Outer Minds: Outer Minds Review
When I first heard the name Outer Minds, it was because local favorites The Blind Shake were championing this Chicago band, which is about all the recommending I need. I assumed that this meant the band would have a similar garage-rock-on-steroids sound as The Blind Shake, and I was partially correct. The band, who have released music on the great Chicago label HoZac in the past, share an affinity for a classic garage rock sound The Blind Shake, but wring their sound through a pysch prism that ends up giving them a sound slightly to the left of the pummeling material the Blind Shake do so well.
On portions of the record, including the searing “Conversation” and “Campfire Lights,” they tap into the same influences as the Black Lips. Fuzzy power chords, with just a hint of jangle, are meshed with catchy but distorted vocal melodies, paying homage to the classic work that should have made the 13th Floor Elevators the biggest band in the world. They reference other garage rock revivalists like the Brian Jonestown Massacre on tracks like “Something New” and organ driven “The Road,” but the standout of the LP is the haunting “Until You’re Dead.” The track features powerful mixed gender vocals that will remind local fans of the burnt soul garage rock that First Communion Afterparty were doing so well a few years back.
Even when the group steps out from under the ominous clouds, seen best on the spry jangle of “Gimmie a Reason” and the poppy “Footsteps,” where they show off some impressive cascading vocal harmonies, there is a cool vintage sound that the band cultivate. Like the bands referenced in the review, Outer Minds have no problem wearing their influence on their sleeves, but make sure to add their own unique twist to the sound. Outer Minds, which is out now on the Southpaw Records label, is the most enjoyable slab of throwback garage rock I have heard this year.
Check out the band tonight at the Turf Club with Teenage Moods for a paltry $6.
FWY!: San Clemente Review
There are certain people who seem to, either by their words or actions, give you an undeniable impression that they are intense. It could be that eagle tattoo screaming up their neck, their impressive facial piercing hardware or their forearms that are the size of your waist. There is a musical equivalent to this as well, generally structured around some sort of chugging power chords in dropped D tuning by guys with mohawks. There is a second kind of intense, which is a more subtle and often a more profound version. This is the person you bump into and, without any outwardly reason, you get the impression that you just shouldn’t go there. That sort of unsettling, below the surface intensity is the kind that permeates the new Moon Glyph release San Clemente from FWY!.
There are some easy reference points on the tape, which rests on an ambient synth foundation, but the biggest thing that jumped out to me is the understated nature of the grooves. The sound feels almost like noir version of new wave stripped of any grandiose tendencies. Even during “Marina Del Ray 6PM,” is a wistful jaunt that seems to bring to life the colorful waves on the cover of the tape, there is a slightly unnerving. “Orange FWY” is a darker, more haunted version of the celestial sound Edmund Xavier makes, while “Corona Del Mar” ups the bpm slightly, but not enough to lift the haze. “Subdivision” sounds like electronic waves crashing on the beach and the title track, which opens the tape, is a dark rumbling track that stretches out over 15 paranoia drenched minutes.
While there are only a certain number of ways to present ambient synth music, there is something about San Clemente that made it stand out from the pack for me. That bubbling intensity that simmers beneath the surface throughout San Clemente weaves itself into your DNA as you listen to the album, creating something that feels much bigger than just the notes from the synth. There are moments when the record is so methodical that it borders on detached (which is think is intentional), but ultimately it works well and the ice cold stare is interpreted, at least to me, as an dark and impenetrable journey into the mind of Mr. Xavier. While it doesn’t cram its heaviness down your throat, San Clemente is a great exercise in power via muted intensity and really stands out as one of the stronger “out there” records I have heard this year.
Mux Mool: Planet High School Review
As a music reviewer, the first question someone asks when you suggest an artist is “what do they sound like?” The easiest choice is always to connect the artist or band to another artist or band, but if there isn’t an obvious choice we often choose genres as an entry point to explain groups we like. It is hip hop or chillwave or counutry or post-punk or post-rock or… But what happens when an artist blurs lines between genres, muddying the water and making the writer’s job even more convoluted? This is the case with the eccentric LP Planet High School from Brooklyn via Minneapolis producer Mux Mool.
The songs on Planet High School all feature a richly sublime groove, but take different avenues to reach where they are going. From the opening of Planet High School–the breezy, lackadaisical beat of “Brothers”– to the scuzzy thump of “Raw Gore,” Mux Mool had no interest in making a cookie cutter “instrumental beat” LP. There are tracks that bump, ranging from the smooth boom bat of “Ruin Everything” to the almost Daft Punk esqe “Cash for Gold” and back to the fluttering groove of “Hand on the Scantron,” but the highlights on the album are found outside of that box.
