Monday, May 8, 2023

Pitstop: Mei Semones

photo by Emily Gringorten

My introduction to Brooklyn based Mei Semones happened on a recommendation. My friend Christian of Precious Human had played a show as part of Jane Lai's band and Mei Semones was on the bill. Described as a hybrid of bossa nova and indie rock with strings my interest was immediately piqued. While my experience listening to artists like Sondre Lerche, Rodrigo Amarante, and Marinero have all demonstrated how fruitful and unique bossa nova influence can be filtered through a indie rock lens, Mei Semones is doing something entirely different than what I expected. A student of the Berklee College of Music, Semones music in an intriguing blend of jazz, bossa nova, rock and her Japanese heritage with most of her songs consisting of lyrics in both English and Japanese. Add in the string arrangements by violist Noah Leung and Semones achieves a truly arresting blend of sounds - everything working in an intricate concert.

Beginning with "Hfoas", her debut single released back in March of 2020, Semones sound arrived incredibly flushed out and clear of intention. Each subsequent release - her Tsukino and Sukikirai EPs have only solidified the strength of Semones skills. Despite the interchangeability of Japanese and English in Semones' music, there's rarely ever any meaning lost. Semones volleys between evocative imagery and pure emotion. 

"Okashi", the first single from Semones double single Shinju released last October was an immediate favorite. Starting from a whisper and filled with brilliant swells, "Okashi" is a lovelorn ballad that really encapsulates the multitude of ways Semones and her band are perfectly complementary. From underscoring her lyrics, to providing dramatic flourishes, "Okashi" is a dynamic masterpiece. Even its video directed by Evan Deng, demonstrates how fully realized Mei Semones concepts are. Juxtaposing Semones in white during the more infatuated parts of the song with darker costuming for when Semones delivers lines like "Grit your teeth, you don't want to hear me scream".

There are few bands that arrive with such an incredibly strong sense of self as Mei Semones. And their songs and visuals are all the more better for it. It's exciting to hear an artist who is able to pull from such an eclectic blend of influences and distill it into something that doesn't quite give away exactly what they are. But most importantly, Semones creates music that is an utter delight to listen to. It's methodical, well-crafted without appearing to be overly so. It's vulnerable and emotive without being overly sentimental or saccharine. Semones' music is wonderfully balanced and here's hoping there's tons more where that's come from. 

Listen to Mei Semones latest double single Shinju here:

Friday, February 3, 2023

Listen: Tiny Ruins - "The Crab/Waterbaby"


One of the greatest strengths of New Zealand singer/songwriter Hollie Fullbrook is her ability to take tiny moments and elevate them into winsome narratives. Such is case of "The Crab/Waterbaby", the latest single from her project Tiny Ruins and her first single since 2019's Olympic Girls (and its acoustic companion Olympic Girls Solo). Fullbrook is able to weave an entrancing tale of finding a molting crab on the beach with such deft hand. It's delicately traversed - featuring Fullbrook's voice and guitar for much of its first verse, before the rest of Fullbrook's band glide in to accompany her. Simultaneously sparse with moments of rich textural strokes, "The Crab/Waterbaby" benefits not only from Fullbrook's succinct lyricism but by the band's ability to maneuver around her in a way that accents Fullbrook's vocals while providing these bursts of narrative embellishments. Fullbrook is given room to spin her yarn, gently unfurling her story while also being carried by the fortifying rush of the instrumentation. It's simple but effective - economical in its musical language without sacrificing any nuance and the results is something absolutely magical. 

Listen to "The Crab/Waterbaby" by Tiny Ruins out now:

Monday, January 30, 2023

Listen: Truth Club - "It's Time"

With the collapse of the time-space continuum that was the covid-19 pandemic, it's hard to imagine it's been almost 4 years since the release of Raleigh quartet Truth Club's debut album Not An Exit. Since discovering them at my first ever Hopscotch Music Festival back in 2017, a highlight of each return trip was the chance to see Truth Club since heretofore they hadn't really been a touring band. And yet, despite the fact that up until 2019, I'd have one or two performances a year to tide me over, there songs remained so distinctly memorable that I never really lost any enthusiasm for them. Going on tour with Wednesday last year, the band unveiled a series of new song clearly prepped for a follow up to their 2019 debut. "It's Time" is one such song and it's a scorcher - building a solid base of driving drums and angular guitars before Travis Harrington's vocals enter. 

One of Truth Club's many strengths is the interconnectedness of its members and the song spends a good portion of time setting that up before. While lyricism in Truth Club's songs are always at the forefront and certain phrases end up being incredibly memorable - I've personally found them both obfuscated and illuminating. It's an interesting dichotomy. Harrington's lyrically very open and yet, plays with cadence and vocabulary in a way that has you second guessing.

