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.

FESTIVAL REVIEW: Highlights from Pickathon 2019

I’m somewhat of a veteran outdoor music festivals—growing up in Seattle, my hippy musician parents would tote me around to local festivals like Folklife and Bumbershoot, and several summer music camps throughout the west coast. By ten years-old, I was well-acquainted with dusty Birkenstock-clad feet, the usefulness of a good waterproof fanny pack, and the sneaky ways to smuggle a little hooch past festival security.

Sudan Archives performing at Pickathon 2019. Courtesy of Pickathon.

That said, I have never been to a music festival quite as perfect as Portland’s Pickathon. It’s probably the best outdoor festival I’ve ever attended, because it’s actually as diverse, sustainable, and well-organized as it promotes itself to be. The meticulously curated bill is the cherry on top.

Though this year was my first, 2019 marks Pickathon’s 21st birthday. The festival, located on the idyllic 80-acre Pendarvis Farm in southeast Portland, began in 1998 as a small bluegrass festival and has grown into a 6-stage camp-out extravaganza showcasing a large variety of musical styles and artists. In fact, Pitchfork named Pickathon “The Most Unique Music Festival of 2018.”

For someone like me who loves variety in their festival experience and blending genres, it was so awesome to see some of my favorite roots-y groups like Lucius—the duo of Jess Wolf and Holly Laessig—and Fruit Bats, the quirky indie-folk project of songwriter Eric Johnson, and then turn around and catch artists like the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band, fierce rap artist Karma Rivera, and blistering noise punk band, Help.

Along with genre diversity, Pickathon also does an excellent job of showcasing women and non-binary artists—an issue many festivals have come under fire for in recent years. Pickathon, mindful of the gap in gender representation on festival bills, featured 44% female/non-binary artists this year, including Black Belt Eagle Scout, fronted by queer, indigenous artist Katherine Paul,  tender Australian singer-songwriter, Julia Jacklin, and Canadian ambient-folk artist Ora Cogan.

Pickathon is also incredibly sustainable. Along with using solar power, recycling, and composting, I never saw a single-use cup, plate, or utensil used on the grounds. Instead, when you arrive, they give you a metal cup—which most people attach to their belt with a stylish carabiner. There are also wooden tokens you use to get compostable plates and wooden utensils for your meals. Despite seeing about 3,500 attendees per day, the festival’s green dishware system works well to eliminate the need for plastics and decrease the festival’s overall footprint—and it becomes a powerful part of the festival’s culture, too. As one happy five-year-old said as he stood behind me in the dinner line, “This cup on my belt makes me feel cool.”

It’s true, the diversity and sustainability is a really cool part of Pickathon—as is the festival’s and intimate, down-to-earth feel. Pickathon’s relaxed vibe seems to stem from the beauty of the site and from how well-organized Pickathon is.

If you’re camping onsite, they’ve truly thought of everything­string lights line every wooded trail to light the way to your campsite, there are outdoor showers for $6, ice is available on-site, and there’s even multiple kid areas and a breastfeeding tent. If you don’t want to pack in a tent, you can pay a little more for them to set one up for you. They’ve also got a sizeable staff that are all quite familiar with the grounds and stages and can help you get where you need to be, and they’re all happy to help because Pickathon treats them so well. (Along with free all-you-can-eat food and drinks, they offered perks like free massages backstage for staff and artists.)

The down-to-earth feel impacts the way you experience the music at the festival too—while some booked it to catch big-name artists like Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, most people were content hanging at their favorite stage on a blanket, or wandering around with no agenda. This was my favorite way to do the festival because it left me open to discovering new music—like that of the incredible ambient folk artist Ora Cogan, from British Columbia—and it allowed me to sink into the calming natural environment.

In fact, I was just roaming the grounds when I landed at the Lucky Barn, a refurbished, air-conditioned barn full of eclectic items and a gorgeous living-room style stage. The Lucky Barn is a little different than other stages because in between songs artists are interviewed by journalists and radio personalities, giving listeners more context into their music. Midday Saturday, I caught the latter end of rapper Karma Rivera’s face-melting set. Between ruckus-inducing songs that had listeners on their feet, she and Fabi Reyna of She Shreds Magazine dove into issues of race and gentrification in Portland and how that has impacted the way rap music—and black people in general—are received in the area. The fact that a discussion like that could happen live on-stage in a constructive way is a testament to Pickathon’s efforts towards inclusion. (Though that isn’t to say they couldn’t do better. Karma was one of the only rap artists on the bill, and I second what she said during her Lucky Barn set—Pickathon could use even more representation of black artists and musical styles!)

