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Category: Review

Premiere: Sonia Stein’s “Letters to You”

Not all pop songs aspire to being classics. Some are just in-the-moment pieces that do their good work in a limited timeframe. Others have staying power. Sonia Stein’s “Letters to You” is an elegant, classic pop song that sails above the crowd and aspires to greatness. This is a song you shouldn’t miss.

Writing lyrics to classic pop songs is hard, because you have to nail the emotion, ground the song in reality, and give the listener space to imagine.  Stein starts off with the lines “I used to have a file on my computer / called ‘Letters to you'”, and well, that is a line. The emotions of nostalgia and regret are already present. The song is firmly in our era (the computer) but not so much that the reference is fleeting (didn’t say “iPhone” or worse). And then there’s all the space to imagine: did Stein delete the folder? Did she lose it? Were the letters sent? Were they (more likely) unsent? There’s so much there, and that’s just the first line. There are other lines in there that land, but it’s that first one that really sucks me in.

(For her part, Stein says: “‘Letters to you’ is nostalgia in a song. I wrote this song when Facebook notified me a high school love of mine is about to become a parent and reliving some memories from that time, reflecting on how strange it is that someone I had thought would always be a part of my life was now a stranger on the internet.”)

The composition is a lovely piano-pop tune that splits the difference between the quirky rhythms of Regina Spektor and the solid left hand of Adele songs. Stein’s distinctive vocal delivery tips it over to the Spektor side of the table, with a touch of Amy Winehouse. The video places Stein and a bright yellow grand piano in a park path lined with hedges and trees; it’s a gorgeous setting for a great, classic song.

Stein has been releasing a string of singles over the past few years, and you can catch up with them all on Spotify.

Drone San says HELLO

Drone San‘s self-titled record on Horribly Loud Records is described in its press as “an electronic music project with acoustic/electroacoustic incursions that fits in the contemporary post-jazz scene.” This, apparently, is exactly the sort of thing I am into these days.

And it makes sense: I’ve been listening to artsy electro for years but dislike heavy doses of the metronomic formalism inherent in techno-related work. I have been edging my way toward jazz, but my interest wanes in proportion to the distance the musicians move away from song structure and melodic continuity. Electronic post-jazz promises to fill the gap tidily: some structure, not too much; weird melodies, but not too chaotic.

Drone San’s record shows off this fusion perfectly. Far from feeling like an interloper in either sphere, this collection sticks the landing in the exact center of a Venn diagram between jazz and electronic. Aptly titled standout “Detroit’s Son” connects the dots of sleek electronic atmospherics, warped and syncopated bass, motorik electronic melodies, and snare-heavy ratatat jazz drumming into a perfectly unified whole. “Ornamentalities” has similarly dusky parts (and … theremin?) applied in different ways, but to the same sorts of success. “Waltzer Matthau” (love the joke) is an equally tight but more cheerful romp through the conventions of both genres to make something new and exciting.

While they can fuse the two genres seamlessly, Drone San can also split them apart. Opener “Drone” is a tension-building post-dub electronic piece that has ODESZA and similar luminaries as peers. Closer “San” is a wistful, elegant piano tune that feels fit for a late-night jazz lounge. The nice touch of opening and closing the record with song titles that form their name shows not only their cleverness but their awareness of what they’re doing as an outfit. They show off their bonafides in the opening and closing tracks, and then show off their ideas in the five middle pieces.

Drone San is a fun, eclectic, exciting record. It’s always fun to hear people joining conversations and pushing things forward. This debut record does a lot to position this duo as a strong voice in the post-jazz conversation. Highly recommended.

2021 January Singles: 1

1. “An Opening” – Fog Chaser. The beginning of every year is an exciting one for me, as I get to see afresh what sorts of things my ears are attuned to. This year it seems like I’m ready for upbeat, warm, slightly woozy sounds, as Fog Chaser’s “An Opening” was one of the first things that really caught my ear in 2022. If you’re looking for some electro with Teen Daze / Ulrich Schnauss vibes, look no further. Highly recommended

2. “Motherland Journey” – Blue Lab Beats feat. Killbeatz and Fela Kuti. This exciting track has afrobeat, Caribbean, and low-key electro vibes all working together for the greater good. It’s a lovely cut.

