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Author: Stephen Carradini

Clara Engel’s Dressed in Borrowed Light

Artistry like Clara Engel’s Dressed in Borrowed Light demands little of us, really. That said, Engel’s six-song journey gently challenges listeners to emerge from our self-imposed darkness in stunning beauty.

This record is an experience; that experience is not for everyone. This journey of introspection is dark at times. Most of us went through emotions similar to these during the past year, yet not everyone is willing to bare their soul so artfully. This trip begins in a lavender garden reminiscent of Lewis Carroll. Whimsical yet haunted, opener “Yesterday We Lived Forever” sets the tone. We hear Engel’s voice, cigar box guitar, electric guitar, shruti box, found percussion (wooden trunk played with soft mallets), tongue drum, chromonica, and gusli, but really what we’re hearing is an artist’s soul laid out for display. Engel (engineering and mixing) and Ian Hawgood (mastering) create a cohesive sonic palette from this variety of instruments.

“In a Bed of Snow” serves as the perfect poetic descent into the light. Haunting harmonies with Brad Deschamps’ atmospheric guitar turn this into one of my favorite tracks of the record. The poetry of these lyrics often defies reasoning, and the metaphor-lush “Pomegranate Seeds” certainly is one of these tracks. Sweetly simple, each lyric has space to wrap around the rich vocal chorus with Paul Kolinski joining on backing vocals and percussion.

The joy of these songs is in their rich textures achieved with such simplicity. Marley M. Rosen adds backing vocals to “Flame Tree Sings” in contrast to Engel: a remarkable stylistic choice, the merging of the two vocal tones is purely devilish magic. Heart of Rags” feels like the death blow that we have all felt–a rhythmic heartbeat moving the performance art to its conclusion. 

We have all survived the same nightmare, but “Silver Scythe” celebrates the survival of these horrors. The stark imagery of this song’s lyricism portrays a reemergence that has purified us all. We have been equalized, despite our best efforts. The addition of Lys Guillorn’s lap steel and George Crotty’s cello seems like sheer perfection. Clara Engel’s Dressed in Borrowed Light is an invitation to join their reimaginings of the present.–Lisa Whealy

Frozen Summer’s Things to Share proves true to its title

The Italian folk scene continues to blossom out of the horror of 2020. Frozen Summer’s third release Things to Share via Piesse Groove Records paints sonic soundscapes with these twelve songs.

Tracking at New Art Studio in Saronno, Lombardia, Italy, and mixing in Verbania by Pierpaolo D’Emilio at GrooveIt Studio creates an incredible aura to the music. Frozen Summer’s style, a classic folk vibe infused with Italian flair, shines. “The Lights” feels like the perfect opener, starkly revealing the band’s eclectic instrumentation in haunting beauty.

Francesco Scalise’s banjo refines the gypsy-like sensory experience that the five-piece group creates. Sweet and lonely, “For Someone” rests in the ambiance of Sabino Rizzuto’s guitar. Creating an almost Beatles-like connection with Mattia Rizzato’s wurlitzer, the contributions from bassist Valter Violini are magic. Giordano Rizzato on drums immerses audiences in an otherworldly experience. 

The heart of the record rests in the songs “Crossing” and “Young Man,” which integrate banjo into soaring bass lines. Yet “Run” is the standout track of the record: frantic, hopeful, and haunting, this song glitters with rich instrumentation. “John Lee” is reminiscent of the greats in banjo-driven folk music, fitting in nicely with Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka.

Frozen Summer closes out their record with a brilliant trio of tracks. “Another Dream” shifts the album’s narrative. Beautifully authentic, the nuanced vocals soar. The masterfully restrained instrumentation captures isolation and longing. “Morning” sets the stage for “A New Love,” with its complete transition to what seems like a funeral march. Letting the banjo reveal the melody allows each banjo note to lighten the song’s somber mood. Frozen Summer’s Things to Share soars as one of this summer’s new folk discoveries.–Lisa Whealy

Quick Hit: Howlin Rain

Howlin Rain’s The Dharma Wheel on their own Silver Current Records is the perfect way to welcome a new beginning for members of the global live music tribe. Music creates a spiritual connection between the performers and the listener. Here, transcendence occurred, blurring the lines between recorded and live music in this holy climax. 

