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Month: August 2020

Second August Singles, 2020

1 “Soul of This Town” – Oliver Wood. Can it be possible that Oliver Wood’s “Soul of This Town” is the first music released under his own name? The collaboration with Raleigh, North Carolina-based songwriter Phil Cook (Megafaun, Gayngs, Hiss Golden Messenger) is available on Thirty Tigers. The song also marks the first time Oliver’s son Kieran Wood has joined the collaborative effort, on horns. The gospel feel of this co-write with Cook brings to mind the plaintive blues or roots Americana story. We have all watched as “progress” has reshaped our world: in this moment, we’re wondering where the drive-in theaters went, now that they could be repurposed for music venues. Bringing home a simple, New Orleans soul-jazz groove, Wood’s familiar vocal wraps around each image-rich note. Lyrically hitting on gentrification and a city’s growth as the stripping of a community’s soul, the song is a hard look at the loss of community, connection, and soul in the face of progress, set to a blend of a funeral march and celebratory farewell. I’d be remiss failing to mention this song’s pandemic evolution, yet its birth is also part of The Wood Brothers’ Kingdom In My Mind, released in January 2020. Taking us all to task in this time of recreation, Oliver Wood’s “Soul of This Town” asks what part of “we the people” is the most important piece of a town’s soul.–Lisa Whealy

2. “Every Exit Is an Entrance” – Luca Draccar. This sleek, streamlined techno cut has everything you need in a banger and nothing else: solid backbeat, thrumming bass, memorable top-end melodies, and enough effects to create a mood without cluttering the room. The coda melodies are particularly excellent. This is my jam. Highly recommended.

3. “Into Your Blue” – Lore City. An enigmatic, mystical, sensuous piece driven by staccato, tom-heavy drumming. Layered above the beat are carefully layered ambient textures and powerful female vocals. I’ve listened to this tune half-a-dozen times already and I still can’t articulate specifically what is so engaging about it. The whole thing, I suppose–the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Great work.

4. “LUCKY” – Matthew Shaw and Unlearn. Shaw’s impassioned-yet-restrained vocals are in full form here, flowing and hesitating over squelchy bass synth, rattling clicks, and twee melodic blips.

5. Toshio Matsuura Presents HEX “Hello to the Wind (Z’s Groove Dub)” featuring Grey Reverend. Now that’s a mouthful of a title. Beyond the moniker, the evocative tune has an ostinato acoustic guitar base with powerful string bass contributions on top of it. At 2:30, the beat and piano kick in, turning this from a Ezra Feinberg-esque new-age/deep listening track into a jazz/electro track that is akin to GoGoPenguin. It’s an enveloping, inviting atmosphere to spend nine minutes in. The full release is only on vinyl, so pre-order that now if this grabs your attention.

6. “Hope is a Traitor” – Orly Bendavid and the Mona Dahls. Art and music are definitely a sign of the times, as Brooklyn-based Orly Bendavid & the Mona Dahls can attest. “Hope is A Traitor” is the stylistic jazz noir title track from their upcoming release due later this year. This collection of seasoned tunesmiths brings to mind Brian Setzer’s Orchestra after the Stray Cats stopped their strut. Oh, what musical joy these dark times can bring to light! —Lisa Whealy

7. “As If the Sea Should Part” – Jason Keisling. Put neo-classical composition and electronic beats together, and you’ll have my ear. Keisling’s latest tune opens as a delicate set of piano touches and synth/string swoons before opening into a slick beat buoyed by slinky bass. The tension of the delicate and the punchy is strong, and the vibe is fully operational. The strings are a touch emotional for the streamlined electro-jam this becomes once the ’80s-tone guitar lands, but the overall concept is still very impressive. A very cool track.

8. “856” – Josh Johnson. I’ve always liked work that operates at the spaces between genres. This track is a perfect example of the concept, as it fluctuates somewhere between neo-classical composition, ambient, jazz and electronic. This breathy, enthusiastic track runs, jumps, and kicks its way through 2:09. It evokes rushing water and overenthusiastic relationships. It’s a fascinating piece.

