2022 music, five at a time pt. 4

by dave heaton

An ongoing series, pondering 2022 music, five releases at a time.

Nduduzo Makathini – In the Spirit of Ntu
When his quartet came through Kansas City a few months ago, South African pianist Nduduzo Makathini was wearing a jacket covered with stars that might have been flowers. That mystical, beauty-focused, looking into the unknown feels right for his musical compositions and his approach to them. On his 10th album In the Spirit of Ntu, post-bop is informed by his Zulu culture and philosophical ideas, expressed through sound and themes, plus occasional chants that come from healing traditions. Ntu, in the title, represents a force of oneness and harmony. He’s described in interviews his quest for embodying these concepts through improvised music (“creating homes for them”). If that makes the music sound bohemian-dreamy, it might be, but not without built-in pain and struggle. There’s an anguished sense of space throughout the album, articulated vocally on the second track through somber singing by featured guest Omagugu, Nduduzo’s wife. Later in the album, another guest singer, Anna Wideauer, describes in English a journey towards healing, being put back together bone by bone, which feels not just personal but historical. For all Makathini’s thoughts of galaxies, the music is as driven by historical trauma and the striving for collective action born from it.

Omah Lay – Boy Alone
Boy Alone is a literal title for Nigerian singer/producer Omah Lay’s low-key pop songs, which are driven by a feeling of being out-of-step with everyone else, and down about it. There’s the song where he overthinks and overdrinks (Cognac shots), the one where he’s too depressed even to post photos on Insta, the one where he and Justin Bieber sing, “Lately I’ve been losin’ my mind”. A worried feeling is present in the air even when Omah Lay is singing straightforward love songs, like a dedication to his “Woman”, or late-night sex jams that leave nothing to the imagination (“Bend You”). He always sounds sad, and like he’s in an empty room where the rhythms ricochet off the floors and ghostly tones and voices (not to mention ‘sensitive’ guitars and warped melodies) float in and out. Sadness is in the music and overall vibe, but he also situates himself as an empath, a pop star who wants to reach out and heal. Perhaps he wants to be an optimistic, feel-good presence (like two Nigerian pop songs Omah Lay references midway through the album, Patoranking’s “Wilmer” and Kcee’s “Limpopo”). But there’s an inescapable, albeit infinitely pleasurable, darkness hanging overhead.

PhelimuncasiAma Gogela
Most of my knowledge or awareness – can’t call it knowledge, really – of the myriad of African dance music styles comes from the always exciting Ugandan label/youth movement Nyege Nyege. It’s a wild world of booming bass and unexpected rhythms. Ama Gogela is the second album from the Durban, South Africa trio Phelimuncasi, who are part of the gqom scene. Gqom, as I understand it, is a rougher, DIY expansion and explosion of a slicker style of South African house music called kwaito. The energy here is strength, rebellion, with excited call-and-response vocals over the steady, somewhat skeletal, intense beats of a handful of known and emerging gqom producers. The last four tracks, produced by DJ Scoturn, especially showcase the playfulness of the music, the way strange sounds are utilized and woven through. The final track has a repeated vocal tic that leads in the last couple minutes to some glorious cacophony of squeaks and squeals over free drums. Phelimuncasi’s anarchic impulses translate into not just soundplay but protest – there’s the urgency of action here. Plus, far as I can tell given my language deficiencies here: progressive/activist lyrics.  Correctly or not, Google translated some of the Zulu song titles to English words in that general direction – one was “I Dream Things”, one was about falling and rising again, and the closing track title was about being powerful. (Another title translated to “Play With the Butt”, for what it’s worth.)

Slikback – Incarnate
The Nairobi, Kenya-based futuristic electronics artist Slikback (Freddy Njau) is prolific. His 2022 releases so far include Lossless (with the French artist Brodinski), Condense (with various collaborators from across the globe), Intersect, Tier¸ My Imaginary Friends and You, and 22122. Most are in the 10-20-minute range, but make you feel transported to somewhere different. Incarnate, a 4-song EP from April, is the perfect demonstration of the sleek but overwhelming ‘dance’ music he makes, with an intergalactic/industrial. He seems to be on his own aesthetic and existential journey, trying to build and develop (and develop and develop and develop) his own cyclone of sound that’s anti-trend, separate from particular scenes, and intense in its explorations.