Tim Green (Six Organs Of Admittance, Earthless) returned to co-produce with vocalist/guitarist Ethan Miller the six movements that make up the album. For psychedelic rock audiophiles, it’s no surprise that the vinyl of this album sold out almost immediately once pre-orders were announced. 

Miller provides a steadfast presence on vocals and guitar, while Bernie Worrell throws down synths like a man possessed. Rich, masterful soundscapes rise from each note, with an array of artists contributing to the collaboration. From the iconic Scarlet Rivera (Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue) on the violin to the surreal creativity of Adam MacDougall (Circles Around the Sun, Chris Robinson Brotherhood) on keys, the musical high is palpable. 

Howlin Rain’s The Dharma Wheel unleashed some serious positivity into the universe. Now it’s our gift to share with the global music family.–Lisa Whealy

Montreal Dances Across Borders Vol. 2: Everything works

One of the great joys that Independent Clauses brings me is the ability to wander around musically and figure out what’s good in lots of different genres. In 2019, I got into the deep, dark techno of Traversable Wormhole. (Because I could.) That discovery took me down a path which led to the Montréal Dances Across Borders series. I reviewed the first collection of heavy, dark dance music in the series very favorably, and thus I am thrilled to hear the second collection in the series today.

Jean Grünewald, one of the curators of the project, explained that MDAB is “a series of solidarity compilations bringing together artists of ‘underground dance music’ in Montreal (originally Tiotia:ke in the language of Kanien’kehá:ka people). This project is to remind that this music, embodied in spaces, is above all political – and made to unite across all types of physical or abstract borders.” The solidarity aspect has a practical aspect: all profits of the compilations are donated to Solidarity Across Borders — a non-profit organization that works to protect human rights, active in Montreal since 2003, whose action has been intensified during the pandemic.

Intense is a good entry point into the music: these pieces are all in their own ways intense (except the closer). The genres here span straight-ahead techno, industrial, hardstyle and more; the throughline is that these are all nighttime pieces, primarily in minor keys. Opener “Irion (Live)” by HRT opens with an ominous blast of distortion cut through by complex bass kick patterns. Sounds reminiscent of hi-hats, various zaps, synths, and (eventually) snares slowly accrete to unexpectedly turn this into a banger of a techno cut–without ever losing the distortion undergirding it all. Follow-up “Rinçage” by LE SERVICE HUMAIN goes in the other direction, going minimalist–almost brutalist–in its stripped down core of polyrhythmic bass kick, buzz, and occasional other bits. These two show the wide range of the sounds on the comp.

Yet while these tracks are dark and intense, they only rarely dabble in machine-sounding industrial work. The closest is in the heavily reverbed percussive hits and distorted vocals of PULSUM’s “Demonic Nature, Depressive Misery.” Yet the four-on-the-floor bass gives it away as a techno track dabbling in industrial vibes and not the other way around.(The bio of LE SERVICE HUMAIN also references industrial, although their track here does not evoke as many sonic monikers of the genre as PULSUM’s.) “Red Wine (Live)” by AN_NA similarly dabbles in industrial vocal styles with dour, distorted contralto vocals, but the insistent hardstyle-esque backbeat and singable chorus again yank the sounds back into techno territory.

Given my fascination with the deep techno cuts of Traversable Wormhole, the standout for me is “Walk With Me” by s.talbot. This techno cut is sleek, punchy, and vibrant. The pace is quick without feeling chaotic, as the round tones of the leading synths and the distinctly chosen percussive sounds temper what could otherwise feel like a breakneck, out-of-control piece. Instead, it’s a demonstration of tight control of mood via subtle tonal choices. “Loki’s Flyting” by Inside Blur has a similar vibe, but with the restrictor plate taken off: this one relishes its existence as a techno cut and goes for it full bore.

