ALPINE HAZE
Illustration by Jacob Garner        

All original writing pieces and photographs by Angel E. Fraden (Head Editor of Indie Current) [angel@indiecurrent.com]

Brooklyn, New York

 photo 1404995_10200945871156739_765786233_o_zpsdd86a138.jpg design by JESS. Okinawa, Japan  photo IMG_6982codpy.jpg

Brooklyn’s native neo-soul wunderkind Nick Hakim premiered a new track from his forthcoming self-released EP Where Will We Go Pt. 2 yesterday: It’s beautiful. “Lift Me Up,” (originally released with Hakim as a featured vocalist on Gizmo's 2012 LP Red Balloon) strips back most of the instrumental and sonic affectations from his previous release, instead reveling in the stark sensibility of piano and a few exalting bass notes. The track boasts a definitive low fidelity—Hakim's voice, coupled with subaquatic minor chords, hangs heavy in the air as if the song was recorded outdoors in a park somewhere or underneath a highway overpass—and it only works to further assert his undeniable talents. As his voice fractures into a handful of sonorous, crystalline harmonies, just past the two-minute mark, “Lift Me Up” gains pace and power only to dissipate in seconds.

“I wrote this song about four years ago,” he told Vogue. “I was thinking a lot about a friend who had passed away the previous year. And that same year, my older brother lost two of his closest friends.” That unwavering sense of forlorn melancholy is unmistakable here, but the sadness doesn’t feel quite so absolute. No, it feels like sadness on the brink of hopefulness. Where Will We Go Pt. 2 is due for release on September 16 via Nick Hakim's own label Earseed Records.

July 30, 2014

Paul White is the newest addition to the left-leaning electronic label R&S Records—noted for audacious debuts from VondelparkTeengirl Fantasyand James Blake (the 2010 EP featuring “CMYK”)—and the lead single off his forthcoming R&S breakthrough Shaker Notes is bleak, foreboding and quite possibly the label’s sexiestrelease of the year. The introductory guitar notes on “Honey Cats” are intrepid and leery, a slow, deliberate downward spiral into a delirious abyss of croaky saxophone flourishes and harrowing drum lines.

When the reedy voice of Paul White finally reveals itself, more than a minute into the track, it feels like a kind of life preserver resurfacing you from the depths of an unfathomable ocean. It’s gruff but sensual; hypnotic and alluring, so much so that it took several listens to realize White only sings a few variations of one simple line. The whole affair seems to be pulled straight from some turbid and mind-scrabbling, David Lynchian soundtrack, like the swarthy melodies composed by Angelo Badalamenti in the 1990 TV series Twin Peaks, or, more accurately, “sounds like: 60s chick on opium lying in a room full of cushions” according to White’s description of the song on YouTubeShaker Notes is set to release September 29 andis poised to be Paul White’s “most personal and sample free” collection of material yet, likely engaging with the same dark, enveloping emotions found here.

March 28, 2014

I often lay awake at night thinking the impossible: Like what if Mount Kimbie remixed a Lauryn Hilltrack, or if the legendary UK producer SBTRKT produced music for R&B soul crooner D’Angelo? In many ways this new release by my favorite Elliot City artist-producer duo Abhi // Dijon feels like the product of one of these fantastical imaginings. “Let You Know” is body moving music, the kind that takes over your senses like black magic voodoo. Mixed once again by Foxes in Fiction‘s Warren Hildebrand the tracks treads over face-melting bass flourishes and hyper-syncopated, cybertronic melodies. The only fault here lies in the track’s teasing duration, despite the fact that Abhi // Dijon‘s two previous releases were of the exact same length. This salacious groove is undercut, a mere sample or snippet of what must be the glorious imagined whole. The verses are looped as the volume wavers away from the foreground, “I just got to let you know/ Wherever you need me that’s where I’ll be,” a thirty-second comedown from a three-minute high of dizzying proportions.

