Moving off

the platform...

hi all,

I’m happy to announce that the first issue of Happiness Quarterly will be dropping tomorrow. It will take the form of a zine PDF accompanied by a mixtape.

I’m announcing this now because it will not be coming to you via Substack but instead from the email happiness0journal@gmail.com

I’m choosing to migrate away from Substack (at least for the time being) because they’ve gotten into some creepy territory by directly funding several high-profile and pointedly anti-trans public figures to publish on the platform via their new Substack Pro program.

In at least one instance this has amounted to a public figure (who has been previously banned from Twitter for libel and inflammatory speech) being paid by Substack itself to use the platform to harass, willfully misgender, and spread rumors about a well-known theorist and academic as well as publicly out and harass numerous other members of the trans and broader queer community.

Today the platform released a disappointing statement in which they hid behind notions of free speech and anti-censorship to sidestep the fact that they are directly funding and supporting this hate on their platform.

I’ve chosen to take this as an opportunity to shift formats and experiment. If you are already subscribed here, thank you! You will automatically receive the first issue in your inbox. Anyone else will be able to receive it via friend or by reaching out to me directly.

With this shift, I’m interested in connecting with others more meaningfully. I’m interested in creating a more static record and capsule through this zine format. Most of all, I’m interested in what happens when we begin to lead our online lives more intentionally: free of toxic and highly addictive apps and interfaces, no longer subject to the will of our recommendation algorithms, and no longer intertwined with platforms that are ambivalent to our well-being.

with love,
~ Leah B. ~
see ya tomorrow

I love every person’s insides

I can make you feel better

In the past, celebrity deaths haven’t affected me much. Typically, I might pause a moment, revisit an artist’s work, or take in others’ stories of the connections they had felt, aware that even with many of my favorite artists, I’d never felt connected in quite the same way. I suppose in many cases I don’t have a sense that I really share the same world or exist in the same reality as the artists I admire. They reach me through their art, a vehicle that mediates what I consider an otherwise healthy distance.

That distance shattered in the hours after I heard about SOPHIE’s death. I spent some time revisiting the artist’s work and texting friends—most of them other trans girls who I knew would feel affected and had an even closer connection to SOPHIE’s work and being than myself. 

I reminisced upon hearing “HARD” for the first time in 2014. I remembered how I clinged to the song for years before my own transition, realizing it had opened an aesthetic world up for me when I still had much to realize about myself. Rebecca and I marveled at the playfully sexy choreography in the video for “PONYBOY,” the adorable moment when SOPHIE wields a tube of cherry red lipstick and pulls it away without applying, exhaling vapor. Then, we braved the video for “It’s Okay To Cry,” staring into SOPHIE’s glimmering eyes, half naked and baring an unprocessed, full, and elegant voice. We marveled as we reminisced how the video served as a public coming out. 

After the dazzling display of SOPHIE’s outpouring, bare shoulders and chest floating against a backdrop of galaxies and rain, I clicked over to a Grammy red carpet interview, eager to witness the statuesque figure and voice in a public setting, a figure and voice both feminine in the ways I wish to be feminine—that is, transfeminine, wholly and unapologetically.

I watched, smiling, as SOPHIE gracefully responded to the interviewer’s questions about the nomination—sharing expectations, playfully teasing info of future collaborations, joyfully relaying the response of a grandmother—when an unfortunate but rather quotidian infraction occurred. 

The interviewer barrelled through a sentence and clearly (if subtly) misgendered SOPHIE before quickly rephrasing the sentence foregoing pronouns altogether. I watched SOPHIE remain poised, seemingly unfettered, but suddenly quiet, taking pause before speaking. Then, too deep with sympathy for the artist at this moment, I closed the window without watching the rest, silently breaking into tears for the first time since finding out about the artist’s untimely death.

Like most instances of misgendering, the moment was quick and accidental. The words around it had nothing but the best intentions. But one word can carry with it a million internal voices. It can be a denial, a reminder, an albatross around one’s neck; it can force one to question what they were sure of or had not even thought to consider just a moment before; a completely ordinary act of erasure committed before one’s eyes.

SOPHIE’s management, it should be said, has asked the press to refrain from the use of pronouns whatsoever, a request that only emphasizes the weight that pronouns hold and highlights the vastness of the artist’s experience of gender. 

As singer, composer, and visual artist Anohni once wrote, “I think words are important. To call a person by their chosen gender is to honor their spirit, their life and contribution. ‘He’ is an invisible pronoun for me, it negates me.”

Watching SOPHIE become the collateral of a careless slip of the tongue while in a moment of fond remembrance was devastating. But in that moment, I found SOPHIE to be more real to me than any celebrity had ever been. 

If there was any hope for trans girls to escape the travails of daily trans life, SOPHIE represented it. If there was ever a sense that SOPHIE wasn’t trans, but SOPHIE (to borrow a line commonly attributed to O.J. Simpson), this small moment, this microaggression, was there to remind the innovator that wasn’t the case.

I spent the remainder of that night with a pit in my gut. Here was a person presenting in a way I wished to embody some part of, and suddenly, I realized how much more of a common experience that means we shared in this world. 

It is no coincidence that several of the handful of highly influential transfeminine people in music have, like SOPHIE, had a habit of staying out of the limelight. Little barbs like these can be even more painful, especially when they play out in the public eye. 

Unfortunately, this misgendering wasn’t the only familiar information I had to process yesterday. Trans death is terribly visible. The oft-cited statistic that “the average life expectancy of trans women of color in the U.S. is only 35” isn’t quite correct, but its wide circulation tells its own sort of truth: that we are too used to seeing trans women die young in our media and, as such, are conditioned to believe such a horrifying number. 

SOPHIE’s death, as it has been reported, seems cruelly senseless, banal, and completely beside the fact of the artist’s transness. What it means for those of us watching, however, is that we’ll never have a chance to see one of our few modern idols and creative geniuses come into old age and develop over a lifetime. We are deprived of one more face to look up to and one more voice to help us find new ways to speak.

Now, each time one of SOPHIE’s sugary hooks forces its way back into my mind, it carries with it more than an ounce of pain. An untimely death has taken away an icon and a bright and hopeful musical future, but, most affectingly for me, it has taken away a rare living figure in whom I could see myself. 

Postscript:

While researching this piece I came across composer, arranger, and orchestrator Angela Morley. Born in 1924, Morley was the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an academy award following her transition in 1970. Also of interest is her work as an arranger on the albums Scott, Scott 2, and Scott 3. Notably, she has also worked with top-bill names John Williams, Yo-Yo Ma, and Itzhak Perlman. 

Baffled that I hadn’t heard of her before, I immediately texted my friend Cassie. We took in her astoundingly gorgeous and thorough website, sharing tidbits and favorite images. We learned that at the end of her life she moved to Scottsdale, AZ, where she lived with her wife, singer Christine Parker, who had helped her through her transition decades before. As Morley once stated, “It was only because of her love and support that I was able to deal with the trauma and begin to think about crossing over that terrifying gender border.” 

As we did this, Cassie remarked how healing it felt. Representation and history are fraught areas for trans people, often full of landmines, gaps in knowledge, and terrible tragedy. Here was a woman who had made it and had lived an almost startlingly average life. I share her story here to remind myself of those who have made it, who outlasted the daily tragedies.


