Koki Nanako. This frenetic, barely-controlled piece of piano fury is accompanied by a modern dance that is perfectly fit to the mood of the tune. A male dancer in an abandoned, derelict skyscraper seems to lose control of his body over the course of the tune. The vibe of the clip and the piece is very Fight Club (although the artist notes that the clip is more directly indebted to Kurosawa), which is not something you say about piano solo pieces that often. What a workout.
9. “Carousel” – L’Eclair. Retro synth sounds languor over a funky bass line, headbobbing percussion, staccato guitar stabs and flowing flute for a tune with a delectably ’70s vibe.
10. “(You Are) Encanto” – Zipten. The breathy, tropical vibe here is driven forward by the bass and the beat, creating a satisfying push and pull between tropical chill and electro punchiness.
Riaan Nieuwenhuis’s Bleeding Moon seemed to come out of nowhere before entering my orbit. The fifth album from the accomplished South African composer was begun around the time of the lunar eclipse in July 2018. Featuring celebrated global musicians, this excellent instrumental jazz rock soars like the last twenty years of man’s life in space among the stars.
Was the eclipse of the Blood Moon really the catalyst for this album? Maybe, but all events spark artistic creation leading to Graff/Del Aire, where all but one of the piano tracks were recorded. Starting from the outside in, Nelis Kruger’s cover photograph with Lara Kruger-Nieuwenhuis’ artwork evokes memories of great album covers like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The composer self-produced this effort, with Mark-Louis Ellis handling mixing and Tim Lengfeld handling mastering duties. Together they create an imaginative artistic statement.
This follow-up to 2018’s Reminiscence may be an extension of that creation, like stepping stones to a new space. Listeners are immersed in a funky jazz/metal/rock creation that is admittedly otherworldly. Music that defies classification is a view into the unknown. Nieuwenhuis has crafted an album in its purest form; an exemplary work that defies genre.
“Courtesy” stands alone on this album as the first and only song recorded on Tunes Studio’s pristine grand piano. Nieuwenhuis welcomes us with his restrained performance. This track shines clearly, echoing Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Not simply a jazz record, each clear chord structure dancing across the ivories has elements both haunting and hopeful. Instrumentation for the album’s nine tracks comes to life via the backline of drummer Jean Marais and bassist Mark-Louis Ellis.
Strutting in with Chico Muñoz’s trumpet balanced with Almuir Botha’s rhythm guitar, the tone certainly falls into a jazz vibe, but this album is about defying gravity, metaphorically speaking. “Clarksdale” grooves down into the old-school jazz-rock instrumental mood that made bands like Pink Floyd legendary. After immersing in Joe Russo’s music, I realized that instrumental composition really reveals its magic after total immersion.
Multiple guest artists on this album provide an opportunity to compare performance styles. On “Declaration” Albert Frost (lead guitar), Rob Nagel (harmonica), and Wilken Calitz (violin) create an aura much like the Moody Blues or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. “Extraditione” brilliantly shifts into the Metallica orchestral-rock feel that I personally love.
“Boreas,” written by Mark Louis Ellis (classical guitar), is the standout track of the album. Restrained, plaintive, and simple, the interplay of guitar and piano is reminiscent of Italy’s embrace of the harpsichord in the 17th century. Serving as an elegant resting place, I personally would love to hear more in this style. “Courtesy” continues in this same space, redefining the album’s overall tone. Stately, it carries with it an overall feeling of defiance. C.J. Bergh lends his classical guitar to “Agreement,” with a final homage to classic chord structures, echoing past masters.