The southwest England-based Art Is Hard Records consecutively release an impressive array of local garage rock acts, but the forthcoming EP from Denton, Texas’ groggy surf rock group Blessin’ will be the first American release by the DIY label. The fivesome (Alex and Austin and John and Matt and Tommy as told by social media) settle upon a blissful, dredged-up kind of slacker rock on this five-track EP Do You. Opening number “Inside Out,” the most effortlessly engaging melody on the release, begins precariously with a vacant-sounding “Uhh..” The track collects descending, blue-toned chords and watery guitar licks against the steady pulse of washboards swooshing. The lush “Inside Out” induces all sorts of starry-eyed daydreams and elevated modes of consciousness, like the tender moments preceding a calm, hypnagogic state of pre-sleep. But the song concludes with a cognizant flare: a volley of Steve Reich handclaps and an up-ended guitar line.

Do You comes off laggard and limp, a thin sheet of lo-fi obscurity veiling hollow vocals, while guitar riffs and percussion swell and mutate in form. A closer listen of this Blessin’ EP, though, warrants the discovery of strange, psychotropic sonic signatures, startling easter eggs in an otherwise consistent vat of muddled freshwater. “Green Song” showcases erratic guitar flourishes that parry the lead guitar’s listless enthusiasm with a spark of lucidity, but they sound inconspicuous and almost missable in the tune. “Splat!” features a garbled and distorted array of voices buried deep among layers of florid, carefree hooks; midway through “Velocity,” the singer discards conventional lyrics for the senseless mantra of “Choo choo choo.” EP closer “Mono,” melds bottom-heavy basslines and a frenetic inhabitance of warbled electronic distortion, a current of noisy feedback taking over on the last few notes. It’s these moments of simultaneous creative restraint and electronic adornment that make the group’s second release a significant step forward. The Do You EP will be released on cassette March 24. Listen below.

Life can make you feel a little helpless sometimes, like the threat of some daunting, inevitable task is poised in front of you. Mocking you. For me, that task was moving out of my apartment. It eventually got done; it only took four days, six people and an unseemly amount of beer to move the vast and miniature contents of my two-year residence. I had a lot of shit. But as I unpacked said shit, sifting through my SoundCloud stream, I found this.

It might not be helplessness rendered in these disparaging minor chords and forlorn howls, but it’s something like it. Something that places you right at the center of a very specific, very real kind of melancholy. It’s what makes this rough demo “Forever Young” by Maidstone, Britain’s H I G H first release of 2014 so instantly engaging. At least for me in my peculiar-feeling state. Eventually that iridescent, lo-fi mood expounds on itself: The drums tease out the volume and tempo until they reach a calamitous plateau, colliding against the force of a brash, upward-reaching guitar riff. The names attached to the track are Conor Rowlan and Ruaidhri Fuller, who might be the sole members of H I G H. The duo’s bare-skinned production and jam-session form make for an absolutely dope listen. So get on it.

Album Review: Ava Luna, Electric Balloon

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I saw the frenetic, walloping art-rockers Ava Luna for the first time on a more or less uneventful Valentine’s Day night at a Bushwick venue called The Ho_se, which was more or less a house. The bands performed in the corner of a gutted living room on the ground floor; the ceilings so low that one patron (a more or less typical hipster with the exception of his five-inch stiletto heels) was unable to stand upright. The night presented a litany of noise-pop and garage-rock, acts blurring into one another with each successive jack and coke. Then headliners Ava Luna began their set and I proceeded to lose my mind.

The Brooklyn-based five-piece have written and performed records since 2007, but their Western Vinyl released fourth studio album Electric Balloon is a revelatory statement, an extant and progressive innovation of guitar music. The album refines Ava Luna‘s already compelling elements of soul-tinged doo-wop, avant-garde jazztronica, and noise-pop; here they appear less intentional and rudimentary, a faint sense of counter-intuition instigating each roundabout decision made by Columbia composition student Carlos Hernandez. His is the pinched and polished-to-perfection male voice that coats this record, an impressive range of pitch that takes on multiple expressions and personae. It was Hernandez who provided the main creative outline of the group’s past material, but on this release he relinquishes leadership for a more collaborative creative process. ”I grew closer to my bandmates, began to see the roles of a family playing out. Ethan cooks dinner for all of us, we make lewd jokes, and then ‘after-dinner storytelling’ takes the form of playing music.” True to its synergistic conception, Electric Balloon feels like the brainchild of several pronounced souls.