Friends dancing to The Beths. Courtsey of Pickathon.

Another highlight for me was catching a band I’ve loved for years—Fruit Bats—in one of the most incredible listening areas I’ve ever seen. You can tell that Pickathon’s organizers really consider which stages will best suit which artists, and that takes the listening experience to the next level for festival-goers.

The Woods Stage, made entirely from tree branches, looks a lot like a colorfully lit driftwood fort. It’s nestled inside a clearing in the woods where many lay their blankets, sit in chairs, or rest in the first-come first-serve hammocks in the back. As Fruit Bats’ songwriter Eric Johnson sang tracks from their new album, Gold Past Life, I sipped a beer, swung in a hammock, and stared up at the rustling tree tops. It was the perfect setting for the shimmering, introspective indie-folk Fruit Bats served up.

Finally, I understand why people come back to Pickathon year after year. Pickathon’s organizers have put in the time and effort—and then some—to make it a truly beautiful, memorable, and fun annual event to be a part of, and there is a real feel of family among the festival-goers. I came back with a nature high, achy dancing legs, and a whole list of new artists to delve into. What more could I ask for?

AF 2018 IN REVIEW: Our Favorite Albums and Singles of the Year

Here we are again! As the new year approaches, it’s time to look back and take stock of the albums and singles that defined this moment in music history. 2018 was an eclectic year, to say the least, and there are a lot of new names on the list: Tirzah, Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy, Noname, King Princess, and Kali Uchis all had phenomenal debuts this year, not to mention the inimitable Cardi B, who made good on the promise of last year’s smash hit “Bodak Yellow” with Invasion of Privacy in April. There were established artists who still managed to surprise us, whether in the form of unearthed Prince demos, The Arctic Monkeys’ loungey sci-fi concept album, Tim Hecker introducing us to ancient Japanese court music, Dev Hynes making his most personal Blood Orange record yet, or Lil Wayne finally dropping Tha Carter V. And then there are those artists who fall somewhere in between, their ascendant careers a thrill to watch as 2018 saw them finally hit their stride. US Girls. Yves Tumor. serpentwithfeet. And perhaps most spectacularly, Mitski and Janelle Monáe.

As each of our writers (and editors, too) created their own mini-lists, those were two names that kept cropping up, and there’s no doubt you’ve seen them on just about every year-end list on the interwebs. If there’s any chance you haven’t heard Be The Cowboy or Dirty Computer, by all means, fire up that Spotify Premium post haste. But the recommendations here are as diverse as our writers themselves, so we hope you’ll take time to explore some of the lesser-known, hardly hyped artists we’ve highlighted, too – and keep your eyes peeled for more year-end coverage as we cruise in to 2019.


  • Marianne White (Executive Director)

    Top 10 Albums:
    1) boygenuis – boygenius
    2) Soccer Mommy – Clean
    3) Nenah Cherry – Broken Politics
    4) Mitski – Be the Cowboy
    5) serpentwithfeet – soil
    6) CupcakKE – Ephorize
    7) Blood Orange – Negro Swan
    8) Autechre – NTS Sessions 1-4
    9) Snail Mail – Lush
    10) Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy
    Top 5 Singles:
    1) Let’s Eat Grandma – “Hot Pink”
    2) Jon Hopkins – “Emerald Rush”
    3) The Internet – “Look What You Started”
    4) Cardi B, Bad Bunny, J Balvin – “I Like It”
    5) boygenius – “Bite The Hand”

  • Lindsey Rhoades (Editor-in-Chief)

