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Author: Stephen Carradini

A Whale of a Split: Make Sure and Ezekiel Songs

Today I am absolutely thrilled to bring you news of an EP split between Make Sure and Ezekiel Songs. Longtime followers of this blog will certainly know Make Sure (and its predecessor band Fiery Crash, and its side project Summerooms), whom I cover often. This is the first time I’ve covered Ezekiel Songs, but not the first time I’ve covered the musicians behind the project: Kevin and Chris Skillern (Scales of Motion). But my reIationship with the Skillerns goes back even farther than covering Scales. I don’t get personal on this blog too often, but some things require a bit of backstory.

Back in 2002, my friend Brent said “I am starting a band and I play guitar.” I said, “Well, I can learn to play bass.” We recruited a drummer and called ourselves Tragic Landscape. (Throughout the history of this band, I kept trying to change the name, but to no avail.) After a brief Coldplay/The Fray period, we settled into an art-rock/post-rock/post-metal amalgam that was extremely out of step with everything else in the Tulsa scene. The band consisted of an emo singer who played bass riffs out of Ben Folds songs, an art-school guitarist, and a metalhead drummer. We also later recruited a jazz keyboardist/clarinetist. The guitarist was also a saxophone player and would sometimes swap the guitar for the sax and duet with the clarinet. Over metal drums. We were weird.

Around this time, emo was cool. Very cool. Lots of good emo bands running around (and one good post-rock band called the Programme, who were way out of our league). One of those good emo bands was Scales of Motion. I admired Scales of Motion because among all our peers, they seemed the most like they would actually like our music. They were also Christians and that meant a lot to me, as a Christian playing music. So, I put on my best music networking face and asked Scales of Motion if we could play a show together.

They said yes.

I was delighted out of my mind. We did the show and had a blast. Scales even did at least one more show with us where we were separately put on the same bill. It was awesome. I have always had a spot in my heart for Scales because they, among pretty much everyone else in the Tulsa music scene, kinda took a flyer on us. And Scales, as I mentioned above, was the brainchild of Kevin and Chris Skillern.

And now, all-time IC fave Make Sure is doing a split with the Skillerns under their Ezekiel Songs moniker. Where Scales of Motion was a noisy-but-thoughtful rock band, Ezekiel Songs is quiet-and-thoughtful indie-pop outfit. The patterned distorted electric guitar riffs have been traded for patterned acoustic guitar work. The backdrop has shifted to a peaceful, comforting frame: “Author of Love” is a bright, autumnal piece featuring snare rim-hits, shaker, sleigh bells, muted kick, and gently thrumming bass guitar work below the acoustic guitar and delicate electric guitar work. Kevin Skillern’s high tenor vocals gently soar over the mix, capping off the track in a delightful way. The lyrics are a plea for help, healing, and justice in a troubled time; what could be more beautiful?

Skillern then covers Make Sure’s “Getaway Car,” amping up the dreamy qualities of the track. The track shows how excellently matched these two artists are: the autumnal, acoustic-and-banjo approach is a highly complementary as well as complimentary fit with the original. There are also subtle differences: there’s some more staccato elements interspersed and accentuated in this track than in Make Sure’s (the banjo will do that to you, no matter how kindly you tap the strings). Yet the overall vibe feels dreamy due to inclusion of melodic percussion (marimba?), the vocal choices, and subtle arpeggiator work. It’s a great track.

Make Sure’s new contribution to the EP is “Hearing Yourself,” which is a very punchy track that is on the louder side of the Make Sure oeuvre. It’s not quite pop-punk, what with the twinkly top lines, but there’s a good amount of charging guitars that give this heft. The bridge is quiet and relaxed, giving a good break from the loud proceedings. The track seems to be an “outgrowing this town” song, which is a good fit in a pop-punk-esque frame. (The ka-chunk at the end of the track is very pop-punk.)

Make Sure’s cover of Ezekiel Songs’ “Coming Home” has a solid groove to it, as Josh Jackson ties stomping percussion and winding acoustic guitar together into a fun line. It has some ’90s-era chill Switchfoot vibes: rock approaches without actually going all the way to rocking.

