INTERVIEW: How Briana Marela Finds Balance With Music

Catch her at Baby’s All Right this Wednesday when she headlines our showcase at Baby’s All Right with Gold Child and Wilsen!

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Photo by Eleanor Petry

Seattle often seems like a mystical place for those of us who have never visited: tall trees surrounding a beautiful city on the edge of the ocean. From within this wilderness, this place where the concrete meets dirt roads, native musician Briana Marela weaves a tapestry of sound meant for what some in Japan call forest bathing.

Marela’s newest record Call It Love is a delicate mix of ethereal vocals and ambient beats. Its overall tone brings to mind other artists whose music paints a transcendental portrait of time and space – Purity Ring, Sigur Rós, even Bon Iver’s newest album come to mind. Marela’s background in audio production and music technology shows itself in layered synths and soaring vocals, yet the shape of the album feels spontaneous in nature.

We spoke with Briana about how she navigates the tenuous relationship between production and organic sound:

AF: Tell us about your upbringing in Seattle. What kind of music were your parents listening to? What did you grow up hearing?

BM: I grew up in North Seattle. My family of five lived in a two bedroom apartment; my sister and I shared a room up until I moved out to go to college. I’m very close to my siblings, although we grew up in close quarters. My grandma lived in a different part of Seattle in a house that had so many tall trees and plants and land to run around and let our imaginations run wild. I’m POC mixed race – my dad was born in Peru and I grew up hearing so much Spanish and indigenous music. I love the Quena and love traditional Peruvian folk songs and Spanish ballad artists like Raphael and Nino Bravo. My dad also loves salsa and cumbia and was really the parent who dominated music I remember hearing when I was young, though it was my mom who could see my musical interest and talent and helped nurture it any way that she could, put me in choirs, helped me get vocal lessons. I remember sitting with her in my grandma’s house and I’d put on countless old 78s on my grandma’s record player.

AF: You studied audio production and music technology at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. What’s the best advice you got during school, in regards to creating music and manipulating sound?

BM: I don’t think I can think of any specific overt advice I received. I think I learned a lot just by doing and making and taking risks and chances! I think it’s so important to try new things, and to always be pushing yourself. I feel like in school I was really pushed to try new ways of making music and thinking about what sound and music are and mean to me. To think about abandoning song structure and then at the same time trying to build something abstract into something cohesive.

AF: Your music feels organic, very otherworldly, yet clearly has many intricate production layers. How do you strike a balance between the two?

BM: I am always seeking that balance – it is a challenge! Especially with this last record, I wanted it to be very produced, very intentional, but not stifle the sort of airy carefree spontaneity that the songs blossom from. I try and just be very open to whatever may come, and not critique myself in the creative process as much as possible.

AF: Do you draw writing inspiration mainly from experiences in your own life, or from outside material?

BM: Mostly from my own experiences, though some from experiences of friends and family close to me, and on this record, one song in particular, “Farthest Shore” is very tied to inspiration by a book of the same name.

AF: Originally this album was meant to have two distinct sides, like a coin: ambient & pop. Instead, you ended up blending the styles together. When did you come to that decision and how it affect the recording process?

BM: I mentioned how I love finding balance and I originally wanted to have every pop song have a sister song that was its ambient counterpoint. Honestly I was a bit discouraged by my label to try attempting that completely. After sending over demos, they thought maybe that would be too confusing for a listener. I could see what they meant, but I still think it is a cool idea I might try in the future. A lot of the songs that were duos were either combined into one song, or were split into two separate ideas. And some of the ambient counterpoints to other songs were thrown away. “Be In Love” and “Give Me Your Love” are examples of songs that combined [/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][two parts]. “Farthest Shore” and “Rise” were [one song] split into two separate songs. I came to the decision mostly before I took all my songs into the studio, so it was premeditated before recording mostly.

AF: This album feels intimate and even a little voyeuristic, like peeking into a friend’s bedroom. How do you transition this ambient feel to a live setting?

BM: I try and create space for the ambience and my voice to live in, to sneak in the ambient moments around songs with louder beats, so that I find the right time to let them have their moments to shine. I think I’m still a performer working on their stage fright a lot of the time, and as a naturally shy and introverted person, it is pretty voyeuristic of me to share intimate songs with strangers. When I perform live I try my best to lose myself in the music so I am unaware of my surroundings.

AF: Lightning round: Song you have on repeat right now.

BM: No Trespassing by The Roches.

AF: Musical instrument you don’t know how to play yet (but are dying to learn).

BM: Harp.

AF: Dream venue to perform in.

BM: An old church with lots of natural reverb.

AF: You’re playing our Audiofemme showcase this Wednesday, Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn. What do you hope the audience feels after the show?

BM: I hope they smile and feel light, feel something in their hearts and are able to let go of the parts of themselves that are critical of themselves and others. We all need each other so much as humans; I think that music is a bridge to help create understanding. Our hearts must be open.

Are you in the NYC area? Come hang out with the Femmes! Buy tickets HERE to see Briana Marela LIVE at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn this Wednesday at 8PM. [/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

TRACK REVIEW: Young Magic, “Fall In”

Young Magic 3

gold dreamers,

aspiring planet wanderers,

silk sounders

If I had gone to the Purity Ring show back in January ’13 at Webster Hall like I was supposed to (I had to work), then I would have seen the Brooklyn based experimental electronic duo, Young Magic, open up. Unfortunately I missed out on what was apparently a great show.

Although Young Magic is based in New York, their roots extend halfway around the world. Young Magic is comprised of Indonesian vocalist, Melati Malay and Australian producer, Isaac Emmanuel. Malay and Emmanuel joined forces back in 2010, and have been releasing music since 2011. In February, 2012, Young Magic released their first full length album, Melt.  It’s been two years, so what have these guys been doing?

They’ve been doing a whole lot of touring, apparently. In 2012 and 2013, Young Magic traveled throughout North America, Europe, and Australia, picking up a great deal of new sounds along the way. The songwriting that occurred during their two year stint touring the world culminated in their sophomore album, Breathing Statues, out 5/6 on Carpark Records.

“Fall In,” the first single off of Breathing Statues, showcases Malay and Emmanuel’s experimentation with new sounds. With the inclusion of a sitar any track can sound trippy, but in “Fall In,” the duo subtly showcases the instrument with embellishments, flourishes and accents, managing to bring it out just enough to set the mood, but not too much that it overwhelms the track.

“Fall In” couples psychedelia with the ethereal vocals of Melati Malay, who’s breathy, relaxed and effortless styling melts with the keyboard section, rendering the two parts almost indistinguishable. As if that weren’t enough to produce a spacey vibe, Emmanuel’s repetitive and upbeat bass line pushes the song forward in a cyclical manner, allowing the listener to depart from reality, if only for a moment.

Surprisingly, there actually aren’t too many bells and whistles in this track. Occasional effects were added to layer, spread out and expand Malay’s vocals, but even that was minimal. Subtlety is key on “Fall In,” and both Emmanuel and Malay manage this masterfully.

With eclectic sounds, mesmerizing vocals, and impeccable production, Young Magic are definitely not just another run-of-the-mill hip Brooklyn electronic group, but are carving out a unique space for themselves in the electronic music scene.

Look out for upcoming spring and summer tour dates, and in the meantime check out “Fall In” below.





Wet (1)
Feel all those feelings / But don’t make that call

I am a notoriously messy person. I moved into my apartment in March of this year and there’s yet to be a day when the floor isn’t covered—littered—with clothes. But I adore the messiness, it works in it’s own orchestrated layering, all the props of my life laid out in positions that no one else will ever see them in. This is the best scene I can offer to relate how listening to Wet’s initial EP feels. Not to be all “love is hard, love is a messy room” but love is certainly not the no-strings-attached luxury hotel suite that most pop songs paint it to be and this band manages to capture that. Although the EP was put out by Neon Gold Records about a month ago, I caught two of their live performances this past month and I couldn’t let this mesmerizing mini-album fade into the ether without gushing over the  Brooklyn band’s first release.

There’s recognizable elements, but they’re rearranged and chopped up in a way that has inspired a number of mashup phrase descriptors from the group’s proponents. There’s the skittering drums of an electronic act like Purity Ring, but realized with a human touch courtesy of drummer Joe Valle. There’s the same dreamy, otherworldly vocals, provided by frontwoman Kelly Zutrau, who, despite her pearly voice channels a distinct grunge-glam aura aesthetically that’s almost as pleasing as the music. Zutrau’s vocals are often layered in the that special electronic-breathy way—that feels like Imogen Heap officially invented, but have been used much better by others since her—and the harmonies that Wet constructs feel equal parts lacquered and child-like. This might be the ultimate appeal of the band, they’re a fully-realized musical act of 2013 that have yet to become snapped up into the endless cyclings and machinations that this year seems to have brought on to the fullest degree. All of their touchstones feel current but they themselves feel new, not like something rehashed or constructed to please. There’s an honesty to their music—a lot of which stems from the wide-eyed, poignant lyrics—that is missing in nearly every other act I’ve listened to this year.

The sticky, molasses draw of Wet’s debut EP is that these songs are about love as it actually occurs in real time. The characters in these tracks see past (unlike the myopia of most pop) and present pictures of relationships that are full of both frustration and fascination–that feel limitlessly flawed and also endlessly present. Take “Don’t Wanna Be Your Girl” for instance. It’s a truthful take on gut-wrenching loss and eye-sparkling adoration, even while the title and most of the lyrics suggest a clean break, there’s still lines like “I just want to see your face at home” that directly conflict with “I just want to see you up and out / out of the door.” By presenting these two dichotomous lines the song sums up the doublemindedness that break-ups breed with uncanny precision. “No Lie” walks through the dreariness of watching the object of your affection lose interest in you. It’s the flipside to “Don’t Wanna Be Your Girl,” examining the wound of being left with only an immense sense of loss and empty promises. But this song doubles in power by assuming the role of the rejected and actually delving into not just the loss, but the feeling of being left, of having love and not being able to keep it. Converging that kind of intensity with the slow-drift R&B that Wet has perfected makes for a song that is able to mimic its lyrical content in the actual song. Which is the point of the entire genre of R&B, at all, ever, right?

Without a doubt though, “You’re The Best” is the best song on the four track EP. It’s the most upbeat and at least masquerades as a happy love song and it has the best vocal effects on huge swaths of harmonies. It was initially styled as “U Da Best” which felt more like Wet’s personality (look at their website to see a lady made of keyboard strokes scroll/dance behind their Soundcloud player to see more) but I can understand wanting to use proper grammar and spelling (I guess). The reason this song is the actual, actual best though is once again the fact that it’s based in reality. Even though it’s a super sweet song about being super in love and thinking that your emotions and the power of love can combat the rest of the bad stuff, it still acknowledges the rest of the bad stuff. Like being in someone’s arms and loving them but not being 100% sure if they’re the end all be all of all relationships you’ve ever been in and sometimes feeling lonely still even though there’s a great, reliable and handsome person who loves you. Or the part about “when we’re sleeping / our friends they creep in / and all the rest” that skillfully sums up just how much friendships and relationships with people outside your couple-y love bubble can sometimes just fuck up the dynamics of your love situation. It’s a head-over-heels love song that also discusses specific problems and hiccups that occur even amidst all the heart-eye-emoji feelings, and eventually decides “baby you’re the best / we’ll figure out the rest.” Or wait, does it? I love hearing it that way but then sometimes the line “I think we better quit while we’re ahead” feels so ominous and makes me rethink my whole interpretation of the track. That’s because it’s good and good things are the best at being slippery, undefinable and amorphous.

I’ll end this review by talking about the first song on the EP which is simply called “Dreams.” Ostensibly, this song is about dreams, but it’s more about how much more possible your dreams seem when someone else believes in them as much as you. It’s a song dedicated to wanting to hear about someone else’s dreams and trying to help make them come true. Even with subject matter this heart-warming, the wavering, rainbow guitar lines on this song—provided by the trio’s third member Martin Sulkow—distract me from the actual lyrics almost every time. It feels the most psychedelic and noodly of any of their recorded songs, but then again, at their live show at Mercury Lounge they played a new song that seemed to be inching into more of a drone-space that had me really excited. If this band is pop, it’s pop in the sense that the songs feel universally appealing and they’re easy to listen to, but the musical complexity of them makes me recoil at the simplistic genre terminology of “pop.” This is what 2013 sounds like, this is what being in love and struggling through loss and selfishness and rejection sounds like. It’s what feeling lonely and happy and jealous sounds like. It’s the human experience filtered through a mesh of synthesizers and beats and incredible lyrics. And, if we’re lucky, this is what 2014 will sound like too.

Listen to “Don’t Wanna Be Your Girl”, here via Bandcamp:

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BEST OF: Soundtracking 2012

Oh, the treacherous end-of-year best-of list.  What makes the cut, and what doesn’t, is always going to stir up controversy.  The tradition endures despite its shortcomings, the biggest of which being that it’s a bit arbitrary and trite to say that something is “the best” and compare it side-by-side with things that may be completely different; often the only common denominator amongst the albums on these lists are that they contain music, period.

That being said, I actually enjoy skimming through the majority of them; I always “discover” a record I missed in the previous months, maybe two or three, maybe more.  It’s impossible to hear everything, after all, so it stands to reason that if you trust the source of the list then the list might reward you.

