Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Listen/Watch: Alex Izenberg - "Grace"

Though his first single "To Move On" featured Los Angeles singer/songwriter Alex Izenberg prominently on piano, I've always assumed (mostly through his work on other projects/bands) that guitar was Izenberg's main instrument. "Grace" however offers up more of Izenberg at the piano and the results are positively stunning. Where "To Move On" flirted with pop conventions, "Grace" finds Izenberg with the spirit of a balladeer. Izenberg keeps his piano melodies simple while the arrangements get much of the flourish - cycling between pizzicatos and scene-stealing legato moments.

Where "To Move On" bounced jauntily to its own cathartic declarations of closure, "Grace" finds Izenberg once again in the route of romantic disappointment. Izenberg keeps his lyrics sparse but offers up the important parts of the narrative without affect. "The darkness had taken over me/Once I see her engagement ring" Izenberg croons with a pitch perfect air of melancholy. Much of the drama of his heartbreak is provided musically - the sweeping strings, the slight jar of how his chords hit.

It's composition is so natural that it's hardly surprising that for its video, that Izenberg and directors Nick and Juliana Giraffe (the same team behind Izenberg's "To Move On" video), opted for a straight forward performance of the track. It's gorgeously shot in beautiful church, softly lit and with the strings accompanying a piano bound Izenberg in the background.

 Some elements of the song's recorded form - namely its weirder, more experimental leaning electronic effects are gone but so too are its layer - its glockspiel, its vocal harmonies and the like are missing here but the effect is the same; revealing Izenberg's talents as songwriter in their purest form. It's enough to get me properly excited for the rest of Izenberg's debut and its songs that find similar inspiration in life's myriad of troubles.  

Alex Izenberg's debut full length Harlequin is out November 18th on Weird World. You can pre-order the album here.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Listen: Weyes Blood - "Do You Need My Love"

The music of Brooklyn based singer/songwriter Natalie Bering's Weyes Blood project has from its first moments occupied a space entirely at odds with the circumstances of its creation. From debut full length The Innocents, Bering has offered up music with a sense of hushed, contemplative quiet that managed to incorporate medieval modes and melodies and update them in a way that didn't insist upon its own cleverness. On her third album Front Row Seat to Earth and "Do You Need My Love" in particular, Bering pushes her sound forward while still avoiding sounding too modern.

Instead Bering effortlessly recalls the west coast psych rock/folk scene of the 70s without succumbing to the homage entirely. Album standout "Do You Need My Love" is bewitchingly cinematic: reminiscent of the closing credits of a spaghetti western. Bering does a lot with sparse arrangement/accompaniment - relying almost entirely on her power of her vocals and the strength of  her songwriting capabilities. Bering is able to imbue the simpliest words and phrases with emotional depth: "passion is the only thing/passion must mean everything" Bering sings in a way encompasses both a lovelorn appeal and also chiding derision both of the self and the nameless intended.

Bering's I's (as well as her you's) are formless but no less personal. Bering's narrative vagueness affords "Do You Need My Love" a universal standalone appeal without sacrificing any of its sincerity. Despite its universality "Do You Need My Love" also fits into incredibly intimate world of Front Row Seat to Earth.

Weyes Blood's third full length album Front Row Seat to Earth is out October 21st on Mexican Summer.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Pitstop: Uni Ika Ai

I was first introduced to Brooklyn art pop quartet Uni Ika Ai when I saw they were playing a show with Michael Hilger of Thin Hymns. A fan of Thin Hymns for several years, the idea that he was out and about playing songs albeit solo after the band went on a bit of a hiatus appealed to me. While I wasn't able to make it out to that show Uni Ika Ai's name stuck with me especially as I saw them paired up with other artists I liked and/or had covered like Cantina and GEMMA. In fact one of Uni Ika Ai's cofounders is Lucius' own Peter Lalish.

