Joe O'Connell on his new album:I guess the lodestone in the process of making this was the kind of global avant garde mood that's prevalent in a lot of 1980s albums I admire. Things like Joni Mitchell's Dog Eat Dog and Arthur Russell's Calling Out of Context. These records where singers were making really eclectic and outward looking productions - writing *through* the process of recording, and literally *playing* with technologies that were totally new to them.
All the gear that I gathered to make the album was basically discarded or devalued. I got a bunch of stuff from Craigslist that interested me: a cheap FM synth, some Hindustani electronics, and an old three-head tape deck to use as a "poor man's space echo." The icing on the cake is a one-of-a-kind homemade digital synthesizer called "The Mutant". The concept of the synth is parallel to the concept of the album itself. It's an electronic take on "folk" sounds (bends, drones, modal playing) and folk creative approaches (a cobbling together and reformatting of existing elements).
Born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, and currently residing in Beverly, Massachusetts, violinist, vocalist and songwriter Aisha Burns began playing violin when she was 10 years old, and has been touring and recording since 2006. Soon after moving to Austin in 2005, she gained her start with folk-rock outfit Alex Dupree and the Trapdoor Band, and joined the instrumental ensemble Balmorhea on violin in 2007. After years of secret singing, she released her solo debut Life in the Midwater in 2013. Called "twisting, ethereal...arresting" by Dazed Magazine, and praised for its "delicate intimacy" by NPR, Life in the Midwater explored mortality and relationships with candor and wisdom. Her new album Argonauta, is a collection of songs about her struggle with the grief of losing her mother, while also navigating a new relationship, and ultimately trying to figure out what the new normal is for her life.
Comprised of eight aural vignettes, I See You Among the Stars is a wood-grained, amber-hued world respectfully orbiting influences like Nick Drake, Sibylle Baier, and the softest moments of Broadcast. Paisley fabrics fade beneath an uncovered window, while dust and smoke billow gently through the sunbeams that never fully reach the dark half of the room. I See You Among the Stars achieves what the best music in the genre does: pictures with tangible depth, color, and detail painted with only a few well-chosen pigments.
I See You Among the Stars is an exemplar of spaced out psych-folk that seeks to convey the intimacy and introspection of a woman going about her simple matters at home, while creating an atmosphere to provide melancholy accompaniment to these very tasks. But the final result is something much more: a polyhedral, exploratory, and mystifying peer into a detailed pop-up storybook that reflects the mind and heart of its luminous creator.
In September of 2017 the Austin-based instrumental band Balmorhea released Clear Language, an album which prompted NPR's Bob Boilen to say "I'm madly in love with this albumâ€¦it's one these ambient records and beautiful records that I've just listened to over and over again." To create Clear Language, the duo returned to their roots, working simply and with restraint, letting intuition guide them as they molded the 10 elegant, spacious gestures that comprise the album.
Now, just a few months later the duo returns with the CHIME / SHONE 7" vinyl for Record Store Day 2018. Recorded during the Clear Language sessions, the two tracks "Chime" and "Shone" flow gracefully with a clear-eyed sense of reflection, as these two old friends transmit unfettered meaning through simple sonic gestures that resonate with the cosmos as much as they echo the pulse of a human heart. In a culture dominated by the loudest, ostentatious voices, Lowe and Muller continue to prove the power and importance of restraint and minimalism.
Pennsylvania native Keith Kenniff's output as Goldmund has established him as one of the preeminent composers of minimal piano-based ambient music alongside peers like Hauschka, Dustin O'Halloran, and even Ryuichi Sakamoto, who himself once described Kenniff's work as "so, so, so beautiful". Hyperbolic as it may sound, Goldmund's newest collection Occasus may be his most exquisite yet. Where his previous recordings trod faithfully and sincerely on paths of dimly lit, polaroid-esque nostalgia, Occasus deepens the undeniable aesthetic that was hard-won over eight previous Goldmund albums, while expanding the palette to include desultory clouds of synthesizer and a tastefully distressed analog sheen.
The word Occasus means downfall, end, or the rising and falling of heavenly bodies. The title is apt in more ways than one: while the emotional tone of the album denotes bittersweet feelings of conclusiveness, it also perfectly soundtracks the quiet moments when we look up to the sky, and humbly relearn the smallness of our lives as cosmic objects churn slowly overhead with bewitching indifference. Occasus feels deeply personal, private, and hushed yet simultaneously grand, colossal, and profound. Remarkably Kenniff is able to capture micro and macro with equal fidelity.
Like many queer women, Nicole Schneit is a warrior by necessity, fighting for basic rights, dignity, and acceptance. Such determination in the face of hardship and injustice runs in Schneit's family; her new album was inspired in part by her mom who was diagnosed with fallopian cancer last year. As she explains, "The doctor told her she had a fifteen to twenty percent chance, and her response was 'I'm going to get this mother fucker.' So the title Warrior and the song are about her. After chemotherapy, surgery, and then more chemotherapy, all the cancer in her body has left and she's currently in remission. I feel like most of the people in my life, including myself, are warriors and have overcome obstacles that seemed impossible to defeat."Understated, subtly sophisticated, and equally empowering and comforting, Warrior launches Air Waves above the apolitical complacency of too many of the group's contemporaries. Schneit proudly declares her mission statement: "I want these songs to be heard by people in my queer community, but also by anyone that wants to feels strong, powerful, and included."
No Fool Like An Old Fool is the sophomore LP from Austin via Alabama musician, Caroline Sallee, aka Caroline Says. Moving beyond the surf-folk foundations of her debut, on No Fool... Sallee loosens her earthly tether, allowing her songs to float to ever higher altitudes on clouds of loops, immaculate melodies, and hypnotic harmonies, as she sings about aging, the daily grind, and hometown stymie. Moving to Austin in 2013 gave her a new perspective on her hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, which informed the overall vibe of the album. "I think leaving my fairly small hometown and then going back to visit it inspired the feeling I went for on this album. I observed that so many people I knew were content doing basically nothing. Or that they were scared to try to do anything or leave town, like they felt stuck there."
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.