Press "Enter" to skip to content

Month: January 2022

Premiere: Sonia Stein’s “Letters to You”

Not all pop songs aspire to being classics. Some are just in-the-moment pieces that do their good work in a limited timeframe. Others have staying power. Sonia Stein’s “Letters to You” is an elegant, classic pop song that sails above the crowd and aspires to greatness. This is a song you shouldn’t miss.

Writing lyrics to classic pop songs is hard, because you have to nail the emotion, ground the song in reality, and give the listener space to imagine.  Stein starts off with the lines “I used to have a file on my computer / called ‘Letters to you'”, and well, that is a line. The emotions of nostalgia and regret are already present. The song is firmly in our era (the computer) but not so much that the reference is fleeting (didn’t say “iPhone” or worse). And then there’s all the space to imagine: did Stein delete the folder? Did she lose it? Were the letters sent? Were they (more likely) unsent? There’s so much there, and that’s just the first line. There are other lines in there that land, but it’s that first one that really sucks me in.

(For her part, Stein says: “‘Letters to you’ is nostalgia in a song. I wrote this song when Facebook notified me a high school love of mine is about to become a parent and reliving some memories from that time, reflecting on how strange it is that someone I had thought would always be a part of my life was now a stranger on the internet.”)

The composition is a lovely piano-pop tune that splits the difference between the quirky rhythms of Regina Spektor and the solid left hand of Adele songs. Stein’s distinctive vocal delivery tips it over to the Spektor side of the table, with a touch of Amy Winehouse. The video places Stein and a bright yellow grand piano in a park path lined with hedges and trees; it’s a gorgeous setting for a great, classic song.

Stein has been releasing a string of singles over the past few years, and you can catch up with them all on Spotify.

Drone San says HELLO

Drone San‘s self-titled record on Horribly Loud Records is described in its press as “an electronic music project with acoustic/electroacoustic incursions that fits in the contemporary post-jazz scene.” This, apparently, is exactly the sort of thing I am into these days.

And it makes sense: I’ve been listening to artsy electro for years but dislike heavy doses of the metronomic formalism inherent in techno-related work. I have been edging my way toward jazz, but my interest wanes in proportion to the distance the musicians move away from song structure and melodic continuity. Electronic post-jazz promises to fill the gap tidily: some structure, not too much; weird melodies, but not too chaotic.

Drone San’s record shows off this fusion perfectly. Far from feeling like an interloper in either sphere, this collection sticks the landing in the exact center of a Venn diagram between jazz and electronic. Aptly titled standout “Detroit’s Son” connects the dots of sleek electronic atmospherics, warped and syncopated bass, motorik electronic melodies, and snare-heavy ratatat jazz drumming into a perfectly unified whole. “Ornamentalities” has similarly dusky parts (and … theremin?) applied in different ways, but to the same sorts of success. “Waltzer Matthau” (love the joke) is an equally tight but more cheerful romp through the conventions of both genres to make something new and exciting.

While they can fuse the two genres seamlessly, Drone San can also split them apart. Opener “Drone” is a tension-building post-dub electronic piece that has ODESZA and similar luminaries as peers. Closer “San” is a wistful, elegant piano tune that feels fit for a late-night jazz lounge. The nice touch of opening and closing the record with song titles that form their name shows not only their cleverness but their awareness of what they’re doing as an outfit. They show off their bonafides in the opening and closing tracks, and then show off their ideas in the five middle pieces.

Drone San is a fun, eclectic, exciting record. It’s always fun to hear people joining conversations and pushing things forward. This debut record does a lot to position this duo as a strong voice in the post-jazz conversation. Highly recommended.

2021 January Singles: 1

1. “An Opening” – Fog Chaser. The beginning of every year is an exciting one for me, as I get to see afresh what sorts of things my ears are attuned to. This year it seems like I’m ready for upbeat, warm, slightly woozy sounds, as Fog Chaser’s “An Opening” was one of the first things that really caught my ear in 2022. If you’re looking for some electro with Teen Daze / Ulrich Schnauss vibes, look no further. Highly recommended

2. “Motherland Journey” – Blue Lab Beats feat. Killbeatz and Fela Kuti. This exciting track has afrobeat, Caribbean, and low-key electro vibes all working together for the greater good. It’s a lovely cut.

3. “Host” – Jogging House. Hazy, fuzzy, snowy ambient that sounds the way a warm blanket feels.

4. “B-Side” – Khruangbin and Leon Bridges. Khruangbin and Leon Bridges teaming up was just so much fun (for everyone) that they did it again. Khruangbin is funky, Bridges is soulful, everybody here is doing what they’re great at, this is just awesome.

5. “The World I Remember” – Lights and Motion. 2020 and 2021 weren’t jubilant years, and neither did I lean toward jubilant sounds. Lights and Motion, ever enthusiastic, has released another soaring post-rock track, and it’s just what I’m looking for now. Soar on, Lights and Motion. Soar on.

6. “Pull Your Pants Up” – Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio. Did someone say jubilant? DLO3 are back with more funky, soulful, rays-of-sunshine party music. Love the lead organ melody here.

7. “Love on a real train” – students at Eskilstuna Kulturskola. This is a Tangerine Dream cover by a student orchestra. How can you not love this?

8. “lost found 2001 rare” – eevee. Lo-fi hip-hop from a master of the craft, this time with mellotron-esque keys leading the way.

9. “Cloud Jam (feat. Joel Ross & Marquis Hill)” – Greg Spero. Ratatat drumming, languid vibraphone, delicate piano, and celebratory trumpet come together into a jazz tune that shouldn’t work (due to too many things pulling in different directions) but does beautifully.