3. “Host” – Jogging House. Hazy, fuzzy, snowy ambient that sounds the way a warm blanket feels.

4. “B-Side” – Khruangbin and Leon Bridges. Khruangbin and Leon Bridges teaming up was just so much fun (for everyone) that they did it again. Khruangbin is funky, Bridges is soulful, everybody here is doing what they’re great at, this is just awesome.

5. “The World I Remember” – Lights and Motion. 2020 and 2021 weren’t jubilant years, and neither did I lean toward jubilant sounds. Lights and Motion, ever enthusiastic, has released another soaring post-rock track, and it’s just what I’m looking for now. Soar on, Lights and Motion. Soar on.

6. “Pull Your Pants Up” – Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio. Did someone say jubilant? DLO3 are back with more funky, soulful, rays-of-sunshine party music. Love the lead organ melody here.

7. “Love on a real train” – students at Eskilstuna Kulturskola. This is a Tangerine Dream cover by a student orchestra. How can you not love this?

8. “lost found 2001 rare” – eevee. Lo-fi hip-hop from a master of the craft, this time with mellotron-esque keys leading the way.

9. “Cloud Jam (feat. Joel Ross & Marquis Hill)” – Greg Spero. Ratatat drumming, languid vibraphone, delicate piano, and celebratory trumpet come together into a jazz tune that shouldn’t work (due to too many things pulling in different directions) but does beautifully.

10. “Sweeping up breadcrumbs for my lord” – Droneroom. Nine and a half minutes of elegant, stately ambient country: ghostly wind noises accompany the lonesome-sounding solo acoustic guitar. The energy picks up around four minutes but the piece never loses its sense of “being out there by yourself”.

11. “Sisyphus” – Martin Ruby. A beautiful, lonesome, Western guitar piece accentuated by nature sounds and other gentle foley. The animated video sells the vibe beautifully.

12. “Euphemia” – Robin Guthrie. A dreamy, woozy, smooth trip through the space between post-rock, dream-pop and shoegaze.

13. “Norwegian Dream” – Oslo Tapes. Churning, groove-heavy post-rock laden with buzzing synths. It’s full of nervous energy that never explodes in any sort of release, creating a liminal experience of almost-there-but-not.

ARANANAR: Mysteries galore

ARANANAR‘s kosti is a mysterious record. The details are not complex: ARANANAR is a collaboration between Aran Epochal (Gnu) and Anar Badalov (Metal Hearts, Travels, New Dog). They explain that the “album is a collection of odes and laments to the borderlands of the Czech Republic, shrouded in Czech mythology and symbolism.”

Truly, this 11-song, 26-minute collection is a work of art. Those odes are not traditional acoustic ones: the pieces are dusky, spartan, icy, mysterious electro pieces that work together as a unified whole. The approach to each of these songs is similar (but for one): Aran Epochal delivers the vocals in something between a whisper and a talking voice over wiry, icy synths that are bathed in reverb, delay, and other effects. The results are like looking at ’80s electro through a fractured lens. Opener “Leden (January)” is a perfect example of the style.

The most upbeat versions of this concept are the rattling beats of “Doly (Mines)” and the almost cheery arpeggiated squiggles of “Sekaná, dvě piva (Meatloaf, two beers),” while “Dnem (Through the Day)” is morose, glacially-moving post-everything reminiscent of CUTS’ grim forebodings. The majority of the tracks fall between these poles: beats, synths, bass, and vocals with lots of space, lots of atmosphere, and lots of mystery. This is a rare, unusual, intriguing release that fans of adventurous music would do well to check out.

Red Sammy’s Vultures rethinks Americana

We’ve made it another year. Red Sammy’s Vultures, released at the end of 2021, celebrates the resilience of the human spirit in horrifying times. The soul of this album refines Americana as forward-thinking indie folk-rock for a new musical age.