All four of these tracks are highly entertaining, excellently developed pieces of autumnal indie-pop. You’ve got quiet and loud versions of the form here, so there’s diversity throughout. But overall, the quartet is highly consistent and much more cohesive than most splits are. As a bonus: you’re getting to support the Skillerns, whom I highly respect as people and musicians. Highly recommended.

This split comes supported by Renew the Arts and officially drops on December 4.

Singles: Give Thanks!

1. “Nightlight” – Suss. A relaxing, pastoral piece from the ambient-country pioneers that truly floats somewhere between ambient and country. The pedal steel weeps, but quietly. The ambient melodies stretch, but not so far as to become shapeless. The acoustic guitar holds it all together. It’s a country version of an Album Leaf song, and I love it.

2. “Hard to Give Thanks” – Red Spot Rhythm. “Hard to give thanks when you’re feeling low” is the refrain on this chipper, plucky, trad-inflected, major key folk romp. The hectic piano solo matches the ever-forward rhythm-section and choppy acoustic guitar for a punchy, upbeat, infectious ode to sadness.

3. “Give Thanks” – Black Violin. A fitting follow-up to “Hard to Give Thanks,” this uplifting, peaceful arrangement of the theme from “Ode to Joy” captures the reverent, hushed vibe I get from the holidays perfectly. I love this jam, and I look forward to putting it on my Christmas rotation this year and every year.

4. “Mirror Image” – Nick Schofield. A fluttery, loopy, breathy piece of electronica that yet feels organic and rich. This is a beautiful collection of sounds, arranged in a compelling manner.

5. “The Creator Has a Master Plan” – Dezron Douglas and Brandee Younger. This bass/harp jazz duo offers a delightfully refreshing, no-frills interpretation of a Pharoah Sanders & Leon Thomas tune. The work is light without losing vitality, and the performance has a perfect off-cuff feeling. People talking in the background and shout-outs from the performers at the end of the track contribute to the vibe. I absolutely love this. I miss live music so much, y’all.

6. “Involuntary Prophet” – Shanghai Restoration Project. This electronic cut has all the drive of a cyberpunk jam, but without the grit, grime, and urban decay of more Gibson-esque cuts. There’s a sense of drive and wonder, as sounds that approximate flute and piano give the piece lift. A highly compelling work.

7. “Hidden Depths” – Archie the Goldfish. This is maximum cool crammed into 3:55, with the bass/drums/guitar/trumpet combo sidling up with a truly laidback jam. The trumpet is smooth, the guitar is silky, the drums are tight, and the bass is grooving. Just the way I like it.

8. “Call Your Mom” – Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio. Now here’s a funky, groovy, strutting slice of musical goodness. This organ/guitar/drums combo is just looking for a party to crash, keeping the vibe going without acting like anyone’s trying too hard (a little hard–the solos are very good; but not too hard). This is headbobbing bliss.

9. “Kelvin (7300)” – 808 DOT POP. This is fine, Kraftwerk-esque computer music. Lots of big bass notes, computery treble, and counter-point mids. Might be a little austere for some, but I like the charm of the aggressively old-school vibe.

10. “Ark of Horizon” – Collapse Under the Empire. I admire a good band name when I see one, and Collapse Under the Empire is vividly evocative of sci-fi epics, historical sweep, and sudden change. “Ark of Horizon” is even more evocative. Without me telling you anything more, you probably guessed this was a post-rock song with big crescendoes and lots of emotion. I will tell you that it is that (although it’s more electronic than most post-rock) and also there are some deep bwaaaa sounds because let’s go all in.

 

Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas give us smooth, silky, soothing electronica

Lindstrøm & Prins ThomasIII is a smooth, silky, soothing ride for your tired ears. The glittering, calm waves of synths and gentle beats that propel all six of these tunes make for the very best type of listening: the sound can take you away for a ride without you really even knowing it. The work is transportive. This electronic work is about the chillest nu-disco you can imagine–no violins here. I listened to it a ton, and found myself immersed in the vibes.

“Small Stream” has those low-key disco vibes in the cascading bass synths and the headbobbing rhythms, but the layers of other synths over it give it a warm-coat feeling. “Oranges” has a little bit more of a lazy feel, even verging over a bit to mildly ominous. “Harmonia” relies on live bass (or exceptional facsimile of it) to give a more driving feel to the work. “Birdstrik” is both more active and less–the little bits of chatter and squelch add up to a relaxing, serene experience. This album is far more than the sum of its parts, and much more than my words can do justice to. This is a highlight electronic effort of the year, so don’t miss out. The record drops on 11/20. Highly recommended.