Some more experimental cuts populate the back end of the record. “POLICE STORY (FEATURING SERIEU X) by HUMAN JUNGLE merges some warped ’90s big beat vibes with ominous, mumbled, distorted spoken word vocals for an unexpected experience. “10 Pixels” by K draws heavily from ’80s noir synthpop for its concept then merges it with Tron for fun. (It is a lot of fun!) “After” by Remote Access is a deconstructed techno cut reliant heavily on polyrhtyhmic snare programming and meticulously constructed atmosphere; bass hits come in sparingly, for release. Its unique approach is distinctive on the record; it’s a late highlight.

Closer “De L’Inconvénient D’Être Né” by DBY is the only track on the compilation that could be called dreamy, and the only one that even flirts with bright sounds key. (Is that … a major key?) As a result, the sounds evoke a heavier Ulrich Schnauss or Teen Daze. This track punches my buttons pretty strongly; I’m ready to hear a lot more DBY after this. It’s an excellent closer to segue the listener out.

Montréal Dances Across Borders Vol. 2 is an extremely well-curated collection. It displays a wide variety of sounds and approaches that all work together; nothing on this record sounds out of place or forced. Everything fits into the vibe of the overall set. This record has captured the energy and vibe of a great DJ set and turned it into a great album. Highly recommended.

Quick Hit: Courtney Marie Andrews

I dare say there is a quiet revolution in female folk singers happening. Even among such lights, Courtney Marie Andrews sways to the beat of her own drum and has for some time, from her 2010 debut No One’s Slate is Clean to 2019’s groundbreaking May Your Kindness Remain. Now, Andrews is on tour in support of her album Old Flowers.

To me, the best folk artists seem to battle with themselves, connecting with that authentic, shining, internal spark. Andrews’ connection with her spark results in a resilient beauty. Opener “Burlap String” sets the tone here. It’s softly sweet, with subtle longing wrapped in the scent of wildflowers, country lilt, and slide guitar. The song blurs genres with its perfectly simple front porch feel. “Guilty” steps in as a piano-driven siren’s song. Oozing emotions, Andrews sings like she owns the stage at the Grand Ole Opry. 

Songwriters like Andrews relish the poetry of their art form. “If I Told” is that wondering whisper many tentative lovers think to themselves. The evocative sonic disruptions throughout represent what we feel when our heartbeat overtakes fear. The heartfelt “Together or Alone” is a pandemic and/or self-actualization anthem. “Carnival Dream,” born of devastating pain and loss, reflects the drum we are all marching to and attempting to escape from. 

Much like Shakey Graves’ Can’t Wake Up reclaimed his freedom to be more than who his fans wanted him to be, Courtney Marie Andrews’ Old Flowers firmly claims her role as a prominent voice of women in folk music. It’s fluid, ever-blossoming, and reaching for the sun. —Lisa Whealy

Quick Hit: Sun Tailor

Music’s power is the universal language it speaks. Israeli songwriter, composer, and producer Arnon Noor (aka Sun Tailor)’s How To Say Silence Soundtrack provides a nuanced experience that undoubtedly enhanced the debut film How To Say Silence in this year’s Docaviv Film Festival.

The film itself spans three generations of women in one family sharing hopes, dreams, and secrets. The music portrays the emotions of growth and despair. Haunting at times, Tailor’s artistry as a Tel Aviv rock musician bleeds into the brooding soundscape that carries this instrumental experience. Featuring Keren Tenenbaum on violin, the sensory immersion highlights the energetic war cry of “Masa Laor” (“to the light” in Hebrew), and the Spanish-tinged dance of “Rivka.” 

Learn more about independent filmmakers and films like How To Say Silence at Docaviv’s website. —Lisa Whealy

Emily Hopkins, Harp Coolness-er

So ever since I discovered Andreas Vollenweider (thanks to Teen Daze including one of his songs in a DJ mix), I’ve loved hearing harps do weird things. I don’t know how I hadn’t heard of Emily Hopkins, given this specific interest of mine, but now I know about her work. She attaches guitar pedals to her harp and makes things get weird. This particular video has her playing around with a Rainger FX Snare Trap pedal and then linking that pedal to a Bit Crusher pedal for more coolness. It’s like lo-fi hiphop, but harp.  Incredibly fun to listen to:

She also has a video that turns her harp into an ambient/goth production outfit, one that turns out Sigur Ros sounds, and another that is like some twinkly-emo/glitchy combo. And tons more. Friends. You need to listen to this. It is fantastic.

