When Seattle-based synth-pop artist Leeni shops for synthesizers, she finds herself looking at them and asking herself, “Are there songs in there?”
Sometimes, like magic, the instrument answers. Just a little play with a patch or a twist of the controls and suddenly, the instrument transports you into a new sonic realm.
That’s how it worked for Leeni’s new full-length, Violet, which dropped last Thursday. Her tenth release, Violet is a study of her new, expressive Prophet Rev2 synth, and a vivid portrait of the personal transformation she underwent during the pandemic isolation.
Leeni is the solo project of artist Celene “Leeni” Ramadan. Ramadan made her first-ever Leeni record on acoustic guitar in 2005, and then began teaching herself gameboy chip tune, a style of electronic music created through programming vintage video game consoles.
Leeni eventually became one of the only gameboy chip tune producers in the Seattle area, and it led her to eventually explore other types of synthesized music-making.
“I remember… buying a bunch of vintage drum machines and playing around with them and learning how to sequence and just kind of doing it by like trial and error because there wasn’t a lot of guidance,” she says.
After releasing a lot of chip tune work, including the 2007 full-length album 8-Bit Heart, Ramadan pivoted to her moody, ’60s pop-inspired band Prom Queen, where her focus remained for many years.
Then the pandemic hit. Isolated from her bandmates, returning to therapy after a long hiatus, and learning new production techniques in her new job for Prime video, Ramadan began pouring her emotions and newfound synth know-how into solo synth-pop.
“I had a studio and I would go there everyday and just work on whatever. I didn’t know what the hell was going on in the world, I just wanted to make something with whatever time I had,” recalls Ramadan.
In time, through the lens her new Prophet Rev2 synth, Violet was born. A dynamic and thrilling collection of expressive and skillfully-produced electropop songs, Violet explores Leeni’s renewed confidence in herself as an artist and producer, growing pains she’s experienced personally in the last couple years, and the beginning of a new phase in her life—an era she defines with the color violet.
On the album’s opening track, “Earthquakes,” Leeni’s lyrics explore this desire to escape the “little earthquakes” that arise in life—in her case, it’s a nod to Tori Amos’ first album, and to unhealthy mental patterns exacerbated by isolation.
“It also expresses a feeling that I was having at the time,” says Ramadan. “You think someone’s going to save you or like that if x happens I’ll be okay, but when you have these unaddressed patterns, the earthquake’s going to come.”
Likewise, on “Horizon,” a haunting track co-written and produced by Erik Blood, Leeni explores familiar feelings of distance, disconnect, and longing. “It touches on ideas about the exhaustion of prolonged hope without tangible gain,” she explains.
Aside from having used the album to help move through the difficult emotions of the pandemic era, the process of making (and sitting on) Violet helped Ramadan also better understand and embrace her creative process.
“I took so much time with these songs. I let them breathe. I wasn’t going to settle,” she says. “Sharing music is so vulnerable. I just really wanted to take as much time as [I needed] to build it right and to me all of that is confidence boosting. It is knowing that I could stand behind this work and say I absolutely cosign what I did on this record and can’t wait to share it.” She hopes to tour with Violet in the spring of 2023.
Through the emotional ups and downs of the album, there’s a real feeling of overcoming as Violet ends on its triumphant eponymous track.We’ve made it through something together—and for Leeni, who tends to demarcate phases of her life with colors, this record is a new beginning.
“I don’t have synesthesia entirely but… I have phases of my life that are different colors,” she says. “This [album] is a step into the phase of violet. It’s very harmonious, it’s regal, it’s dazzling, and to me it’s just grounded in harmony.”
Raised in a rural country town in Australia, Brewer admits it was difficult growing up queer in a conservative area. Brewer developed depression and anxiety at an early age that he is still working through today, with therapy and music serving as a healthy combination to help process these complex experiences. “I ran up against a lot of bullying,” Brewer shares with Audiofemme of his upbringing. “Especially as a teenager when you’re finding out about your own sexuality, the general ideals and values there didn’t really help with that. I think as a result of that it took me a long time work through a lot of that and I think I suffered a lot.”
The budding artist eventually migrated from his small town to the bustling city of Melbourne, where he cut his teeth as a singer and songwriter. In need of a change of scenery and a desire to connect with his contacts in the alt-country and Americana realms of music, Brewer made the 9,000 mile trek to Nashville for a fresh start. It’s here he planted the seeds for Tender, a 10-track exploration of sounds as intricate as the stories they’re wrapped around that masterfully weave together in a avant garde pop masterpiece.
“The record does try to address my struggles as openly as I can possibly be with it all,” he expresses. “[I’m trying to find strength in vulnerability, and challenging the archetypal masculine idea that vulnerability is a negative thing, which I think it’s actually quite the opposite.”
Brewer rejects this norm in “Limits of the Heart,” wherein the song’s carefree spirit is backed by an intoxicating beat of synth pop sounds that create a dreamlike effect. The song is years in the making, as Brewer had begun writing the track inspired by “unsuccessful courtships” and the struggle of embracing his place on the spectrum of sexuality while living in Melbourne in 2015. After five attempts, Brewer tore the song down in order to build it back up again while writing with a friend in Nashville before he landed on the final adaptation.
“I was definitely grappling with my sexuality and figuring out what sexuality meant for me at the time, coming to grips with my identity as a bisexual man – because in my past I had been conditioned to think that was a bad thing,” he explains. “Part of writing that song was working through a bunch of my internalized homophobia. It was a way of releasing that in a sense.” The line “one breath dispels the limits of the heart” is one of Brewer’s favorites – he drew inspiration from Arthur Rimbaud’s poem, “Ordinary Nocturne,” which he came across while fine-tuning the track. “To me, it speaks to a freedom within vulnerability,” he notes of Rimbaud’s work.
“One Another” acts as a “companion song” to “Limits of the Heart,” addressing the push and pull Brewer felt between his own feelings and rural Australia’s close-minded views; trying to reconcile the two practically required multiple identities, and had an impact on Brewer’s sense of self. “I identify with that in a strong way, especially in terms of sexuality coming up against a negative association… that had been engrained from a super young age because of the place I grew up in,” he analyzes. “That song is working through that aspect.”
“Just Don’t Let Me Go” is a reflection on perfectionism, and “Ministry of Love” follows suit, serving as a tongue-in-cheek critique of social media where the narrator has an “erotic relationship” with an algorithm.
Like many, Brewer’s world started to shift with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just weeks before, Brewer was on tour with Nick Lowe in Australia and New Zealand. Soon after his return to the U.S., the shelter in place order was instituted. Initially plotting to make an album completely on his own, Brewer quickly came to the realization that a task that massive was beyond his capability and knew he needed help. “That prompted a mental breakdown of sorts that combined with everything that we’re all living through at the time, and still are,” he recalls.
Soon after, Brewer followed his gut instinct to San Pedro, a small coastal community in Los Angeles, to work with producer Jon Joseph, the two building a body of work that is electric, yet moving and powerful. They pulled in unique elements to add texture to already vibrant songs. On “Taps/WMDs,” the moody instrumental blends bass guitar and crying trumpet with the sound of Brewer’s dripping faucet, recorded during an unusually cold night in Nashville when he had to keep a slow stream of water running to stop the pipes in his house from freezing. “Things like that excite me – something that’s sort of a plain and interesting rhythm in time that’s not something you would typically associate with music, like a dripping faucet,” Brewer says.