Like Clams Casino, Mux Mool dives into more textural sounds that rely on lush synths and more thought out production than a typical beat tape. Songs like “Palace Chalice” venture almost into the chillwave genre. One of the highlights of the album is the lush “The Butterfly Effect,” which sounds like it could have come right off of the last Toro Y Moi LP, where he gave his dream inducing electronic pop a pill or two of ecstasy. The other standout track is the wobbly, almost jazzy “Live at 7-11,” which shuffles along with a gooey groove and sumptuous melody before breaking down into a soulful electronic funeral march during the last section. It is a crystallized realization of the mish mash of sounds Mux Mool brings on Planet High School boiled down into a five rapturous minutes.
Despite the fact that defining the album is as easy as nailing jello to the wall, Planet High School is a refined and arresting album. Life would be easier for supporters of the artist if you could say “it sounds like Dilla/Madlib/Oh No, etc” or “It is a ambient chillwave record,” but neither of these would do justice to the wide spectrum covered on the LP. Even though I am not sure what section of the record store Planet High School resides in, it is on my current short list for favorite records of the year. The dexterity of the record, being able to get you head bobbing one second and suck you into a colorful and distant ambient synth world the next, is worth more to me than any uniformity could ever provide.
I Self Devine: Reports from the Field (In the Trenches) Review
The former Micranots MC has recently reintroduced himself with 3 mixtapes, the most recent of which is Reports From the Field (in the Trenches). Chaka Mkali, otherwise known as I Self Devine, is a steady, consistent MC with a strong desire to educate and inform his audience through his lyrics. He is often described as a “conscious” MC; while that’s true, I Self Devine is more of a realist, painting narratives that show case the failures of and how to work within and outside the system in today’s society.
“Get Away” offers a quick glimpse into everyday life in the hood: “Resurrected Christ music suffering for 80 blocks, the circumference of my hood filled with shady cops,” as the city unfolds with “bricks of broken glass, tricks smoking hash”. On “Oblivious,” I Self Devine trades verses with comrade Muja Messiah. I Self Devine starts, “I’m back to tapping pockets, grabbing and snatching wallets, you’re just a walking target, blasting a shoulder rocket” as Muja Messiah counters, “we’re on that aeronautic catastrophic astronaut shit,t hat marvelous obelisk Micranots shit” in a glorious back and forth. I Self gives us a marijuana tribute on “Twizzled” featuring Solution. The dynamic “Pretty Sickness” with Ak-Rite makes you think of the warmth of Brand Nubian before Ak-Rite gets into claims of being a nympho. Things get serious on “Nation Time” where it’s time to “rise up”, where I Self describes the conditions from early school years and the battles to “make it.” There’s the always-on-the-grind anthem “Chips And Gravy.” The record closes with “Urgency,” where I Self states “It’s a must I stay connected with pyramids erected, in the hood everything gets dissected” as folks search for escape “the elderly pray for lottery, drug trade economy . . . swap meet etiquette” over chants of “we got to get free” anchored by some clever scratching.
With solid production from Benzilla, Nicademis, Illmind, Noam The Drummer, and Medium Zach, I Self Devine’s mixtapes are almost fully fleshed-out records. LA State of Mind, The Upliftment Struggle, and The Reports From The Field: The Trenches are full of jewels including standout tracks “Nation Time,” “Oblivious,” “Urgency,” and “Pretty Sickness.” In the new era where hip-hop is expanding in so many directions, it’s terrific to hear music that brings that boom-bap feeling of the golden era without any gimmicks or silly in-jokes.
Like he did with the first two mixtapes, I Self Devine is celebrating the release of the new mixtape with a show at the 7th Street Entry. The show for Reports from the Field is Saturday night (March 24) where he will be joined by Mike The Martyr, Mankwe ft. Medium Zach, Big Quarters, Illuminous 3, and DJs Shannon Blowtorch & Simone Steppa Dujour. Tickets are $10 with the doors at 8pm.