Three Singles

There’s no denying that visualization and digitization have changed the global music scene. Forty years have passed since MTV’s August 1, 1981 beginnings. Do you live for curated playlists from trusted sources or hit YouTube Music’s improved sonic experience algorithms to influence your ears or move your soul? Today, the vibes your friends talk about are the ones sending us towards tracks like the jazz/trip-hop fusion brilliance of French-Canadian Caravan Palace’s “Melancolia”.  

“Fashion” from Berlin’s Flowers 15 (off their upcoming release Friends Team) is aligned with the avant garde artistic feel of Italy’s PINHDAR. Suggesting that Flowers 15 is only “flower pop” ignores its depth as social commentary unified with emerging visual arts. The latest singles “Twitter” and “I Hate Instagram” could fall into preconceived ideas of what the songs might mean, but there’s more there.

“La Reputación” – El Italiano. Alejandro Giannini’s El Italiano tells his own story of an Italian heritage whose family emigrated from Calabria, Italy to Argentina in this track. A songwriter who composes in Spanish, “La Reputación” tells the tale of love and its eternal pull, like a matador’s desire to battle to the death in the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. —Lisa Whealy

Crépuscule by Rêves sonores reveals unique treasures

Crépuscule by Rêves sonores is a beautiful, intriguing record. Stefan Christoff’s piano and Nick Schofield’s synthesizers form the basis of the ambient-adjacent works, with contributions from Ari Swan (violin), Devin Brahja Waldman (saxophone) and Nick Kuepfer (field recordings). The descriptions of the main instruments doesn’t tell the story of the record, though: the album is a wide-ranging sonic adventure that moves through many different states.

Opener “Alight” sets the tone through a complex set of electronically manipulated string runs, accentuated by an elegant base of slow-moving strings. The tension of speed and still that is depicted here runs throughout the album. Highlight “Mondial” builds out a fascinating piece from a speedy saxophone pattern, pizzicato violin, a dancing lead violin melody, and gentle synthesizers. It’s not ambient, because it moves; yet it’s still very peaceful despite its motion. It is a unique, wonderful piece.

“Soliloquy” contrasts the joyful “Mondial” with a slow-moving, ominous soundscape. Distant piano, eerie synths, and suspense-movie violin create a harsh, yet intriguing, space for saxophone to play around in. It sounds like someone having a good time in an empty lot at midnight, preferably under a single streetlight. “Seers Theme” and “Spirodon” continue this noir vibe, but they strip out even more action; these tunes approach ambient music via economy of notes, if not in lush washes of sound. (See “Svalbard” for those interested in as close as this album gets to “lush washes.”)

The rest of the album lives between these two poles of dancing movement and stark economy. “Swan Song” pits the motion of “Mondial” against the emptiness of “Soliloquy” and “Seers Theme,” creating a distinctive, unusual vibe that draws me in over and over. “Hearken” and “Lucidity” flow together neatly as a single track, with “Hearken” being an acoustic section and “Lucidity” being a distorted electronic version of the same noir-ish moods (if not quite the same theme). Closer “Reprise” is conceptually similar to “Alight” but for a minor-key song instead of a major-key one.

Crepuscule is a difficult record to describe but an easy one to enjoy. I’ve listened to it many, many times in the past few months, and its intrigue has not failed me yet. It’s not a grower, an album that originally doesn’t click but opens up after multiple listens (“it grew on me”). Instead, it connected easily with me at first, and then revealed further treasures on repeat listens. It’s a truly lovely and interesting work of art. Highly recommended.

