Friday, October 20, 2017

SOFTSPOT - Clearing (2017)

One of my favorite qualities of Brooklyn art pop outfit SOFTSPOT is how they experiment with their sound. While the band arrived with a full realized and unique sound on debut full length record Ensō, instead of resting comfortably on that particular sound they've expanded: going from two members to their current four, adding in the incredible insistent drumming of Bambara's Blaze Bateh and the svelte synths of Jonathan Campolo of Pill, each album since their debut has been a veritable redshift - a musical "yes and..." statement that rather than negating what's occurred before simply seeks to build upon it.

The result of another of the North Carolina retreats where singer/songwriter/bassist Sarah Kinlaw and guitarist Bryan Keller Jr emerged with much of Ensō and MASS, SOFTSPOT emerged from the chrysalis of both touring and the retreat once again with a newer sound - one that positions them at their most accessible. Clearing, the band's third full length album, is rooting firmly in the pop element. Much of what makes SOFTSPOT truly special can be still evidenced on this record: its diverse aural tapestries, unexpected lyrical subjects and narrative choices, and Kinlaw's vocal elasticity.

On Clearing, SOFTSPOT makes the most of the official addition of Campolo and constructs songs of seemingly limitless lushness. Whether it's the intense, of album opener "Maritime Law" or , SOFTSPOT build entire worlds with astonishing swiftness. The songs pull you in instantly with either their expansive, full instrumentation or their confessional-like intimacy. At times dream-like and incredibly visceral at others (often times within the same song), SOFTSPOT illustrates the theme of connection through both a lucid clarity and dreamy, subconscious intuition.

On "Helen" and "Habits", Kinlaw explores the dangerous and pitfalls of pursuing connections that no longer exist as the subjects of these songs surrender to lives to reminiscing and reliving golden memories with lovers that are no longer there. Though both are expressions of grief much like Ensō's "Half a House", Kinlaw explores them in drastically different ways, "Helen" from an outside perspective as she tries to convince the titular Helen to leave her room and rejoin normal life and "Habits" from the perspective of someone wrapped up in their loss who gives up more and more of time to trying to imagine life with the departed.

In addition to Kinlaw slipping into different characters and shifting various perspectives, Clearing seeks Keller also contributing vocals/lyrics and his contributions "Touch and Go" and "Whale Song" approach them from an male perspective of what is expected and what can actually be offered and how that ultimately ties into the quest for an engaging connection.

While much of Clearing is perhaps a reaction to a lack of a proper connection or a response to what happens when a powerful connection is severed, occasionally on the record there are moments which illustrates the surge of electrifying possibility that happens when a positive relationship is received: enter "Abalone" and to a lesser extent "Heat Seeker", arguably the most pop heavily cuts on the record. "There is a pull between the endless love that comes from me", Kinlaw sings as "Abalone" begins and it's a pretty intense feeling both to describe and to feel as Kinlaw describes how the what is irrelevant when the how is what is absolutely brimming with love. "It isn't in the way you move, it's the way you simply stood and took my hand" Kinlaw sings in probably one of the song's most climactic moments and it perfectly encapsulates the intensity of feeling that's she's looking to convey.

Clearing also sees a culmination of an often used reference to water. While Ensō paired many of its various reference with either an incendiary delivery or actual mentions to fire, Clearing is rooted firmly in its aquatic element: the push and pull of the waves seeming directing the very flow of the album as Kinlaw from the albums very beginning weaves a through line of water as a force greater than almost every force but love. It's the most prevalent of nature exerting a direct influence in the lives of the album's multitude of characters but where water was a cleansing agent on Ensō, its role on Clearing is both as an actual threat to contend with like the stormy, menacing "Maritime Law" or as a fathomless mirror of the album's subjects own capacity to feel and to love. 