Alfred Howard Writes, Week 4: “Take”

It’s week four of 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. The second premiere and third premiere are also available for your listening pleasure. This week, we’re taking a look at “Take.

“Take” is a lightly funky, heavily soulful piece that features Jenn Grinels’ powerful vocals prominently. The organ, guitar, and drums all serve to open a space for Grinels to just go for it–and she does. The back-up vocals amp up this game even more: they are beautiful in their own right while further setting a stage for Grinels’ soaring, searing performance. If you’re a fan of star diva turns, you’ll have a ton of love for “Take.”

Alfred Howard has provided us some comments on “Take,” which I am honored to reproduce here:

Just about all of my songs are autobiographical. I grapple with fiction, plus the world is strange enough that I could write down what was happening and that would theoretically be abstract enough. My lady and I take as many drives as we can to get away from the 24-hour news cycle and the surrealism of this moment in history. Whenever wearing a hazmat suit to go get an apple from the grocery store is your reality, you have to make time for fresh air and trees. So that’s where lines like these come from:

Leave the news behind

The poison lullaby

The venom on the screen

Climb

Up the switchback road

High as I can go

This vantage point is free

I remember at some point, a white dove flew by. I’m a birdwatcher, so I’m always looking out for these things. At the top of the pandemic, we got an apocalyptic amount of rain in San Diego. The skies were black and foreboding and here was this pristine white dove, flying in front of this bleak and ominous backdrop. It was striking. The vision couldn’t not be a chorus. I sent it to Jenn Grinels, and she ran with it. She sent the demo back while I was sleeping, and I woke up at 5 a.m. to go to the swap meet, and I heard it and was totally blown away by the demo. She was belting her heart out. I think she really felt it and could relate to this one.

Pre-order “Take” here. You can catch Alfred on his websiteFacebookTwitterInstagram, and YouTube. And with that–that premiere series is a wrap! Thanks to Alfred Howard for letting us be a part of this project! It was an absolute thrill.

Premiere: LKBD Instrumentals

I’m honored to premiere Dylan Gilbert‘s LKBD Instrumentals today. I’ve followed Gilbert’s work for almost 15 years, and I’ve seen it take a lot of twists and turns.

This blog has taken almost as many twists and turns, often in opposite directions of Gilbert–while I was covering folk-pop, Gilbert was fronting the maximalist art-rock zaniness that is Hectorina. But our paths have (perhaps temporarily?) reunited.

LKBD Instrumentals is a composerly set of electronic, soundscape, and piano instrumentals. Independent Clauses covers instrumental music, including electronic work, soundscapes, and piano-led compositions. (Also jazz, which there is little of in LKBD. But maybe a future iteration will bring that along too!) So it’s a match.

The primary thrust of the album is seven instrumental versions of tracks that came from a project called I’ll Be the Lakebed that–well, I’ll let Dylan tell it:

I’ll Be the Lakebed was originally conceived as a live performance art piece, but due to COVID-19 all shows and tour plans were cancelled. The project then pivoted into a visual album, beginning with a series of singles and music videos, later released as a full film, and now as an instrumental album. LKBD instrumentals consists of 7 instrumental versions of songs from the I’ll Be the Lakebed album and 2 short unreleased tracks used for the opening and end credits of the visual album/film, creating a sort of alternate universe and further expanding the world of I’ll Be the Lakebed.

With the complicated origin story behind us, let’s jump into the sound. LKBD Instrumentals is not easy listening–these are challenging pieces. After a short, glowing, major-key intro that very much sounds like the electronic equivalent of an orchestra tuning up, “Moving Forward (Instrumental)” is an slow, icy, stark, spartan electronic piece that makes the listener feel every staccato bass and snare hit. The conclusion unveils a sort of ominous maximum-slow-jam. By sudden contrast, “Arlington Hotel (Instrumental)” is a traditional big-celestial-synth-washes ambient track; the deeply legato piece is pretty jarring after the intensely separated prior track. “Boneyard” returns to the staccato electronics and amps it up by distorting everything and turning the piece into a grim, grimy industrial track (complete with industrial siren). “New Prayer” yanks the listener back into quiet work, but the solo piano performance is dissonant and discordant.