As for me, I often make my own list (usually before reading others) and I base it only on one thing – what albums resonated with me most?  It’s less about what I deem “best” and what was most meaningful or provocative or simply played over and over and over again without me really tiring of it.  Albums I can go back to next year or the year after and say – “YES, that was my 2012”.  The following records go beyond those prerequisites, and are ones that I hope will both prove to be timeless and yet also will transport me back to this time in my life.
AFDirtyProjectorsDirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
In the past I’ve been annoyed by Dave Longstreth’s maniacal attention to detail and perfection, even as much as I loved many of his records.  Part of the reason for this is that I feel like he’s bragging with every turn, saying, “Look at me!  Look at my genius!  Look what I can do!” and in a way it’s also that his headiness around composing and inspiration is almost too daunting.  But Dirty Projectors have worn me down with their undeniable originality and lush arrangements and impossibly gorgeous female vocal virtuosity.  Whereas the tracks on 2009’s equally brilliant Bitte Orca meandered and shifted arrangements abruptly, some of Swing Lo Magellan’s magic lies in the actual catchiness and accessibility of these tracks.  They are a little less mathematical and so slightly more vivid.  Because the album eschews theme in favor of Longstreth’s personal stories and feelings, it resonates in ways that past albums haven’t approached, from a completely different angle.  Plus, the first time I listened to this record I was in a blanket fort.
AFGodspeedGodspeed You! Black Emperor – ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
The exclamation point, usually appearing after an interjection or strong declarative statement, is used in grammar to indicate strong feelings or high volume.  Never, then, has such rampant use of the punctuation mark been so appropriate than in the release of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s fourth studio album and its first in ten years.  The core members of the revolving collective reunited to tour in 2010 after a seven year hiatus, so it’s appropriate that the release contains two reworked versions of unreleased songs that saw a lot of live play.  In every towering movement, GY!BE proves that they haven’t lost that which makes their music essential – the droning, see-sawing build-ups to explosive orchestration, anarchistic echoes in both sonic spirit and whatever sparse voices can be heard around the din, an intense sense of mood and purpose.  Godspeed is a band that means a lot to many, and it might have been easy to take advantage of that and throw together something trite that didn’t add much to a dialogue that had ended in ellipses in 2003.  But ‘Allelujah! feels entirely right in every way, as though it was made alongside the band’s previous records.  It cements Godspeed as the singular purveyor of such darkly cathartic and moving pieces.  And I’m pleased to say that the live show holds up, too – it had me crying actual tears more than once.  Strong feelings and high volume, indeed.
AFGrizzly-Bear-ShieldsGrizzly Bear – Shields
Listening to Shields had a peculiar effect on me.  It was like seeing someone for the first time in a long a time that I used to date when we were both very young, and realizing that they’d grown up.  And knowing that it hadn’t happened suddenly, but that the person’s absence from my life had made it seem that way, and wondering if I’d grown up, too.  Horn of Plenty and Yellow House may represent the Grizzly Bear I fell in love with, and Veckatimest represents a period when the band meant less to me, when I fell out of touch with what they were doing.  But Shields has an incredible power behind it, one that I recognize and respect and receive with a knowing warmth.  It manages majesty while showing restraint.  It’s measured and beautiful in an almost mournful way that reins in the poppier tones on tracks like “Gun-Shy” “A Simple Answer” and “Yet Again”.  After a controversial article in New York Magazine used Grizzly Bear as an example of the impossible task indie bands face at making a living doing what they love, Shields proves that there’s something to be said for just making art the way you think is best, regardless of what success it brings.
afkillforloveChromatics – Kill For Love
It was a banner year for Johnny Jewel.   The songs featured in last year’s indie blockbuster Drive helped bring his work to a wider audience and set the stage for what would become the opus that is Kill For Love.  First came the tour-de-force Symmetry, an ambitious “electro-noir” faux soundtrack project released with Nat Walker.  The thirty-seven tracks on that album, which featured collaborations with Ruth Radelet, were in a way a precursor to the studied moods and dark nuances that persist on Kill For Love, particularly in its instrumental tracks.  But those tracks act as tendons, both vulnerable and powerful, for the real muscle – like “At Your Door” “Lady” and “A Matter Of Time” in which Radelet’s haunting, detached desperation are both frightening and sexy at once.  And then, of course, there’s the glittering, anthemic title track – nearly four minutes of ecstatic synths and lyrics like “I drank the water and I felt alright, I took a pill almost every night, In my mind I was waiting for change while the world just stayed the same”. It would practically hold up in a courtroom if, in fact you did kill someone in the name of love.
AFarielpinkAriel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes
Lo-fi recording savant Ariel Pink has been working at making a name for himself for almost a decade, releasing a handful records on Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks imprint.  But in 2010, backed by 4AD and with high-quality studio recording at his disposal, Pink released Before Today and the world finally took notice.  Previously renowned for his slipshod home-recording techniques, odd sense of humor and quirky compositions, Before Today signified to Pink’s audience that he was first and foremost a songwriter with a knack for thinking outside the box.  Pink’s most recent release, Mature Themes, offers a convergence of these two realities; bizarro arrangements, sound effects and subject matter abound, but are anchored by authentic psychedelic flair.  The record’s underlying ideas about sexuality seem ‘mature’ by any censor’s standard but are here addressed with biting irony, approached the way a twelve-year-old boy might make a joke about, well… schnitzel.  That’s the genius of Ariel Pink – one is never sure whether he’s providing valuable social commentary or just poking fun at the fact that he’s in a position to do so.  He sings “I’m just a rock n’ roller from Beverly Hills” and that is, perhaps, the only way to describe the enigma of his work in any succinct manner.  But Pink never forgets to throw props to the acts that inspired the creation of this record and everything that came before it, having brought attention to “father of home recording” R. Stevie Moore through his own enthusiasm for Moore’s work, and here championing brothers Donnie and Joe Emerson, whose transcendent lovesong “Baby” Pink covers in collaboration with Dam-Funk to close out the record.
AFhtdwHow To Dress Well – Total Loss
Tom Krell’s first proper record under the moniker How To Dress Well is a sprawling but sparse meditation on human relationships, namely on the ways that they can support us or disappoint us.  There are two elements at work that make Krell’s work so remarkable.  First, there’s Krell’s heartbreaking falsetto and the passions inherent in his pushing it to its most yearning extremes, helped by his earnest lyrics.  And then, of course, there’s the production – the hue and texture of the music that provides the backdrop for those heart-rending vocals.  Whether Krell is letting thunderous white noise roll over ethereal R&B hooks, distorting distantly plucked harp, utilizing grandiose samples, or melding soaring strings and churning beats, he does it all with grace and clarity.  The static and crackle that coated 2010’s Love Remains have melted away, and though there’s plenty of HTDW’s trademark reverb on this record, Total Loss as a whole feels more direct and even beautiful for it, sparing none of the atmosphere.  Krell has managed to essentialize what it is that makes his music so moving and with Total Loss has found a way to distill and perfect it in this gem of a release.
AFGOATGoat – World Music
Labeling something “World Music” is kind of a bizarre practice; after all, the entirety of music is composed on planet Earth – at least, as far as we know.  Goat, for instance, are apparently from a tiny village in Sweden founded by a voodoo-practicing occultist and populated by past incarnations of the band currently touring being this, the first album the band has ever recorded.  It contains the kind outrageous and well-traveled psychedelica that actually makes joining a cult, or a commune, or a collective of mysterious musicians, or whatever, seem like a good idea.  The members pointedly keep their identities shadowy, part a comment on the fleeting nature of celebrity in modern society but also as a means of forcing focus on the music itself, though it would be hard to ignore the joyous intensity and effortless virtuosity that infuses every track even if you knew who was playing.  The anonymous female vocalist on these jams is what sends them over the edge; in an era where wispy or witch-like feminine affectation is rampant, the songstress in Goat offers urgent chants, wailing until her voice breaks, her singing sometimes frenzied, sometimes devotional, sometimes both.  Yes, there are more than a few nods to goat worship, but there are almost as many to disco.  At its core, World Music is about carefree hedonism, about the act of devouring disparate influences and letting them wash over the senses, about auditory transcendence and the trances it induces.
AFmerchandiseMerchandise – Children Of Desire
There are two things that stopped this release from catapulting to the top of the list.  First, it’s technically not a full-length record, although as EPs go it definitely plays longer than most.  Second and more importantly, Merchandise let me down with their lifeless (read: drummer-less) live sets I saw this year.  But I’m hoping that they’ll pull it together and blow my socks off eventually, which shouldn’t be very hard since these songs have indelibly etched their mark on my heart.  The earnest crooning of Carson Cox has drawn comparisons to Morrissey – not much of a leap, especially when he’s singing the lines “Oh I fell in love again.  You know, the kind that’s like quicksand.  I guess I didn’t understand.  I just like to lose my head”.  He’s also got a bit of that sardonic sneer that Moz is known for, most evident during “In Nightmare Room” with its caustic guitar and repeated line “I kiss your mouth and your face just disappears”.  But Merchandise don’t simply mimic influences; the sound at which they’ve arrived is completely contemporary and difficult to categorize.  The most telling lyric is the opening line of “Become What You Are” an elegant kiss-off to inauthentic appropriation that evolves over the course of ten minutes from pop gem to kinetic, disorderly jangle.  Cox sings “Now the music’s started, I realized it was all a lie -the guitars were ringing out last year’s punk”  and a moment later, flippantly waves it all away: “It don’t really matter what I say. You’re just gonna twist it anyway. Did you even listen to my words? You just like to memorize the chorus”.  They’re a band wholly committed to the integrity of becoming, of shucking off old skins and processing the experience.
AFbat-for-lashes-the-haunted-manBat For Lashes – The Haunted Man
Natasha Khan becomes, with each album she releases, more and more essential to music at large, and with The Haunted Man she proves it song for song, from spectral lead single “Laura” to the radiating all-male choir on the album’s title track.  Khan suffered intense writer’s block at the onset of writing the album, calling on Radiohead’s Thom Yorke for advice, taking dance classes, and finally finding inspiration in life drawing and movies.  As a result, the album is infused with a reserved theatricality that’s more finely grained and intensely focused than much of her previous work.  Khan’s voice rises and glides powerfully over her arrangements, which even at their most orchestral remain concise and unfettered by extravagant ornamentation.  The power and restraint that play out on this album edge it out over those of her contemporaries and solidify her spot in a canon of greats, heir to a particular throne inhabited by such enigmatic women as PJ Harvey, Kate Bush and Bjork.
AFFlying-Lotus-Until-the-Quiet-Comes-e1342620571552Flying Lotus – Until The Quiet Comes
Though many predicted that the end of the world would coincide with the end of the Mayan calendar, as it turned out December 21st, 2012 was just an ordinary day.  But if the apocalypse had come, there would be no more fitting soundtrack than the work of Steven Ellison, otherwise known as Flying Lotus.  Appropriately dark and dream-like, Ellison here eschews the density that made 2010’s Cosmogramma such a complex listen, revisiting free jazz techniques and traditional African rhythms.  As the album progresses, a sense of journey unfolds, tied together by live bass from collaborator Thundercat.  Each track is infused with a sort of jittery calm, fluttering and lilting and filled with epiphany.  Guest vocals from the likes of Erykah Badu and Thom Yorke are treated as no more than additional instrumentation; Ellison is possessed with a sense of purpose and ownership to the music he’s carefully constructed.  In these tones, one can see whole worlds crumble.  It’s not unlike an out-of-body experience, really, one in which to listen is to drift outside oneself.  Ellison has proven that he is a serious producer, interested in growing and exploring subtle musical shifts rather than cashing in on one particular sound and driving it into the ground.  Until The Quiet Comes provides examples of the loudest kind of quiet one can experience, unfolding as beautifully and austerely as anything Flying Lotus has ever released.

That rounds out my top ten for the year, but there were a handful of others that stuck with me as well.  Below find some runners up with links to AudioFemme coverage from throughout the year!
Phédre – Phédre
Purity Ring – Shrines
Swans – The Seer
Death Grips – The Money Store
Mac DeMarco – Rock N Roll Nightclub/2
Liars – WIXIW
Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
Peaking Lights – Lucifer
Frankie Rose – Interstellar
Holy Other – Held


Audiofemme’s Favorite Albums of 2012 (So Far)

It’s July, a month in which listing the best albums of the year so far has become nearly as ubiquitous in the blogosphere as making a list of the best albums of the year in December. Here at Audiofemme, we aren’t so much into ranking the releases of the last six months as we are simply highlighting the music that’s made us super excited to be doing what we’re doing. The following list is by no means comprehensive – we really need some more time with the new Spiritualized record to wrap our brains around it. We can barely keep up with the bi-monthly output of, say, Ty Segall or Family Perfume. We’re saving ourselves on that Sigur Ros album til we see them live in Prospect Park at the end of this month. Dirty Projectors’ Swing Lo Magellan deserves a whole essay rather than a brief blurb. And you’re probably already tired of hearing about how great Grimes is, so we took a mini-break from extolling her virtues.  We have a feeling we’ll still be raving over the following selections in six months, so you’ve got plenty of time to run down to the record store and buy us some vinyl before the holidays hit.

Death Grips – The Money Store: Zach Hill’s newest side project melts faces in a way that last year’s Exmilitary only hinted was possible. Its innovative melding of experimental hip-hop rhythms and aggressive lyrical flow, paired with rapid-fire samples and grinding electronics manages to harness an intense energy while avoiding the pitfalls of akin genres which can be grating, uncreative, and way overhyped (coughcoughdubstepcough). It’s hard to get over an opening scorcher like “Get Got” (especially when producer Andy Morin turns up the echo on Stefan Burnett’s staccato “stopstopstopstopstopstopstop”) but the album is full of dark gems and deep jams. Fuzzy gongs resonate through “Double Helix”, detached blurbs of sampled pop keys bubble out over “Hustle Bones”, “Fuck That’s” bouncy bongos back Burnett’s riotous yells, gloried synth hooks adorn “Bitch Please”. The group will release a companion album, No Love, in the fall of this year, so it will be interesting to see how the two albums play off one another. Not to mention we’ve got our fingers crossed for an insane tour.

Purity Ring – Shrines: What began as a mysterious and infectious single from a band with the same name as a nearly forgotten emo-punk outfit has transcended its steady trickle of carefully guarded tracks into an auspicious debut that crackles and explodes. The band’s innovative live show is just one angle from which they’ve perfected their aesthetic, and every moment on Shrines feels like magic. Megan James and Corin Roddick deftly transform what are essentially pop songs into something closer to fairy tales, helped by James’ abstract poetics and Roddick’s well-timed production. Album standout “Fineshrines” is a perfect example of the way the two work together, and it still breaks my brain after about a thousand listens, somehow capturing exactly what I always want to feel in song form.

Friends – Manifest!: Anticipation for the debut from Brooklyn-based band Friends began building last year with the release of their single “I’m His Girl”, quite possibly the best argument for open relationships to garner any sort of popularity since TLC’s “Creep”. With that kind of momentum, there’s always a danger that a band might not live up to the hype. But Friends have offered a collection of songs that are not only ultra-catchy and party-ready but also delve into complex topics like female relationships and self-respect with surprising intelligence. Initial fears that lead singer Samantha Urbani’s vocals might at times become grating or that her hip-hop influenced style might lead to some embarrassing moments á la Blondie’s “Rapture” are quickly put to ease – the girl not only has style for miles but a strong set of pipes as well.