SOFTSPOT are a band with a fiercely distinct sound but one of their greatest strengths lies in how malleable they allow themselves to be. No one SOFTSPOT album sounds the same as the one that proceeded it but there is still an unmistakable oneness to them all. Clearing reveals more facets to SOFTSPOT as Keller takes up both songwriting and vocal duties, the band properly incorporates its former touring members, and the band pursues a bolder sound through reveling in their vulnerabilities. Clearing is a remarkably open album. It is open and sincere and full of very real reactions and responses even as it presents them in occasionally more palatable dressings than they might've been presented on a previous album. But SOFTSPOT have always operated on a point between experimental musicianship and an inescapable pull of either frenetic guitar riffs or ear-catching pop melodies and tied them together with innovative songwriting. Clearing is no different and though it pushes their sound forward towards the end of the pop spectrum than previous releases there's, they band haven't dialed back the other qualities. Clearing is a powerful document from a band utterly comfortable in their own skin, it's not afraid to try dressing a little differently. 

SoftSpot's third full length album Clearing is out now on Arrowhawk Records.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Listen/Watch: Friend Roulette - "(This Is Why I Hate) Clocks" (ThrdCoast Blue Room Session)

When last I heard from Brooklyn experimental chamber pop outfit Friend Roulette earlier this year, they were taking a break from their trademark genre-bending to release an EP of ballads written by their friend, Texas musician Matt Sheffer, in the form of the appropriately titled Matt Sheffer Songbook Vol. 1. It was a far different change of pace from the off-kilter pop fans of the band have come to expect and yet, not without their brand of strange and wonderful whimsy. While the sextet prep a brand new EP to released later this year, they had the chance to participate in ThrdCoast's Blue Room and recorded a live session for a brand new song that'll be on their forthcoming I Want Out EP.

"(This Is Why I Hate) Clocks" finds the band swinging back towards their more characteristic influence in psych rock, art pop, and jazz. Singer Julia Tepper leaves her violin behind in favor of sprinting vocals as the band start at a full on gallop while John Stanesco switches from bass clarinet to EWI (electronic wind instrument). But Friend Roulette has always been a band that favors dynamicism and the track shifts tempos and sections frequently: going from the all out power pop of the introduction into hazy psychedelics for the chorus. As the song proceeds the distinction between the two sections blurs and they blend into each other until the lyrics from the faster section take on the elasticity of the chorus. It's a subversion of typical songcraft as instead of starting slow and picking up speed and ending on a climactic high, the band instead elongate their phrases all the while never dumbing down the instrumentals. Also Friend Roulette are a band that make the most of their time in the studio adding elements that might not necessarily be possible to perform live so it's very likely this version of "(This Is Why I Hate) Clocks" will sound mighty different from its later studio version.

Friend Roulette's I Want Out EP will be out later this year on Pretty Purgatory.

Brooklyn Rider - Spontaneous Symbols (2017)

New York string quartet Brooklyn Rider have made a career establishing the crucial link between essential classical music and the now more nebulous, far reaching era of modern composition. It's a choice that's taken them on a rather circuitous journey. From introducing the uninitiated to Armenian composer Komitas Vartaped or their cover of Mexican rockers Cafe Tacvba's "La Muerte Chiquita" on their first record Passport, to the global premiere of collaborations with Iranian composer/Kamancheh play Kayhan Kalhor and New York based Russian composer Ljova, Brooklyn Rider have taken great care not only to bridge the musical gap between traditional classical music and contemporary but also to bridge cultural gaps (unsurprising considering Brooklyn Rider are also members of the Yo-Yo Ma founded Silkroad Ensemble).