Yes, that’s a weighty statement, but hear me out. In his ninth release, Baltimore-based songwriter Adam Trice leans into heady artistry: much like Bob Dylan sprinkled with Tom Waits and Deer Tick; shaken, not stirred.   

Rich sonic textures and compositional minimalism shape the eight songs of Vultures. Each lyric has room to embrace each note, surrounded by the songwriter’s intention to take us all on a beautiful psychedelic awakening. Stunningly purposeful, Adam Trice leads the existential (but drug-free) journey on acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and lead vocals, along with Bruce Elliott on electric and slide guitar. Greg Humphreys’ bass and backing vocals with David Pearl’s drums, percussion, and backing vocals frame a stark backline. 

Lead single “Kerouac Revisions” with its sarcastic attempts at adulting hits a chord. Who hasn’t been young and dumb? Not everyone achieved great heights of stupidity, but guitar anthems can. Trice and co. pull us in, regardless of where we come from. “Heart” feels like The Andy Griffith Show slipping into a darker truth. This track dramatically highlights a “less is more” vibe via hollow guitar solo and a black hole voice. 

“Gonna Be Alright” is the song of the record. Subtle, honest, haunting, and real, the track is like a warm embrace screaming at the end of the world in calm defiance. Where were you when the world moved on? Simple, repetitive, and soothing, the instrumentation is a masterclass in emotive storybuilding creating the vehicle for raw vocal emotions. This track is flawlessly executed in its lyricism, composition, and performance. 

“The Weight the Kids Must Carry” seems surreal in its realistic appraisal of our world today. The song’s narrator indulges in cynical soothsaying. As an adult, Trice twists his vocal delivery into the songwriter’s pain, shining a spotlight on the pandemic world from a parent’s perspective. Folksy and yet full of hope, this track’s tone cannot disguise the crisis our kids are facing. Elliott’s slide and electric guitar make traveling music out of the horror, but that can’s change the fact that our kids don’t have the tools to cope with the fear and anxiety of the past two years. “Lyin’ Low” carries the Vultures title track duties as an ominous warning to playing it so safe that fear drives inaction. It has a cadence reminiscent of a downtempo incarnation of Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” It’s all about expectations; in the end, vultures always wait for the weak to call it quits.

Chant-like juxtapositions drive “In Balance,” with its aura of spirituality mixed with episodes of psychotic breaks in the midst of medication. Who hasn’t felt this way since the waves of death called COVID-19 tried to rip at our collective sanity? Heading out of Vultures, “Can’t Put You Down” feels like an acoustic atonement for being out of touch. A bit of Rivers Cuomo bleeds through this one. We have seen the worst of ourselves, watching each other. For those unfamiliar with Trice and Red Sammy, even title capitalization is an important clue. Wiith “God is Good and so Are His People” pays homage to the evils witnessed, with unapologetic Johnny Cash style and soothsayer’s vision. 

A precise summation of the last two years, words inadequately represent the gritty musical artistry. The album is reminiscent of Silas J. Dirge’s The Poor Devil, my favorite of 2021. Telling it like it is, songwriter Adam Trice captures the best (and worst) of who we are, note by note, in the Great American Songbook tradition. Red Sammy’s Vultures shines as one of the best journals of our brave new world.–Lisa Whealy

Teen Daze hits the club for a while

Teen Daze has done a lot in 12 years. Jamison Isaak’s project has been on the forefront of chillwave (All of Us, Together is a classic of the subgenre), done electro-acoustic fusions (The House on the Mountain), produced motorik techno cuts (A World Away), conducted a double-album concept record on climate change (Themes for Dying Earth and Themes for a New Earth), dropped copious singles, and generally been about as prolific as you can be while still retaining uniformly high quality. His latest record Bioluminescence was a career highlight that melded the electronic and the acoustic into warm, lithe pieces. Teen Daze makes serious music, at speed, in spades.

