A new discovery for me this week with We Are the City, a Canadian progressive rock band from Vancouver, BC. They’ve been putting out experimental albums for over a decade, tweaking their musical form that entire time to include (according to various reviews) hooky pop-rock, jagged electronic soundscapes, and artsy prog-rock. Their newest record, RIP, follows the death of a long-time childhood friend of the band members (Kyle Tubbs) and, in their own words, marks an important moment for the group. On their Facebook page, they wrote:
“RIP is our step forward, but it feels comprehensive. It does feel like a culmination. And it does feel like the next music will be the beginning of a new journey. RIP is a love letter to everyone who has shared their life with us and who has let us share our lives with them. It’s a love letter to our youth. And, most of all, it’s a love letter to Kyle Tubbs.“
Being new to this band and a neophyte in prog- and art-rock, I can’t comment on We Are the City’s musical evolution or where they fit among peers and in the indie scene. But, I can say what I really like about the record — punchy lyrics; spiky punk-pop melodies; moments of raw, ragged rock; and songs that manage to sound individually unique and interesting, but that hang together as an album.
The track that first grabbed me (and continues to grab me on each listen) is Killer B-Side Music, a song that starts quiet and builds to a thunderous, shattering, fuzzed-out chorus that feels like a howl. A howl of rage, release, triumph, frustration….really, whatever it needs to be for you. The mix and production are interesting; very little bass in that big chorus, so it’s all screaming guitar in the treble register that only adds to the ragged, slightly unhinged quality. If you’re not paying attention, it will startle you for sure. My kids love that.
Couldn’t let this one pass without a shout out. And, a pour out. And, respect paid to a musician I was just getting to know and dig deep with when he died of an overdose in September 2018 — one month after the release of his record Swimming, which grabbed my attention something fierce and, by all accounts, saw Miller leveling up and stepping into his own emerging, unique, artistic voice and vision.
There was always a companion album planned. Circles was it; and now is it, released posthumously by his family and produced by his partner Jon Brion. So much of what could be written and said about the Miller and the record — about his evolving style; about his vision for his music; about the heft, candor, and meaning of his lyrics as they documented his battles with addition; about his outlook on life and his trajectory — are captured for me in the lead single, Good News. It’s a direct-line artistic evolution from Swimming and a heartbreaking, haunting confession from an addict who knows he’s in a doomed struggle for his life.
We back! Man, it’s been more than a hot minute since I’ve posted on this here blog. What can I say? Life got busy and there’s only so much late-night posting and content creation this body and mind can stand.
But, after putting the blog on ice for the fourth quarter of last year, I’m blowing off the cobwebs, wiping the dust from the keyboard, and playing some catch up before moving onto 2020.
First up, the annual In My Ear Playlist. Except for celebrating albums (i.e. really great albums that I listened to often and in full, versus just singles or individual tracks), I don’t do rankings or ratings. Overall, this is just a list of the songs, records, and artists who resonated with me the most over the course of 2019 and put out the best music I heard.
I’m spending the next couple of posts catching up on some September releases that I’ve been spending time with. Mahalia‘s debut album Love and Compromise is at the top of the list and, in particular, the lead track Hide Out — a song swollen with swagger, defiance, and self-determination.
Mahalia’s story is worth reading up on. Signed to Atlantic at just 13, she’s steadily released stand-alone singles and a few EPs while continuing her studies (and, you know, being a teenager). Now, at the ripe-in-her-career-but-still-young age of 21, she’s released a robust, polished, dynamic pop R&B record chock full of killer songs.
The tracks are sonically and musically diverse; there’s dancehall beats, jazzy riffs, dead-on-style classic 90s R&B joints, neo-soul melodies, and on. But, in a testament to the intelligence of the record’s production, the power of Mahalia’s soulful vocals, and the firm grip she has on her own personal sound, the songs sound cohesive as an album. There’s no sense of over-reach here.
That’s evident from the first moment of the first song, Hide Out, which starts with a defiant quote from Eartha Kitt pulled from an amazing and inspiring interview segment of the 1982 documentary “All by Myself: The Eartha Kitt Story”). The track swells quickly on the hum of a backing gospel choir and then thrums to life with a beat drop at :24, all before Mahalia clocks in with rich, sultry vocals that take to task the poor soul stepping out on her.
The lyrics and music are fierce. A straight ahead pounding drum-kick-snare beat drives a relentless momentum, while Mahalia’s relatively flat delivery and frank lyrics lace the track with a cool, collected anger. While the song’s subject is a cheating partner, the true meaning and discovery here self-reliance and self-love. Hide Out will add steel to your spine, grit to your teeth, and a determined half-step to your gait as you walk — eyes up, ready to take on all comers. I have yet to feel anything but awesome listening to it.
Released two weeks in the end of August/early September, I have fully folded myself into these two remarkable records — Rapsody‘s Eve and The Highwomen‘s self-titled deubt. They are both worthy of an individual post and many more words added to the glowing reviews and public response they’ve already received (and which are well worth your time reading).