~ thank you for reading, and thanks, as always, to Rebecca Jones for their editorial assistance. the Winter edition of Happiness Journal will arrive in your inbox in the coming weeks ~

This is so much better

Soap Ear Issue 9 and Happiness Updates


Hi all. I’ve been a bit silent here as of late but it’s not because I’ve been sitting still.

Today marks the release of Soap Ear Issue 9: Tempos of Action

Soap Ear is a semi-quarterly online journal on sound and music that I’ve been co-editing with Lyle Daniel since 2018. We’ve worked with many wonderful writers and musicians over the past few years, and the journal has also produced a few of my own proudest pieces of writing. This issue is currently among my favorites, so I invite you to please head over to the site, read our introduction, and spend some time with each piece:

https://soapear.org

Additionally, I wanted to share that, following the will of the weight, Happiness Journal is now quarterly. This is so much better for so many reasons: it not only gives me a little more breathing room, but it also allows me more time to reflect on and write about the music I’d like to share with you; it decouples my publishing timelines from album release cycles; and it allows you—dear reader—to spend more time with each issue if you so choose. You will hear from me approximately every three months with notes on my recent listening and other exports from my world. If this publishing cycle proves fruitful and manageable, I will likely consider adapting to a zine format but that is for future appraisal. For now, you can expect the arrival of my first quarterly issue in January.

I hope you enjoy, and if you like what I do, please consider leaving me a tip. This and my many other creative pursuits are not funded—any little bit is not only financially helpful but extremely encouraging.

Thanks-
Leah B. Levinson

p.s.
I’ve been hosting a live radio show called Happiness Online every Tuesday night from 7-8pm (PST). It’s made for a nice weekly practice of curation and active music listening. You can tune in at kcia.calarts.edu or listen to past shows on my mixcloud. I thought this episode of slow songs, this episode of tears, and this episode about anger were especially fun and demonstrative of my whole ~thing~. Please give a listen and let me know what you enjoy <3

full-bodied but allowing for the occasional light, expressive hiccup

Monthly Listening: July and August 2020

The Bobcat Fire is blazing Thursday morning, September 10th, 18,000 acres strong, uncontained, about ten miles Northeast of me (editor’s note: by now, September 17th, it has burned through over 50,000 acres and is only 3% contained). As we cautiously wait to see if our town’s evacuation warning will become an order, I spend my morning in retreat. Coaxing myself towards the domestic and interior, I clear the sink of its pile of dishes and listen in headphones to Greg Uhlmann’s Neighborhood Watch, a hazy, warm, and subtle portrait of love as it intertwines with the quotidian and the events that begin to shape us. Occasionally, as I listen I catch a faint whiff of smells, a strangely pleasant combination of the coffee I just brewed and the hazardous-to-my-lungs wildfire smoke that coats the dry summer sky, turning it into an oddly illuminated gray.

Rebecca and I moved to Altadena, CA at the beginning of August, so we’ve spent the last two months packing and unpacking boxes, making to-dos, practicing and incorporating new habits and traditions, setting new boundaries, and buying new shelves. We just got a shoe rack, a decent electric-yellow futon, and a really nice buffet.

For those from out of town, Altadena is a quiet, spacious, and hilly suburb due North of the larger Los Angeles County-incorporated city of Pasadena. (Here is Van Dyke Parks singing a charming rag about the latter; “My home in Pasadena/ My home, where the grass is green’a”). It’s a great place to go on walks and when we first did Rebecca turned around and—mask covering the lower half of their face—looked at the mountains about two miles north of our street and said something like “wow,” or “oh my god,” while gesturing with big open arms and a wide-eyed expression. It’s been a pretty good thing to be able to look at mountains and also pretty good to have someone with you who will look at mountains and say something like “wow,” or “oh my god.”

Now, we find ourselves more immediately coaxed to stay within the confines of our small studio-like backhouse box, under more dire and immediately sensorial conditions than the airborne and mysterious virus that is still before us, smoke lingering, and sky an eerie gray. Every hour, Google’s satellite approximation of the fire updates so every hour I check it, noticing the little red dashed line has seemingly expanded a little bit North, away from us and deeper into the mountainous woods of the Los Angeles National Forest. Each time, I imagine the firefighters and helicopters fighting it at its perimeter, specifically on its South end which seems to stay the same. I wonder if they’re being adequately paid or if they are of that population of incarcerated firefighters paid little over a dollar an hour (who, Rebecca tells me, often find themselves unable to work as firefighters after their incarceration because of their criminal records). I wonder about the wildlife. Is it a whole lot of scurrying? Are animals separated from their kin? Have they lost their homes? Do they have a sense of home to lose? Do they find each other on the outside?

Rebecca has been propagating plants and building out our garden. They frequently hold up little leafy green stems and say, “hey, look at these roots.” The other day they showed me one that had roots sprouting all the way up by its leaves near the top. It seemed confused, the plant, growing roots where they needn’t be. I told Rebecca they must be watering it too well.

Right now, we’re waiting, as many of us have been for awhile. I took a personal pause from this newsletter as Rebecca and I make our new home and every crack in our day was filled with finding where things should go and where things have gone. July and August’s listening contained a fair amount of music from the first half of the year as I combed through mid-year reflection lists from my favored publications. There are some reflections on these below as well as a few newer releases and a few trips to my recently unboxed record collection. 

Stephanie Mills - Sweet Sensation (1980)

“Sweet Sensation” opens with a mid-tempo groove, a steady bed, punctuated by horns, ornate with subtle layers of guitar, staccato-strumming, juggling a 16th note pocket between them. After a short exposition, Mills enters, her voice strong and casual—full-bodied but allowing for the occasional light, expressive hiccup. Warmly, she announces to the room, “Something strange came over me/ Because I’ve never felt this way,” her voice gliding stylishly into each note it reaches. She’s caught in the process of discovering, finding love: certain, elated, and full of awe at this “sweet sensation.”

It isn’t young love, you must understand. It’s love in constant discovery, full of gratitude and grounded understanding, littered with thank yous and affirmations; her “feet are on the ground” while her “mind is in the sky.” As listeners, we are invited into a quotidian instant of love’s renewal, a moment captured in Maggie Nelson’s summary of Roland Barthes: 

[T]he phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.”

And in the song’s steady bounce, cyclical form, and gradual fade, we understand (we know) this love must continue, avowed anew.

But Stephanie Mills is a master at playing the part, a Broadway star who rose to fame playing the role of Dorothy in the Wiz. And while the topic of L-O-V-E reigns supreme across these eight tracks, the context is not always the same. One moment Mills is pining, the next she teases. Here she’s secure in her love and there she trembles. Take, for instance, the chorus of “Try My Love,” which has her belting, weak in the knees above gloriously unresolved harmony, “Try my love, come and get it/ Take my love, don't let go/ Try my love, you won't regret it/ Take my love and don't let go.” This is love’s pull, now tearful yet driven, full of sadness and hurt as it goes unrequited. Yet just a track later, Mills is secure in her love, wanting to stay “together in love this way/ … Our love is here to stay,” displaying a sense of familiarity and comfort. 

Even within a song, we find Mills caught in the upending turbulence of desire, a rollercoaster to be sure. On “Wish That You Were Mine,” unrequited desire is captured with almost cartoonish accuracy. Flute flutters as does Mills’ heart while she quickly recounts a lost relationship over a steadfast two chord vamp. Only after a dramatic harmonic shift—the heart falling to the gut, palpitating too—does Mills allow her feelings out unrestrained, blurting, “I wanna kiss you!” Then, the harmony lands, and, briefly, fantasy is given space to flourish, to be believed through a daydream soft-focus chorus: “Wish that you were mine/ Like sugar and spice.” Uncontrollable angst transforms within yearning, finding underneath it the still-ecstatic desire and appreciation it portrays. Gracefully, she snaps back to reality, falling back into that easy vamp with a rhetorical question posed, of course, to none other than herself, her addressee absent, “wouldn’t it be nice?”