9. “California Sun” – The Lighthouse and the Whaler. A sort of post-Vampire Weekend tune that includes all the precision and twee/tough contrast you could want, but turned toward the darker end of the VW spectrum. The vocals here are particularly fun, as the high-drama lead melody pays off in spades. It takes a lot to cut through the noise of infinite guitar bands, but TLATW continue to do it.

10. “Phosphorescence” – Speaker Face. Low-slung, confident, and cool, this subtle electro-pop track relies on a tight fusion of electronic and acoustic elements to create a strong vibe. The vocals are perfectly executed, giving off a dreamy, early ’00s indie vibe (a la early Sufjan).

11. “The Black Dot” – elliot. This composer fuses contemporary composition, synths, electronic textures, and acoustic guitar into a compelling sonic landscape. His is a windswept, stark, yet beautiful space, dotted with occasional bits of life.

12. “Blossom” – Sleepersound. I love Sleepersound’s early ’00s indie-rock vibe, and this recording of a performance pairs their dark/dreamy sound with superimposed landscape/weather shots to create a cool experience. The song starts at 1:03:50. (It’s part of a multi-artist event supporting a nonprofit bikeshare in Milwaukee. Rad. Sleepersound does three other tracks too. Also, I deeply envy their performance space: that is an absolutely wonderful-looking space.)

The Old Sounds Point to the New Sound: Zephaniah OHora’s Listening to the Music

Country music reflects our ever-changing culture with its ever-changing soundscape. The music passing away a cowboy’s loneliness grew, connecting hard-working folks with ideas of freedom in good times and bad. A transformation occurred with Ernest Stoneman’s 1927 Nashville recording, part of The Bristol Sessions. Radio audiences fell for the guitar-driven, down-home style, yet few major changes to the genre have ever stuck longterm, as styles in country ebb and flow. With all that in mind, Zephaniah OHora’s Listening to the Music may be leading a new renaissance. It’s one of the most potentially-influential records in recent years.

OHora’s successful transplant from the home of Buck Owens in Bakersfield, California, to the wide-open ideas of Brooklyn, New York is certainly part of the story. The musician’s deeply religious upbringing could suggest to those of faith that there are no mistakes in the universe that leads to this album. 

The final work of producer Neal Casal before his sudden passing is a unique blend of old school country musicality blended with jazz and blues stylistic elements. The Bunker Studio in Brooklyn provided the perfect setting to record the album; these friends and associates were able to create a record in live takes, adding an organic, spontaneous quality to the recordings. 

The traditional twang of “Heaven’s On the Way” is a nod to the old-school sensibilities of country music, contrasting with the song’s lyrical content. The quick-hit “Black & Blue” blasts through a break-up tune with slide and electric guitar. This uptempo stunner flashes moments of brilliant vulnerability. Themes traditionally left to angst-filled tunes lurk in the songwriter’s lyrics, but something’s different here. OHora shifts down gears to “It’s Not So Easy Today,” connecting to an exposed inner place. This subtle gem shines. Like Glen Cambell’s “Witchita Lineman” in its soaring proclamations, this is one of the record’s standout cuts. Violins and piano mix perfectly with Ohora’s vocals. Casal’s intuitive restraint shines here, lest we forget the producer’s touch. 

Surrounded by masters in their craft, OHora’s “Listening to the Music” is a testimonial to music as God’s gift to us all. The title track is beautifully simple, with the singer’s vocal tone somehow both embracing, encouraging, and sonically soothing. This song’s creative force cheers each of us, calling us to embrace music’s powerful energy. The sequencing is key to this album’s success; each song provides a step on the path to enlightenment through the overall narrative, from old school country to a new identity reflected through Ohora’s metaphor-rich lyricism. 

The emotional “I’ve No More Tears to Cry” is a set-up for the album’s lead single “All American Singer” halfway through the album. The song’s significance is only matched with its brilliance, putting forth the idea that our country was built on people fighting for change. Dignified and authentic, this rolling anthem blends old-school country composition with protest lyricism and a flair for positivity. OHora switches to sarcasm with the uptempo groove of “Living Too Long.” The song soars, with shining piano and guitar solos interjected throughout the closing refrain.

