No one can accuse Beck of being a formulaic songwriter. He’s a chameleon without a signature sound. Last year’s Hyperspace was the latest example of his experimental approach. Produced along with Pharrell Williams, these eleven songs weave a narrative backed by everything from synth-pop to Delta blues to low-fi psyhcedelia. Beck tapped into Williams’ minimalism as a producer to offset his own maximalist tendencies, resulting in a dreamy and heady collection. This isn’t exactly the most memorable of the Beck ’s albums I know. It’s not at the level of Odelay or Colours. But there’s something satisfying about each cut. Of particular note are “Stratosphere,” “Uneventful Days” and “Chemical.”
Pigeonhole: Synth-pop, alt-rock
It took some time to get into Ray LaMontagne’s 2014 album Supernova. It opens with the wispy “Lavender,” inducing a trance perfect for the next cut, “Airwaves,” which moves at Jack Johnson pace. And only then does LaMontagne lift the roof off with “She’s the One.” From there, the album just blossoms for me. “Pick Up a Gun” has all the suspense of a Raymond Chandler noir. “I love you, you don’t love me.”I mean how’s it all going to end up? (Spoiler alert: he doesn’t say). Then the rocker “Julia” seems like a modern day answer to “Gloria.” But my favorite has to be “Ojai,” which is kind of the perfect Ray LaMontagne song. “Smashing” left me kinda flat. Overall, exceptional.
Pigeonhole: Folk rock, psychedelic rock
Absolutely fascinating find. The late Pauline Oliveros was a composer and pioneer of experimental and electronic art music. Her album Deep Listening (1989) was recorded in a cistern fourteen-feet underground that once held two million gallons of water. The cavernous space creates a 45-second reverb, the end result being an absolutely haunting and surreal mix of sound and texture. Oliveros described deep listening as “a practice that is intended to heighten and expand consciousness of sound in as many dimensions of awareness and attentional dynamics as humanly possible.” She collaborated with trombonist Stuart Dempster and vocalist Panaiotis on this improvisational collection. Deep Listening has been coupled with cuts from Oliveros’ 1991 follow-up album, The Ready Made Boomerang, and has just been released as a two-album set (although not yet available on Spotify). A word of caution: In these dark, quarantine days that can feel like the end of times, this album may induce more depression than it alleviates. If there was ever a soundtrack to a scorched earth pandemic, this could be it.
Pigeonhole: Experimental, electronic art
Before today I couldn’t have told you the difference between The War On Drugs and TV On The Radio, two bands I’ve known of for years but (thanks, I guess, to dyslexia) always mixed up. Now that I’ve listened to both their 2014 albums, I understand the vast differences. For starters, there are five main members of TOTR on Seeds (2014) while TWOD is basically one guy (Adam Granduciel; more on him in the next post). TOTR offers the more instrumentally robust of these albums, the particular standouts being “Ride,” “Could You” and the beautifully manic “Lazerray.” Seeds was kind of a tribute to their bassist Gerard Smith who died of lung cancer at thirty-six years old. This record is definitely on my list for 2014 bests.
Pigeonhole: Art rock, indie rock
Even though it was released in 2014, Lost In The Dream by The War on Drugs seems pertinent during Covid19 “lockdown.” It feels like music made in a state of depression, which in fact it was. Adam Granduciel, who is essentially The War On Drugs, battled some demons during the making of this album, which kept him in seclusion for days. He’s a one-man show, credited with about a dozen different instruments and synths. There are dark cuts (“Disappearing,” “Suffering”) which are severely hypnotic while somehow maintaining a soothing quality. This third album from TWOD is meticulously crafted, with Granduciel giving each song plenty of space to blossom.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock, neo-psychedelia
The Main Thing is the fifth album from the New Jersey band Real Estate and, when it was released in 2014, was considered their most mature collection. But the quality seems to drift off the longer the album goes on, and it goes on a bit too long. Nice harmonies “Falling Down.” “Paper Cut” about being stuck in a rut, is a nice jangly pop tune. Worth a listen.