Of course, it’s no anomaly for a pop singer of her time to serve up an album as a loose collection of thematically unrelated potential singles spanning a wide range of moods and attitudes (take, for instance, Diana Ross’s 1979 disco disc The Boss or Grace Jones’s 1980 new wave breakout Warm Leatherette). Then, such variety in repertoire might be considered a display of technical proficiency and breadth. Now, however, I can toy with the fact that it matches the many feelings available in queer, non-monogamous love, where desire may shift every minute, where recipients of desires at different stages may coexist simultaneously, and where the capacity for that floating desire may be yet another source of security and adoration. I love my love all the more for the mutual understanding that we need not be each other’s one and only. It’s true.

At this emotion rests the album’s centerpiece, a climax set firmly as its penultimate track. “Never Felt Love Like This Before” expresses a profound sense of ecstasy and disbelief in love that is real and reciprocated yet remains a “tender fantasy,” something seemingly unreal imposed upon the real. Its chorus is curiously devoid of pronouns, confounding whether this love is given or received and by whom or how many: “Cause I never knew love like this before/ Opened my eyes/ Cause I never knew love like this before/ What a surprise.” Here, love is a disembodied effect that surrounds her; it is neither received nor given, but all around. It could be romantic, familial, communal, or religious (this latter possibility supported by its gospel harmonies and allusions to the lost and found, lovelight, and access by simply calling a name). Regardless, this love is abundant, Mills sure that she will be “lonely nevermore,” leaving us secure and capable of returning to the well of joy that is this disco fantasy.

Various Artists (Lillerne Tapes) - Lillerne #122 Fundraiser Compilation (2020)

An early highlight is DJ Paradise & mdo’s “flowers bloom over and over,” which hovers a steady PlayStation menu-screen sounding oscillator over a simple break while simply and slowly altering the track’s phase in the stereo field, causing a woozy, uncertain effect, reliably hallucinatory and dizzying within a brief 4-minute span. Likewise, Fly Kin Mountain’s “Octaves” grounds its improvised synth-solo centerpiece with subtle yet effective sound design: slowly panning synths and a quickly oscillating wave-like noise generator move about, breathing life into the mellow base. The seamlessness of this massive compilation is notable for how well it folds in more unlikely contributions, like More Eaze’s undulation fluid pop and domestik’s gratuitously spacious Speak & Spell jamout. Yunzero’s “Ascii Soundcheck” playfully worms its way through warps and squiggles while, just two tracks later, D.B. Looper’s "Forest Tree Memory (Hero's Ascension Version)” effectively and sentimentally charts an incarcerated firefighter’s recollection of danger with a gut punch critique of the system that puts prisoner’s lives on the line for a dollar an hour impactfully tucked in at the end of the track. Likewise, Future Shuttle’s “Summer Solstice” folds a sound byte of Angela Davis’s recent words—speaking on the lessons that prison and police abolitionists can take from the trans community—into its fuschia pink synth padding right before an especially buoyant and optimistic contribution from domestik, which struts in plods and plucks, defining itself in motion. This compilation holds space throughout, from M. Sage’s psychedelic oasis to RXM Reality’s dense pulsations to a candid iPhone recording of a Zach Phillips ditty about “the web.” The result here is not whiplash but fluidity and non-teleological growth, a horizontal multiplicity of voices and rivers.

macaroom, Toshiaki Chiku – kodomono odoriko (2020)

This collaboration serves as my introduction to both actor/composer/singer Toshiaki Chiku and Japanese art-pop group macaroom. Oskari Tuure remarked in a blurb written for Tone Glow, “Chiku’s particular brand of vocal androgyny is that of gender maximalism. His voice seems to fit all contexts simultaneously,” adding that his strange voice “adds some much-needed ruggedness into macaroom’s whimsical bedroom pop.” 

Chiku floats above macaroom’s delightfully airy grooves and soundspaces like a deeply hallucinatory troubadour, his nasally tenor plasticizing the already elastic fabric that rests below. The pairing is essential and flawless and conjures other worlds: fungi sprouting, air glimmering in sunlight, deer rubbing the tops of their noses together, etc. etc. etc.

macaroom’s website draws attention to their use of “phonelyrics,” a method of songwriting that “relates to the sound function of words.” I have a feeling that this (alongside the peculiarity of Chiku’s voice) contributes to the readiness with which my ears approached the work. Track 6, “月がみてたよ,” is lullaby-like, revolving around a simple repetitive lyric structure and one-note melodic theme. Google translates this title to “I was watching the moon.” I think I knew it meant this. Yes, I could have told you that.

Junior Murvin - Police and Thieves (1976)

See the source image

Revisiting Junior Murvin at present, I can’t help but tie the effect of his lanky falsetto to that of the squeaky-voiced cloud-rapper 645AR. It’s hard to think of an artist whose falsetto has been more front-and-center than either, even if other falsettos (Marvin Gaye, Robert Plant, Frankie Valli, Al Green) are more famous. As Joshua recently wrote, “645AR’s music pointed to the reality of how challenging and stigmatized being openly emotional could be; the AutoTuned chirping was self-effacing and attention-drawing all at once: a cry for help.” Junior Murvin’s falsetto similarly opens space for his own expression.

What is striking about Police & Thieves is the way Murvin Junior Smith’s voice glides on top of Lee “Scratch” Perry and The Upsetters’s massive instrumentals. Smith evokes strong religious themes (“Solomon,” “Tedious,” “False Teachin’,” and “Lucifer”), and at loud volumes there is indeed something biblical about his voice floating unnaturally in the acoustic space, disembodied with sibilance echoing and crashing against itself. The arrival of this angel seems to be the very force altering the terrestrial performance of the Upsetters, causing horns to warp like Dali’s clocks on “Rescue Jah Children.”

Indeed, the singer’s arrival on “Tedious” is treated as nothing short of a miracle. With an electronically altered attack, Smith enters our realm as he lets out an “ahh” that takes little more than a sigh from him. Steady and clear, this note rings out for six seconds as all instruments drop out. Seemingly stunned, a full two-bar drum fill follows, leading the band back in to support Smith as he delivers the message of the Israelites’ Exodus.

Midway through the album’s title track (Perry’s signature song that would later be covered and catapulted to further international fame by The Clash), Smith’s scat-singing blends via delay to build a tetrachord, layering the linear event upon itself and making a fabric of it. One of dub’s key innovations is its ability to exploit the recorded medium to blend rhythm, timbre, harmony, and melody into one ecstatic and unworldly substance. Moments like this do nothing short of that, subtly, with Smith’s acute voice coasting above.

Only on “Workin’ In The Cornfield” does Smith’s voice seem excited, reaching something close to a howl so wild that Robert "Billy" Johnson’s tucked-away guitar responds in solidarity, repeating this vocal excitation with a wah that sits just below the surface, aching for release. This is characteristic of the beautiful harmony between Smith, Perry, and The Upsetters. With the lightest touch (in this case little more than a soft, constant delay), Perry lets Smith’s voice carry the emancipatory weight it takes to leave earth, if only for a second.