 "I watch this one last busy week crestfall and dissolve the intentions you set and I will watch it happen again" is a lyric that shouldn't have nearly enough interpretations as it could and yet, it reveals a surprising amount of information for an opening lyrics. Essentially describing detached inaction that Harrington elevates to a gripping level of drama. "It's Time" is a descent - or more accurately, an re-enactment of a descent - as Harrington details shifting feelings that gradually metamorphose into something seismic. "When alone I'm afraid I will never find a way to pry joy from strain, joy is strain, joy is strange" Harrington announces at the song's climax. It's a major pronouncement - the feeling when you're at a low point that you can't see the way back up. Thankfully, the song ends on a somewhat hopeful if not productive note: to just keep working at it.Truth Club lyrics have a tendency to be self-referential - either to their NC environs or the member themselves (see: "Not An Exit"/"Tethering") and Harrington does so here - "It's a show of faith, always running, but in Yve's groove, she moves, she dreams up new ways to exhaust herself", Harrington delivers amidst a wash of dissonance with a sort of optimistic uncertainty.


Truth Club's newest single "It's Time" is out now. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Listen: Foyer Red - "Etc"


Whenever people ask me how I come across new music, my answer is usually a completely sincere "by paying attention". Since the days of MySpace, I realized that paying attention to what bands/artists you've already established you like are doing is a pretty revealing way to find music that, while it might not be that similar, usually scratches a similar itch that band's scratched. In the case of Brooklyn's Foyer Red, it was just a matter of realizing multi-instrumentalist Mitch Myers (whose work I had been familiar with since Hear Hums/Peace Arrow) had started another project. Foyer Red, a collaboration of Myers, Elana Riordan, and Marco Ocampo before ultimately adding Kristina Moore and Eric Jaso continues Myers' loud and proud tradition of creating music that's somewhat atypical. Foyer Red's debut EP Zigzag Wombat featured eclectic instrumentation (omnichord, clarinet), interesting production, and diverse influences.

"Etc", their first single as members of the Carpark Records roster, continues the band's style of intricately woven experimental pop. Beginning with a lilting kalimba intro that gets taken up by the bass, the vocals follows a similar pattern of being passed between members as Riordan's are underscored by Moore's harmonic response before ultimately giving way to Myers' own introduction. 

A big part of Foyer Red's appeal lies in its juxtaposition of composition - complex, interweaving rhythms and melodies don't get in the way of the songs themselves being pretty damn catchy and downright memorable. The songs don't come across as being complicated for the sake of being complicated but the layering gives them an interesting texture that uplifts everything as a whole.

"Etc.", as it passes its spotlight from one member to another - Riordan's lighter vocals given room to describe, while Myers' more grounded vocals get more layers built around it. It's an apt songwriting choice - as Riordan offers more nature inclined lyrics and Myers' counters first with lyrics about concrete parking lots and car races and then electronic recalling ones.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

PRO TEENS - Dentistry (2022)


In August 2020, Arizona rockers PRO TEENS called it quits. In their break-up announcement the band stressed the split was amicable but that they felt the band had run its course and while they had planned to release one more record, ultimately there would be no more new music. And then November of last year, the band uploaded an album pretty much without ceremony or explanation. "WE MADE AN ALBUM FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE AND IT'S THE BEST ONE YET" the band announced.

Dentistry, the band's posthumous release, might unsurprisingly be the best PRO TEENS album. One of the qualities that appealed to me most about PRO TEENS was their ability to exist in contrast. A sound that is equal parts retro and charmingly current, laid back and filled with blustering agita, Dentistry is a calmer follow up to their previously released Twos. Beginning with the aptly titled "(To The Tune Of An Electric) Toothbrush", which builds off the buzzing of an electric toothbrush before metamorphosing into a jangly pop rock jaunt, Dentistry is a veritable masterclass in guitar tone. Both front-person Andy Phipps' vocals and the band's guitars are incredibly versatile - offering a very dynamic sound that's an obvious peak for the band. Songs like "Mavs in 6" effortlessly switch to whole new sections without skipping a beat.

Album standout "Ode To Curse" shifts between lilting chamber pop and a barrelling rock scorcher. Dentistry feels the most narratively dense of all of PRO TEENS' oeuvre and "Ode To Curse" feels like a definitive songwriting flex for Phipps. Similarity to "Do Right Bayou" Phipps has an ability to sing about seemingly abstract concepts that suddenly coalesce into these moments of being known or yearning to be. "Overwrought with final thoughts, it's hard, sometimes we just need to fall apart but I can't help holding on" Phipps sings ahead of one of the track's big tempo shifts, plodding drums, glancing guitar strums, and an earthy bass clarinet underscore the moment. "Ode To Curse" is filled with these absolute gems of songwriting and composition eventually becoming an high speed locomotive as Phipps croons the song title over and over until everything comes to an exasperated fever pitch.