Mac DeMarco – Rock and Roll Night Club: In March Captured Tracks released Canadian creepster Mac DeMarco’s seedy, darkly-tinged debut in which he “recorded a whole bunch of songs on a 4-track, slowed them down, sang like Elvis, and slowed that down a little bit too”. The result is presented as an artifact from another universe where radio a.) still exists b.) dials from grimy “96.7 The Pipe” to groovy “106.2 The Breeze” and c.) plays nothing but blocks of Mac DeMarco tracks. The result makes me wish DeMarco would stalk me. I’d pretend I didn’t like it, but I’d start spending more time in dark alleys hoping I’d catch him in the act.  Though DeMarco’s approach is sometimes comical and his live presence purposely pushes the awkward, the languid guitar riffs do feel like something of a lost transmission from an alternate reality where pop music has been distorted for the better.  If Rock and Roll Night Club were a physical location, I’d invoke 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon by repeatedly saying “I want to go to there” until I was transported.  Fortunately, the album does aurally what science has yet to accomplish.

Phédre – Phédre: For a band that pretty much came out of nowhere (actually, it was Toronto), Phédre has managed to blow us away. Their self-titled debut is loaded with infectious production but sealed with the gritty kiss of DIY ethos. The trio (formed by Airick Woodhead, April Aliermo, and Daniel Lee) has created a perfect balance of hyperactive hooks and slowed-down sludge, while distorted, bleary male and female vocals act as oozing cherry on the melted sundae of it all. There’s rapping, there’s punk rock, and there’s lots of sexual innuendos and nods to mythology. Listening to this record feels like taking part in an orgy without the messy and awkward reality of one. What should be a hot mess is actually mesmerizing, an effect enhanced by the feeling that the band never takes themselves too seriously due to a preference for nonsense and debauchery.

Peaking Lights – Lucifer: Having a five-month old son hasn’t slowed Aaron Coyes and Indra Dunis down one bit. They’re still touring and have just released a new album that sees them further exploring the experimental electronic routes they’ve breached since forming their band. Lucifer is loop-laden, playful, and showcases Peaking Lights’ trademark fuzzy disco dub on most backing tracks, but there’s more sensitive material here as well. The couple’s tribute to their son, Miko, appears early in the album as a pretty little piano ditty. After dabbling in these lovely, lazy beginnings, the back half of the record lands the listener squarely in Peaking Lights’ wheelhouse, with Coyes’ oscillating samples and eclectic, watery beats pinning down Dunis’ smoky, echoic vocals. It’s the perfect follow-up to last year’s breakout 936 and an automatically wistful portrait of the band at this moment in their careers and personal lives.

Radiation City – Cool Nightmare: This little noise-pop gem was initially circulated via bandcamp by the Portland based quintet. It’s the follow-up to a critically acclaimed debut, and the band’s pride in the new work shows – they released gorgeous physical copies on their own label (Apes Tapes), with laser-cut sleeve sheathed milk-white vinyl and a gold cassette tape being among the purchasing options. But it’s the music therein that’s truly mesmerizing. Though guitarist Cameron Spies’ vocals make laconic appearances from time to time, it is the haunting, distant coos by Lizzy Ellison that stick indelibly in one’s grey matter; standout track “Eye of Yours” blends these two elements to perfection upon a palette of ominous piano plunking that blossoms into sunny trumpets and twangy guitar. That piano, by the way, was a decrepit artifact from drummer Randy Bemrose’s basement and became the inspiration for the whole album.  Every sound it makes as at deteriorates is part of the auditory landscape on Cool Nightmare, the cover of which it graces. The band laid the ancient instrument to rest in the video for lead-off single “Find It Of Use”.

Frankie Rose – Interstellar: As a former member of several prolific noise pop acts (Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls, and Crystal Stilts) one might expect Frankie Rose’s second solo album to be very much in that same sort of vein – jangly guitars, vocal bravado, and pounding drums. But Interstellar sees Rose scale these elements back just enough to set the work totally apart. Her energetic nods to new wave, the vaguely cosmic theme, and cohesive production are perfect foils for the strength of  Rose’s songwriting, notable in that it showcases the first moments in which she’s allowed herself to explore a more vulnerable musical persona.  But the songs here are anything but wallflower’s anthems; she challenges listeners in lead-off track “Know Me” to drop the pigeonholing game for a moment and examine the depth in what she’s presented.  And really, there’s so many hazy, wonderful layers in these tracks that it would be a disservice to oneself not to obey her.

Chromatics – Kill For Love: Johnny Jewel and friends are back after a five-year hiatus during which director Nicolas Winding Refn showed the world their merits by featuring Jewel’s work in his critically acclaimed movie Drive. The band has eschewed the gloss of their 2007 dark disco classic Night Drive for material that is still tightly constructed and very assured but isn’t afraid of its imperfections. It begins with a cover of Neil Young’s “Into the Black” which sets the tone for some incredibly macabre moments made all the more heavy by Ruth Radelet’s haunting vocals. At an hour and a half (scaled down from an alleged thirty-six tracks that the band composed) Kill For Love is almost epic for an electronic album, and weaves a peculiar and solemn beauty through its seventeen tracks. Within this moody context, slightly more hopeful offerings like the title track or “At The Door” glisten and radiate. The record as a whole makes the more lazily produced bedroom pop of the moment seem like the equivalent of a blank stare.

Liars – WIXIW: Liars are well known for exploring spaces and ideas which other bands fear to broach, and in the past that experimentation has manifested itself in layers of thunderous drums, menacing riffs, and hair-raising incantations or equally chilling falsetto. Their sixth studio release, WIXIW (pronounced “Wish You”) is more measured and reserved. The layers are there but they’re more delicate and subtle, taking time to unfurl and mature. Pegged pretty accurately as the band’s foray into electronic music, WIXIW still concerns itself with motifs the band has explored for ten years now, but approaches them from a completely different angle. It’s refreshing not just within Liars’ oeuvre, but against most any album with similar sonic aim. WIXIW proves that electronic production shouldn’t be written off by fans of more traditional music making; in hands so well versed in heavier-hitting rock, the outcome transcends mere curiosity and becomes something astonishing unto itself.


Pitchfork 2012

Last Thursday at an ungodly hour of the morning, we at AudioFemme hopped on the LIRR and embarked upon the beginnings of a three-day music going extravaganza at Chicago’s Union Park, for Pitchfork’s annual celebration of their version of what’s good (we gave the festival a 7.2). Stay tuned for our personal thoughts, reviews and videos. In the meantime, here’s a snapshot of what you missed over the weekend (granted some of it we missed too). We highly recommend trying to catch it next year, A for it’s accessibility and the remarkably low cost of passes and B for the well-crafted curatorial narrative that we noticed emerge over the course of the weekend, that made it an experience singular to a festival circuit dominated by massive and overwhelming lineups. Of that narrative, here’s what stuck out for us.


Lower Dens

We heard they’re a marginally boring to watch, but love their new album Nootropics. I’ve been listening to “brains” on repeat these days. For some reason it reminds me of a genre I used to love but can’t quite put my finger on. I think it probably harkens back to the ’90s, when I was listening to way too much Verve.

Willis Earl Beal

What a cute kid. Also, he’s pretty much the hipster American dream personified. He worked menial jobs, even occasionally living under bridges, until the hand drawn flyers he made and then scattered about the streets of Albuquerque seeking a girlfriend  got picked up by Found Magazine (good on you, Davey Rothbart), the cover of which he soon graced. He also had been making music during that time, and the rest is history. He writes poetry too, and illustrates his own music videos. You wouldn’t think it’d be THAT hard for him to find a girlfriend…

Clams Casino

Sexy, ambient electronic music isn’t the most appealing thing to watch in stifling midday summer heat, but Clams Casino is one person for whom we would withstand the ravages of nature.

Purity Ring

I hadn’t seen Purity Ring live yet (I know, lame, especially ‘cause Lindsey had seen them I think like five times), so I was probably the most excited for this show, out of everything. They are favorites of us both and I knew that if I could see them play “Fineshrine” I would leave Chicago happy. They can cut open my sternum whenever they want.

Tim Hecker

It’s weird for many reasons–namely his prolific and decades-long career, and his omnipresence on the live music scene–that we’ve never seen Tim Hecker perform. I also have a real soft spot for Canadians, so we were definitely looking forward to this.

Dirty Projectors

Dirty Projectors is one of those bands that contain so many talented people it’s frightening. It’s also frightening because David Longstreth kind runs the project like a harem. Dirty Projectors’ intense group dynamic, and the fact that all of its members are incredibly good looking, makes for quite the live spectacle. Plus, the new album is stunning. Seriously… Every. Damn. Song. It’s even a little irritating.



We were so excited for Chromatics that we got tickets to their after party, in case we either missed them, or couldn’t get a good view. They’re new on the scene after doing most of the soundtrack for Drive, which I think became more popular than the movie itself, even despite the presence of one Ryan Gosling.

Atlas Sound

I’ve always wondered what Bradford Cox looks like in the daylight—like if his cheekbones really do protrude that much or if it’s just the mood lighting we’re used to seeing him in at the dark little NYC venues he so frequently inhabits. That question alone is worth the trek across a muddy field to watch him live in the middle of the day on an outdoor stage. Of course there’s also the fact that Parallax will never get old for me. “Is your love worth the nausea it could bring?”. Oh yes…it is.

 Cloud Nothings

“Stay useless”, says Cloud Nothings. And what better way to do that than idle around Chicago for a weekend?

Nicholas Jaar

Nicholas Jaar is another one of those people whom I resent for the fact that he’s seven years younger than I am and ridiculously accomplished. And really nice and smart seeming, too. However my soft spot for minimalist techno (or blue-wave as he calls it) makes me more than glad to set my wounded ego aside and catch his set.

Sleigh Bells

Inexplicably, none of us had watched Sleigh Bells live before, and we know it’s a once in lifetime experience to see Alexis rock the fuck out like she was born to, so close up that you can see sweat running down her porcelain skin. We also wanted to witness the phenomenon of her hair staying totally perfect after an hour of flipping it around in 90-degree humidity. So jealous I can’t even really talk about it.

Hot Chip

We figured we’ll most likely never see Hot Chip again unless we decide to pay $100 and catch them at Terminal 5. PLUS we knew it’d probably be a riotously fun show, given history and everything.

Flying Lotus

Flying Lotus is one of those people we will never ever tire of seeing. He is further evidence of Warp’s status as a culture-defining institution.

Wild Flag

We heard these girls are awesome live, and we like pretty much every other band they’ve ever played in (Sleater Kinney, ahem).  We knew their mission to make music that is of the distinctly ‘anti-nostalgic’ ilk would be an interesting juxtaposition to most of the other performances on this list, all of which invariably have their own respective “throw-back” qualities.


Ice Age

Not usually into this kind of stuff, but we were mighty intrigued by the prospect of seeing three 19 year-olds from Denmark do post-punk. There’s also something them so eerily reminiscent of Joy Division that I suspect Ian Curtis himself may rise from the grave and come to this show.


I’ve heard this kid is a little savant on electronic percussion. Plus, we could gather him together with all the other teenagers on the bill and throw a bar mitzvah-themed party, which has always been a dream of mine.

Beach House

Beach House is one of those bands that reminds me of what it felt like to come to New York. Their self-titled debut came out the year I moved, so all of the newness and profound complexities I dealt with during those months I strongly associate with so many of their tunes. For that reason they’ll always hold a special place for me, even as they get bigger and bigger.

Thee Oh Sees

Garage-rock can either be really good or really quite bad. Thee Oh Sees define what’s good about it.

Baby’s First SXSW: Friday

Friday dawned with a frenetic anxiety brought on by the odd sensation that all of the fun I was having was coming to an end. From a pessimistic point of view, my time in Austin was half over. Though I’d not totally squandered the preceding days the list of bands I wanted to see still seemed a mile long. I tried to be positive, reminding myself of the two golden days that remained, and with serious fervor began to check those bands off the list.

