Known respectively for their independent work as Botany and Lushlife, Spencer Stephenson and Raj Haldar selected their collaborative mantle, The Skull Eclipses, when the album became more than just a one-plus-one combination of their individual sounds.
Broadly, The Skull Eclipses is a post-hip hop album that harmonizes tropes of mid 90's electronic genres-- ambient, downtempo, jungle, & trip-hop-- under a hauntological umbrella. It is the first offering from a project that's as much indebted to Broadcast & The Focus Group as it is to Pete Rock & CL Smooth, but obligated to neither. Up close however, the album is a peer into the shadows by two figures uncontent with blending into the tapestry of modern music, wholly committed to creating experiences over mere content, which is pouring in from all corners of a frustrated and distracted world.
Akinetic, the new album from Chicago songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Erik Hall's one-man polymathic project In Tall Buildings sees its creator plunge headlong into allegories of communication, loss, impulse, vice, and mass-denialism. With the addition of producer and engineer Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Iron & Wine) Hall crashes through the aforementioned subject matter with brightness and lucidity, yielding his most intelligent and focused songwriting yet. Working out of his house with Deck in Pilsen, Chicago, Hall's efforts yield ten tracks of spacious and textured handmade pop, comprising one of the most sharply written and deftly recorded home-studio albums in memory.
Where his previous titles were natural documents of his musicianship and songcraft, Akinetic arose from deliberate intent to write in concrete pop forms, lyrically informed by what he observed of modern culture, namely its fixation on technology-driven pseudo-progress at the cost of direct communication. "Rather than merely dwell in an inviting musical bed," Hall states, "I wanted to write songs with intentionality that would more directly declare themselves to a listener instead of just passively inviting them in."
That this was all achieved by one person playing every instrument, gently guided by a kindred and veteran co-producer, denotes Akinetic as the greatest height yet reached for In Tall Buildings.
Indiana-born, everywhere-based singer-songwriter Peter Oren possesses a remarkable singing voice, low and deep and richly textured: as solid as a glacier, as big as a mountain. It rumbles in your conscience, a righteous sound that marks him as an artist for our tumultuous times, when sanity seems absent from popular discussions. The songs on Anthropocene are direct and poetic, outraged and measured, taking in the entire fucked-up world from his fixed point of view.
Oren attracted the attention of Ken Coomer, the former drummer for Wilco and a producer in Nashville. Together, the duo assembled a backing band featuring some of the city's finest session musicians, including keyboard player Michael Webb (John Fogerty), singer Maureen Murphy (Zac Brown Band), and guitarists Sam Wilson (Sons of Bill) and Laur Jaomets (Sturgill Simpson). On Anthropocene they provide stately backing for Oren's songs, with drips of pedal steel and quivers of strings subtly reinforcing his observations about the state of the world. "Throw Down" bristles with energy and resolve, penned for "the people on the far, far left," Oren says, "the anarchists and the rioters. There's not often a voice that's trying to understand those people or defend those positions."
Grooms' Exit Index combines the abandon of pop with the unease of American life in 2017, cloaking its hooks in a clamor of samples and distortion, its agitation expressed in its dream-poetry lyrics. The album as a whole is a study in contrasts-light meeting dark, amplifier fuzz surrounding big melodies, sampled friction squaring off with fluidly played basslines.
Grooms laid down the skeleton tracks for Exit Index, the Brooklyn band's first album since 2015's Comb the Feelings Through Your Hair, at the storied New York recording studio The Magic Shop-the last band to record there before its closure in March 2016.
The heavy distortion on the group's guitars helps add to the gloom as well; Johnson, who has co-owned the Brooklyn pedal company Death By Audio Effects since 2008, made a limited-edition distortion pedal to celebrate the album's release. "There's a lot of tremolo on Exit Index," he says, "so I made a fucked-up-sounding trem." Collin Dupuis (Angel Olsen, Lana Del Rey) mixed the album, adding a few finishing touches to intros and song structures.
