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Month: October 2021

Giancarlo Erra depicts grief in ambient form

So much ambient music suffers from a successful attempt to be interesting sonic wallpaper that finding an ambient album about something in a recognizable way is deeply refreshing. Giancarlo Erra‘s Departure Tapes eulogizes a father, and it feels like it. Opener “Dawn Tape” grapples with loss. Long tones morph and fade. The piano’s ostinato melodic motif is fragmentary, seemingly collapsing partway through, only to immediately repeat. The strings waver with uncertainty. It feels sad. It is ambient, but for a reason: doesn’t grief feel ambient? Isn’t it fragmentary? Partial? All-encompassing? Ever-present? Repeating?

“Previous Tape” meshes a gentle burble of keys with a morse-code-staccato rhythm and a mournful lead horn. “169th Tape” is a mass of swelling strings and subtle radio distortion. “Unwound Tape” puts a thick drone out, plays a fleet keyboard line over it, and then has the drone attempt to subsume the keyboard line (somewhat successfully). I too feel like I have gotten over grief before I have actually gotten over it. All of these lead up to the two pieces that compose the core of the record: the 16:49 of “Departure Tape” and the 7:31 of “A Blues for My Father.” “Departure Tape” starts off with a wordless aria sung in a reverent style, then brings in dramatic church organ; this is absolutely a funeral. The rest of the fourteen minutes of the piece are an elegant, moving journey. It is beautiful. “A Blues for My Father” starts off with layers of cloudy pad synths before re-introducing the singer of the wordless aria from “Departure Tape” reprising the melismatics in a new atmosphere. The vocals don’t distract from the work: instead, they lend weight and gravitas to the ambient work.

Departure Tapes is a rare collection of ambient pieces that feel like they genuinely go together as a collection and that speaks to a larger concern that the mood itself. It is an impressive, evocative, memorable album. Highly recommended.

Quick Hits: Dana Sipos / Cameron Knowler

The Astral Plane Dana Sipos. Sipos’ alt-folk offers an unusual look at the world. The Astral Plane is gentle and yet immediate; comforting but bent askew. These tunes don’t offer direct takes on love or relationships; where they do, the ideas are heavily couched in metaphors of the natural world (body, earth, sky).

Her folk tunes pack many unusual musical flourishes in addition to unusual topical and lyrical concerns; lightly jazzy work pops up against hand percussion in “Light In Moon On.” “A Crude Likeness” has subtly ominous Tom Waits-ian vibes, “Light Around the Body” is a warped folk/country track, “Skinny Legs” is a requiem for a grandmother in a doo-wop style. “Greenbelt” is here for you if you just want a fingerpicked folk song; it still talks about the woods, magic, curses, and the greenbelt. The Astral Plane is a unique and fascinating tour of a distinctive songwriter’s work as she hits her stride. Highly recommended.

Places of Consequence – Cameron Knowler. Exploratory, evocative acoustic guitar soundscapes that range from wistful, formal guitar solo pieces (opener “I”m an Old Cowhand,” “Don Bishop A”) to ambient minimalist (“Supertone Biome,” “Atelier de Stein”) to folky/bluegrass-inflected work (“Done Gone,” “Cat Spring”) and pieces that defy classification (“Kuyina,” “Motoring Addiction”).

Throughout it all runs an elegant, dignified sense of melody; Knowler has a deep respect for the music he is evoking, recreating, and responding to. The results are a beautiful, diverse, attention-holding record. The 1-2 punch of the desolate “Second Train to Alamogordo” and the sprightly “Lone Prairie” is a late-album surprise to watch for. Highly recommended.

Quick Hits: Oppenheimer’s Elevators / Havana Swim Club / Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp

Cosmogony 3000 – Oppenheimer’s Elevators. Cosmogony 3000 combines the repetition of mid-century modernism, the gently reverbed approach of dream-pop, and the guitar-centric ideas of post-rock into a deeply creative, wonderfully idiosyncratic collection. The band usually builds out one main melodic idea and repeat it with variations, counterpoints, tonal shifts, and layers; this results in tunes that are fully-realized and mature in their outlook while still being exciting. “The Verb” and “Le ciel et la terre” are evocative, engaging pieces without ever going for the big move like much post-rock does. The band is confident in its work, and therefore can easily make understated pieces shine. Highly recommended.

Havana Swim Club – Havana Swim Club. This is a whole album of old-school tropicalia samples layered with beats, bass, and synths. It comes off with hazy, triumphant glory as a pitch-perfect chillwave album from when Teen Daze was new. “Peaches,” “For Blake” and “Wonder” are absolutely brilliant slices of relaxation pop. (The strings of “Wonder” set it apart as a true highlight.) “Yeah,” “1 2 3 4,” and “Jubilee” are funky neo-disco cuts (why not?). “Nature” blurs the line between homage and parody of space-age bachelor pad sounds. “Energy” blends all three of those ideas together for a truly unique experience. This is a fascinating, relaxing, immersive album.