Ava Luna have a tenacious propensity, especially within a live setting, for evoking the antagonistic influence of abrasive, punk-as-funk aesthetics. Any avid Talking Heads fan would find it difficult to divorce associations with Electric Balloon and the disbanded group’s anxious prog rock days at CBGB and the Mud Club. But their cited influences delve even deeper into New York City’s bountiful history of forward-thinking, genre-defying musicians. In the late 1970s vocalist-saxophonist James Chancecollaborated with Brian Eno (producer of three pivotal Talking Heads‘ albums), cultivating the foundation for his aggravated and nihilistic experimentalism. Shortly after that the South Bronx sister-clan ESG would debut their no wave, hip-hop-inspired dance music at punk clubs like the Mechanical Hall. Hernandez is closer related to the former, likely motivating the sputtering guffaw of rampant clarinets and saxophones on “Genesee,” his voice mimicking the splintering, yet tender, melodic noises of the woodwinds. Vocalist-guitarist Becca Kaufman and vocalist-keyboardist Felicia Douglass, though, are often confused as two indistinguishable facets of a swirling, sensuous whole. Their alternating ebony-ivory chirp-like hooks are aggressive and expressive like the swag-savvy ladies ofESG, but they often deviate from form as an astonishing new entity.The most obvious example is “PRPL,” a melancholy, slacker rock ballad where the female lead vocals are crisp and convincing, cascading lethargy in a wispy falsetto.

Electric Balloon acquaints the listener with an erosive, albeit expertly arranged, album opener, “Daydream” is indecisive in its laboring efforts to establish a sustaining groove. When it’s finally secured the rhythm responds with frenzied and exuberant squawks and squeals; whether the trio of vocalists are enamored or enraged by its schizoid misgivings, though, is unclear. Probably both. Ava Luna are forceful in their attempts to put you off, but in the same fell swoop they’re turning you on. Less than three songs in and you might be convinced: This is a new kind of art rock. It ain’t the shit that’s mounted on walls or suffocated in shiny glass casings, and it’s certainly not accompanied with any neat, well packaged descriptors. This is art rock you can touch and smell and, most importantly, listen to without feeling completely alienated. The kind of art rock that might fall apart in your hands if it’s handled without care. It makes the record all the more invaluable, a glaring articulation of musical and extramusical otherness.

Posted on Indie Current here

Album Review: St. Vincent, St. Vincent

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The self-titled album by Annie Clark’s awe-inspired brainchild St. Vincent stuttered into my purview early this winter. I was unprepared for singles “Birth in Reverse” and “Digital Witness,” which trickled through my newsfeed as barrel bombs of hallucinatory shrapnel. Still lingering on her 2012 collaborative album with David Byrne Love This Giant, and its 2013 follow-up the Brass Tactics EP, I was consciously incapable of wrapping my head around this music.

It didn’t make any sense. On the surface, albeit smeared and smudged oily partial fingerprints, was tenacious and visceral pop-cum-guitar music. Beyond the glass window, though, was a scene too bright to behold. My eyes needed dilating. My senses needed stopping.

When St. Vincent was officially released this weekend, I took the record with me places. At the Laundromat, I followed orbicular color trails that made fancy shapes and lucid patterns; “Prince Johnny” pivoting and percolating against a curt, triplet hi-hat pattern. While the clothes finished drying I sat cross-legged on a padlocked, basement steel door and looked at people. Crown Heights was intimidating and hypertensive on this dappled Sunday, and Annie Clark’s schizoid falsetto seemed to empathize, “No one around so I take off my clothes/ Am I the only one in the only world?” At Super Foodtown, blood-shot and deer-eyed, I navigate the color-coordinated aisles with the angelic hooks of “Huey Newton” inundating through my skull —her oddness disproportionate but nonetheless communicable.

