Listen to this track by Virginian singer-songwriter, record producer, arranger, and indie label-owner Michael E. White. It’s “Take Care My Baby”, a cut off of his 2015 platter Fresh Blood.
That’s right; I used the word “platter”. I suppose this is because of the distinctly old-school feel to White’s music, and his approach to making it. Forming Spacebomb records in 2011, the approach that sixties and early seventies soul labels took seems to have been a template. In part, this meant the formation of a house band to back incoming clients putting out their own records. Americana singer Natalie Prass was a recent recipient of White’s expertise with her record drawing comparisons with Dusty In Memphis. Yet, White’s first client was himself.
White’s musical interests are wide, playing in rock bands (The Great White Jenkins), and angular big band jazz ensembles (Fight The Big Bull) with aplomb. His success with his debut record under his own name Big Inner created yet another musical stream for him; silky soul music through an indie rock filter. This song in particular is full of orchestral grandeur that conjures the work of The Chi-lites, The Spinners, and The Delfonics. How did this music come out of a guy who kind of resembles Jesus’ bookish brother-in-law? Part of the reason may be that, like the gospel-blues singers of yesteryear, White and Jesus do have something of a history. Read more
One month ago, David Bowie turned 69. At the same time, he released a great album, arguably to be compared to his best ever works.
But, two days later, he died.
I am not over it. Maybe the Internet has moved on. But, I haven’t.
David Bowie helped to shape the world I grew up in. So many musical movements I enjoyed were touched by him. Every weird haircut that I admired was indirectly inspired by him. The very definition of what a man was supposed to be was redefined for me by him. For our generation, manhood (and womanhood too!) became a spectrum of identity along which we became free to move. With that in place, we could decide on the details of what our identities meant for ourselves dynamically instead of holding to some spurious one size fits all ideal. Turn and face the strange, he said! These days, these dynamics are just a given, of course. But, I believe that we have Bowie to thank for a lot of that just because of the impact he had on popular culture with the various masks and personas he wore.
That’s just the thing. David Bowie was as much about redefining how we perceive identity as he was about musically inspiring his peers and followers. In fact, Bowie’s innovation with identity and artifice is entwined with his musical output in such a way that makes either one a facet of the other. What’s come out of that dichotomy between persona and sound simply makes him immortal.
Here are 16 personas that Bowie projected through out his career either by his design or made manifest through our perception as his audience. Which one do you identify with the most? I imagine the answer to that is as varied as there are the number of personas Bowie took on. But, take a look, and tell me what you think.
Listen to this track by Northumbrian chamber-folk collective The Unthanks, once known as Rachel Unthank & The Winterset until 2009. It’s “Mount The Air”, the sumptuous and sprawling title track to 2015’s Mount The Air. This is the full-length ten minute plus version of the song, that can also be heard in a more radio friendly length.
The song’s lyrics reference a traditional poem published in a book of Cornish folk songs in 1958 called “I’ll Mount The Air On Swallow’s Wings”, an ode to lost love, and certainly in keeping with the British folk traditions that the Unthanks have pursued over the course of eight albums. Musically, the influences on this song are attached to a similar vintage of the late fifties, although on a different artistic spectrum. The connections with Miles Davis and Gil Evans and their work on Sketches Of Spain in particular are almost universally acknowledged at this point, even by the band who wrote this song. Maybe the mournful trumpet gives it away. Or, maybe it’s the ghostly Gil-Evans-like atmosphere of the almost-discordant strings.
The sonic landscape of this tune seems to match the thematic content, even if that might not be expected. Even if this song can be looked upon as a standard lost-love folk tune, it touches on other themes as well that go beyond any one tradition. This song is about transformation. Read more
Listen to this track by recently departed musical envelope pusher and singularly iconic artist David Bowie. It’s “Lazarus”, the second single as taken from his excellent and final album ★, aka Blackstar.
With Bowie, you never knew what you were going to get in the best possible sense, so uniquely off-of-the-path was his route to creating some of the most innovative music in the twentieth century. Even now, the sheer magnitude of his cultural impact seems as immeasurable as it is glorious. As such, new albums from an artist of his stature always felt like something to look forward to and to dread all at the same time, post-1980. We held him in such high regard that our expectations of his work hung suspended in the stratosphere attached to a palpable fear of falling from such a great height, emotionally speaking.
Bowie’s output was not perfect. And he did let us down in varying degrees over the years, sometimes just because he followed his muse to places that made it hard for us to follow him. But with ★, he won our hearts again with a record that is both brave and innovative as well as hearkening back to tropes and themes that he’d spent his career exploring; identity, the nature of fame, isolation, displacement, and mortality. He was back! Little did any of us know upon release of the new album just how far he would go to communicate these ideas to us again, particularly in this song which turned out to be the last ever David Bowie single during his extraordinary life. Read more
New years and new beginnings. In the dead of winter here in the northern hemisphere, we need that sense of a clean, snow-swept slate. But, I’m not necessarily talking about ambitious resolutions and grand statements of changing one’s ways. If that’s your position and you are committed, I applaud you. Sometimes though, it’s the small and un-Facebookable changes we make that make the most difference, and tend to be the ones that we stick with. The examples of these are many. But, let’s get down to the nitty gritty and talk about your soundtracks for 2016 as you change your life or build upon what’s best about it. What will you be listening to this winter 2016, good people?
To help you answer that question, or at least give you a wider field of play, here is a selection of new sounds from independent artists from across the musical and geographical spectrum for you to consider as you shake off the remaining rags of Yuletide, and don your New Year apparel. Read, listen, and tell me your favourites in the comments section. And perhaps what you change first this new year 2016 is your new favourite artist.