Pat Keen - Cells Remain (2020)

The songs on Cells Remain move slowly, taking their time. On his last full-length, 2017’s Albatross, Pat Keen’s compositions were reminiscent of Elliot Smith if he’d found his way to the mountains and settled by a lake. With an ensemble behind him, he crafted a light, painterly acoustic music that toyed with time signature and twisting non-functional harmony. Here, Keen restricts such dramatic harmonic shifts to the transitions between song-sections, driving the ebb and flow of his more subtle and sweet compositions. The effect happens so gradually that it’s easy to miss how much he’s still borrowing from the non-functional harmony of 70s and 80s post-modal jazz (perhaps inherited secondhand via Smith through midwest emo groups like American Football and Cap’n Jazz) and how unconventional his songwriting is as it drifts by. Cells Remain moves like a draft through the room and in his sweetness, Keen could be a James Taylor, Norah Jones, or Gretchen Parlato. 

Cells Remain comes off as intentionally abstract and emotionally impressionistic. Keen nods to as much when he offhandedly twitters that, “Nobody knows what I mean to say about the ways I am.” His heart is in it but his voice will let you know that it’s okay to blink at the lyric sheet, to nod off for a second, he’ll still be there the next time the record comes around.

JOBS - endless birthdays (2020)

On JOBS’s last EP, the band felt like an amalgam of diverse interests and inputs. Their sound morphed and revolved at every second, showing evidence of their creative process at every turn. The result was a highly structured (though “infinitely adaptable”) meditation on moving and being. As I described it in my 2018 review for Tiny Mix Tapes, it acted as “a functional thesis of what all great bands have been and can be: a model of human social forms; a study in exchange and power distribution; a safe space to practice collective autonomy, to undergo change and howl at a false threat just to practice screaming.”

On endless birthdays, a minimal approach takes over, giving the album a more unified and identifiable character. endless birthdays hits like a hybrid of Velvet Underground, Tune-Yards, and Matmos, nine tracks that each develop one theme slowly and slightly. Steady textures evoke grids. Voices invite figuration but stay in the abstract with cut-up poetry and occasional images slipping out. Dreamlike and serene, steady and adventurous.

The group fairly consistently employs the sort of single-note rhythmic melody that I invariably attribute to a group of my friends (Logan Hone, Jesse Quebbeman-Turley, and It Foot It Ears, who, to my understanding, inherited it from Provo composer Christian Asplund, as well as Kidi Band and Fell Runner, who, if I had to guess, inherit it from Tune-Yards).

As Rebecca remarked from the kitchen, it sounds way gayer. Both primary vocalists employ a low-volume speaking voice that is undeniably queer. Short of an audible lisp, their voices curl around each lyric lifting and falling undramatically.

That said, JOBS is largely sexless, instead opting for a sanitized regularity. This sets their krauty post-rock aside from their neighbors in Swans, Xiu Xiu, or Black Midi. Even the self-destructing guitar solo that ends “3 Being 2” feels chaotic but forcefully neutered by intense compression and a tinny EQ, enveloped by slickness and wrapping up neatly.

It’s neat to hear an ensemble craft a sound this resolutely singular, consistent, and contrary to any current zeitgeist in music. To add to this, they are exceedingly proficient in their own craft and process, a feature that draws on their strengths. endless birthdays feels less like a statement than an important piece in a developing ouvre.

Various Artists (Towhead Recordings) - New York Dance Music IV (2020)

The latest in a series of compilations from Towhead Recordings featuring a broad swath of NYC-based producers. These 20 tracks bounce between house, jungle, breakbeat, and techno, keeping the flow alive throughout. Nicely sequenced and stacked with talent, this album has been a joy to have around the house, keeping me moving and feeling light. Contributions from Kush Jones, Bergsonist, MoMA Ready, DJ Swisha, and AceMo are as strong as I’ve come to expect from each (of these, I’m particularly fond of DJ Swisha x OSSX’s whimsical shout samples on “Worldmart” and AceMo’s unreal beat manipulation on “Got 2 Believe”). Additional standouts are the foreboding and sparse dub manipulations on J. Albert’s “Final Boss,” the warped sirens sounding across DJ NJ DRONE’s “No Flight Vaccine,” the syrupy groove on JWords’s “Smooth,” and the candy-colored breaks on Color Plus’s “Gum.” If you’re looking for new dance music and a way to support some NYC artists, I highly recommend diving into this series and the artists it highlights.

MIKE - Weight of the World (2020)

Throughout Weight of the World, Bonema’s relaxed flow acts as the sole driving force, pushing lethargic beats forward into the tireless oblivion he reports on. Wasting no time, across the first two tracks (which hardly span four minutes altogether), we join MIKE in “grinning through the bad shit” and drinking as a bandage for “the wound eternal,” hopelessly insufficient acts that are deemed worthy of the time and money. 

While Bonema expresses despair and frustration, moments of musical joy and intrigue (as well as his own prolificacy as both producer and rapper) point to music-making as a space for respite. Bonema’s arrangements are variable and snappy, with songs frequently consisting of a single verse and beats that are hardly ever content to sit still for too long. Each track’s construction feels casual yet perfected. We can hear Bonema’s downwards glance, his eyes traveling down the lines of words upon a custard-yellow Notes page, jumping back up at will for the occasional refrain. When the bars end (which they often do as casually as they begin), Bonema gives himself ample time to toy with each beat’s constituent parts: chopping, pausing, shifting, subtracting, and proceeding beyond a sample’s looped period playfully. “no no,” drips with swagger and passion, making use of a soul vocal sample submerged under a low pass filter until the song’s halfway mark, when it bursts open joyously, briefly, before falling below once again, shifting lower and withering. “plans” gets mileage out of an off-center piano loop and chopped-up, gutted voices that moan and swirl around the sonic space. Drums stutter and trip, adding weight and releasing organically. Structurally, these songs are simple but texturally they’re dense and nourishing.

“weight of the word” is a triptych that delivers a hooky climax within the album’s third act, harnessing a jubilant sample of Brazillian singer Moraes Moreira. Bonema makes Moreira work, chopped such that his voice falls over itself chaotically. Moreira’s Portugese lines are butchered into melodious gibberish, which Bonema joins in on with an almost wordless hum. Above this effervescent sample is a rare moment when Bonema’s voice raises past the level one might take as they lean in to tell a secret in a face-to-face encounter. He accompanies the joyous beat by asserting his feelings of disbelief and frustration, moving through a list of wrongdoings and banal traumas with the refrain of “shit I’ll never forget.” This moment of elation juxtaposed against catharsis follows two separate musical sections on the same track, each about a minute in length and largely unrelated to the other. The resulting effect is a sense of neglect or bashfulness around expression, a need to hide the moments when one lets loose. 

Throughout, Bonema keeps his head down, submerging his voice in the mix, barely letting his words reach the surface. Drowning in melancholy, there’s a sense that what lies beyond Bonema’s delivery are intensely personal feelings that are sensitive to exposure. On “coat of many colors,” musical escape is painted as a necessary struggle in its own right: “It's drippin' sorrow when I write, this a different war/ And I admit the more i fight the more there is to mourn.” I’ve seen criticisms of MIKE suggesting that he has failed to progress his talents over the course of his many releases—repeating his signature sound ad infinitum without major development—and that Weight of the World presents a loosely coherent series of sketches rather than a more fully realized, well-defined work. These observations are absolutely true, but to hold them as flaws of Bonema’s is to completely miss the source of his appeal: an endless deluge of depressed, hazy utterances expressing the discontent and malaise of daily life as it is: a life in which, for most, security is to be found only under a blanket, as moments of joy are unreliable, precarious, and rare. Bonema expresses as much on the album’s closer, asking himself amidst a deluge of thoughts, “Why do grieving in the bed be the best option?”