Before any kind of cerebral connections could be made, my body seemed to comprehend what I was hearing. I found myself dancing to this album, or rather, lurching, twitching and faltering awkwardly to it. St. Vincent is an unpredictable assault, full of self-righteous missteps and glorious ambivalence. “I’m entombed in a shrine of zeroes and ones,” sings Clark, an atmosphere of binary-effected spontaneity. It’s the Wikipedia game. Pick two unrelated nouns. Start at one, end at the other—first one wins. You play through the vehicle of hyperlinks, virtual wormholes of metadata that commiserate all the things we don’t understand with the reality that we no longer need to understand anything, not really. “Feelings” lead to “flashcards” lead to “fake knife” to “real ketchup” to “cardboard cutthroats” and “cowboys of information.” Where are we now? Pigeonholed in our subconscious to a Ryan Gosling meme or another “hilarious” YouTube clip.

St. Vincent is vital for the same reasons Fear of Music and Remain in Light are paramount Talking Heads records. The album finds Annie Clark directly confronting her paranoia, reveling in the stark, unquantifiable madness that plagues our digital age minds. It’s stylistically audacious: sci-fi savvy, hip hop sensible, blues-soppy, P-Funk abiding aural collage work. And, despite Clark’s gracious media presence, the music on this album speaks entirely for itself. “People turn the TV on/ It looks just like a window,” Annie Clark lulls on “Digital Witness.” Open your eyes to listen closer. Sufficiently experiencing these songs for the first, or twelfth, time is like marijuana to your psychedelics, Molotov to your cocktail, an unsuspecting mouthful of uncooked garlic. The consequence is dynamic, maybe a little troubling, but well worth it. 

Posted on Indie Current here

February 28, 2014

SKATERS @ Bowery Ballroom

In support of their tenacious debut album, Manhattan, just out this week, emerging garage rock combo SKATERS hosted their record release party at Bowery Ballroom on Monday night. The evening’s opening set came from the Brooklyn alt-punk band the So So Glos, who hyped up the crowd with an uproarious Wu Tang Clan cover upon their entrance. They followed that up with roughly forty minutes of sweaty, clobbering madness featuring lead singer Alex Levine occasionally singling out the few cross-armed, texting spectators by mimicking their disinterested actions. They were hard not to love.
 
SKATERS emerged from backstage to the tune of the Ghostbusters theme song in homage to the late Harold Ramis, who passed away that morning. The drum kit was mounted on an elevated platform while lead, rhythm and bass guitar thrashed exuberantly along with singer Michael Cummings. Their set ranged from boisterous, pop-leaning noise rock to downtempo, reggae-influenced post-punk, replicating the diverse fullness of their debut album. At the tail end of their set, Cummings dedicated a song to a familiar face in the crowd before erupting into a buoyant rendition of the Smiths’ This Charming Man. It came as a surprise, but it made sense that the self-acclaimed “plasma punk” group would gravitate to the popcorn riffs of that electrifying classic, given the Smiths-cum-Strokes nods in their sound. After two encore songs, one of which being the salaciously lethargic Bandbreaker, SKATERS thanked the crowd and Cummings wished his mother (seated in the balcony) a happy birthday. Also hard not to love.

February 24, 2014

Live Review: Rhye / Ricky Eat Acid @ Webster Hall

Rhye - Live

For the better part of 2013, the seditiously enigmatic producer and singer-songwriter duo Rhye riveted music fans with their salacious and sophisticated debut, Woman. In support of the album, Rhye performed last Friday at Webster Hall to an engrossed crowd of motionless, enthralled onlookers.

The evening began with a brief opening set by the emerging, blusterous synth-pop act Ricky Eat Acid, fronted by Sam Ray and accompanied by a second supplementary musician. The material from Ricky Eat Acid’s debut, Three Love Songs, is a disheveled conglomeration of eerie dysphoria, large snippets of spoken word recordings, sparsely immersed with more languid, dance-oriented rhythms. The performance abated from this conglomerated approach. Instead, their set was decidedly singular, reflecting similar sentiments of turbulent melancholy.

Tracks like “I Can Hear The Heart Breaking as One” and “In Rural Virginia; Watching Glowing Lights Crawl From The Dark,” showcased extended, seemingly improvisational breakdowns, looped and distorted tapes of ambient noise and disturbingly inundating waves of calamitous guitar feedback. Halfway through their set, Ray reaches behind his table of programming equipment and cassette players, wielding a square-shaped object that distorts the reverberating melodies. Syncopated with the song’s close, Ray clicks off the small bedroom lamp that faintly lights up the stage. Whether this is a reverent nod to the 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, or just another subtle affection of this band’s inherent oddity remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it works. When the bedroom light is doused, the music takes on a more articulated sense of urgency. Static-induced ambiance roils and swells to incredulous volumes. In its delirious penchant for vacuous, emotionally addled white noise, though, Ricky Eat Acid’s performance was spiritually reifying.

