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Author: Stephen Carradini

Neal Casal’s final two songs display his genius and purpose

Everything is moving much too fast, fans of Neal Casal might say. Neal Casal’s final two songs— released on December 3, 2020–seem like closure to the songwriter’s tragic death. Yet is it? A limited-edition 7-inch vinyl is now available for pre-order through the Neal Casal Music Foundation. With the NCMF receiving all of the music’s proceeds, it seems the perfect way to keep Casal’s legacy alive.

Everything is Moving” may be prophetic. It’s a reflection of the songwriter’s challenges, a flash of inner turmoils in lyrical form. Recorded in 2013 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at The Studio G  with Jon Graboff on acoustic guitar, Jeff Hill on bass and Joe Russo on drums, Casal’s acoustic guitar and vocals ooze emotion. Fleshing out the track, Graboff adds pedal steel and electric guitar. John Ginty’s piano,Hammond B-3 organ, and harmony lend an air of reverence to the track. That reverence is found in the vocals contributed by Hill and Jena Kraus as well.

Somehow, “Green Moon” feels like a heartfelt adieu from Neal Casal. Did he know his path already? In many ways, this song is reminiscent of Kenny Roby’s “Silver Moon (for Neal)”. Captured at Venice, California’s Castaway 7 Studios in 2016, this song’s airy feel leads to the transcendent nature of the lyrics. At the beginning of his true solo work, Casal laid down acoustic and electric guitars, lead and background vocals, and piano. To complete the song in October of 2020, Jeff Hill and George Sluppick added bass and drum to the original recording. 

For the kids helped through the Neal Casal Music Foundation, each purchase of Neal Casal’s songbook creates a lasting legacy to music in its purest form. Though he is no longer with us in the physical sense, these two final songs are proof that his spirit has found its final, everlasting purpose: one note, and one song, and one instrument at a time. —Lisa Whealy

Singles, January 2021, pt 2

1. “The Trembling of Glass” – Rachika Nayar. Experimental without becoming overly abstract, Nayar’s track keeps the listeners on their toes: there’s punchy muted synths, layered pad synths, staggered starts and stops, and (suddenly) a beautiful guitar line that caps it all off. This is some evocative worldbuilding, in the vein of Julianna Barwick (although not vocal like Barwick) and the Antlers. Highly recommended.

2. “Dust to Dust” – Frances Luke Accord. According to the press release, this lovely acoustic pop tune “combines children’s nursery rhymes, Sufi poetry and personal reflection to form a meditation on loneliness and a changing planet ravaged by catastrophe.” I hear a beautiful, contemplative, relaxing take on acoustic folk that has a lot Simon and Garfunkel running through its veins. Either way, this is definitely worth your time. Highly recommended.

3. “Summoner” – AJ Rosales. Instrumental folk-rock is not a common thing to pass through the IC inbox, but Rosales’ opener to his recent album Manifestations has windows-down-highway-driving rhythms, Laurel Canyon wistfulness, and an overall upbeat vibe. It’s a lovely cut.

4. “Start Over” – Kris Orlowski. Peppy, smooth vocals mesh with synthesizers in Orlowski’s latest single. The track oozes optimism, but it’s wrapped in uncertainty.–Lisa Whealy

5. “Alternatives to Despair (Part Three)” – Neil March. A pastiche of delicate synth textures, church bells, tape hiss, ocean sounds, and digital background noise that works to evoke deep nostalgia very quickly. A compelling concept and arrangement.

6. “Nebula” – Josh Green. A wispy, breezy bit of electronica that floats somewhere between Teen Daze’s precise landscapes and Four Tet’s hazy worldmaking. The percussion gives the piece lift, and the vocals float along atop the synths. A compelling piece of artsy, low-key electro-pop.

7. “Chilly” – Jeremiah Fraites. A relaxing, melodically comforting piano-driven piece that had me all ready to cozy up to a warm fire until the sonic estimation of the cold wind came in. Thankfully the piercing wind subsides and is replaced by solemn, peaceful work (with sweeping background synth!).

8. “Infinite Mirror (The Vinny Club 8-Bit Version)” – LITE. This remix takes a math-rock track from 2008 and recasts literally every part of the arrangement with 8-bit synths. This approach transforms the track into a dark, grimy, glitchy, intense electro cut. It’s like Sonic the Hedgehog on the darkest timeline.

9. “Don’t Overthink It” – Aaron Lee Tasjan. This new incarnation of Tasjan’s work puts his folky persona aside and turns out a midtempo pop track with space-psych overtones and Lou Reed undertones.