Uni Ika Ai fall into a subset of bands that are among my favorite to discover: those that evade genre classification. The foursome helmed by vocalist Mala Friedman encorporate elements of rugged experimentalism, psychedelic haze, and electronics occasionally coalescing in smatterings of infectious power pop. But there songs are never quite what they seem and their debut album Keeping a Golden Bullseye in the Corner of My Mind is an album that's as engaging as it is challenging.

Their most pop-centric songs like "Make You Better" or "Soft In Ice" aspire to more than being merely ear catching and like much of Keeping a Golden Bullseye... seem to prioritize taking the listener on an aural adventure. "Make You Better" arguably the most straight forward and simple the band lets itself get is a masterclass in the band dynamic. Building off Peter Lalish skipping guitar melody, Friedman's vocals rightfully take center stage but there's a delightful amount of interplay happening between the band. Undulating synths bow and bend with Friedman's cadence, the guitar goes off on these little embellishments before harmonizing with the synth, and the drums keep pace in increasingly interesting rhythmic figures. It's a song that provides plenty to latch on to even as it attempts to replicate a simple (though catchy as hell) pop song. It's the shortness track on the entirety of the band by a considerable margin (most clock in around 7 or 8 minutes) but there's no shortage of dynamicness in its composition.

Songs like "Is This Life" or "Already Dead" make the most of their longer run times pairing deliberately plotted narratives with intricate, layered instrumental performances. Despite its song construction being rooted in improvisation (Friedman and Lalish exchanging bits and pieces of ideas electronically while Lalish was out on the road with Lucius) every part of their longer songs not only feels vital but methodical. The fact that they apparently aren't is a testament to the skills of its members: all talented members of other bands before embarking on this newer project. Uni Ika Ai's music ideas seem properly developed, their creative trajectory of their songs all but certain but at no point predicatable. And therein lies the appeal of Keeping a Golden Bullseye... as it's both an expression of the artists' certainty in theirs skills even when they haven't particularly mapped out the particulars.

Uni Ika Ai's debut full length record Keeping a Golden Bullseye in the Corner of My Mind is out now and available for purchase either digitally or on LP/CD via their Bandcamp.

Listen: Emily Reo - "Spell"

photo by Brian Vu
It's been a little more than three years since dream pop enchantress Emily Reo released her debut full length album Olive Juice. In that time Reo has been hard at work on producing her follow up as well as actually touring a field testing some of the songs. For anyone who's been following Reo since Olive Juice, her new single "Spell" arrives with a contented sigh of FINALLY. Since premiering it in a session for Portals back in 2013, "Spell" has become a highlight of any Emily Reo live set and it's a definite treat that an official recording is finally going to be available to own.

"Spell" is easily one of Reo's most emotive and expressive tracks to date even through Reo's characteristic digitalized vocals. Reo's music has always sat at the crossroads between futuristic arrangements and stirring humanistic touches but "Spell" takes that and levels it up: pairing the lullaby lilt with a sparse composition that draws incredible focus not only to the beauty of its growing layers but to its lyricism as well. It's pastoral as well as touchingly human. "Time cast a spell on me, burn down the trees/Make me believe, feel something" Reo sings after a series of evocative nature imagery and its the first instance Reo offers of what the song is about as its lyrics become more rooted in the self; building and building until the repetitive pseudo-chorus "I can't feel anything/I don't hear anything". As the song reaches its emotional climax, there's a shift in the production, a crystallizing chime, the entrance of strings, and various effects that all threaten to overwhelm and overtake the simple chorus and Reo herself. Reo's voice endures the cacophony but when they're all that's left, they're stripped of their clarity repeating a different undiscernable mantra instead.  

Emily Reo is releasing "Spell" on 10" with b-side "Strong Swimmer" on October 28th via Orchid Tapes. You can pre-order the record now.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Listen/Watch: Sondre Lerche - "I'm Always Watching You"

After the released of his latest full length album Please, Norwegian singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche set out to work on its follow up. It was certainly a hard record to top: a break up record that never quite lets itself behave like the typical break up record. Several songs were omitted like "Despite The Night" which sort of focus on a different narrative than one Lerche was striving for and that along with a newfound love of dance music found many of the album's singles given the remix treatment as well "Despite The Night" being bundled together with several different remixes of the song which was a sort of remix of itself. But the party was soon over and Lerche isolated himself to get back to work on a new set of tunes. "I'm Always Watching You" is our first taste of what the new batch will possibly sound like and it's an interesting step for Lerche.