Rhye appeared promptly at 9pm, silent and austere. Obvious complications arise when replicating the dense, full-figured sound embodied throughout Woman by producer Robin Hannibal. The instrumentation varies from disembodied steel drums, poignant clarinet descants, and provocative harp arrangements. The congruent six-piece ensemble, however, was more than capable of evoking opaque soul-pop constructions with a limited but still impressive range of voices: electric violin, bass guitar, upright piano, drum set, trombone, violin, and a spare snare drum for singer-songwriter-bandleader Mike Milosh to intermittently embellish the rhythmic flow on songs like “Hunger” and “Last Dance.”

Rhye is notorious for assuming a low-profile visual presence in the media (to include his debut TV performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, where a single, intensely luminous spotlight shielded his appearance as a hazy silhouette), so it was no surprise that the night’s show strictly prohibited photography and excessive talking. The initially bothersome restriction was quickly disregarded in lieu of the enthralling spectacle. Save for the intermittent flash bulbs directed from the balcony, most of the audience corresponded with the artist’s request. Milosh did not appear particularly shy or introverted. The stage lights remained dimmed a liquid hue of blue, enough to vaguely illuminate the faces of the impeccable band and its intrinsic vocal fulcrum. Front-and-center, Milosh seemed tentative to assume the role of lead vocalist. The majority of his efforts were directed towards conducting the band, expertly trained to their movements and languidly conducting their sonic progressions. As a classically trained cellist, it seemed all Milosh could do to refrain from delving into an instrument and abandoning his mic stand. He was most comfortable assuming the role during a performance of “The City,” a track written by Milosh eight years prior for his sophomore solo album Meme. Despite this aversion to eminence, he was no less amicable and endearing than his voice lends fans to believe, especially after forgetting the lyrics and vocally improving to one of his more widely received songs “Open.”

This Webster Hall performance interpreted Woman as a sparse, extended conception of distraught romanticism. The more ostentatiously syncopated grooves, like “Last Stand,” lacked the bombastic flare of brass instrumentation. To remedy this dysfunction, the song was lagged, triggered with an intoxicating sensation of soulful latency, while still retaining a prevailing air of funk. Certain ostensible liberties were taken with this performance, arrangements modified, diminished, mutated. The sole female member of Rhye’s touring band delivered a bewitching trombone solo on the latter half of “Hunger,” the irrefutable apotheosis of their bombastic set that sent the crowd into a unanimous uproar.

There were moments when Rhye’s performance felt inexplicably tender and exposed, more so to the observers than the players. Amidst amorous strings, alternating major-minor piano chords and submerging, groove-savvy basslines, the music would confront substantially vacuous moments of silent brevity— the dissenting eye of the storm. It was this feeling Milosh hoped to matriculate during the last of a dauntingly stunted set list, to include no encores. He ushered the crowd to an enraptured kind of communal silence for his closing song, as cathartic as it was surreal.

February 8, 2014

Metronymy @ Music Hall of Williamsburg 2/5

Wednesday night, in support of their new album Love Letters,UK dance-rock fusion band Metronymy headlined a show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Opening up the night was solo artist-producer James Hinton (of The Range), who teased a out a spunky, moderate-tempo set of progressive, glitchy drum and bass. Dim lighting had The Range spasming in the shadows to the tune of his own beats, filtered with a strange array of unintelligible vocal samples and cyberspace sequencers. 