Likewise, “Chercher La Petite Bête” features snippets of a conversation between friends Brewer overhead on a train in Paris, enchanted by their accents and cadence. “That can be a really interesting rhythmic element that you don’t really associate that directly with music,” he muses. “I like those moments of tenderness.”
These effects bring moments of playfulness to an album that deals with heavy subject matter, like album opener “End of a Life.” Brewer describes it as a “direct confrontation with the idea of suicide or suicidal thoughts.” Partly based on Brewer’s own experiences, the song was also inspired by the death of Mark Linkous, the former frontman of indie rock band Sparklehorse, who had lived with depression for many years and committed suicide in 2010.
Admiring Linkous’ writing style and openness in talking about his mental health struggles, Brewer says he felt “seen” in Linkous’ work, and hopes listeners feel the same with his music. “End of a Life,” in particular, was written with the intent of inspiring much-needed conservation around the topic of mental health and suicide. Its free-wheeling sound cradles Brewer’s potent lyrics: “And I believe/I’m intimately afraid of the energy/Can’t make it work for me anymore/With the weight filling up my hands/In the shape of a lonely man.”
“I wrote it so that the depressive idea of suicidal thoughts is personified and structured like a relationship breaking down. I think that song is me working through suicide and the idea of that and trying to normalize the discussion around it. It’s important to be able to talk about that. That’s why I wanted to juxtapose a pretty heavy theme with an upbeat, sunny sounding track. I wanted to have some sort of accessibility there,” he observes. “That song is a way of working through those things. Hopefully in an ideal world you’d be leaving the listener with some insight so that they can identify with it on that front as it relates to depression and suicide.”
But Brewer intentionally ends the album on a “Tender” note with the title track that features him in a solo piano moment. It captures the spirit of freedom and vulnerability channeled into the album that sets Brewer’s past self free, while setting the path for a bright future ahead. “This is a super personal record and it’s my way of working through a lot of things for myself. But the ideal outcome is that I would leave whoever’s listening with some insight and something that they can identify with and carry forward,” Brewer conveys. “The final result is quite liberating.”
In the world of pop music, it’s easy to get put in a category; the “edgy” one, the “hot mess,” the “Queen.” Or, if you’re Karli Morehouse of Grand Rapids indie-pop outfit Lipstick Jodi, the “gay” one. The non-binary songwriter and artist has spent years being labeled and pigeonholed because of their identity and is more than ready to break the constricting molds embedded into the foundation of pop music culture. On their latest single, “Take Me Seriously,” premiering today via Audiofemme, Morehouse brings their frustrations and anxieties to the forefront and gives listeners the chance to do the same. Following the band’s previous single “Notice,” as well as a remix by Now Now, “Take Me Seriously” will appear on the band’s sophomore LP More Like Me, out June 4th via Quite Scientific.
As one of the only openly queer kids in their Midwestern high school growing up, Morehouse has grown accustomed to standing out. And as hard as it was to find people like them in their community, it was even harder to find pop artists that reflected them. Aside from one of Morehouse’s all-time favorite artists, Tegan and Sara, it felt like every big pop star adhered to a very specific set of aesthetic and sonic standards. Nevertheless, Morehouse fell in love with everything about pop music. “This is all I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid,” they explain.
Raised on ’80s icons like Prince, Cher and Pat Benatar, Morehouse’s songwriting is imbued with nostalgic synths and infectious melodies, as is evident on “Take Me Seriously.” Marrying their power pop instincts with a desire for inclusivity, Morehouse’s lyrics are intentionally vague, leaving room for people to imbue the song with their own meaning. “They’re specific to me, but… they’re kind of vague statements that can give whoever is listening something to hold on to,” says Morehouse.
They explain that this elasticity is inspired by seeing themselves and other queer artists get tossed around in an echo chamber instead of breaking through to larger audiences.
“I’ve always found that a lot of queer artists just end up playing to queer people, which is fine,” says Morehouse. “But I wanted to reach across the board and just play to whoever wants to listen.” They explain that well-intentioned playlists and charts highlighting “women in music” and “LBGTQ+ musicians” can further isolate marginalized musicians rather than integrating them into the pop mainstream. “If anyone calls me a ‘female artist’ one more time, I swear to god,” says Morehouse. “Not only am I non-binary, but it doesn’t matter, I’m a musician.”
And as the lead singer/songwriter for Lipstick Jodi, Morehouse flexes their lifetime of diverse musicianship. Aside from absorbing the romance and robustness of ’80s pop, they were interested in piano and guitar from an early age. Their grandfather, a career musician, gave them their first kid-sized piano and encouraged them to explore other instruments. “My mom didn’t want to commit me to anything and make me hate it, ‘cause that’s kind of what happened to her,” says Morehouse.
From there came countless performances, including a LeAnn Rimes cover, forming their first band in ninth grade and hitting up the Grand Rapids, Michigan coffee shop and brewery circuit. They founded Lipstick Jodi back in 2014, but only started honing in on their sparkly, synth-driven sound in the last few years. Starting out, Morehouse was quickly introduced to the closed minds of certain audience members or talent buyers. “They would call us the gay band and the girl band all the time,” they say. “I was just like, good job for recognizing a haircut? I don’t know why you’re upset.”
In “Take Me Seriously,” Morehouse distills a universal angst, applicable to anyone experiencing heartbreak, setbacks or haters. Razor sharp guitars, bold percussion and potent vocals deliver their cathartic message of pain and resilience. “I’m able to put whatever anxiety, whatever depression I’m feeling into a statement,” says Morehouse, “and kind of hide behind it and give it to somebody else.”
Before the pandemic, Keaton Butler and Avery Reidy were just friends. They were also living the hodge-podge lifestyles that most working musicians end up scraping together to make ends meet. Butler was bartending, engineering sound for live shows, and performing in three different bands. Reidy was traveling around the country every week, Monday through Thursday, working as an acoustics consultant. Since the pandemic hit, their lives have changed drastically: they went from performing on stage to performing on screen; Butler transformed from country queen to bubble gum goddess; and the duo went from being friends to becoming lovers. Blow Pop is the amalgamation of years and friendship between Butler and Reidy, a shared love of Prince and Donna Summers, and a need to escape into something light during these heavy times.
“It’s sort of like a break to us,” Reidy says. “Just fun and easily digestible… no frills. It felt like we needed it for ourselves, and we thought maybe people would enjoy it.” Last year, they released three songs – “Put You Down” in June, with “So Right” and “Nobody” following in November. But Blow Pop is just getting started.
Like the 7″ singles of decades past, Just Friends – out digitally this Friday – is comprised of two songs: A-side “Friendly” premieres today, exclusively via Audiofemme. The couple recorded both tracks while staying with family in Florida; traveling there meant they had to trade in their usual array of instruments for a single midi keyboard and a mic. This change in medium opened new doors of creativity for the pair, who wrote, recorded, mixed and mastered the songs on their own. Instead of acoustic guitar, they layered synths and booming percussion to create a wall of sound that supports Butler’s impermeable vocals.
On “Friendly,” Butler tells the familiar tale of reconciling with an ex. The song opens with sparse electric piano and Butler singing, “Won’t you treat me again like you did back in the old days/Cuz I want nothing more than for us like before to be friendly/I’ve heard through our friends that you’d rather pretend you don’t know me/But I’ve spent way too long feeling like I did wrong/That’s the old me.” The percussion comes cascading in as Butler vows not to let hard feelings get in the way of her happiness. Her unapologetic lyrics and nostalgic melodies are reminiscent of ’80s pop queens, which is fitting considering she has Debbie Harry’s face tattooed on her arm. “She’s like my idol,” says Butler. “My biggest influence writing for this project is probably Blondie.”