Lean Year is the debut, self-titled record by Richmond, Virginia based singer Emilie Rex and filmmaker/musician Rick Alverson (director of Entertainment staring Neil Hamburger, and the cult-drama The Comedy staring Tim Heidecker). What for Rex was a departure from the structured life of academia toward the uncertain contours of a creative field, for Alverson was a return to form. Having released 5 albums with his previous band Spokane, Alverson took a 10-year hiatus from music to write and direct feature films. These departures and approaches bring a transience and listlessness to the album, like a walk interrupted by both curiosity and caution.
Rex and Alverson co-wrote the album over the course of a year at their home in Richmond, VA and recorded it in three sessions at the home studio of Chicago musician/engineer Erik Hall (In Tall Buildings, NOMO), who also performs on the record. Alverson and Hall co-produced the album’s ten tracks, drawing on both Hall's and Elliot Bergman’s (NOMO) arsenal of instruments.
In 2015 Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith released her first widely distributed full-length album, Euclid. Little more than a year later Smith returned with her wonderstruck psychedelic breakthrough EARS to universal praise in the spring of 2016.
Pitchfork called EARS "rich and rewarding," and included EARS in their list of the top twenty experimental albums of the year, while other outlets including NPR, SPIN, and Rolling Stone sung similar best-of-the-year praises. In addition to releasing EARS in 2016, Smith toured with fellow sonic-adventurists Animal Collective, and soundtracked Google's incredible virtual tour series The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks.
This year sees the welcomed continuation of Smith's output, The Kid, an album that climbs to the peaks of its forerunner and astonishingly continues upward. The Kid aurally maps the emotional realities and spiritual epiphanies of a lifeform through its infancy, societal assimilation, and eventual self-remembrance, conjuring each phase with psychoacoustic eloquence. On her newest LP Smith challenges her listeners to entertain new paradigms of listenership by drawing our attention to multiple elements simultaneously, as if-- in her words-- "listening to two conversations at once."
A decade-plus on the road, near-constant musical output, and shifting creative priorities caused the revered Austin duo, comprised of multi-instrumentalists Rob Lowe and Michael Muller, to soberly assess the band's future. What, in the form of Balmorhea, was there left to say? And did they have the energy to say it? Stranger, the group's maximalist, genre-leaping full-length from 2012, had already seemed to trace the group's farthest bounds. And, over the years, they'd worked with a roving cast of accomplished string and rhythm players to craft a glassy-eyed, sage-brushed, instrumental Americana that, while celebrated in The New Yorker, Pitchfork and The Atlantic, among myriad other press, and attracting the film, ad, and television worlds risked pigeonholing them for good.
As they had in the beginning, in 2006, Muller and Lowe worked simply and with restraint, letting intuition guide them as they molded the 10 elegant, spacious gestures that comprise Clear Language. A relaxed, clear-eyed wonder tumbles through these songs like herons lancing through Kerouac's "hungermaking" fog. Clear Language is the sound of two friends transmitting unfettered meaning in a milieu choked by double-speak at every turn.
Saxophonist and composer Joseph Shabason's debut Aytche builds a bridge off of the precipice his forbears established, skirting jazz, ambient, and even new age with the same deliberate genre-ambiguity that made their work so interesting.
Aytche is a document of exploration both inward and outward. Every step taken in sound-design mirrors a stride in emotionality, as Shabason employs a variety of effect pedals to coax rich moody textures from his instrument. He explains, "I feel like robbing the sax of the ability to shred by effecting it and turning it into a dense chordal instrument really helps the instrument become something that it's not usually known for." Aytche deals with themes of degenerative illness and assisted suicide with eloquence that instrumental music rarely achieves regarding any subject, much less such difficult ones.
Album highlight "Westmeath" approaches Aytche's subject of inspiration head-on. Here, the album's only verbalization appears in the form of an interview with a man discussing his father's trauma and eventual suicide after surviving the holocaust. Though we only hear a few obscured words and phrases from the interview, the impact is powerful. For Shabason, whose grandparents survived the holocaust, this selection is anything but frivolous.
