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Interview: Jordan Hoban of jesus is the path to heaven

jesus is the path to heaven (formerly JPH) has been a staple of this blog for the last year, as Jordan Hoban and co. have released two projects in 2022. The expansive and ambitious A Holy Hour (which we premiered two pieces from!)  landed on my top ten of the year.

The more recent Book of Moths is a more intimate affair. While it is no less experimental (see the enigmatic loops of “YMMBCALTM,” which encompasses the titular insect in its acronym), it focuses in on shorter pieces with more spartan arrangements. It also strongly returns to a theme of Hoban’s work: scriptural and religious texts as lyrics. Along with these foci comes the aforementioned name change, which got me thinking about the tension between tradition and experimentation.

Happily, Jordan Hoban was kind enough to sit down and talk to me about that idea (and many others) recently! (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Stephen Carradini (SC): Well, first off just thank you very much for talking with us. You know, we’ve been exchanging emails for years at this point, but it’s nice to talk to you in (digital) person for the first time.

The thing that made me want to talk to you more in depth is, you recently changed the name of your project from JPH to jesus is the path to heaven. Can you tell us why you felt like now is the time for a change? What does it mean for the project and for you?

Jordan Hoban (JPH): It started off as a joke that one of our old bandmates made to me. They said, “whenever anyone asks what JPH means,” they would say, “it means Jordan’s Path to Heaven.” And I thought that was really funny.

But then I thought, that’s also definitely not what I wanted it to be. That coupled with: as a band, we’re working together, and we’re growing together and making music as a group. And it’s not just me doing stuff anymore. So to be more inclusive for them, so they could feel like they had some stake in it. But I also wanted it to have thematic elements that inspire me to continue writing music.

So I thought, “Jordan’s path to heaven” was a really funny idea, and I thought, Well, jesus is the path to heaven is not funny. It’s weirdly been evoking the absolute correct interpretation—for the most part—with every person that I’ve talked to. By correct, I mean my intention, not correct.

But my intent has actually been coming across more than I thought it would, which has been a happy surprise. Because members of the band were really skeptical. And then people I would talk to were skeptical, because they thought we were either trying to be a parody band, or we were trying to do something that was hateful toward Christianity, which is not my intent at all.

If anything, I think that Christianity is being ushered into a maturity where people who identify with it can have a meaningful conversation with it and not in a heretical way. Especially if you’ve been raised evangelical, as I have been, any kind of dissent from the common interpretation of Scripture is seen as somehow heretical or seen as indued with evil and unwelcome. And I think it’s changing, and I love seeing that. Especially with things like in the emergent church, with Peter Rollins and Rob Bell, and these great philosopher/theologians that are really starting to see the Scriptures—I don’t want to say in a non-spiritual and only-in-an-academic way—but Spiritual with a big S instead of a small s, which I would say what I know I was raised with.

Like essentially, you’re in this community, and you’re going to be in this community or you’re going to go to hell, and that’s not Spirituality. That’s a cult. So I think for me, I’m starting to have that conversation with my childhood and with my faith and my spirituality, and it’s never going to be detached from Christian symbols.

I was so ingrained with it, since I’ve been a child. My grandfather was a minister who worked for Billy Graham, so that just, you know, it’s baked in. And my mother just stuck with it, and Dad was Catholic and all that stuff.

SC: Yeah, I mean, it seems like you’ve been doing it for a while. Hell Verses is a pretty clear exploration of some more complicated issues.

JPH: Hell Verses was interesting because I wrote it relatively quickly. I just thought, “you know, I want to talk about hell.” And, you know, that’s such a bigger part of the evangelical, especially the Baptist—I’m learning that evangelical can mean maybe Methodist and Presbyterian and Lutheran. Maybe Lutheran wouldn’t be that; maybe more Protestant base. I’m not familiar with those sects as much, except I’m learning that they seem more inclusive and more open minded than the Baptists that I grew up with. Southern and Independent Baptists. Were you raised Independent or Southern Baptist?

SC: I was raised in a Bible church, which is basically a Baptist church that doesn’t want to give to the OMB, the missions board.

JPH: Yeah, me too. It was just like hellfire and brimstone preaching. And I went to school at that church, and so we would have chapel like twice a day. Which, we can get into going and living in a monastery at some point, but there’s a definite connection between that and growing up with it and hating it. But there’s a huge difference in what you’re being subjected to in a fire and brimstone Independent Baptist Christian School.

But Hell Verses was relatively fast. I thought, “you know, leave it simple, just have the verses themselves, and sort of replicate a kind of traditional sound.” Kind of draw those two worlds together. And I kept thinking, after doing that, how much I really want to just keep working with Bible verses. And it’s the same thing that I love about traditional songs. I think, that humans have really hit the peak of lyrics and poetry pretty early on.

At some point, I can add. I think I’ll be able to add something that has some kind of importance, that hasn’t been said before. But there’s nothing that bothers me more than a love song or just your regular trope-y, lyrical exploration of whatever human experience is wanting to be explored.

I think that the Bible does that surprisingly well. Psalms specifically, Job especially. Nothing more human than sorrow. And you see that in the Bible, explored in this antiquated way because of the interpretations and language of it. In such a human way, that’s just so filled with anger. And like almost—not even almost. It is accusatory toward God. Like there are so many parts of Psalms were where the writers are like, “How could you do this to me?”

And you know, I just want to keep working with the Bible, I want to keep working with Biblical themes and religious themes. And the name—

SC: And Job is the same way.