Aside from Blondie, Butler says Dua Lipa has had a big influence on her effervescent songwriting. “Over the summer, I just wanted [to listen to] something really happy,” says Butler. “So I was just listening to Dua Lipa a lot.” Like so many of us over the last year, Butler and Reidy have been searching for ways to escape, to pretend reality is anything other than being in the same apartment everyday, doing the same thing. Blow Pop is not only a sonic escape, but also a complete role play – an opportunity to immerse themselves in different characters that live far outside of constricting reality.
Both Reidy and Butler are well accustomed to performing; whether it’s for Butler’s pre-pandemic country night, charading as Missy Mae at Trixie’s Bar, or Reidy’s proclivity for acting out random scenarios with strangers, it’s clear that both of them get a high from taking on various identities. “It’s a big mental escape for me,” explains Reidy. “Even doing mundane things when I was working a nine to five felt like performing to me. I used to… do these noise surveys where I’d just have to talk to like a million people and it was like a character – like I turn this different person on. It’s kind of always how I’ve looked at life.” The world’s a stage, so they say.
The couple definitely harness their inner glam rockers as Blow Pop. Both “Friendly” and its B-side “Got the Moves” inspire the listener to put on some pink tights and red lipstick and dance like they’re at the disco. “Whenever we do a photoshoot, I only wear her clothes,” says Reidy. “That’s been the norm at this point, which is why we’re so colorful and fun.”
Just Friends is yet another beautiful, bright piece of music to come out of the rubble of this year, speaking to the buoyancy of pop music and the resilience of people who make it.
Morning Hands’ self-titled LP sounds as though someone’s Dungeons and Dragons wizard character made an ‘80s synth-pop version of his spellbook.
Maybe that’s a bombastic statement for the opening sentence of a review, but once I got to track four, “Moving Through Water,” I knew my initial inklings were correct; the whole album shimmers with folkloric mysticism, from the chorus of opener “Santa Fe” to the final track’s Stranger Things-esque opening riff.
The former (I let the right one in/before the meal could be finished) had me wondering if Patrick Tabor (vocals and lyrics) and Douglas Du Fresne (music) were purposefully referencing the 2008 Swedish romantic horror film Let The Right One In, or, possibly, if they were paying homage to Elijah, every Jewish kid’s favorite Passover visitation. Such is the power of synth-pop: it can pull from a variety of inspirations beyond the obvious without sounding like the music version of a Scholastic I Spy book. It can inspire the sci-fi scaries just as easily as it can the aww shucks goofiness of literally any ‘80s teen TV show.
This is why albums like Charly Bliss’s Younger Now can exist in tandem with Morning Hands’ self-titled without one seeming like the “right” way to use a synth, and why it (hopefully) appears to me as if more pastiche-loving bands have started to gravitate towards synth pop/rock as opposed to psych rock (please god).
“Moving Through Water” gleefully leans in to the fantasy analogies, with a verse that accuses some unknown enemy of scanning every angle from your teeth to your claws/the corners of your mouth reveal your sinister plots. The chorus is delivered with a little less of a wink, but still uses similar inspiration to explain the discomfort of seeing someone’s betrayal coming a mile away (I know I sense what’s been gathering around me/It feels like a curse from another century).
“Gagged and Bound,” a standout from the second half of the album, feels like the song two storybook children would sing before encountering a witch while skipping through the woods.Tabor’s voice is at its best here, switching seamlessly from sing-song (a cut of life too big to fit/your little hands in oven mitts) to a growly troll-under-the-bridge moment during the song bridge. Its bouncy-ball synth backing affords the last few songs of the album the energy it needs to end strong, though “Gagged” and “I Wanted You” are more of a power duo than anything, making closer “World of Color” seem like the odd one out even if, thematically, it makes sense to end an album so concerned with metaphor and mysticism on more of an introspective note.
“I Wanted You” is one of the most straightforward songs on the album in terms of lyrics — the title itself is pretty self-explanatory — but a little breather from the more overt fantasy elements was necessary, I think, to keep the LP from slipping too far into concept or one-off territory. And the song still brings forth some great lines without it (we’ve both been so wrong/some forces just can’t coexist/now I’m disgusted/that I’ve let it come to this) that are elevated by Tabor’s self-aware delivery that never shies away from wringing every emotional shift he can from a single rhyme scheme.
All in all, whether this was a fun lyrical experiment or just the lens through which Tabor sees the world, the album is cohesive, atmospheric, and most of all fun, a triumph in any genre. Plus, the album art is — and there’s no other way to say this — sick as hell.
In the midst of a tour supporting their sophomore breakout album 88 92, Houston indie band Wild Moccasins were breaking up. Founding members Zahira Gutierrez and Cody Swann had been romantically involved for nearly a decade at that point, and as the band’s lineup expanded and contracted, amassing fans along the way, they remained its constant core, despite the personal turmoil between them. It all became fodder for their 2018 LP on New West Records, Look Together, centered on the deterioration of their relationship and their determination to keep moving forward for the sake of the music.
That narrative, of course, made its way in to everything written about the project. But just over a year later, the band has returned with a fresh perspective on what they’ve been through, where they’re going next, and a new video for the LP’s lead single “Boyish Wave.” Referencing French New Wave films of the ’60s – or, more specifically, their trailers – like Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend and Breathless, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7, and the love triangle in François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim– the visual pokes fun at the drama that nearly destroyed them and officially caps off the album cycle as the band gears up for the next big thing.
“If you watch the trailers for all these films, they’re very dramatic, and they’re telling you what the film is about, but they’re also extremely ambiguous,” Gutierrez explains when we talk over the phone. “You’re just getting the best lines, seeing the most dramatic parts of whatever relationship is going on in the film.” This particular clip sees Gutierrez caught in a love triangle with Swann and Wild Moccasins drummer Avery Davis, following them through surreal scenes, subtitles and all. Seemingly taken out of context, the video is a trailer for a movie (or a relationship) that will never exist. “All of the most dramatic things you could say to to each other or do with each other when you’re going through a relationship are just kind of condensed into this like fake trailer,” Gutierrez says.
There’s no concrete timeline, narrative, or reality, which Swann says adds to the feeling of conflict. “But one thing we were trying to touch on,” he adds, “Is that when dating, you end up going to a lot of the same places with different people – your favorite restaurant, favorite place, favorite park. And a lot of times we live these mirrored moments, but we wanted to touch on the very positive aspect of how even something so familiar can be made completely new when you’re with the person you want to be with.”
The band plotted the “Boyish Wave” video shot for shot while on tour behind Look Together, releasing self-directed videos for “No Muse,” “Doe-Eyed Dancer,” and “Longtime Listener” with the same production team in the meantime. Swann says the band narrowed down the list of potential shots from around a hundred to about sixty, and that though it was extensively planned, they couldn’t account for all the “happy accidents.”
“A lot of that goes out the window whenever a shot doesn’t work out the way we thought it would, or sometimes a throwaway becomes the thing that everything hinges on,” Swann says. A perfect example is the still that became the video’s screen cap: Gutierrez points a prop gun at Swann from the opposite side of a picture frame he’s holding – Swann says he found the frame on the side of the road the day before the video shoot. It had such surprising visual impact, he says, “we had to arrange around it afterwards.”