“Riding That Train” opens the window on life in New York City from an outsider’s perspective. This celebratory, joyful, jazzy roots Americana puts us all in the songwriter’s shoes. This song should get carved into the Great American Songbook. “Emily” and “You Make it Easy to Love Again” may seem like a country artist’s obligatory love songs, yet these are lyrically independent of the tired, formulaic themes that exhaust listeners. With an aura of Lyle Lovett, this track feels classic. The album closes with “Time Won’t Take It’s Time,” a laid-back swing with a touch of Ray Wylie Hubbard. This album is sonically lush: each note perfectly mixed and given space to breathe, each instrument–including Ohora’s vocal moments–given time to shine. 

Ohora hoped the album would shed light on the unique talents of his friend and producer Neal Casal. In the end, this album shows the universe had a plan for his artistry. Music opens a channel, connecting shared experiences to provide meaning in challenging times. Zephaniah OHora’s Listening to the Music helps redefine country music as a genre, its reimagining an expansion of country music’s sonic palate. The artist’s blend of performances creates a new flavor of country music, throwing it all the way back to blending gospel and jazz, then swirling it with the sheer spiritual joy only music brings.–Lisa Whealy

Jess Jocoy’s Online Residency, Pt 2

In Part Two of IC’s online residency from the Seattle-to-Nashville folk artist Jess Jocoy, we immerse ourselves in “The Ballad of Two Lovers” from her recently-released Such a Long Way

Written from a tag line that would not leave the artist alone, Jocoy’s track owns the throwback vibe of 1960s New York or San Francisco Bay folk-rock. These were hangouts for the cultured, anti-establishment hipsters supporting art-minded music that changed the industry’s sound for years to come. Music moved people to feel as if they could change the world. The scene that found Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell connects to talents like Jess Jocoy’s. The singer’s authentic vulnerability invites audiences to share an experience. Her lyrics cut straight to the soul. Combined with the artist’s vocal delivery, the words possess an unearthly, nuanced tone, with notes wrapping around the listener like tendrils of heat from a crackling fire on a cold winter’s night. 

Thinking about the heart of the song, Jocoy shared: “Whether they become comfortable or complacent, the fire dies down, but the memories of when love was new still serve as the coals underneath. It’s a song of resilience. Someone is willing to fight for the rekindling because they believe it’s worth fighting for. It’s melancholic, for sure, but also kind of beautiful.”

Haunting in its hopefulness, the stripped acoustic performance alludes to our shared experience with heartbreak. Jocoy is a songwriter whose imagery is sonically colored, each chord inviting us along for the journey. The beauty of “The Ballad of Two Lovers” is its ethereal, ghost-like quality; an essence of Joan Baez’s freedom-fighter flavored with Dolly Parton’s country angst. Jess Jocoy finds herself sharing the same contemporary space as women like Courtney Marie Andrews, whose authenticity defines their art. 

Jess will be back in two weeks on IC with the final installment of her online residency. You can catch Jocoy on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube for more until then.–Lisa Whealy

numün: outer space, but Asian

I love space with a hobbyist’s passion. I saw Apollo 11 in theaters and was just fully in awe of the grandeur and majesty of the whole endeavor that is “humans entering space.” (And leaving space, for that matter–one of the enduring images of the film for me was the astronauts entering the mobile quarantine unit after returning to Earth; I had forgotten that we had no idea what would happen to people if they went to the moon. Everything was new! Amazing.)

It’s clear that numün share that same sense of wonder. Their band name mentions the moon, each of these songs is titled after space concepts, the album is a space narrative, two songs were written specifically in memorial of the Apollo 11 50th anniversary, and the sonic landscapes evoke the wideness of space. Yet they also love Asian music and mysticism; the name numün evokes the mystical respect for nature (the new moon being an important concept in astrology), the instrumentation is distinctly Asian-flavored, and the spaciousness of the work points (mostly) toward calming, zen-like meditations.