Tumi Mogorosi – Group Theory: Black Music
Collective action is integral to jazz, and many other types of music. Group Theory: Black Music comes from that place of communal coming-together. It’s in the music’s themes and concepts – from the emphasis on black music as decentralization to the South African poet Lesego Rampolokeng’s words on the final track (“revolution in black music”, a representative phrase) and the two different versions of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”. And it’s woven into the sound of the music itself, in how it was created. Drummer/composer Tumi Mogorosi (of The Wretched, Shabaka & the Ancestors, and his own solo works) is the quiet leader behind this work that unites a group of musicians (guitar, bass, drums, trumpet, alto sax and piano are all prominent) with a 10-person choir. The voices play a historic role as well, echoing the history of jazz group vocals. The whole affair seems tied into the history of music and thriving, alive

2022 music, five at a time pt. 3

by dave heaton

An ongoing series, pondering 2022 music, five releases at a time.

Flowertown – Half Yesterday
Half Yesterday is an on-brand title for a Flowertown record; time and its haziness are at the forefront in the DIY dream-conversation pop music made by the duo (Karina Gill of Cindy and Michael Ramos of Tony Jay). In the title song, the phrase “half yesterday” refers to the moon – how can it look so full today, when it was a half-moon yesterday? Observations, questions, intimate conversations flow in natural harmony with the measured melodies and whispery vocals. Magic is real.

The Growth Eternal – Parasail-18

LA-based artist Byron Crenshaw, aka The Growth Eternal, plays progressive spaced-out soul music reflective of the inner whirlwind of a life. “Within Me”, one song is called, and the album seems to live there. Vocoder-heavy, moody songs shift in and out of melodies, memories and dreams, blurring through both the weight of life and varied personal attempts to escape that weight (the metaphorical parasails of the title). The vinyl and cassette versions add six songs and switch around the tracklist, adding some more directly hip-hop elements, while heightening the feeling of an artistic shape-shift, perpetual change.

John Carroll Kirby –
Dance Ancestral
Renaissance man with ever-flowing locks (featured in painted form on the album cover), L.A. producer/musician John Carroll Kirby has a broad approach to ambient/jazz fusion/mellow soul/New Age-leaning instrumental music. Highly collaborative in his approach, Kirby this time teams with Yu Su (see her 2021 debut Yellow River Blue) for a metaphysical exploration of the moods of a day, in the form of enveloping fantasy vibes with lush grooves and soft-funk elevator jams.

Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers

Epic therapy session, chronicle of internal conflict, angsty exploration of grief/confusion/family legacy, purposeful disruption of any expectations we have for him as a social leader/positive force…the lyrics have been dissected to death over the last few months. So, can we talk about the music for a moment? Damn’s richly textured R&B, with an abundance of deep hip-hop allusions and light flirting with current-day hardcore beats, hasn’t been set aside. At times it’s doubled down on in rewarding ways (“Die Hard”, album-closer “Mirror”, and “Purple Hearts” with its inspired, lightning-in-a-bottle Ghostface Killah verse and playful Summer Walker appearance). For most of the album that sound is present but more skeletal and strange – it’s a minimalist extension and twisting of the last album’s sound, with abrasive moments and creepy ones. Percussion is a constant, partly through the stepper sounds alluded to in the title. Piano adds both emotion and strangeness. The album has been treated like either memoir or op-ed piece but there’s a musical theatre side to much of it, from the intro through “We Cry Together” (a song, resonating with classic hip-hop of the past, but easily mistaken for a skit, with an actress as duet partner) and beyond. Kendrick’s always had a theatrical side but here it’s part of the structure. Fitting for an album trying to tell a personal story in a big-statement way; the music just as capably, sometimes maybe more capably, tells a story of healing and conflict.