Interior is the latest full record from Teen Daze. (A collection of EPs called Reality Refreshes and some singles appeared between Bioluminescence and now, naturally.) It builds on previous Teen Daze successes by marshaling signature sounds toward a new goal. Instead of making big statements about the world, Interior makes dance music–even club music. “2 AM (Real Love) (feat. Cecile Believe)” is a fusion of Teen Daze’s favorite muted, warm sounds and Daft Punk vibes. The enthusiastic post-’80s vibes of “Nite Run” feel like some sort of mashup between Caribou and Maribou State. (That rhyming is completely unintentional.) If you’re in a certain type of hip club, the earthy/airy groove of “Nowhere” is going to be a major success. The insistently cheery “Swimming” is for all the people who wanted more of the bright-eyed techno of A World Away. If Death Cab once wrote You Can Play These Songs With Chords, Teen Daze has written You Can Dance These Songs With Feet. 

Even if this album is intended to be more forward than high-concept, it’s not brash, theatrical EDM. (I, uh, do love that type of music too, though.) Opener “Last Time In This Place (feat. Joseph Shabason)” tricks the listener into thinking the album is going to be something else entirely: it’s an almost post-rock terrain composed of what sound like modular synth patterns and a saxophone solo exploring the landscape. The title track includes a long, subtle build: it takes three minutes for the title track to kick in the dance beat. Until then, the slow-mo arpeggiator fits into the crevices of an arrangement of fizzy static, jazzy mellotron-esque keys, and stuttering percussion. A warped/chopped vocal sample and a kick/hi-hat make the back half a full-on dance party, though. All of the aforementioned dance tracks are soft-edged with Teen Daze’s signature feathery synths. This is not generic dance music, it’s Teen Daze’s highly specific vision on dance music.

This tension between inward gaze and outward dance is explored on a large scale in the nine-minute “Translation.” The track begins with 2:20 of a looping, loping, cloudy synth pattern–almost mid-century minimalist in its repetition. Isaak slowly layers in more elements: a rubbery bass pattern, a four-on-the-floor kick, a delicately chiming guitar (?) riff, and more. There’s a moment of respite at 5:00, before things really get hopping: ’80s trumpet synths, chopped up talk-box vocals, and snare come barreling in to make this a full-on party-down. THEN a roaring sax solo appears, going on for over two minutes. The song does slowly fade out to a close, but overall the effect is of major club vibes.

Just in case you weren’t convinced of the goal of this record, the album closes with four club-friendly edits that cut out / refashion the slower, more intimate bits of four different tracks to enable immediate dance success. Even that can’t turn this into an Avicii album, but look: this is as close as we’re going to get to that from Teen Daze.

After so many albums of careful, thoughtful, big-statement work, it’s pretty cool to hear Isaak just let it rip for a while. Interior is a fun, exciting record of good vibes. This album isn’t trying to duplicate the career highlight Bioluminescence, but it’s also not ignoring that Isaak did make that record. It ultimately is a great way to close out the year. Happy New Year to everyone, from Teen Daze.

Quick Hits: Gemma / The Ghosts of Searchlight

GemmaGemma. This Greek collective creates rock with post-rock artiness, electronic vibes, and lots of drums. The high-energy moments have the dynamic thrust of PG.Lost, while the electronic moments are full of tension a la CUTS (as on the opening track). The female vocalist adds a lot of energy to the work, whether doing melismatics for mood or delivering melodic lines. The band does a great job breaking up the tempo and vibe of the songs without compromising the overall cohesiveness of the work. The closer is a slow-burning 11 minutes long, and is worth every second of it. Dark, powerful, and deeply felt, this record is a winner. Highly recommended.

Sprawl – The Ghosts of Searchlight. Most post-rock has heavy guitars but isn’t actually rock. That’s kind of the point: it uses rock sounds to make non-rock. Well, The Ghosts of Searchlight is an instrumental rock band. It morphs the post-rock concept to make instrumental rock music. It also adds surf-rock, classical music, and loads of vintage TV clips to the work. As a result, this is an album that (indeed) rocks. It has riffs. It does not mess around. It also has a serious message about suburban sprawl (it’s bad, it’s a trap, it changes people, it keeps them going in circles endlessly without meaning). Still: even if you’re not here for the social criticism, show up for the rock.