JPH: Yeah. Yeah, we put Job in the new EP as well, in a very simplified way.

But just to keep that, to have the name be as authoritarian as it feels. But we’ve had people say that it seems bigoted, which I thought was kind of on the nose to what we’re trying to draw attention to that is inherent in a certain brand of Christianity. There is a sort of exclusive bigotry, and to do that in a way that subverts this really strong statement with nuance.

Because our music is really—it’s not something you can just walk into and go, “Oh, I like that!” It does require. It requires a bit of yourself. I don’t think that it’s, like, unlistenable at all. I think it’s really—especially our live stuff—is really beautiful, and I’m very proud of what the live band and I have been doing. But it still requires some attention and some presence to listen to it, which I think is what helps.

The name is more grabbing than JPH, which you’re just like, “What does that mean?” And I can explain, “Oh, it’s my initials,” and they are like, “all right.” And at a point I was like, “Yeah, why am I doing this anymore?” The usefulness of JPH was because my father passed and I wanted to include him.

SC: So you’re talking about this a little bit already, but I’m fascinated particularly that you make boundary-pushing music, right? Like, I don’t know how you feel about the word “experimental.” Some people hate it. Some people love it. But you make very boundary-pushing music. And so, to tie your name to the Christian tradition, I think, is a really unique and interesting move. So how does that tension between tradition and exploration work in your mind?

JPH: I think that’s where I feel most comfortable making art. I’m back in school now. I’m studying art history and English, and that is just tradition. But there’s something about learning about tradition and learning about the way that perhaps our perception of what tradition was, was never accurate in the first place. Because it’s consistently being changed every decade, every five years here. And it’s a constant conversation happening between all disciplines and all art movements, and all literary movements, and it’s a tradition that I want to be a part of.

And at the same time, I think that there’s an individual responsibility to add your voice, the individual’s voice, to that conversation. I think that’s where the experimental part comes in when people hear my music, because they think, “Oh, that seems kind of weird.” It’s like, “Well, that’s my input in it.” I don’t personally think it’s that weird. Especially the music I listen to, it doesn’t feel that far left. And sometimes I think it sounds, maybe, too familiar.

But I don’t see that as a problem. I mean, I grew up listening to Neutral Milk Hotel, which is like four chords and Jeff Mangum just belting out that he loves Jesus. Like, as simple as you can get. I think that our music is really simple. It’s like four chords. I think it’s the production that’s different, and especially on the new one we use a lot of loops. And the loops can be, I think, a little off-putting for people. But I think that there’s again: the audience’s participation and presence with it is crucial to the music. But, I think as simple and melodic and beautiful as you can be while allowing your own individual voice to be present—that puts you in special ground.

SC: I love that you mentioned the “King of Carrot Flowers.” When I was early on in my musical exploration, I landed on that album. And that always struck me as like, that tension of being deeply earnest and also sort of affected at the same time. Like, “Do you really love Jesus Christ, or do you not? Like, is that the point? Do we know?”

And so, I chose to interpret it just very earnestly in the context of the rest of the album. But now that I’m older, there is that tension of how it can land in so many different ways.

JPH: I think that’s where good, in terms of thought-provoking music and music that engages me specifically, exists. Like, I don’t know what Jeff Mangum meant by that. I don’t care. Because the way that I take it on my individual listens of it is going to change. And there’s the fact that people like him, or Nick Cave, or Current 93, or mewithoutYou (which we know mewithoutYou is Christian) but they all kind of exist in that tension. I do bring up mewithoutYou because they were, you know, obviously inspired by Neutral Milk Hotel.

People think that we’re really inspired by mewithoutYou, which I think is really funny, because I don’t think we sound anything like mewithoutYou. It’s so strange for people to hear music that has religious themes done in a not traditional way that their brains go, “Well, what is it kind of like?” mewithoutYou is the first thing that comes up for people, or Sufjan Stevens. Sufjan I get for early stuff. Totally. Harmony-based stuff and time signatures and percussion, I get that. But at the same time, it’s like, “we’re not as wordy.”

SC: You mentioned earlier the Book of Moths was influenced by your time at Mepkin Abbey. Can you speak more about how that place affected you in your writing?

I wrote that whole album in the music room in Mepkin Abbey, between our hours. That place is incredibly special to me, for—I’ll reduce it to two really good reasons out of many reasons. It gave me a chance to really experience high church and the discipline of very traditional expressions of faith.

Which, Independent Baptists are as far afield from that as possible. It feels traditional to me, because, even though it’s existed for maybe 150 to 200 years, it was all I knew growing up. But then you get into like monasticism, which has existed since 1090. Or the Trappists, especially. You’re like, “Oh, this is like actually traditional worship. Like, this is really what Christians did, and they’ve been doing it in the same way-ish for that amount of time.” And that’s an incredibly long, almost a thousand or over a thousand years. Like at some point, that’s incredible. So I thought that was really interesting to connect discipline with faith. Like personal, self-discipline with faith.

The second thing that I really learned at Mepkin was a sort of disillusion of faith. This is recent, maybe three years ago now. I went in with these really lofty ideas, the sort of Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton idea of what monasticism is.

And this, I think, was really good for me, as I had this wonderful opportunity to stay for a year and see other people come in with that same perspective. A lot of young men my age would come in. A lot of musicians would come in, which is kind of interesting. Artists and musicians were very drawn. Young men, artists and musicians. Very few young women—there were some, but it was mostly young men between the ages of 20 and 35. And then there was a break, and then between fifty and eighty.