The Reds, Pinks & Purples – Summer at Land’s End

Is there a descriptor for when a musician with their own distinctive sound finds a way to take it in an even melancholier direction? Because if there is, that’s my favorite kind of music! Prolific creator Glenn Donaldson has played in many indie bands over the years – including overtly atmosphere-focused projects. As The Reds, Pinks & Purples, he’s released a few albums and a scattering of other songs – all swoony San Franciscan guitar-pop with a bittersweet air (think ‘jangly’ guitars, simple drums or drum machine, soft, matter-of-fact vocals filled with longing). Sometimes it’s like the melodic version of the thoughts a lonely city dweller has while going about day-to-day life; other times like a gentler one-man version of The Smiths with less “woe is me” drama. Summer at Land’s End has blown me away for how it takes that sound and one-ups it, on the lush sadness afloat, the brittleness of the singing, the way everything hangs on a precipice. Its gorgeous apocalyptic vibe pairs well with ‘our times’, it’s my soundtrack for 2022.

2022 music, five at a time pt. 2

by dave heaton

An ongoing series, pondering 2022 music, five releases at a time.

Anna Butterss – Activities
From the description ‘jazz bass instrumentalist’s debut solo album”, what do you hear in your mind? Probably not this. Unless you’re thinking in a broad, more freewheeling-creative-spirit direction. Or if you know, for example, that Butterss has played not just with Makaya McCraven, Jeff Parker and Josh Johnson but also Aimee Mann, Phoebe Bridgers, and Jenny Lewis. Activities is an interesting title choice; the music suggests a multitude of settings and actions. There’s a vibe of busy-ness, of the disparate activities and emotions that make up a life – some frenetic, some restful. There’s a song called “Doo Wop” with an intro that resembles, yes, doo-wop. “Blevins” has an almost cocktail-lounge vibe, but is also melancholy. “Super Lucrative” is like a little science-fiction pop jam, perhaps a video game theme. “The Worst Thing You Could Do For Your Health” is a funky synth jam with hints of UK jungle. Activities is eclectic, but it’s not a rollercoaster ride from one sound to another. Its impulses and reference points have been blended into something new and multi-faceted. The melodies and moods linger.

Dustin Lynch – Blue in the Sky
All the macho visions of current country radio music are here, on Dustin Lynch’s fourth album. There are parties in boats, trucks and open fields. A Chevy waiting to take us through the backroads of Tennessee, to the small town that stays the same forever, populated with “homegrown” beautiful women as static and unreal as the town itself. The biggest stadium-ready hook is tied to the image of “Stars Like Confetti”, a beautiful night that he can’t ever get back to, if it even existed in the first place. The whole album starts feeling like the shell of a man’s ego, populated by ghost lovers and missed opportunities. He’s in “party mode” because he’s “running from the truth”. His wish that “Summer Never Ended” will never be a reality. The beach itself resembles a Chesneyesque totem for the promise and cruelty of summer; teasing infinite pleasure yet failing to hide the inevitable heartbreak lurking behind the empty lifeguard stand. “I go back there all the time in my mind” (about “Pasadena”) might be the most representative lyric. The fuel within the songs is a man’s inability to create the world he wants, and control it. At album’s end he’s trying a different tack – re-writing the cowboy image as a domestic, suburban, monogamous one and using it as a pickup line, hoping to write himself a happy ending.

Euglossine – Some Kind of Forever
Sometimes I feel like I’m listening to a children’s fairytale storybook; other times it’s like a dream I’m having, wherein I’m lying on the floor of a recording studio after a Steely Dan session wrapped up but the session musicians kept playing through the night. Maybe there’s no difference between those two feelings. Tristan Whitehill’s 15th or so release as Euglossine is a new-age/muted jazz fusion album that meanders and bops along with the spirit of either interminable escapism from the harshness of the world or a more idealistic reach for a kinder, gentler world. The rustic ghostliness of “Grandfather Clock” slows down time and envelops me the most, breaks me free from the distracting tendency of pondering which ‘70s studio nerds would have been a better reference.

The Furniture, The Furniture
The debut album by the Baltimore-based experimental duo The Furniture might be as inconspicuous as actual furniture. You feel unsettled — or the opposite, calm — and you’re not sure why. Synthesizers are why…. and drums, taunting with their near-invisibility. There’s an industrial, factory mood here but it also feels like we’re listening within a fog.