50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't be Wrong is the debut by Alabama-raised, Austin-based Caroline Sallee, aka Caroline Says. There are rays of youth beaming through this music, but they never outshine a kind of maturity that betrays the fact that Sallee was just 22 years old when 50 Million was made. After college she took a job as a waitress in Yellowstone as an exercise in solitude and independence. With the money she saved there, she took a transformative journey via Greyhound to explore the West Coast before returning to Alabama where she would record her debut album in her parents' basement. 50 Million puts us in the seat right next to Sallee where we can feel the warm West Coast light through the window, the bus route charting the lines between our youth, and our delayed future.
Sallee's gift lies in pitting the familiar against the unexpected with a delicate assuredness, never compromising the one for the other. These kinds of debuts can sometimes feel like an over-promise of what is to come, but in the case of Caroline Says there's clearly plenty more thread to be unraveled. It'll be a pleasure to see where the next bus ride takes us.
Blast Off Through the Wicker documents Art Feynman looking for life in the lifeless, questioning what it means to be living. There is a calm, disciplined pocket to be felt in everything Feynman does; krautrock slink, staccato bounce, and pentatonic bursts of Nigerian Highlife fuzz pour on the temporal canvas with unquestionable ease, never falling in the wrong place. Even more admirable is, that his "canvas" is a four-track tape recorder, and that Blast Off features no loops or drum machines despite its aesthetically faithful motorik and afrobeat underpinnings. Nowhere is this fact more surprising than on album standout "Slow Down" which pulses along infectiously with a crunchy backbeat, and deftly arpeggiating bass lines that are so locked-in that it would be hard to fault an unknowing ear for assuming the whole thing is tediously programmed.
There are gentler sides to Blast Off that conjure the spacey tenderness of Arthur Russell inventively and respectfully, without adopting their muse's palette wholesale. In this regard Blast Off is an endearing collection of songs that capture the ear with warm-yet-clear cassette aesthetics and spot-on musicianship, both of which form an angle that points lovingly to Feynman's deep and varied influences. Make no mistake-- this one truly is alive.
Austin-based musician Abram Shook is a remarkable wellspring of ideas when it comes to songwriting. When he sat down to write his third album, he produced two distinct batches of songs, one very personal collection titled Love at Low Speed, and a darker, more detached collection titled Love in the Age of Excess. Due to time and money constraints, he opted to only record the more personal album, which explores themes of love, loss, and connecting with others, all themes he's been careful to avoid on previous albums. As he explains, "I avoided the subject of love in the past because I thought it was a cliched, overwrought topic. What else could I really add to the cannon? Writing the album directly coincided with some pretty big changes in my life, mainly the ending of an 11 year relationship." Love at Low Speed proves that Shook has plenty to offer on these topics, and that he's at his best when he digs deep, mining his years of experience for confessional tales peppered with hard-wrought wisdom.
The production on the new album is fittingly more intimate and organic than what we heard on his previous albums Sun Marque (2014) and Landscape Dream (2015). Inspired by the unique worlds of sound David Bowie created throughout his career, Shook and close collaborators Christopher Cox and Grant Johnson kept the album's production focussed from beginning to end. "With Love At Low Speed I wanted to use a more consistent pallet of sound to tie things together better than I had on my previous records. A touchstone album for me has always been Club Da Esquinha (Milton Nascimento/Lo Borges). It explores multiple genres but filters everything through the same beautiful production arrangements which lends to its cohesion. I think in the back of my mind I'm always striving to achieve something close to that album's rare blend of unique songwriting and challenging production choices without sacrificing a certain pop sensibility that invites new listeners." Their efforts paid off, and throughout Love at Low Speed the world of sound they created balances Shook's tender tenor with sensual bass grooves, and strings provided by Austin's Tosca String Quartet. Mixed by Noah Georgeson (known for his work with Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart, Andy Shauf, et al) the album has a clarity and warmth that focuses your ear on Shook's emotional delivery.