While most of their albums paired a known classical work with newer works they felt meshed well or were inspired, the foursome broke new ground with The Brooklyn Rider Almanac: a collection of collaborations from all living composers/artists like folk singer Aoife O'Donovan and jazz pianist Vijay Iyer. Since then the group has gone on to have a number of releases like the Gabriel Kahane collaboration The Fiction Issue but The Brooklyn Rider Almanac signaled a turning point in the quartet's catalog where elevating and commissioning new works took primary focus over their attempts to revitalize old classics. The spirit remained but by focusing almost exclusively on works from composers they could actually work with, the quartet highlights all the exciting things that are happening in current day classical scene. Spontaneous Symbols is a return of sorts to their traditional setup (even as they welcome new cellist Michael Nicolas). Unlike The Fiction Issue or their collaboration with soprano Anna Sofia von Otter So Many Things, Spontaneous Symbols repositions many of those extended collaborations back to the simpler composer/performer dynamic.

"ArpRec1", a composition by Tyondai Braxton, is a notated version of piece Braxton normally performs with the use of a midi controller and built using Ableton and MaxMSP. Brooklyn Rider are no strangers to work with electronics, as evidenced by "Together Into This Unknowable Night" from their album Seven Steps, a composition by violinist/software engineer Christopher Tignor. "ArpRec1" is a piece that relies on the intuition of the performers. Reminiscent of the works of Terry Riley, "ArpRec1" Braxton's use of generative technique allows for a feeling of spontaneity. And yet, much like Riley's use of music modules gives each performance an improvisitory quality, to the casual listener the gradual build and precision of rhythmic fixtures seem wholly planned. It's not until the end of the first part where you hear a sort of unraveling that it occurs there could anything happening other than the written music. Considering this is the notated version of Braxton's musical experiments, it's not totally out of the norm that he would include this moment of chaos as part of the music. It actually forms a bridge between the two parts the piece is split into on the album: from the surefooted, unfurling of part 1 into the frenzied pacing of part 2, the minor elongating, conflicting rhythms sets up an unexpected second act.

"BTT", Brooklyn Rider's own addition to the album by violinist/composer Colin Jacobsen, sees the quartet essentially finding parallels between their classical training and the modern classical movement. Inspired equally by the 70's/80's downtown New York scene as well as by John Cage, Jacobsen realized that Cage and Bach, though diametric opposites are connected through a tendency towards rule-making. Bach's being strict and conservative while Cage's were meant more to focus his chaos. The result is a multi-layered piece that's a pendulum swing between order and chaos, minimalism and maximalism. Theoretically, Jacobsen is operating on a level of deep complex: having two motifs: a Bach and Cage one, interweaving all throughout while also trying to pay homage to Phillip Glass and Steve Reich. It's a piece that's pretty much synonymous with Brooklyn Rider's mission statement as it seeks to illustrate the interconnectedness of music using the string quartet as that lens.
Brooklyn Rider's albums have contained at least one multi-movement work and Evan Ziporyn's Qi is Spontaneous Symbols offering. Inspired by the Chinese concept of life-force, Ziporyn's three movement work is breath-taking. First movement "Lucid Flight" is adequately named as it seeks to inspire a feeling of weightlessness in the listener, the harmonics like soft wisps of air streaming past your face. But Ziporyn avoids expectations of what flying is supposed to sound like - it's not all polished breathy melodies and bright timbres, rather there's a dissonance that flutters in and out as if the awareness of the unnaturalness of human flight seeks to ground it at any time. That "awareness" theme is passed around from instrument to instrument even as those airy harmonics try to keep everything afloat.

"Garden", the second movement of Qi begins slowly, a comedown from the flighty first movement but when it truly touches down, it offers up one of Spontaneous Symbols most beautiful moments. It's meditative while not lethargic, it's also built with kaleidoscopic complexity, as a shifting array of vibrant coloring and stirring melodic moments catapult it forward from section to section. Where "Lucid Flight" glides from one moment to the next, "Garden" arrives to each with deep centering breaths. And its final section gives the sense of relieving sighs before letting everything peter out to contemplative silence.

