Standards‘ Fruit Islandis what would happen if a math-rock band, an indie-pop band, and a classical guitarist merged into a single entity. The guitar-drums duo features often clean (or lightly distorted), highly patterned, deeply melodic electric guitar work over cymbal-heavy, frantic drumming.
The melodies are absolutely beautiful, and none more so than in the solo guitar opener and title track, which is a vaguely tropical, dreamy, lovely, walking pace guitar solo that has more in common with classical guitar work than math-rock.
“Nap” brings in the drummer and kicks up the pace. The duo turns out the most mathy of the tracks, complete with structured runs, syncopated asides, gonzo drumming, and other hallmarks of math-rock. Yet even in this most complex of songs, the work leads up to a hair-raisingly beautiful section where the guitarist transcends the monikers and just creates an elegant, wonderful piece of music with percussion support. The coda is a variant on that section, reminiscent of some of Anamanaguchi’s big finales. I dare anyone with an interest in math-rock to hear “Nap” and not just need to sit down afterwards.
It’s not all rhythm-heavy fretboard workouts. Standards has a real interest in pop melodies, and given the bright, friendly tone of the guitar (most of the time), these tunes have genuinely fun pop moments. “Starfish” turns a wibble-wobble opening line into a zooming, stratospheric soar. “Special Berry” has a memorable, herky-jerky riff. “May” slows the tempo down but is no less complicated or melodic a piece of guitar work for the change in pace. “Rainbow” is like a warm sweater, especially after the first few tracks–it builds on the established pattern and gives the guitarist more room to go nuts. If you weren’t in to the first couple tracks, you probably won’t be in to “Rainbow,” but if you’re already on the train, this is just more goodness.
“Mango” is another solo guitar instrumental that shows off the guitar skill, and it really drives home the love of guitar that Standards has. They love drums, too–“What You Aren’t” is a completely overactive drum kit experience in the best of ways. But overall, Fruit Island is a love letter to guitar via an indie-pop/math-rock mashup. It’s a wonderfully listenable release that I can put on over and over again. I recommend headphones, though–there’s a whole lot of treble and a whole lot of bass kick, and not much mid. So it may sound wonky on mid-heavy speakers. Just a heads up. But otherwise, this is an incredible album. Highly recommended.
Ghost Liotta‘s self-titled record exists in the spaces between genres. It’s a post-rock album with dance beats. It’s a mid-era Radiohead album with no vocals. It’s a electronic record with no big major key rager moments. (There’s the clinky, plinky “Boson,” but if this is your idea of a club rager, even an IDM club rager, you have been going to some interesting clubs.) It’s a lot of different things, and none of those things. It stands alone.
The outfit creates gloomy, spartan post-rock moods and underpins them with rattling kit drumming, pushing the tempo along (“Life Cycle”). They also can do electronic, glitchy ominousness (“Obe,” the chunky electronic percussion of “When We Sleep”) and downtempo jazzy work (the piano-led “I Am Thoughts”). The deep groove of “Voices” almost crosses over into industrial territory; I could actually see this one ending up in a club somewhere during a chillout moment. The whole album is best heard as a whole: the vibe ebbs and flows while the sounds come in and out of various songs, and thus there’s variation but still a solid connection between pieces. I can groove to these very weird grooves. There’s a consistent attitude and approach here that makes this an excellent piece of pretty much unclassifiable work. Highly recommended.
Deep house got me into electronica in a serious way, but it’s Traversable Wormhole’s bass-heavy, staccato, punchy techno that captured my attention most fully. Montréal Dances Across Borders vol. 1gives me more of that dark, dense, aggressive techno. And the album is for a good cause! Who can’t get behind that?
I don’t usually bring in the press verbatim, but I can’t do much better than this on the concept, so I’ll let collection curator Jean Grünewald (ottoman.grüw) take it away:
Montreal Dances Across Borders vol.1 is a collaborative album bringing together 10 artists of “underground dance music” in Montréal (originally Tiotia:ke in the language of Kanien’kehá:ka people). This project is to remind that this music is above all made to unite through differences, across all types of physical or abstract borders.
Although the tracks from this album will be downloadable for free, it will be possible for those who wish to make donations for Solidarity Without Borders (www.solidarityacrossborders.org), a migrant justice network active in Montreal since 2003.