Shook grew up in California where he spent his days surfing, studying jazz, and absorbing the rich radiant music of Brazil and West Africa, before moving to Portland, and then Boston, before finally settling in Austin, TX over 10 years ago. "Settling down in Austin for a longer period of time has allowed me to establish a rich community of peers to draw from for influence and support. With time comes trust, and I’ve learned to give over some control to others in hopes to gain a perspective on songwriting that I might normally overlook." In addition to becoming an important part of Austin's creative community, being landlocked for a decade, has helped Shook develop an affirming perspective on his past, which helps him quell his anxiety, and focus on his creative pursuits. "I write about a California that no longer exists in the nostalgic form that I hold in my memory, just as the people that have journeyed in and out of my life are no longer the same either, nor am I the same to them. If everything is malleable at all times that means I am too, and that’s a notion I can take comfort in."
After ten years in the instrumental ensemble Balmorhea, Rob Lowe is releasing his first R&B-inflected solo LP, Slow Time, under the moniker RG Lowe. The record, while incorporating elements from pop and choral music, largely looks back on the warmth and spiritual ecstasy of early R&B through the disjunctive lens of contemporary life. Lowe, who plays keys, guitar, and provides the vocals on Slow Time, wrote and arranged about forty songs from 2014 to 2015 at his studio in Austin, TX, where he resides. He then headed to Philadelphia to record most of the album with producer Jeff Ziegler, whose raw and energetic production work on albums by Kurt Vile and The War on Drugs had inspired him. Though his wordless vocals appeared occasionally on Balmorhea's albums, on Slow Time we hear the impressive range and malleability of his voice as he glides from hymnal backing harmonies, to melismatic bridges, to punchy choruses and pained screeches that stretch his voice to its unbelievable limits.
I Can Feel the Night Around Me, the third album from Philadelphia's Nightlands, showcases Dave Hartley's finely tuned ability to layer his voice and conjure some of the most beautiful and elaborate virtual choirs in modern music. If his first two records were vocal layering experiments, his third stands as Hartley's thesis statement: "I was determined to use vocal stacking to enable my songwriting, not shroud or obscure it."
He recorded most of the album alone in a cold warehouse basement, which he affectionately calls The Space -- it's where The War on Drugs (of whom Hartley has been a core member for the past decade) formerly rehearsed and stored their equipment. "The dissonance between the sound of the album and the atmosphere in which it was recorded is pretty striking," Hartley says. Indeed the music seems more geographically inspired by the microclimates of the Lost Coast and the moonrises of Big Sur than the post-industrial cityscape of North Philadelphia. Perhaps his periodic westward sojourns and healthy obsessions with mid-career Beach Boys albums and Denis Johnson's Already Dead: A California Gothic were influencing him more than he was aware.
Under the Botany moniker, Spencer Stephenson creates rich psychological and emotional experiences through audio. His music is a thoughtful attempt to convey the non-verbal through his particular mental prism, where sounds have potent symbolism in ways that are all but forgotten in the modern world. On Dimming Awe, the Light is Raw, the 28-year-old producer and composer continues dissolving the borders between his disparate-yet-beloved psych, hip hop, and ambient influences. Album standout "Au Revoir," is a shimmering piece of sampler-psychedelia that bolsters verses by rapper Milo, and gracefully leads into the drum-less hum and crackle of "Birthjays". Matthewdavid - the high-priest of ambient bass himself - lends a rare vocal feature to the uplifting burner "Glow-up" while the electro-inspired "Bad CGI" stitches Bambaataa chants and sci-fi flutters to a shamanic pulse, then morphs into a late-night opiated channel-surfing montage, and the seams rarely appear.
Deepak Verbera, the third LP by Austin's Spencer Stephenson aka BOTANY, bends the beat-driven path carved by the composer's first two records into meterless cosmic territory, juxtaposing free jazz arrhythmia with cathedral-filling harmony, ringing off the temple walls with soaring grandeur. The billowing textures that loomed behind his previous output break unabashedly into the foreground, shedding the beats that once stenciled them in. What arises in the absence of discernable rhythm is a psych-inflected scrapbook of atmospheres with tremendous sonic and emotional breadth.