Metronymy entered the stage gallantly, god-like, in matching, pristine American Bandstand-era garbs. White plaster structures shield their electronic equipment from the audience, speaking to the band’s stark duality of sonic landscapes. Expanding their four-piece outfit with a fifth, fresh-faced member, Metronymy expands their already infectious electro-clash sound as something hyper-technical, uniform, almost alien in its precision for perfection. Metronymy showcased their multi-instrumental inclinations, incorporating each individual voice (literal and metaphorical) as a harmonic convergence of listless melody. Even faulty piano chords on crowd-favorite “The Bay,” garners little admonition, their mishaps translated as unintentional euphonic expression. The band played several songs from their forthcoming record like the minimalist, retro-tinged “I’m Aquarius” or the bombastic “Love Letters.” Band leader Joseph Mount solidified the group’s cogent musicality, despite leaving briefly to tend to a nosebleed and having his fly unzipped for a large duration of the show.   


Posted at CMJ.com here

Why / Music / Criticism / Still / Matters

(In response to Everett True’s piece on Collapse Board titled "Why. Music. Criticism. Still. Matters. (So. Go. Fuck. Yourselves. Spin Magazine.)")

I can remember the exact moment I realized I wanted to write about music. I was sixteen years old, about four years ago, haunched cross-legged in the upstairs bedroom of a hollow, unfurnished house, thinking, What the fuck should I do with my life? I had just moved from Iwakuni, Japan to San Antonio, Texas which was a caustic shift to say the least. Strange enough, I don’t even think I was listening to music. I was definitely watching John Hillcoat’s The Road, all that pallid, desolate empathy instilling within me a vivid sense of focus.  

It just made sense. I had something to say. I had these warbling and expansive thoughts about sound and emotion and life, all festering madly away in the dark crevices of my addled mind. They had to be transcribed; if not, surely I would implode.

There are moments, however, when I experience a sudden pitfall of doubt, when writing about music feels like nothing more than a failed attempt to replicate the mysticism of sound. The arc of music journalism has exacerbated the capitalistic efforts of mainstream media, public relations attempts, the insatiable urge to top the charts. Most professional outlets of music journalism, in one form or another, relinquish themselves to this vicious circle of perpetual commerce. Ads. Partnerships. Song posts as fragmented, underdeveloped prose. Interviews as promotional tools. It’s easy to find yourself disenchanted with all this devilish, convoluted hullabaloo.         

To reclaim a sense of authority in music writing, aspiring critics as I must divorce ourselves from previous constructions of traditional “rock criticism,” overemphasis on lyricism, hyper-reliance on the personality or ego of an artist, the hopeless desire to illuminate an underlying narrative. All these things are formative in the arc of music journalism, but- as the composite nature of music mutates and delineates beyond recognition with the advancement of technology- these things become superfluous, ineffective, trite. 

I had the honor of hearing Lenny Kaye (music writer, record producer, guitarist of Patti Smith Group) speak during my Talking Heads class just a few moments ago. He said two things that resonated profoundly for me. 1) My generation has come to intellectual fruition learning to think like a machine, our analytical and logical processes of thinking mirroring the likeness of a computer. 2) Great art aspires to rupture definitive authority or aesthetic definition.

I admit to previously dis-servicing my craft. I’ve discovered a band, listened to an album or song, and had no way of transcribing my thoughts on the music other than to isolate a sense of stylistic familiarity. Frame it. Wrap it in newspaper. Stick it in box. Tie on a big red bow. This gift is without substance, sound, smell, feeling. Virtually useless.

Music is experience. Music is memory. Music only exists within the space between your ears, for as long as the vibration subsists. The same aural phenomenon developing in my mind could be at serious conflict with another’s, but it in no way devalues it. Music writing should be an extension of the writer’s consciousness, attempting to make sense, in written words, the singular perspective that is birthed by sonic experience. In short, I no longer want to write for other people. I write for myself.

Music criticism, even now in this confusing, helplessly anxious age of digital landscapes and imagined frontiers, serves a crucial role. The role, however, has shifted from that of a commanding, all-assuming voice (say, Rolling Stone or Spin), to that of the specialized, functional voices reverberated via the Internet. Niche. Hyper-specific. Personal.               

January 31, 2014

Album Review: James Vincent McMorrow - Post Tropical

After having spent a substantial stretch of time with this dazzlingly effervescent sophomore album by James Vincent McMorrow, I’ve arrived a considerably pragmatic assertion: anyone who can sit through this record without experiencing an overwhelming, intruding sober kind of sadness, without feeling so much as a trail of incendiary goosebumps on the back of their arm, surely has no soul.