But, I immediately and instinctively wanted to write about these records together — not just to make the sorts of connections across styles that I love to make (I love me a diverse playlist!), but to elevate their artistic similarities and the moment in time these albums occupy in their respective genres.
In the context of a music industry that remains largely a man’s world, women are killing it artistically. The vast majority of the most creative, innovative, intelligent, compelling, and stone-cold talented artists I follow are women. And, they are regularly carving out space for others to be authentic and brave and brash and truthful toward the powers that be.
All of that feels even more real with these two records because they are demanding recognition and space in the especially deeply male-dominated cultures of country and hip-hop music.
Both Eve and The Highwomen offer expansive (vs. reductive) perspectives on feminism, female identity, sisterhood, and community, but they firmly ground those perspectives in the current cultural realities of their genres. Rapsody claims the multitudes of black womanhood while speaking frankly on her personal journey to claim her own ground as a female MC in the hip-hop community. Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris of The Highwomen speak to and for women directly, but with a vintage twang and through familiar topics that have animated country musicians for generations (love found; love lost; love scorned; love spurred; family; death; faith).
Both records match the diversity of their perspectives with a range of styles and musical influences. Diverse samples and beats (e.g. the sample of Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight in Cleo) pair with live instrumentation on Eve, while a sparkling, fresh blend of classic country, Americana, folk, and vintage rock invigorate The Highwomen.
And, both records are grounded in stories. Rapsody titled each song on her record after trailblazing black women (living, dead, or, fictional), but then plays with what each of those figures represent — metaphorically or literally.
Similarly, each song on The Highwomen is a tightly-told, beautifully narrated vignette, none more so than the opening track Highwomen. Weaving together four stories of women facing persecution in their time. The first verse talks of a Honduran asylum-seeker who died trying to cross the border; the second of a healer burned at the stake in the Salem witch trials; the third of a Freedom Rider; the fourth of a female preacher.
Easily among the best albums released in 2019, these are powerful statements from female artists determined to center and assert their personal stories and the stories of others.
It’s been crickets over here at In My Ear. Not for lack of listening to great music, mind you, but for lack of time and energy to write about it during an August that refused to calm the eff down even for a second. So it goes for this non-monetized side hustle.
But, but, but there is a bit more summer in early September in Maine! Time enough to highlight some tracks that I was jamming out to during the hectic, heady, hazy days of late August.
I’ve already posted about Ider, whose record Emotional Education will surely be an In My Ear 2019 Album Pick. But, I must mention them again and call out this song because I got my 7 and 5 year old into it — meaning we listen to it all. the. damn. time. Wu Baby occupies the top spot as the most played song of my Apple Music library. Incredibly, it has not gone stale.
The return of an In My Ear favorite, The Regrettes released How Do You Love? in August, their sophomore follow-up to their dynamite (and awesomely titled) debut album Feel Your Feelings Fool! There is a bit more range on the new record, some tighter production, and all the other stuff you’d hope to see on a band living into itself and growing from album to album. But, they remain true to their strength; smart, straight ahead, spiky pop punk .
Man, I just love music. DAISY was a new find for me this summer and I have been vibing with them for days and weeks ever since I heard this track. Together since 2014, they’ve put out one EP to-date. Day Off is only their second single. If it sounds a bit like The Internet, then you’re an astute know-it-all. The bandmates are friends and The Internet’s Matt Martians wrote the beat for Day Off. Fronted by Daisy Hamel-Buffa and her butter-smooth, classic-soul-sounding voice, DAISY cooks through this track. It remains at the top of my list for playing loudly on those good-feeling days.
Another new find for me. The Good People, a hip hop duo consisting of respected NYC-area DJs, MCs, and producers Emskee and Saint, put out a record so perfect for the summer, they named it that — The Summer EP. Six tracks and 23 minutes of smooth, soulful hip-hop. They describe themselves and this album best on the track Windows Down, rhyming “West Coast laid back with that East Coast sound.” But, it’s the cut A Summer Night at the Symphony that stands out; an homge to The Juice Crew’s The Symphony and featuring fellow underground MCs MXNXPXLY that sounds equal parts classic and insanely fresh.
YBN Cordae‘s debut studio album The Lost Boy is straight fire. One of the best rap records released in 2019 IMO. Tight, taut, smart raps; solid production; a range of styles with some killer guest artists; and, throughout, bars and bars for days. Part of the YBN collective of young, talented MCs (an online game crew turned viral rap collective) who claim and champion a youth movement in hip hop , Cordae is clearly steeped in classic rap and channels some of the best of it. Broke as F**k is just insanely good….and has all kind of echoes of Nas.
Devonte (Dev) Hynes is the musician, producer, songwriter, and composer behind Blood Orange, a solo project of slinky, spacious, inventive R&B. It’s a perfect palate for the likes of Tory y Moi. Off of Blood Orange’s record Angel’s Purse, released in mid-July, the overall vibe of Dark & Handsome is what lingers for me. I still haven’t checked out the lyrics because I’m so captivated by this track’s movement. Airy, atmospheric production; discordant, buzzy synths that lend a slight underlying menace; a tight, staccato beat; and Hynes’ soprano, ear-candy vocal melody that pulls it all together. Since my first listen, I’ve returned to this track over and over and over again.