Duma - Duma (2020)

[This review originally published on Tone Glow]

The album art—depicting a robed figure standing parallel to a skinned animal carcass hanging from a meat cleaver; the figure’s robe echoing the brilliant red of the carcass’s muscle and the rich yellow of its fat in a crisp, swirling pattern—incredibly evokes animal slaughter, human corporeality, consumption, an exposé of industry, and regional specificity, all without belaboring any aspect thereof; a perfectly apt introduction for the music within, which blends diverse influences, techniques, and sounds seamlessly into one startling yet exhilarating work.

Use of electronic elements is not particularly new in grindcore, however, the result here is far from the cybergrind that has followed from Agoraphobic Nosebleed or The Locust. Duma rejects the pummeling clarity of a mechanically produced blastbeat by washing out their percussive elements with layers of feedback, billowing noise, and howls. Likewise they refuse the energizing change-on-a-dime element that animates much extreme metal and punk, instead allowing layers to dovetail with each other causing a brilliant, suspended, and disorienting sense of present. The hazy ambiance of these nine tracks aligns them more in my mind with the post-punk trance evocations of Brazil’s Rakta or the blend of house and hardcore that New York’s Limp Wrist has toyed with as of late. 

Riffs take a backseat, allowing room for variegated sounds and production techniques: a rapidly ducking synth on “Omni”; a droning, synthesized string harmonic across “Lionsblood”; four-on-the-flour drums and ringing tones on “Sin Nature”; haunted synths on “The Echoes of the Beyond.” Unexpectedly, I find sounds on this record resonating with Elysia Crampton’s recent masterpiece ORCORARA 2010, namely,the low, dry, spoken word on “Pembe 666” and the oscillating polyrhythmic gusts on “Sin Nature.” Both albums sculpt a landscape slowly while subtly moving in unexpected ways. Many tracks here end with a jolting, sudden fade into silence, interrupting the glossy, smoothed-over surface of the tracks themselves, and feeling oddly reminiscent of automatic fades in capitalist platforms (the sponsored Ad on Spotify or the free sample offered on a webstore before purchasing a download).

Duma makes me infinitely excited to dive into the apparently blossoming Nairobi metal scene, a scene which must be excellent considering its capacity to support work as innovative and well-developed as this.

Hatred Surge - Deconstruct (2009)

Fans of the latest (and particularly excellent) poly-generic metal/hardcore opus from Boris might find catharsis in this 2009 release. Deconstruct has this extreme music powerhouse tearing through powerviolence and grind tropes with a definitive heft and throw, creasing riffs and erupting in textures with a refined precision, putting forth a complete, internal language over the course of a sharp 19 minutes. Dual vocalists Faiza Kracheni and Alex Hughes toss lead lines between one another, heightening the record’s tumult and momentum, guiding the ear through whiplash changes and orchestrated blows. Few artists accomplish an overview of so many styles as thoroughly, succinctly, and effectively as Hatred Surge accomplished on Deconstruct. The result is a gut punch that holds weight again and again.

James Blake - Enough Thunder (2011)

James Blake‘s influence on contemporary music is so pervasive that I think it often goes unmentioned. His casual blending of elements that read as both organic and mechanical, imperfect and precise, emotive and cold, is now built into the foundation of many artists today: not just the frontier for much of the experimental pop scene (from Charli XCX’s cyberfemme contortions to the heart-in-his-gut trap balladry of Bladee to the bounce and stutter of queer hyperpop collective FROMTHEHEART), but also the playing field for much of the mainstream pop world from Billie Eilish’s egirl evocations to Travis Scott’s at once cold and megolithic Fortnite jams. (This is not to mention his direct contributions to artists like Travis Scott and Beyonce and his carving out of space for an artist like Sam Smith who likewise combines the blue-eyed keyboard confessional with less immediately intimate pop production.) 

Enough Thunder is notably unspectacular however, residing nearer to Grouper’s impressionism than any of those mentioned above. Here, Blake brought a new level of subtlety to many of the experiments he was exploring on his self-titled debut a year earlier and an intimate, unpolished finish that he would neglect on later releases. On “Once We All Agree,” he dances around his melody, a short, simple phrase, elaborating on and embellishing it each time, ever so slightly, giving variation and breath to a starkly minimal structure. Unintrusive glitches occur but never distract from the acoustic piano and processed vocal performance at the track’s center. On this album, Blake’s experiments with voice are subtle (much subtler than the outright electrifying effect he employed on 2018’s “If The Car Beside You Moves Ahead,” for instance, which combines a chopped and screwed-like stutter with a PC Music-style shifted falsetto); instead, he relegates separate slapback reverberations of the voice to the left and right stereo fields, simply opening up the center for a mostly dry, pitch-corrected voice to sit above the cozy piano recording, allowing a roomy atmosphere within an unreal space. As the song fades, Blake inserts a slight lift with a chord that hadn’t yet occurred and lacks harmonic suggestion or resolve. It just happens, fraying the yarn at the tip.

Then there’s the oddly occasional syntactical continuity and poetic meter and rhyme in the track listing: “Once We All Agree/ We Might Feel Unsound/ Fall Creek Boys Choir/ A Case of You/ Not Long Now/ Enough Thunder.” It’s barely present, just suggestive, and given the release’s general grayness, it makes a wash of these six songs, an unusual standout being the Joni Mitchell cover, honest and direct, the sort of cover relegated to an EP or B-Side seen as too discontinuous for a full-length. Enough Thunder is an odd collection of scraps, merely resonant and hardly speaking, discontinuous but steady. The twitching, frailty of “We Might Feel Unsound” gives way to the much more robust yet still hardly functional Bon Iver collaboration, “We Might Feel Unsound.” “Not Long Now” makes a sport of its synthesizer’s attack and release, swelling and fading in the mix with sampled voice occasionally barging in. The track constantly threatens to fall apart altogether as Blake’s voice flitters above it. This lasts precariously until oddly stiff 808s intrude, propelling the track to the end, unpolished and suddenly giving way to a disjunct and incomplete coda. It’s strikingly resistant to formal structure, instead loose and incapable of grasping.

Until recently, Blake’s characteristic trait was his ability to portray depression as it is felt: a lack, a pit, empty yet full of depth. Enough Thunder is like a blanket, holding that feeling but making it warm. It lends empathy to the sort of sadness that is ambivalent of its surrounding, instead lingering: a dense forbidding spirit hovering, saturating all around it. Enough Thunder’s brokenness is emblematic of Blake’s emptier era, showing a willful resistance towards mastery and technique altogether.