—Jon Jon Scott (Sound Verite—CHECK THE NEW SITE URL)
Do Look Back: Sandy Bull & The Rhythm Ace: Live 1976
Sandy Bull was one of America’s all-time guitar greats, but judging by barometers like Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Guitarists of All Time you wouldn’t know it. The highly influential master of many instruments (in addition to guitar) was mainly active through the sixties and seventies, releasing some of the most forward-thinking music of his day. He played folk, he played jazz, he played eastern ragas, he even reinterpreted classical music for the banjo. Though incredibly talented and well regarded, Sandy Bull never really reached the kind of cultural cachet that he deserved. Today, if he’s remembered at all, it’s generally by other musicians, those who follow guys like John Fahey, Jack Rose, etc.—not names you hear come up often in dinner-table conversation.
Chicago label Drag City remembers Sandy Bull, though, and this spring they are putting out a previously unreleased live recording of Bull from 1976 (adding to the numerous list of Bull reissues they have released over the years). Sandy Bull & The Rhythm Ace / Live 1976 is a collection of tunes from Bull’s performance at the Berkeley Community Center. Interspersed with Bull’s oud-, guitar-, and Rhythm Ace-accompanied tunes, the singer rambles good-naturedly through stories and jokes. He spends a little too much time outlining the various technical capabilities of the Rhythm Ace, an early drum machine, however, in 1976 the machines weren’t quite as common as today and probably seemed legitimately space-aged. (Even if bands like Can had been using them since the sixties…) The rambling spent on the various beats are worth sitting through to hear Bull tell the backstories of songs like swamp-funk jam “Alligator Wrestler,” which Bull says was inspired by the furious masturbation habits of a roommate at a halfway house.
For the Sandy Bull novice, Live 1976 probably isn’t the best place to start listening. It does present a very wide variety of Bull’s instrumental capabilities and influences (particularly folk, jazz, and Eastern music), but it’s also less of a “best of” compilation than an excellent selection of deep cuts. Bull’s lengthy spoken portions give the listener a vivid picture of the man’s playful personality, while acknowledging at the same time his difficult, drug-addled past. Maybe, though, it is the best place to start listening to Bull. What better way to introduce yourself to music than by getting to know the man himself? While it is no longer possible to “get to know” Sandy Bull in person (he passed away from lung cancer in 2011), Live, 1976 is possibly the closest equivalent.
Sandy Bull & The Rhythm Ace / Live 1976 will be available on March 27th via Drag City
Julia Holter: Ekstasis Review (Four Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are Four reactions, Four impressions, Four Takes on Ekstasis by Julia Holter.
Erica K (Oaks)
Julia Holter is a force of experimental, hippie scholar rock. The tracks on Ekstasis bring out the light in her exposed self-consciousness. Apparent sadness rests just below the surface on track after track of acid jazz sound-clouds and panting mantras. “Goddess Eyes 2,” the most simplistic and beautiful track, beats you up with a chorus of swelling voices that floods into stripped-down drum machine beats. At times this record feels overindulgent, but it’s apparent that the artist made a record to heal herself. It’s worth delving deeper into Ekstasis. Like swimming farther into waters, if only to find out what kind of weird shit goes on in the deep end.
On her second full-length album, Ekstasis, Julia Holter crafted another collection of expansive and ambitious atmospheric pop songs that showcases both her vocal ability and meticulous song craft. Breaking the 6-minute mark on many songs, she never holds back on her far-reaching ideas and instead lets them fade in and out. They blossom into crackling, floating soundscapes. It’s easy to compare Holter’s ethereal music to that of Julianna Barwick, but where Barwick uses only her vocal loops to create a booming, unfamiliar atmosphere, Holter delivers something more insular and direct. While many acts are emerging in the same space-y, toiling pop vein—Grimes, Frankie Rose, Nite Jewel, to name a few—Holter feels like the most overtly obsessive with her overall delivery.
Above all else, this album is patient. When the songs often come to a virtual stand-still, every new blip or vocal whip feels exactly in place. From the twinkling “Goddess Eyes II” to the more straightforward pop of “In The Same Room,” she is able to cram many, many ideas into the space of only nine songs. In the end, Ekstasis feels like the work of true love and long labor, meticulous in design and thoroughly thought-out in delivery. Holter has stated that her main objective is to create and release music that is not forced, rushed, or shallow, and this record certainly isn’t any of those.