Throughout the whole release, the music is dense, dark, and punchy, which thrills me. Opener “Nanobodies of Love” by CMD marshals buzzy synths and dry percussion against thudding bass hits and a siren-esque lead synth. It’s excellently crafted, making the most of every sound to create atmosphere. It’s got hints of cyberpunk, hints of minimalist techno, and more. It’s a perfect opener. “Zone Chaude” by Tourment is a fun, EDM-influenced track, moving swiftly on thrumming arpeggiator-esque rails and phased synth wails that evoke club house. There’s still an undercurrent of ominous cyberpunk vibes, but it’s got some more fun in its veins. ottoman.grüw kicks up the pace with hardstyle-influenced techno cut “The Sound of Joy Is Enlightenment”. It’s all big, speedy bass hits and wiggly noises above it, aside from the spoken-word sections accompanied by ambient squiggles.
FXBIP’s “Expectations” is a bit more maximalist, stacking layers of percussion and synth to create a big, dark, exuberant sound similar to the work on Daft Punk’s Tron soundtrack and remixes. Spraelle’s “Hankering,” one of my personal favorites on the whole album, has the maximalist cyberpunk high drama vibe as well. The melodies are excellent and memorable. Honeydrip’s “Criticism Again” is a bit more abstract, focusing on syncopations, bubbly sounds, and tiny vocal samples to create a pleasantly stranger sonic palette within the overall landscape of dark’n’tense. “Expanding Uncertainty” by Aquaventure keeps the thumping beat but layers tense, brittle synth washes over it. The title is an accurate description of the mood the song creates.
This is big, bold, interesting electronica that focuses in on varieties of dark techno. The comp doesn’t have any clunkers on it at all, which is a huge achievement. This is an excellent release that techno fans should seek out immediately. Highly recommended.
The Becalming by Veldhans is an elegant, charming record that is both dignified and casual. The mostly-instrumental record leans heavily on acoustic guitar, drums, violin, accordion, whistling, samples, and unusual instruments like sáo bầu to create a sound both unusual and comforting. Unusual tunes like “Big Z,” “De Laatkomer” and “Sunburn” sound like magic portals to places around the world. The klezmer-esque accordion and rhythms of “Big Z” make me feel like I’m in Eastern Europe, while the legato accordion of “De Laatkomer” meshes with gentle guitar and swooping violin to give a more Parisian vibe. The windswept, slightly ominous “Sunburn” feels like uniquely-warped Eastern Asian meditation music. “Get Straight” is a dissonant, eclectic set of sounds led by a spoken word clip about community dancing that seems to try mashing up both the Eastern European and the Eastern Asian influences. It is the most adventurous of the pieces here; your mileage may vary.
The comforting tunes point in a more homey direction. “Oneohone” is a calm rumination that meshes ektara, dan bau, gently hammered melodic percussion, subtle percussion, guitar, and field recordings of natural night sounds elegantly. The whistled melody at the end of the piece is the perfect cap on a lovely, lilting piece. “When Peace Comes” is right what it says on the tin: a peaceful bit of softly picked acoustic instruments, intertwined in smooth and relaxing ways. This is late-night back-porch picking at its finest: people doing what they do for the love of the beauty they can create. “Down River” is similarly relaxing, with accordion and more night sounds providing the accompaniment. I like “When Peace Comes” more, but “Down River” is suitably lovely as well.
The standout track brings these two arms of the album together. The title track is peaceful but also enigmatic, as the rhythm of the lead melody is developed by a processed spoken word audio clip; the clip is either not in English or English processed so greatly that the clip is non-linguistic-content-bearing and simply musical. This syncopated lead clip plays over gentle guitar, low-key percussion, and humming. The first three minutes of the six minute track are kind of like if a folk song got turned into a lo-fi hip-hop beat. It brings together the unusual and the pleasant tidily, giving the listener the pleasant feeling of new and old at the same time. Then there’s a ambient interlude before the mood of the song switches into a smooth, dusky, legato coda.
The Becalming is a beautiful and unusual album. People who like The Album Leaf’s melodic and dissonant work will find much to appreciate, as Veldhans brings both together on a single album. Those interested in the new and exciting should check out “The Becalming” and “Get Straight.” There is much to love in this thoughtful, well-done album, and I look forward to more VeldHans music.