First, the RhapsodyRocks party at Club DeVille. The line-up was great, but comprised mostly of bands I’d seen once or twice. However, the internet radio-sponsored showcase was also throwing around free beer, beer coozies, sunglasses, and cowbells, so that increased my desire to stick around.
I’d caught Tanlines most recently at last October’s CMJ, where they’d debuted a lot of new material. Again, most of the set list was comprised of songs from the Brooklyn duo’s recently released album Mixed Emotions, and not only are Eric Emm and Jesse Cohen growing more comfortable with these tracks, their pride in this latest work is readily apparent.
I hadn’t seen Washed Out since the previous summer and, much like Tanlines, know Ernest Greene to reliably deliver a great show. It had been almost two years since I’d seen Zola Jesus, during which time she’d released her most outstanding material, so I was psyched for her contribution to the showcase. BUT I also knew that over at the Mess With Texas warehouse, Purity Ring would be gearing up for a set I couldn’t miss. I’d been dying to see them since their release of two amazing singles “Ungirthed” (w/ b-side “Lofticries”) and “Belispeak” but I hadn’t been able to to make it to their last NYC performances. I couldn’t resist; all I could do was hope that I’d make it back in time for Zola.
Purity Ring’s lyrically morbid but insanely catchy pop songs are constructed with two basic building blocks: Megan James’ lilting, slightly coquetteish vocals, and the production of Corrin Roddick, who in a live setting mans a table of percussive lights and electronic devices. While I was definitely starting to see this delegation of music making responsibility repeated in band after band, Purity Ring went a few steps further with the addition of a captivating light show that took place before brightly-hued red, orange and teal curtains. The backdrops are illuminated by spotlights, turning James and Roddick into ghostly silhouettes. James is in charge of pounding an elevated bass drum at dramatic intervals, and as she does so, it lights up like a full moon. She also swings a mechanic’s utility light around her head, though in a controlled rather than erratic fashion. But most impressive are the tiered lights which respond to taps and tones within the songs, framing Roddick’s mixing table. They shift from red to purple to blue to yellow to orange, glowing through the crowd like psychedelic fireflies attempting to attract the trippiest mate.
While all of this was exciting to watch, the songs were the real draw. Purity Ring has kept their material close to the chest, selectively releasing only three songs thus far and not a note more. I had to know if they could keep up the seething momentum those infectious pop gems had created long enough to release an album that wasn’t just filler, and I have to say that I was not disappointed. Each offering was carefully constructed, mysterious yet up-tempo enough to dance to, and not just an extension of the sound they’d already built such buzz on, but a perfect showcase for their strongest assets. There’s no release date set for the Canadian duo’s full-length LP, but if the SXSW performances are any indication we can expect more enigmatic lyrics layered with deceptively joyous melodies and a healthy dose of R&B-influenced bounce.
At this point, Zola Jesus was just beginning her set back at Club DeVille, but again I was faced with a dilemma. Over at the Hotel Vegas compound, BrooklynVegan was hosting a noteworthy showcase of their own, and two bands I had yet to see were slated for the afternoon – Craft Spells and Tennis.
Hotel Vegas is comprised of two small conjoined lounges, one of which is named Cafe Volstead and has some really swanky taxidermy mounted on equally swanky wallpaper. As part of the takeover, BrooklynVegan had also erected an outdoor stage, upon which snappy London-based foursome Django Django were banging out an energetic, joyful set, wearing eccentrically patterned shirts reflective of their generally quirky pop. It might have been the mixing but the live set seemed to be lacking some of the more creative percussion and synth techniques present in the band’s popular singles “Waveform” and “Default”.  The songs came across as pretty nonchalant, summery pop a la The Beach Boys, whom the band has often drawn comparisons to.
Meanwhile, Inside Hotel Vegas, the dark and pounding rhythms of Trust were a stark contrast to the daylight scorching the earth outside. I’d seen Robert Alfons perform solo under his Trust moniker as opening act for Balam Acab last November, and the set was pretty similar despite having some additional band members this time around. Alfons grips the mic and leans toward the audience as though he is begging an executioner for his life. His vocals sound like they’re dripping down the back of his throat, which I mean in a good way; in a higher register that same voice can sound nasal, though even then it’s often tempered by the pummeling beats that typify Trust’s music. What I find really fascinating about Trust is that while these jams have all the glitz and grunge of 90’s club scorchers, Alfons consistently looks as if he’s just rolled out of bed without bothering to comb his hair or change his sweatpants. Circa 1995, if you heard these songs on the radio you could pretty much assume they were made by muscular men in tight, shiny clothing and leather, or at least some guy wearing eyeliner. It’s not necessarily true that a vocalists’ style has any import on the music itself, and let’s face it, not everyone can be the dude from Diamond Rings. But I find myself a little worried about Alfons; he looks like he’s going to slit his wrists in a bathtub the second he walks off stage, and given the caliber of the songs on debut LP TRST, that would really suck.
Trust’s set was dank and sludgy in all the right ways, so I almost forgot it was mid-afternoon; I emerged from the dark revery to see Denver-based husband-and-wife duo Tennis setting up. Joined by two additional musicians on drums and synths, Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley were picture-perfect; Alaina’s tiny frame exploded in a poof of feathery hair and her tall, hunky husband looked like he would put down his guitar any second and hoist her in his beefy arms. It’s not hard to imagine these two as Prom King & Queen. Their sophomore albumYoung and Old, out now on Fat Possum Records, shows quite a growth spurt from 2011’s Cape Dory, an album mainly concerned with breezy, beachy anthems (it was inspired by a sailing trip the couple took). Both thematically and lyrically, Tennis have shored things up without losing their pop sensibilities. Their set was shortened by a late set-up but toothache sweet, mostly drawing on songs from the new record and closing with a lively rendition of lead single “Origins”.
Craft Spells played amidst the glassy-eyed mounted animals of Cafe Volstead, and I was beyond excited to see them play. I’ve followed the band since they began releasing singles in 2009 and was thoroughly pleased with last year’s Idle Labor, which included updates of those early demos and drew upon them to create a cohesive 80’s-inspired synth-pop gem. Craft Spells nimbly translated the buoyant feel of favorites like “You Should Close The Door” and “Party Talk”; heavy-lidded crooner Justin Vallesteros seemed less the sensitive, socially awkward recluse implied by some of his more heartsick lyrics, fearlessly surveying the crowd and blissfully bopping to his own hooky melodies. The boyish good looks of all four bandmates had at least one lady (me) swooning in the audience, wanting to somehow smuggle them out of the venue in my pockets.
I was right down the street from Cheer Up Charlie’s, a brightly painted heap of cinder blocks hunched in a dusty lot on E 6th where electronic mastermind Dan Deacon would soon be unpacking his gadgetry. First, I stopped at an adjacent food truck trailer park and ate what I deemed “Best SXSW Sandwich” – The Gonzo Juice truck’s pulled pork roast with carrot slaw, gobs of schiracha cream sauce, and spicy mustard piled on (what else?) Texas Toast. This obviously isn’t a food blog, but as I sat at the crowded picnic table I had a definite SXSW moment; across from me some guys were talking about shows they’d played earlier and shows they were playing later in the week. I sat there reveling in deliciousness and simultaneously trying to figure out what band they were in based on venues and time slots. While for most part everyone SXSW is in nonstop party mode, many of the musicians play two and sometimes three sets a day, and then find time to go to their friends’ shows. And despite all of the gear they have to haul and strained vocal chords and hangover headaches, these guys talked excitedly about contributing to that experience. Not that I didn’t before, but I really found myself appreciating that energy and enthusiasm; the passion and drive of the musicians who come to Austin this particular week in March is the biggest factor as to why SXSW is so exhilarating.

Speaking of enthusiasm, if you’ve ever seen Dan Deacon live then you’re well aware of the level of energy necessary to survive one of his sets (and if you haven’t, seriously, what are you waiting for?). Deacon’s densely layered electronic arrangements provide a backdrop for the zany activities that he introduces between the songs. His instructions can include interpretive dance contests, high fives, mimicry, and sometimes chanting. He’ll either divide the audience into specific sections or ask the audience to make a circle, introduces a concept, and then pretty much everyone joins in the fun, because the main draw of a Dan Deacon show is the wacky outcome of hipster pretentiousness falling away. Deacon does this at every show, making the antics typical by now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, because in all of us there is this hyperactive five-year-old who just wants to eat a bunch of candy and jump around forever and ever, and these shows cater to that exuberant inner child. He has a knack for turning an audience from spectators into participants, and with the shift from the traditional singer-guitar-drummer-bassist band model into a more experimental, electronic-driven realm, where it’s sometimes just one guy on stage with a computer, being able to do that is paramount. Though Deacon is normally backed by multiple drummers and a bevy of live musicians, one unique aspect of this particular performance was that Deacon was flying solo, so it’s a good thing he’s been honing his audience involvement skills for a long time. He didn’t even perform on the stage provided, but in the pit of dust with everyone crowding around him – the bizarro ringleader of an impromptu circus. While Deacon claimed to hate playing SXSW, no one saw true evidence of such – he seemed rather like he was enjoying himself. He introduced some new material, which was promising considering the fact that his last release, Bromst, is by now three years old. His next release, a first on new label Domino, is slated to drop sometime this year.

I was pretty excited about the awesome acts lined up for The Hype Machine’s crazy “Hype Hotel” endeavor. I’m not sure what the space is normally used for, but they seemed to have a good thing going in the mid-sized building; there was often a line to get inside that stretched around the block. I’d RSVP’d and was particularly excited for that evening’s show – Neon Indian opening for Star Slinger, guaranteed to result in an insane dance party. Unfortunately, RSVPing didn’t matter since by the time I went to pick up my gimmicky little “key card” and wristband, they’d run out, and I was therefore shit out of luck. Since trying and failing to get into the Jesus & Mary Chain show the night before had taught me a valuable lesson about not wasting time at SXSW, I shrugged my shoulders about it (it helped that I’d already seen both acts prior to SXSW) and decided to choose from one of the 2,015,945,864,738 other bands playing.

One of those bands was Nite Jewel, Mona Gonzalez’s solo project fleshed out by a couple of guys and a badass lady drummer. I’ve remained sort of undecided about whether I really like Nite Jewel’s music; though the dreamy pop songs are not in and of themselves particularly divisive, the music sometimes falls flat for me. I’ll listen for a minute, ask myself if I really like it, think that I do, decide that I don’t, turn it off, then inevitably revisit it. But there are two reasons I’m siding in favor of Nite Jewel once and for all. For one thing, her newest record One Second Of Love is brimming with sublime pop nuggets that amplify all the best aspects of Mona’s tunes. There’s still a dreamy minimalist quality, but the songs are less lo-fi and more straightforward, more accessible. The second reason I’m now an official Nite Jewel fan is that her show was fantastic. Part of the eclecticWax Poetics bill, Mona rocked the line-up with cutesy energy and just the right amount of kitsch. She danced around next to her keyboards like the heroine of an eighties movie might dance alone in her bedroom, and that’s really the quality that imbues all the tracks on her latest offering, and the biggest draw in listening to them. Since the equipment set up had taken a little longer than expected, her set was short, though to her credit Mona begged the sound tech to let her keep going, reminding him that “They’re pop songs they’re short”. While it’s true that these inspired bursts of affection issue forth in a gauzy blur, they are far from simple pop songs, driven by her distinct personality and sound.

On my way to meet up with Annie at the S.O. Terik showcase in the the neighborhood, I had to stop by Status Clothing, a 6th Street storefront where 9-year old phenom DJ BabyChino was on the turntables. Billed as the World’s Youngest DJ, BabyChino is nothing if not adorable, dressed like many of his forebears in the requisite urban garb but in much, much smaller sizes, and sporting large, plastic-rimmed glasses on his shaved head. He’s Vegas-based but has toured the world, though he had to stand on a raised platform just to reach his turntables and laptop. Every once in a while, he’d mouth the words to the old school hip-hop he was spinning, elevating his badass status but still made me want to say “awww”, which is something I’ve not said of any other DJ, performer, or producer, ever. He drew quite a crowd of gawkers, and because most of them were watching from outside the glass windows of the storefront I started wondering if this little guy felt less like a DJ and more like a taxidermied antelope at the Museum of Natural History. I also wondered at what age BabyChino will want to drop the “baby” from his name, and will make his mom stop leaving notes in his lunchbox.

I wandered far down Red River into the woodsy area between downtown proper and the river, filled with leafy, down-home bars. As I meandered about, looking for some friends I was meeting up with, I heard Gardens & Villa performing “Orange Blossom” at one of the bars. This song gives me shivers of springtime joy; Gardens & Villa is one of those bands I kind of ignored for a while, not for any reason other than I simply can’t hear everything, but at this point I’m super excited for their debut record to drop and was really hoping to catch one of their sets while in Austin. My timing was perfect in that regard but I honestly couldn’t figure out which bar they were playing or how to get in to see them. I had a decent-ish view from the street, even if my short stature made seeing over the fence difficult. I could hear the band just fine and their sound was spot on. However, since this set up made me feel like a weirdo stalker and I had promised to meet up with my posse, I moved on.
Clive Bar had a sprawling multilevel patio that is probably very nice when there aren’t bands squished awkwardly into a tiny area making it impossible to view the stage and impossible to move through the cramped crowd. Because Annie is the shit and had a raw hookup we hung out in this “Green Room” area that was really more of a log cabin bungalow to the side of the stage. A really gnarly painting of a nude lady with a rabbit’s head was mounted on the ceiling; all around her were bunnies in various stages of Boschian copulations but rendered in a comic-book style. We slugged beers in this secret, magical little den while New Build played their poppy indie jams. Everything New Build does sounds like it could be soundtracking some cheesy movie – whether it’s funky 70’s espionage flicks or 80’s roadtrip rom coms. I don’t know if that’s really a bad thing, especially since they tackle that task with flair and aplomb. But I also have to admit that I wasn’t paying a lot of attention, mesmerized as I was by all the bunny sex going on in the painting above my head, and the two semi-obnoxious girls arm-wrestling because (I guess) they thought it would impress whatever dudes were around. Plus, New Build are some pretty unassuming dudes; they all wore nondescript tees in neutral colors, sported prerequisite beards (not that you’ll ever hear me complain about a beard), and gave the impression that they were there solely to play some songs in as understated a fashion as possible. Which they did.

When Grimes took the stage we were able to stand in the photo bay, giving us a great view of the bizarro-pop goddess. Maybe I should mention that I have a total girlcrush on Claire Boucher (if I haven’t already elsewhere on this blog), a crush which (dark)bloomed last summer when I saw her open for Washed Out. Unfortunately Boucher was not having a good night – the equipment at the venue was half-busted, and her voice was fast disappearing with the strain of singing in showcase after showcase, making it difficult for her to hit the falsettos omnipresent in her tunes. She swore a lot, but she was the only one who truly seemed to mind all the technical difficulties – everyone else was enthralled by her, dance-marching in her futuristic get-up, tucking her mic between her shoulder and her cheek while twisting knobs or plinking keyboard notes. While I want to keep Grimes and her quirky woodland-sprite magic all to myself, I’m glad everyone is as head over heels for her as I am, because she is a true artist. The second you write her off as some half-baked weirdo, she throws out some deep metaphysical theme, or else she’s chronicling her difficulties with intimacy in a way that’s every bit as real and accessible as someone who’s half as cool. I could go on, but I’m already embarrassing myself.




Since I was working on my own death cough it was time to call it a night. My final day in Austin was upon me, and I’d finally redeemed myself, in the nick of time.

MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Laura Love, Low, The Sweet Inspirations, The Beths

Welcome to Audiofemme’s monthly record review column, Musique Boutique, written by music journo vet Gillian G. Gaar. Every fourth Monday, Musique Boutique offers a cross-section of noteworthy reissues and new releases guaranteed to perk up your ears.

Laura Love is the kind of performer who doesn’t readily fit into any one category. Her songs have elements of folk, funk, pop, blues; Love has called  her style “Afro-Celtic.” Her albums feature everything from a Nirvana cover to the ballad “Wayfaring Stranger” to “Amazing Grace.” She was a member of the satiric feminist band Venus Envy; her 2018 album She Loved Red was a searing depiction of recovering from personal loss.

When COVID hit, Love went into semi-retirement, “feeling satisfied that I’d said and done all I needed to say and do.” Then came the insurrection of January 6th, 2021, which galvanized Love into new musical action: Uppity is the result.

The acoustic sounds (dobro, banjo, harmonica) provide a deceptively mellow backdrop for an album that’s a powerful, stirring indictment of racial injustice. “You make me feel like a Nat Turner woman,” is Love’s jesting response to the white rioters she saw overwhelming the Capitol last January in “The Heart of Nat Turner.” In “23 and Me” she explores her own mixed-race history, as seen through the eyes of a young slave woman. The pain of dealing with “sexism, racism, and all the other isms that keep me up at night” runs deep. In “Gentle,” Love sadly admits, “I just don’t know how to mend; “It’s gonna take a long time for us to be fine” is the similar sentiment in “To Be Fine.” But there’s hope as well, in the uplifting “Bayou,” and a wonderfully freewheeling duet with Ruthie Foster on a cover of the Beatles’ “Two of Us.”

Low creates otherworldly sounds like you’ve never heard. Some have attempted to categorize the music of the husband-and-wife team (Alan Sparkhawk, Mimi Parker) by dubbing it “slowcore,” which is hopelessly mundane. Low are sonic shapeshifters, manipulating sounds and crafting them into something unexpected.