The band remained heavily involved as the rest of the video came together. “Most cinematographers will not let you sit in through the editing process but we actually sat through the editing process from beginning to end and looked at every single scene and shot that we filmed and placed them carefully,” Gutierrez remembers. The subtitles were pulled from a notebook Swann has kept for nearly fifteen years, writing down quotes from his friends – and from Guitierrez, too.
“Most of the lines that are featured as dialogue are things that Zahira said maybe ten years ago, and she’s like, ‘I remember saying that!’ and I’m like, ‘Well it’s been sitting in my notepad for ten years,'” Swann chuckles.
Meanwhile, more than a year after putting out “Boyish Wave” as a single, the song itself has taken on new meanings, as both Swann and Gutierrez explored new relationships (and watched those end as well, due to the band’s relentless touring schedule). “We’ve all been through it together as a band,” Gutierrez says. “[On tour], you’re essentially living with the same people for a year and a half. There will be some sort of drama. The way I feel now looking back, everything needed to happen the way that it has happened for us to move on to the next step. As a band, I think our main goal is when we do something new we want it to be different, get out of our comfort zone. There were a lot of emotional moments but it all needed to happen for us to end up here.” She adds, “with the video, I don’t think the script could have been made when the song came out a year ago. Certain things had to happen – we had to go through things as people, as a band – for it to come out the way that it did.”
Swann says that growth as a band gave them the confidence they needed “to do something as scary as the next step.” Rather than participate in another grueling tour, both agree they’d like to “act with more of a sense of urgency” as Swann puts it. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned through the process of making these albums, it’s that the amount of time that goes into making one always keeps you away from entertaining. And you don’t get to make an album when you’re out touring. And we’d like to do both a little more often.”
“We are trying to figure out a balance. This last record, we went through a very intense studio/writing process and a very intense touring process,” Gutierrez says, adding that the band is always writing, but is leaning toward stand-alone releases, rather than a full album, in this transitional phase.
Evidently, the turmoil has only made the friendships within the band stronger – the fire to the fuel Wild Moccasins need as they begin their next chapter. “Though there’s always something new, there’s always something that we’re moving on to, it’s been really an absolute pleasure to get to grow with Zahira through all of it, through each step,” Swann confesses. “That’s something I don’t take for granted – that friendship that started with us as kids in a band and got us where we are now.”
A well-timed bath may have a greater impact on one’s mood than exercise (or so says science). Prinze George tap into the same relaxing effect of pulling your head under warm water on their latest single, “Thunder In My Head,” off their new EP Airborne. Over Kenny Grimm’s cool production and Isabelle De Leon’s liquid beats, vocalist Naomi Almquist coos, “I am only sweet / when you are next to me / and resting on my knee.”
The video for the song, premiering today on Audiofemme, finds Almquist sitting in a tub as the scenery around her changes, her sultry lyrics enough to generate a little steam on their own. While the EP’s previous single, “Mind Over,” was a clubby, operatic affair (sung in French, no less), “Thunder In My Head” embraces simplicity (and feels ripe for a remix).
Watch “Thunder In My Head” and read our interview with Naomi below:
AF: You grew up in Prince George’s County and played together in a rock band named Kinheads. What subject matter did you focus on during that project?
NA: “Kinheads” was a rock fusion project. We were a five-, sometimes six-piece. Our current drummer, Isabelle, was also in our old band and she is jazz trained, so that was a component that was pretty different for your typical rock band. We had a killer bass player and Kenny and his brother Erik played guitar/keys. There was a lot going on sonically, but we were just having fun. We took turns writing and experimenting with different styles and ended up with a wide array of rock fusion.
AF: How would you describe each person’s role in Prinze George?
NA: Kenny is the producer and plays almost all the instruments. I handle the vocals, and Isabelle and Kenny work together on a blend of electronic and acoustic drums.
AF: You’ve said previously that your lyrics are based on your own personal relationships. Is this true for your new EP?
NA: It is. It’s much easier to write what you know. Sometimes I have fun embellishing the truth, or playing more of a narrator role, but for this EP in particular I was addressing my relationships with specific people at a specific time.
AF: Did ya’ll have any particular feel or focus for Airborne?
NA: Kenny started the track for “Airborne” when we were on a flight to Minneapolis, where our manager lives and where we tracked our first album. Both the setting and the title that Kenny chose for the track, before there were vocals, informed what I came up with. It’s a love song about a hypothetical plane crash. We are partners in every way and we’ve been through a lot. I wrote it about us.
AF: What’s changed since your debut album, Illiterate Synth Pop? In terms of the band as a whole and where you each are emotionally as artists.
NA: We’re older. We’re less in our heads, I think. We are creating more content and better content in less time, because we’ve kept at it. We have lived more life… we’ve all grown as people, together, over time; all of that informs the music.
AF: Tell us about your single “Thunder In My Head.” I’m dying to know what the bathtub is all about…
NA: Haha! The bathtub idea came to me as a visual expression of what it’s like to perform a song to the public that makes you feel naked. I’m sharing this intimate experience, I’m having this private moment in all of these outdoor spaces, and while my experience is personal and terrifying and feels magnanimous, I’m just one person in the wilderness. The spaces are bigger than I am and by the end of the song; my individual experience becomes a collective one.
AF: What can fans expect from a Prinze George show? Is there an impromptu element to your live show or do you stay true to your recordings?
NA: I think Isabelle is probably the most exciting element of our live show. We sound solid live, but she is the most exciting performer to watch. I have my moments too, but I tend to focus on just being a sound when we’re performing. Kenny exists somewhere in between.
There aren’t many Brooklyn bands that can convince high-profile performance artists like Marina Abramović to brave Bushwick’s divey DIY scene, but Sound of Ceres did just that last August, during their month-long residency at Alphaville. Then again, Sound of Ceres stretches the boundaries of what it means to be a band, interacting with morphing, mesmerizing laser-light visuals throughout their live show. Currently on tour in support of their recently-released sophomore album The Twin (via Joyful Noise Recordings), the band’s constant evolution plays out not just in the show’s visuals, but on the newest album as well; so maybe it’s not so surprising that an artist like Abramović, whose work deals with human interaction and liminal selves, would find an act like Sound of Ceres compelling.
Sound of Ceres was formed in 2014 by partners Karen and Ryan Hover, from the remains of their shoegazey recording project Candy Claws. Alongside Kay Bertholf and a rotating cast of musicians, the Hovers released three albums under the moniker, each more conceptually dense than the last. Their final LP, Ceres & Calypso in the Deep Time, was built around the narrative of a girl (Calypso, Kay’s alter-ego) and her pet white seal Ceres (who represented Karen), traveling through a pre-historic sound collage known as the Deep Time (Ryan, naturally). With a completed narrative arc in the bag, the Hovers felt it was time to move on artistically (and physically – they relocated from Colorado to Brooklyn around the same time).
“We decided it was time to start something new, that a new story could be told,” Karen explains when we speak over the phone. “There were a lot of other members in Candy Claws over the years, and people had moved away, and it just seemed more natural to start something new with different people.” Whereas Candy Claws existed mainly within the confines of a recording studio, the Hovers wanted to tour behind their new project, although Karen would remain the voice behind it – hence the carryover of the name “Ceres.”
