So I’ve been building a playlist in Spotify for the whole month of January so far. I toss things in that I’m hearing which are great. It’s a new method for me, and it’s been going pretty well so far. Here’s a bit of a run-down on what’s in the list so far and why it’s there. These albums are in no particular order.
The River – ETHEL and Robert Mirabal. ETHEL is a famous string quartet, and Robert Mirabal is a Pueblo flutist and vocalist. Their collaboration is a beautiful, moving, satisfying exchange of ideas from very different cultural backgrounds. It seems that they each play to their strengths instead of watering each other down; Ethel’s thick string work provides a powerful backdrop to the Pueblo vocal and flute melodies. Impressive opener “An Kha Na” sees the quartet laying down a drone that a growing chorus of singers harmonize over; it’s nigh-on mystical and reverent all by itself. Highlight “Run for Rain” sees a staccato vs legato arrangement mirror a poem by Mirabal about running and scrambling. The spoken word is some of the most gripping that I’ve heard in a long time: even, earnest, and calm, but with a latent intensity that fits perfectly with the arrangement. “Tsintskaro Memory” sees Mirabal’s flutes take center stage, to lovely results. A deeply unique album that just works perfectly.
Monument Valley II Soundtrack – Todd Baker. I love the kitchen sink: I want beats and synths and strings and guitars and genres and moods and vibes and lushness and sparseness altogether. I want to see a huge array of ideas all jammed into one thing and see it all work together like a tapestry. That’s what this album is: a soundtrack to an indie video game that sounds like low-key sci-fi techno one moment, minimalist ambient the next, and gamelan music the third. (No, for real! “Gamelan Rain Melody” is composed of gamelan performance!) Baker is massively talented to pull all this off. This was recommended to me as excellent working music, and so it is: it’s got motion and interest to keep things moving but not so much that it steals your attention. (I’m sure this makes it excellent video game music too.) Just fantastic.
Cold Math / Sans Drums – Panfur. Cold Math lives somewhere between tropical house, artsy post-dub, and trance music. There’s even a bit of reggaeton rhythm (riddim?) and trap ideas thrown in. It’s a great trip through various types of electronic music, all held together by a spartan, space-heavy oeuvre. Also great for working to. Sans Drums is literally sans drums, relying heavily on strings, piano, and various types of synth for rhythm and drive. This is a more sentimental album than Cold Math, as a result–lots more melody and mood. It’s also a little less polished than Cold Math; it has some moments where the implementation of the experimentation doesn’t quite live up to the quality of the ideas. But overall, an interesting take nonetheless.
Ranky Tanky – Ranky Tanky. Not instrumental at all, this is an album of Gullah music. I’d not been very familiar with Gullah music, which is why I checked it out. Turns out Ranky Tanky plays a brand of music that fuses chilled-out New Orleans Second Line, gospel vocals/lyrics, and American acoustic folk tunes. It’s relaxed and comforting music, making for a great Sunday morning album. The performances are all of very high quality, from the vocals to the brass to the rhythm section and beyond. Lovely.
Chick Corea – assorted songs. I have heard of Chick Corea often but never listened, so I put the most-listened songs on Spotify on this list. I’m still not a jazz connoisseur, but I can say that I enjoyed listening to these tracks far more than most jazz I’ve been exposed to, smooth or otherwise. I still have nothing meaningful to say about jazz, in my opinion, but I’m getting closer to getting it, I think. Maybe.
Englabörn and Variations – Jóhann Jóhannson. Another musician I’d heard of but never listened to, I picked this one up and have loved it. Jóhannson’s minimalist, fusionist take on classical music is just the sort of thing I’m interested in: “Odi et Amo” pairs a mournful, legato string quartet with a vocalist singing an Ancient Roman love/hate poem through a vocoder. A doomy piano completes the arrangement. It’s like Daft Punk at a funeral. It’s amazing. The minimalist arrangements of strings and piano continue throughout; it’s generally intimate, quiet work that moves peacefully through– even the tension of “Ég Sleppi Þér Aldrei” is cut with legato lines and gives way to a bouncy, elegant, tango-esque atmosphere. Yet the work never lapses into ambient/atmospheric music; this is not ambient music (in the Music for Airports sense), but compositions intended to be featured and heard as performances. Jóhannson could do a lot with a little. It’s a shame he died in 2018, before I even really got to know his music.