On Hey What (Sub Pop), the only element not subject to distortion are Sparkhawk and Parker’s voices, their harmonies serving as a kind of life raft to hang onto in the midst of a surging maelstrom. The heavy, industrial noise that opens the album might make you feel like you’re in for a rough ride. Not so. There may be some occasional turbulence, but there’s a mesmerizing purity in the vocals that provides a soothing balm. This is especially so on a song like “Days Like These,” which begins with the lush sound of the two singing acapella, before a blur of white noise fragments the soundscape.

At over seven-and-a-half minutes, “Hey” is a stately choral piece of symphonic scope, a slice of meditative ambience, classical music beamed in from another dimension. Hey What stretches musical boundaries in a way you never dreamed was possible.

The Sweet Inspirations built their reputation by providing backing vocals for Dusty Springfield, Van Morrison, Wilson Pickett, and Petula Clark, among numerous others. Their horizons expanded when they toured and recorded with Aretha Franklin, and they gained an even bigger audience when they became Elvis Presley’s vocalists until 1969, working with him right up to the day he died (they were waiting on a plane headed for that night’s concert in Portland, Maine, with other band members, when they learned of Presley’s death).

They also released records in their own right, and Let It Be Me: The Atlantic Recordings (1967-1970) (Soul Music Records) covers their most commercially successful period. Myrna Smith, Estelle Brown, Sylvia Shemwell, and Emily “Cissy” Houston (Whitney’s mother) were previously members of such renowned vocal groups as the Drinkard Singers, the Gospelaires and the Gospel Wonders. So they have a natural affinity for hymns and spirituals like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Down by the Riverside.” But they also had the kind of commercial appeal that led the singles “Sweet Inspiration” and “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)” to find crossover success on the soul and pop charts. This fine collection allows the Sweets to take center stage and let their sublime voices shine.

You can hear the excitement in their voices. Not the voices of the band — the voices of the audience, who are clearly thrilled to be at an actual live concert again. That energy is then naturally picked up by the band — the Beths — and reflected back to the crowd, resulting in a powerhouse performance on their live album, Auckland, New Zealand, 2020 (Carpark Records).

The Beths (Elizabeth Stokes, lead vocals/guitar; Jonathan Pearce, lead guitar/vocals; Benjamin Sinclair, bass/vocals; Tristan Deck, drums/vocals) were home in New Zealand in early 2020, preparing a tour for their upcoming album Jump Rope Gazers. Then the pandemic hit. Performance continued via live-streaming. But there’s nothing quite like being there in person.

From the opening blast of “I’m Not Getting Excited” to the last beat of “River Run: Lvl 1,” the show is one rollicking blast of power pop fervor. Catchy hooks, toe-tapping rhythms, a warm lead vocal backed by cool harmonies — it’s the total package. But tune into what’s being sung, and you’ll find that the bright musical spirits are matched by more downbeat lyrics. Stokes says that’s the intention; “Sweetly sung melodies and super depressing lyrics” are what she aims for. Love’s turmoil is the primary subject; in “Future Me Hates Me” Stokes dreads the inevitable fallout of succumbing to romance (“Future heartbreak, future headaches”), while in “Uptown Girl” she dips into unrequited longing. Then the peppy melody takes over and you know those blues won’t be sticking around for long.

A Place To Bury Strangers Return With New Members, New Perspective, and New Hologram EP

Photo Credit: Heather Bickford

Coming out of quarantine, Oliver Ackermann offers this advice: “Everyone be good to one another. It’s nice when people are nice to other people.” 

The founding member of iconic NYC noise band A Place To Bury Strangers is no different than the rest of us in the sense that the last year felt deeply strange, but ultimately contemplative and ripe with opportunities to grow. Lovingly hailed as “the loudest band in New York,” APTBS has seen many different line-ups over its nearly twenty-year lifespan.

“There was sort of a shift in the band,” Ackermann explains. “The last iteration of the band broke up kind of contentiously, so there was definitely some bad feelings, and the weird unknowing of what was going to happen [with the pandemic], so I was just like, I need to reform this band with people who I know are really good people, and friendly, and doing this for the right reasons.”

APTBS reemerges into the present with new members and a new EP, Hologram, out July 16 on Ackermann’s own DedStrange imprint. With it comes the video for single “I Might Have,” a raucous spin with the band around their neighborhood of Ridgewood, Queens. 

“I [started] this for the reasons you always start a band in the first place,” Ackermann continues. “You’re there with your best friends, trying to do something together.” Enter John Fedowitz, Ackermann’s childhood friend who had played alongside him in underground Virginia shoegaze band Skywave, and his wife Sandra Fedowitz, who have joined the band on bass and drums, respectively, after playing together in Ceremony East Coast.

“I think we connected in all the right ways to bring all of us back to that fun and exciting place of starting a band, and doing things from the ground up,” he says of the overwhelming positivity and good vibes he felt every time he’d go back to Virginia to visit them. “That’s where this album is – that connection of the pure form of songwriting that’s inside of you, people who just easily get along and write songs together.”

He describes the new EP as “the glimmer of hope or something, the need for a future,” born of early pandemic solo recordings and “bizarre” writing sessions. It brings him back to writing the first APTBS record, released in 2007. “That was all just making music for me and my friends to listen to… When that album came out, it was just those demos that I recorded to get everybody excited about the music. It was awesome that people actually liked that and took to that,” Ackermann remembers. “I think this is the same sort of thing. I didn’t know what was going to happen, if music was going to continue, so we just started doing stuff to make some music that we wanted to hear.”

The new song and video for “I Might Have” reflects this return to the joy of creating without expectations: the band cruises around Ridgewood listening to a cassette tape endearingly labeled “demos” while hijinks ensue and escalate. The song itself is “a fuzz-soaked sonic disaster in the best way possible,” the band at its most honest and unfiltered. It captures the ironic purity and joy of youth, a time when there wasn’t anything to do besides nothing at all really, what Ackermann refers to as “street hangs.” In a way, this visual rendering of a simpler time is a testament to the weirdness of the last year as much as the music itself, the pent-up energy of all our favorite haunts and hangouts shuttered with no end date in sight.

“Originally I had this really loose idea of, let’s do what was fun for us to do growing up, which was basically just you’d drive around in a car and listen to music and that was it,” he says.

With that in mind, the band prepares for their return to live performance and touring. They have a slew of European tour dates already slated for spring 2022, as well as a number of festivals and one-off dates. “We’ve got as many shows as we can possibly play coming up,” Ackermann says, refreshed and more ready than ever to get back in the game. “Whatever it is, you know, someone’s birthday party or whatever, I want to play it! If you book A Place To Bury Strangers, we’ll come play.”

It’s a newfound sense of purpose that might never have been so acutely felt if not for the pandemic. “When you dance really close to death, or whatever, the potential of that, you reevaluate your life and think like, oh wait a minute, what’s important to me? Maybe I need to go to the beach today and not work on stuff,” Ackermann says. “I’m only starting to realize it now, what a weird time we just went through, how strange it was.”

Follow A Place To Bury Strangers on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

Ashley Monroe Is Full of Joy on Latest LP Rosegold

Photo Credit: Alexa King

Ashley Monroe and engineer Gena Johnson were sitting on the front steps of historic RCA Studio A, located on Nashville’s iconic Music Row, where the two were recording Monroe’s 2018 alum, Sparrow. Nursing a bottle of Mexican Coke, Monroe handed Johnson her pair of rose gold sunglasses as she told her, “‘the world looks so much better through these. You have to put these on for just five minute and embrace it, take it in.’” Unbeknownst to the friends and artistic collaborators at the time, the seed for Monroe’s new album, Rosegold, was planted. Those seeds come into full bloom this week with the LP’s April 30 release.

Not long after Sparrow was made, new melodies began coming to Monroe’s mind that were a far cry from the traditional country sound the 34-year-old established since moving to Music City from her native Knoxville, Tennessee as a teenager. Intent on creating a “very specific sound” that deviated from her critically acclaimed 2013 sophomore album Like a Rose and Grammy-nominated 2015 follow up, The Blade, the songs took form after she left her record label, allowing her an artistic freedom where she deeply connected to the songwriter within. “Something was inspiring me in the songwriting core of myself of ‘create this feeling that you’re feeling and amplify it and freeze it and reverb it and layer it and harmonize with it.’ I wanted it all to be very different,” Monroe defines to Audiofemme in a joint phone interview with Johnson. “I wear rose gold sunglasses, so I feel like that’s what it feels like when you put this record on.” 

Replacing her signature twang with synthesizers and strings and adding pop beats where bluegrass-style instruments used to be, Monroe called upon trusted confidant Johnson to engineer the project. Johnson, whose extensive credits include serving as engineer for Chris Stapleton’s 2020 album Starting Over and Brandi Carlile’s Grammy-nominated By the Way I Forgive You, along with assistant engineer on the late John Prine’s Grammy winning 2018 album The Tree of Forgiveness, made history at the 2021 ACM Awards by becoming the first woman nominated for Audio Engineer of the Year.

Johnson recalls getting a phone call from Monroe early on in the album’s writing stages, and that Monroe described the new songs as “full of joy” and “full of love.” “I was blown away,” Johnson recalls of hearing “Flying,” the first song of the new batch that Monroe sent to her. “I was hooked from the very beginning.” 

After penning the songs, Monroe would take them to Johnson’s “lab,” the two spending hours dissecting the songs and adding the right effects to bring them to life. The longtime collaborators trusted the process throughout, allowing the creative energy to take force – like adding a melody to “Groove” that came to Monroe in a dream days before mastering was complete, or Johnson going so far as to purchase new sound equipment to elevate the melodies. They also added little tricks along the way, such as the sound of a camera flashing on “See,” or whale noises layered over a hip-hop beat on “I Mean It.”

Each song was given a treatment that emphasized its meaning; for instance, the pair consciously made “Flying” feel exactly like its namesake when the piano and strings meet the pop bass. “I really work with emotion and experimentation,” Johnson explains of her process. “It was inspiring to be able to go out of my comfort zone and what I wasn’t used to doing as much and really go 100 percent in what feels good and not what it is right for a specific genre. Not having those limitations was epically creative and opened a door for me, too.” 

Perhaps just as distinct as the sonic evolution is the lyrical one. Monroe was intentional about leaning into lightness with Rosegold, a contrast to the heartache and sorrow that was wrapped around her angelic voice on her previous records. Many of these darker tales were inspired by Monroe’s real-life tragedies, such as when her father passed away from cancer when she was 13 years old. “My life was bad, and I’m not saying that lightly,” she says with a slight chuckle. “Shockingly, it went from great to bad times, and then I held onto music in a different way.” The East Tennessee native was adamant about making a “joy-based” record this time, a by-product of becoming a mother to three-year-old son Dalton in 2017, whom she was pregnant with at the time of making Sparrow. “I think that my last record opened the door to this new part of me,” she says. “This love switch has been turned on inside of me and set on fire in a sense that I haven’t felt in a long time.” 

Monroe brought this joy-based mindset into the lyrics, a direct reflection of the quiet moments she experienced at home with her husband and son during the COVID-19 pandemic, sprinkled like gems across the project. “There were a lot of moments of stillness with the sunshine shining in the windows that I was trying to hold on to,” she details. “Lyrically, I wanted all of the words and all of the things I was saying and all the melodies to line up to take people away and freeze time for everybody for a second. I was hyper-focusing on words and talking about love that also provided the feeling that we were going after, that warm feeling, that moment in time when everything is okay and you’re just drenched in joy.” 

Those moments of pure joy shine through in such potent imagery as “you’re a California/Pourin’ that sunshine on my soul” on “Gold” to the love-soaked “I Mean It” where the singer feels deeply present, Johnson purposefully accentuating all aspects of her voice as she sings, “I’d be in the dark without your light/When I tell you I can’t live without you baby/I’m not talking crazy/I mean it/Your love’s the only breath I’m breathing.”

Then there’s the gentle “Til it Breaks” that Monroe wrote with a friend in mind who was going through a challenging time. Though written pre-pandemic, Johnson says she was brought to tears by the encouraging number that feels like a hopeful hand extending through the darkness, as Monroe reprises in a meditative manner, “let it melt away.”

Monroe brings her own inner odyssey to light in the introspective album closer, “The New Me.” Co-written by Monroe and her longtime friend and songwriting collaborator Brett James, she spent hours re-working until her distinct vision was met. “Take a peak inside my soul/All the rust has turned to gold/It’s different now/I can’t wait ’til you see,” she beckons, the eclectic ballad serving as a symbol of rebirth. “It means reborn on the inside,” Monroe says. “Once you truly understand how to love, and the power of love, and once you are humbled by it and surrender to it in a way, you’re a different person.”  

It’s no coincidence that an album built on purity and light ends with a choral of angelic vocals leading into the words “I’m alive and on fire/Now that I’m ready to love,” sending the listener out with the chills that Monroe and Johnson felt while making the dynamic project. “We both know what a gift is and what something you’re born to do is, and we both feel like we’re doing what we’re born to do,” Monroe reflects.

“I think setting our intentions and being really intentional about having joy and leading with positivity, and knowing where we’re at and having big conversations and getting in the right mindset, was huge. It’s all emotion to me. Anytime we could get goosebumps ourselves, we knew we were doing it right,” Johnson observes. “The record to me feels like love through and through. From the beginning to the end in different stages, it embodies it.” 

Monroe initially believed that Rosegold would only be a collection of five songs. But it later doubled in size to encompass 10 tracks as experimental as the woman who created them, one who embraces the artistic process at every step. “I always like to give people chills. I think that’s a good sign. That means that you’re connected to the spirit when you can supply a set of chills to someone. I wanted all of these to be constant joy chills,” Monroe proclaims. “I felt like it was telling a complete story.”

Follow Ashley Monroe on Facebook for ongoing updates. 

Lydia Luce Pours Her Heart Out on “Dark River”

Photo Credit: Alysse Gafkjen

Lydia Luce was listening to a podcast discussing how humans often retreat into nature to find themselves, the host pointing out that since we are made up of the natural elements of the earth, shouldn’t we go into ourselves to discover the answers?

This compelling notion draws connection to the title track of Luce’s upcoming album Dark River, arriving on February 26. The 11-track set came during a time of emotional healing after Luce left a toxic relationship and began looking inward, going to therapy to work through her own challenges, using the knowledge to form new habits that help set the course of her life moving forward. “I’ve never really been this vulnerable in my writing until this record, which feels good and scary,” she tells to Audiofemme.