    Top 10 Albums:
    1) Low – Double Negative
    2) US Girls – In A Poem Unlimited
    3) Madeline Kenney – Perfect Shapes 
    4) Yves Tumor – Safe In The Hands of Love
    5) DJ Koze – Knock Knock
    6) Caroline Rose – Loner
    7) Tim Hecker – Konoyo
    8) Virginia Wing – Ecstatic Arrow
    9) Frigs – Basic Behaviour
    10) bedbug – i’ll count to heaven in years without seasons
    Top 10 Singles:
    1) Janelle Monáe – “Make Me Feel”
    2) Loma – “Black Willow”
    3) The Breeders – “All Nerve”
    4) SOPHIE – “Is It Cold In The Water?”
    5) Jonathan Wilson – “Loving You”
    6) Empath – “The Eye”
    7) Sibile Attar – “Paloma”
    8) Jono Ma & Dreems – “Can’t Stop My Dreaming (Of You)”
    9) Shopping – “Discover”
    10) Ed Schrader’s Music Beat – “Dunce”

  • Mandy Brownholtz (Social Media)

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Miserable – Lover Boy/Dog Days
    2) Snail Mail – Lush
    3) Mitski – Be The Cowboy
    4) Teyana Taylor – K.T.S.E.
    5) Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) Nothing – “Blue Line Baby”
    2) Hinds – “The Club”
    3) Mitski – “Nobody”

  • Lauren Zambri (Events)

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Amen Dunes – Freedom
    2) US Girls – In A Poem Unlimited
    3) Beach House – 7
    4) Iceage – Beyondless
    5) Tirzah – Devotion
    Top 5 Singles:
    1) Jenny Hval – “Spells”
    2) US Girls – “Velvet 4 Sale”
    3) Yves Tumor – “Licking An Orchid”
    4) Amen Dunes – “Believe”
    5) Low – “Always Trying to Work it Out”


  • Ashley Prillaman (Premieres, AudioMama)

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Alice Ivy – I’m Dreaming
    2) Sudan Archives – Sink
    3) Marlon Williams – Make Way For Love
    4) Earth Girl Helen Brown – Venus
    5) Rüfüs Du Sol – Solace
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) Rhye – “Taste”
    2) Alice Ivy – “Chasing Stars”
    3) Sudan Archives – “Nont For Sale”

  • Tarra Thiessen (Check the Spreadsheet)

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) DRINKS – Hippo Lite
    2) Shannon & the Clams – Onion
    3) Lost Boy ? – Paranoid Fiction
    4) Prince – Piano & a Microphone 1983 
    5) Sloppy Jane – Willow
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) Public Practice – “Fate/Glory”
    2) The Nude Party – “Chevrolet Van”
    3) Big Bliss – “Surface”

  • Natalie Kirch (Pet Politics)

    Top 10 Releases Out of the Brooklyn DIY Scene (in Chronological Order):
    1) THICK — Would You Rather? (Self-Released)
    2) BODEGA — Endless Scroll (What’s Your Rupture?)
    3) Baked — II (Exploding In Sound)
    4) Pecas — After Dark (Broken Circles)
    5) Big Bliss – At Middle Distance (Exit Stencil Recordings)
    6) Kevin Hairs — Freak In The Streets (GP Stripes)
    7) PILL – Soft Hell (Mexican Summer)
    8) Stove – ‘s Favorite Friend (Exploding In Sound)
    9) Lost Boy ? – Paranoid Fiction (Little Dickman Records/ Rich Moms)
    10) Janet LaBelle – I Only See You (Loantaka Records)

  • Sara Barron (Playing Detroit)

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Kali Uchis – Isolation
    2) Blood Orange – Negro Swan
    3) Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy
    4) Mitski – Be the Cowboy
    5) Noname – Room 25
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) Ama Lou – “Tried Up”
    2) Britney Stoney – “OD”
    3) Janelle Monáe – “PYNK”

  • Luci Turner (Playing Atlanta)

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) The Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
    2) The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
    3) Charles Bradley – Black Velvet
    4) Brandi Carlile – By The Way, I Forgive You
    5) Jack White – Boarding House Reach
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) The Raconteurs – “Now That You’re Gone”
    2) Mac Miller – “2009”
    3) Dead Naked Hippies – “Rare”

  • Victoria Moorwood (Playing Cincy)

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy
    2) Lil Wayne – Tha Carter V
    3) J. Cole – KOD
    4) Preme – Light of Day
    5) Jazz Cartier – Fleurever
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) Lil Wayne feat. Reginae Carter – “Famous”
    2) Cardi B – “Thru Your Phone”
    3) J. Cole – “Brackets”