I’m a big fan of Tracy Shedd, The Band and the Beat, and Fort Lowell Records– all efforts of some combination of Shedd and James Tritten. They (in Fort Lowell form) have a new compilation coming out called GROW: A Compilation in Solidarity with Black Lives Matter. The label explains that “The project, focused on Wilmington, North Carolina, is a response to the racial injustice continuously displayed by law enforcement across the United States of America. Friends of the formerly Tucson, Arizona-based label involved with GROW have donated their own talents to allow 100% of the sales from the record to endow the New Hanover County NAACP with working capital to help Fort Lowell’s newly adopted local community. GROW is an effort to help address the dire effects of racism in America.”
In advance of the record, they’re releasing four singles, and we have the honor of premiering Tracy Shedd’s single/video for “Holding Space.” The video is here:
The song is an icy, stark, downtempo electro framework with Shedd’s inviting vocals lifting the proceedings. “Are you listening?” she asks over a rubbery bass guitar, Casio-esque tinny synths, and distant tambourine clink. “Holding space / make it a better world” she croons over the chorus, as the instrumentation cheers slightly to meet the hopeful lyrics. The song isn’t long (2:59), keeping things tight and urgent. This is especially reflected in the coda of the song, which shudders to a sudden halt, leaving the listener with a sense of incompleteness that fits the lyrics. The accompanying video focuses on moving shots of horses and plants (particularly flowering ones, plus the spiky/beautiful aloe plant), but with a cold, desaturated color palette reflecting the dim light of the song’s sonic world. It’s a unique, interesting song with a tightly connected video.
You can also listen to “Holding Space” via SoundCloud:
So, we had so much fun with the Jess Jocoy online residency that we’re doing another multi-week event! This time, we’ll be focusing on songwriter Alfred Howard‘s truly ambitious project Alfred Howard Writes. Alfred Howard Writes is an herculean effort by Alfred Howard and a humongous cast of contributors to independently release 100 songs in 50 weeks.
Don’t laugh: we’re premiering track number 40 today. 40! He’s 2/5ths of the way there already! He started publishing tracks on Monday and Thursday of each week in the second week of June 2020. He’ll keep going until mid-2021. We’ll be helping premiere four of these tracks, which will fall somewhere between 40 and 50 on the list. Today’s is “Sounds Like a Whisper.”
“Sounds Like a Whisper” floats somewhere between country, folk, and indie-pop. The weeping pedal steel from Ian Owen points toward country, but the rest of the song gently eases back on that comparison. The easygoing lead vocals from Dawn Mitschele are met with lovely backing vox from Shelbi Bennett and Matt Labarber; their collective work gives the song an indie-pop flair. The calm, occasionally twinkling electric guitars give a warm, folky sheen to the track; there are no acoustic guitars on the track, but the guitar tone is so engaging and round that it feels as if there are.
Labarber and Pete Williams hold down the bass and drums, respectively–both do yeoman’s work to ground the potentially-competing country/indie-pop vibes. Labarber’s bass runs split the difference between country walking bass and indie-pop enthusiasms, while Pete Williams gives a headbobbing, steady beat that doesn’t lean too heavily in either direction. The overall effect of the track is a casual but engaging mid-tempo track that would appeal to fans of Dawes and The Jayhawks. Fans of Lake Street Dive who wish they would chill out sometimes could also be interested in this one.
Howard himself is only credited with percussion and (the highly poetic) lyrics on this one, as he writes lyrics for Dawn Mitschele to sing in a collaboration called Cardinal Moon. This track itself will come out on their upcoming record Come Undone. Enjoy the track below!
Alfred has given us some comments about the song and his lyrics, which I’m honored to reproduce here:
From a lyrical standpoint, I just needed that first line – “I’ve seen the sun set out to get me / I’ve seen the moon rise up in arms.” I liked playing with the words like “sun set” and “set out,” and “moon rise” and “rise up.” Two very conflicting sentiments but they worked together. That beginning is about not having enough time. The days are quickly done, and it’s already late, as if time was your enemy. Dawn inhabits these words with a haunting, ghostly beauty. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco was a big influence for the production on this one. We layered lots of guitar solos distantly throughout the whole song, coupled with circuit bent radios. There’s lots of ear candy that all cuts out to give certain lines dynamics. It was really clear that this would close out the Cardinal Moon record. It’s just got that feel of a farewell. And the song is also part of the Alfred Howard Writes project.
STARFKR is a band that I really should like more than I do. I was a big dance-rock guy when STARFKR was on the rise, but for some reason it just never connected with me. Never, that is, until now. STARFKR decided to release an ambient album called (appropriately) Ambient 1, and it is impressive. To smoothly move from their band-oriented work to this is a feat, as these two sounds have little (but not nothing) in common. Yet despite the sonic shift, this set of tunes is assured, varied, and handled deftly.