10. “Leaf On the Wind” – Seasoned troubadour Brian Smalley offers up this excerpt of his unique folk-rock opera CHOSEN. –Lisa Whealy

Book Review: Transcendent Waves: How Listening Shapes Our Creative Lives by Lavender Suarez

Lavender Suarez’s slim volume Transcendent Waves is a neat little book. In just over 100 pages, Suarez guides artists on how sound affects creative practices. It’s not directly for musicians or about music; music itself is only quickly mentioned. (But slow enough to make a bonus argument against streaming services!) The focus is much more on sounds, which is an interesting take. I usually prefer books on creative business to books on creative practice, but the content of this one was compelling and easy to get into.

Suarez encourages artists of all media to evaluate the sound around and within them as part of getting in tune with surroundings, tapping into flow state, and ultimately being creative. It’s set up as a friendly guide with serious meaning for the artistic professional–much of the writing is in short sections that feel like bits of a warm conversation with Suarez. Sections commenting on negative aspects of sound (noise pollution, listening to climate change, etc.) don’t quite fit the flow and feel of the book, but overall the vibe is easygoing and the takeaways are plentiful.

The design of the book contributes to the comfortable nature of the work. Instead of being black words on a white page, each of the sections has brightly-colored background pages (dark blue, teal, kelly green and–yes–lavender) and lovely fonts. Suarez uses her handwriting to leave prompts for the reader to ponder about their own relationship with sound, which further create a unique visual aspect to the book. The stark, line-drawn art throughout is also charming. The cover and back page tap into a lightly psychedelic vibe that tries to depict the waves of the title, and the art fits right in with the mood. The design of the book is just as compelling as the content, which is a high praise from this corner.

If you’re looking for a book to help you consider your own creative practice in a new way, Transcendent Waves could give you a new angle on it. And it looks great, to boot!

Desolation Horse sings the blues (and fears and hopes)

We are living in disjointed times. Desolation Horse, the self-titled album from frontman Cooper Trail’s new project on American Standard Time Records, takes aim at those disjointed contradictions of life. In eight songs, Trail’s journey colors this music with real emotions like fear, love, and hope. 

Trail, the drummer for An American Forrest, has found his voice here on this record. Recorded at the century-old OK Theater in Enterprise, Oregon, and friend Olaf Ydstie’s place in Astoria, Oregon, Desolation Horse carries with it the essence of the places it was recorded. The sonic qualities of these multiple locations are brought together in post-production by Nevada Sowle. The great engineering adds to the lyrical qualities and instrumentation of the record, creating an overall textural experience.

“Social anxiety, social awkwardness, growing out of my hometown…those are all themes on this album”, Trail says, “I process things I’m going through with the songs I write.”

Desolation Horse opens with the weirdly pop-oriented “Everyone Was Incredible” feels like a twangy ode to a group hug mentality or a post-Warped Tour homage to teen awkwardness. The title track elevates the songwriting with its syncopated rhythms. Really lo-fi sonically, this cut feels like a garage band track, sneaking in a subtle cool with its echoes and layers. Each production choice is purposeful, avoiding potential chaos despite the whirlwind of notes.

“Heavy Rain” moves into a deeper mood, both somber and serious. Beautifully reminiscent of better times in disguise, Trail’s songwriting and composition shine on this track. Undoubtedly, this is the song of the album: simple, yet so perfectly wrapped in banjo and harmonica-rich instrumentation.

Tripping into a psychedelic rock groove, “I Had In My Hand a Hand” throws down the sixties vibe. The biggest strength of Desolation Horse is its decision to eschew consistency and keep the listener constantly off-balance. For example, “Crumarine Creek” seems soothing in its discordance. Even a violin’s screech seems to fit in this lush perfection, taking the place of Trail’s heartfelt, soothing, and reassuring vocals. 

Why hasn’t anyone claimed “Graceland T-Shirt” for the name of a song? Has it been waiting for this bit of brilliance? Rolling towards the end of this record, this cut is simply a vocal-driven guitar track until the cacophony of instrumentation begins. The layered vocals and essence of Crosby Stills Nash and Young is so nice. This track dances the album towards folk genius. “Superchamp” may be an ode to the music world that used to be: the life of a touring artist. Does that life exist anymore for the music industry, in a post-pandemic world? The song itself is fun, but sad too. Somber closer “A Little Freaky” is the disjointed ending,  connecting  this record into a cohesive piece. Nearly a musical stream of consciousness, in many ways it links each track together. Heavy-handed backline plodding and lightly moving lyrics show we are all a little freaky. But we’re together, human, with all of our failings, as Cooper Trail’s Desolation Horse shows us. –Lisa Whealy

New Year, New Videos

Here we are in a new year, but not much has changed yet in our world. But there is hope, right? In the meantime, connect with these artists on digital music platforms so you won’t miss a livestream performance! 

