Monday, May 14, 2018

Night Beds - Dear Jewell, EP (2018)

After the release of their sophomore album Ivywild, Night Beds, the project of Colorado born Nashville based singer/songwriter Winston Yellen went into a sort of silent, working hibernation. Between the release of debut full length record Country Sleep and Ivywild, Yellen had essentially decided to trim the fat and embarked upon a new music journey with only his younger brother Abe in tow. Styling himself after producers like his longtime favorites Kanye West, Flying Lotus, and J Dilla,  Yellen's music became less obviously folk oriented and way more inspired by R&B and hip hop. It was a move that confused longtime fans but one that was smoothed over by the fact that Yellen's voice - highly emotive and rooted in narrative sincerity, is incredibly versatile. When I was finally able to catch Night Beds live at CMJ 2015, it was an entirely different beast than I expected. Live instruments like guitar, drums, and bass swapped out in favor of sample pads and the like. Tracking Winston Yellen down after the performance, he noted a few of our exchanges on the Internet about Night Beds' new sound (mainly my hesitant acceptance of it) and hinted at a possible return of some of those other elements.

With the release of their latest EP Dear Jewell,, Night Beds are back and Winston Yellen has more love to give. The lead up to the EP has been defined by Yellen embracing the ephemeral nature of things. Nothing Yellen posts to social media is permanent - deleting much of the band's social media posts in favor of vague promotion. Any explanatory information Yellen provides gets wiped swiftly after it's posted when Yellen thinks enough eyes have seen it. And yet, the confessional nature remains on Dear Jewell,. In a now deleted post Yellen proclaimed that he had fallen in love with his manager and wrote some songs about it.

While Night Beds has always been defined by a pervasive melancholy, Yellen's blurred the lines between the intimately personal and what is narratively so. Yellen finds a kernel of emotionally resonant truth and builds and intricate tale around it. Dear Jewell, doubles down on the electronic, experimental R&B of Ivywild while leveling up the production. "Jade", the first track on the EP is a sumptuous groove filed with fragmented and obscured lovelorn lyrics. "Tell me what it's gonna take? You know that I love you" is Yellen's first line and the rest of the song twists itself back and forth between pining and the assumption that the feelings are obvious with actually vocalizing them. "Jade" is a surprisingly dance-y track for how much it wrestles with itself narratively. Lyrics are submerged in seas of reverb only to click into sharp focus at unexpected times like "All I do is party running from this heartache" in the song's outro.

The inclusion of a cover of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" is curious if only for the rare moment of sparsity: Yellen's back to playing guitar. But the production is anything but obvious - dropping a full band in and out at specific times and throwing effects on Yellen's moment at unexpected times.

 "Velvet River", a co-production with Seattle based artist Lofty Stills, leans more heavily into their experimental tendencies than "Jade" as the lyrics are spouted, warped, and shifted to lead to the subsequent thought - the use of old movie samples and string flourishes is a move right out of Lofty Stills' playbook but it's no less effecting as it's used to highlight Yellen's impeccable vocals. Yellen is softer here, vocals unaffected amid lush arrangements and harmonies. It's a dip back into the dream pop well Night Beds originally pulled from and "Velvet River" as well as instrumental interlude "In The Shadow of the Shade) is a testament to the fact that Yellen is perfectly capable in that arena but the challenge of Ivywild and the more electronic-tinged songs are more compelling to him and Abe.

"Ever-After" is the continuation of Winston and Abe's collaboration with Lofty Stills' Luke Culbertson. "(Pt.1)" is a stellarly arranged waltz. It's a moment of brightness in an otherwise raging storm of complicated emotional tumult. It's the inverse of "Jade" in that while similarly upbeat, its lyrics are much more hopeful. Where "Jade" pushed and pulled with heartache, "Ever-After (Pt. 1)" seems to find the positive in sense of love. "If I found another, I could love her like no other man, someday" Yellen sweetly coos. It looks toward the future but the rest of the song is firmly situated on this particular person: "If I shut you up, fill my mind, trying to find - a thousand lights point to you/what's a man to do?"

"Ever-After (Pt. 2)" follows its saccharine counterpart with a bit of a reality check. The production snaps back towards the more obviously electronic and R&B elements as Yellen sings of heartache once more. Like "Jade" Yellen's lyrics are splinter and dive into pools of reverb but their main points resonate - where "Ever-After (Pt.1)" asked "If you love me, what could I need ever after", "Ever-After (Pt. 2)" offers that just love is not enough. The love contained with Dear Jewell, is a struggle. It's messy and a hell of a lot of work.