“We really wanted Sound of Ceres to expand a little bit,” she says. They tapped guitarist Derrick Bozich, Ben Phelan of Apples in Stereo, and Jacob Graham, formerly of The Drums, though his role in Sound of Ceres was more like that of an artistic director than musical contributor; he’s the one responsible for developing the mechanics behind the band’s innovative live light show. “Pooling all these different influences has created a unique sound that I don’t think we could’ve come up with on our own,” admits Karen. “Sound of Ceres is a lot more synth-heavy; all of the members that we work with now are very interested in analogue and modular synthesizers, so we’re getting a lot of sounds that we haven’t used before just ’cause we never totally went there with Candy Claws.”
The band released their first album, Nostalgia for Infinity, in 2016; around that time, Ryan picked up a copy of The Magic Mountain, the celebrated German novel written by German author Thomas Mann in 1924. It provided the conceptual seeds for The Twin. Karen says that Ryan is “a big reader, and really draws reference from books to make albums.” She adds, “I think it’s hard for him to sit down and make music if he doesn’t have this idea behind it that is kind of inspired from literature that he’s been reading.”
But The Twin also draws on references from modern writers. The band had longtime friend and sci-fi author Alastair Reynolds pen an accompanying narrative based on demos they’d send back and forth as they worked on the record. Reynolds’ story appears on the back cover of the album art, as well as in a specially-printed booklet included with the Limited Edition version of the oxblood-and-bone colored vinyl.
Many of the songs sent to Reynolds, it turns out, changed drastically once Sound of Ceres traveled to Iceland to put finishing touches on the record. Their reasons for doing so went beyond the inspiring setting – they planned to work with producer Alex Somers, whose notable collaborations include working with Jónsi of Sigur Ros, Julianna Barwick, Leif Vollebekk, and Briana Marela. “We’ve known Alex for a few years and have enjoyed each others’ musics,” says Karen. “We were very interested to see how he would apply his own kind of ethereal mystical presence to our record. And just the joy of going to another country and finishing our record in this place that seems so isolated and very different from the rest of the world was very intriguing in itself.” Somers pushed Sound of Ceres well outside of their comfort zone, Karen says. “We’ve always been afraid in the past to have the vocals be very apparent and on top, [/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”][or use] many layers of vocals. He also had the take on percussion being more in the foreground, which we had not done before either. He added some sampling of his own and really brought the drums and vocals to the foreground.”
Of course, the biggest change was a move away from guitar sounds and into synth-laden territory, something that had already begun to happen with the band organically, but that Somers also encouraged. “Our guitar player Derrick has a Mellotron pedal for his guitar so live, he’s essentially playing the guitar but it sounds like a Mellotron,” says Karen with a laugh. “[We’re] trying to do different things with the instruments that we have to get new sounds.”
The payoff looms large in the otherworldly, expansive feeling of The Twin; Karen’s delicate singing floats in an effervescent wonderland of languorous synth modulations, punched up with textural percussion. Tracks like “Gemini Scenic” and “Humaniora” have positively glacial sparkle, while the title track’s glissandos, pensive riffs, and orchestral flourishes are the stuff of sci-fi cinema. Fans of Broadcast might have to catch their breath at the uncanny similarity; against a kindred background of heady dream-pop inflected electronica, Karen is a dead ringer for the late Trish Keenan. The Twin crackles with the icy isolation of space, but Karen’s plaintive intonations of Ryan’s humanistic lyrics have the spark of warm-blooded terrestrial life meditating on deeper meaning and reaching out for connection across the vastness of the universe.
It’s hard to imagine what that might’ve sounded like before the band’s trip to Iceland; these sweeping changes transformed the album into another work entirely. Karen says shadows of its former execution remained, like a mirror version of the same being, or a twin of itself – hence the record’s title. “The songs were already there, the melodies and lines were developed and such, but when we took it to Alex it really changed a lot,” Karen admits. “We’re very curious to maybe someday release what we had in the first place to see what people would think.”
For now, Karen, Ryan, and the rest of Sound of Ceres are content to let the material continue to mutate into whatever it may be. While on the road, Karen says that even their carefully choreographed laser show evolves from city to city. “Our August residency was the first time we really felt like this was the show we’ve always wanted to have,” she recalls. “As we’re on tour we think of new ideas in the car, like new ways to use the equipment we already have. We’re able to implement the changes pretty quickly, so every night it’s different.” Too many bands get lost in their own egos, but Sound of Ceres’ willingness to shapeshift – bending like a quick flash of laser light, blipping in and out like the faint transmission of a far off galaxy – is what makes them a force to be reckoned with.
The Twin is out now via Joyful Noise Recordings. Catch Sound of Ceres at one of their remaining tour dates below.
10/24 – St Louis, MO @ Foam
10/25 – Lexington, KY @ The Burl
11/11 – South Holland, MI @ Fireside Brew
11/12 – Chicago, IL @ Burlington Bar
11/13 – Indianapolis, IN @ Square Cat Vinyl
11/16 – Greenville, SC @ Cabin Floor Records
11/18 – Lynchburg, VA @ Riverviews Gallery
11/19 – Brooklyn, NY @ Silent Barn[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]
Two years ago, Baltimore trio Future Islands had a huge breakthrough with poignant single “Seasons (Waiting on You),” finding the success they’d been seeking since 2006. Hoping to continue that momentum, they released a teaser single from their forthcoming record The Far Field just last week. Titled “Ran,” their latest track does not reinvent the wheel; rather, it redirects the aforementioned wheel toward, well, the future. A subtle evolution of contemporary catharsis, “Ran” falls into line with Future Islands’ racing movie-trailer-esque encapsulation, magnifying the many warped intricacies of a single feeling with bellowing tenacity.
“What’s a song without you/when every song I write is about you?” concedes singer Samuel T. Herring, returning with his signature tenderized, chest-pounding vocal exorcism. He’s theatrical, vulnerable and filled to the brim with guttural fight or flight, and his notoriously unique inflection resonates with a sense of well-rounded heartache on “Ran”, each breath an emotionally acrobatic moment. Islands’ ability to unite emotional strain with synth-drenched melody and steadfast percussion reveals a masterful conviction and commitment to navigating the contemporary. For a song that seems determined to revive a love affair that is D.O.A/D.N.R, Future Islands do what they do best: illuminating various, winding paths from the darkness. (Oh, and growling. Lots of growling.)
What better way to express an impassioned, tumultuous romantic entanglement than through a tropical, pop whirlwind that is as torn and collaborative in its conception as the aforementioned relationship? “El Segundo” is the latest sonic story from Assemble Sound resident producer and synth-pop artist Nydge who is as masterful as a collaborator as he is a solo entity. With an impeccable flair for sophisticated and positively infectious hooks and shoulder-shimmying beats, here Nydge finds an accessibility without conceding his innately distinct auditory architecture. “I try and be as intentional as I can with making music and with the Nydge project, specifically. I want to make pop music as interesting as possible while still being consumable,” explains producer/artist Nigel Van Hemmye. “Often times I find myself trashing musical sketches early on, sometimes less than an hour in. I now find my way to be more akin to mining for ideas. Sometimes I go deep into the cave of creativity to come out with nothing. My job, then, isn’t to make something amazing every day, it’s to be ready, patient, open and excited to strike gold; pickaxe in hand.”
Featuring multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Kim Vi whose contribution aided the tracks rolling momentum and solidified Nydge’s commitment to concise layers, “El Segundo” is refined yet grinds with a untamed attitude. “I’ve never been to El Segundo. I didn’t even know it existed until Kim Vi spouted it out for the first line of the first verse. Kim is a welcome asset to any writing session.” Nigel says. “Throughout the song I used his arsenal of abilities, ranging from guitar, bass, singing, clapping and chordal changes.” The result? A textural playscape that is tender and frustrating with an intoxicatingly pop-purist bounce that could just as easily be a dance-floor groove or a fiery backseat rendezvous.