As Billy Shakespeare once said: lend me your ears!
Listen to this track by former BSc student, computer programmer, and current singer-songwriter Vienna Teng. It’s “Close To Home”, a track as taken from her 2013 album Aims, her fifth.
Teng started her journey in becoming a musician at the age of five, born Cynthia Yih Shih in California to Chinese parents who’d immigrated from Taiwan. Raised on a diet of both Western and Asian pop music, along with a classical repertoire that included Beethoven and Dvorak, she distilled those influences into a sound of her own, springing from her piano, as well as from her a capella voice on some tracks. This song is something of a more band-integrated approach when it comes to the recording process. Career-wise it’s certainly an evolution from her days in balancing a school career in computer science with her efforts to write, record, and distribute her early music initially on campus. By the early two-thousands, her appearances on NPR, Letterman, CNN, and as an opening act for artists ranging from Joan Baez to India.Arie allowed her to concentrate on her music career full-time.
Yet by the end of the decade, Teng had decided to continue her studies — in Sustainablity at The Erb Institute at the University of Michigan — during the time this song and the Aims album was being conceived and recorded. Ultimately, what is actually revealed is that the split between making music and pursuing education in a new town isn’t much of a split after all. Read more
Listen to this track by London-born, Sudanese-originated musical genre-defier now based in Brooklyn, Ahmed Gallab who records under the name Sinkane. It’s “Mean Love”, the title track to 2014’s Mean Love, his fifth solo record.
Maybe it’s his continent-spanning international experience that allows him to seemingly know no bounds when it comes to creating pop music that can’t be easily filed. But in any case, Sinkane’s music has explored several stylistic paths from krautrock to funk, Afrobeat to free jazz. In addition, he’s lent his instrumental talents to a range of artists including Caribou, Of Montreal, and Yeasayer. He served as musical director to a show celebrating the music of early Nigerian synth innovator William Onyeabor, himself something of a maverick when it came to unexpected instrumentation and disregard to musical barriers, while at the same time appealing to a distinct pop sensibility.
This particular tune, sung in a keening gender-neutral falsetto, incorporates soulful torch singing style in an R&B vein, coupled with a weeping pedal steel line that suggests the sounds of country music. There is something distinctly 21st century about this, even if the connection between these two poles has always been stronger than most immediately recognize. Maybe too, there are other connections that this song reveals which are of a more personal nature, specifically surrounding the concept of otherness, and of being a stranger in a strange land. Read more
Listen to this track by sisterly Watford, Hertfordshire trio The Staves. It’s “Black and White”, a single as taken from this year’s If I Was, their second full length record. The band is led by the voices of three sisters; Emily, Jessica, and Camilla Stavely-Taylor. Shortening their name for the stage one night on the sign-up sheet at a regular open mic night, the three sisters became The Staves.
This second album comes after the release of several EPs, and an eventual debut record in Dead & Born & Grown in 2012 (produced by two generations of famous Johns’ – Glyn and Ethan!). In the middle of all that, the band served as an opening act to The Civil Wars and Florence & The Machine, and provided back up duties on recordings by Tom Jones, and Fionn Regan. Additionally, The Staves gave performances at SXSW that exposed them to an American audience. They also supported Bon Iver, which led to Justin Vernon producing this record, capturing their harmony-centric feel that bypasses traditional British folk-rock, and instead connects with a sound that is more transatlantic instead.
There’s a sense of menace in this song, which on first listen may not be immediately apparent, just because the combination of voices is so compellingly beautiful. There is also something to be said for local music scenes that encourage young musicians to create this kind of alchemy together, which is certainly the case here, with a single venue serving as a platform for an international path to success. Read more
Listen to this track by Los Feliz-based musical concern Eels as led by E, AKA Mark Oliver Everett. It’s “Parallels”, a single as taken from 2014’s blatantly self-referential The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett. The song would also appear on the excellent 2015 double live album Eels Royal Albert Hall.
Coalescing in the mid-1990s, Eels music covers a gamut of styles from sixties-influenced indie-rock, to roots-rock, to chamber pop, to a brand of Americanized trip hop, scoring E modest cult status enough to make a career as a professional musician known for brutally honest Lennonesque confessional songs. “Parallels” is one of them, springing from flowing acoustic guitar arpeggios and accompanied by a keening lap steel, a foil for E’s charmingly rumpled and weary lead vocal.
Before his professional music career began, E had been a part of a household with another well-known name in limited circles; his father’s, physicist Hugh Everett III. Many years after his death, the elder Everett makes his way into the middle of this song by his son. Or, at least his theories of quantum mechanics do. Read more
Listen to this track by former Czars frontman and plain-spoken confessional singer-songwriter John Grant. It’s “GMF”, a sweeping pop vista of melodic delight that employs some fairly colourful metaphors having to do with mothers and the coital act. The song is taken from Grant’s 2013 record Pale Green Ghosts. Note: that’s Sinéad O’Connor on back-up vocals!
The song is chock full of musical ingredients that complement each other seamlessly. Grant adds touches of orchestral pop, progressive rock, and even Beatlesque pop into this song that is the seeming portrait of a narcissist. In pop music, there are all kinds of central characters in songs that appear to be thoroughly repugnant characters who speak as if they are the hero of their stories. From Dion’s “The Wanderer”, to The Smiths'”Bigmouth Strikes Again”, to Britney Spears’ “Oops I Did It Again”, unpleasant and cruel acts as casually delivered by characters of questionable motives and justifications are practically a pop staple.
This song is among the best of those for many reasons. But, one big one is this: this character is not a monster, but rather a real person in pain, hinting that what is monstrous is the circumstance that has brought him to where he is as we find him in this song. Read more