  • Desdemona Dallas

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Noname – Room 25
    2) Flatbush Zombies – Vacation In Hell
    3) Mountain Man – Magic Ship
    4) Lucy Dacus – Historian
    5) Nao – Saturn
    Top 3 Singles:
    1)  Janelle Monáe – “Make Me Feel”
    2) Twin Shadow – “Saturdays”
    3) Sudan Archives – “Nont For Sale”

  • Erin Rose O’Brien

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Mitski — Be The Cowboy
    2) Antarctigo Vespucci — Love in the Time of E-mail
    3) Car Seat Headrest — Twin Fantasy
    4) Soccer Mommy — Clean
    5) Janelle Monáe — Dirty Computer
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) Bad Moves — “Cool Generator”
    2) The Beths — “Future Me Hates Me”
    3) Miya Folick — “Stop Talking”

  • Ysabella Monton

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Mitski – Be The Cowboy
    2) Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer
    3) Brockhampton – Iridescence
    4) Soccer Mommy – Clean
    5) Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) King Princess – “1950”
    2) Childish Gambino – “This is America”
    3) Pusha T – “If You Know You Know”

LIVE REVIEW: The Beths, Godcaster @ Alphaville

If you wear a fringe-sleeved shirt onstage, you’re bound to get it tangled in your tuning knobs—but this is of little concern to Judson Kolk. The guitarist and lead singer of Philadelphia rock outfit Godcaster flits around so swiftly, his tassels don’t have time to snarl. Calling Godcaster a “rock” band feels a little inaccurate, due to their theatrical set last Friday at ALPHAVILLE, as well as their clear distinction as a “sassy sassy rock band” on their Bandcamp page. And sassy they were; but also jazzy, and funky, and spastic, and dripping with riffs straight from the Nile Rodgers school of disco guitar.

It already seemed like a happy accident that Godcaster were opening the sold-out Beths show, considering the distant planet they’d traveled from. But even within their own group, its five members looked as though they’d materialized from five different bands—a refreshing visual given the proliferation of curated “lewks” we’ve come to expect from artists. These guys surely gave it some thought individually, but there was no overarching motif tying their styles together. You had Kolk, the rakish rock ‘n’ roll angel; Von Lee, a cherry-haired singer and flutist who was prone to convulsive fits of dancing (at one point she charged into the crowd carrying a single white clog); keyboardist David Mcfaul, rocking out like Weird Al on an arena tour; Bruce Ebersole, the laidback bassist; and Sam Pickard, a rail-thin drummer with sticker tattoos and a perpetual sneer. When they played, all that visual dissonance merged seamlessly in the music they made; a rattled cocktail of jam band, James Chance and the Contortions, and Sweet. Within thirty seconds of their set it was clear we were all in for a goofy time, complete with prog rock synthesizer and fractured flute solos. Within three minutes, I wished I could hire them for a house party.

Had it been a house party, Godcaster would have been the band in the sweaty basement, while the Beths would have ruled up on the rooftop. The New Zealand quartet couldn’t have differed more from their opening act, but in ways that only strengthened both bands’ performances. The Beths are a barebones, no-frills band, and to their benefit. They don’t talk much, and when they do, their self-effacing Kiwi humor makes up for their apparent clumsiness with stage banter, which twice consisted of a glib “Hi. We’re the Beths” via bandleader Elizabeth Stokes.

Their conversational abilities may not shine onstage, but their music can be blinding. Played live, the group’s modest catalog has space to stretch out, turn up, and bounce back from the crowd, who sang along to every chorus. The Beths opened with “Future Me Hates Me,” a biting slice of power pop and the title track off of their debut album, which they played the majority of. “Future Me Hates Me” is easily one of the best songs on that record, and hearing it live solidifies why that’s so. It’s got that one-two punch of great pop-rock: candied, blissful guitar hooks and candid self-loathing, both so well integrated that it’s difficult to separate the sugar from the spite. The same can be said for the anthemic “Little Death,” with its towering pop-punk riffs and succinct but colorful lines like, “you make me feel three glasses in.”

There was something wonderfully unpretentious about this gig, which is perhaps why it felt suited for a party. The Beths are a band unafraid to play power chords, sing about love, and do it all without a scrap of ego. Toward the end of their set, after repeatedly thanking the crowd, Stokes deadpanned: “Now we can go back to New Zealand and tell everyone we played a sold-out show in New York.” She paused and thought about it. “Maybe they’ll give us milk discounts or something.”