Diane Cluck - Diane Cluck (2000)

[This review originally published on Tone Glow]

Few songwriters accomplish intimacy with as much patience and subtlety as Diana Cluck at the start of her debut. Over a spacious, rollicking piano (miked with warmth and a woody room tone), Cluck incants a portrait of her lover, “Someone’s ink and needles / Have written skin riddles / On his body bare before me except for these sketches.” On this early release, Cluck’s songwriting is skillful and fiery, unabashed and sincere. Here, Cluck, so adept with language and at channeling her interior emotions, draws attention to her lover’s shuttered nature. His tattoos, “Signal and semaphore / For things he won’t talk about,” providing a sole entryway as Cluck traces them, bridging the rupture that sits between them. Across the album, Cluck shows herself to be particularly in tune and empathetic to the world around her (an empathy that extends, on “Ambulance,” to an ambulance passenger considering the anger of those behind them in a traffic jam as they breathe their last breath).

Likewise, Cluck buries meaning in “Psu Vs. Louisiana Tech (67 to 7, 9/9/00),” which takes form as a birthday voicemail. The song keenly reflects the way conversations dance in a stifled and distanced relationship: “I talked to Barbara tonight on the phone / She told me Penn State has finally won / so I guess they don’t stink as bad as you said / and your birthday wish came true for you today, dad / Happy birthday, dad / happy birthday, dad.” As listeners, we will not find the source of emotional brunt yet we are sure to sense the vulnerability and tenderness within.

The songs here are sunbathed and sticky, humid, dense. Figures lay about, lethargic, dreary, and wet, always conscious though briefly negligent of the world just outside their window. “Monte Carlo”—a barebones, three-chord, hazy epic—describes its namesake ward as a particular sort of liminal space, a realm of excess and tire, exhaust and sweat. It opens with an image that wouldn’t be out of place in an Agnes Varda film, lingering on “the three lonely things poking up from the water/ …her nipples and her nose as she floats on her back.” As Varda has a penchant for pointing outside of her protagonist’s plot-lines, so too does Cluck. “Monte Carlo” brilliantly oscillates between social scenarios about town, geographic landscapes, and intimate domestic scenarios, the singer blowing on her lover’s sunburn blisters in bed to cool them down, concluding this moment of intimacy with an acute metonymy: “that’s the sun in Monte Carlo.” The song is lugubrious in a cosmic sense, inhabiting a land with pleasure and dread.

In another’s hands, such a setting might nosedive towards a purely romantic fantasy ballad, but a horror upsets the singer as she describes a place where acts have “no consequence at all / like the action in dreams.” Meanwhile, she and her lover toy with a lighthouse beam sending ships off course and crashing in the middle of the night (an act of terror that receives equal attention as the scene described in the song’s closing couplet: “Two more nights in Monte Carlo, and her burn will be a tan / She can’t sleep, she just said so, so I turn up the fan”).

The production across Diane Cluck is alternately charming and vibrant in its psychoacoustic distortion and textured pastiche of elements. On “4 Score Lightnings,” for instance, the rapid-fire piano that serves as the song’s base is recorded in a washy style, rounded-off and warbling, while Cluck strikes above, weaving through the atmosphere heavily effected by chorus, painting ions in the ether, and animating the effect of lightening so, “blinding, frightening,” that electrifies perception allowing for something like “x-ray view.” When an accordion enters crisply it inhabits a completely different sonic space than both the vocals and piano, introducing a third sonic plane that is incongruous but vivid, the effect gives depth to her minimal arrangements.

With “Touch Deprivation,” Cluck anticipates the hyperattentive, stylized, tweet-speak poetry of her Alt-Lit successors, as her speaker brushes another on the subway and allows all-too-candidly, “Do you know you are the first person to touch me in a while / and sometimes I like the feeling of accidental touch.” But while her anti-folk peers (and Alt-Lit co-predecessors) Regina Spektor, Kimya Dawson, and Jeffrey Lewis shone brightest when their lyrics took the form of a stream of transcribed thought (glazed with the patina of familiarity and conversational tics, tracing an internal monologue and stretching the limits of the confessional song in the process), Cluck’s lyrics are distinctively stylized as a realist novelist might be, and her incorporation of symbols is acrobatic and strange, belying meaning but speaking through images themselves.

katie dey - mydata (2020)

Katie Dey has a particular skill for wrapping words around a melody by breaking thoughts between phrases and twirling her voice to guide the canned orchestra behind her. This use of voice and language makes an odd pairing with the arrangements on mydata which are dynamic and colorful but oddly stiff—an uncanny orchestra or the world’s largest music box—Katie Dey the windup ballerina automaton spinning atop.

Her vocal processing often makes it sound as though her voice has been torn apart by software and completely reconstituted, emphasizing and caricaturing her vocal fry (think of Billie Eilish’s elongated “A” on “bad guy”) to the point of desperation, a slow melismatic whimper that’s delicate but filled with an ocean of timbre. This effect is exhibited to a breaking point on “word,” on which Dey makes ironic use of word-painting, garbling the lyrics, “use your words/ clear your throat for me.” Dey repeats a desperate, simple two-bar phrase—a melodic plea arching up to its highest note and holding it before tumbling down consecutive scale intervals—as the only melody in the song. Meanwhile, her symphony paints the emotional turns below her, shaping the scene (and, at one point, subtly quoting Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida”). The effect of this repeated plea is the sound of unquenchable wanting, yearning in one direction, unsatisfied, built up under the surface, doomed to repeat itself as it reaches the mouth.

It’s easy to mistake Dey’s work for a bastardized replica of mid-aughts indie-pop with an egirl spice, but doing so is to overlook her craft and capacity. “dancing” could almost be a track by Natasha Beddingfield or Feist if you squint your eyes and skew your head, but neither of those artists had the emotional space to declare the troubling paradox, “i am myself a shelter/ my own personal hell girl/ there’s no other place I can go”—a line illuminated by our recent collective experiences of shelter and isolation. When she extrapolates this theme on the song’s next verse, “i am my own dancer/ my own private dancer/ i will do whatever i’m told,” and adds on the next chorus, “i need you/ to be my choreographer,” she echoes Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer,” but here finds freedom in the command of her suitor, the liberation provided by the performative tracing of another’s desire: a loss of self, becoming puppet.

mydata is an album about technologically mediated romance, a topic that an electronic songwriter and producer is particularly well-suited to explore. By exploiting technology, Dey builds a parasocial bond between artist and listener that can be visceral, cathartic, and intimate as her audience relates to these songs. The album’s final track, “data,” is a piano ballad that evokes Adele or Vanessa Carlton. On it she bellows the following, her voice devouring itself and losing its body:

“hold me up in your folders

hold me up in the sky

mydata”

the creature’s warts have eyes, and those eyes have warts, and so on, ad infinitum

Monthly Listening: June 2020

Hey all, hope everyone is staying afloat, taking action when possible, and resting when needed.

Coming in with June’s monthly listening including reviews of 11 releases that have been in my rotation over the past month. Check them out and let me know if anything sticks. If you need further listening guidance, I highly recommend both the second quarter issue of Tone Glow—with 30 favorite albums from a brilliant group of writers—and the mid-year report from Post-Trash which is loaded to the brim with releases all over the map.

Additionally, I’d like to advocate that anyone with the funds to do so contribute to the Black Hills Legal Defense Fund to assist Indigenous People and allies who “were arrested in the process of defending [their] sacred lands in the Black Hills” this past week. The nationwide struggles that sparked off just over a month ago are nowhere near finished, and we need to work together to sustain our energy and efforts as they continues.

Lastly, I highly recommend two interrelated and accessible documentaries online right now: Disclosure, which focuses on the knotted history of trans representation in popular media (available on Netflix), and Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (available free without subscription from Shudder). Watching the two movies back to back, I recognized how intertwined the histories they laid out were, often overlapping, splitting, and coming to heads at similar points in their own separate trajectories.  I’m not incredibly well-versed in movies and television, so much of the content these works drew from was new to me. Both documentaries are digestible, and each is thankfully guided by the voices that should be telling these stories.