Tekla Peterson – Heart Press
Press by Tekla Peterson (aka Madison, Wisconsin-based musician Taralie Peterson) spelunks in the darkest regions of the heart on these brutal songs processing the burning-out of a love relationship. These same songs sung over acoustic guitars in a plaintive manner might have me running for the hills, but an ‘80s electro-pop setting (action-movie vibes) and dramatic post-punk vocals do wonders for the material. This is a personal apocalypse, and she leans into that side of it to a Goth/doom extent. The chorus that lingers is, “God, take me from this beautiful garden of pain!

2022 music, five at a time, pt. 1

by dave heaton

An ongoing series, pondering 2022 music, five releases at a time.

Alabaster DePlume – Gold
“To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1” by Alabaster DePlume was a 2020 highlight of serenity and grace. Its title tells two things: instrumentals are not usually what he does, and he has a theatrical ‘stage name’, befitting a poet or charlatan. Which is he – poet, charlatan, instrumentalist? Yes. And guru, activist, instigator, bandleader, provocateur, and more. The evidence stretches out over the hour that is Gold. “Do You Know a Human Being When You See One?”, a song asks, and it’s a million-dollar question. Leading a gaggle of sharp collaborators through recording sessions, for Gold he mapped out a plan and spliced the music together to suit it. With recurring themes of frailty and justice, and darkness layered onto the bittersweet tones, Gold tackles the messiness of being alive in 2022, tries to channel the goodness from within it, and begs us to dissect what it means to be good and carve our own collective and individual path towards it.

Babyface Ray – FACE
File Babyface Ray under “rappers who sound like they’re about to fall asleep”, whether the topic is sex, money, hard-knock lives or overall swagger. Mostly the last two: hard-knock-life-informed swagger, wrapped up in a MoodTM, pensive and hurt. Melodies sketched out to echo off city streets, while ‘Face walks alone, on an existential journey: “Ain’t nobody hold my hand, had to walk by myself / I got hunger in my face, I got diamonds on my chest.”

Black Flower – Magma
Belgian jazz-fusion group starts out creeping towards a hip-hop vibe, with haunted-mansion organ, before hitting the flute hard and taking off in high, funky-‘70s skies. Soaring with an intentional and at least somewhat self-conscious globe-trotting flair, with occasional detours to a circus. If this is Epcot World Showcase jazz, that doesn’t make it not groovy.

Drake – Honestly, Nevermind
Drake might think he’s made a late-night club masterpiece but it’s more like nice mood music when you’re working from home in your depressing basement office and need to put on something with light energy and pleasant grooves where you can tune out the lyrics (the ravings of a heartbroken stalker with the maturity of a teenager, far as I can tell), treat the vocals as part of the aesthetic, and let it carry you through your Monday-morning doldrums. (Saving the hardest raps for the last track = “wake-up, zone-out time is over”.)

Hater – Sincere
“A stretch to be myself”, is a relatable feeling these days. Wrap it up in shoegaze-rock, crank it loud, and Sincere is off to a good start. From Malmö, Sweden, Hater is a band that keeps things simple, as their name and the album title indicate. The feeling is the thing, and these songs are full of it – that impending, something is about to happen feeling of romance, doom, or most likely both together. (Like the song title says, “Summer Turns to Heartburn”.) The lyrics, best as I can decipher, are an intense conversation with oneself, or with another person who’s become so physically, psychically, or theoretically close it’s hard to tell the difference.

Fingers Crossed, Artsick

by dave heaton

On January 21, Slumberland Records released two fast-and-furious, under 30-minute records, that at the right volume buzz your ears and thrill, like you’ve spent the evening in a packed, dark, possibly smoky basement bar watching band after band blaze through a rough-around-the-edges type of noisy guitar-pop.

Very few of us have been spending our leisure time that way the last couple years. We’ve been at home, worried, nervous, fretting about things we should be worried about, things we probably shouldn’t, and things that we’re not sure we’re even really worried about. Anxiety is the keyword, for our era (can we call two years an era? sure feels like it) and for Artsick’s debut album Fingers Crossed, one of those two records (Kids on a Crime Spree’s superb Fall in Love Not in Line is the other, with its own loud guitars and romantic bike-gang vibe).