I say mostly because the narrative of the wordless album runs thus: a spaceship takes off from Earth (“tranceport,” a pun further evoking the space/mysticism duality via trances and transport), the astronauts land on the moon (“first steps”), establish a base (“tranquility base”), then try to go home when something goes wrong (“mission loss”) that sends them careening out into space (“expanse”) past earth and into the sun (“voyage au soleil”) where presumably they all die. So, that back half is a little less relaxing (but, I suppose, no less meditative; it’s worth considering these things) conceptually than it might have otherwise been. The trio may have watched Sunshine too many times.

But! If you ignore the titles (which, honestly, is pretty easy to do, given the wordless musical context), this is a celebration of space. “Tranquility Base” uses actual spoken clips of Apollo 11 transmissions to celebrate the crew’s amazing work; these lovely vintage spoken clips sit lightly over a backdrop of tablas, wiry synths, delicate keys, drone, and evocative violin from Trina Basu (Brooklyn Raga Massive). The piece is directly intended to reflect the journey of Apollo 11, and it does an admirable job.

The other tracks are less concrete and more open to interpretation. Opener “tranceport” is a statement of intent that meshes a new age-y sonic palette (cümbüş–a fretless turkish banjo, a mellotron, Balinese gongs, tablas) with guitar and violin to develop and hold a neat tension between earthy and spacey. “first steps” fully abandons earth, leaning into traditionally spacey sounds like clanking synth modulations, deep low-end, and very long tones. Despite the clanky synth and vaguely Spaghetti-western guitar, this tune competes with “voyage au soleil” for most meditative piece in the collection.

“mission loss” is definitely not a candidate for that title, as the opening is eerie and discomforting. They use electronic transformations and staccato instrumentation to mimic the sound of failure alarms, and they do a (perhaps too) good job in evoking the uncertainty and nervousness that would come from a multitude of alarms going off at once. They manage to make it not overly sonically abrasive, but it is certainly discomforting in a ostinato way, sort of like The Necks’ latest work. Eventually the alarms subside into acoustic guitar, redeeming the song a bit, but it’s certainly a dramatic turning point that would fit neatly in a soundtrack or sonic novel.

“expanse” and “voyage au soleil” are not quite as gloomy as I positioned them to be in the narrative of the record, but they are certainly not major key blasters in the Ezra Feinberg frame. They are spacious, wide-angle-lens work that draw on the musicians’ previous work in minimalist / instrumental bands. Both are rewarding listens due to the subtle composition tactics employed throughout–“expanse” is a careful meting of instruments to create the trick of sonic density without feeling heavy, while “voyage au soleil” is a humongously long crescendo that yet doesn’t feel as if the good part is only at the end.

Overall, voyage au soleil is an ambitious, complex record. It sounds like an imagined soundtrack to a documentary about the Indian Space Research Organization. It is a slow-moving, densely moody record that yet holds a story line. It goes for a lot and hits most of it, even if some of its ends are at odds (“mission failure” is intended to be discomforting, but that makes it hard to do deep listening / relaxation with it, another goal of the record). But overall, it’s a strong record that fits nicely in the category of cerebral, evocative celebrations of space, sitting next to Public Service Broadcasting’s under-appreciated The Race for Space, Sufjan et al.’s Planetarium, and The Lovely Few’s The Geminids. 

Online Residency: Jess Jocoy’s “Existential Crossroads”

We’re doing something new here at IC: I’m honored to host an online residency from Nashville-by-way-of-Seattle folk artist Jess Jocoy. Jocoy will be premiering three live cuts of songs from her recently-released Such a Long Way on IC over the next six weeks.

Imagine you’re in a coffeeshop with the bustle of people around you, and you hear a voice cut through the clatter and rustle. (Meta: now is where you turn on the video, as Jocoy has helpfully created the ambiance of a homey coffee shop.) Jocoy’s warm, comfortable alto punches through the noise as she launches into “Existential Crossroads.” She spins a tale of faith, mercy, grace, escape, and America, packing a lot into four minutes.