Wojciech Karolak – assorted songs. I found a copy of Karolak’s Easy! at Spinster Records in Tulsa, and I stupidly didn’t buy it. I don’t know how I resisted the magnificent cover art, but maybe I thought I couldn’t get it home in my luggage or something. I don’t know. But there’s not much Karolak available on Spotify, sadly, and the funky, bluesy, groovy, jazzy organ-based instrumental psych-lite is much missed. The few tracks that are there show off a unique mind and a deft hand at way-out-there instrumental music. If you find any Karolak in your journeys: buy it.
Gorilla EP – BeatLove. Big, lush electro that meshes great percussive beats, zooming phased synths, boomy bass synths, marimba, and more into an expansive experience. Goes especially well with ODESZA (especially “Train,” what with the pop-leaning female vocals and driving vibe) and others of the ilk. This is the sort of thing that I have limited words to yet explain but am very into these days. Highly recommended.
Ambiance – Ølten. I’ve gone through various phases where I’ve been into and not into post-rock. I went through a phase where I very much enjoyed the music of ISIS (before the name ISIS was associated with a terrorist group instead of the post-metal band) and have enjoyed Explosions in the Sky quite a bit. But then there’s also been times where I just can’t get into another metally, grumbling outfit. There’s a specific X factor in the songwriting that makes me interested or not in a post-rock/post-metal band, and Ølten has it on Ambiance. It’s ironic that this is called Ambiance, because it is very noisy and not ambient in the traditional sense: there are towering guitars, pounding drums, and furious moods. But it’s all done very effectively: I believe Ølten more than I do other bands of this ilk. Maybe it’s the melodies, maybe it’s the song construction, I don’t know. But this is top-shelf angry instrumental music, and if you’re into that, here you are. I like pg.lost and I like this, so I think others who like pg.lost might like this one?
So, I’ve been experimenting a lot since November when I posted the essay that re-oriented the site toward instrumental music. I’ve been listening to things in genres way outside of what Independent Clauses usually covers: the trippy psych of Wojciech Karolak, the string-quartet-meets-Pueblo-traditional-music of Ethel + Robert Mirabal’s The River, Youssra El Hawary’s contemporary Egyptian music, Ranky Tanky’s surprisingly quiet Gullah music, Ølten’s post-metal, Antonín Dvořák’s classical work, Chick Corea’s jazz, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s minimalist composition, the beautiful post-everything of the Monument Valley 2 video game soundtrack and more. (You may notice that not all of this is strictly instrumental. It is what it is.) I can’t possibly write about all of this in depth: I’m currently at a buffet, eating food I’ve never tasted before and not really knowing how to explain what I’m tasting. There’s also a lot more than I can possibly understand in the sort of depth that I usually try to achieve before I write a review.
So I’ve come up with a plan, one that I think will serve me and you well. With apologies to Apple Music listeners and my former self, I’ve created a Spotify Playlist called January 2019: etc.I’m adding everything I think is interesting and worth multiple listens to the list. This will help me keep track of what I’m discovering and help you follow along, if you are so inclined. Everything I listed in the previous paragraph is in the playlist right now; the playlist is already 13 hours long. My goal is to create one of these every month in 2019.
This has the added bonus of getting me back into the habit of playlists: I realized several years ago that I use playlists in a similar way that some people use journals. They mark and make concrete specific moments in time; this allows for the events being marked to be analyzed now and in the future. They are tools and, later, memories. They are comforting now and in the future. They are one of the ways I think about my past self. I’m excited to be putting myself back into that habit.
I still think Spotify’s business model is unsustainable (even though I am a paying user), but that’s a different post for a different day. I’m not using Apple Music (despite their potentially-more-sustainable subscription-only model) because when I did use it, it was hard for me to understand and use the user-created playlist functions. It seems like their tools/UI on that end have gotten better recently, but it’ll take a lot to get me back over the hill to try it out again and see if I want to switch. The one ace card that Apple Music has for me: I have a ton of old playlists on iTunes that I could move into Apple Music, if their playlist functionality has gotten better. But for now, it’s Spotify for this project.
Old habits die hard: I’m honored to premiere an indie-pop track from More than Skies today.
The ever-changing, genre-morphing outfit More than Skies now appears with a ’50s-pop homage, complete with hammering piano, female backup vocals, and thump-da-dump-da-dump bass line. Some homage feels too much like a copy, but the unique (creaky, nasally, enthusiastic, intriguing) vocals of Adam Tomlinson add a nice flair to the track. There’s a bit of country in the guitar twang too, lending a bit of wistfulness to the chipper tune. The black and white images of the performance video add to the throwback vibe too. Overall, a fun song that has more sonic depth than a standard retro-’50s work.