Leslie Mendelson: Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Leslie Mendelson’s choice to revisit 2018’s “Happy New Year” last December at Applehead Recording in Woodstock, New York, produced this live performance. Not only a stirring piano ballad, its live performance showcases Mendelson’s ability to sweep listeners into transformative musical experiences. While we wait for live music events to return, connect with Leslie Mendelson on all the social media platforms. Her latest EP In the Meantime is available on Bandcamp. 

Eddie Vedder’s “Matter of Time” soars as an example of music’s power to heal. Executive producers Matt Finlin and Karen Barzilay created a visually captivating animated music video with art from animator Pasquale La Montagna. Compositor/Editor Greg Zajac helped make the magic happen, pairing simple lyrics with visuals that capture the artist’s partnership with Epidermolysis Bullosa Research. (Eddie Vedder’s “Matter of Time” has raised donations for EB Research.) More importantly, Eddie Vedder has provided hope for a cure. 

“Get Up, Stand Up” featuring Skip and Cedella Marley published by Playing for Change on January 1, 2021 seems a good way to end 2020. This one comes from the organization’s Songs Around the World series. Keith Richards, harmonica virtuoso Lee Oskar, Malian blues-rock band Songhoy Blues, and hosts of global musicians contribute. 

Lisa Whealy

First Singles, 2021

1. “Bird’s Lament” – Rob Burger. Alto sax, tenor sax, clarinet, bass, and drums inhabit this slinky, urbane piece with great aplomb. Originally composed by Moondog, composer Burger’s take on the piece creates a very street-corner-at-night vibe: a feeling of joyful possibility, subtle sensuousness, and possible danger.

2. “Flâner” – Meril Wubslin. A dense, hypnotic composition that draws on Middle Eastern melodic patterns, stripped-down percussion, and close relationships between all the elements of the piece (vocals, guitars, drums, electronics). Enigmatic in the best way.

3. “Return of the Sun” – Grasscut. A delicate, wistful piece relying on whispered vocals and ostinato piano. The end is compelling and rich.

4. “Calling James (live)” – Timo Lassy & Teppo Mäkynen. This tenor sax and drums duo is creates a staccato gem, a driving collection of pulse, rhythm and melody that feels like a hectic sprint along a friendly path.

5. “Shifting Sands” – Peter Chilvers & Jon Durant. A quirky, gently spiky ambient track in the vein of Brian Eno’s original ambient experiments; background music, but with compositional quality that rewards close listeners.

6. “Long Blue Light” – Leif Vollebekk. Vollebekk’s delivery is magical: he manages to sound casual and deeply emotionally invested at the same time. The chill, pedal-steel led indie-folk backdrop gives plenty of space for his voice to work its wonders.

7. “Joanna (Live)” – Lightning Dust. This is eerie, spacious, deconstructed work; it sounds like a country ballad slowed down into a slowcore acoustic jam with sprinklings of indie-rock thrown over all of it. The vocals are deeply compelling, and the bass work here is particularly memorable.

8. “The Way We Are Created” – Gabriel Vicéns. Splits the difference between groove-heavy vibes and traditional backline-and-solo work, creating a nice tension. I dig the grooves between the bass, drums, and piano.

9. “Bronko” – The Kompressor Experiment. Torrential, furious, pounding post-metal that spans tremolo-heavy post-rock to Rage against the Machine-esque funk-metal to riff-heavy thunder to doomy roars to even some mathy patterned digressions. If you’re looking for a tour of post-metal styles, this track will give it to you in spades. Fans of PG.Lost will find much to love here.

Lisa’s Top Five Albums of the Year

Though there were many noteworthy releases, I chose to keep this list small. The albums from where my songs of the year playlist came from were in contention. These five rose again and again to the top.

5. Clara Engel – Hatching Under the Stars: Reminiscent of The Decemberists’ groundbreaking 2009 release The Hazards of Love, this artist from Toronto shaped a unique musical narrative. Adapting to our pandemic world, Engel’s use of remote recording proves ingenuity serves both the creative and resourceful.