We’re OK. But We’re Lost Anyway. Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp. You’d be forgiven if you thought that the serious orchestral composition of opener “Be Patient” and the frantic, guitar-driven, shout-along post-punk of “So Many Things (To Feel Guilty About)” came from different outfits, but nope: the Orchestre is the sort of unit that just does whatever it wants. If you’re up for adventurous music that explodes all categories with pretty much every track, apply within. Highly recommended.

October 2021 Singles 3

1. “Another Stripe” – Plant Shrink. Blast from the past: in 2010, I convened a little EP of original works to celebrate the blog’s 7th anniversary. (The download link is dead, as you may have expected.) Our friends Dishwater Psychics sent us a demo of “Another Stripe” to include in the set. 11 years later, Dan from Dishwater Psychics emailed me to say that his side project Plant Shrink finished the track. It’s good to know that some things stay the same: I loved this rumbling, grumbling, lo-fi indie-rock track then, and I love it now. The nostalgic vibes create an extra level of enthusiasm for me. Highly recommended.

2. “See My Smile” – Marc Maynon. Lovely formal pop that splits the difference between ’90s Britpop ballad and Beatles vibes.

3. “Against / Social / Media” – The Holy Road. This strings-led post-rock composition is eerie, elegant, and dramatic. I love topical work and especially work on technological concepts; the ominous mood throughout and the overtly villain-esque breakdown around 3:00 underscores the concept around this particular track.

4. “Cumbia Divina (feat. Divina Jasso)” – Mitchum Yacoub. I involuntarily sway my hips and bob my head when I hear this top-shelf cumbia cut. The melody is great, the groove is magnificent, and the overall product is just fantastic.

5. “Taking Time” – shn shh. A beautiful ambient / electronic rumination on slowness and stillness that is a good reminder for those of us running around with our hair on fire to chill out a bit. (That would be me.)

6. “Akaku” – John Thayer. A quirky, herky-jerky cut that pairs melodic percussion with stuttering beats and distant synths for an unusual, enjoyable experience.

7. “Corsica ’80” – Kraak and Smaak. A smooth, tropical, groove-heavy slice of electronic joy.

 

Quick Hit: Sunjacket

Carl Hauck and co. return with another collection of woozy, weary, fried-out art-rock escapees from a Radiohead era between Ok Computer and Kid A. The former’s brittle, dark attack is still there, cut through with the latter’s uneasy electro sounds and complex layering. “In My Head” drops Hauck’s chest and head voices into a churning mix of stuttering beats, deeply sludgy synths, and harp-like guitar plucks; “I feel like myself / but I don’t like myself” captures the chaotic uncertainty perfectly.

The title track feels like a lost James Blake track, what with the perfect vocal performance against the icy, svelte electro backdrop. “Passenger” is one of the most straightforward tracks here, with  hummable earworms and everything; it still is a weird mix of Bon Iver vocals, polyrhythmic snares, and blasted-out synths. “How Can I Even” strips out the beats and vocals for a pure experience of the melodic id of the record; it’s lovely, and feeds perfectly into the late-record highlight “Take It Apart.” More Lifelike is the rare art-rock album that is exciting; Sunjacket captures a specific vision and runs with it in unique and unexpected ways. Highly recommended.

Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal

How do you create the soundtrack of your life? Beloved worldwide, Neal Casal graced his music community with love, friendship, and vision. His artistry defied labels or boundaries. Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal is the manifestation of one lifetime of music’s power to heal, one song at a time.

Neal Casal’s story will never end, as his soul’s song is given everlasting flight through Highway Butterfly in the hands of engineer/producer Jim Scott and producer Dave Schools of Widespread Panic. The 41-song, five-vinyl/three-CD collection via the Neal Casal Music Foundation and Royal Potato Family lifts up the work of the prolific songwriter, touring guitarist, producer, and musician. More than just a musician, the Fruit Bats’ brilliant take on “Feathers For Bakersfield” reminds us that Neal was one of his generation’s premier lyricists.

This collection brings to mind Lennon and McCartney’s With A Little Help From My Friends. Neal was part of a community that rolled with Phil Lesh (“Freeway To the Canyon”) and Billy Strings & Circles Around The Sun (a warm, lush version of “All the Luck in The World”), among many others. On Marcus King w/ Eric Krasno’s “No One Above You,” the soothing reassurance of each chord resonates with our need for connection. We will always be “Traveling After Dark” along with Aaron Lee Tasjan. But for friends and members of the community Neil Casal’s life and music impacted, J Mascis throws down a challenge with “Death Of A Dream” that we all have the power to change an individual’s life.