I’m not going to lie, I considered passing on this release after the multiple instances of sonic whiplash. But the 4:17 of “Scrolling (instrumental)” is basically a Clams Casino jam and the longest track thus far in the record, giving the listener a reprieve. This tune is a brilliant slice of dark, ambient-influenced instrumental hip-hop; I would have loved to hear more of this. Instead, Gilbert goes further into his muse and comes out with a tune that sounds like the wash synths of “Arlington Hotel (Instrumental)” turned inside out and stapled onto a slow-core hip-hop beat with absolutely tooth-rattling bass. That track, “Untethered (Instrumental)”, is both an obvious extension of the work that has come before it and a mindbending new take.

Yet there are even more tricks up his sleeve: “Epochs (Instrumental)” takes the formula of “Untethered” (weird synth washes, bass for days, slo-mo beats) and adds guitars and ghostly vocals to it, creating an absolutely unique and fascinating sound. These last three tracks are truly the reason to listen to this collection; while still not overtly accessible, they are brilliantly conceived and performed compositions that are highly worth the time of adventurous listeners. These are followed by the two-minute outro: a sort of humble goodbye via a humble, tinny Casio-esque ditty played over a sea of whirling static. Overall, this is a fascinating, challenging, intriguing set of pieces for those who like instrumental hip-hop, industrial music, and (I say this affectionately) weird stuff.

Anything that gets done during COVID is such an achievement that the credits are even more valuable to note. Gilbert wrote, performed, produced and arranged all the songs at his home, his parents’ house and his studio space at Goodyear Arts. His father Greg Gilbert helped with engineering, while Justin Aswell did post-production, mixing and mastering. The artwork and design of the entire project, including the LKBD instrumentals album art, was put together by graphic designer Amanda Johnson, with photography by Amy Herman, and Art Direction/Costume Design/Set Design by Sarah Ingel.

LKBD instrumentals drops today, Nov 6, on Bandcamp and everywhere you stream music.

Ólafur Arnalds’ some kind of peace is just that

It’s been a bit of a trope to say that the work that artists are putting out this year reflects our current conditions. Art often (always?) reflects the world around it. In times of prominent upheaval, it feels like everyone should and can say something about the conditions we are all experiencing. (I don’t think you have to, it just feels like that.)

Regardless of my thoughts on making big statements, Ólafur Arnalds‘ some kind of peace is another record written during, about, and for the times of COVID-19. some kind of peace wants to offer the titular gift to everyone listening to it who has gone through this chaotic year together, and Arnalds succeeds in this endeavor.

Arnalds’ detailed, delicate work is primarily for strings, piano, and electronics, and that remains true here. “Spiral” is a slowly-building piece that grows from a single string melody to a fully-developed piece with piano, counterpoint cello melody, electronic background sounds, and delicate processed keys. It’s peaceful yet weighty–not overbearing but yet still sturdy and real. “Still _ Sound” and “New Grass” are even more relaxed, providing a beautiful four minutes of overlapping, legato strings and hushed piano. “Woven Song” includes found sounds of nature in its mix to further evoke peace and calm.

While Arnalds does not usually work with his own voice, it’s the tracks that have vocals in them that are most memorable here. One of the most directly electronic works is opener “Loom (feat. Bonobo),” which uses static; odd, fractured arpeggiator patterns; Sigur Ros-esque vocal modulation (or something that sounds like it); pattering piano; and deep bass to create a whirling, twirling sonic world. Equally electronic is the clattering “Back to the Sky (feat. JFDR),” which features a evocative, powerful performance from the vocalist.

Josin’s whispery voice lends intimacy to the romantic, hold-me-close feel of “The Bottom Line,” as she calls the listener to wake up and go out in the world. The subtle electronic beat here pushes the song forward, mirroring the call of the lyrics in the call of the muted-but-pulsing beat to get up and get going. The swelling musical drama of “Undone” is matched by a dramatic reading of a poem/statement about the difficulty and pain of being born, ending with the statement “it’s just the beginning.” The music grows to about the same intensity and volume of “Spiral,” then delicately winds away, closing the album.