And where "Garden" is an inward moment, "Transport" is reactionary. Inspired by intense moments that led to epiphanic revelations, "Transport" is expectedly busy. But even then Ziporyn subverts that notion, it isn't a fast paced sprint, it's a patient plod toward a moment of true weightlessness "Lucid Flight" never actually achieves. Perhaps because of the expectation and cerebral nature of it then but in "Transport" it whisks you up and away.

Where Ziporyn's piece is focused on the inner life, Paula Matthusen's "on the attraction of felicitous amplitude" is a piece shaped by a strong sense of place. Written during Matthusen's fellowship at the American Academy at Rome, it's a piece that draws from Matthusen's love of architecture and a cistern underneath the Villa Aurelia in particular. Matthusen utilizes field recordings she took of the cistern and the piece is an exploration of how sounds travel in the space paired with notated music performed by Brooklyn Rider. The quartet capture both the cavernous quality as the space while also replicating the sound of trickling water with col legno and slides. In addition to trying to replicate the sounds of the space but also invoking how sound travels in it, the field recordings are also transduced through the actual instruments themselves.

Kyle Sanna's "Sequence for Minor White" closes out the album and is a particular solid choice for that duty. Inspired both by the photography and the teachings of photographer Minor White, Sanna builds a set of sequences sans movement. One doesn't have to be at all familiar with Minor White or his teachings to be effected by Sanna's work as the work is multitudinous and sans context but like White's sequence philosophy, Sanna seeks to construct a sense of interconnectedness. White's attempts to evoke a stronger feeling through the grouping of specific photographs is an idea not at all foreign to composition where often you string various personal ideas or techniques together in the hopes that the observer can put the puzzle together (except if you have the benefit of program notes) but the idea to essentially score selected still photographs and White's philosophy to try and provide an adequate measure of the man is incredibly ambitious. But if the piece inspires you to acquaintance yourself with either the photography, creative thoughts, or poetry of Minor White, Kyle Sanna is sure to consider the work successful.   

For a group of musicians that pushes themselves to new creative endeavors over and over, it seems unfair to call Spontaneous Symbols their best work. It is an assuredly different work than they've released before both in form and content but it seems like their most vital. Brooklyn Rider essentially wrote themselves a new playbook on The Brooklyn Rider Almanac and those lessons have been internalized and improved upon. Spontaneous Symbols is not the easiest album to listen to but it is an incredibly interesting one full of fruitful collaborations and compositions. Brooklyn Rider are hardly the kind of that frequently need to highlight their strengths as a string quartet but Spontaneous Symbols contains many pieces that do just that. Brooklyn Rider are not only game for just about anything but have an exception knack for curation that in turn spotlights their incredible versatility. Spontaneous Symbols that requires patience but rewards it with both incendiary moments and soothing ones.

Brooklyn Rider's new album Spontaneous Symbols is out October 20th on violinist/Brooklyn Rider founding member Johnny Gandelsman's In A Circle Records. You can pre-order the album here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Listen: PRO TEENS - "Signals Crossed"

photo by Ash Ponders
I am dubious of most if not all unsolicited music recommendations I get but when fellow Arizonan and recent favorite music discovery AlhhlA suggested that I go see Phoenix quintet PRO TEENS during their recent stop in Brooklyn, I took him up on the offer. What I experienced was a great set of would-be opposites juxtaposed and intermingling pretty effortlessly. PRO TEENS were simultaneously high energy but their songs had much of the feel of lazy day sprawled out in the grass or on a pool float on a not too hot sunny day. Part of that lies in Andy Phipps' sleepy vocals drawn out like a good stretch. They're not always that way but they certainly are on "Signals Crossed", the second single from PRO TEENS' upcoming EP Philistines. The track is breezy and calm, its guitars, keys, and even its drums following suit as they all blend harmonically. That said, the track isn't without dynamics or an interesting development: there's a synthy buzz that foreshadows the song's eventual cacophony. But even amidst the rising energy and added layers, there's still a sense of ease to the rollicking climax; a pervasive pleasantness that wins out over the push towards entropy. 