Proceeds from the release benefit the Neal Casal Music Foundation. Casal’s life dream of impacting music education, like his dad had done for him at 13 with the gift of his first guitar, is now the melody his spirit has left us with to carry on. The Neal Casal Foundation’s mission is to put music instruments and education in the lives of any interested New York or New Jersey student. The ability to play an instrument gives more than just music. It helps create community, hope, and joy.

Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal reimagines Casal’s extensive collection of music as a reincarnation, redefining his life’s struggles into transformative victories for generations of young musicians. —Lisa Whealy

Quick Hits: Good Lee / The Paper Sea / Speak, Memory

Water Diary Good Lee. Downtempo, primarily instrumental hip-hop with high production values and a strong sense of mystery. Deep-grooving opener “Pamilya” is a perfect tone-setter; pop-adjacent “Memories in the Moonlight” features lovely soprano vocals for another highlight. “Heart of Glass” removes the beat for a pensive moment, while closer “Crying Earth” manages to be atmospheric and grounded. A fantastic collection. Highly recommended.

Shadow Falls The Paper Sea. Peaceful, piano-led compositions that revel in wistful, elegant ambiance. Impressively, the 13-song collection is uniformly enjoyable; the compositions feature different instruments, tempos, and keys to keep the approach fresh. The cello and mellow keys of “Centésimo Saudade” are achingly beautiful. “Starling Ballet” somehow imbues synthesizer with deep emotional weight. “The Center Shall Hold” sounds like staring out a window of a spaceship; the pedal steel of “The Sleepers In(n)” makes the song sound like slowcore postrock a la Mojave 3. A transcendently beautiful collection of piano-led compositions. Highly recommended.

Adirondack – Speak, Memory. Primarily-instrumental emo/post-rock with guitar lines that split the difference between twinkly melodicism and mathy patterns, acrobatic drumming, and a bassist that keeps it all tied together. Their press kit mentions Unwed Sailor, Explosions in the Sky, Appleseed Cast, and American Football, which I would also do if they hadn’t done it for me. The thing that puts them in that high-level category is their command of melodic heft; these three tunes deliver a lot of feelings via tension/release (“Trails”) and/or maximalist enthusiasm (“Lakes”). An excellent way to spend sixteen minutes. Highly recommended.

October 2021 Singles 2

1 “Timbuktu” – Stables. If you listen closely, you can hear the ghost of Simon and Garfunkel clapping along.

2. “Hospital Job” – INWARDS. Fans of Dan Deacon will recognize the slightly batty stack of major key synths, ghostly vocal samples, looming paranoia, and beats. INWARDS’ approach is more, uh, inward-looking than Deacon’s technicolor hallucinations, but the same basic concepts apply. The 360 video that goes with it amps the intensity of the discomfort up to 11, while still being enjoyable. An impressive trick!

3. “Believer” by Kodiak Arcade. Not everything I love comes up on this blog. For instance: I am a very big Avicii fan, so much to the point that I curate a playlist entirely of songs that follow Avicii’s very specific song formula: acoustic verse, acoustic/electronic chorus with indelible hook, EDM drop that reiterates or expands on that hook, repeat. Kodiak Arcade’s “Believer” does something similar to this! It starts off with an acoustic chorus with a perfect hook, then brings a lovely acoustic verse, reiterates the chorus, then goes for a wavy/psychedelic/electronic drop. It’s like a tropical version of an Avicii jam. This is not about to become an EDM blog, don’t worry, but “Believer” is the apex of a certain type of EDM song, the sorts of artistically-inclined pop that this blog spent many years covering, and solid instrumental composition that excites me these days. Get it, Kodiak Arcade.

4. “Sex Tape” – Hippo Campus. Is this from the ’90s? The ’00s? The ’10s? Is this vaporwave? hyperpop? I have no idea. I don’t care. It’s awesome.

5. “Charlie Chimi” – Charlie Chimi. This is a wacky alt-latinx electro cut that came to be because it was a jingle for a sandwich shop run by musicians who ended up being better at jingles than sandwiches. (I still want to try the sandwiches.) The video is truly bonkers in the best way possible.

6. “Sept.” – Violetera. Do you love breathtaking landscapes taken by drones? Do you love pensive, minor-key, guitar-heavy post-rock? Apply within.