Listen to the latest from Nydge (ft. Kim Vi) below:
Three revered names in indie pop made their presences known before a simple light display akin to a cross between an electrocardiogram and a music staff. You have the sharply dressed bassist Björn Yttling donning a blazer, while drummer John Eriksson took his seat behind the kit, standing out in a simple white baseball cap. Finally, lead singer and guitarist Peter Morén positions himself at the other end of the stage in what resembles a utility suit. All three are unified in their look with an array of the band’s patches on their navy blue outfits, as well as name tags – you know, in case you forgot who you were there to see.
Morén quipped that back in 2000, they signed a contract stating that if anyone left the band, they had to replace him with somebody of the same name. Fast forward sixteen years and seven records later, and Peter Bjorn and John are back with an even more danceable new sound that challenges the classic definition of pop music and conveys no less energy in the live show.
Peter jumped over the barrier of the pit early on to walk around the crowd during “It Don’t Move Me,” for a rock ‘n’ roll display – “I’m not a big fan of rock,” he says. “Rock ‘n’ roll, on the other hand, it’s kinda sexy.” – which set the tone for the etiquette of the evening: dance with complete disregard for the space around you, and don’t stop moving.
While this tour spotlights the most infectious pop tracks off the new record, Breakin’ Point, a taste of each of their previous records worked seamlessly into the mix: a performance of “Eyes” that highlighted Bjorn’s talent on bass, Peter guiding the crowd through a singalong of “Dig A Little Deeper,” and John’s command over the slowed down breakbeat of “Amsterdam,” which brought back memories for both me and the girl behind me, who said that “every song from 2007 just flashed in [/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”][her] mind.”
Along with bringing outside producers into the mix for Breakin’ Point, two new touring members have accompanied the band this time around, allowing them to achieve a live sound closer to what you hear on their records. Peter took the time out to introduce the two “dear friends and talented musicians,” Freja on backing vocals and percussion, and Klaus on the computer and keyboard. In addition, Julian Harmon of POP ETC took over on the bongos while Freja took center stage as the female counterpart in “Young Folks,” the hipster whistle song that just turned ten this year.
But Peter Bjorn and John continue to prove over and over again that they are beyond capable of getting more than just that song and “Second Chances” stuck in your head for days on end. Closing out the show with “I Know You Don’t Love Me,” which is no slower but a bit more mellow, the trio still makes use of the whole stage and every ounce of vitality left in them during the song’s extended instrumental bridge.
The upbeat intensity of the live performance showcases the harmony that makes Peter Bjorn and John work so well together. As Peter said, “You meet someone, you do some things, 10 years later you have a family.”
At first, you might think the video for Infinity Shred’s single “Choir VI” is a video game demo or a preview of an upcoming trippy movie. It pulls you in with its fascinating 3-D graphics and captures your entire attention, to the point that you won’t even realize that it’s been three minutes since you began watching it. The entire track tells a story of wonderment and intrigue, as you follow an adventurous skateboarder into a church in the woods where he has an ethereal experience as he warps and twists and floats away after skating around a bit. The song features chills-inducing drums by Clara Warnaar and entrancing synths, all of which work together to create this piece full of nostalgia and innocence. It’s the first single off Infinity Shred’s upcoming full-length Long Distance, which is due out on October 14.
Although The Old Adage and their synth heavy, diy-pop sound is far from old news, we’re just now getting around to showing brother and sister duo Mimi and Nino Chavez’s some TLC. Formed back in 2012, The Old Adage has been trudging along as an independent duo (enduring a name change, a band line-up change and change back) releasing their sophomore album Cycles last year.
Confusing and cheeky, the track “RED” is a bit theatrically challenged and misses some attention to detail (I really wish someone would have ironed the table cloth) but in a way that is chalk full of charm and allure. Opening with what feels like a nod to Alice and Wonderland, the color red is brought to the forefront and we are introduced to Mimi, who takes on the role of distressed woodland witch, and Nino, who seems to have lost his car in a parking garage.
The labyrinthian cat and mouse chase between the two matches the urgency emoted by the songs tempo but throws too much at us to really grasp what’s going on. There are blips of stunning imagery and thoughtful lighting (i.e. Mimi in a studio setting backlit by a smokey red light and Nino’s overhead shot running through the stairwell) but most of the time it seems like an unintentional homage to Tommy Wisseau’s famed disaster movie The Room.
It may be a matter of difference in taste and aesthetic, but I can say that what The Old Adage has done is far from disingenuous. If anything, the kitsch factor (whether intentional or not) is the video’s very saving grace (which is just as confusing of a point as the video is a video). The song is danceable yet brooding enough to warrant a high-energy mysterious video counterpart.
My only wish is that they would have found a way to refine their vision and ditch the tangled story-line to pack a harder punch and to drag the darkness into the spotlight a bit more effectively.
Get caught in the rat race/brother sister chase below:
“The Modern Life” is a soundtrack-ready anthem, the shimmering synth-pop tune would work wonders as the credits roll on Girls, or your summer road trip playlist, or late night dance party, musically encompassing the pleasure and pains of millennial existence. Marks, aka, LA-based Lindsay Marcus, writes for TV and film, but with her project Marks – it’s all for her own listeners. “The Modern Life” is the title track from her debut album, which comes out June 3.
“The title track came at a point in the album where I felt like I hit my stride in production,” says Marks of the song. “By the time I got to this song, I realized I was allowing my subconscious to make a lot of the decisions with the lyrics. To me, it felt like an honest way of songwriting. While I may listen to the song now and realize it’s about something specific, it might mean something completely different to the listener and I love that.”
Multi-instrumentalist Alex Kaye and vocalist Lianna Vanicelli are Valley Hush, Detroit’s celestial pop duo whose flirtatious macabre swells in their latest single “Iris.” For a song that encapuslates escapism without sounding recklessness, “Iris” is a seamlessly produced mélange of jutting synths, animated chiming, and cosmic vocals that what at times feels like a marriage between Bollywood and Portishead on amphetamines.
“Iris” is a tempestuous seduction of straight lines and blurred edges that challenge the traditional trajectory of a sexy pop song. If rolling your hips in slow motion had a soundtrack, this would be it. In its provocation, “Iris” never feels cheap or expected. The track exudes an aural illusion of time being rewound and fast forwarded simultaneously, and reveals glimpses of the complete real-time picture, reminding us that the beauty of the track is in its visual symphony. Paired with the imaginative orchestration, Vanicelli’s voice quivers with a spacial lucidity through the airy phrasing of the lyrics: “I know that it can be hard to wake up/sometimes the nights are moving slow/you think you’re dying alone /and I know how the highs get low.”
There is never a moment in “Iris” that feels nostalgic. This comes as a compliment. Valley Hush found a space between the present and future, crafting a sensual purgatory that is as sincere as it is politely hedonistic.
Brooklyn singer/songwriter Kelsey Byrne, better known under the moniker VÉRITÉ, recently released her latest track, “Underdressed,” and boy does it pack a punch. The single weaves a tale of vulnerability in romance; and points to one’s willingness to bend to the needs and desires of their partner, especially when trying to keep the relationship afloat.
At first, you might not pick up on the sobering content of track if you’re just grooving along to the poppy synths and Byrne’s upbeat vocals. It’s a powerful sentiment sung by a powerful lady, and it’s sure to be a track you’ll keep on repeat for some time.