PRO TEENS upcoming EP Philistines is out November 3rd on Broken Circles. You can pre-order the album on cassette or digitally through the band's Bandcamp.

(via Gold Flake Paint)

Listen: Milagres - "Are You Lonely"

Late last month, Brooklyn experimental pop rockers Milagres, broke a nearly year-long silence to announce a show at Rough Trade on October 18th. While that sort of thing usually isn't that big of a deal, the timing of it pretty much guaranteed new material was on the horizon and the band - now function as the duo of singer/songwriter/band founder Kyle Wilson and Fraser McCulloch, have decided not to let fans of theirs walk in blind tonight and shared "Are You Lonely", the first single from what's sure to be a new collection of tales.

Where their 2014 album Violent Light saw Milagres engaged in a stunning reinvention that saw the band leveling up sound with an arena rock sense of grandeur, "Are You Lonely" finds the new duo operating at a more hushed version of the more synth-centric sound they cultivated on their sophomore record. The move away from the glam-infused stadium pop isn't just a practical one however, "Are You Lonely" is an uncertain love song much like "Terrifying Sea" where Wilson attempts to forge a connection with someone based on a similar sense of loneliness. But where such feelings normally result in less than pure intentions, Wilson's ring sincere even if they might be some projection going on.

"I knew someone once, someone just you and they were lonely, lonely just like you" Wilson sings and it'd be cause for alarm if Wilson wasn't so upfront about his attempts to bridge communication with this particular person. There's something utterly charming about the way Wilson recognizes a shared loneliness in the other person that motivates him to reach out to them but he still phrases it as a question: "Are you lonely? Lonely just like me?". It's a question that reveals more about the questioner than the questioned, as Wilson frames his confession as an appeal for companionship. That vulnerability is ultimately what elevates it from creepiness. 


If you're in New York City, you can hear Milagres play this song and more at tonight's show at Rough Trade. Tickets are still available here.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Friend Roulette - The Matt Sheffer Songbook Vol. 1 (2017)

For perhaps as long as I've known about Friend Roulette since I was introduced to them from ARMS, the experimental chamber pop sextet have mentioned a desire to record and release a record of ballads. Considering it was sometime hard to round up their multitude of members, playing their songs as ballads was a tactic the band would often use if they wanted to play out but either drastically change the energy or compensate for a lack of members. They would mention the ballad record occasionally and the some time would pass and nothing came of it. Also many of their records both full length and EP would contain a ballad or two so fans were never particularly suffering from a lack of them. When Friend Roulette announced and actually released said ballad album earlier this year, I was a bit in shock. What with guitarist/singer Matthew Flory Meade starting a new side project and the members' various other commitments, I had never expected the record to take shape or at least not for it to be the next release after their rather downtempo Grow Younger EP. In fact, I essentially assumed Grow Younger was the ballad record even though "I Guess" and album ender "Kitty Song" are very high energy. 

The Matt Sheffer Songbook Vol. 1 is a tribute of sorts to their friend Matt Sheffer who is a fellow musician and is ultimately responsible for the Friend Roulette we have today. He was an ardent supporter of their music as well as a sounding bound and helped write "Viva Zyprexa", one of Friend Roulette's first songs, as well as part of "Kitty Song". Though not particularly a fan of the ballad, Friend Roulette have a knack for writing them in a way that has always resonated with me from as far back as "Or Belin" off their self-titled EP and the Matt Sheffer Songbook Vol. 1 is no different. 

Album opener "You're A Fox" is a touching love song where Sheffer uses grander and grander metaphors to express his love all the while still elevating the intended and appealing to their strong nature. Where "Joan" is a tribute of sorts to the Golden Age Hollywood actress/dancer Joan Leslie and details her struggle getting the sort of roles she wanted, she's referred to with the sort of absentmindedness you might have for a mundane piece of trivia.   