While there’s some diversity in the sonic spaces that Arnalds creates here, his goal of peace (somehow) is ultimately achieved. I’ve mentioned individual tracks of the record, but it’s really best taken as a single, long composition. some kind of peace is a beacon of calm in the midst of this chaotic year, a soothing balm for the weary heart in need of some temporary rest.

November Singles 2, 2020

1. “Pull Me Out, They Say, The Water Has Risen To The Base Of My Neck” – Protestant Work Ethic. The dour but humorously self-aware Protestant Work Ethic (album title: My Idea of Fun) offers a grimly-titled composition that uses violin, piano, and low strings (cello or perhaps even double bass) to create a complex, melancholy piece. The piano’s patterns are formal and rigid structurally, compared with the legato strings. The overall effect is jarring and puts the listener a little on edge, which, with a title like that, is what the track is supposed to do. It’s certainly a challenging and rewarding piece.

2. “INCENDIES” – TRUSTFALL. Pipe organ is a huge, massive, intimidating instrument, and the sounds it makes are just as such. TRUSTFALL manages to warp the brassy, punishing organ sounds with some highly processed vocals to produce a strange meshing of dissonance and melody. It’s weirdly comforting in its audaciousness.

3. “drugs in heaven?” – Tyler Berd. Berd’s speak-sung stream-of-consciousness protest work over spartan chords evokes equal parts Bob Dylan prophetic blast and Radiohead paranoid fragility. (The occasional spike of falsetto helps the Radiohead comparisons as well.)

4. “Chase” – Analog Players’ Society. Music doesn’t usually scare me, especially not things that are not overtly attempting horror. Analog Players’ Society has fully managed to scare me with “Chase,” which cultivates an aggressive, growling, ominous, encroaching-madness-and-doom sort of vibe in its jazz. The bass is pummeling. The horns are frantic. The piano and percussion slash and skitter all over the place. If you like being worried while listening to music, boy does APS have a song for you. Not recommended for people already dealing with anxiety, unless you need a soundtrack to facing your stuff head-on. Whoa noow.

5. “American” – Post Fear. This new moniker of Trey Powell (A Valley Son) is one of my favorite band names of the year. The song itself is a political elegy and warning: a bleary, dense, meandering dark indie-pop piece that encourages people to note that “haste is the deadliest of sins.” Powell’s voice is evocative and powerful, giving lift to this sea of sound. The overall effect a revelatory one, a la Bright Eyes’ “Road to Joy” but with less fury.

6. “Pra Ele” – Mariana Zwarg Sexteto Universal, Sá Reston. Vocal jazz has yet to deeply catch my attention, although Ellen Andrea Wang did crack open a door there. Mariana Zwarg, however, did catch my attention. Her exuberant, thrilling vocal runs and melodies create joyful work over a syncopated, herky-jerky piano-and-flute-driven Brazilian jazz effort. The composition is bursting with life, a positively life-affirming display of vocal and instrumental prowess. Highly recommended.

7. “Inévitable” – Sairen. This chugging, thunderous post-metal track is a lumbering, intimidating force. The mixing and mastering here are impeccable, as the engineering keeps the big sections and the quieter sections in perfect balance. Both the quiet and loud parts have strong energy. The EQing is also admirably done, foregrounding the low end but not thinning out the high end so much that the treble guitar work is weak. It’s a careful, impressive bit of engineering for an impressive piece of post-metal.

8. “Edgewood Ave.” – Byron the Aquarius. This nearly nine-minute jam is a great slice of funky, soulful jazz. The Wurlitzer-esque keys give this a throwback feel, like it could soundtrack a summery, urban ’70s scene in a movie. The rat-a-tat percussion keeps things going, and the rest of the band fills in pieces beautifully. It all works impressively. This band would be a ton of fun to see live. 

9. “Take Us Asteroid” – Fixon. This is a techno banger the way I like ’em: bass hits like punches, moods straight out of a sci-fi movie, and a beat that’ll get you going on the dance floor. The almost mystical-sounding synth melodies delicately cascading and bouncing across the strict boom-boom-boom of the bass is a lovely, creative idea that elevates the track. Brilliant.