4. Jacob Faurholt – Wake Me Up: Crafting an intimate study of life during this surreal year, Faurholt’s inner portrait starkly dissects each flash in time throughout this year. Recorded at home, this collaborative effort includes musicians from around the world. This album creates the perfect union of lyricism and musicality.

3. Passenger – Patchwork: Michael David Rosenberg, who performs as Passenger, began performing live on social media in 2020, creating a space for connection as the lockdowns began.  His creativity flowed, and he eventually released Patchwork, benefitting The Trussell Trust, working to fight hunger in the United Kingdom.

2. The Suitcase Junket – The End Is New: Multi-instrumentalist Matt Lorenz smashes the traditional storyteller’s persona here on this Renew Records release. With genre-defying artistry, each nuanced shift, directed by producer and keyboardist Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), suggests The Suitcase Junket’s trajectory as an artist will continue to soar.

1. Evan Wardell’s In Like a Lion/Out Like a Light: Wardell’s stylistically original take on the San Francisco sound suggests his East Coast influences have served up new twists in songwriting. Wardell’s creativity refocuses our shared experiences, hitting all of those classic themes of love, death, addiction, confusion, and adolescent angst. There is magic in this man’s artistry, tripping along with each dynamic shift in mood throughout these eleven songs. Sheer listening pleasure.

Evan Wardell does it all for his unique songwriting vision

We’ve nearly gotten to the end of this long strange trip called 2020, hanging on together. For people like me, music connects us, communicating our shared experiences while we do this dance called life: together, apart. Thankfully, Evan Wardell’s debut In Like a Lion // Out Like a Light via Moo Moo Records glows with San Francisco’s surreal sonic luminescence, a perfect soundtrack for this bizarre year.

Wardell’s self-produced songwriting wraps his Martha’s Vineyard roots into an indie-rock palette that feels like something completely new. An engineer at San Francisco’s iconic Hyde Street Studios, artistry bleeds from each thought-provoking track on this record. The musician’s cover art is sheer perfection, displaying a disjointed connection. The cover art concept reflects that each part is necessary for the album’s singular experience. 

What makes this record so good is its relatability. Opener “Gettin Across” is where frantic self-searching meets anxiety head-on. Mixed perfectly, this is a cacophony of chaos attempting to find a musical grounding point. 

Is “Love Song” an attempt for Wardell to fit in? Maybe, but an undertone of sarcasm reminds listeners that this troubadour came from Martha’s Vineyard to the San Francisco scene. This one is a gem, as simple, authentic vocals ooze insecurity bolstered with bravado. Wardell’s production choices reflect a nuanced blend of heavy backline with subtle lift through each angst-filled lyric. The tempo changes of the acoustic-guitar-driven “Get By” set it among the best songs of the year. Angry, pensive, fearful, depressed; 2020 has helped us get in touch with our humanity. So thank you, Evan Wardell, for putting words and music to the crazy that’s been in my head.

“In Like A Lion // Out Like A Light” is a fitting title track to an album that took seven years of songwriting to come to fruition. There’s no doubt this is the title track; it’s gritty and dark, as if The Allman Brothers Band whiplashed into a Kurt Cobain experience. Halfway through, “Holding On” is a peaceful rest inward. Heady and nearly spoken word, this rhythmically-driven track is a look back on life and regrets. It seems harsh. But how many of us are afraid to follow our dreams, bringing forth one excuse or another to support our inaction? “Healthy Wise Free” serves as a sonic tonic. Reminiscent of greats like The Byrds, engaging lyricism is punctuated with stunningly fuzzed-out instrumentation.  

“Wandering” lilts like the best country songs, but Wardell treads firmly in the land of Billy Strings or the late, great Neal Casal. Less limited by genre, talent like his waltzes freely; a credit to his years working in the recording industry, exposed to a vast artistic array. “Giving Up” feels like an understated masterpiece: an indie-rock song with lyrics full of millennial self-loathing. Rivers Cuomo feels like the muse here in this triumph.“BLS” flows in with a laid back rock vibe, while the genius of “With Teeth” recalls  “Bang A Gong” from British rockers T-Rex (inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 2020!).  Heavy, moody, and with a bit of glam, this is the Bay Area sound at its best.