It’s pretty rare for me to go rush out and buy a vinyl copy of a record after only hearing it a few times. However, when NPR cruelly shut down its live stream of Julia Holter’s Ekstasis after I was only able to get in a handful of listens, I ordered the LP without hesitation. First of all, ethereal female-fronted experimental music is square in the center of my alley, and to me just about everything about Ekstasis sounded right. I love the span of Holter’s thematic palette—from Eastern exotica to tinny electronica, through the baroque and elegantly melancholy world of Kate Bush and up to the divinely inspired heights of classical choral music. And it’s all arranged into such exquisitely complex structures that manage to make even canned drum machine beats seem like a graceful accompaniment. While I occasionally find vocal effects tedious, Holter uses enough restraint so that the vocal warping seems as natural as the unadorned voice. I pretty much love this album, and over the past few weeks I have been saying so to anyone who will listen. My only wish now is for Holter to tour and perform here in the Twin Cities ASAP. Her national tour schedule should be posted this week, so I will be waiting for it expectantly (though a little bird has told me a local show is already likely in the cards…)
Jon Jon Scott (Sound Verite)
Los Angeles’ Julia Holter makes ambient rock with shades of electronica and singer-songwriter fare: part arty dissonance, part ethereal minimalism, and hidden charm in a few spaces. Holter makes, at first glance experimental bedroom music, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Like her mates Nite Jewel, Grimes, and Julianna Barwick, this new woman-centric sound finds itself wrapped in various colors and sonics and unafraid to add some flavor to indie rocks sameness, perhaps in a different way than the boys before them. They’re not confined to indie rock rules, although they employ them. It’s art for art’s-sake, like “yo watch me do this trick” . . . with an actual song behind it.
Ekstasis opens with the baroque “Marienbad” a mournful ballad laced in esoteric vocal arrangements. The record’s rewarding, emotional centerpiece, “In The Same Room,” holds actual hints of rhythm and surprising hooks. At one point she sings, “I can’t recall his face, but I want to remember.” “Boy In The Moon” is an 8-minute droning exercise before she states, “This plane is taking off.” It surely is: to Deep Space Nine. She goes soft-goth on “Goddess Eyes II” and Kate Bush on “Four Gardens,” a track with a fantastic flourish of medieval chants and melodies as Holter asks, “will you come home, will you come home with me?” Ekstasis closes appropriately with a pretentious 9-minute gallop of free-jazz and a bit of self-importance on “This Is Ekstasis.”
Ekstasis is full of dreamy Cocteau Twins mystique. There’s potential all over the place. Holter strikes me as an artist’s artist; this record won’t threaten Bon Iver, but will place her in a new lane. Holter does have a few accessible moments here, like on “In The Same Room” and “Four Gardens” where she clearly shows great ideas. To put it another way: Laurie Anderson will be impressed. Holter is clearly a new voice, and takes on welcomed exploratory roads that will have us wondering what’s next for the young, talented heroine.
Ssaliva: RZA Review
Listening to the warped pop sounds on the new Ssalva LP, RZA, is akin to looking at a beautiful painting with the compound eye of an insect. The colors are there, the warmth is able to project through the prisms, but nothing is quite clear or in focus. The nine songs on RZA are dubbed out, chock-full of dusty beats and grimy, paranoid synth flourishes. It’s both challenging and engaging, equally beautiful and unsettling.
None of the tracks are long, and in many cases that is a good thing. The vocals on “Black Soul” warble through your headphones, filtering through your ears and bending the circuits in your brain. The experience is unsettling and almost an out-of-body experience, like a bad trip that seems to last many times longer than it actually did. The title track is a sinister soundtrack for a midnight walk down a foggy alleyway, whereas “HOBO3040” feels like a twisted, manic soundtrack to a circus from hell. Basically, the record comes across like an electronic symphony from your most scarring nightmare. The album, which clocks in at a brisk 27 minutes, is as hypnotic of a recording as I have heard this year, a record that oozes from the speakers and takes new, interesting twists each time you hit play. From the bubbling electronica of “Trimensional” to the hazy and laconic “Night Landing,” RZA is a record inside which you can easily lose yourself.
Despite being disjointed, RZA is really a well-put-together document of ambient sonic tomfoolery. When you hit play on the record, you are transmitted into a world that sits on an teetering axis, with twisted sounds around every corner. If you are willing to take the time to look through the twisted wreckage of melodies and rhythms, there are gold mines of sound wrapped under layers of prickly thorns, almost deemed more valuable because of the challenge of getting to them. RZA isn’t going to be an album that takes the world by storm, but it is a well thought out, sonically fulfilling, and creatively rich LP that is well worth your time if you are willing to wander down the band’s intricate rabbit hole.
Lambchop: Mr. M Review (Three Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are Three reactions, Three impressions, Three Takes on Mr. M by Lambchop.