Luce relies on the craft of songwriting as a mirror for what she’s experiencing internally, noting how songs have a distinct way of instilling her with valuable lessons on the other side of writing them, citing the title track as an example. “‘Dark River,’ for me, is a beautiful thing,” Luce says. “That song is about recharging yourself, fueling yourself up so that you’re able to go out and be a light in the world and be your best self.”

The song finds her declaring that she’ll no longer allow someone else to claim her power or light, demonstrated in richly poetic lyrics: “They put me on a pedestal/And I gave them everything/Now I’m waking slowly, with an empty feeling/I go down to the dark river/They can’t see me there/I’m gonna drink ’til my belly’s full/Pour it out when they need my help/Please, won’t you save some for me.”

“It took me a long time to write this record because first, I needed to settle into some of those negative tendencies and really come face to face with them and identify them and then start to dismantle them in myself,” she observes. “This year was an unveiling of interesting information about myself that I hadn’t come to terms with and then seeing how it’s affecting different areas of my life.”

The song and corresponding album was born after a Luce took a solo trip to the Pacific Northwest in 2019, Luce crediting the purity of nature in allowing for self-awareness she wouldn’t have otherwise. “Nature always cuts through lyrically, metaphorically in my songs, but also has been a source of quiet for me to be able to sort through whatever it is that I need to sort through in my own life,” she explains. “What I’m continuously learning, and a habit that’s really hard to break, is that when it’s hard to sit in struggle and there’s so many distractions around us, my tendency is to reach to that instead of sitting in the place where I’m uncomfortable, especially when it’s something like recognizing ‘that’s not good, I don’t want to be that anymore. I don’t want to do that anymore because that’s not helpful to me or other people,’” she continues. “That was the lesson that I worked through with that song.”

The theme of shedding the layers of her former self also arises in two of the album’s other key songs, “Maybe in Time” and “Just the Same.” Growing up in a Christian, conservative household in Florida, Luce has found herself straying from her family’s religious identity in recent years, yet is still able to find common ground with her loved ones. “’Just the Same’ was about me being so different from my family, but loving them just the same,” she shares, adding that she wrote the track after visiting her brother who is currently attending Bible school, the two bonding over their interpretations of the passages he shared during her visit.

The song also reflects the compassion and empathy she feels for her loved ones in spite of their opposing views, pointing to a “beautiful” and “respectful” conversation she had with her her father recently, confessing to him that she does not follow the Christian faith, her father respecting her decision and acknowledging the importance of being able to question something one doesn’t understand. “I value the things that we do have in common, but I also appreciate the respectful disagreements that we have,” Luce remarks of her family, channeling that understanding into the pair of tracks.

Creating the album was a liberating experience for Luce, one she hopes fans identify with and use as a safe space to genuinely be oneself. “For me, the writing of it has been me settling into more of who I am and being honest and open about it. I really hope that there’s some kind of freedom found in it and it’s okay to be the way you are and be proud of it and not ashamed of it,” she says. “I think the dark river is this place of serenity, where I have this place to go back to, and that is myself, and I’m finding that in myself more and more. So maybe I’m the dark river.”

Follow Lydia Luce on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for ongoing updates.

Delacey Shares “Chapel” Video and Discusses Debut LP Black Coffee

Photo Credit: Aysia Marotta

Los Angeles-based femme fatale Delacey brings us on an unapologetic journey through her masterful debut LP Black Coffee, released March 27. Reminiscent of a real-life Jessica Rabbit (from 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which combined animation and live action in groundbreaking new ways), Delacey goes beyond seedy man-eater archetypes, creating a complex persona through her work. Crooning with a sultry vocal fry, Delacey brings a refreshing emotional urgency through carefully crafted modern love ballads. Delacey’s stream of consciousness lyrics are raw and confessional – through unabridged sense-memory experiences, she gives her listeners a true window into her inner monologue.

The album, full of self-aware nuances around seduction, sexuality, and witty storytelling, visits iconic settings – a wedding chapel, a busy city subway, rainy NYC streets, and Lana Del Rey’s darkly-rendered Los Angeles – and has a surprising breadth and depth. “Break Up, Slow Dance” (featuring Valley Boy) echoes the dramatic lyricism of a modern-day Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, while “Chapel” will resonate with music lovers enamored with the old school effortless cool of Jazz singer Peggy Lee.

The timeless yet modern music production and arrangements by Ido Zmishlany (Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello, Demi Lovato) transforms Delacey’s sound into pop perfection. Delacey herself is a seasoned songwriter, having co-penned Halsey’s “Without Me,” The Chainsmokers’ “New York City”, Madison Beer’s “Dead,” and Zara Larsson’s “Ruin My Life,” among others. But Black Coffee is truly her own effort, establishing her solo identity and bringing catharsis, comfort, and hopelessly romantic, escapist bedroom pop to music lovers during a time when our creative culture has been seized and tainted by isolation and uncertainty. During my time social distancing, I was able to chat with the open and charming Delacey about her humble beginnings and the momentum behind her beautiful body of work Black Coffee.

AF: Your sounds echo the grittiness of New York City with the sultriness of a California dreamer. Where are you from?

D: I was born in Orange County, California but people always think I’m from New York – it’s funny but that’s just because I have lived there before, and I’ve written a lot of music there. I’m a California girl – my parents were from Detroit, Michigan. Orange County, CA is like a small town, far from LA. Now I’m living in Los Angeles proper because of my career.

AF: Let’s talk about your name. Where does it come from?

D: When I was little girl, I was obsessed with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the original) and there’s a family by the name of De Lacey [“the only person who was kind to the monster – despite his deformities. The character represents the absence of prejudice, and the purity of love.”]. I begged my mom to change my name, but she wouldn’t let me. I just told everyone it was my name! And so it’s kind of always been another name for me, it had nothing to do with music at first. When I was eighteen actually my mom told me I could change my name legally to Delacey but I decided to keep it as my stage name.

Photo Credit: Alex Toderica

AF: How would you describe your teenage self?

D: Okay, so it’s kind of weird. I was always really driven by my passions in the arts which led to me barely graduating high school. I actually got kicked out, and had to just finish online! I was a rebel, and wanted to spend all of my time singing, acting, dancing, and doing photography. I had this extreme urgency to express myself through art. I worked a lot of odd jobs as a teenager, like being a nanny, just so I could save up and move to New York when I was twenty years old.

AF: There’s an unapologetic romanticism and urgency to your writing. How did you develop your poetic voice and the lens through which you see the world?

D: My family has always called me a drama queen. I’ve always been very dramatic and intense by nature – passionate in general. Growing up, my dad battled cancer and seeing my parents come out on the other side of that experience really made me value life and live each day to the fullest. It makes you realize how fragile life can be. Seeing my father come out of that battle made me ambitious and goal-oriented. You have to grow up faster, tougher, and fearlessly independent.

AF: How did you get your start professionally in the music industry?

D: When I finally got to New York, my first job was actually in photography. The whole time I was living there, I was just writing songs in my apartment and doing open mics. Music was my life, but I felt like I didn’t know anyone in the industry. A lot of times I felt like giving up and just going home to LA. Luckily I’m the kind of person who sets goals and won’t stop until I achieve them! I didn’t have a back up plan. I eventually went home and through making connections with friends interning, I landed a small publishing deal that distributed my music. They helped develop my writing skills, and explained that I could be a professional songwriter. I eventually parted ways with them when I had my first big cut – a song called “New York City” that came out with The Chainsmokers. That was an “Ah ha!” moment when I realized I could really do this professionally.

AF: What is the most challenging thing about transitioning from being a professional songwriter to releasing a solo record?

D: You feel more vulnerable when it’s yourself. Everything I’ve always written was very personal, but now there’s no middleman. It’s just me putting it out – you’re getting judged differently and you’re the one getting criticized or praised. It’s hard to not overthink things when it’s coming from yourself. It’s important to be honest. If you’re honest, the music will resonate.

AF: The song and imagery  for “Chapel” is like a Femme Fatale take on a dark, twisted fairy tale in a Vegas-style setting. There’s an underlying tone of theatrical tragedy and debauchery. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration behind the song and video?

D: Me and the director wanted it to feel like a getting hitched in Vegas crazy whirlwind romance film. We were super inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s aesthetic for this music video and I love how our spin on it came about.

AF: Your voice echoes tones and textures of classic singers from past decades of popular music. There’s an element of your style that makes me want to catch you performing live behind a Big Brass Band from the late 1950s. What era of music has been your biggest influence?

D: I love that! Thank you. That is the majority of the music I grew up listening to, and Billie Holiday is still my most played artist every year. So to answer your question hell yes – super inspired by an era I wasn’t even alive during.

AF: What artist, dead or alive, would be on your dream tour?

D: It’s so hard to pick but a tour with Dusty Springfield and Elvis and Mazzy Star would be my dream come true.

Follow Delacey on Facebook for ongoing updates.

PLAYING THE BAY: Kevin Nichols Rocks the Hallowed Grounds of 924 Gilman

photo by Rianne Garrido.


Kevin Nichols wanted to know how much time he had left on stage.

“Till you puke!” cried the man behind me.

This was met with silence, perhaps one nervous laugh, but I couldn’t help but appreciate the purity of an old punk sentiment in a an old punk stomping ground, even as it was delivered to a distinctly new punk audience.

On a Sunday night at the end of June, 924 Gilman (aka the Alternative Music Foundation) hosted the record release show for Oakland’s Rex Means King, who released their first full length album Semantics on June 28th. The final opener, Kevin Nichols preceded their set for a scant but tight half hour, certainly long enough to have me messaging Slumped to thank them for the rec.

Nichols was unquestionably the live wire of his three-man stage ensemble, his accompanying guitarist and drummer content to bring some serious crunch while letting Nichols bring the energy and emotion. Later, he told me he was exhausted from working all day but had come straight to the Gilman afterward.

Despite the manic energy gifted to the worn and weary, Nichols chugged water (or pineapple juice?) between songs from an overlarge can of Dole. This is what I mean about the new punk — the sweat, blood, and tears are still there, but no one wants to see you puke on stage — they want to see you fight through the your worst impulses and still emerge with music worth spending time on.

924 Gilman is the perfect place to observe the effects of such a transition. Its walls are graffitied and stickered down to the minute inch, the performance floor edged with ratty couches and chairs. I sat through most of the show, bookended by three younger boys, one of whom was wearing noise-dampening earphones.

The Gilman has been a Berkeley mainstay since 1986, operated by the nonprofit Alternative Music Foundation. Everyone is required to buy a yearly membership card at the door ($2) along with the show fee, a long-time tradition to remind show-goers that this is their venue, too, if they so choose to attend one of the bimonthly membership meetings.

photo by Rianne Garrido.


I had not, in my 25 years of living in Berkeley, attended a show at the Gilman. It felt odd to enter a space that would have been so eminently foreign to me as a teenager, but felt absolutely welcoming to me as an adult. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and it took me ten years of life experience to develop the music taste I have now. Nevertheless, I still felt some misplaced sadness for 15-year-old me, who had only a peripheral idea that such a space existed and was simply too limited by my own perceptions to have taken advantage.

One of the great things about the space is that no inch of the Gilman escapes commentary. “30 fucking years of 924 Gilman” is scrawled is sloppy letters over the stage, and the women’s bathroom hosts stickers on the toilet seat while messages of love, rage, and everything in between surround from all sides, letters inside secrets inside notes inside declarations.

Nichols, I found, had a similar experience of appreciation for the men’s. It’s always the bathroom, we agreed. It’s always the place where you have to stop and take in the grunge for what it is — not a messy sprawl of disconnect, but a canvas of experience, like little fortune cookies from this and that person’s life, scribbled between songs or at the end of a long sweaty night.

Nichols is not a furious performer. He does not spit words out without regard for where (or on whom) they land. He is more restrained than that, which isn’t to say he is holding back; moreso that he wants to put on a show without losing himself entirely.

His last EP, Long Lungs, documents a heartbreak in four succinct rocks songs well-rounded enough that they feel like a much more substantial tracklist. Even with the short, staccato lines in “Carrion Crow,” Nichols and his bandmates Sam (bass) and Elliot (drums) take us on a rollicking, head-banding journey that ends with a instrumental lead-out with the fizzing intensity of popping open an over-shaken soda can. While “Crow” is my favorite off the EP, “Easy Way Out” packs a great closing punch, a song equal parts fighting and pleading with Nichols switching between vocal deliveries with ease.

During his set, the three baseball cap-wearing men standing in front of me would occasionally let themselves knock lightly into one another’s shoulders, their bodies slipping into some classic punk-show footwork before clapping each other on the back and embracing, knees still bouncing to the music.

When I asked Nichols after the show how the Bay Area has impacted his music, he told me without hesitation that he came for the support and camaraderie, a feeling of authentic community that he felt his old stomping grounds (Orange County) distinctly lacked. There was no moment last night when I did not feel that sentiment reflected in the audience, in Nichols, in Rex Means King, in those three boys hugging as their hair fell in messy strands from their caps.

If this is new punk, I’m happy to even be late for the ride.

Nichols’s local band recs: Lawn Chairs // Mall Walk // Preschool // Small Crush // Grumpster

Follow Nichols on Facebook for show and release updates.

Send band recs/praise/miscellany to @norcalgothic on Instagram.

PLAYING DETROIT: Mayaeni Makes It Out of the “Quicksand”

Call it the Lady Gaga effect: a promising young artist is “discovered,” signed to a label, and goes on to achieve viral success, leaving audiences and artists alike set on the Cinderella story of being picked up and swept away by music industry magic. This romanticized version of making it big is, unfortunately, a statistically unlikely outcome for the thousands of artists that sign to major labels or get “discovered” by industry giants. For every superstar in the making, there are plenty of artists that have been there, seen the shiny silver spoon, and then given it up for more artistic freedom. Detroit-bred songwriter Mayaeni has seen both worlds and spent the last year discovering the pros and cons of both.

After being signed to Jay-Z helmed major label Roc Nation in 2012, Mayaeni found herself newly independent over the past year. Without the constraints and hoop-jumping that comes with being signed to a label, she began the ambitious project of releasing one song a month. Starting with the soulful, optimistic “Better Than Yesterday,” a song that she says she started while she was still signed, Mayaeni traded state-of-the-art studios for her home studio. She wrote and produced eight songs, only missing a few months. Her most recent release, “Quicksand,” shows her evolution as a songwriter and producer, without the weight of others’ decisions on her shoulders.

“It’s been nice to have that freedom,” says Mayaeni. “There are pros and cons to each side, but I love having all the creative freedom, being able to put stuff out and not have it go through twenty different opinions first.”