I went through a phase where ambient washes was my go-to jam, but I’m really too much of a pop guy at heart to go full-on waves of sound. I need motion to keep things going. Not a lot of motion, but at least some motion. A dance-rock band suddenly releasing ambient work is basically perfect for me: opener “Rainzow” is basically a chilled-out arpeggiator pattern layered over a distant, wavering melody. So there’s a lot of momentum in this piece, even if it’s the sort of momentum that reminds me more of flowing water than driving beats. The primary instruments on this record are round, buoyant synths stripped of harsh edges to their tones, and “Rainzow” is a perfect introduction to the record. It’s a lazy, relaxed piece, a balm for the soul a bit.
“Work Smoothly Lifetime Peace” is a bit more on the truly ambient side, as the arpeggiator base is dropped for a more droning bass. However, the occasional melodies that play over the drone inject more life into the proceedings. It may be ambient, but it’s not wallpaper. “Bunji” and “Telescope” are warm, delicate embraces of burbling tones. “Kaleidoscope” combines the arpeggiator and the drone for an interesting take on their ideas; there’s also a little bit more edge to the tones in this piece.
The back half of the record does a few new things–“Anxiety” and “Zij Aan Zij” are ominous, “Zee Major” is all maximalist space-opera vibes, and “Nexus” and “Concentrate” include hand percussion for variation. “Nexus” is a highlight track, as it changes up some of the tones and creates a more adventurous, chase-scene landscape. “Sleep” closes out the record back near the sounds of the beginning of the record, using an organ-esque drone to lull the listener into a peaceful situation.
Ambient 1 is an ambient record for people who don’t have patience with ambient records. The sounds are (mostly) peaceful, but never placid–the sounds move and jump and get going. There are memorable melodies from some of the tracks, which makes sense from the background the band has. It’s not a perfect record (“Zij Aan Zij” worries me, I skip it sometimes), but it’s a high-quality ambient offering from a band who I would not have expected to give us one.
Wisdom Water‘s Anaphora EP is just over 13 minutes long, but it packs a punch in those 13 minutes. The three tracks are memorable slices of progressive house that rely on big, punchy beats; elegant, poppy melodies; and razor-sharp production. Opener “Mile” uses a bass-and-snare backline as the standard bearer and then layers half-speed work on top of it. The tension between fast and slow is augmented by the shifts in tone that Wisdom Water uses in the repeated instances of the melody–“anaphora” is a literary term that represents the repeated use of a term for effect. (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is an anaphora; the repetition of all the words but one puts the emphasis on the one word that is changed.) Thus, subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) shifts in tone of the keys playing the same melody do a lot of work in “Mile,” from sweet to tough with various synth settings. It’s a thoughtful, careful piece of work.
“Overmore” draws on marimba-esque sounds for the introduction before punching in a big, beefy bass on top of the rattling techno beat. This track builds and shifts as various layers come in and out. “Blue Dot” has a lot of different textures of synth going on, but not as much of the morphing tones that characterized “Mile.” Still, the diversity of sounds is compelling and attractive. These three pieces may be over quickly, but the replay value is really high; I particularly love “Mile,” but both that follow are strong entries as well.
1. “For B 2” – Jake Aaron. A lovely little acoustic guitar piece, a river running smoothly and beautifully over rocks.
2. “A Large, White Vase” – Art Contest. This track is like the dark indie rock of Manchester Orchestra being eaten by Anamanaguchi–it’s glitchy, quirky, video-game-inspired, but also dark and volatile emotionally. There are stuttering math-rock patterns, spoken word, and punchy bass lines. It’s a whole lot happening, which is all for the best.
3. “Smash / Hit” – Thirsty Curses. Did you think Beat the Champ was a great album and want more indie-rock/wrestling crossover? Thirsty Curses and Fire Star Pro Wrestling have got your back. Here’s a mashup of Thirsty Curses’ yelpy, enthusiastic indie rock and Fire Star’s pros going at it as best they know how. The song is catchy as all get out, and the wrestling is fun.
4. “Heliotrope” – Runnner. I got worn out after covering acoustic indie-pop for almost a decade, but the cream of the crop still catches my ear. This track has all the earnest charms of a Guster track (honest yet interesting lyrics, gently clever arrangements) with a sonic palette similar to Freelance Whales (but with more gravitas). It floats despite being serious, and it slaps without … actually slapping. (“Slaps” is a state of mind, I suppose.) The M83-esque coda is impressive, too.