Kai Otten – Camper Mode. Flamenco meets electro beats with playful flourishes: one of the most flamenco-heavy tracks is titled “Flamingo.” The work sounds exotic and adventurous without being too aggressive–there’s a relaxed confidence to the work that gives it a mature, accessible nature. There are some more pensive moments as well, such as the low-key “Colores de Mediterana” and the new-age-esque reverie of “In Clouds.”
Overall, these are hopeful, good-natured, pleasantly developed tracks to relax with. Those interested in electro should start with “Count of Berg,” while those interested in classical stylings (check that piano!) should start with the title track. Those interested in flamenco or guitar can pick anything and go for it. —Stephen Carradini
Koltbach – Orange People EP. This four-song EP contains sleek, streamlined progressive trance that sounds eminently suited to driving around a city late at night (“Bones”). There’s a lot of motion here, but it’s all done in a smooth, silky way that keeps the energy going without succumbing to big EDM synth blasts. Instead, there’s a lot of atmosphere and patience (see “Superego”) in the midst of this melodic, progressive trance. Also includes maybe the chillest use of cowbell/jam block ever in “Bones.” –Stephen Carradini
So even though I’m working my way towards instrumental reviews (two coming this week!), there’s still all these bands that I’ve covered before sending me great music. Here’s some excellent work in that category (and one new artist sneaking in there).
1. “Honeyguide” – Frances Luke Accord. I could listen to this beautiful slice of delicate, warm folk-pop all day. The dual vocals recall the Weepies, while the fingerpicking recalls Simon and Garfunkel. But the final product is all FLA–this duo knows what it’s doing, and you need to know what they’re doing too.
2. “Ain’t No Grave” – Zach Winters. I have always wanted to write a song that was just percussion and vocals, and I’m stoked whenever someone else does it well. Winters here trades his graceful folk efforts for a soulful gospel ballad backed by a big ‘ol group of stomping and singing friends. The melodies are chilling and encouraging all at once, while the lyrics are just encouraging. A winner from Winters.
3. “Rio Grande” – Sean Pawling. Any non-ska song that has a trombone play the hook melody has my attention. Pawling’s folk tune here has the trombone, yes, but also has commendable lyrics about immigration, funky Cake-like synth, and a catchy vocal melody in the chorus. Fun, but also meaningful!
4. “Bad Lover” – Jeremy Tuplin. Tuplin’s smooth, mellifluous baritone voice is in the lead on the track, and rightly so. The rest of the lightly chipper indie-pop tune keeps out of his way so that he can work magic with that lovely set of pipes.
5. “Often Seen Together” – The Hasslers. The Hasslers live in a world where no genres exist. This is ostensibly a country ballad in its lyrical content, but it’s got funky guitar and bass, got some major soul horns, some slick acoustic-pop vocal delivery, and a bunch more packed into it. If you like good music from the acoustic side of the musical spectrum, I dare you to dislike this song. Highly recommended.
6. “God Once Loved a Woman” – Frog. Frog is a wildly inventive guitar-rock/jangle-pop band and their latest effort Whatever We Probably Already Had It shows off their unique take on guitars and vocals. But it’s the lyrics in this one that are wild: this is an anachronistic update of the story of the virgin birth. I’m not sure whether this is irreverent or reverent in the ways that Frog know how to be reverent, but it’s thought-provoking nonetheless.
7. “Hidden Worlds” – Teen Daze. This newest Teen Daze song is amazing: it’s got funky bass vibes, compelling drumming, dreamy-but-not-washed-out synths, and a propulsive vibe. It sounds like a rejuvenated Teen Daze that’s calling back to his early chillwave days but incorporating the complexity of his most recent outings as Jamison Isaak into the mix. It’s an astonishingly good song. I am super excited for the new Teen Daze record coming out this year.
8. “Again Again” – Mon Draggor. A perfect fusion of burbling electro pop and downtempo acoustic work, Mon Draggor makes sadness sound super-danceable. Sure, maybe the dancing is by yourself in a fairly dark room, but it’s a beautiful fairly dark room made more beautiful by the excellent tune.
“Oath,” the first music video from Matt C. White’s debut album Wallow in the Hollow,comes alive, casting a spell over fans. Taking symbolism normally associated with fear and death, these Matt C. White and Lana Boy-directed visuals produce characters who come to life along with the music; dancing on the rooftops and celebrating. The video, produced by Elna Street, is layered, much like the song. Music can bring the dead to life, and voodoo works well as a futile gesture of control. The song “Oath” is a contradiction musically from lyrical content, vocal delivery, tempo, and stark instrumentation stylistically. At first glance, the spell is cast, leaving a fine marriage of visuals that are unexpected and work well with a great song. —Lisa Whealy
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.