Closing with “Like A Ghost,” there’s no mistake: this album has been birthed from a man whose passion is music in all forms. Soaring, this anthem serves a dual role as a eulogy to any predictability mainstream careers provide. Clearly following his passion, Evan Wardell’s In Like a Lion // Out Like a Light is my favorite album this year. —Lisa Whealy

Kid Dakota Sings the End of the World

Remember, cockroaches survive when the world ends. This year, we’ve experienced the end of life and death as we understand it. On his third release Age of Roaches, Kid Dakota (Darren Jackson) embarks on an existential sonic survival trip. The record, released on Graveface Records, meets the moment with a fury. 

Opener “Age of Roaches” sets the tone for the album’s eight tracks, telling the tale of a world that has succumbed to society’s destruction. Plodding and hopeful, there is a plaintive innocence, like a wandering minstrel working to figure out the end of the world. Rich harmonies with weird echoes evoke a cacophony of confusion. Roaches, here we go! “Homesick” flows like that uptempo escape to nowhere. It’s sonically harsh rock with an almost Phantom of the Opera feel. “Prairie Flowers” descends into the darkness of Jackson’s vocal tone. Stunning, stark, and plaintive, this track is the defining moment of the album. It echoes with absence. Carefully chosen samples propel this song beyond its brilliant lyricism. 

“Two Days” feels like the gunfighter failing to save the day. Restrained instrumentation and stellar mixes makes this song feel like a ghost town, with the timbre of Jackson’s vocal the shining instrument on this cut. Each note purposeful, “Cold War” sets in to a plodding, methodical dissection. The track keeps an ethereal harmonica thread as a point of connection.  

Jackson’s engineering team–Alan Sparhawk, Jake Larson, John Kuker, Nick Tveitbakk, Justin Korhonen, Jeremy Ylvisaker, Kevin Bowe, and Jackson himself–makes the album shine. Boiler Room Mastering’s Collin Jordan helps create the immersive experience of notes and lyrics woven together in an intricate tapestry. Sequencing is the hidden star of this record that produces a listener’s immersive experience; the perfect ordering of the songs should share the production credits just as much as the mixing and mastering. 

Heading out of the record, “Stephen Hawking” continues to contemplate humanity’s existence through a cacophony of sound. (Even darkness finds light.) Such is the case in “Futurecide,” via its essence of 1970s surf music. Its upbeat, infectious, light optimism contrasts with surgically precise lyricism. It’s like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys befriending Charles Manson. Where does darkness swallow the light; or is it vice versa? 

Kid Dakota’s Age of Roaches certainly was engineered with the audiophile in mind. The record is a true sonic treat, dark survivalist imagery and all. Perfectly textured, each note perfectly positioned for the surround sound experience, this is an album meant to be heard from front to back.–Lisa Whealy

Lisa’s Songs of the Year

This year has been an adventure, to say the least. I’m going out on a limb here, but the pandemic has shaped the tsunami of challenges we’ve all overcome. Personally, I have grieved the loss of live music.  I’ve recognized the depths to which music heals my soul. I’ve evolved in my musical tastes; rather, my appreciation for great songwriting has deepened. Our shared experiences during 2020 helped us make sense of unprecedented events together, like the killing of George Floyd, the pandemic, and a sitting American president of the United States waging war on democracy. In no particular order, this playlist represents the past year, mixtape-style. As Stephen says, without further adieu: 

  1. This Land is Your Land – Kris Orlowski
  2. American Crazy – Brothers Osborne
  3. Blessed – Charles Ellsworth
  4. Cry Over Nothing – The Wood Brothers 
  5. Breathe Forever – The Suitcase Junket 
  6. Venice Canals – Passenger
  7. It Goes On – Sun Tailor 
  8. Get By – Evan Wardell 
  9. Listening to the Music  – Zephaniah OHora 
  10. Saturday Night Sage – Noah Lekas with Howlin Rain
  11. Age of Roaches – Kid Dakota
  12. The Dark Isn’t Right – Jacob Faurholt
  13. Coliseum (Live)  – Howlin Rain
  14. Blurred Out – Thunder Dreamer
  15. Soul of This Town – Oliver Wood
  16. A Little Slander, A Little Lace – Clara Engel
  17. Lay it All On Me – Leslie Mendelson
  18. Silver Moon (For Neal) – Kenny Roby
  19. Bury My Bones – Whiskey Myers
  20. The Way of All Meat – Patrick Phelan
  21. Evil is but a Shadow – Miley Cyrus 
  22. Fire – Black Pumas
  23. More – The Suitcase Junket 
  24. Die Alone – FNEAS
  25. Grab Ahold – Seth Walker 
  26. Patience – The Lumineers —Lisa Whealy