This performance of the song fits into the realm of balladeers singing songs about things much bigger than themselves, while still cutting her own path: she finds a path less abstract than Dylan, not as concrete as Springsteen, and not as high-drama as Patty Griffin (although Jocoy can sway emotions with the best of them, but she doesn’t go for big moves here). Jocoy sings with conviction but without excess, nailing the contradiction between vulnerability and confidence that marks my favorite songwriters. Jocoy knows what she’s about, and while it’s a troubled tale, it’s one she knows and can deliver with clarity.

Jocoy was kind enough to give us some comments about the song:

“This song is about morality. As a songwriter, or writer of any kind, really, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that you can write about anything in any way you like. For me, I thought I was ready to write something that, for my style, would be considered “renegade.” That song was fueled by a little too much angst, though, and neither really sounded like me nor aligned with my true self. I felt like I was at a crossroads; vexed over the idea that an artist could go too far for the sake of the art to the point that you lose yourself. This song was the result of my working through that perplexity.”

No wonder it sounds like America in song form; the story of the song is similar to the complicated story of America (the complexities of going renegade, the difficulties of maybe going too far, the struggle to reconcile the actions with the ideals; America 1776, America 2020).

Jess will be back in two weeks on IC with another installment of her online residency. You can catch Jocoy on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube for more until then.

First Singles, August 2020

1. “Wishing Well” – Rainy. In celebration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama on his 85th year in this life, British folk artist Rainy blessed us with his video for “Wishing Well” from his latest release FELL FOR THE WORLD. The third in a series of visual creations from the record, the song’s lyrical substance grounds us in reality without denying our dreams. Lush instrumentation wraps through imagery from sunrise over vast seas to snow-frosted forest.

Brazillian maestro and multi-instrumentalist Marcelo Andrade adds depth with backing vocals as well as the traditional rebecha, a cousin of the violin. Rainy’s vocal tone echoes a blend of Yusuf/Cat Stevens and Dave Matthews. Gritty urgency shines through a marriage of banjo, violin, and percussion. It focuses on the visual depiction of water’s movement as the giver of life. It’s a perfect artistic expression of the journey we all make to find our soul.–Lisa Whealy

2. “le merveilleux résumé” – _by.ALEXANDER. _by.ALEXANDER offers a piano/standup bass/drums jazz trio with accompanying flute and electronic wobbles. The ostinato left hand of the piano and the bass match the helter-skelter drum feel; the flute later contributes to the frantic forward motion. Everyone playing here is in a very big hurry, and this makes for compelling listening.

3. “Bruises on Your Shoulders” – Thirsty Curses. The punchy piano pop gets an ambitious, fun single-shot video that depicts the lyrics of the “how did my life end up here” tune perfectly. Pulls the neat trick of being fun to watch while still being mostly tragic. The denouement is a lovely turn, very earned. Mad props to Clayton Herring, who directs and thereby coordinates the whole single-shot concept perfectly.

4. “i am thoughts” – Ghost Liotta. Imagine an Odesza song with a quirky/catchy synth lead. Cut it to half-speed. Replace the beat with live kit drums. Add jazzy piano. Turn the lights from full to one quarter. Sit in a comfy chair. Close your eyes halfway. Lean back. Enjoy.

5. “Still Life” – Orgonon Sound Machine. Slow-paced, hypnotic, crescendoing left-field techno. It’s got too much percussion and forward motion for ambient and not enough thump for a full-on techno blaster; instead, it lives in a slow-motion world all its own, like an electronic version of an acoustic slowcore song (e.g. Songs: Ohia) or a soundtrack to a gloomy, scary film (see the album art and record title–Happy Doomsday–for more on that latter concept). The ten-minute run-time is appropriate, as the song slowly morphs and changes throughout.

6. “Letting Go” – Box of Beats. I’m not covering a ton of indie-pop these days and even less straight-ahead pop, but this beatboxing master got my attention quick and kept it throughout this nearly six-minute pop ballad. This dude can really make it happen, from mouth percussion to bass to tenor sung vocals and more. Shoutout to the mouth brass at the end; that’s incredibly convincing.

