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)

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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