Singer/guitarist Christina Riley (Burnt Palms, Boyracer) starts the first song like this: “So restless, I don’t know what to do / nothing I try makes me feel good.” The fourth song starts, “Just a ghost of myself / haunting me and my own house”.

That song, “Ghost of Myself”, begins with the “Be My Baby” drums (sort of). Two songs later comes a hand-clap intro that feels similarly retro. Mostly, though, this music is punkish indie-pop, with loud guitars and fast drums, and hooky melodies sung somewhere between casual and atonal, with variety not as prioritized as immediacy and ‘honesty’.

There’s a couple songs about spurned would-be love, but most of it is a raw dose of the worry we’re already feeling – cathartic when played loud. The songs have titles like “Dealing With Tantrums” (aren’t we all?), “Stress Bomb” (aren’t we all?) and “Be OK” (will we be?).

The album ends with a song called “Fiction”, where the bass player seems to be playing “Time Is Tight” by Booker T and the MGs while Riley tells us that she “overthinks almost everything” and reveals her thoughts are killing her.

Welcome to the club!

Good and Green Again, Jake Xerxes Fussell

by dave heaton

That Jake Xerxes Fussell plays folk music is a biographical fact. Other the other hand, thinking of his music strictly as “folk music”, in genre terms, might cover up the versatility and transformative power of it. The son of a folklorist, he grew up steeped in the music history of the South. His music is built on respect for tradition while evolving his own welcoming take on it.

There’s beauty and a sense of uncertainty, a strange air, in his songs. That feeling is pronounced and visceral on Good and Green Again, from the title on down to the arrangements, with additional instruments and voices honed towards cultivating an atmosphere that is affecting yet never simple. His singing – never too shackled to the songforms themselves – feels more open and delicate this time around.

The songs themselves are slippery – like history and memory and place and time. A song might seem to tell a story, about a ship for example, or lovers distanced by the sea, or George Washington. But the words as sung and played by Fussell and his collaborators are elliptical, resonant but not fixed with one meaning.

Specific images linger in my mind each time I listen to the album. The title image in “Breast of Glass”, the final narrative turn, is one: a man with a breast of glass where his pined-for lover could see her name written on his heart. On the opener “Love Farewell”, I can’t get over the roaming lover, possible solder’s strange description of collective wandering – “we’re all marching around very well”.

Then there’s the 9-minute song about a ship that called “The Golden Willow Tree”, with the repeated descriptive of “the low and lonesome water … the lonesome sea”.

That song’s sense of melancholy permeates the whole album. It’s a restorative type of melancholy, with a sense of natural progression. Like in that album title, we’re left feeling good and green, perhaps, though not settled.

Amp, “Entangled Time”

Five tracks, 44 minutes; that’s enough time to get truly entangled. Especially at the hands of Amp, the long-running experimental (read: entrancing, gorgeous) project of Richard Walker (aka Richard Amp). It’s currently, and for a while now, a duo, with vocalist Karine Charff.

Amp exists at “the space where noise and melody meet” (their own description). No record sounds exactly alike; some float along while others get closer to ‘songs’. But they feel similar; each are capable of surprise and a state of wonderment. This new one is no exception.

Since the early ’90s Amp has amassed a universe of beautiful recordings. Entangled Time, their first full-length in about eight years, fits right in with them. It’s a ‘bliss out’ — like the name of the Darla Records’ series they contributed to back in 1997 (vol. 4, Perception, a forever classic in my book and one of my all-time favorite works of music for napping to).

“Drifting”, the first track on Entangled Time is called, as it should be. It ends like we’re being carried away by an ocean. The 8-minute “Will-Oh Dreams” is absolutely gorgeous, peaceful and still. It’s here also in an “extended mix” that doubles the time and carries us away with a feeling of gentle transcendence. Drifting, indeed.

Asiahn, “Love Train 2”

At a distance Asiahn’s style of R&B is very 1990s. Up close it’s right in today’s moment. That’s a compliment, not a criticism; her on-point singing harks back to a classic, sometimes underrated period for the genre, while still feeling fresh (which may say something about said period). On Love Train 2, a sequel to a 2017 EP, the production by Cardiak (who’s worked with Rick Ross, Joe Budden, Lloyd Banks, Dr. Dre, J. Cole, dozen of others) perfectly sets up that feeling, sleek yet deep.