Piegeonhole: Indi rock, jangle pop, dream pop
My top albums from 2015 list is up and ready for public scrutiny. I’ll mention the last album I heard before finishing the list, Get to Heaven by English frenetic art-pop group Everything, Everything, whose sound has been compared to a riot in a melody factory. Read a reference to the band as “math rock.” Wikipedia: “math rock is characterized by complex, atypical rhythmic structures, counterpoint, odd time signatures, angular melodies, and extended, often dissonant, chords.” Bottom line, there’s some great sound here, albeit a little scattershot. This album didn’t end up making my list, although it’s interesting enough to get honorable mention.
Pigeonhole: Art pop, indie rock, electronica
Noticed Bob Schneider was participating in the ACL Stands With Austin fundraiser to support bar and restaurant workers during the worldwide shutdown over Conva19. I’ve followed Schneider for years and seen him numerous times live. He’s without question one of my favorite songwriters/performers. I’d never really sunk my teeth into his 2013 album Burden of Proof until now. As usual, it doesn’t disappoint. There are numerous songs that meet his always high-level of marksmanship, but ’m not a fan of the entire collection. The lead track “Digging for Icicles” is a Leonard Cohen imitation that doesn’t work for me. I wish he’d ended the album with a sweet little ditty he’s so capable of writing, rather than a cover of “Tomorrow” from Annie. But I quibble.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock, singer/songwriter
Danielle Balbuena (aka 070 Shake) has dropped her debut full-length album and it’s deep with incredible sound. She broke out in 2018 with collaborations with Kanye West (“Ghost Town” and “Violent Crimes”) and Pusha T. The number 070 references the zip code where Shake was raised in North Bergen, New Jersey, which she says was full of “kids on drugs.” Her Dominican mother told her she’d rather Shake be in jail than be gay (which she is). It was in this environment that Shake began creating poetry and raps. On Modus Vivendi (Latin for “way of life”), it’s her deep, raspy vocals that really make these songs pop. There is clear rap influence (“The Pines”) but 070 Shake mixes things up a lot. “Guilty Conscience,” one of her top tunes on the streaming service, is basically pop. “Rocketship,” with great beats and vocal effects, is the highlight. From her previous releases, “Honey” is powerful and infectious, featuring vocals from Ralphy River and Hack & Tree.
Footnote: This blog is intended to be exclusively about music. But the daily diary format makes it almost impossible to ignore major current events. Today is Day 1 of the Coronavirus Quarantine here in Los Angeles, so it should be easier than ever to remain dedicated to Music4Sativa, a blog I started as a distraction from the chaos in the world. And that was before the pandemic. Let’s all stay healthy and listen to more music!
Pigeonhole: Emo Rap,
The Chicago Transit Authority wasn’t exactly an instant success. Their self-titled debut in 1968 was competing with an already established experimental jazz-rock fusion ensemble called Blood, Sweat and Tears (“Spinning Wheel” and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”). It took two years for the band eventually known simply as Chicago to chart with the single “Beginnings” from that debut album. Chicago got more attention after their second album (1971) with the singles “Make Me Smile” and “25 or 6 to 4,” and suddenly the popularity of that two-year-old debut started to rise. It would remain on the charts for 171 consecutive weeks (a record at the time), and be considered Chicago’s best overall record. I’d heard many of these songs before, but several were new to me. An hour and fifteen minutes long, most songs are drawn out explosions of sound coupled with some of the greatest horn work in rock history. In addition to the aformentioned “Beginnings,” there are two other cuts here “I’m a Man” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” that are very familiar to people of a certain age and are still a treat to hear. Parts of this record, however, earn respect based solely on historic value and not because they hold up to modern eardrums. “Liberation” gets a little out of hand, I mean if a fifteen-minute song can get out of hand. Terry Kath’s guitar solo is almost insufferable, as he is also on “Free Form Guitar.” But these are old school guitar solos, the ones that go on minute after minute after minute with no end in sight. Spent a couple hours coursing through the Chicago catalogue and have to say, I haven’t given Chicago sufficient credit over the years. They were at times absolutely amazing, and other times unlistenable. Through the years they became over produced and poppy, like “You’re the Inspiration,” “If You Leave Me Now,” “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” and “Call On Me,” all of which are pretty awful. It’s hard to believe it’s the same band, and in some cases because of personnel changes, it really wasn’t.