Oh! And one more thing before we get started, I’d just like to mention my sincerest gratitude to Rebecca Jones for their work editing this newsletter. This issue truly wouldn’t be reaching you without their support.

closegood - NYMPH

I came across closegood by way of Huntrezz Janos’s 3D renderings of the duo in the video for “AANG,” a track that takes the protagonist of Avatar: The Last Airbender as its namesake. When the lead vocals on the track are passed off from amada to nyfe midway, Janos’s animation captures the formal technique of the powerup. nyfe is suddenly encircled by a ring of fire, watery swirls, and satellite shards of metal, entering with a more driving, lifted triplet flow than amada’s, going in for the kill.

This acceleration characterizes the fluid experimental pop of closegood, a pop which is always in motion and pays little mind to a need for refrain. Their music develops and morphs, accepts change. Instrumentals, lyrics, and melodies engage with one another and grow together. closegood makes the pop music of cyborgs, flux and adaptable, endlessly upgrading, breaking from the logic of life-cycles, free from birth and return. 

It’s physical insomuch as attention to the physical grounds the spiritual. Following nyfe’s powerup, amada briefly enters again, newly bolstered by nyfe’s effect on the beat, spitting off once more the evocative, “keep it in my chest/ air is a temple and flesh only serves as a life vest,” a sentiment echoed throughout NYMPH

Bodies are bodies, sexual and present. Sex is a means for relation, the connection of spirits. We transfer ourselves to each other, I “wake up with my makeup on my hands and in your hair/ I take up so much space and you don’t care/ love looks like glitter,” it gets all over and it sticks, shimmering. Clearing out, making space: “eat me up and swallow ‘til I hollow wood,” it opens one up, “coping,” always “with [our] flesh prison,” learning to love with others.

KeiyaA - Forever, Ya Girl

Start with the echoes of Dilla left in the post-backpack lo-fi of Earl, MIKE, Slauson Malone, Armand Hammer and the like, multiply them by the loosely formed R&B of Solange, add the time-shifted samples of early Klein, and you get something close to what KeiyaA accomplishes on “a Mile, a Way.” It pulsates and lifts atonally, carrying itself with a cybernetic post-human frequency. Midway through, the sample slows, a heart sinking, dropping to the gut: 

“I see a shooter from a mile away

I see a suitor from a mile away

I see my future from a mile away

I know we all are bound for brighter days”

Localities blur and songs escape across Forever, Ya Girl, as it sends itself forward endlessly. Warped frequencies illuminate the air with denunciation and reclamation, which looks like, “no matter what u do, please don’t pass my spliff around the room,” or simply, “I want my things!,” stern but positively glowing as pushed off the tongue.

“Hvnli” drones on for over four minutes (including the reprise) with a synth tethered to the song’s root note—a homebase that the track’s bass and harmony refuse to acknowledge as they float just around it. Stuck in a drought but still finding light: “gone for so long I could barely afford to eat/ but my love is heavenly.”

Forever, Ya Girl is an exploration full of sweetness, appreciation, and difficult conversations, all held with love and respect at its center. It is devotion and energy, worked and warm.

AceMo - SYSTEM OVERRIDE

SYSTEM OVERRIDE, the latest release from the prolific NYC dance producer, is a high-energy balancing act. AceMo pushes bass melodies, jittering samples, and hyperactive panning to extremes, exploring house, jungle, and techno styles while exploding formal structures and maintaining a minimal atmosphere. Each track is texturally minimal at any given moment as it progresses through various sequenced themes. In the face of a mass awakening to systemic racism (violent, systematic, judicial, historical and cultural), “Perpetrator” offers a script to offenders: “Yo, you a name. Perpetrator to the game.” As the techno-world contends with the ways its biggest names and institutions have whitewashed the genre’s own radical Black history, a dialogue ensues: “...when we really don’t want to condone these types of performers we just pull up to the gig and take their equipment away. like pull the usb right out the cdj. or just take the whole cdj setup.” AceMo replies, “Yes it’s a no go for you my guy u gotta go.. literally everyone in the crowd screaming PERPATRATOR that’s what this track is abt.” This is the techno utopia that genre pioneers Underground Resistance might have dreamed about, a being-together capable of instantly and immediately excising any intrusion.

Permission - Organised People Suffer

[This review originally published on Tone Glow]

On their third LP, Permission expertly strike the balance between presenting a monolithic mass of sound and allowing enough moment-to-moment variation to provide momentum. They push the atonal potential present within hardcore punk towards a frenzied, baseless terrain. Jolting, contracting, and expanding phrases with endlessly unsettled harmonies result in the sound of an ever-adapting present constantly reformulating and finding a new point of stasis within each moment. A broken, fluid sense of grammar collages images of war, sex, politics, and decay: “NEW BAD DEAL STIMULATE GLISTENING AND WARM HIS FACE DROPS YEARS OF SERVICE BETRAYED WITHOUT A SINGLE THOUGHT WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING ALONG ABJECT AND HAUNTED BLINKING.” These lyrics are oddly classical although fresh: it’s an evolution of both the politically minded collage-surrealism of Crass and Discharge and the vibrant figurative expressionism of Void and Napalm Death. Infrequent but consistent use of present-tense direct address creates the occasional hallucinatory second-person narration: “YOUR TEETH FALL OUT LOOK DOWN YOUR FOOT SPLITS” and “LOOKING BACK AT YOU WORDS FALL FROM YOUR LIPS.” These moments are markedly different from the “you” that inhabits traditional hardcore, a pronoun most typically reserved for conservative politicians, parents, cops, bullies, hippies, fags, disinterested women, and nazis in the genre’s earliest forms. Here, it denotes an ambiguous subject, it feels to be nightmarishly pointing at you, the listener. Organised People Suffer presents a dense howl pouring out from broken lips, writhing.

Barcelona - Residuos Del Ultrasonido

Many of my favorite bands in hardcore sound as though they have recently emerged from Plato’s cave. Enraged at their captors, overcome with anxiety at the world before them, and having only heard distant reflections of rock bands miles away, they stumble into a studio and give punk a try.

Barcelona scratch that itch in a whole new way, delivering eight new tracks left over from the same sessions that birthed 2017’s Un Último Ultrasonido Nació Y Murió En Barcelona. Here, the songs’ constituent parts are simple. Drums often sound in unison with stiff, non-syncopated riffs. The lead’s howl is closed off in the throat, disgruntled and upsetting. While the album remains resoundingly minimal, the deconstructive style moves towards a new punk alchemy. “Higiene” is picked apart midway as grindcore blastbeats move towards textural improvisation. Likewise, the album’s opener is a feature for a shimmering drum base and spoken, grunted vocals. Simple ideas and structures are exploited for maximal communication. I’m not fluent in Spanish by any means but I know what “matar” means, and as it’s chanted arrhythmically as a song’s hook, I find that the shoe fits.