And I got to see them come in with these lofty ideas about religion, monasticism, lots of opinions on the comfort of American life and how it’s detrimental to personal development, all the stuff that I had going in. And then to realize like, “Oh, man, we’re just like—we don’t know anything!”

I had no idea! They’re people. All these monks are just people. And they have a vow of silence that they are so ready to break at any moment, because they’re so starved for having real, meaningful conversations with people who they don’t see every single day. And plus, like all the bureaucracy involved, and the issues with leadership and the tension inside of the community itself. It was like such a hyper-focused and crystallized representation of the exterior world outside the monastic walls that I thought, “Wow, what am I doing? I’m tricking myself into thinking that there is actually a higher understanding of spirituality that we cannot have.” But there isn’t, I don’t think.

There’s experience that, I think, leads you to a higher understanding of your own spiritual experience, but you have to go and experience it. It’s kind of the Kierkegaard existential thing: where through the experiencing of your own life and the faith and the way that you will develop, you begin to actually develop your spirituality. As opposed to like, “I’m going to go to a monastery and become more spiritual.” It just doesn’t work like that. And I saw a lot of people either broken by it, or… A lot of people broken by it. We lost like seven or eight people while I was there just who left. They were just done.

Yeah, I was like, “I’m still here!” Because by that point I was like, “I know the trick.” The trick is that you’re living. You’re not leaving the world, you’re entering the world, but in a really dense way, in an inescapable way. It’s an intense experience to just live with a bunch of the same people, and to pray at like four in the morning until seven at night and work all day long, and you’re never alone. You’re always reading the same thing. There’s just a point where: it isn’t the spirituality.

And I think about this thing Richard Rohr said. He told he would tell this story. (This is before I went to Mepkin.) One of the things that intrigued me about monasticism was Richard Rohr’s Franciscan experience with monasticism, which is radically different than a Trappist, because they don’t have cloisters.

I didn’t know that! He’s like living in Albuquerque, being able to like go out to Black Rock Coffee or whatever he wants to do. And you know we’re like living in this little hovel. A beautiful hovel, by the way. Mepkin is absolutely gorgeous. I urge everyone to have that experience.

Anyway, what he said was, He went to Gethsemani. He went to see Thomas Merton’s novitiate, and he went to visit this one hermit that lived outside. Richard went out, and he went walking on the trails, and he saw this hermit. He was just walking around outside, and he said, “Hey, Richard, I knew that you were coming. I just wanted you to know that if there’s one thing that I could leave with you that you could tell to the world, it’s that God isn’t out there. God is here.” I was like, “That’s the best takeaway that you can get.”

It’s not that God is somewhere that you are pining to get to, or striving to appeal to. You’re missing the point. It’s in the earth. And that can be interpreted in any way you like: pantheist or deistic, or even just representative or symbolically. But we only can understand the divine through material terminology anyway. All the best poetry about God is incredibly reliant upon imagery from the natural world. Why? That’s how we understand that.

So all of that was something that I felt was really important, and really pressed upon me at my time at Mepkin.

SC: It’s interesting that you mentioned Merton. I’ve been listening a lot to Brian Harnetty’s Words and Silences. Harnetty is a composer who uses found audio over all of his compositions, and he did a whole album of his work with Merton’s tape-recorded musings over it. It came out earlier this year. It’s amazing. You would love it.

JPH: I just looked it up.

SC: Especially the more you know about Merton, the more interesting it becomes. I think you’d be very interested in it. On that note, the closing question I give to everybody is: What are you listening to right now? What sorts of things are rattling around in your brain?

JPH: The new Björk album. So, so, just resplendent. I was really impressed. I did not connect with the singles, but I thought, “Well, it is Björk.” Björk is a near perfect composer, so I want to give the whole album a listen. And really, as an entire album, it is a work of art. And I urge you to hear if you haven’t heard it yet.

Apart from that, you know I’ve been listening to a lot of Current 93. I’ve been revisiting Neutral Milk Hotel—their live stuff, which I never really delved into, which I was really impressed with. I just heard of this New Zealand artist named Aldous Harding and I’m very gradually getting into her stuff. But I’m really impressed with what I’ve seen, like visuals that she puts out, as well as the music. It’s really singer-songwritery, which is interesting because I don’t really like that very much, but it relies a lot on silence and an almost staccato delivery. It’s like she’s playing with the singer songwriter structure. But she’s doing singer-songwriter stuff.

SC: Well, thank you so much for taking some time to talk with us. I’ve just been really fascinated with your work, and really appreciative that you took some time to sit with me and talk about it.

JPH: I just want to add a real debt of gratitude to you for supporting what I’ve been doing for as long as you’ve supported me, I think, six years, seven years now. So thank you. And also to acknowledge the band that I’m working with, which is Tommy Underhill, Meara, and Zach Jordan. They have been making our live shows just really incredible. We just played one last night, and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had playing music in quite a while. And very soon we’re going to be all recording and writing together. So I want to shout out to them for just being wonderful.

Brian Harnetty’s Words and Silences: An amazing, challenging, intriguing composition

At an important point in my life last year, Thomas Merton’s No Man Is an Island landed in my hands. In it, the 20th century monk/mystic/author/international cause célèbre argues that the growth of the virtue of charity in a person is a way of assessing, sanctifying, and maintaining the internal state of the soul. It was a comfort in a difficult time, and I proceeded to dog-ear 20+ pages in it. I had never read anything by Merton (I had him confused with Thomas à Kempis, which is only approximately 500 years off), but I was deeply intrigued after my first experience.