10. “I Can Cross the Sea” – The Welcome Wagon. We can always use more gentle folks song of solidarity, togetherness, and facing the unknown together. The Welcome Wagon’s latest effort in that direction is a beautiful, casual-sounding piece that is much deeper and richer lyrically than its sonics imply.

Singles from Election Day

1. “This Land is Your Land” – Kris Orlowski. Seattle-based singer-songwriter Kris Orlowski connects to Woody Guthrie’s historic anthem, weaving tapestries of American diversity.  In addition to the version’s light Pacific Northwest vibe, Abby Gundersen’s violin creates a lighter-than-air essence to the track. (All performances of this iconic tune add to the subtle sonic palette’s reimagining.) Orlowski’s quest to make this land our land comes with a call for fans to provide images of America to be used in a video for the song. Orlowski’s video for “This Land is Your Land” captures the ‘essence of America’ as seen through the collection of photographs submitted to the artist. —Lisa Whealy

Lisa and I have never both written about a song before, but this song in this moment calls for it. Lisa is spot-on with the musical analysis: it’s gentle Pacific NW folk and Gunderson’s violin is beautiful. I’m thinking about something else. I’m writing this on November 3, Election Day. This blog has only rarely been overtly political, although we have supported politically-oriented work for many years. In this troubled year, we have been supporting politically-oriented work much more frequently than we usually do. I sat down to this song to cover it as I would any other politically-oriented song, but it struck a deep chord with me.

See, I have a pretty even split of friends from both sides of the aisle. I have lived in conservative-leaning states all my life–but I’ve worked in media, arts, and academia in those states. I know the conservative folk of those states through my church and religious organizations, and I know the liberal folk of those states from my professional life. I am the most conservative person in most liberal rooms, and the most liberal person in most conservative rooms. In this election, I know people voting for at least four (yes, four) different parties. Like everyone else, I have experienced the difficult polarization of the last few years ramp up to seemingly-absurd levels this year. I experience that polarization primarily as a deep sadness: my life is split in two. People who I talk to in one area of my life do not trust people from another area of my life, and vice versa. No matter who wins this election, roughly half of my friends will be disheartened.

It’s into this deep sadness that Orlowski’s tune speaks. I long for a country that feels like the way this video feels: peaceful, unified, harmonious, and hopeful, while not ignoring the difficulties of our time. (Catch that multi-layered juxtaposition of protestors being threatened with guns vs a shot of a patriotic monument.) What more kindness can we grant to each other than to say “This land is your land, this land is my land”? What more kindness can we summon than to put other people in front of ourselves and yet to include ourselves in the gift (and the work) of this country? Both sides feel that the other doesn’t understand the country, doesn’t respect the people of this country, doesn’t know what is best. Yet, I want a country where we can work together to be the country. Hear that hope in these words from a fellow Okie-who-left: “When the sun comes shining / and I was strolling / the wheat fields waving / a voice come chanting / and the fog was lifting / this land was made / this land was made for you / this land was made for you and me.” I cried when I heard Orlowski’s performance. It speaks to the country I want. It has always been the country I want. I hope it makes you cry too. Happy Election Day.

2. “Yes Electronic” – Be a Bear. A slick, polished house techno cut that rides a smooth beat, blaring synths, cyberpunk melodies, and occasional vocal interjections. The song is fully club-ready. (Bonus: apparently the whole thing was constructed on an iPhone.)

3. “Swell” – Trevor Ransom. Ransom’s last single featured downright punchy electronic/techno bits. This one returns to a more ambient flavor, although there are still plenty of stacked pad synths and big swells going on. The thrumming heart of the piece is an arpeggiator-esque bass thump, so it’s more a matter of how things are used this time. It’s icy, glacial, and yet somehow triumphant. A compelling piece.