Closing with some contrasts, “Certainty” seems connected to the classical sensibilities of the record. “Frontier” drops back into an interesting place, as Heinrich Wesson (guitar), Riku Latti (accordion) and Nieuwenhuis (guitar) flip the switch back to the contemporary. Somehow, this is a rock instrumental with jazz funk grooves and a classically-driven piano piece blessed with stunning instrumentation. These two ends of the spectrum show the rare weakness of the album: dropping rock or classically-driven songs into the wrong place in the track order hurts the flow of the record. Still, the stylistically diverse record has many nuanced moments throughout the nine songs that show glimpses of music’s eternal connection to the universe.–Lisa Whealy
The Record Company’s drummer and backing vocalist Marc Cazorla notes that the band committed to being the best performance a live music fan ever experienced early on in the band’s existence. Scheduling my return from New York City in 2018 hinged on experiencing a second show at Phoenix’s Crescent Ballroom, this time for their All of This Life tour. My sister danced her way through two sets with me at the High Sierra Music Festival a year later. To say Cazorla, Chris Vos (lead vocals, guitars), and Alex Stiff (bassist and backing vocals) achieved their goal is an understatement.
The band’s self-sufficiency led to 2016-2017’s Give It Back to You. Fans urged the band to record. The album was born in the clubs and bars in Los Angeles where the band cut their teeth, refining their tight, lush, three-piece sound. Recorded in bassist Alex Stiff’s living room, the band’s energy was digitized brilliantly, raw and real. Vos and Cazorla found a connection to authentic blues-rock with Stiff’s backline foundation and three-part background vocal harmonies. There’s a new member of the club that formerly only had Cream and Big Brother and the Holding Company in it.
Limited to 1,000 vinyl records from Concord Records on its Black Friday 2019 release, The Record Company’s Early Songs & Raritiesis an invitation. This release was Initially supported through tour dates which are, of course, postponed. Now, while we sit home together with the band’s release digitized, does it fill the gap until we can hang together again, masked up like superheroes?
“Darlin’ Jane” from 2013 throws it back from the beginning. “Crooked City” feels like a raw version of the track from Give it Back to You, listed as an alternate take. This gritty quality cannot be faked. “Medicine Man” brings to mind one of my favorite performances at the High Sierra Music Festival. A tribal, driving backline pushes the cut along. Hollow vocals reverberate each lyric in true blues-rock style, aching like the great John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton. Sweet!
“New Speedway Boogie” drops in on the band in a living room recording session doing a cover. “Ain’t Love Warm” is that analog, down-and-dirty grit that shifts into a deeper dive with its grungy bar feel. Hopefully, we have all been places where there’s traction from slopped booze as we step up to the stage.
Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City” from 1961 shows a reverence for the band’s primary genre: blues. Each note embraces the history of a band that has fought for each achievement. Staying true to their roots, “Never Gonna Cry For Me,” composed by Stiff and Cazorla, brings back that Muddy Waters vibe, paying homage to the genre. Growling vocals from Vos alternating with harmonica transport us to a full-on juke joint grind. These guys are in charge with no pretenses, and “So Whatcha Want” brings us into the living room for the practice. The rough feel of gem “4 Days 3 Nights” is fitting here, especially sequenced with the tense “The Jailor.”
The Record Company certainly had no ability to foretell the future, seeing the devastation this pandemic would have. This throwback collection gives us all a chance to collect ourselves. Finding the will to be weird, as Jim Morrison said, may help people mask up, as Vos models on the band’s website. Stiff and Cazorla provide the foundation of this soundtrack for a strange new day in live music. It may be a while, but I can’t wait to see them live again. —Lisa Whealy.
We are all haunted at this moment, reality oozing with the uncertainty regarding the shape or substance of the future. History will reflect on what is left behind from these times, with each representation of reality a snapshot in time. Eclectic independent artists often define the moment best. Clara Engel’s self-released Hatching Under the Starsis one of those unique talents, offering up a stunning expression of minimalist folk.
Jack White once said it’s a bad thing to have music remind listeners of another artist. I beg to differ. Occasionally truly rare craft emerges, but most work needs a touchpoint for audiences to grasp its genius. Such is the case here. Much like the gothic folk of Brooklyn’s Charming Disaster, Engel’s talents align with those of The Decemberists, whose Hazards of Love captured the attention of academics at Harvard.