Pigeonhole: Jazz rock, pop rock
Ego Death was the third album from funk R&B group The Internet and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary Album in 2015. Lead by songwriter and vocalist Syd Bennet, The Internet draws musical influence from many sources and brings it all together for a truly unique sound. “Special Affair,” “Go With It” and “Girl” are standouts. Jannelle Monae and Tyler, The Creator make appearances.
Pigeonhole: R&B, jazz hip hop, funk, electronic
Yesterday Alec Benjamin and today Lauv? I must be channeling a prepubescent schoolgirl. But I’ll admit it. I think both these artists are seriously talented. Lauv’s debut dropped last week and the entire hour of it is quite good. K-pop boy band BTS appears on “Who,” so the target market is clearly young and mostly female. These are all solid compositions; there are numerous sweet spots (“Who” isn’t one of them). But “Sweatpants” definitely is, as is “Mean It” and “I’m So Tired.”
Until today I was familiar with only a couple Alec Benjamin songs (“Jesus in LA,” and “Let Me Down Slowly”) but took a listen to Narrated For You (2017) and found him to be an incredible vocalist who reminds me at times of Jason Mraz. Even songs about school-boy crushes (“Annabelle’s Homework”) seem mature on a certain level. “Doesn’t matter how many papers I write/End of the equation won’t be you and I/Now I’m just another who got hurt/Doin’ Anabelle’s homework.” Before he was signed to his current record contract the Phoenix-raised Benjamin tried everything to get noticed, including playing his songs on guitar in the parking lots of Shawn Mendes and Troye Sivan concerts. His new EP, The Book of You and I is another special collection of songs. It’s all a little bubble gummy at times, but that’s what you have to expect with sweet songs about young love. (Highlights: “Oh My God”).
Pigeonhole: Pop, indie
Not that I was planning on attending Coachella, but a band I would not have missed is English EDM duo Disclosure. The Grammy-nominated Caracal from 2015 was a phenomenal album that featured a bunch of guest talent, like Sam Smith, Lorde and The Weekend. Now, brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence are back with another great single, the pulsating house track “Ecstasy.” It completes an EP of songs previously released as singles, all five of which are worth a listen. “Tondo” and “Etran” both employ nice African beats while “Expressing What Matters” is a clever rework of Boz Scaggs’s “Lowdown,” utilizing large portions of the original song.
Pigeonhole: EDM, house, dubstep
The fallout from coronavirus continued today as both Coachella and Stagecoach were postponed until the Fall. Took a listen to several of acts that had been scheduled for Stagecoach and found the vast majority of them way too commercial and polished for my taste in country. Midland is an exception. I was familiar with their fantastic 2017 debut On the Rocks, but took a pass through last year’s Live From The Palomino. They clearly put on a great show (although the mix on this live album leaves much to be desired). Lead singer Mark Wystrach has a great country voice and their sound has been compared to legendary George Strait. They hit all the classic country themes (i.e. “Drinking Problem” and “Cheating By The Rules”).