4. “Tokyo Solo 2002 Encores” – Keith Jarrett. Jarrett’s music soared from his fingers, dancing across grand ivory pianos around the world. In this 2002 solo concert encore in Tokyo, he reminded us that music’s language is universal. His 2017 Carnegie Hall appearance turned into his final public performance. A few days ago, the 75-year-old classical and jazz pianist revealed he has experienced debilitating strokes and announced his retirement via the New York Times.  The support of his  Budapest Concert (Live) via ECM is not surprising, given Jarrett’s iconic artistry, in addition to his outspoken voice for social change that resonates across generations. —Lisa Whealy

5. “Spa” – Icona Pop and Sofi Tukker. Two of my favorite producers of electro-pop club bangers get together to announce “I’m done with the club / just take me to the spa” via some of the most club-ready beats, vibes, and vocals of 2020. The club’s loss is the spa’s gain.

6. “Tokyo” / “Maggie” – Jeremiah Fraites. Fraites is known for being part of the Lumineers, and the folk-pop outfit’s infectious melodicism is fully present in these peaceful piano ruminations. These piano compositions have the sort of light touch and subtle melodies that fans of piano will love, but also has some of the heft and pop that keeps his other band’s folk songs so snappy (see in particular the thundering toms of “Maggie” for a big dose of heft and pop, while “Tokyo” is the lighter end.) Both tunes are powerful compositions without going overboard on high drama. Highly recommended.

7. “remix by madam data” – Aquiles Navarro & Tcheser Holmes. International Anthem puts out lots of skittering, chaotic, cutting-edge electronic-meets-jazz work. Some of it is too much for me; I’m new to both genres, and as such I’m not really ready to blend the far edge of techno and the far edge of jazz yet. Navarro and Holmes do have some skittering, thick-beat, wub-heavy electro punch underlying this piece, but the jazzy processed horn work smooths out some of the tough edges here. That process creates a productive tension that is exciting and edgy without losing those of us who love melodies.

8. “Another One for Slug” – Dougie Stu. As a bass player, I have found myself attracted to jazz written by bassists (even when I didn’t know it was written by bassists). Such is the case with Dougie Stu’s work here, which is a funky, jazzy, deep-groove piece. The song is not obviously led by the bass (as with composers like Joshua Crumbly), but the bass is prominent, meshing with the complex percussion to create the driving force of the tune. The keys and guitars add flavor on the groove, but this one is about that tight groove. The horns that come in mid-way through give a huge lift to the piece and shift the vibe from downtempo soul to an easygoing Sunday morning vibe. Solid.

9. “Västernorrland” – Tobias Svensson. Led by a bouncy, pizzicato string line, this delicate composition has a light, airy feel that contrasts with a melancholy streak. The staccato strings and the gently cascading piano runs offer a unique contrast that fuses into a clever, engaging piece. The arpeggiator that phases in over time joins the two ideas perfectly, creating a strong conclusion. 

10. “Dodola” – EYOT. This nine-minute journey rides on enthusiastic bass work, rolling piano, and insistent percussion. Reminiscent of the piano-led epics of GoGoPenguin, this outfit leans heavily on keys to create wide, sweeping landscapes with sound. The framework provided by the bass and drums lets those soundscapes grow and flourish. It’s a great piece of work.

Quick Hit: Live at Petra’s by JPH

JPH is an experimental outfit that is basically a slowcore acoustic band (a la Songs:Ohia) played at half-speed influenced by minimalist composers fond of repetition and subtle changes over time. A slowest-core band, perhaps. To wit: Jordan Parker Hoban and co. offer two pieces over 26 minutes in Live at Petra’s.

“Catskills” and “Hardest of Seasons to Gather” consist of acoustic guitar, electric guitar, harmonium, omnichord, banjo and mournful vocals. This collection of instruments allows for acoustic drones so long as to be eerie simply through their incredible expansiveness. The first five minutes or so of the sixteen-minute “Catskills” is simply ominous harmonium drones with delicate guitar thoughts atop them; this expands at the five-minute mark into a more multilayered piece, but not by much. The piece drops down into a melancholy electric guitar gloom before introducing the element that elevates the piece at 8:50: Hoban’s deeply melancholy, angst-ridden voice that repeats a refrain for the rest of the song (seven minutes) with minor variations. The whole effect is of mourning, which is fitting for this Halloween-dropped release that comes with a note encouraging listeners to have a “Happy Samhain, and remember the dead.”