Catch VÉRITÉ on tour this spring, and listen to “Underdressed” below.
A star by any names, Joanie Wolkoff, formerly performing under Her Habits, an AudioFemme Artist of the Month, is back. Wolkoff’s addictive collaboration with The Hood Internet, “Going Back” is still stuck in my head, yet her latest release, “The Homecoming” might just be the first song by any artist to start a new reign in my grey matter.
“The Homecoming” is the Canadian-turned New Yorker’s first song off her debut album, Without Shame, due out April 15. Indeed, shame is for humans, in the synth-pop artist’s transformation to surname recognition she flutters into goddess territory. On “The Homecoming,” Wolkoff’s signature vocals remain, delicate yet undoubtably lethal, like assassination via tai chi. They’re paired with glittering and hypnotic synth beats; the song and album were “inspired by symphonic 90’s euro-pop and deep house coupled with new wave motifs.” Adding spice to the cauldron, the album was engineered by the Grammy-winning Ariel Borujow and produced by Icarus Moth.
“The Homecoming” just premiered on Noisey, take a listen below.
It’s New Years Eve-Eve, and I’m flooded with the sounds of the past year. 2015 saw the rise of Detroit music in an unforgettable way. Our musicians took to the stage and to the studio with an unmistakable fire under their asses, in turn producing one of the most emotive soundtracks for the year as a whole. Detroit had something to say and people listened. I could go on and on about how I feel about the textural landscape of what this city produced this year, and how for the first time in years I felt moved and compelled to share my findings with the same enthusiasm one might reserve for opening Christmas gifts. I could talk about how Wolf Eyes‘ I am a Problem: Mind in Pieces broke my heart in ways I thought impossible, or how Moonwalks‘ Lunar Phases pushed me back to being in smokey concert venues, chasing after psychedelic rock bands when I was 16, making me feel younger than I did when I was actually young. So instead, I asked a few Detroit artists, most of whom released music this year, what local release stood out to them in 2015, and what they are most anticipating in the coming year. If what we heard is any indication of what’s to come, my suggestion is to brace yourselves: Detroit just got started.
FAVORITE OF 2015: My favorite release is a single track. Absofacto’s “Dissolve” hit me hard out of wintery nowhere in early February of 2015 (and I’d been working in studio with Jon Visger on and off for a while at that point) – but that’s how he works. Lurks, rather, within shadows. Jon Visger wrote, produced, and released this song himself. Nostalgic alarms reminiscent of mid-90s Boards of Canada fire the song into motion and are quickly joined by the fast-approaching outer edge of the track’s structural spine: the drums. They weigh about a thousand pounds each and somehow I feel weightless upon their anticipated arrival. (Sweaty like Black Moth Super Rainbow, yet crisp like Com Truise.) You’re soon swallowed up by the groove in its entirety, where bass is vicious and Visger’s vocals emerge. Lyrics speak out from a character’s entangled, love-sore point of view: a last-ditch effort farewell letter/self-evaluation. Love’s magnetism paired equally with its potential volatility.
MOST ANTICIPATED IN 2016: Recently, I listened to a bunch of new demos at Assemble Sound studio in Detroit with bassist Jeff Cuny of the band Valley Hush. I was pretty taken aback by how much things have blossomed sonically and vocally for them since hearing them in 2014. They’re a newer band, and for me it’s exciting to watch a group’s sound evolve and sometimes quite rapidly. It sounded like they have been experimenting, which is great, so I’m excited for what’s to come.
MOST ANTICIPATED IN 2016: It would have to be my bandmate and roommate Anna Burch’s new batch of solo songs that I’ve been thick in the midst of watching her create over the past year or so. Her melodies and lyrical voice are both really captivating. She hasn’t officially said it will come out this year, but I’m hoping.
FAVORITE OF 2015: Dwelling Lightheartedly In The Futility Of Everything by Matthew Daher was an early 2015 release, but stuck with me for the whole year. It’s not a pop or dance album and the songs are challenging – they seem to be five different animals that live together in the same cave. But like magic, they opened up and travelled through me like a dance. “Cyclicity” seemed like it was written just for me, and I was lucky enough to collab with Matt and produce a video for the song. Just a beautiful exchange of energy on that collaboration.
MOST ANTICIPATED IN 2016: My most anticipated local release is whatever Ritual Howls put out because holy crap, their 2014 release, Turkish Leather, makes my eyes roll back in my head with my tongue hanging out like cartoon dog drooling over a steak or bone or whatever dumb food item cartoon dogs like to eat. I’ll be spying on them online until I see something released!
FAVORITE OF 2015:I would by lying if I said a local release stuck out enough to be regarded as a favorite in 2015. Most of what I heard locally was a recollection of once unsuccessful “indie” bands until the 90’s came back, hip/trip-hop and grunge were openly repurposed, and Ableton was accepted as everyone’s backing track. If anything, Tunde Olaniran had a track I dug off of Transgressor. In my opinion, the only good thing that happened in Detroit and nationally in 2015 is that more female artists demanded and took the attention of listeners. At this point in time and in the bigger picture, this is more important than any best of the year list.
End the work week with a synth pop track from Brooklyn-based The Rungs. Teen movie guitar rock aligns with lyrics of shared secrets, romance, and running away sung by Mandy Gurung, joined by husband/bandmate Diwas Gurung for harmonizations fit for a Julia Stiles romance. “Whispers” is a catchy song of light-hearted trouble making set to jump off your weekend.
Joanie Wolkoff, former vocalist of Her Habits (and my forever crush) has moved onto something new and isn’t going back. She recently released “Going Back,” the first single from her new project, named straight to the point – Wolkoff. If Her Habits was a persona, from the name alone I’m excited to fall in love with the person.
Putting aside all music blog jargon – I love this song. Like, listen on repeat love it, play it on a rooftop in the summer love it, put it on my sex play list love it, cry in the shower love it. “Of the lies you told when you kept me down now I’m building speed just cant turn around…Not going back again.” It breaks my heart to hear about anyone hurting the goddess that is Joanie, but dear girl, your artistic expression of pain (with a triumphant ‘tude) is musically pure pleasure. It’s slowed-down synth pop that hits the soul, something pop music rarely achieves, but when it does it’s enough to make you dizzy.
Wolkoff is finishing up her new EP, a collaboration with producer Icarus Moth that we can expect to see out in late August.
Tomboy is Will Shore and Sarah Aument, a Brooklyn synth pop duo. Will contributes the backing music for Sarah’s sultry vocals, and the result is songs that are both heavy and melodic, reminiscent of Little Dragon mixed with some Zella Day. The beat of their new single “Say I” draws you in, and then you’re captivated by a sweet voice that hides something darker: “You set me up like stacks of paper on the table ever since you met me/Rearrange me, ball and chain me, entertain me/ Just so that you want me,” Aument sings, drawing out words and syllables as if she can’t bear to part with them completely.
Catch them in action at their March 5th album release party at Lot 45, and check out “Say I” below!
Brooklyn brother and sister duo, Katie and Ben Marshall, record as Paperwhite and have just revealed their fourth song this year, titled “Pieces.” It’s a bright, airy slice of neon-tinged eighties nostalgia, and a gloriously uplifting attitude adjuster. The track will feature on their upcoming EP, Magic, out on Duly Noted Records on November 17, which will also include previously released singles “Magic,” “Take Me Back,” and “Got Me Goin” as well as two yet to be revealed tracks, “Gold” and “Galaxy.”