The mother of all music conferences, South by Southwest, has been cancelled due to the coronavirus situation. Not that I’m personally affected. I attended some of the first SXSWs in the early Nineties, but it’s grown into something beyond my needs as a music fan. Curious to hear what I (and now everyone else) will be missing, I gave a listen to many of the bands scheduled and found the answer to be: not much. Incredibly, more than two THOUSAND bands had showcases scheduled. The official SXSW 2020 playlist on Spotify consists of thirteen hundred songs over eighty-three hours! With the help of shuffle play and the fast forward button, I jumped in and waited to be impressed. It was a long wait. Apparently the main qualification to be awarded a showcase is fogging a mirror. I found a couple worthy of note, including Bay-are indie pop collective Peach Tree Rascals, Nashville singer/songwriter Myylo and blues-rock guitarist Patrick Sweany. But my favorite (after more than two hours of sifting) was Sarah Shook & The Disarmers. Shook’s gritty vocals coupled with solid songwriting put this band on the map in 2015 with the album Sidelong, which earned them the label of country punk. A review in LouderThanWar said it this way: “These are songs for a community of lost souls, misfits, giving praise to misery and one finger to loneliness.” The song “Fuck Up” shows Shook at her most raw: “It’s hard to wake up in the mornin’ when I just crawled into bed/With bad memories and alcohol swimming in my head/My mama used to tell me to buck up/I guess I’m just too much of a fuck up.”
Pigeonhole: Country punk, singer/songwriter
If you search the name Daniele Baldelli on Wikipedia you won’t find anything. Instead you’ll be redirected to the page for “Afro/cosmic music” because Baldelli is considered the creator of this synth-heavy, African influenced dance music genre. I’ll let Wiki describe: “A freeform mixing style that allows for short hip-hop … as well as long, beat-matched segues; it sometimes incorporates added percussion and effects; and it permits major speed variations to force songs into a 90-110 beats per minute range.” Baldelli has been DJing in Europe since the Seventies but he’s far from washed up. There’s so much to like on his 2015 album Cosmic Drag, that is obviously retro at times and yet refreshingly new. It made a couple best of lists that year, and may make mine. There are four songs on this instrumental collection with the word “cosmic” in the title, so I guess Baldelli is trying to tell us something. It gets a little weak towards the end but the vast majority of it is fun, compelling and at times, cosmic, I guess.
Pigeonhole: Cosmo-disco, Afro-disco, synth
There’s not much left of the original Electric Light Orchestra, in fact the 2015 album Alone in the Universe finds front man Jeff Lynne the only remaining member to appear. But really Lynne was and still is ELO. He handles most of the instrumentation here, with wonderful results. This incarnation of the band is officially known as Jeff Lynne’s ELO, to differentiate it from the tribute and imitation bands in circulation. This is ELO’s thirteenth album and Lynne’s voice, sixty-seven years old and counting, is unencumbered by the years. When the original band disbanded in 1986, Lynne became highly sought-after as a producer and worked for the likes of Tom Petty, George Harrison and Roy Orbison. He produces here on this disc, as well.
Big Gigantic out of Boulder, Colo., has released their seventh album, Free Your Mind, which builds on my already warm and fuzzy feelings about them. Saxophonist Dominic Lalli and drummer Jeremy Salken are joined by a slew of talented vocalists for this celebration of self-love and humanism. The title track (featuring vocalist and trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick) launches this solid collection of which the highlights are numerous (“Where I Wanna Be,” “Baad,” “Let The Speakers Blow,” “Burning Love”). My favorite might be the hot dance song “Higher.” They’re currently on tour with a 3D stage show (glasses provided) that’s part movie part concert.
I made it sixty-one days, blogging every day about new music that found its way to my ears. But the streak ends there, thanks to a hectic work schedule that consumed the better part of four days. I believe I’m back on track, but only time will tell. To fill the gap in the MarchPosts playlist, I’ve uploaded four songs from my 2019 Best Of list: “Castaway” from Yuna, “Living Mirage” by Head and the Heart and “Up All Night” by Sault.
For my money, Rufus Wainwright hits more than he misses, although I understand his nasally vocals aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. His last great album (my opinion) was Release the Stars (2007), so there’s great anticipation for Unfollow the Rules,due out next month. In the meantime, the second single (“Damsel In Distress”) was just released and it finds Wainwright as vocally impassioned as ever. Coupled with “Trouble In Paradise” (released last October), these teasers portend good things to come.
Pigeonhole: Baroque Pop, operatic pop