The gorgeous, undulating single highlights Mayaeni’s ethereal vocals, melodic sensibility and poetic lyricism. She says that, with these releases, she’s more concerned about the songwriting rather than production. “It’s interesting, because I play electric guitar… I do like to ‘rock out.’ But I became so much about ‘I am this female rocker’ and trying to translate that into my music,” says Mayaeni. “When I realized that, I started pushing myself more to write basic, naked songs.”

While “Quicksand” doesn’t feel empty, the purity of the song leaves space to hear Mayaeni and her message loud and clear. She’s singing about the weight a lot of us feel in life, and wading through the sludge to get to the other side. “I always try to wake up with the sun / but on some days I’m still drowning in the mud,” she sings early in the song. But she doesn’t leave listeners without a shred of hope, instead deciding to end on a positive note. “It’s a blessing if I can learn to stop the stressing / no use in drowning.”

Ironically, a few days after the release, Mayaeni’s basement home studio flooded. She says although it throws a wrench in her plans, it’s not going to stop her from recording and releasing new songs. “Life happens, you just gotta keep trying,” she muses.

Listen to “Quicksand” below.

HIGH NOTES: Why Drug Testing Works — and Why More Festivals Don’t Do It

An at-home drug testing kit available via DanceSafe

If you grew up in the US, you probably heard “say no to drugs” in middle school health class, but you probably didn’t learn how to reduce harm if you did use drugs. And, chances are, you didn’t follow DARE’s advice. The majority of American adults have smoked weed at some point, according to a 2017 Marist College poll, and a 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health survey found that over 17,000 Americans ages 12 and over had used MDMA, over 22,000 had used magic mushrooms, and 25,000 had used acid.

Music festivals in particular are popular sites for drug use; a March 2015 study of Instagram posts about 15 popular music festivals found that 25,605 mentioned MDMA, 9,705 mentioned weed, and 4,779 mentioned cocaine.

In order to reduce the risk of drug-taking at music festivals, some organizations like Energy Control and DanceSafe set up booths on festival grounds, where attendees can get their drugs checked for contaminants and receive information about harm reduction. These programs have garnered some pushback from people who believe they could encourage drug use.

Paul Komesaroff, Professor of Medicine at Monash University in Australia, President of Adult Medicine in the Royal Australian College of Physicians, and a practicing physician, is an advocate for drug-checking programs who has researched the analytical techniques they utilize. I asked him about how drug-checking works, what impact it has (and doesn’t have), and what obstacles are preventing it from becoming more widely available.

AF: Why are drug-checking programs at festivals important?

PK: I think it’s important for us to understand that drug-taking is something that’s here to stay, but drug-taking is not just one thing. There are different people who take all sorts drugs for different reasons. Homeless people who are on the street and shoot up heroin are very different from young university students who might go to dance parties or music festivals and take ecstasy, for example, or smoke marijuana. So it’s important not to think of drug-taking as one thing. For some people, it’s a deep attempt to escape reality. For some, it’s a lifestyle choice, or people may do it to alter their experience or perceptions of the world. There are different reasons, some more valid than others. When we’re thinking about the way in which society should respond to recreational drug-taking, it’s important to understand this variability and to focus on what particular risks people face in different settings and what their needs might be in recent years.

It’s well known, of course, that a major problem with illicit drugs that are obtained through dealers, illegal networks, is that the purity is very variable because you depend on the word of someone who is supplying it, and they’re often produced in risky circumstances. Some of the testing programs have shown that of substances that have been taken for testing, up to 50% don’t contain anything they refer to, or they have contaminants. Contaminants may be things to pad them out — there are powders, there might even be toothpaste to increase the bulk and the weight — there’s no limit to what those substances can be. There’s been a lot of unfortunate events at music festivals — people supply drugs of poor quality, and people are taking overdoses or dying or becoming critically ill because of the impurity of the substances.

So, in this setting, the possibility has arisen of giving somebody advice and guidance without judging them, still recognizing these behaviors are going to occur but with the purpose of minimizing the chance of experiencing serious harm. In the past, law enforcement or public policy approaches to drug taking have been very crude. It’s focused on large-scale messages: “say no to drugs.” We know those don’t reduce harm associated with drugs. They increase the harm by driving people into criminality and by insuring the substances supplied are of unknown composition and impurity, and they often have toxic, dangerous contaminants, and it’s in this setting that pill-testing has come out.

AF: How does drug-testing at festivals work?

PK: It’s been around in European countries for more than 20 years. We can offer people the opportunity to test for particulate contaminants, and we can test for the concentration of what they think they’re taking. We can test to determine the purity, and technologies have a pretty high level of reliability right now. But we can combine that with a process of counseling, information, and advice.

The programs operate a bit differently in different places, but typically, what would happen is, there’s a testing caravan set up in a corner of the venue, and the people will be invited to attend. There would have to be an arrangement with the local authorities and the police because you don’t want people who, in good faith, are coming to obtain advice, who are then accosted by law enforcement. The people in the testing center will be asked to sign a waiver recognizing there are limits to the information being given and there won’t be any legal consequences to the information or advice they receive. They would be assured of confidentiality, and then they’ll speak to a counselor, who will talk to them about what it is they’re planning to do and what the questions might be. They may be asked to fill out some forms, or it may be offered to them to fill out some forms. The data may be collected on who’s coming and what their needs are, and that’s important to prove that such programs do what we think here likely do.

Then, they’ll be given an identification code and they’ll go away, and the substance will be put through the testing machine. There are rather sophisticated technologies that can be used, and the result can usually be delivered in 40 or 60 minutes now. The results will be posted outside the compound, so there might be a board saying ‘the substance with this ID code number has dangerous substances, don’t take it” or some more specific information. People will provide a sample of what it is they’re planning to take — they might buy half a dozen pills and give one to be tested or something like that — so there’s no question of returning materials. So the choices are with the young people themselves of whether they take the advice, but the people running the testing programs have the opportunity to ask them if there are particular concerns they have, then to provide them with data from the scientific tests.

AF: What are the obstacles to these programs?

PK: There’s a lot of opposition to pill-testing programs. There are two main concerns, both of which have validity. The first is how accurate the testing can be, and the second is whether you’ll do more harm than good by luring people into a false sense of security. The reliability of the testing is good but not foolproof, and you can only find what you’re looking for. You can test for known toxic substances. It’s important that the information is not overstated or exaggerated and the people who are seeking the information are informed about what we can and can’t know.

What’s often found in pill testing is, the substance either doesn’t contain what’s being promised — it may not have any cocaine or MDMA — or they might have specific dangerous contaminants. As an additional potential benefit, if it looks like there’s something going around, then a warning can be issued to everyone around saying, “Be careful, we know there are substances of this sort going around.” So the reliability is reasonable, but it’s not perfect, so it has to be carefully stated so people are not misled into thinking they’re safer than they are.

The other question is more tricky, which is whether or not, if there’s pill testing, people will actually be encouraged to take dangerous drugs. And that’s the main reason for opposition, particularly from conservative critics. The evidence really doesn’t support that view, however. If someone actively seeks information about a substance — they come to a testing center and they speak with someone face to face and say “I want to make sure this doesn’t have some toxic ingredient” — it’s extremely unlikely that this will increase their activity. The emphasis is not on encouraging people to take drugs but to give them the information so they can make whatever choices they want to make themselves.

AF: Do these services actually prevent people from using dangerous drugs?

PK: There’s good evidence with the programs operating in Europe that with an approach like this, we can reduce the harm people are exposed to. It’s not a panacea for the drug-taking problem. It’s not a way to stop people taking drugs en mass. It doesn’t necessarily change any of the other programs in operation. But a certain group of people who are at risk who are actively seeking information about what it is that they can take, it will actually reduce the harm they’re exposed to.

It’s really difficult to collect reliable data in this area for some obvious reasons: people come anonymously, and we don’t follow them up because that’s part of being able to conduct these programs safely. So, it’s difficult to assess whether we’re saving lives by undertaking programs like this. That’s one of the major controversies about pill testing, so we need to be able to find ways to address that. I mentioned before that nowadays, people coming to these centers would be invited to fill in some forms about themselves. They might be asked to give some demographic information about their age or status or ethnicity so we can see who is using these centers or what sorts of concerns they might have.

What we do know is that when we ask people in general terms about how they would deal with information of this sort, about 80% of people say that if they are advised that there is something wrong with the the pills they provided for testing, they wouldn’t take them. That doesn’t mean that’s what people do in practice, but if someone comes to the center actually seeking advice and they give one of their pills to be tested and then are told its dangerous, it isn’t logical they’d ignore that advice if they’re going through all that trouble.

AF: Do you know why these programs seem more popular in Europe than the US?

PK: I think the obstacles are cultural and legal more than anything else. I think it’s fair to say the culture in the US is a bit more conservative than in some European countries like the Netherlands, which has led the way in drug policy. I think the broad cultural environment is probably the main thing, and the legal enforcement approach also will follow from that.

AF: Anything else you want to add?

PK: For a long time, in this area and others, the approach to potentially dangerous substance use — and that includes alcohol and tobacco as well as recreational drugs — the main social policies have focused on prevention and law enforcement, and the educational advice has just told people blindly not to use them, and we know that doesn’t work. We know that’s not effective in some areas, such as alcohol and tobacco use, and other areas associated with public safety, such as road safety.

We’ve got to have a range of more sophisticated approaches for the road. We have seat belts, air bags, and a range of educational programs about alcohol use and speeding. And we know, together, this array of approaches does have an effect on road safety. The same applies to alcohol: Telling people not to drink or to drink in moderation is not enough to reduce harm associated with alcohol use. You need a range of programs that includes education in schools, ways alcohol might be advertised or packaged or produced. The same applies to tobacco and other things. We know that simply telling people not to do things or punishing them for doing them doesn’t reduce the harm to society but may increase it.

The same applies to use of recreational drugs, and we do have the experience of safe needle programs, safe injecting rooms, and so on. There is good evidence that these programs reduce the transmission of HIV, AIDs, hepatitis C, or other communicable diseases like that, so we’ve got evidence from other areas to support the idea that carefully focused and modulated messages to particular groups of people who can hear what it is that they’re saying can have a beneficial effect on people’s behaviors.

ALBUM REVIEW: Mountain Man – Magic Ship

For years they hid from us. Like the hermetic enigma their name conjures, Mountain Man headed for the hills after releasing their hypnotic 2010 debut, Made the Harbor. The siren-like harmonies of Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amilia Meath faded into the mist; Meath resurfaced four years later as one half of Sylvan Esso, bringing folksy sensibilities to Nick Sanborn’s infectious electronic production, and the duo’s runaway success made Mountain Man seem like more of a precursor than a project to which Meath would someday return.

And yet, that piercing acoustic music that hits the soul, cutting through the air with no other sound to travel by but the human voice and a casually strummed guitar – the kind of music that hits a mark that the 808s just will never dig into – began to garner a sort of cult following. Mountain Man’s magic was in its stunning simplicity, their songs the kind that easily soundtrack languid afternoons, campfire gatherings, wine makings, or family-style dinners with friends. These same words, moments, and experiences pepper the much-too-long-awaited stories of the group’s second album, Magic Ship, released on the last day of September this year.

The reunion is as welcome a surprise as the group’s origin – Mountain Man discovered each other by following the sounds of each other’s voices through dorm rooms in a small college in Vermont. The following that has knit itself around them has developed in a similarly organic fashion – a diehard collection of humans who tripped down some internet hole, or happened upon one of their few fireside acoustic performances. Ultimately, it was Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner that officially reawakened Mountain Man when they booked a set for the trio at the 2017 iteration of Eaux Claires arts festival. Just over a year later, Magic Ship set sail.

Their sophomore album, recorded in Meath’s home studio in North Carolina, is a retrospective of sorts, a glance into personal anecdotes, memories unfolded, mistakes made, humans loves, and humans lost. The mantra of the album is “Don’t waste time on guilt,” a saying waved across their new website and album poster. You can’t help but wonder what guilt they carry. Is it guilt toward each other, toward the way their own separate roads unfolded and pulled them apart, or some other guilt they are trying to leave behind?

Magic Ship offers a musical collage interwoven with these kinds of questions. The sounds are now of women not searching for their place in life, but instead teaching their stories shared and gained alone. This album speaks to the wisdom of life, and what we lose and what we gain by walking into the path of the unknown, seeking to know ourselves above all else.

Opening up with the familiarity of their unaccompanied vocals, “Window” seems to travel through time from another place. The lyrics are indeed a first glimpse into what the last eight years has inspired in the hearts of these artists: “I was lost, I was bored, by the thought of wanting more.”

While I understand the desire to bring in another element of sound in their use of the guitar on Magic Ship, it sometimes detracts from the depth and beauty of the purity in their vocals – arguably the definitive edge that has always set this group apart from the other folk musicians pulling from similar influences. Most of the fourteen tracks here are less than three minutes long, making each seem like some fleeting fable;  naked, unadorned vocals only add to this effect. Songs like “Baby Where You Are,” “Moon,” and “Slow Wake Up Monday Morning” feel more common and straightforward, but work to make the album more accessible; the guitar works well in early single “Rang Tang Ring Toon” in that the minimal picking takes a back seat to the trio’s vocals.

Overall, Magic Ship notably features more refined recording, for better or worse, There was something in the lo-fi echo of their first album (Made the Harbor was recorded in an abandoned warehouse with no budget, as opposed to a studio built by Meath’s post-Sylvan Esso success) that remains captivating in comparison to the no longer frayed edges of Magic Ship. But higher fidelity means the songs come through loud and clear this time – it’s almost enough to abandon the nostalgic, fuzzy feel of Harbor‘s aesthetic.

But after eight years of listening and relistening, the stack of memories riding on the lyrical melodies of Made The Harbor admittedly makes it hard to jump into a new compilation and say its impact will be the same as those of that first album. Cooking food with friends to “Honey Bee,” road trips with “Dog Song,” late evening porch nights with lovers as “Animal Tracks” played distantly – this is the emotional content that has yet to blossom in Magic Ship‘s nascent wake. Perhaps it will take another eight years to know its power of memory, time, and life faded into song; in the meantime I find myself meandering over certain memories, touching them with a hint of sadness and that longing ping that trembles beneath those moments we wish lasted longer. In the final phrase of this new piece of work, I find respite from the memories, longing, desires and dreams past with their last words: “It hurts, but that’s alright.”

The track, “Guilt,” might apply to anyone’s lingering sense of regret, but it also provides some absolution for the record’s three creators. “You can think about it, and be mean to your insides…” goes the almost nursery-rhyme-ish line, “Or it can just be something that happened that way, that makes you who you are today.” With this 55-second a cappella ditty, the three end their album by letting go of what might have transpired differently over the past eight years – perhaps musically, or perhaps in general, as life happens to us all whether we sing about it or not.