My second experience of Merton was via Brian Harnetty‘s Words and Silences, which is one of the most intriguing and complex records I’ve heard all year. (It’s already landed in my Top Ten of the year, because this review is late.) Harnetty is a composer who primarily works with strings, woodwinds, piano, and found sound. The found sound in Words and Silences is a collection of tape recorded thoughts that Merton created in the late 1960s at his hermitage in the Abbey of Gethsemani. The fusion of Merton’s voice, cassette-noise artifacts, Harnetty’s elegant and detailed compositions, and the delicate instrumental performances produce some of the most amazing, challenging work of the year.

Let’s start with Merton: the fact that Thomas Merton’s voice is coming out of my speakers is a somewhat miraculous feeling. The tone of Merton’s voice is serious, warm, calm, and thoughtful. He speaks the way that the prose of No Man Is an Island sounds.

Merton’s topics here are carefully curated to reflect a few core ideas. The idea of man being unable to escape the perplexity of being, although animals can, appears often throughout the album, most prominently in “Sound of an Unperplexed Wren.” Mystic thoughts discussing Ibn al-Arabi’s thoughts on the nature of the self and life reflect Merton’s interest in interfaith understanding (“Who Is This I?”, “Breath Water Silence,” “One Plus One Equals One”).

These two topics are the most directly religious of the themes, with others going in different directions. Meta-analysis of what recording actually does for ideas (obscures some things, makes some things plain) is the fascinating topic of “Thinking Out Loud in a Hermitage. (The subtle clicking of the tape recorded that comes along with every recording of Merton becomes just as friendly as the sound of Merton’s voice and Harnetty’s delicate piano. The sonics never work against the subtle rhythm to create unintended discord. It’s this sort of detail that makes the record so exquisite.) His interest in poetry and jazz (“A Feast of Liberation,” “New Year’s Eve Party of One,” “Well Cats Now We Change Our Tune”) pops up too. There’s also a discussion of a Foucault book, which is the first time I’ve ever heard music about Foucault (“”Let There Be a Moving Mosaic of This Rich Material”).

And, although I have been explaining the spoken word that is featured here, this is not a series of lectures. Harnetty’s compositions here work to showcase ideas of Merton’s. Harnetty’s work is often highly emotional; the found sounds that Harnetty works with often don’t reveal specific interpretations. In previous works like Shawnee, Ohio and Silent City, Harnetty used his compositions to guide the listener into what to feel about the found sound presentation. In Words and Silences, Harnetty pulls back from that impulse, letting the compositions augment the feelings that Merton himself brings up. Merton’s main ideas revolve around uncertainty and questioning, and thus so do the compositions here.

“A Feast of Liberation” sees Merton talking conducting “an experimental meditation against a background of jazz,” and the sonic environment to fit that is a delicate arrangement of staccato piano and mournful woodwind. Why so glum? Merton mentions the 1968 Louisville riots as the occasion of the meditation. Yet as the piece continues on, the interlocking rhythms of the arrangement do give a feeling of mournful jazz. The fusion of historical context, religious activity, and musical sensibility delivers a truly evocative experience.

The heart of the record is “Who Is This I?”, which continues the theme of jazz-inflected, woodwind-heavy compositions. Merton’s words are some of the most mystical on the record, and Harnetty’s arrangement offers mysterious, pensive vignettes between bursts of Merton speaking. The conversation of Harnetty and Merton via art is most prominent here: Merton speaks, Harnetty speaks (through the composition), Merton speaks, and then their work fuses together. It’s a masterful handling of the style: Harnetty’s vision about what he wants to say arrives through a fusion of what has come before (Merton’s thoughts) and what he is creating (the musical compositions).

The only piece here that features no Merton in the body of the composition is titled poignantly: “Strange Things You Sometimes Find.” In the same way that Merton marvels over his discovery and use of the tape recorder, Harnetty here delivers a tender, 68-second piano rumination on the whole process of doing this sort of work. Merton postscripts the piece: “Sadness has filled your heart. Strange things you sometimes find.”

It’s not all meditative. Elsewhere there’s fun and beauty: “New Year’s Eve Party of One” is Merton describing music that he loves over lightly jaunty piano, and “A Hawk Flew Fast Away” is an elegant composition that shows Merton reading a pastoral poem he composed. Harnetty’s goal here isn’t to give a full accounting of Merton (who could?), but he does show starkly different facets of his self and work.

Words and Silences is a true collection: the album is bookended by “Sound of an Unperplexed Wren” and “One Plus One Equals One,” which feature the same melody in variation. (You could argue that “One Plus One” is a variation of “Sound,” but Merton might suggest that it really depends on which part of the recording you listen to first.) Ultimately, these two pieces lay out main melodic and lyrical themes, pointing the listener back into the work to reveal more from the sounds and words.

Harnetty’s vision here is immense: combining the thoughts of a spiritual giant like Merton with compositions that support and showcase the ideas while balancing complex sonic artifacts is a ton to wrap one’s head around. And yet, Harnetty achieves all of that, and the collection here soars. The work is distinctive, immersive, and poignant. It’s an unalloyed triumph and a magnificent achievement. Highly recommended.