This new album was recorded live in the space of two afternoons at Lynx Music in November 2019. Paul Kolinski handles drums on all songs as well as serving as an engineer. Engel should be noted as a multi-instrumentalist. Vocals are their primary instrument, yet they also cover electric guitar, Hammond organ, keyboard, acoustic twelve-string guitar, chromonica, harmonica, and banjitar. Creating a communal release, artists leveraged the power of technology to add to the album from homes or studios.
Art is prophetic, music often most of all. “To Keep the Ghost at Bay” lays the groundwork for the prophetic road ahead. Mitchell Girio’s bass adds depth that resonates through Lys Guillorn’s lap steel, creating the framework for the music’s voice to soar. “Oiseau Rebelle” directly references Prosper Mérimée, who wrote the source text of Bizet’s 19th century French opera Carmen. The songwriter extends the imagery of love’s gypsy warning, breathy vocals guiding the way deeper into this gothic fairy tale. Tsinder Ash contributes accordion, Celtic harp, and backing vocals, while Sylvia Haynes’ bass, electric guitar, and ocarina help create a transformative experience.
Haynes arranges Stéfan Hoïme’s clarinet, which merges with Brad Deschamps’s ambient guitar on “Preserved in Ice.” This is a masterclass in collaboration, featuring strong musical talents working separately—recording each overdub at homes or studios, exemplifying the nature of the times. Haynes’ classical guitar and bass join Engel’s vocals, questioning the frozen moments aching to find life. Whether plaintive, biblical, or fairytale—this poetic commentary is a waltz of genius. Shifting gears to “Baby Alligators,” Engel offers a real touch of beauty, oozing with imagery. Heavy support from Haynes on glockenspiel, toy piano, electric guitar, and backing vocals reveals a real connection between the artists. Girio’s bass is a steady presence here, along with Chloé Seyrès’s violin and Anne-Marie Soucy’s backing vocals.
Like an ode to black widow spider, the minimalist perfection of “Any Creature” enters with Girio’s steady bass and Piers Oolvai’s bass clarinet. Theatrical, expansive imagery sheds its hypnotic, dreamlike state on each note, redefining this gothic folk into some sort of self-created performance piece waiting for the stage production. “Old Feathered Devil” starts sonically redefining this record, allowing Engel’s voice to seemingly shift up an octave. This may be a deception created with brilliant instrumentation, featuring Guillorn’s lap steel and Gregory Wilson’s synthesizer.
Contrasts are key on “Seven Minutes Past Sunrise,” maybe more so than anywhere else on the album. Michael Thorner’s only album appearance is on piano, along with Astor Wolfe contributing violin and backing vocals; Alexander Paquet lends guitar and whale sounds for an unbelievable connection to the lyrical message.Despite the methodically paced nature of this album, this track screams. Authentic, aching spaces between each note fill with longing, connecting us all in our humanity. True poetry uses sounds to express the writer’s experience, and “Little Blue Fox” is rich with symbolism, suggesting a connection to the dream world in this poetic journey. Josh Marchant’s ambient harp brings back feelings of medieval fairy tales: Brad Deschamps’ ambient guitar and onde magnetique add magic known to be used by Nine Inch Nails’ Alessandro Cortini. A fine line between magic and noise exists with this reverb instrument, successfully wielded here.
We are all wondering what the next news cycle brings: chaos, crisis, or maybe some good news? “The Indifference of Fire” is the record’s swan song, clearly sweet and hopeful. Of course, Engel’s tour was canceled in support of this album; they, like so many other musicians, are finding a way to forge ahead. Luminous, yet with restrained instrumentation, I am impressed that all of the contributing artists recorded together yet apart, physically distant yet musically connected. Hatching Under the Stars is a work of art, best savored numerous times from beginning to end in order to fully feel the full poetry immersion. Regardless of where we all are in this global community at the end of 2020, this will be one of my top three albums of the year.–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.