5. “The Seminar” – Stables. Dear heavens, I want to be in Stables’ music video so bad. The Lord Huron-esque tropical indie-folk with Vampire Weekend overtones charges along so enthusiastically that I want to live in this song. Then the music video is a backyard concert: no masks, just people dancing in summer dresses and hipster short-sleeve buttondowns. People are taking video on their phones inexplicably (as someone always is). The whole thing is filtered through a bright yellow filter. TAKE ME WITH YOU, STABLES!
6. “I’ll Do Anything But Breakdance for Ya, Darling” – Kate Davis. Davis interprets Daniel Johnston here (as part of a whole album cover of Retired Boxer) and does Johnston great justice. Johnston’s warm, weird charm and offkilter lyrical approach are maintained. Davis amplifies the warmth here, delivering the vocals with pitch-perfect earnest. The enthusiastic arpeggiated synthesizer that takes the chorus to great heights is the cherry on top. This is just a wonderful cover–I don’t cover covers that often, but this one is immaculate. Please check it out. In addition, proceeds from the record go to Johnston’s memorial foundation concerning mental health, the Hi How Are You Project.
7. “The Ruckus” – Schimanski. Funky, punchy, goofy, loopy, excitable, and altogether fun. Lots of funk bass, big ‘ol trumpet synths, and more.
8. “Decision Dollars (with Hollie Fullbrook)” – The Phoenix Foundation. Hazy, melancholy, ’80s-inspired, dark blue dream-pop that makes me think of the Dream Academy. The arrangement is perfectly done here–it feels nostalgic and fresh at the same time, an extremely difficult trick to pull.
9. “Rebounder” – Night Sports. Lookin’ at a different type of nostalgia, this video compiles hundreds of short video clips compiled from social media (or at least, made to look like that). It’s all pre-COVID, no-mask, joyful snippets of life. Shoutout to the dude who’s using his guitar as a cellphone and vice-versa. The guitar-pop is fun too, but this video is hard to look away from in the best of ways. Come on back, regular life. Come on back.
10. “Of a Million” – Thunder Dreamer. “Helplessness Blues” is over: “Of a Million” is the new cry. The pushback on just being part of some big machine is trenchant and solid. (Although, not in an uncomplicated way, as the chorus points in two directions, both away from and toward being in that frame of one of a mass. Clever.) The easygoing, walking-pace folk/indie-pop arrangement here is brilliant as well.
11. “Ubaba” – Urban Village. Here’s a brilliant South African song that combines peaceful acoustic guitar and traditional Zulu singing patterns for a sonically warm, comforting, encouraging song.
12. “Lunar Acropolis” – Xander Naylor. I love it when drone and rhythm compete with each other, and that’s exactly how Naylor starts off this six-minute journey. Guitar wanders in, and then eventually it gets dark and heavy with thunderous horns/sax/drums. It gets jazzy and wild before calming back down for the coda. A really fun experience.
I’ve been really getting into maximalist jazz/instrumental hiphop/electronic/funky stuff recently, so I’ve been listening to a lot of Teebs, Flying Lotus, and Nosaj Thing. Chiminyo fits right in there with that crew. The drummer/multi-instrumentalist creates hectic, massive songs that meld those influences with the post-dub maximalism of ODESZA and the surrealist electronica of Dan Deacon on his sophomore effort I Am Panda. Drums are prominent (as you would expect), but great clouds of synths, hazy vocals (“Pan’s Call”), bombastic bass, and more populate these tunes.
The album starts out hectic and punchy, getting the party started in a fantastic way. Tunes like “See Me,” “I Am Panda,” and “Run” leave the biggest impression, as Chiminyo sets down a unique sonic vision that lives somewhere between the giddy haze of Animal Collective, the low-key chill of Teebs, and the booming maximalism of Flying Lotus. But they’re not all ragers. “Reachin'” is a chill, low-key, jazzy offering that relies on wurly-sounding keys, subtle drone, and gymnastic drums to create a psych-influenced slow jam. “Breathin'” is similar, leaning in to a funky guitar line in addition to the synthscaped backdrop, but it does amp up its enthusiasm as it goes. “…into the sunkiss…” strips everything down to just piano, showing off Chiminyo’s songwriting chops. Chiminyo has a specific, unique voice, and it’s a lot of fun to listen to. Highly Recommended.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.