In listening to the Songbook, it occurred to me just how much Friend Roulette gained from Sheffer especially when I heard the newly recorded version of "Viva Zyprexa", as the sense of otherness that Sheffer and Matthew Flory Meade touch on essentially forms the backbone of much of Friend Roulette's output. While "Bacon and Raisins", a tale of being trapped in a would-be fight to the death with a home-invading spider, is not only the most cohesive Friend Roulette have allowed their narratives to be, it contains winsome melodic flourishes that the band often build songs on before drawing them in sharper, more abstract directions. 

It's not hard to see why songwriters Julia Tepper and Matthew Flory Meade were drawn to Sheffer's songs, though he's capable of writing straightforward songs, Sheffer is also capable of both non-linear narratives as well as touches of the surreal is his songwriting like "Snow Pea" with its shifting perspectives. The Songbook essentially gives a glimpse into the evolution of the sextet's sound. Stripped back, you can focus on the innovative lyricism and Friend Roulette's arrangements are subtle and sparse enough that they never threaten to obscure the lyrics. Instead they're held with a reverence that's befitting of someone so important to the band's core identity.   

Friend Roulette's The Matt Sheffer Songbook Vol. 1 is out now via Pretty Purgatory.

Listen/Watch: Son Lux - "Dream State"

Despite the occasional obtuseness of Ryan Lott's lyricism, Son Lux, the project of the now Los Angeles based composer/producer, has had a remarkable ability to resonate. This is largely due to the fact that Lott obscures the personal for the universal. As Son Lux has grown to include not only Lott but guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang, both talented musicians/composers in their own right, that opaque quality has become more logical as the music could now be rooted to the collective experience of the trio. Lott has managed to avoid the distraction of personal mystery that is still incredibly poignant and sincere. But something changed around the time of the US election. He didn't say at the time but his response to the growing unrest not only in the US but the world over stirred something in him and Remedy, a four song EP whose proceeds were all donated to SPLC, was the result. But if I've learned anything from Ryan Lott, he always has more than and so several months later, we've gotten "Dream State", the first single from an upcoming Son Lux record that'll see its release early next year.

Brighter Wounds was written in the same head space as Remedy but with much more personal stakes: bringing a new life into the world in the form of his newborn son as well as watching cancer usher a friend out of it, Brighter Wounds is set to be Son Lux's most revealing album and "Dream State" doesn't disappoint. Without the context of its creation, "Dream State" is still as effortlessly arresting as any Son Lux song. Compositionally, the trio is still operating at the peak performance they honed in on as a live band touring behind Lanterns before Bhatia and Chang actually entered the fold on Bones. Everything begins subtly as Lott reminisces of times before having to wonder about how the future will play out. "We knew we were impervious no matter how we bleed", Lott croons, encapsulating the invincibility and hope of youth and as the song marches on with it's rush of shout vocals, the lyrics gradually change to reflect the newfound doubt and care. And yet much like "Change Is Everything" there is an overwhelming sense of hope that not only catapults the song but weathers the shifting landscape and contorted lyricism of "Dream State". Lott isn't a pessimist and never has been much for that sort of thinking and he's obviously taking stock of his new reality without sinking in to despair about it.

Much like Deerhoof's brilliant and political Mountain Moves, Son Lux are firmly of the opinion that even as things get unforeseeably worse that there are brighter times ahead. "Out of the dark day, into the brighter night" Lott and his choir of voices sing at the climax and its deeply felt. Things are uncertain now and uncertain as we age and wrestle with real responsibilities and real tragedies but in that uncertainly lies the glittering beacon of hope that things will right themselves in the end. It just might take a long, sobering look into the darkness and an unexpected amount of fortitude before it's possible.       

Listen/Watch the beautiful lyric video of "Dream State" directed by frequent collaborators The Made Shop:

Brighter Wounds, the fifth full length studio album from Son Lux, is out February 9th on City Slang. You can pre-order the record now.