Another repeat feature. I wrote and swooned about Snoh Aalegra’s first single off her at-the-time upcoming album. That album was released in mid-August — gamely titled Ugh, those feels again — and Find Someone Like You is the next track to completely slay me. But, slay me in the quietest, smoothest, sexiest way possible. The track opens with staccato piano chords straight out of a 1950s soul/jazz standard and proceeds in that vein, but with modern R&B stylings of a beat track, Aalegra’s smooth and fluid vocals, and a gospel choir finale. A breezy song that calls to mind the image of an arm outstretched from a car window, fingers moving dreamily in the wind on a warm summer night.
I don’t know how Spoon does it. I don’t know how they keep releasing new music that sounds *exactly* like a Spoon track — literally, exactly how you’d expect it to sound — without it ever sounding tired or repetitive. Even when they stretch out and change things up a bit, you know almost immediately that you’re listening to Spoon AND it always rocks like a Spoon song. Sure, a lot of that has to do with Britt Daniel’s distinct, raspy voice. That may make their music consistent across albums and decades, but it doesn’t alone explain how fresh they sound with each new, familiar-sounding track. And, so it is with No Bullets Spent.
Speaking of consistency and awesomeness, welcome Missy Elliott back to the stage (she never really left) with a banging new EP and the single Throw it Back to bomb your stereo and blow out your subwoofer. And, welcome to my last two weeks, because this song has been on repeat since it came out August 23. Head-nodding and hypnotic, Missy commands it all with her usual effortless delivery, smart rhymes, and the bravado of a legend. “What ya doin’ now, I did for a while.” Respect, Queen.
With summer going by so fast and me not being able to keep up the In My Ear posting activity, I’m going to keep it extra short this week and just hit you with a sweet little song — perfect for your next backyard hang, beach picnic, or golden hour windows-down cruise.
I’m new to both of these artists: Juls, a London-based, Ghanian-born artist and one of the foremost afrobeat and afropop producers and Agent Sasco, a big-time Jamaican dancehall deejay and reggae artist.
Slow Down is just one of a number of great tracks off Juls’ latest album Colour, which is well worth your time checking out in its entirety. But, right now, as we hit the final quarter pole of summer, the title and vibe of this particular song feel just right.
My new favorite band. Your new favorite band. Black Pumas is the stuff of legend. Grammy-award producer meets talented street busker; they hang; make some music; magic happens; and – bam – they’re catch fire and you can’t get their shit out of your brain. Which is fantastic because they are legit and awesome.
Black Moon Rising, the lead single off their debut self-titled album released a couple of weeks ago, is just one of a host of golden tracks.
As other commenters have noted, Black Pumas doesn’t stay in the retro-soul box you want to put them in on first listen. The record spills over the side with modern production flashes, drum loops, and fresh-sounding guitar and keyboard licks. While they command their own unique sound that merges classic soul, gritty rock, and vintage-era funk, there are hints of current influences from Dan Auerbach, to Danger Mouse, and even Khruangbin.
Black Pumas is having a moment. And, we’re all better for it.
Not one to shy away from tough topics or fear speaking her peace or shirk the weight of a storyteller’s responsibility to hold good and evil, truth and falsehoods in close companionship, Tempest focuses her angst, intellect, philosophizing, and fury on everything that — in the quiet moments of the day or night — unsettles you too. Rising authoritarianism. Massive economic and social inequity. The foreboding of feeling trapped in a system you don’t have access to or even a handle on. Humanity outpacing the world’s resources. Climate change. An age of technological advancement and social disconnect. The sense that things are deeply, fundamentally flawed.
Aching legs, pounding head I can’t wait for the weekend I’m staying in bed In the mouth of a breaking wave In the mouth of a breaking storm Shaken, thinking something is coming The sky’s an unusual colour The weather is doing unusual things And our leaders aren’t even pretending not to be demons So where is the good heart to go but inwards? Why not lock all the doors and bolt all the windows? All I am are my doubts and suspicions I against you against we against them This is how it begins And this is how it will end.
~Three Sided Coin
As I listen to this record, I am in awe of how much Tempest’s sharp poetry and intricate wordplay speak to that part of me — deep inside my head and in my gut — that wrestles with the great questions of our time. I relish in the places this record takes me because it feels like I am engaged in a dialogue at the root of things. How do we make it through all of this?
Holy Elixir is a standout track for me because it displays Tempest’s expansive imagery, the complexity and directness of her poetry, and the musicianship that deepens the impact of her words. She levels-up her patented blend of spoken-word/hip-hop fusion, creating a pulsating, atmospheric soundtrack with rich, dank electronic beats and stripped-down, piano and string arrangements.
There are no answers here. But, Tempest’s way of articulating her own questions and of naming what we are facing feels galvanizing. I am not buried in despair; not buoyed by hope. Rather, I am steeled for the fight. And, for joining in common cause with those who listen to this album and nod their heads to the rhythms and the rhymes of an artist who is looking behind the curtain of the world around us.