Post Tropical is leaps and bounds away from its predecessor Early in the Morning, the experimental singer-songwriter taking unimaginable risks, delving wholly into estranged, previously uncharted regions of creative composition. McMorrow was quickly deemed a folk artist when his debut record surfaced gallantly upon the indie rock scene, in part due to music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas selecting one of his songs for an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

This follow-up album, though, forces his audience to abandon previous conceptions of the artist, largely expanding the breadth and timeliness of his work by incorporating a substantive electronic component, an element of aural synthesis. ”I have no interest in making music that’s built for an antique shop,” McMorrow recently stated in an interview with The Guardian ”I love that it’s 2013, 2014 – I love that I can do these things with technology. It bothers me when musicians listen to music from the 60s and try and recreate it. Those people weren’t trying to recreate music from the 20s. Why do it?” In tradition with the isolated creative processes that conjured up Early in the Morning, recorded in a small studio near the eastern Irish coastline, McMorrow once more summons the detached inspiration of loneliness. This time around, however, he finds himself on the other side of the Atlantic, a remote studio in Texas.

This album is by no means an electronic record, it’s a contemporary feat of musical experimentalism, proliferated by the extended arm of artificial sound. Post Tropical reverently echoes Bon Iver's 2012 self-titled album and 2013's award-winning Overgrown, an artist exposing the endless possibilities electronic music. The electronic elements often serve to mimic or allude to the impression of an analog expression, like the heavy, tailor-made synth melody on “Gold.” A similarly ethereal composition can be found on the first moments of “The Lakes,” where a glimmering convulsion of plucked strings are assembled to interpret the sounds of a waterfall. These brilliantly arranged sonic textures provide a gorgeous juxtaposition against all the arid, washed-out synths, especially in “All Points,” where a dominant clarinet part gains more and more agency until it’s the sole component of the track.

Aside from the bountifully subversive artistic liberties taken by McMorrow on Post Tropical, it remains to be the despairing sense of emotional conviction that continually draws me to this album. Lyrical self-reflections like those found on the R&B-inflected “Glacier,” deliberate upon the mental unrest found in this singer-songwriter’s troubled self-conscious, even after giving up drinking two years ago.

"Few became, few became as glory as along against the forest state and starting living in the new/ Harrow since, harrow since the farthest reach underneath inside a cheat/ Something is alive, somewhere underneath/ Caught between the real and the fake/ I don’t want to fit, there and has been found/ Silence is so cold, and there’s no sense at all/ And I was someone else, I was something good/ Barely in the old/ There among the cold"

There’s a beautiful longing in the indelible whimper of McMorrow's frigid falsetto, one that never fully convinces itself of absolution or spiritual catharsis. The hollow remnants of a sullied, psychosomatic kind of old soul grace the shadowy crevices of Post Tropical. Watch the alluringly dark images visualized for this album below.

Portraits in Black and Blue: The Voltaic Rehabilitation of Neo-soul

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Portraits in Black and Blue is a new, bi-monthly feature bridging gaps between a millennial present and the increasingly ethereal past, contextualizing the music and trends of emerging and progressive artists, trying to make sense of this crazy, fucked-up world. Illustrations by Jacob Garner. 

The Greek word “neos” bears a number of stark connotations including “new, young, youthful; fresh, strange; lately, just now.” In hindsight it seems more than appropriate that Motown record executive Kedar Massenburg first coined the term “neo-classical soul” in the late 1990s to individualize the music being produced by new label signee Erykah Badu. Her debut album Baduizm changed the tone of contemporary black music. It openly disregarded the substance of commercially successful black music, manifesting as a comfortable creative niche in which the past and future could coalesce. Soon after the term Massenburg had coined shortened to its colloquial form, sensationalized by The Roots’ drummer and producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson at Electric Lady Studios.

Last year saw the release of Questlove’s first book, Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According To Questlove, a memoir of his success as a drummer, producer and DJ. He lectures on the state of hip hop when his leftist, avant-garde rap group The Roots came to fruition. The left was constituted by groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul and contemporaries OutKast and The Fugees, defending the traditional ethics and cultural authenticity of hip hop’s origin: political protest, societal progression, a means of retribution. The right was situated upon the commercial implosion of records like The Chronic and Ready To Die; retrograde subjects of overwrought materialism, chauvinism, and violence, best articulated by critic Tricia Rose as “the cultural arm of predatory capitalism.”