Lisa’s Top 10 of 2021 

I first embraced my love of music long before attempting to translate the feelings music creates into words. As a kid in school, I started with an ear for jazz and blues, playing clarinet, flute, and saxophone. I picked up an oboe, crossing into orchestral compositions. Folk music’s simplicity became my first love, inspiring me to wholly commit to the music is life dream. 

My 2021 Top 10 list includes the music I return to when life gets weird, a little too good, or just plain chill. It includes albums, EPs, and collections. They all share just one common denominator: released in 2021. The original articles are linked here, just in case you missed ‘em! – Lisa Whealy

10. Dark Wooden Cell Undying Stories from a Fallen World. Empty, yet sublime. The discordant Undying Stories from a Fallen World haunts reality.

9. Paper AnthemThe Year You’ll Never Get Back. Joseph Hitchcock redefines the artistry of indie rock with his third release.

8. Jacob FaurholtChaotic Piano. In six songs, Faurholt’s plaintive vocal style delivers a raw, authentic commentary on humanity.

7. Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal. The 41-song, five-vinyl/three-CD collection via the Neal Casal Music Foundation included Casal’s friends in the music community in response to the songwriter’s suicide. 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.

6. Clara Engel Dressed in Borrowed Light. Canadian creative Engel’s Light is an immersive experience, from the artwork and cover design to the music and lyrics. To be relished again and again.

5. Frozen FarmerThings to Share. This record twists Italian folk into musical artistry via genreless imagination.

4. Jody Bigfoot and TandaroDuszt. Nuanced and subtle, Jody Bigfoot’s vibes inhabit a creative universe with producer and multi-instrumentalist Tandoro as both album and film.

3. PinhdarParallel. Italian trip-hop artists Cecilia Miradoli and Max Tarenzi transformed the look of rock to embrace an era of nuanced lyricism wrapped in psychedelic soundscapes.

2. Mike DillonShoot the Moon / Suitcase Man / 1918. Producer Chad Meise’s album trilogy with Dillon is a weird, glorious musical creation born of the punkadelic-funk-psych artist literally trapped off the road he’s toured for three decades. Mentioning Dillon’s work in 900 Foot Jesus, Dead Kenny Gs, and Brave Combo really just touches on the vast body of work available to his musical reimagination.

1. Silas J. DirgeThe Poor Devil. Netherlands-based songwriter Jan Kooiker claimed a spot as one of my favorite all-time songwriters and earned top spot on this list with his brilliant work on The Poor Devil

Quick Hits: SUSS, Bremer/McCoy, Amy Reid

Night Suite – SUSS. I love ambient country, and the four people of SUSS are some of its most esteemed practitioners. This collection of five pieces is themed around the experience of night in five Western locales, three of which fall in my state of Arizona.

The pieces are suitably spacious and inviting, as they play with the theme to such an extent that these are almost soundscapes instead of songs. (“Flagstaff, AZ” is the farthest out on this front.) Yet they retain a sense of melodiousness that hangs over each of them, such as in the subtly layered guitars of “Kingman, AZ.” “Needles, CA” sounds like the heavens opening up a blanket of stars, as reported by someone reverent. A truly lovely collection.

Natten Bremer/McCoy. Pianist Morton McCoy and bassist Jonathan Bremer make lithe, svelte compositions that will make as much sense to ambient enthusiasts as jazz ones. McCoy plays with light, elegant precision–the melodies ring gently with little syncopation. Bremer fills in the spaces with stately stand-up bass thrum. Openers “Natten” and “Mit Hjerte” have an expansive sweep, while “Nu og Altid” and “April” are intimate. Ultimately, the duo make timelessly beautiful music that calls to mind jazz nightclubs, rooftops, studio apartments, earnestness, and young love.