Lerche's always been able to spin deeply relateable tales of love even at its most intense (see Duper Sessions for Lerche's most deeply felt love songs) but Please's "Bad Law" was the first time Lerche really highlighted the dark side of that intensity. The fact that it was Lerche as his danciest was a surefire distraction. "I'm Always Watching You" continues more in that vein. Lerche does his best 80's send up as he put his charming spin on cyber-stalking. We've all done it. Whether its checking in to see how an ex is doing because you're curious or vindictive or still very much in love with them or the harmless bit of research you do when you're interested in someone new. Lerche's with you and he's made an anthem for it. And yet even to him, the darkness inherent in that behavior is apparent and he just goes for it.

The video directed by Johannes Greve Muskat plays like a thriller with hints and nudges towards it's twist without ever really beating you over the head with its reveal. In fact, its original shot of Lerche shot in soft light with kind eyes only for the color to drain and his gaze intensifies and he focuses in on the object of his obsession does a hell of a lot of storytelling in its simple change of tone. The rest of the video essentially chases that narrative lead - the sequence broken up with flashes of its conclusion occurring while you watch Lerche pine and his intended get increasingly bolder. It follows the format of the song's own twist as the chorus switches from "I'm always watching" to "I know you're watching". Lerche doesn't let himself off easy noting the questionable healthiness of his digital voyeurism.

The most exciting thing about "I'm Always Watching You" is not only does it ground itself in real experience but much like "Bad Law" it opens up Lerche's narrative capabilities and his storytelling options. Lerche's the narrator but these tales take up a life of their own where you can distance Lerche himself as the protagonist. After releasing probably one of the most personal records of his career, it's certainly a prospect that bound to be creatively reinvigorating. Sondre Lerche refused to wallow on Please and now, he's perfectly content with exploring material that might be at odds with his nice guy image. I can't wait to see where that revelation leads. Until then "I'm Always Watching You":

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Listen/Watch: Alex Izenberg - "To Move On"

If Los Angeles based singer/songwriter Alex Izenberg's vocal warble sounds at all familiar to you it's probably because you might've heard it in that of his experimental pop moniker Mirage. "To Move On", the first single from Izenberg's upcoming debut full length Harlequin and the first batch of music not released under an alias, tones down much of the calamity of Mirage's composition. Where Mirage reveled in the juxtaposition of sounds: occasionally harsh and abrasive, "To Move On" takes a much more ear catching approach to Izenberg's take on the singer/songwriter tradition.

Based around a piano, Izenberg's croon is as dramatic and showily vaudevillian as it is a delightful sincere extension of his personality. "You don't know what's it's like to move on" Izenberg offers and immediately a rush of a saxophone comes to solidify the assertion of his chorus. Frequent collaborator Ari Balouzan's arrangements recall Van Dyke Parks without totally cribbing his style. It's a melting pot of ideas and influences while also distilling those very things into a complete artistic statement. Izenberg's musical realms are all together his own even when channeling the creative spirits of his native Los Angeles.

It's a sort of love song but there's also a sense gleaned from the lyrics of news beginnings. "You don't know what's it's like to move on/from a name you despise, it's true love" Izenberg offers in the second part of the chorus. It's purposefully vague able to function as a goodbye to a relationship you've outgrown or in this particular case, possibly an alias Izenberg no longer wants to be tied to anymore. It's a kiss off offered jauntily and without much animosity, ambiguously tucked into a track that could just as easily be about old time flapper girls as it could a girl in the modern world.