Independent Clauses Songs of the Year Playlist + Lisa’s Top 7 of the Year

Does anybody else wonder where 2022 went? Maybe the pandemic or Putin influenced my lack of spatial awareness, but the music remains the grounding force that keeps me somewhat sane.  Fortunately or unfortunately, my time is consumed by earning a doctorate and starting the nonprofit Sound of Humanity Music Project, which focuses on addressing music education and policy disparities.  

The 2022 IC Year End Playlist flows genreless, but some facts here are clear. From Seth Walker’s “The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be” to Media’s “M.E.6,” introspection shapes our understanding of how we fit in this wild, ever-changing world. Considering where this year has taken us, we rest at the precipice of massive cultural change that music carries into the air, one note at a time. (The Best Songs of 2022 are in no particular order in this playlist.)

Music changes us. When I am drowning under the world’s weight, I tap into the folks on this list. Shamar Allen works with the Martin Luther King Jr., High School, and rapper Saweetie launched the Icy Baby Foundation to promote financial literacy in Black and Brown communities in Losa Angeles, Sacramento, Oakland, and Las Vegas. What does change sound like to you? –Lisa Whealy

My contributions to the End of Year Playlist show my continued interest in folk, electronic, and instrumental music. The moods span the gamut: in folk, things range from Fantastic Cat’s sarcastic and cynical “C’Mon Armageddon” to Joseph Decosimo’s deeply earnest and hopeful “Trouble.” In the instrumental realm, the peaceful “Caddo Lake” by Cameron Knowler and Eli Winter sits at the opposite end of the line from the ecstatic marching band party that is The Bogie Band’s “The Prophets in the City (Arrival, Balance, Discipline, Joy).” The work of indigenous artists Joe Rainey and Medicine Singers made an impression on me, too. A blessing for 2023: May you continue to find new music that meets you wherever you are and helps you go forward. –Stephen Carradini 

Here are my (Lisa’s) top seven albums of 2022:

7. Shemekia CopelandDone Come Too Far. Copeland’s album attacks the American narrative of racism from her perspective as a talented Black songwriter weaving in-your-face truths with various guest artists. We chose to highlight her work with Grammy-winning Mississippi Blues guitarist Cedric Burnside

6. Lisa Morales defined her path as a songwriter, producer, and performer, embracing her bilingual heritage by releasing She Ought to Be King. Wrapping her folk-rock guitar with her Mexican American roots, Morales reminds us of the simple pleasures that family and community can create. Her rich authenticity is a priceless gift for us all to hear.

5. Seth Walker delivered I Hope I Know, letting us know he went through the pandemic, politics, and bulletproof relationships. His vocal tone in a relaxed jazz style is the understatement of the decade, and I know what year it is.

4. Samantha Fish is the throwback southern rock guitarist goddess audiences didn’t know they craved. Tapping into the visceral appeal of that 1960s rock sex kitten who shreds like a sabertooth tiger, Fish connects the southern strut to Marilyn Monroe style. Her songwriting brings to mind songwriter Laura Nyro, the woman behind what became known as the soundtrack of the 1960s. A breathtaking performer, her technical skill oozes from each record she releases. 

3. Jacob Faurholt might be known as one of the most prolific songwriters in Denmark, but I consider him to be one of our time’s truly gifted artists. Not only does his songwriting on When the Spiders Crawl capture a minimalist folk aesthetic that feels transformative, but his production choices make it difficult to remember that he self-produced and recorded in his home studio. Dare I say he is a alt-folk genius?

2. Abraham Alexander took the stage at the Rialto Theatre in Tucson, Arizona, this summer. The Ten Atoms family member guitarist and songwriter elevated the idea of a singer-songwriter. His work with artists like Gary Clark, Jr. reflects Alexander’s skill as a guitarist. Beautifully nuanced vocal delivery graces his authenticity as a storyteller.

1. We are all together with one common interest. Music binds us together, and Jesper Lindell’s Twilights is perfect, illuminating our humanity note by note. Lindell is gifted, and we all ought to take notice. His music connects the empty spaces between us with the truth in song that might get us to that next plane, train, or road back to where we are supposed to be. –Lisa Whealy

Stephen’s Top Ten Albums of 2022

This year’s top ten reflects my continued exploration of genres and sounds that are new to me. From full-on experimental music to electronic to composition to folk to totally genre-defying work, there’s a lot of different points on the map. Much of this music falls on the quieter side of things; in this chaotic year of headlines, I wanted peaceful sounds. Several of these albums were close companions on that quest.

10. JPH – A Holy Hour. A deeply experimental album that plays with repetition to draw out and investigate the experience of emotions.

9. Drone San – Drone San. Exemplary electrojazz that deconstructs and reconstructs the conventions of both genres.

8. Brown Calvin – d i m e n s i o n // p e r s p e c t i v e. Brown Calvin’s mesmerizing take on chill electronic music pushes boundaries in all directions, resulting in an experience not like any other this year.

7. Cameron Blake – Mercy for the Gentle Kind. An intimate rumination on healing from trauma, the likes of which we need more of.

6. Cemento Atlantico – Rotte Interrotte. It arrived in 2021, but I heard about it in 2022: this world-spanning tour of electronica and found sound is a thrill to listen to.

5. Andrew Yarovenko – Start Somewhere. A distinctive blend of flamenco, electronica, chamber pop, and acoustic guitar powers Yarovenko’s lovely compositions.

4. Brian Harnetty – Words and Silences. Dense without being overbearing, thought-provoking without sacrificing enjoyment, philosophical without being esoteric (usually); Harnetty’s compositions providing grounding for Thomas Merton’s tape-recorded thoughts is one of the most unusual and yet effective concepts I’ve listened to this year.