The shorter “Hardest of Seasons to Gather” (which was seemingly not written about COVID, as this release was recorded February 15, 2020) is more warm, as the harmonium is not used to as eerie of ends. Harmonium is usually warm and cheery, and it supports a slightly more sprightly piece that gets up maybe to walking pace. Where “Catskills” leaned heavily into minimalist repetition with the trappings of acoustic work, this is primarily an acoustic work that has some trappings of minimalist. Hoban’s vocals are more hopeful and tuneful here (which still long, legato, and not traditionally cheery), giving the expansive song a bit of an acoustic Appleseed Cast vibe. Fans of post-rock will connect with this song more easily than the first, I think, as the song builds in a way that seems adjacent to post-rock work. The background vocals here are particular endearing to build that engaging atmosphere.

Live at Petra’s is a benefit release: “all proceeds from this album will go to support Petra’s during this time of pandemic.” So if you choose to buy this unique experimental record, you’ll be getting excellent music and helping a bar that supports local music in Charlotte, NC. If you’re up for some gloomy, long, thoughtful acoustic music (that is yet not without hope), Live at Petra’s will scratch that itch.

Trover Saves the Universe and creates some impressive soundtrack work along the way

Asy‘s Trover Saves the Universe Official Soundtrack – Deluxe Edition is a charming, eclectic, delirious mix of electro-indie-pop, techno-inspired blippy video game soundtrack drama, and boss fight songs. The album opens with the cheery, wubby electro-indie-pop cut “Track Star (Demo),” which I can fully imagine playing over the opening screen. It’s like a mash-up of Of Montreal, Odesza, and MIA. It is good. I am not sure what else would be in the not-demo version, but yo! Maybe some strings. It’s real good the way it is.

From there, the album goes into soundtrack mode. However, these are not ambient background sounds. These are bonafide electro compositions. “Hanging Out in the Sky” is a precise, staccato, bouncy track with ah-ah vocals that gives a weighty-yet-fun vibe to the proceedings. The more celestial “Young Stars” reprises the vocal intimations (reminiscent of Jonsi, here), but in a much more spacey electro vibe. “The Man on Whom It Depends” is a wacky bass-driven cut with atypical rhythms, choral-style vocal patterns, and big trumpet synths. I repeat: these are not just background tunes–there’s a lot going on in this collection.

There are some background tunes. The piano-led “Epic Sadness” portrays the titular feel and also feels like the intrepid hero may be wandering through a deserted castle or dungeon. (Even here, the wordless vocals are towering and mysterious.) The pizzicato strings and distant sounds of “Dream Cinema” evoke Austin Wintory’s Journey soundtrack, which is probably my favorite video game soundtrack. (So: High praise.) “Eating Swedish Candy on a Bus” is basically a Pokemon adventuring theme. (Also high praise.) “World’s Esophagus” sounds like a Sonic the Hedgehog tune with maximum bass. (Ah, perhaps less high of praise.) Still, many of these tunes are highly listenable and mesh together nicely.

The only conceit to “okay, this is obviously a video game soundtrack” are the boss fight scores. “A Chill Battle” is a nice bit of breakbeats plus layers of ethereal vocals, but “A Weird Battle,” “A Respectful Battle” and especially “Metal Cue” (which is exactly what it says it is: 74 seconds of thrashy, dissonant industrial/tech-metal) all break up the flow of the soundtrack significantly. I had “Metal Cue” on as my wife walked by and she said, “That’s what you listen to as working music?” Thankfully the brilliant, beautiful “The Way Life’s Moving” followed it up–I could say “no, it mostly sounds like this, not like ‘Metal Cue.'” So: not a huge fan of “Metal Cue.” The grumbly, squeaky “Swedish Bladerunner” is a bit better version of the same concept: breaks up the flow for some intense action, but not so intensely that the flow of the album is disrupted.

The whole album is 31 songs in 61 minutes, so these songs average just under two minutes long. That gives enough time for each song’s vibe to get established, variations to appear, and the song to float on without getting repetitive. Asy’s skill is in making big, complex spaces with a minimum of pieces; these are maximalist tunes that yet don’t have as many instruments/sounds per track as ODESZA; fans of ODESZA will still love this stuff, though. This is a wacky, wild, enigmatic, engaging album, and it’s definitely worth checking out for the adventurous and electronic-music-minded. You can also buy it on vinyl, which is awesome.