It’s a testament to both their brilliance and their humility that their fans are still by their side almost a decade later – happy, excited, and relieved to take in their voices once again. At a Magic Ship release show at Rough Trade in Brooklyn, NY, a group of followers came together, legs pressed against one another to be as close as possible to their small, yet strong vocalities. As if no time had passed at all, their vocals immediately cut through the din of noise to strike chords in my memory that had nearly forgotten to catch their breath. Together in that room we reawakened our love for the secret music we had found so long ago.

LIVE REVIEW: Honduras @ Rough Trade

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Honduras at Rough Trade. Photo by Ysabella Monton

When I make it to Rough Trade well past 9, people are still lingering around for the end of the shop’s day-long event full of performances and DJ sets. At the end of this year’s Record Store Day, Honduras closed out their tour with a hometown show at the Brooklyn staple.

Honduras have spent the last month touring with Acid Dad, switching back and forth headlining shows. It’s not the first time I’ve seen them: I’ve shot a show of theirs, coincidentally caught them not realizing that they were opening, and I’ve learned that the guys are all friends of friends of mine (as so happens in Brooklyn). That informal attitude characterizes the feeling of community you get at one of their shows – everyone is out to have a great time and enjoy great music. It might be the fourth or fifth of their shows I’ve been to, and even if I’m starting to see familiar faces among the crowd, everyone still has just as much energy as any punk show demands.

After the more playfully mellow opener Yucky Duster, the attitude of the crowd was quick to change when Honduras took the stage. Opening up with “Hollywood” off of last year’s Gathering Rust EP, things went a from head nodding to hair flipping, at least for me and for the guy a few feet away from me, whipping his dreads in every direction. It took about three songs for a mosh pit to form organically from people jumping around, all just a little bit off beat. “Thank you guys for dancing,” lead singer Pat Phillips says between songs, “or whatever that’s called.”

What I’ve come to expect at a Honduras show is a characteristically high-powered set that draws from the punk purity the band embodies. This was no exception, especially when to my surprise, I turn around to find guitarist Tyson Moore playing on his knees in the middle of the crowd. I still don’t know how I even missed him jumping off the stage.

This time around though, a number of new songs mixed into the set changed up the pacing, but not in a way that lost anyone’s attention. I find myself trying to decipher some new lyrics; I manage to hear, “Find a way to cope/Cigarette on the way,” and I hope I didn’t butcher that. When I catch up with Pat long after Acid Dad’s set, I tell him I’m liking the new material and he tells me they’ve been working at keeping up with the whole punk thing, but getting a little more introspective.

Now that their tour is over, they’ll be playing local shows around the city and continuing to work out their next steps. You can catch them with Omni and Patio for a rooftop show at Our Wicked Lady on Friday, May 5.


HIGH NOTES: A Safety & Health Guide for Music Festivals

After discovering the crazy and liberating world of EDM at EDC Vegas last year, I was alarmed to learn that someone died at that festival and many more ended up in critical condition. A quick Google search for “people dying at music festivals” yielded more reports that made EDC look tame. Many festivals have been home to multiple deaths, typically resulting from drug overdoses combined with the crowded, hot, high-energy environments these events foster.

Yet few of the articles I read offered any advice beyond the usual “don’t do drugs, kids!” and the festivals didn’t provide any information either. The website for Time Warp, one of Germany’s biggest EDM festivals, includes no guidance regarding drug use other than, “Say no to drugs. Please stay away from drugs. We want to have a ‘clean’ party!” — a warning more fitting for a middle school DARE class than adults attending an event that runs from 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday to 2 p.m. on a Sunday. The “health and wellness” page for Insomniac, the tour promoter behind dozens of EDM events including EDC, reads, “Insomniac institutes a zero-tolerance drug policy at all of its events — end of story.”

But the reality is, that’s not the end of the story. One in 25 Americans ages 18-25 has used MDMA over the past year, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, and that number is likely far higher among ravers. A March 2015 study found that over 25,605 Instagram posts about 15 popular music festivals mentioned MDMA, 9,705 mentioned weed, and 4,779 mentioned cocaine. In total, over 40,000 posts about EDC alone mentioned drugs.

Festivals are starting to recognize this: Last year, the Secret Garden Party in Cambridgeshire, England became the first to offer on-site drug testing. And on Friday, March 31, DanceSafe—an organization that promotes safer raving—held the world’s first International Day of Drug Checking to teach people how to reduce the risks of party drugs. This is especially important amid several recent reports of young women dying after taking ecstasy, coke, and ketamine.

To learn how to be as safe and healthy as possible at music festivals, whether we’re high or sober, I got in touch with DanceSafe’s Director of Programs Kristin Karas. Here are some tips she gave for taking care of yourself and those around you.

1. Test your drugs

Many drug-related deaths result from unknown substances mixed in. To make sure you’re getting what you asked for, consider investing in a home reagent kit. These won’t tell you your drugs’ purity, but they will reveal what’s in there.

2. Control your doses

When you’re high, everything can seem like a good idea, including getting higher. To avoid this spiral, research how much of your chosen drug you should take in advance, and pledge not to exceed it. If you don’t know exactly how much you’re getting (which you usually don’t), take less than you would otherwise. And if you’re not feeling the effects you’d like as soon as you expected, wait it out. People often make this mistake with weed edibles, says Karas, which can take up to two hours to kick in.

In the case of MDMA, RollSafe recommends never exceeding 125 mg at a time, and that’s an absolute maximum. For women or newbies, that number’s going to be lower. RollingPro recommends 60-90 mg at most for smaller or more sensitive people. For reference, the average ecstasy pill has 75-100 mg, and many find that half a pill is plenty. If you’re not sure how much you’ll need to see an effect, start off with a small amount, see how you’re feeling an hour later, and take more if needed (but question your initial impulse, which will probably be to take it). And avoid taking more than one drug at a time.

3. Hydrate

Between the sun and the dancing, music festivals can leave you parched even without drugs. Add in MDMA, and you’ll end up dehydrated while losing the sensation of thirst. A lot of festivals have hydrating stations, so bring a water bottle and fill it up regularly. But water alone isn’t enough. Since you’re also losing salt and retaining more water than you normally would, balance your electrolytes with sports drinks, juice, or snacks to avoid hyponatraemia (dangerously low blood sodium levels) or cerebral edema (swelling of the brain cells). Remember: just because you’re high doesn’t mean you don’t need to eat or drink.

4. Take breaks

With all those people packed together, music festivals can get hot, and MDMA, coke, and amphetamines can also cause overheating. Take time to get out of the crowd and cool off every hour or so.

5. Wear earplugs

Another health risk people don’t always talk about is hearing damage, says Karas. Some festivals have such loud noise levels, they can do their damage in just a few seconds, according to DanceSafe. A study last year found that festival-goers who wore earplugs were able to hear better after the event than those who went without, so stash a pair in your bag to safeguard your ears, and try to stay away from speakers.

6. Be aware of your surroundings

Additional potential causes of deaths and injuries at music festivals include getting hit by cars, getting crushed in crowds, and other accidents you can help prevent through vigilance. Stick with a friend or group so you can look out for one another, especially if you’ll be high.

7. Learn what resources are on the festival grounds

Some festivals have peer security teams and sanctuaries to help people experiencing medical problems. Consult your festival brochure, map, or website beforehand to figure out what to do in the case of an emergency.

8. Get help if you don’t feel good

Take any physical discomfort or incapacitation you start to feel during the festival seriously. “Signs that something is wrong and you should seek medical attention include difficulty breathing, seizure, loss of consciousness, rapidly increasing body temperature, rapid or irregular heartbeat, signs of head injury, confusion, chest or abdominal pain, fainting, and signs of severe dehydration or heatstroke,” says Karas. “Signs of heatstroke include altered states of behavior, lack of sweating in a hot environment, nausea, vomiting, and headache.” If you experience any of these and can’t get to the festival’s sanctuary right away, call 911. Don’t try to save your ass — tell them if you’ve taken anything. After you recover, you’ll want to avoid partying hard or getting too much heat for the next few months.

9. Look out for those around you

Part of the magic of music festivals is that for that day or weekend, you’re a family. And that means looking out for one another. If you notice any signs of heatstroke in a fellow attendee, call an ambulance or the festival’s medical team, take them somewhere as cool as possible — even if it means leaving the festival grounds — pour water over them, fan them, give them dry clothes or a blanket, and give them a sports drink or water mixed with salt. Let the medical professionals know what they’ve ingested, and make sure they get to the hospital.

During EDC last year, a cute guy I spontaneously made out with offered me his water bottle. Though I hadn’t felt thirsty, I suddenly found myself guzzling it like there was no tomorrow. Then, he put his hands on my shoulders and said with an entertained but concerned look in his eyes, “Stay hydrated.” At the time, I didn’t understand what he meant. Now, I do. I even carry my own water bottle to events – and offer it to anyone who lacks the information I have now. 

LIVE REVIEW: Eskimeaux @ ONCE Ballroom


Eskimeaux‘s show alongside Free Cake For Every Creature, Claire Cottrill, and Lady Pills on Thursday, May 12 was about 50 percent concert, 50 percent social gathering, and 100 percent what you would expect to find in Somerville, Massachusetts. The venue itself is a site worth visiting: Its upstairs restaurant has arcade machines and tables you might expect to find at your grandma’s birthday party, and its downstairs performance venue will make you feel like you’re in your friend’s basement.

True to the name of the last opener, there was free cake for everyone (with “free cake” written in icing), and people sat on the floor to eat it. The beard-to-face ratio and Birkenstock-to-foot ratio in the audience were off the charts even for a town known as the Boston area’s hipster central. The four acts were all similar in a few ways: They consisted entirely of or at least were fronted by women, and their visual and musical aesthetic were a bit twee but a bit rough around the edges.


The first act to take the stage, Lady Pills, was one of the best. With lo-fi, grungy instrumentals, vocals reminiscent of The Cranberries, and sardonic yet sweet lyrics like “everyone’s so stupid. I just want to make out with you,” the band projects an image that’s simultaneously cuddly and sassy. Next, soloist Claire Cottrill filled the room with a softer and simpler sound, conjuring a childlike purity in songs like “Bubble Gum” with the refrain, “I swallowed the bubble gum.”

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Then, Free Cake For Every Creature brought the energy back up. Lead singer Katie Bennett took a playful tone a bit reminiscent of The Moldy Peaches in songs like “For You,” with the lyrics: “for you, I’d write a shitty poem on the wall of a dressing room at JC Penny,” and almost whispered her way through songs like the sentimental “First Storm of the Summer,” which evoked the sound of raindrops on a roof.

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The main act, Eskimeaux, is the solo project of singer-songwriter and producer Gabrielle Smith. Unlike the other, more garage-like sounds in the lineup, Smith’s voice and accompanying instrumentals were crisp. Folk tunes like “I’ll Admit I’m scared” conjured The Finches, especially since Smith’s voice is a lot like Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs’s, but she sounded more like Mirah in higher-paced, danceable numbers like “Broken Neck,” for which her bandmates and the audience sang along. My only criticism of their act is that each song seemed to end a bit too soon and abruptly.

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The evening’s bookends — Lady Pills and Eskimeaux — were the highlights, while Free Cake For Every Creature and Claire Cottrill were less infectious fillers. Across the board, though, all four acts projected a contagious excitement, perhaps because they were celebrating the release of both Eskimeaux’s latest album Year of the Rabbit and Free Cake for Every Creature’s Talking Quietly of Anything With You on April 15. It felt like the crowd was not just the audience in a show but also a group of supporters sharing in a celebration, and it felt like something special to be one of them.

LIVE REVIEW: Cass McCombs @ Bowery Ballroom


Of the many adjectives one could foist upon musicians, “pure” does not top the heap. And yet no word could ring more true when describing Cass McCombs’ set at the Bowery Ballroom last Thursday. And when I say “pure,” I do not mean chaste or innocent, but pure in form. Unadulterated. Music for music’s sake, void of frills, gimmicks, and needless chatter.

Opening the evening were Soldiers Of Fortune, a band (or as their bandcamp page declares, an ANTI-BAND!) with incredible stamina given their 12-year history. Often described as a sort of “indie rock supergroup” (Brooklyn Vegan), Soldiers Of Fortune includes members of already successful bands such as Oneida, Interpol, and Chavez to name just a few. Wordlessly taking the stage, they built a layer cake of sound over a span of 45 minutes. Without stopping. Drummer Kid Millions (Oneida) was a sort of charismatic focal point-an odd role for a drummer to be sure. Kid jostled around with a playful Davey Jones air, yelping inspired nonsense throughout the epic “song.” I’d hate to describe SOF as a jam band, due to the horrendous connotations (PHISH!), however it is difficult to think of any other brand with which to stamp them. I suppose this is why labels are so discouraged in the arts.

In a pre-show interview, again from Brooklyn Vegan, McCombs expressed a desire for the evening to be a warmer for the cold weather…a kind of “wintertime orgy,” as he put it. Unfortunately for McCombs, the only sex appeal omitted that night was provided entirely by him. Watching from dead center of the balcony, I cast a wide sight on the at-capacity crowd, and much to the dismay of a hopeful orgy conductor, things were a bit stiff. (No. Not like that, perverts.) Aside from Cass’s effortless magnetism, the most sensual antic the audience could muster came from the boisterous woman to my right, shout-singing the lyrics to “Proud Mary” over a song that was anything but. Meeeeowww.

But I digress. Wasn’t this show about the purity of form? The Music? That’s right. Much like SOF, McComb’s played a nearly banter-less set, pausing between songs only a couple of times for a “thank you” or “peace.” So the fact that he and his band (including Jon Shaw, Dan Iead, and not one, but two drummers) played a two-hour-plus selection of tunes. Thrown in the mix were such greats as “Robin Egg Blue,” “Brighter,” and “Big Wheel.” Naturally, the encore was as aimless and unpredictable as a troubadour like McCombs would have it – just one big “jam.” McCombs actually is a big Phish fan, which might dock his sexy points. But not that much.

But Phish or no Phish, shouting par-drunken fans falling into me or not, nothing can spoil McCombs’s allure, let alone detract from the quality of his songs. He truly has what makes a great musician, solely on these grounds, but goes further with regards to value. He recently threw a benefit for Bernie Sanders, and his ballad for Bradley Manning surfaced on the acclaimed news program Democracy Now. Sex appeal and substance? Yes please.

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