3. The Bogie Band featuring Joe Russo – The Prophets in the City. The soul of a marching band, the heart of a funk outfit, and the theatrics of a jazz combo. I’ve never heard anything like it.

2. Aaron Fisher and Rob Stevenson – Sightseeing. Brilliant acoustic Americana with a deft command of mood, an impressive fusion of dual viewpoints, and can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head melodies.

1. Airport People – From Nine Mornings. Exquisitely elegant solo piano work that transports me to a calmed space.12

December 2022 Singles 3

1. “Bonjour” – Montparnasse Musique. Bright, chipper, and exciting, this afrobeat track is so much fun.

2. “The Dreams of Alice” – Crying Day Care Choir. Evokes late ’00s indie-rock in the most satisfying of ways: big moves in unusual directions, charming vocal melodies, big fuzz. Fans of Temper Trap and CHVRCHES will adore this.

3. “Nervous (Remix)” – John Legend, Sebastián Yatra. – Time feels like an endless game of chance, simply memorialized in this mesmerizing performance of John Legend’s “Nervous” with Columbian Sebastián Yatra.  A multilingual love lesson in seduction serves as an invitation to come together with passionate melodies in our hearts. –Lisa Whealy

4. “A Baptist and A Rabbi” – Thirsty Curses. A jaunty piano-led track with influences from indie rock and alt-country lends the foundation to a set of existentialist lyrics and a charming, unexpected video. Getchell et al. sell the vision (pun intended) excellently.

5. “Be Thou My Vision” – The Gray Havens. I love the way the guitar sounds in this inspiring version of a classic hymn.

6. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” – The Gray Havens. Similarly, this is a truly wonderful version of my favorite advent song / Christmas carol.

Very Quick Hits: December 2022

Joseph Decosimo – While You Were Slumbering. Decosimo is a banjo player/fiddler with an ethnomusicology background, and his remit is rare Appalachian tunes. Some of the songs are ones he has uncovered (“Will Davenport’s Tune”), while some are unusual settings of more well-known work (“Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Come Thou Fount”). The recordings are immaculately engineered and immediately engaging, showcasing the wonderful atmosphere that Decosimo and his collaborators create.

The highlight is “Trouble,” a heartbreaking and hopeful tune that points to a truth realized here and/or in the next life: “trouble trouble / there’s trouble everywhere / trouble trouble / there’s trouble all around / but Lord, Lord / trouble can’t last always.” I’ve listened to “Trouble” a lot this year, and it’s brought me a lot of comfort.

Carly Comando – The Calm BeforeComando is a pianist with a keen sense of melody. The Calm Before stretches and expands that melodic vision, adding in complexities and convivialities. The strings arrangements are particularly impressive, amping up the emotional resonance of the pieces (“The Storm,” the passionate “Green Song,” the wonderful “Constellation”). “The End” lets the strings take front stage, providing a rousing and elegaic end to the set. The solo piano pieces shine as well. It’s a beautiful album from beginning to end.

Gold Panda – The WorkI love Gold Panda’s quirky electro. This new collection of pieces shows a more mature and relaxed Gold Panda: less anxious skittering and more warm expansiveness, but without losing the trademark stuttering rhythms. The modified vocal pattern of “The Corner” is an example of chilling out: much more of the vocal sample is available and not modified as much as previous versions of Gold Panda might have gone for.

Alternately, consider the opening duo of “Swimmer” and “The Dream” for a tidy thesis statement on what the record is going for. “I Spiral” and “The Want” evoke classic Gold Panda sounds, but with twists. The beat-less “Arima” is a flute-laden ambient piece that points in new directions. It’s a wonderful album.

Gold Lamé – GOING. As an avowed fan of Todd Goldstein output (Harlem Shakes, ARMS, tg), this ambient/composition/post-rock collection (with Matt LeMay) showcases all the things I love about Goldstein’s work: off-kilter arrangements with a never-failing sense of melody and a propensity to switch trains of thought suddenly. Hit up “CASCADE” and “THUMP” for (post?) rock, “MONSTERA” for composition, and “STRING” and “METAL” for ambient. There’s a lot of ideas packed into this one, and I hope the duo continues their collaboration.

Andy Thorn – Songs of the Sunrise Fox. Thorn’s banjo compositions are split between solo jaunts and full-band jams. The solo jaunts (“The Morning Light,” “Barry’s Bounce,” “Stork’s Bite”) are autumnal and delightful, no matter whether they the melodies are happy or more restrained. The full band pieces build on Thorn’s energy to deliver deeply satisfying compositions (“Aesop Mountain,” “Monarch Morning,” “Fox’s Fancy”). I put this on as pre-show music at a house show for a singer/songwriter, and it fit perfectly.

Earth Room – Earth Room. Ezra Feinberg, Robbie Lee & John Thayer combine ambience, groove, and improvisational jazz in this six-song collection; my interest strays toward the rhythm-heavy side. The pulsing, evocative “Biophony” sounds like a track Feinberg might have made on his own, while the opening of “Bridges of Waves” and the majority of “Within the Field” have the same vibes. Beyond my fascination with Feinberg’s work, the heavily meditative ambient work of “Owl Light” is a highlight. The more frantic improvisational bits are not my cup of tea, but if you like jazz and ambient equally, this would be pretty impressive.