Mr. M is subtly mischievous. And very patient. Gone are Lambchop’s familiar alt-country arrangements, replaced instead by droning vamps and orchestral strings. Frontman Kurt Wagner has dedicated this album to the passing of Vic Chestnutt, and its funereal pace is fitting for such. However, Wagner accompanies these graceful tracks with remarkable irony and imagery. On “Nice Without Mercy,” people snapping pictures with mobile phones are juxtaposed against others carrying buckets of water over mountains and the “pastoral splendor” of catching fish. In “The Good Life,” Wagner contemplates “the good life is wasted on me” while advising, “it’s not what you make, it’s what you earn”.
The two-song, 14-minute sprawl of “Gone Tomorrow” into “Mr. Met” is some of the best music to come out this year—upbeat, sparse, and a little drunk. It’s a lounge-singing grandfather waxing prolific about “the last night on the continent” where “the wine tasted like sunshine in the basement” before transitioning into a sobering choral finish. This is not an album to throw on at a party; it’s too delicate. It’s a lonely afternoon.
Mr. M takes more than one listen to really appreciate. I admit to laughing out loud at the piano accents on “Gar” upon first listen. But there’s an honesty that few other bands have here, a vividly real experience like sipping fresh lemonade or sitting on a dock, and the listen is remarkably rewarding.
Mr. M is Kurt Wagner’s first full-length under the Lambchop moniker since 2008’s Oh (Ohio) and the first since the death of his friend and collaborator Vic Chesnutt, to whom the album is dedicated. In several recent interviews, Wagner has attributed the unusually long wait for the LP (Lambchop previously had released an album almost every year since their1994 debut I Hope You’re Sitting Down) to the unexpected passing of Chesnutt on Christmas Day 2009. Chesnutt had been one of Wagner’s earliest supporters, inviting him and his band to collaborate on 1998’s The Salesman and the Bernadette, back in the days when Wagner was doing carpentry to pay for his music habit and long before Lambchop had gained any kind of mainstream recognition.
Yet if the album is inspired by Chesnutt, you’d be hard-pressed to find where it is about him, or even about friendship or loss or human mortality. It seems that his memory is more the occasion than the topic of Mr. M, (in roughly the way that 2008 swing-state politics was the occasion for Oh (Ohio) or the 37th president the occasion for Nixon). In fact, most of the songs on Mr. M would be at home on any Lambchop record of the last decade. The evocative ambiguity of the lyrics, the hushed country-lounge piano, the classical string backing, the languid tempo, and the playful beauty of Wagner’s cigarette-damaged baritone are all hallmarks of the band’s unique sound. Mr. M feels less like a tribute album than like the natural expansion of the gorgeous body of work that Wagner has been crafting steadily since the late ’90s. Mr. M doesn’t break any new ground, but with a sound so perfectly developed, that’s probably a good thing. And in the end, if the references to Chesnutt are oblique at best, the dark beauty of this album serves as a fitting tribute to his life and work.
Ali Elabbady (Background Noise Crew, Egypto Knuckles)
On Lambchop’s 11th album, the band delivers one of their finest releases by using some quite unconventional methods. There’s orchestral virtuosity matched with Americana-esque backdrops, especially on such tracks as “Gar.” Violins sweep magically through the beginning of “Mr. Met.” However, there are occasions where Kurt Wagner’s vocals don’t exactly mesh with the arrangements, rather they stumble-the-fuck-in and initially sound jarring. Then the vocals, along with the arrangements, manage to swirl into Mr. M’s aesthetic genius. And maybe that’s the takeaway of Mr. M: That a throat-grabber of an album can suck you in with light, airy, and wonderfully arranged compositions. Wagner’s vocals are the fragile yet interesting bond that glues it all together and brings it home.
Stream: James Ferraro’s new project Bodyguard
James Ferraro’s aesthetic—a deconstructed electronic pop that’s theoretically stripped of all pretense, but loaded with really deep and thought out arrangements—easily falls flat on its face. If the tongue-in-cheek humor doesn’t connect, it sounds like a joke gone bad. In Ferraro’s case, the punchline would get lost in an ambient haze. That wasn’t often the case with Ferraro on his last LP, Far Side Virtual, which synthesized his sound as precisely as possible. It was a warm and engaging album, one of my favorites from last year.
His latest project, under the nom de plume Bodyguard, doesn’t quite live up to the older material. The songs seem to lack playfulness, but aren’t focused enough to wrap in the listener. I suppose mix tapes aren’t meant to be totally realized documents, but after his recent successes, Bodyguard just feels flat.
Listen to the 14-song mix tape below. But to be true to Ferraro’ talents, don’t use this as your measuring stick.