Dear Jewell, is a more clearly focused effort than Ivywild that balances Night Beds' musical adventurousness with a cast of skilled collaborators and balances their skills with those of Night Beds. It's also a collection  of songs that highlights all of Night Beds strengths. The production has tightened up, segues are smoother and each song is composed of incredibly winsome moments. Yellen's songwriting remains as effecting as it always has but the more polished production actively works to enhance it. Where Ivywild was the direct result of Winston and Abe's desire to switch up the Night Beds formula, time and experience has provided them with a defter hand at self-production and more confident presentation of ideas. Where Ivywild recalled a hip hop mixtape, Dear Jewell, seems like a more cohesive collection despite the stylistic shifts contained within. It's subtle when it needs to be subtle, bold when it needs to be bold, and as always bolstered by Winston Yellen's absolutely distinct voice.

Night Beds' Dear Jewell, EP is out now.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Watch: Wye Oak - "It Was Not Natural"

When former Baltimore duo Wye Oak revealed the details of their new album and released the titular "The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs", it marked not only a pleasant return to form as Jenn Wasner resumed her guitar duties after eschewing them on Shriek but also revealed a synthesis of the band's more electronic and pop leaning sensibilities from Shriek and Wasner's own Flock of Dimes project with the band's more organic, rock oriented output.

As the band continued to share more about the album, it became abundantly clear that this would be the band's most intimate. Wasner has always been exceptionally talented at providing lyrics that resonate on a personal level while maintaining largely universe and a bit vague but "It Was Not Natural" and "Lifer" found Wasner more boldly detailing the personal experiences that resulted in the song/album. Described by Wasner as a song about learning to push against the limits of our beliefs and the actual truth of things, "It Was Not Natural" is a somberer number than the album's triumphant first single. Originally detailing finding something on a walk in the forest, the song grows to encompass much more as this seemingly small discovery reveals an emotionally resonant conclusion. It's a conceit that in far less skillful hands would feel contrived but Wasner is able to imbue a sensibility into the would be avalanche of self doubt and self awareness that comes from trying to identify an unfamiliar object. Though it's part of the setup, the object itself is essentially a McGuffin, and the reasoning for the walk and its subsequent revelations forms the actual core point of the song. 
The video for "It Was Not Natural", by "The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs" director Dan Huiting, strives for both a literal and metaphorical application of the song as Wasner finds mundane takes like eating and reading imbued with a supernatural air. Wasner's response is varied but is largely a sort of indifferent acceptance like a peaceful coexistent with a ghost and it's hard not link that to the self acceptance both "It Was Not Natural" and other album cut "Lifer" espouse. While Wasner posits "with time it hasn't gotten any easier", the awareness of those more self destructive feelings lessens their power and  the video essentially ties up the loose ends from the song functioning as a counterpoint that the reward for continuously acknowledging the actual reality of things leads to a sustainable existence inside of the chaos. Wasner's awareness of it never completely diffuses the haunting in the video but it does make life with it appear easier.

Wye Oak's fifth studio album The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs is out now on Merge. The band also are embarking on a US tour

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Listen: LWW - "CTP"/"PNO"

After the release of their brilliant sophomore record Both Lights in 2012, Portland duo AU have largely confined themselves to their Pacific Northwest stomping grounds as multi-instrumentalist Luke Wyland and percussionist Dana Valatka pursued more ephemeral projects like Wyland's year-long collaboration with the Camas High School Choir Program. While much of his works since Both Lights has largely been confined to that of the rare live set, Wyland more recently announced a return to recorded music in form of his new project LWW. Where AU began as solo project that eventually grew to include Valatka and Like a Villian's Holland Andrews, LWW sees Wyland setting off on his own once again and exploring his composer side in the form of instrumental pieces that are largely improvised.

Where AU married Wyland's experimental interests with an unmistakable pop delivery - LWW is about the exploration of everything from different tonalities to alternate tuning systems. "CTP", the first single from Wyland's LWW project, is multi-faceted rumination on minimalism and timbre. Where AU largely pushed everything to its absolute conceivable limits and then pushed them some more, "CTP" covers a lot of ground in it's nearly 10 minute sprawl but takes it's time getting there as it slowly unfolds making the most out of silences, spaces, breaths, and how particular sounds react before Wyland begins the slow work of layering them on top of each other and weaving them around each other. "CTP" unfolds like a science experiment, it's slow burning methodical nature a series of hypotheses that Wyland verifies and extrapolates upon with the most conclusive textures proceeding forward into the song's proceeding part. Appropriately, "CTP" is the only piece on 3PE that isn't a purely improvisitory endeavor, rather Wyland recorded and revisited it and stacked layers upon it. It's meditative - also featuring hymnal melismatic vocal lines at the apex of the more contemplative section of the piece.