Space Between Clouds – Spiral. Spiral is no shorter than 375 minutes. The five ambient drones here come in two lengths each: a 20-minute and 55-minute version. The moods range from ominous (“The Crossroads in E minor”) to expectant (“Ripe Fruit in Ab major”) to sun-dappled (“Sun Tea in G major”). They are each beautiful in their way; based on what you like in your sonic background, you’ll probably know whether you want to go for the 20 minutes of G major or 55 minutes of E minor first.

Sophia Subbayya VastekIn Our Softening. Solo piano work that retains a strong air of mystery throughout. “The Seas That Made Us” is dramatic and exciting, while “Soft Fascination” is representative of the lovely moods throughout. For fans of Ben Cosgrove.

 

 

Oort Smog – Every Motherfucker Is Your Brother. A moody, rowdy, chaotic, thunderous sax-and-drums display. Fans of Colin Stetson’s fractured, dystopian pieces will find interesting and impressive work here.

 

Quick Hits: Deniz Cuylan / Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders / Lazerbeak

Deniz CuylanRings of JuniperCuylan is a composer who plays nylon-stringed guitar. This collection of seven pieces is one of those albums that unfolds over time. I’ve been listening to the mysterious, enigmatic work for months, and only in the last few weeks have I been able to really say anything about it. It reminds me of the game Myst–I had no idea what was going on when I first showed up, but it’s beautiful, and there are lots of things to discover.

“Hidden Language of Four” has unique rhythmic patterns; “Swimmers” has an evocative, memorable melody that is intertwined between guitar and piano; “Clouds Over Sintra” bustles and bristles with storm-on-the-horizon energy. Each of these pieces have fascinating elements. Highly recommended.

Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders – The Electric RiverI expected opener “Love & Other Vaccines” to be cynical and surrealist indie rock, as much Matthew Squires work is. But, uh, it’s actually about love? Matthew Squires wrote a love song. (It is a little surrealist; he can’t escape that.) “Felt Like Your Man” and “The Life of Trees” are also love songs! So is “The Ballad of Norm MacDonald”!

Actually just kidding, “Norm MacDonald” is unfiltered and unfettered vintage Squires: “suddenly, a vision appeared from the flames / it was Norm MacDonald.” (“MacDonald” spools out a enigmatic, oracle-esque vision for the rest of the song.) If you’re into fractured indie rock (now with more love songs), Squires is at the top of his game. (And his game is pretty close to the top of the game overall.) Highly recommended.

Lazerbeak – Lava Bangers II. Here’s a massively propulsive, punchy, no-filler collection of 20 beats that seamlessly merge hip-hop and electro jams. This has been my go-to for motivational music since I first heard it. Opener “Inner Winner” rips, “In My Cups” leans into the boom-bap side of things, “Ferocious Porches” has ’90s party-jam vibes, and “Son, Even Nolan Ryan Has His Bad Days” has my vote for favorite song title of the year. (The sped-up R&B vibes are great on that one too.) Highly recommended.

December 2022 Singles 2

Instrumental

1. “Grinners Circle” – Surprise Chef. Low-slung, chilled-out guitar work that fans of Khruangbin will love. The mood starts from the first second and never stops.

2. “540 Supercell” – Daniel Bachman. Bachman’s Almanac Behind is an urgent call to address climate change. This single from it uses the sound of rain, so often calming, against the ostinato banjo to indicate flooding and distress. The video details more about flooding in Bachman’s region and how it has gotten worse due to climate change. Art’s not always supposed to make you happy. Get out there and talk to people about climate change and what we can do together to fight it.

3. “Liminal Space” – The Kompressor Experiment. My current favorite post-metal outfit delivers another exciting, dense, and melodic piece. Twists and turns galore.

4. “Monus Bonus” – Son Cesano. This spacey post-rock jam sprawls out over seven delicious minutes. The engineering on this cut is impressive: every instrument sounds amazing.

5. “Emonzaemon” – Mandrake Handshake. A combination of wiry post-punk, hazy psych rock, and the loose vocals of Khruangbin. It’s an intoxicating, invigorating mix.

6. “Devil’s Playground” – Punkadelic. Mike Dillon is back with more frantic marimba attack. This time he’s got Brian Haas from Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey (hometown heroes from my stomping grounds in Tulsa!) and Nikki Glaspie (Beyonce, Nth Power) with him for added firepower. It’s very, very good.

7. “Outer Boroughs” – Circles Around the Sun. Funky, groovy, and sexy guitar/synth jam in a very late 1970s/early 1980s sort of way.

8. “Pearlescent Floating Clouds” – Sherry Finzer. Flutes are not my wheelhouse, but I can recognize when really good stuff comes along. Light, airy, floating tendrils of sound do indeed evoke the title.

9. “Sun of Keshava” – Surya Botofasina. Fifteen minutes of meditative, delicately jazzy piano and synths.

10. “Ever Presence” – Cabin Fever Orchestra. A big orchestral work that resolves fidgety, nervous tensions into a warm strings embrace.

11. “Breathing Space” – Quist. Slow tempo, peaceful vibes, and round sounds from the guitar and keys. It does feel like it gives me more room to breathe.

12. “Darkness to Light” – Ryan Judd. An elegant, relaxed nylon-stringed guitar rumination that feels appropriately wintry.

13. “WAITING ROOM” – David Cieri. A delicate yet sturdy piano and guitar piece. Like sneaking purposefully across a room: quiet, tense, interesting.

December 2022 Singles 1

1. “Groundscore” – Tipper. It’s always a little jarring coming across someone who’s a legend in their own space for the first time. I’m just getting introduced to Tipper, but probably people reading this blog need no introduction to his breakbeat-influenced upbeat techno cuts. So, for y’all: There’s a new Tipper record.