"To Move On" is tame when compared to Izenberg's other music endeavors and yet, it functions as both a less jarring reintroducing to Izenberg's wonderfully weird style of experimentalism and also an infectious slice of pop that's aspires to much more than radio friendly ear worm. The music video directed by Nicky and Juliana Giraffe humorously explores the notion of persona as Alex Izenberg sits dressed in a suit, stoically preparing to eat his burger for a camera trained upon him. He doesn't particularly play to the camera but acknowledges it's presence; not wholly comfortable with it but not put off by it. It's a different approach than that of his more slickly dressed alter ego, who sings and dances, drinks soda from a bottle like he's in a commercial. It's a disconnect that's larger than that of the camera's other subjects: regarding the camera straight-faced at first before offering up flashes of personality often in the same shot. The two versions of Izenberg never intersect and the video ends with the straight-laced version, his task completed, tiding up and ready to leave giving a final look to the camera that's all business.

Alex Izenberg's debut full length record Harlequin is out November 18th via Weird World. You can preorder the album now.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Kishi Bashi - Sonderlust (2016)

Considering how tied to the concept of love the wide majority of violinist/composer/loop maestro Kishi Bashi's songs are, it's hardly a surprise that he would find himself creatively blocked when his own love life was suffering a sort of break down. From the tenderly emotive "Manchester" from his debut Room For Dream EP and subsequent reappearance on full length 151a, to the ecstatic giddiness of Lighght's "Philosophilize With It! Chemicalize With It!", love in all its permutations lyrically fueled Ishibashi and grounded his vibrantly colored blend of psych rock and orchestral pop. And after dealing with his writer's block, Kishi Bashi was able to channel that strife into his third full length studio album Sonderlust that essentially manages to pick things up right where he left them.

One of most exciting things about Kishi Bashi's albums - Sonderlust in particular is it shows a growth that's both in line with previous releases while aspiring to be more than just more of the same. Lighght pushed Kishi Bashi's sound firmly into that of his influences in prog rock and jazz fusion and Sonderlust gives the occasional nod to those influences without rooting itself too much in the sounds of Lighght ("Ode To My Next Life", "Who'd You Kill").

While songs like "Manchester" and "Bittersweet Genesis For Him AND Her" introduced darkness into Kishi Bashi's narratives to show the enduring appeal of true love, Sonderlust treats that darkness less as means of narrative shading and more as rooting his tales of love in reality. Real feelings of doubt, insecurity, and sadness. Sonderlust begins with "m'lover", a dizzying but sweet appeal for reconciliation that along with "Say Yeah" obscures their inherent melancholy with upbeat and engaging pop dressings. Even more overt songs like "Can't Let Go, Juno" and never quite forget to be pop songs first and foremost. It's not until penultimate track "Flame On Flame (a Slow Dirge)" that Sonderlust shows any signs of slowing down or toning down its pop mechanics. In this way Kishi Bashi creates an album that's a sort of cousin to friend Sondre Lerche's own breakup record Please: both seemingly operating under the rule that regardless of the intensity of emotion, how negative the feeling that wallowing heartbreak ballads simply will not do.

Sonderlust is essentially an album about putting in the work to sustain the honeymoon of Lighght and the fantastical first love of 151a. Through moving through the shade, its glitchy "It All Began With A Burst" recalling finale in "Honeybody" feels earned. It's the sun appearing in newly blue skies after storm clouds and the rain and Kishi Bashi's playful enthusiasm is infectious and cathartic. With "Honeybody", Kishi Bashi's creative woes and romantic strife appear to be solved for the time being and love wins out, surging to the forefront past the churning bile of the album's negative emotional displays. On record Kishi Bashi employs drums instead of the beatboxing he's done in his live show since ditching him cumbersome drum machine after his first tour and while he doesn't exactly enact that here, his cadence on "Honeybody" is perhaps the closest Kishi Bashi has gotten to the kind of music a beatboxing would feel at place in.

Sonderlust finds Kishi Bashi at his most electronic while still the orchestral pop flair that's become a core part of Kishi Bashi's sound. By focusing on the personal, Kishi Bashi has created a dynamic record that pushes his sound forward by circumventing the easy and predictable. Hardly surprising considering his past output but thrilling nonetheless.

Kishi Bashi's third full length album Sonderlust is out now on Joyful Noise Recordings.