7. “Lightning Bug” – William Cashion. When people make 56-second songs, they are incredibly bold. They either know the song isn’t worth more than 56 seconds but love it for sometimes-unclear reasons, or just want the listener to push repeat over and over again on a song that is worth far more than the 56 seconds the creator deigned to give it. This is the latter. So. Much. The. Latter. Slight, lovely, bouncy burbles float up to the surface like bubbles, swoop down, and then restart. It’s delicate, gentle, and beautiful. I want it to be the foundation of so much more expansion, but it stays what it is: light and lovely and gone.

8. “Brothers” – The Lighthouse and the Whaler. Dramatic, expansive indie-pop/indie-rock that goes for all the big moves. It nails a lot of the flourishes, creating a satisfying minor-key song that will appeal to fans of Manchester Orchestra.

9. “Diss Track Omega” – Thomas. Mid-fi bedroom indie-pop that whirrs and clatters its way through ’80s tones and ’90s angles in a charming, slackery way. Thomas is from Raleigh (I’ll always represent Raleigh) but the video was shot in Atlanta (MARTA, Aisle 5, etc.)–but a lot of the shots could be any urban downtown in a top-50 American city. Young urban malaise characterizes the video and the song; they complement each other well.

10. “Serenade – Instrumental” – Lightphaser. I love outer space, and this instrumental track has all the traditional trappings of spacey electronic music: wiry, theremin-esque synthesizers; gritty digital arpeggiatos; space zaps; big swoosh washes; an overall feel of cold expanse. I love it.

11. “Gazing Star” – grizzly milk. Speaking of theremin-esque instruments, this instrumental is heavy on singing saw. It gives this otherwise grounded, humble, lo-fi acoustic guitar rumination a much bigger scope than it otherwise would have. Only 83 seconds, but earns all of the 83 seconds.

Red Sammy’s “Between Love and Lonely Heartbreak”

Red Sammy’s “Between Love and Lonely Heartbreak” strikes a chord. His video for the single from his 8th studio release That Raging Heart reverberates with disjointed imagery, flashes of a soul in torment.

Adam Trice, the Baltimore songwriter known as Red Sammy, bleeds emotion through his haunting vocal performance, at times reminiscent of Disturbed’s David Draiman. Recording engineer Matt Fish (Stable Studios; Chambersburg, Pennsylvania) and mixer / masterer Dave Nachodsky (Invisible Sound Studio, Baltimore) helped define this unreal, dark folk vibe. It’s simple, yet undeniably unsettling. You’re wrapped in impeccable electric guitar: just close your eyes. Let insanity take you away, humming a tune.–Lisa Whealy

Quick Hit: All Atomic

All Atomic‘s Sirens of the Sun EP is excellent sci-fi techno. The four tracks here each have a William Gibson-esque cyberpunk allure: the vibe is neon on black, tall buildings, fast vehicles, and low-key danger baked in. It’s got a similar vibe to Daft Punk’s Tron soundtrack, but if every track were a chase scene. All Atomic creates this space through deft use of arpeggiators, traditionally “digital” sounding synths, and a pressing urgency to each of the tunes that creates excitement. Opener “Code A” establishes the tone of the EP immediately with punchy live drums, thrumming arpeggiator, and eventually a four-on-the-floor bass drive. It’s the speediest of all the tracks, zipping along impressively. It’s got enough dance in it to be on a dancefloor somewhere–somewhere, perhaps, in a futuristic club from a sci-fi movie. (And don’t we move closer to being in a futuristic sci-fi movie all the time, huh?)

“Sequence 1” still leans on arpeggiators, but has more of a laidback groove than the first cut. The zinging synths still speak heavily to cyberpunk, but the vibe is more dense here due to the thick bass synth use. More ominous, less frantic, still great. “Sirens of the Sun” continues in this vein–there’s still a lot of motion, but the ominous overtones are primary (again through the bass synth use). This one has a lot of different synth tones going on, creating an impressive sonic space. Closer “A Dove 4 Love” is a different type of chase scene; this has a lot of cat-and-mouse in it, as the overhead textural synths contrast against the four-on-the-floor menace of the bass and percussion. The stuttering click keeps the energy high throughout the tension. If you’re a fan of cyberpunk sounds, leftfield dance, or Daft Punk’s Tron, I’m inviting you to take a trip with All Atomic.