"PNO" arrives in stark contrast, a piano-based improvisation that seems much less furtive in its development. Where "CTP" contains an array of sounds and layers, "PNO" is presented with a much more simple delivery. Though the speed and fervor at which Wyland offers his thoughts is impressive, it's all largely in the realm of what is possible for one man to do on a piano. "CTP" makes you question how many hands are involved in LWW where "PNO" just makes marvel at the skill of what a single man can do. Despite consisting of varying energies, "PNO" follows a similar if not swifter method of evolution. Where "CTP" cautiously blooms into sound after it's church organ like chimes, "PNO" erupts with a deluge of sound. Its polyrhythmic cascade, essentially a burst of melody even as Wyland riffs on his initial motif and creates an intriguing theme and variation element to his one take composition.

Though it's not entirely certain if LWW is meant to entirely replace AU as a creative vehicle for Wyland, LWW establishes that the man is still practically bursting with worthwhile musical ideas and the innovative spirit that's at the core of AU is alive and well in LWW. In fact it's hard not to hear either "CTP" and "PNO" and not think of the band. Perhaps that's because of they were largely recorded right after the release of Both Lights with the first thought, best thought method of composition and recording seemingly the only real separation between the all out maximalist tendencies of AU. And yet, LWW is very much it's own thing and better for it. Wyland embarks on a quest to explore his compositional interests as well as challenge himself creatively through setting up a series of restrictions to work through and in the case of "CTP" and "PNO", our first taste of the new project, largely succeeds in creating fully formed compositions that are as engaging to listen to as they were to create.

3PE, the debut album from Wyland's new project LWW is out July 20th on the Leaf Label. You can pre-order the record digitally or on limited edition 12" now.

Pitstop: Toebow

photo by Dave Herr
Brooklyn based art pop quintet Toebow essentially exist at a nexus point of my musical interests. Originally consisting of former members of Vermont experimental dream pop collective BOBBY in singer/guitarist Martin Zimmermann and singer/keyboardist Maia Friedman before her departure to focus on her other project Uni Ika Ai, Toebow occupy a similar though not congruent space of communal music making that exists largely on its own merits. The band have spent the better part of five years refining their incredibly texture based form of their self-described "cartoon rock" and establishing an identity entirely separate from their self-mythologizing former band. With songs like "The Return of Toebow", Toebow aren't averse to a little self-mythology however where Bobby used it as method to obscure and create a sense of something bigger than the rotating cast of musicians that formed the Tom Greenberg led collective, Toebow play at it with a tongue-in-cheek nature that definitely seems like a sly wink to those astute enough to know the band's history.

Spirit Mane, the band's debut EP, finds the band in peak form after years of playing together. It's an album that's been forged through their own internal sense of community as well as their live exploits and short but sweet, the four song EP is a perfect encapsulation of the various influences and sounds the band has access to without it seeming like a jarring jukebox selection of styles. Awash in psychedelic guitar riffs, synth tones, and four (occasionally five) part harmonies - Spirit Mane saunters through a diverse collection of sounds. From the technicolor speckled prog rock of album opener "I'll Be Gone" to the harmony laden tribal math folk of the EP's eponymous "Spirit Mane", Toebow manages to wrangle all of the varying shades of psychedelia into a cohesive and surprisingly accessible part of their sonic identity as they effortlessly weave elements of vibrant colored psych rock, pop, and folk with far more softer touches of the electronic than the band's earlier drum-pad/sample days. Though vocal duties often shifts between Zimmerman, guitarist Nate Ulsh, and the departed Friedman (who still guests on much of the EP), the repetitive mantra-like quality of the lyrics give a sense (especially in the pulsing, world music recalling "Belong") that Toebow's treat vocals as another brush by which to paint with. That's not to say there's no thought put into lyrical content - there is. But Toebow introduces lyrical narratives quickly with the first one or two lines and allow the arrangements to color them: the interplay between lyrics and arrangement interlocking to provide the full breadth of Toebow's narrative vision.

Spirit Mane is an artful balance of style and influence with original thought as well as lush arrangements with rhythmic density. There's a multitude of moving parts in any one Toebow song but the band never let their songs appear overstuffed - providing a host of layers without hindering an ease of movement. Toebow's song's are compositionally dense without sounding so and that's a feat in and of itself honed by years of familiarity. Spirit Mane, though a cohesive debut, essentially acts as a appetizer - an actual musical document for fans and new listeners alike unable to catch the band's spellbinding live set that provides a brief but well-rounded view of what the band is about.

Toebow's debut EP Spirit Mane is out now and you can snag it from the band's Bandcamp. The band are also in the midst of a residency at Three's Brewing and the final night of their residency occurs on May 15th. If you're in Brooklyn make sure to catch them with Home Body and Fieldings.