This is the force that Questlove and The Roots actively sought to admonish. Their 1997 album Things Fall Apart was a spunky, percolated counterpoint to the Billboard charts and radio airwaves. In their aesthetic revolution they garnered a community of artists: family, friends, friends of friends, pizza delivery boys who took part in an extensive Philadelphia house party. Questlove wrote:

“It was a madhouse. People were milling around outside, waking up the neighbors, playing loud music until all hours.  But it wasn’t people playing loud music on boomboxes or stereos. They were actually playing it on guitars and singing on microphones. They were making loud music, putting it into a space where there had been no music before. By the seventh week I was calling the police to say, ‘There’s a disturbance at 2309 St. Albans.’ Just to get some sleep, I was calling the cops on myself! But when I think about that time, the most amazing thing is how many of those artists made it. There were at least eighteen record contracts in the room, and at least nine of the people who became recording artists ended up bigger than us. And yet, it was an indisputably magical time, a kind of rebirth. If hip-hop had died at the 1995 Source Awards, I felt like something new was born on St. Albans.”

Musiq Soulchild, Erykah Badu, Jazmine Sullivan, and Indie.Arie were just a few of the contributors to a like-minded coalition of soul-based artists who sought to confront the future of music by conjuring up the past. Not much later these artists would convene as a musical collective called the Soulquarians in the image their artistic predecessors Native Tongues. Following the incident at St. Albans, though, Questlove became an integral force in the production and recording of Common’s Like Water For Chocolate and D’Angelo’s Voodoo. The latter’s contribution to contemporary black music was arguably the most abrasive musical evolution of a recording artist post-1997. Everything about the record rejected the rudimentary sample-based production of Puff Daddy. It was bred from a cascade of cross-grained influence. Trading drum pads and synthesizers for a more organic approach, the drum kit sounds drunk and lag-timed, caked with a fine layer of groove-oriented antiquity, yet somehow it sounds warped. J. Dilla imprinted Voodoo with a style of production that at once delves into the past as velvety analog textures and bounds toward the unknown in a series of electro-tinged, lucid propulsions. Engineer Russell Elevado similarly garnished the record with unconventional innovation. On the part-two interlude of “Greatdayindamornin’,” he channels Questlove’s studio drum feed through a guitar amp and a processor before it’s routed to the sound board. “It gave them this unimaginable analog sound, like they were drums coming from 1950,” recalled Questlove in his memoir.

Despite the sultry smooth seduction of the record, D’Angelo’s Y2K-era release sounds a bit like desperation. Before the release there was a kind of anxiety in the recorded music industry surrounding black contemporary music, everything was beginning to lean one side. But Voodoo changed all of that. Credit the aesthetic visionary J. Dilla or D’Angelo’s torso circa 2000, regardless, the record was embraced by an overwhelming number of fans in all shapes and colors and backgrounds. It was fresh, fearless and nostalgic of all the right things, marking the legitimate induction of neo-soul to popular music.   

The hype would hardly subsist. By 2002, the artistic valor of neo-soul was already being cross-examined by hierarchical facets of the industry. In an interview with Billboard, record executive Massenburg said, “They don’t want this music to be looked at as a genre. Because, when you classify music, it becomes a fad, which tends to go away.” The same musicians and artists who helped to popularize neo-soul were suddenly and inexplicably retreating from it. D’Angelo embarked on a decade-long bout of reclusion and alcoholism; the last few years have sparked conversation about the alleged production of his first post-Voodoo album, but it’s starting to feel less like an anticipated follow-up and more like an urban legend. Common sought a divergent form of music, inspired incomprehensibly by Kraftwerk, on his subsequent record Electric Circus. Lauryn Hill took up a self-imposed exile to South Africa. J. Dilla died of an extremely rare blood disease. Neo-soul, at least for the moment, was suspended in a frightening slipshod kind of purgatory.   

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December 16, 2013

Mikal Cronin @ Webster Hall

The Entrance Band @ Webster Hall 12/10

 
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