In essence Deepak Verbera is a soundscape record created through methods usually found in hip-hop; vinyl samples, looped vocal phrases, pulsing bass, and warm synths all shimmer with kosmische-indebted splendor, like Popol Vuh with MPCs and a stack of secondhand records.
"This music is first and foremost about what can be done together, live in a room, to both transcend and reclaim ourselves from the noise of public living. I'm waging a sort of secular, one-man liturgy here; a public act grounded in ritual. These songs offer wordless hymns and pulsing harmonic frameworks one might use to focus their own contemporary values. Instrumental music particularly offers the opportunity for personal interpretation and reflection. In this ever-fucked world, that seems perpetually in short supply.
"I've been creating instrumental music a long time now, under my own name and via bands (Slow Six, Wires Under Tension). I've also built software a long time - yes, I do this for Google. I did my time in Princeton's PhD program for music composition, NYU's Masters of computer science program, and at Bard studying creative writing. I worked live sound for years at NYC clubs now gone (CBGB's, Brownies) while immersing myself in minimalism, assisting LaMonte Young. As a string arranger I get to work with lots of great artists including John Congleton, This Will Destroy You, and Meshell Ndegeocello to name a few."
Written and recorded at the same time as their recent full-length Split Stones, the New Varieties EP continues Lymbyc Systym's exploration of the power of disparate halves coming together to form a unique whole. The idea serves as an analogy for brothers Jared and Mike Bell's long-distance relationship, as well as their compositions - a unique synthesis of live emotion and electronic precision.
Picking up where their last album left off, the EP's upbeat opening track "Opposing Bodies" features the same melody found on "Scientific Romance", the final song on Split Stones. Exploring darker and more introspective territory, "Differential" features big reverberating snare hits, emulating the crack of a whip often heard in old Spaghetti Westerns. On the album's anthemic title track "New Varieties," the band brings back their powerful Clavinet sound paired against Brazilian influenced rhythms and cascading piano lines.
The EP closes with Austin-based producer Botany's remix of "Opposing Bodies," turning Lymbyc's clean, head-bobbing rhythms and infectious arpeggios into a gauzy, mind-bending soundscape of smeared textures and chaotic rhythms.
Matt Schneider's work under the Moon Bros. moniker is time-out-of-mind cooing folk played at painstakingly patient speeds - a decorous and underheard contribution to the ambient folk fray. Perhaps his recordings are projections of future scores to Cormac McCarthy adaptations; perhaps front porch Dust Bowl blues gospel. Either way, Schneider is a pointedly preeminent experimental guitarist in this day and age.
This iteration of Moon Bros. is a network of a few high-minded Chicago improvisers: Matthew Lux (Iron & Wine, Exploding Star Orchestra), Dan Bitney (Tortoise, Isotope 217), and Sam Wagster (Cairo Gang).
In 2012 Trevor Montgomery released Navigated Like the Swan, his first album under the Young Moon moniker. According to The Wall Street Journal "It engulfs the listener - and sometimes even the narrator...", while Consequence of Sound called it "...powerful and heartfelt...". Soon after its release, the relationship that inspired those songs unraveled, leaving Montgomery at an all-time low, living on a houseboat out of necessity, and unable to write songs, or even play guitar. "That part of me was broken. My life was pretty broken as well" says Montgomery.
Though he eased back into the habit of playing music on a daily basis, something was still missing. Drummer Syam Zapalowski was a Young Moon fan, and started pursuing Montgomery about playing live shows with him. Zapalowski's persistence and encouragement led Young Moon to expand to include Montgomery's longtime collaborator Danny Grody on guitars and synths, and Jeff Moller on bass. "It was a natural progression for Young Moon. I needed to have more dynamics and volume to tell the stories the way they were laying out in my head," says Montgomery. Inspired by the newfound potential of a full band, the songs that make up the new album Colt started coming together.