The topic at hand is love, plain and simple. Or really it’s honesty. By the third track Asiahn has already described several lies and acts of wrongdoing, on the part of an ex-lover. Her message to potential lovers, and to humanity at large: “mean what you say”.

These 12 songs divide into those about leaving a lover whose “truth is shit”, those where she’s fancying a potential new lover but isn’t sure the timing is right, and those where she’s full-on surrendering to a new love, confident that this time they’ll be real with each other.

Somewhere in between are a few moments of sheer pleasure — for example “Drip”, a glacial slow jam about bodies speaking the same language for lovers who verbally do not.  As the album proceeds, the balance shifts from lies to truth, mistrust to surrender. The 40-second closing song “Stuck” is a final love note, or really a prayer – “I wanna be stuck in love with you”.

Dolphin Midwives, “Liminal Garden”

“Dolphin-assisted births are a thing”, proclaimed the headline of a 2013 Time article about dolphins serving as midwives for human births. But let’s forget about that for a second; focus on Dolphin Midwives, the musical project of Portland harpist Sage Fisher.

Harpist, you say? Yes, and singer too, but while listening I mostly forget about what instruments were used to make the music, and instead get lost in the transformative, fanciful, otherworldly music. Voices are instruments are manipulated and layered, getting us to focus on the whole more than each part.

Classify this as ambient or New Age, but this is not background music. It’s more riveting, attention-grabbing than that, connecting sound to nature’s mysteries, to the most fantastic imaginary world you can imagine.

I said mostly forget because there are songs throughout where we’re accurately aware that someone is playing a harp. The playing is gorgeous, nimble, and in contrast with but complementary towards the more abstract, meandering soundscapes of tracks like the opener “Grass Grow”.

Nature imagery is abundant, in the track titles and in our minds. Liminal Garden is a great title for this type of strange beauty, suggesting new, phantasmagorical vegetative or animal life.

DAWN, “New Breed”

On Dawn Richard’s brilliant trilogy of progressive pop/R&B (Goldenheart, Blackheart, Redemptionheart), she seemed always somewhere between here and the galaxies. Her songs were tied to our lived reality – disparities, injustice and all – but also creatively oriented towards intergalactic realms. On New Breed she comes down to Earth, without stepping away from the sparkling sonic architecture and streamlined production of those past works.

Geographically where she’s landed is clear from the start, when she re-introduces herself as “a girl from the Nine” – 9th Ward, New Orleans, Louisiana.  In “The Nine (intro)” she sings, “I want to go back”, and that’s significant. Her family left New Orleans post-Katrina, and have since returned. This time she’s musically come with them. The songs point back towards her upbringing, with autobiographical memories referenced throughout, but also pull us along with her on a trip to her New Orleans.

On the album cover she’s wearing the headdress of a Mardi Gras Indian. Their actual voices are woven into the mix, in moments, as is the voice of her father Frank Richard, singer for New Orleans funk band Chocolate Milk. The culture, style, history and music of New Orleans are here in her music, yet it’s more like lightly surfacing roots that were always there, rather than her adopting a new direction.

Whether directed towards an ex-lover, a would-be lover, to herself or the world at large, Richard’s songs carry themes of independence, survival and freedom, while keeping style and spatial design always at the forefront. Those personal themes sync up with the New Orleans theme in a natural, perhaps inevitable way.

The 5-minute “Vultures / Wolves” is perhaps the emotional centerpiece, a portrait of the predators among us, in relationships and business. Predators disguised as men, be they would-be lovers or music-industry businessmen Vulnerability is displayed in her delivery, leading to a statement of strength and determination.

Songs like “Dreams and Converse” and “We, Diamonds” are aspirational but not naively so. “Let’s get lost up in the moment and live richer than we can”, she sings in the former. On the latter, she’s asking to be challenged so she can soar past the low expectations.

“We rough around the edges / but that don’t mean we ain’t diamonds”, is the chorus to that song. That’s a recurring attitude on New Breed, one she carries for herself, her family, her culture, her city.