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Month: October 2020

Book Review: Mirror Sound

I don’t review books on music much, but the unique concept of Mirror Sound: A Look into the People and Processes behind Self-Recorded Music by Spencer Tweedy, Lawrence Azerrad, and Daniel Topete (photography) drew me in deeply.

So a writer/musician, a photographer, and a designer get together to do a bunch of interviews with professional, full-time indie rock, acoustic, electronic, and rap musicians who self-record. They basically ask “How did you start self-recording? Why do you do it?” and let the interviews flow from there. They take a ton of photos of people’s home studios while they’re at it. Then they write up a sort of ethnographic research report on the themes they found, include the selected text of the interviews with 20+ different musicians, design it meticulously, and cram it all into one book. It is an impressively big project.

It’s a bit ironic that it’s a sprawling project, because the fun part of self-recording is about doing things small, weird, and idiosyncratic. And the creative team here knows that: even with the sprawling concept and cross-country interviews (they even visited R.A.P. Feirrera up in Maine), the whole thing is charming, personal, and lovingly done. People tell their weird life stories and their weird professional stories. They get surprisingly candid. (Sometimes incredibly candid: Bradford Cox talks so much that there aren’t even questions listed in his interview. Instead, they just cut things out with ellipses and start on another topic. Also, did you know that Bradford Cox and Eleanor Friedbarger are married? I did not either.)

The main themes of the book are that self-recording is freeing and challenging, really an art form all to its own. Many people start self-recording because they have no other options, but then become experts as they go. (The most charming interviews were a few younger self-recorders who said basically “I have no idea what I’m doing but it is working out ok.”) The ethnographic section that spools out these themes is interesting and motivating. The ethnographic report moves quickly–it was easy and fun to read. The 20+ interviews are really not intended to be read back to back to back like I did; that section is more of a process to linger over.

This invitation to linger is particularly true when you take into account the size of the book (9-1/4 x 11-1/2; coffee-table size) and the prodigious amount of beautiful photography in the book. Daniel Topete took photos not just of the artists in their workspaces and the artist at work, but little details of the studios of each person. They are almost uniformly creative spaces in their own right, as almost all have their studios packed with gear, cables, art, items, and ephemera. (A notable exception is Sadie Dupuy of Speedy Ortiz, who looks almost unbelievably minimalist in her photos; I have more recording equipment than Sadie does, it seems. This is impressive in its own right.) They are beautiful, fascinating photos.

The only downside of this whole book is a design choice to list the captions on the photos vertically instead of horizontally; given that there are dozens of photos in the book, I had to turn my head sideways a lot to figure out whose studio I was looking at. This problem may be solved by the actual size of the physical book (I read a PDF review copy), but it seems odd to break the flow so often by turning my head 45 degrees to read the captions. Other than that, this book is absolutely excellent–a great piece of music writing, a fascinating look into worlds music fans don’t often get to see, and a worthy coffee-table book.

Alfred Howard Writes, Week 2: “Something to Believe”

Welcome back to our four-week premiere series of songs from 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. For more info on the project, see the first week’s premiere.

This week we’re premiering “Something to Believe,” which a funky, soulful track that relies on powerful vocals from Anais Lund, a lovely Wurlitzer-esque keys/organ double effort from Daniel Schraer, and Jason Littlefield’s impeccable funky basslines. The song has Motown vibe in its veins, displayed in a bright, tight contemporary recording style. Howard’s lyrics marry protest and love, asking a lover to be “a relief from this reality” that is “watching all the battles / when the fight is at your doorstep.” The song is smooth, easy, and warm, a perfectly written and recorded piece that doesn’t downplay the difficulties of our time while seeking solace in love.

Alfred has given us some comments about the song and his lyrics, which I’m honored to reproduce here:

I love this song. This is actually an older song that we just revisited recently and finished. I vaguely remember writing it, but I had this call and response thing in my head. The earliest version of me singing it isn’t altogether different from what it became, aside from it being terrible because I can’t sing. I remember getting excited and driving over to Ian’s guitar shop and humming this idea, and him coming up with the music really quickly. Anais killed this song. Her performance has so much vibe in it. It reminded me of Amy Winehouse, but with this genuine innocence in it. She just really nailed what the song needed. It was fun to record with the crew. Jason Littlefield, Jake Najor, Daniel Schraer, Ian Owen, and Shelbi Bennett doing backing vocals. These are the folks I’ve made most of my records with over the years. It’s good to hear them all together again. We haven’t been able to do as much since the pandemic.

Pre-order “Something to Believe” here. You can catch Alfred on his websiteFacebookTwitterInstagram, and YouTube. We’ll be back next week with another Alfred Howard tune!