August Singles 1

1. “maladaptive daydreams” – shn shn. I like ambient music that creates a meditative, calming state while still having more motion than is strictly necessary for an ambient piece. This calming word builds off floating pad synths but has percussion bopping around after 45 seconds of intro to keep things moving. shn shn’s vocals are beautiful and breathy, engaging the listener with a repeated question of “why don’t you stay here?” It’s a triumph. The visual is also amazing: harrybyharry creates a mashup of magazine collage, vaporwave visuals, and human poses to reflect busy, cluttered (maybe even maladaptive) daydreaming. It too is a triumph. Highly recommended.

2. “June” – Gerycz/Powers/Rolin. “What if bluegrass, but weird?” has a lot of answers. Balmorhea’s was “yea, post-rock!” Gercyz/Powers/Rolin’s answer is “post-bluegrass”; pastoral vibes still exist in spades, but the guitar tone has distinctly post-rock overtones. The feel is unique and interesting. Highly recommended.

3. “Skylarks” – Immersion with Ulrich Schnauss. I love Schnauss’s lush, wide-screen electronic landscapes. Paired up with Immersion here, you can feel Schnauss’s work pulling the precise, almost pointillist melodies into more open spaces. An excellent partnership. Highly recommended.

4. “Feted” – Falcon Arrow. Falcon Arrow’s distorted-bass-and-drums post-rock never fails to be acrobatic and impressive, but this time they add in an enormous amount of sludgy, doomy low-end to the mix. Falcon Arrow just always knows what’s up, and this time is no exception. Also, their album art is always fantastically evocative sci-fi stuff, and this piece of art is perfectly tuned to the sludgy musical content. Highly recommended.

5. “Planet B” – Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra. “Planet B” offers us a jazz cruise through NYC. Richly visual, Bernstein’s composition seems the perfect enticement to his album Tinctures In Time (Community Music, Vol. 1) dropping September 3. Kit Fitzgerald’s visuals capture the varied essence of this track, adding new textures to the slow jazz groove. As the first of four planned releases on Royal Potato Family, Bernstein soars with his first original compositions in twenty years. —Lisa Whealy

6. “Balafô Douma” – N’famady Kouyaté. Whoa. This is a invigorating, surprising blast of balafon (a traditional wooden African xylophone), horns, percussion, and soaring vocals. This is maximalist work in the best way.

7. “Always” – E.VAX and Ratatat. Evan Mast (E.Vax) gives collab credit to his old duo here, and it makes sense: this one is a little more beat-heavy (like Ratatat’s work) than opening E.VAX single “Karst.”

8. “Aliso” – FLDPLN. Somewhere between Teen Daze and M83, FLDPLN is making evocative, immersive pop that makes me want to write phrases like “Cruiserweight creamy wave” and “saxophone dream state.” No apologies, no regrets.

9. “Momento Presente” – Mas Aya. Stuttering, fluttering, and chirping, this amalgam of beats, flutes, and shakers is a gentle whirlwind, an enveloping cloud, a chaotic puff, a punchy softness.

10. “I pulled the sheet back over my head” – The Chairman Dances. If you fuse the lyrical sentiments of The Mountain Goats circa The Life of the World to Come with squiggly indie rock guitar lines and a rattling rhythm section, you’ll come out with this left-field pop gem.

11. “Spooky Action” – Charming Disaster. The Brooklyn-based Charming Disaster are the goth folk duo of Ellia Bisker and Jeff Morris. Their latest single embodies the essence of pandemic, with desire for connection oozing through each lyric. Examining the role of connection in our lives, this sweetly simple acoustic beauty written during lockdown soars, vibrating with its embedded morse code. –Lisa Whealy

12. “Pretty” – Turn Zero. Turn Zero captures the essence of innocence in this 80/20 Records release featuring Nick Barker. This indie rock track connects grabbing the vibe of some of Warped Tour’s greatest such as  Paramour’s Hayley Williams.–Lisa Whealy

13. “Hidden – Merimell Remix” – Matthew Creed. Sometimes you just need a big, stomping, industrial-tinged techno cut to get things going. This is that pounding, fun cut.