Macula Dog - Breezy

Macula Dog pick up the mutant dystopias that Captain Beefheart, Devo, and The Residents set forth, bringing them present. Now glossy and HD, we can see Macula Dog’s vision with a newfound crispness and accuracy. We find that this creature’s warts have eyes, and those eyes have warts, and so on, ad infinitum. Macula Dog posit a parallel Cronenberg version of the present where all is oily, prosthetic and strange: Jeff Goldblum becoming The Fly, picking himself apart in odd time. Mostly made of percussive, synthesized sounds, there’s only ever a shadow of harmony to these songs, a facet that makes their brutalist structures all the more rewarding. The four songs here are tightly composed and gushing with imagery, melody, and abstract sound design. Finally it feels as though Macula Dog has made a home in their radioactive wetland, spectres hovering, singing their song.

Lily and Horn Horse - Republicans for Bernie

[This review originally published on Tone Glow]

My initial impulse was to recoil at the title. “Republicans for Bernie” felt both too on the nose and beside the point. Worse yet, it held a shield of irony despite its political signaling, and this coming from a duo I had come to love for their relentless sincerity in spite of a humorously shifting, absurd, and anachronistic musical framework. Now that I’ve sat with the EP, the title has grown on me: it points elsewhere, channeling propulsive post-hypnagogic jazz-fusion-inflicted dream pop down endless alleys without resolve and with little refrain. The album’s opener asks bemoaningly—amidst much greater existential queries—, “Why’d you have to say that/ Why’d you have to say that/ About Crosby, Stills & Nash/ Crosby, Stills & Nash.” The question lingers because, A), we would never assume that—in all their apparent multitudinous influences—Lily and Horn Horse are especially inspired by the work of Crosby, Stills & Nash and, B), we are never sure what slight has been said of the late-60s folk-rockers in the first place. The song opens up twin exits, splitting off into worlds exterior to its own tightly-composed body. The five songs that follow are among the duo’s strongest to date, oscillating abruptly as they do, floating further philosophical quandaries (“And how am I supposed to reckon with this loneliness?/ How much does it really cost to be me?”) and affirmations of the self (“I know what I want this time/ Can we know?”) atop brilliantly shifting grooves and synthetic fields. The result is whimsical, strange, and altogether enchanting.

pedezo de carne con ojo - ¿Pero Like Cómo E'tá?

“I Trip U Trip” centers around a horn-driven sample that Steven Perez loops with a hard stop and a tiny rest at its end: a little gasp, a trip, an empty melody, a soft break. Steven Perez’s voice above it is wavy, loose cursive scribbling. The overall effect is flimsy and on edge. Broken samples with sudden cuts lend pedezo de carne con ojo an odd rigidity, a brittle fabric—everything breathes and dies by the grid.

In an interview with Treble Zine, Perez explains:

“You grow up in certain environments where you think money is the only way out of shit. That’s how I was becoming, and I hated that. I still have to watch myself. … It’s important but when you get to a point when you need money over respecting people or over the lives of others. …  Like, it’s all I think about sometimes, all I feel like I am to my family sometimes, is a support system of money. … . I was trying to grapple with that.”

Perez expresses that he finds inspiration in the work of Earl Sweatshirt and Slauson Malone (two artists who have become familiar exemplars of the sound of the New York collective Standing on the Corner along with MIKE and Solange). These artists’ work is steeped in tradition. They blaze forward, forging fragmentary works full of rich sampling that evokes the ecstatic, divine tradition of Black popular music to mold a weighty collage, murkier than the clarity their sources offer. They trouble a sense of commodity.

Unlike those fluid works, ¿Pero Like Cómo E'tá? is odd, mechanistic, and choppy. Rather than pulsating, pumping, and writhing with sidechain compression and bass-boosted soul samples, it cuts like FM radio: tinny, crackling, and slightly holographic. Samples sweat through repetition, flowing into the smallest body, stuck in a puddle, eddying. Perez’s production is resoundingly DIY, self-developed, and idiosyncratic. Static, it holds its place, denies upwards mobility, and disrupts its own commodity status through its very shakiness. 

NÍDIA - Não Fales Nela Que A Mentes

Writing about dance music is intimidating. Its styles are minced into subgenres distinguishable by a single beat per minute, a specific kick pattern, or an abstract geographical and temporal tint. Add to this the fact that it often offers little by way of textual supports for me to lean on, and the prospect of picking dance music apart with my words feels insurmountable.

In this regard, NÍDIA’s Não Fales Nela Que A Mentes makes for an interesting case. The tracks are expansive and open, booming yet light. In a way it proposes thought as its own dance. “Rap Tentativa” sounds just too slow, knowingly so, each beat lasting just beyond its capacity for holding. It dares you to dance but holds space for thinking.

NÍDIA merges forms and genres, making Portuguese batida feel just a few snaps away from Chicago footwork, really, coalescing the two, with other styles close in their midst. She forges a new thing, making my genre paralysis worse but allowing my critical faculties to shutter completely. In this way, it’s oddly welcoming. At 29 minutes, it’s a short, varied album, inviting and fresh, offering new thoughts at each turn. It’s simple and joyous, practiced and clever, rewarding.

Julius Eastman - Feminine

The recording starts with a gathering: a crisp metal texture, several bouts of laughter, a tuning ensemble, a low-mid hum from a mic feeding back. Sustained bells bridge candid sound and composition and a new process begins. This 1974 live recording captures a long lost piece by the posthumously acclaimed composer Julius Eastman who fortifies the ensemble over the course of 72 minutes. Two main components—the steady, rapid chorus of sleigh bells and a short two-note motif, repeated in unison by various members—last the entire composition. These components do not develop or transition, but hold their center as the work moves around them. New motifs and accompaniment enter but do not threaten the others’ primacy. The piece swells impossibly, rising incrementally over the duration, unwinding and opening.

Annette Peacock - I Have No Feelings

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[This review originally published on Tone Glow where a download of the album is available]

Annette Peacock’s greatest talent is the swerve. Her 1972 solo debut I’m the One begins boldly with its title track. “I’m the One” moves quickly from abstract fields of sound to a deep funk pocket to something like a game show theme, and finally climaxes with Peacock’s Moog-processed voice featured over a blues shuffle. The turns are remarkable for their groove, a musical virtue which Peacock all but gave up after the deflated reception of her frankly excellent 1979 album The Perfect Release. Her ironically titled, self-released I Have No Feelings (1986) might be her strongest thereafter, using ballad in a vibrant stew of collaged sounds and lyrical imagery. Ideas slosh around here in a thick melange, slowly moving towards an ever-diversifying blend. The album’s gorgeous cover is by Alfreda Benje. Benje’s work has also adorned many sleeves for her husband Robert Wyatt, a musician whose most abstract and pointillistic compositions are echoed here.

Saturated in a deep, rich blue, few events across this album rise past the surface, instead presenting a dense liquid body worth wading through. The orchestrated, melting delivery of the line “I have no feelings/ I feel no pain,” calls to mind the lush hopelessness that Billie Holiday and Ray Ellis provided on Lady In Satin—a heartbreaking murmur, falling apart. “A Personal Revolution” provides one of the album’s clearest moments, with Peacock calling for women to strategically withhold sex from men. She begins the song brilliantly with the solemnly chanted mantra, “No nookie til the nukes are gone” then delivers a direct, spoken call to action: “Women have power over men both sexually and numerically/ I’ll leave it to your discretion.” The demand sounds humorous and perhaps politically impotent until Peacock (in her brilliance) states a decisive, admonishing “no” as the track begins to fade, exemplifying for her troops the very real moment of sexual denial. Sex, politics, and sorrow are often at the crux of Peacock’s work. On I Have No Feelings, these themes are essayed from a knowing and sensitive perspective.

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