"Do Right Bayou" meanwhile is a slow burner, as Phipps realizes some wants and desires have no real grasp in reality. In a lot of ways Dentistry wrestles with twenty-something ennui but also realizes the role community/or anything external can have in defining the self. "Well I get caught up in what could've been, I'll spend a whole lifetime absolving sin, there's so many choices, what do you choose, if I could do one right I'd do right by you" Phipps concludes. In a song where Phipps ponders all the ways big and small that they could be different, in which their dreams align with actual reality, the main takeaway is that all that is ultimately needed is someone else.

A fan of PRO TEENS since fellow Arizona band AlhhlA recommended them to me around the release of their album Philistines, I am glad not only that PRO TEENS get to put a tidy bow on their time together but also that their final effort is such a perfect encapsulation of what makes them so worthwhile. If Dentistry truly is their final album, it sees PRO TEENS going out on an absolute high. Even more special because it's a record that wasn't supposed to even happen. Even if you've never heard PRO TEENS before, Dentistry is more than a nostalgia trip, it's a brilliant album in its own right.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Listen: Toebow - "Kitchen"

photo by Moriah Ziman

While my discovery of Brooklyn's Toebow was largely in part from being born out of the remnants of Bennington College formed experimental psych folk collective BOBBY, it didn't take very long for Toebow to win me over as very much their own thing as genre-eluding songcraft was pretty much all Toebow shares with their former member's band. Originally christening themselves as "cartoon rock", Toebow's evolution has been an exciting treat - and one that their recorded output only tells half the story. Initially seeing them for the first time at the record release show for their debut Spirit Mane EP and attending as many of their shows as I could since, I quickly realized the disconnect between their live and recorded out - as many crowd favorites have still yet to see the light of day even with the release of their debut full length Themes back in 2019. But as the quintet ready another album and the subsequent release of longtime favorite "Kitchen", Toebow's recorded output gets closer to resembling their absolutely dynamic live sets. 

Considering how frequently Toebow give access to their instrumentals, it's not hard to see that that's the facet that they're most proud of. And it's understandable why. From the skittering start-stop drum entrance and the ping-pong guitar lines, Toebow certainly know how to put their best foot forward. From the moment you hit play, "Kitchen" is a beguilingly lush textural tapestry. Toebow's lyricism is always delightfully vague - serving the purpose of the song but otherwise revealing no more of its secrets and that's very much the case here. Each instrument - from its two guitars, drums, synths, bass, and five-part vocal harmonies are effortlessly blended to create this absolutely resplendent kaleidoscope of sound.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Pitstop: BobbyFogg

 Though I was originally introduced to them mostly by pure happenstance, Bobby, the musical collective birthed at Bennington College in Vermont, has embedded itself into a significant portion of my musical DNA. Though they only released one album, their self-titled record on Partisan, so many of its members have grown on to create absolutely incredible projects: from Amelia Randall Meath (Mountain Man, Sylvan Esso, The As) and Molly Sarle, to Maia Freidman (Uni Ika Ai, Dirty Projectors) to Martin Zimmerman (Toebow). So color me surprised when after nearly a decade hiatus Bobby rose once more. Kind of. While Bobby's mythology was always that of the seven members articulating their music in the spirit of this sort of otherworldly figure, the new project is a spiritual successor to Bobby - titled BobbyFogg and continued by Bobby founding member Tom Greenberg.

As any of the members of Toebow can surely attest to, "Potluck" by Bobby was one of my favorite unreleased tunes - one that was available as a part of The Wild Honey Pie's Honey I'm Home Sessions. I've lost count of not only the number of times I have played it when it came out in 2012 but since then. Imagine my delight when I discovered that the first actual release of BobbyFogg was "Potluck". A mixed version by the engineer of Bobby's self-titled D James Goodwin, "Potluck" acts as bridge between the two stages of the project. "Potluck", featuring former members Friedman, Zimmerman, and Paolo Menuez, is an absolutely scintillating melange of acoustic guitar, synths, and percussion. One of the band's strengths has always lied in its ability to weave acoustic and electronic textures together and "Potluck" is a further testament to that. 

Though largely serving as Greenberg's own project at this point, "Half Tulip" credits Bobby alum Julian Labatt as a co-writer for the bass part - so the spirit of collaboration is still very well alive despite a pivot to BobbyFogg as a solo endeavor. And there's no shortage of layers in Greenberg's composition - retaining that same blend of organic and digitized sounds, while building his layers with impeccable precision. Released around the same time as "Potluck", there's no telling when Greenberg wrote and recorded this song but there is a stylistic shift - Greenberg doesn't appear to be trying to recreate the magic of Bobby but there's something there for fans of the band. One of the things that distinguishes BobbyFogg from Bobby is immediately evident - the lyrics. In "Half Tulip", they're at the forefront, often cutting through the din of Greenberg's expansive textures, in "Potluck", they're a part of the tapestry - with Friedman and Menuez's vocals treated as vibrant colors that are sparingly used. 


 Considering how long it's taken Greenberg to resurrect the project, there's no telling when we'll hear more but here's hoping more is on the horizon from BobbyFogg soon.