“Did you know? From the second you walked in I wanted more. And in a minute I’ll be losing all control…” begins “Pieces,” which, according to Katie, describes the trance and magnetism of love at first sight. “And if it’s right, will these pieces fit together?” she asks, the track continuing in the dreamy tone of young love, as yet unblemished by the cynicism of experience. “While it questions if they’re the one,” Katie says, “it’s backed with an energizing spirit and hopefulness that they are. It makes me want to dance, move and forever stay in love.”
It certainly makes us want to dance too — in fact, the crisp synths and power pop chorus makes us forget the creeping approach of winter and entices us to throw the top down, wrap our arms around the nearest dreamboat and cruise off into the sunset in the style of all the best 1980s teen movies.
Paperwhite have a CMJ date at Webster Hall’s Marlin Room on October 21, then, on November 5, they will be supporting Panama Wedding at Rough Trade NYC.
Jarrah McCleary, the classically trained pianist and experimental synth pop artist behind Sydney-based Panama, may be Australian on paper, but the title track opener to Panama’s sophomore EP Always tells a different story: he’s clearly got L.A. in his soul. Singalong-worthy and summery, “Always” starts the release off with piano-heavy pop that doesn’t overthink itself. That’s not a bad thing–the music perfectly evokes blissful hot summer car rides and uncomplicated friendships. Over the course of just three tracks (plus bonus “Strange Feeling,” on the version released on AudioFemme’s side of the pond!)–and corresponding remixes–though, Always moves inward, with the more introspective “How We Feel” and downright dark “Destroyer.” I’ve never been to Australia, but by the EP’s end, Always seems more reminiscent of the sparse but beautiful bush country where McCleary grew up.
“When I write I think about the long road ahead,” McCleary told Vice in an interview in late 2012. You can hear the nomadic leanings in his music, too: it’s not the lightness of “Always” that’s endemic to Panama’s music. McCleary’s songwriting style reflects the process of travel, and of a full absorption of the environment he finds wherever he goes. That approach makes for meticulous music–McCleary’s as much an observer as he is a musician. The attention to detail that goes into this album lends itself to shorter releases, too, which is why it makes sense that Panama has yet to release a full-length LP.
Like debut It’s Not Over, Always gears towards an electrically colorful synth pop, but on this release McCleary assumes a new assuredness over his music’s texture and subtlety. To that end, I could have done without the remixes–I would have preferred more original tracks on the back half of this thing. Whereas the remixes make up a recalibrating of an already complex balance of instrumentation and evocation, I would have rather seen McCleary take his travels further, and have more revelations like the external-to-internal move that happens in the short space between the blissfulness of “Always” and the lonesomeness of “Destroyer.”
Yesterday I spent a long time thinking about Prince. Someone on Facebook declared the lyrics to “Da Bourgeoisie,” a song released in 2013, “homophobic.” And Price has, in the past, made several statements, both in person and through his music, which were anti-queer and transmisogynistic. He still blows my mind with every new piece of music he creates, but since becoming a member of Jehova’s Witnesses in 2001, Prince has not only ditched his healthy respect for sexuality, he’s lost the thing that drew me to his music in the first place—his own, unashamed sexual ambiguity. It’s difficult to separate the person and the persona when opinions make their way into music. With that in mind, I’d like to take us back to the Prince of old, to my favorite Prince album, and some of the most brilliantly crafted, critical, rebellious, and inspiring work of the ’80s: Controversy.
The opening track is “Controversy,” arguably the most popular from the album, and perhaps deservedly. It’s a funky, thumping, personal anthem that questions everything about society and self. He directly brings up his ambiguous identity: “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” But he never actually tries to answer those questions. This seven minute-long song moves between catchy, rolling verses and textured sections meant to provoke “controversy.” Midway through the song, Prince, joined by other voices, recites the “Our Father” over the funky bass line. Then, a final section with some of the best lyrics of any rebel tune: “People call me rude / I wish we all were nude / I wish there was no black and white / I wish there were no rules.” This is a song about breaking the rules, not just for any cause, but for love. Prince, here, desires a world without boundaries on our physical, sexual, and social selves.
From there he moves into three of the most sensual songs he’s ever written. There’s the obvious, “Sexuality,” the fun and vulgar, “Jack U Off,” and the downright erotic, “Do Me, Baby.” “Sexuality” has a similar sound to “Controversy,” pounding and upbeat, and it also has a fairly direct message: “Sexuality is all you’ll ever need / Sexuality, let your body be free!” All the while he’s screeching, yelping, and beckoning the listener to him. Three quarters of the way through there’s the hypnotic mantra: “Reproduction of a new breed / leaders, stand up, organize!” It’s an electrical, in-your-skin kind of song. “Jack U Off” is the final song on the album and it has a crazy synth melody that paints visuals of a disco-lit ’80s-themed circus dance. This is a song about pleasing others. Where will Prince help you get off? In the back of a movie theater, in a restaurant, in a Cadillac. When will Prince help you get off? When you’re tired of masturbating, when you want to lose your virginity, when you’re menopausal.
And of course, there’s “Do Me, Baby,” the longest song on the album. It’s a slow, hypnotic melody in which Prince casts himself in the typically “feminine” role in a sex scene. He croons in a glazed, fragile falsetto, “Take me baby! / Kiss me all over / Play with my love” and his voice is beyond seduction. There’s no suggestion here: Prince doesn’t want to be teased, he demands to be “had.” But the actual erotica comes in at five minutes. A few funky notes pave the way for Prince to talk to his imagined lover. He sucks air in through his teeth and moans and groans, encouraging and guiding his partner. It’s dirty. It might be a little awkward if you play it in the car with your mom. But mostly it’s just entrancing.
Two tracks on “Controversy” are distinctly political or, at least, critical of the American government. “Ronnie Talk to Russia” is an overwhelming force of choral and synth melody and powerful guitar solo. It almost feels harsh, musically and lyrically. The electric guitar vibrates underneath all of the choral pomp. All the while, Prince implores Ronald Reagan to “talk to Russia before it’s too late / before they blow up the world.” At the end of the song, a jarring explosion is heard. Though this has a satirical tone, it’s cutting enough to hurt, rather than make you laugh. “Annie Christian,” though, is the song with the greatest connection to Prince’s new philosophies. It chronicles the actions of “Annie Christian,” a greedy, power-hungry, religious figure against the backdrop of a more minimalistic, experimental rhythm and tone. Prince’s voice, in particular, has an almost mechanical echo on this track. In the first verse, a glory-hound, Annie “bought a blue car” and “killed black children.” He tells her in the chorus that until she’s “crucified” for what she’s done, he’ll live his life in “taxi cabs.” The second verse focuses on the “bad girl” Annie who buys a gun and uses it to kill John Lennon. But it’s only when she tries to kill Ronald Reagan that everyone cries “gun control!” Prince highlights the actions of extremists—Christian, criminal, conservative—with Annie, the anti-Christ, standing in for the many crimes which have slipped under the radar. It was a great time when Prince was pointing out the misgivings and contradictions of American society and what they force people into.
This album, though only 8 songs long, exemplifies the kind of brilliance that can come out of a combination of risk-taking and strong ambition. These are incredibly dynamic, masterfully produced hits that curve around and between genre and theme. Personal ambiguity drips over every word. It’s fascinating. It belongs to a certain point in time, but it’s still very relevant, as a response to what is socially acceptable and as a look into the complexity of political and, particularly, sexual identity.
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