7. “Smell Smoke” – Dylan Gilbert. Gilbert is an architect when it comes to instrumental work; his pieces are constructed out of lots of different pieces, all calculated for maximum effect. This one has bits of techno, industrial, vaporwave synth, and found sound, all added up to sound like fear and yearning. I’m not always into music that’s supposed to make you think more than make you hear, but if it makes me think and feel, I’m cool with it. This does both.

8. “I’m Not a Dancer” – Steven Thorn. I love the concept of making a dance song about not dancing. Thorn’s high-pitched yelp matches the ’80s-heavy electro-pop backdrop in a perfect way.

9. “Elizabeth” – Jake Aaron. I love the peaceful nature of Aaron’s acoustic guitar compositions; they seem to flow effortlessly out of the frets in a gentle stream. This one carries on his streak of high-quality releases.

Rock Lives, with Matt C. White

If you got worried hearing there’s no real rock music anymore, it’s okay! The heart of rock and roll is alive and very well. Thankfully, there’s more than one way to throw down grit that harnesses the beat. I’ll be showcasing three rock artists here in October to prove it. Today I’m starting with Matt C. White’s Creepshow Peepshow: Act ll.

The opening of “Mr. Bloody Bones” feels like an old-school throwback with David Lee Roth slide-in vocal cool. That’s where the hair-metal comparison ends, as “Colt Killer” genetically connects to White’s North Carolina roots in its blues-driven guttural earthiness. It’s surreal in its anguished sonic depths. For anyone missing Kurt Cobain, guess what? Grunge lives. The brilliantly angst-driven “Cortizone Cream” couples memorable lyricism with transcendent musicianship. This track seems to be destined to land on the pandemic playlist of everyone silently screaming for connection.

“Spitting Venom” leads out of the five tracks. A fairly quick hit, its perfection is in knowing its strength is its brevity. The collection closes with “Revenge,” which harkens back to White’s North Carolina roots. Acoustic guitar, fuzzed-out vocals, and shredding electric guitar solos reminds listeners that we are in the master’s laboratory.

The five-song collection is a companion to 2021’s earlier Creepshow Peepshow: Act I. An accomplished multi-instrumentalist, White is the lone performer here, making this impressive accomplishment all the more mind-bending. 

My first exposure to White’s artistry came through his debut album wallow in the hollow., which is still part of my regular playlist. Creepshow Peepshow: Act 2 builds on that foundation. All I can hope for is that Jack White over at Third Man Records gets bit the way I have and wants to produce future work from Matt C. White! Until then, Creepshow Peepshow: Act ll is pure genius.–Lisa Whealy

October 2021 Singles 1

1. “Jimmy’s Groove” – Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio. Everything the Trio does is good. This is a funky, groovy slice of major-key funk that just goes and goes. If you want some high-quality sunshine poured into your life, hit this one up. Highly recommended.

2. “Aros I Fi Yna” – N’famady Kouyaté. Another groove-heavy afro-pop cut from Kouyaté that draws in a huge variety of sounds into an eclectic, invigorating mix. Just an incredibly exciting artist here. Highly recommended.

3. “Happy Village” – Bakithi Kumalo. Spans the gap between afro-pop, jazz, and traditional forms of African music easily, creating a unique, brilliant piece.

4. “Autumn In New York (AKA Spring in Chicago)” – Makaya McCraven. Smooth, earthy jazz to ease the troubled mind. It’s hard to make peaceful music, but McCraven makes it sound easy.

5. “Quiescence” – Mas Aya. Starts off plucky and quirky (flutes galore!) before settling into a detailed yet meditative groove that questions the usefulness of terms like analog and electronic music.

6. “The See” – Joshua Crumbly. I have been on the Joshua Crumbly train for a while now, and this pensive, evocative track keeps me firmly on it. Ambient, jazz, lo-fi, and slow-core all merge in a tune that exudes more sadness than a lot of breakup songs without being as on-the-nose about it.

7. “Linden” – Zen Dub. A quiet yet inspired bit of electronica that evokes moods similar to those of Teen Daze. Good for working to or vibing to.

8. “The Last Ones Shall Be First” – Wilder Adkins. Adkins usually offers brilliant acoustic folk, but this time he’s got a slim, svelte, down-tempo electro-indie-pop tune that lands excellently. Fans of Zach Winter and Kye Alfred Hillig will be thrilled.

9. “Give It Hell” – Yumi Zouma. Sometimes refining what you do best into a perfect point is the exact right thing to do: YZ offers more soft-rock-meets-synth-pop bliss here. The melody, arrangement, and vibes are all on-point. (This is a hilariously aggressive title for such a soft song.)

10. “Koko” – E.VAX. Evan Mast knows how to meld disparate pieces of sound into smooth, fully-realized wholes. This song takes unusual samples, morphed vocals, thick bass, and simple percussion into a beautiful, easy-going mix.