HUW x Richard X Bennett soar into outer space

HUW x Richard X Bennett‘s InParallel is the sort of jazz record that I have come to really enjoy in the last year. It’s got obvious jazz sounds and approaches, but mixes in a wide variety of other genres to show its vision. That vision is as a massive space opera sci-fi experience.

Opener “A Path Before That” kicks off with a squawking earworm of a riff from a synthesizer before slowly falling apart into a staticy, wind-swept expanse of barren post-rock, then blasting off into a maximum jazz sequence (and then back). It covers an enormous amount of ground in 3:34 and sets a vision of expansive, detail-oriented, jazz+ music. But it doesn’t yet let the listener in on the big reveal, which comes in the third and titular track: sci-fi jams. Lots of them. Good ones.

Part of the sci-fi expansiveness of their sound comes from the trio’s unusual setup: piano, synthesizer, and percussion. The piano and synthesizer sometimes trade riffs against the percussion backline, but also sometimes set the stage for each other. The title track sees the piano taking front and center in the intro, before a smash-cut leads into an absolutely massive wall of synthesizers. The pensive piano melody comes back in over the towering, sci-fi sound, creating a powerful tune that Muse would have been happy to come up with. (They play with the “pare to almost nothing, then blast a wall of synths at you” several more times in this song and in other songs; be forewarned.) The synthesizer sounds and the mysterious, enchanting piano work create a sense of extraterrestrial grandeur.

It goes on: The synth melody of “Love is a Distance” is immediately memorable; the laid-back drums and walloping bass hits emphasize it even more. “The Dimension” is sort of a punk rock version of their ideas, outer space at double time. Closer “A Song for All” is a lush, legato piece with hovering, distant synths that evoke a feeling of an overawed tourist gently hurtling through the galaxy. InParallel is a fascinating, bombastic record that has jazz, post-rock, and sci-fi stuff all jammed together. It’s awesome.

Howlin’ Rain’s live record keeps us thinking about the past and future

Everything about the music industry is in flux. Should we thank the pandemic for helping vinyl record sales overtake CDs for the first time in mid-September since the mid-1980s? Maybe that has been one tiny aspect of the music industry that has found a way through these dark times. Now, technology’s historic parallels throw us back, whiplashing us into Bob Geldof’s multi-continent famine relief event Live Aid. This time, though, it’s a different topic. The National Independent Venue Association’s Save Our Stages is a free three-day donation-based music festival on Youtube. The festival is a fundraiser to help independent venues until they can fully reopen. Until we have live music back, though, we have recorded live music to tide us over–like Howlin’ Rain’s latest.

Howlin’ Rain recorded performances for their project Under The Wheels: Live From The Coasts vol. 2 in the band’s 2018-19 tours. If you’re like me, you find something special about the live music experience. For fans of the vinyl, collections like this one from the Oakland, California band feel like being at the show. Music transports us, and that may be the greatest gift this collection has to offer. The music from this project lets listeners experience the rooms where the music was made live on stage. Like The Wood Brothers’ 2019 release Live at The Filmore, great rooms season good live music into co-created experiences we share.

Produced by Howlin’ Rain and Eric Bauer, this is a musical joyride for fans of rock and roll infused with Gregg Allman’s ethos. There’s no doubt “Rainbow Trout” soars thanks to Ethan Miller’s vocals and guitar. Would “The Wild Boys” be as steady-cool without Jeff McElroy on bass? “Calling Lightning Pt. 2” seems perfect on its own, yet the met challenge of sequencing this album shines a light on the talents of engineers Eric Bauer and Andrew Bush. JJ Golden’s mastering connects to the vibe, creating a believable sonic experience like we are all at the same show

Howlin’ Rain’s Under the Wheels: Live From the Coasts comes out October 30 via Silver Current Records. —Lisa Whealy. 

Standards’ Fruit Island gets wild and … warm

Standards‘ Fruit Island is 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.

Quick Hit: Ghost Liotta

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.

Montréal Dances Across Borders, vol.1: dark, dense, punchy techno

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. 1 gives 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 (, 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 is beautiful and unusual

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.

Premiere: Tracy Shedd’s “Holding Space”

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:

“Holding Space” officially releases Friday, October 16th. The full album of GROW will be released on Friday, October 30th.

Pre-Order links for GROW are here: Gravity RecordsModern LegendYellow Dog Discs.

Premiere: Alfred Howard Writes’ “Sounds Like a Whisper”

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:

The main artwork from Alfred Howard Writes. By Marian Howard.

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.

Pre-order “Sounds Like a Whisper” here. You can catch Alfred on his websiteFacebookTwitterInstagram, and YouTube. We’ll be back next week with another Alfred Howard tune!