10. “Sweeping up breadcrumbs for my lord” – Droneroom. Nine and a half minutes of elegant, stately ambient country: ghostly wind noises accompany the lonesome-sounding solo acoustic guitar. The energy picks up around four minutes but the piece never loses its sense of “being out there by yourself”.

11. “Sisyphus” – Martin Ruby. A beautiful, lonesome, Western guitar piece accentuated by nature sounds and other gentle foley. The animated video sells the vibe beautifully.

12. “Euphemia” – Robin Guthrie. A dreamy, woozy, smooth trip through the space between post-rock, dream-pop and shoegaze.

13. “Norwegian Dream” – Oslo Tapes. Churning, groove-heavy post-rock laden with buzzing synths. It’s full of nervous energy that never explodes in any sort of release, creating a liminal experience of almost-there-but-not.

ARANANAR: Mysteries galore

ARANANAR‘s kosti is a mysterious record. The details are not complex: ARANANAR is a collaboration between Aran Epochal (Gnu) and Anar Badalov (Metal Hearts, Travels, New Dog). They explain that the “album is a collection of odes and laments to the borderlands of the Czech Republic, shrouded in Czech mythology and symbolism.”

Truly, this 11-song, 26-minute collection is a work of art. Those odes are not traditional acoustic ones: the pieces are dusky, spartan, icy, mysterious electro pieces that work together as a unified whole. The approach to each of these songs is similar (but for one): Aran Epochal delivers the vocals in something between a whisper and a talking voice over wiry, icy synths that are bathed in reverb, delay, and other effects. The results are like looking at ’80s electro through a fractured lens. Opener “Leden (January)” is a perfect example of the style.

The most upbeat versions of this concept are the rattling beats of “Doly (Mines)” and the almost cheery arpeggiated squiggles of “Sekaná, dvě piva (Meatloaf, two beers),” while “Dnem (Through the Day)” is morose, glacially-moving post-everything reminiscent of CUTS’ grim forebodings. The majority of the tracks fall between these poles: beats, synths, bass, and vocals with lots of space, lots of atmosphere, and lots of mystery. This is a rare, unusual, intriguing release that fans of adventurous music would do well to check out.

Red Sammy’s Vultures rethinks Americana

We’ve made it another year. Red Sammy’s Vultures, released at the end of 2021, celebrates the resilience of the human spirit in horrifying times. The soul of this album refines Americana as forward-thinking indie folk-rock for a new musical age.

Yes, that’s a weighty statement, but hear me out. In his ninth release, Baltimore-based songwriter Adam Trice leans into heady artistry: much like Bob Dylan sprinkled with Tom Waits and Deer Tick; shaken, not stirred.   

Rich sonic textures and compositional minimalism shape the eight songs of Vultures. Each lyric has room to embrace each note, surrounded by the songwriter’s intention to take us all on a beautiful psychedelic awakening. Stunningly purposeful, Adam Trice leads the existential (but drug-free) journey on acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and lead vocals, along with Bruce Elliott on electric and slide guitar. Greg Humphreys’ bass and backing vocals with David Pearl’s drums, percussion, and backing vocals frame a stark backline. 

Lead single “Kerouac Revisions” with its sarcastic attempts at adulting hits a chord. Who hasn’t been young and dumb? Not everyone achieved great heights of stupidity, but guitar anthems can. Trice and co. pull us in, regardless of where we come from. “Heart” feels like The Andy Griffith Show slipping into a darker truth. This track dramatically highlights a “less is more” vibe via hollow guitar solo and a black hole voice. 

“Gonna Be Alright” is the song of the record. Subtle, honest, haunting, and real, the track is like a warm embrace screaming at the end of the world in calm defiance. Where were you when the world moved on? Simple, repetitive, and soothing, the instrumentation is a masterclass in emotive storybuilding creating the vehicle for raw vocal emotions. This track is flawlessly executed in its lyricism, composition, and performance. 

“The Weight the Kids Must Carry” seems surreal in its realistic appraisal of our world today. The song’s narrator indulges in cynical soothsaying. As an adult, Trice twists his vocal delivery into the songwriter’s pain, shining a spotlight on the pandemic world from a parent’s perspective. Folksy and yet full of hope, this track’s tone cannot disguise the crisis our kids are facing. Elliott’s slide and electric guitar make traveling music out of the horror, but that can’s change the fact that our kids don’t have the tools to cope with the fear and anxiety of the past two years. “Lyin’ Low” carries the Vultures title track duties as an ominous warning to playing it so safe that fear drives inaction. It has a cadence reminiscent of a downtempo incarnation of Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” It’s all about expectations; in the end, vultures always wait for the weak to call it quits.

Chant-like juxtapositions drive “In Balance,” with its aura of spirituality mixed with episodes of psychotic breaks in the midst of medication. Who hasn’t felt this way since the waves of death called COVID-19 tried to rip at our collective sanity? Heading out of Vultures, “Can’t Put You Down” feels like an acoustic atonement for being out of touch. A bit of Rivers Cuomo bleeds through this one. We have seen the worst of ourselves, watching each other. For those unfamiliar with Trice and Red Sammy, even title capitalization is an important clue. Wiith “God is Good and so Are His People” pays homage to the evils witnessed, with unapologetic Johnny Cash style and soothsayer’s vision. 

A precise summation of the last two years, words inadequately represent the gritty musical artistry. The album is reminiscent of Silas J. Dirge’s The Poor Devil, my favorite of 2021. Telling it like it is, songwriter Adam Trice captures the best (and worst) of who we are, note by note, in the Great American Songbook tradition. Red Sammy’s Vultures shines as one of the best journals of our brave new world.–Lisa Whealy