Dome Trax – Amy Reid. Ambient of the glittering, arpeggiated, spacey kind. It feels serious and light simultaneously, like it’s Reid’s job to brighten the mood of a dark space. (Titles like “Theme Song for Hope” and “Clouds Have Parted” bear this out.) The composition quality is high: Reid uses the building blocks of ambient, yet avoids tropes with subtle techniques and transformations. It’s an endearing, engaging short release.

Ninjutsu lands beautifully in every way

I’ve been covering the work of Joshua Aubrey Jackson (Fiery Crash, Summerooms, Make Sure) for the last eight years. His work has gone from alt-folk with a predilection for fuzzed-out guitars to full-fledged twinkly-guitar emo to sophisticated indie-pop. His latest record as Make SureNinjutsucements his growing reputation for being an indie-pop songwriter with a keen ear, impressive arranging skills, and an interesting pen. This record is Jackson’s most complex statement yet in every regard.

On Ninjutsu, Jackson shows off a fine-tuned melodic sense. This record is packed with memorable melodies: the line “So here’s the point / when the watchman falls asleep” on “Girl Drummer” could be a throwaway line for many bands, but it becomes an earworm (despite being only sung once) and turning point in the song. “Sometimes a Man Has Nothing to Say” has a drawn-out chorus that sticks in the mind. “Japanese Bonus Track” has a similarly powerful chorus that evokes Ben Gibbard’s vocal patterns, but also adds memorable verse structures. Yet none of these melodies are theatrical or “poppy”; they are earnest, low-key, and well-turned. They stick not through fast tricks, but through hard work in making good songs.

That intense effort extends to the arrangements: it is clear that an incredible attention to detail went into the instrumentation. Jackson’s warm, wistful vibe is present on every song on the record due to the detailed construction of each instruments’ tone. There are no hard edges on this record: acoustic guitars burble, pad synths enter slowly, percussion rattles without being brittle, and Jackson’s vocals are always just above a sigh. He even manages to make the distorted guitar of “Girl Drummer” thick without being abrasive. The guitars thud appropriately, fitting into the vibe of the record as a moment of great disappointment amid the nostalgic feelings. “Is That You Ninjutsu,” “The Day That I Moved Out,” and “Sometimes a Man Has Nothing to Say” are particularly deft on this front. “Okay Sea” stretches a mood out over a long period of time (7 minutes!) and gets special notice on that front. It’s truly a beautiful-sounding record, and for the sonics alone it should not be missed.

Yet it’s not all music: the lyrics here are notable. Jackson’s lyricism has always been long on tenderness and wistfulness. On this record, he hones that to a fine point. Opener “Is That You Nunjitsu” draws parallels to the brilliant Transatlanticism, creating a powerful homage/comparison that probably goes under the radar for all but the most dedicated Death Cab fan: the narrator remembers a lost love by finding dog hair in the backseat of a car (instead of the glove box, as on “Title and Registration”); there’s a sea between the narrator and his lost love (“Transatlanticism”), there’s a dinner party going on (perhaps “Death of an Interior Decorator”?). (Also, the guitar tone/melody seems to evoke “Transatlanticism,” but that could be me reading too much here.) From there, Jackson spreads his lyrical wings in a variety of directions. “The Day That I Moved Out” is a nostalgic yet specific rumination on the titular event; “Sometimes a Man Has Nothing to Say” is another rumination on leaving home, but this time it’s about the silence of not knowing how to respond to a lover back home. Switching gears, “Get Moving” is a gentle hymn of praise. The lyrics here are earnest and unadorned, but almost all show a pop of a unique vision: an unusual word, a specific phrase, an unusual tack, a distinctive emphasis.

Make Sure’s Ninjutsu is a polished, beautiful record. It’s the product of many years of learning the craft, and all the bits of effort expended over many years (and many previous releases) show. The melodies shine, the arrangements soar, and the lyrics land. It’s top-shelf indie-pop, the sort of thing that you hear once and want to hear again immediately. It’s fall / winter music (see Jackson’s project Summerooms for the spring / summer music), and I love that about it. Break out your wool sweater and your sonic sweater: Ninjutsu. Highly recommended.