2. “LUV” – Martin Kohlstedt. An ominous piece of piano-driven electronic music that approaches from contemporary composing sensibilities. The results are exciting.

3. “Outlaw Empire” – Pull of Autumn. A loping yet intense piece of dystopian, industrial-influenced electronica.

4. “Shadow Falls (Tyler Stone Remix)” – The Paper Sea. This remix of the beautiful piano-and-trumpet composition makes rat-a-tat rhythms and chunky bass sound svelte and cool. This is a fascinating, very effective remix that draws out different elements of the song.

5. “Ah! (feat Pot​é​)” – Batida. A punchy alt-latinx piece that is energetic without losing its mysterious flair.

6. “Mad Mess” – DJ Karaba. Fuses afrobeat and house for an inventive, thumping piece.

7. “Coastline” – Elskavon. Reminiscent of mid-era Teen Daze, this electronic piece pulses and ebbs with the energy of the tension between overtly acoustic-sounding and electronic-sounding tones. It’s a warm, smile-inducing piece that also has overtones of The Album Leaf.

8. “Aura” – Glisz. Apollo 11 will probably never cease to capture American attention. This smooth, silky, deep house cut features vintage audio from the mission to set the mood.

9. “in pieces” – KMRU. Feathery, elegant, yet sturdy ambient work. Evokes peace without being flowery.

10. “Ocean” – Laraaji. This is the lead single from a four-CD box set of early work from Laraaji. It’s as mystical and lush as you would expect.

11. “Legend of Lorule” – Mikel. I love pretty much everything Mikel has put out, and this latest cut from Zelda and Chill III is no different. This inserts a lot of (lightly funky) fun into chill.

12. “Sun Tea in G Major (20 min)” – Space Between Clouds. A warm, wandering collection of drones. The piece becomes a perfect companion to meditation.

13. “Transcendence” – Liquid Mind. Eleven minutes of dense new age / ambient pad synth work that yet moves with purpose.

Premiere: Dances Across Borders, Vol. III

I’m really picky when it comes to electronic music. No matter what variety of electronic music it is, the work must balance the intentionally-repetitious grooves with enough variance to keep listeners attuned. Furthermore, the balance between texture and melody has to be spot on: too much texture and you get amorphous clouds; too much melody (at the expense of other elements) and you get thin tracks.

Dance Across Borders, Vol. III is a deeply impressive collection of techno cuts that hits the sweet spot where grooves, variation, melody, and texture come together–six times in a row. It’s the lot of most compilations to be wildly uneven, but curator Jean Grünewald has avoided that pitfall here. The results: all aces.

This collection is the third comp from Dance Across Borders, a “platform bringing together music artists against borders and state brutality, originally based in Montreal (Tiotia:ke in the language of Kanien’kehá:ka people) and now beyond.” Grünewald further noted that, “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 six pieces themselves live primarily in moody, minor keys, setting a unified tone for the collection. Opener “2 FRITES 1 COKE” by Esse Ran & S.Chioini (each of these six tracks are multi-artist collaborations) leans heavily into mood: subtle synth touches, carefully applied glitches, and meticulous arrangement of parts allows the techno piece to have a complex, forward-pushing beat and intriguing melodic elements.

“SPAZIO LIBERO by Kazuho and Ottoman Grüw opens by melding industrial clanks and groans into a pattern of dense thuds (a la Traversable Wormhole). A sudden, surprising shift into ’90s big beat vibes (without abandoning the dark’n’stormy underpinnings) makes this an unexpectedly diverse and fun piece.

The opening arpeggiator of “SCINTILLATION” by CMD & VIGLIENSONI makes a path into Tron Reconfigured vibes: this punchy track is equal parts “chase scene through an ’80s-style digital city” and energetic dance floor cut. “RETOUCHE” by Brusque Twins is a cold, stark cut that leans toward the industrial side of a techno/industrial mash-up. The breathy vocals and restrained arrangement keep it in the same mood as the other tracks, while the dour lead vocals push it toward the industrial side.

“Sublime” by LACED & NO AIRBAGS is my favorite of the set, as it matches rat-a-tat backline, four-on-the-floor bass hits, and ghostly synths for a piece that defies clear boundaries. The synths alone would be a lovely ambient piece; the rhythm and bass are highly busy and technical, almost footwork-ian. The tension is productive and exciting.

Closer “BUILT TO SIN” by H E L_H A X & 2 PIGS UNDER 1 UMBRELLA combines the approaches of many of the tracks into a solid closer. Distorted, ominous, industrial-style vocals sit over an adventurous techno cut that is equal parts Tron-style lucid synth action and Traversable Wormhole bass work. The piece flies by, barely letting the listener get settled in before its 4:00 runtime is up.

The six pieces here are all high-quality work. It’s rare that a compilation can produce such exciting and consistent work over so many artists. Furthermore, getting them all into a similar enough space that the collection is deeply listenable without massive tonal shifts is a triumph. If you’re into dark’n’stormy electronic music, Montreal Dances Across Borders, Vol. III is a must-listen collection. Highly recommended.

All profits from the compilation will be donated to Solidarity Across Borders, a Montreal-based non-profit organization that works to protect human rights. For those of you in Montreal, there’s a release rave-party in a church basement on November 18th. All the profits from that event will be donated to Milton-Parc food bank and to Solidarity Across Borders.