#BlackLivesMatter

In 2000, as the capstone to my undergraduate degree (Bachelor of Arts, History), I wrote a thesis about funk music and Black identity in the 1970s. It was one of the most powerful, challenging, and joyful learning experiences of my life — despite some pretty overwrought language and ironically achieved by this white, suburban kid at a small, liberal-arts, homogenous-but-trying college in Maine.

As a course of study, it went beyond the culmination of an academic and experiential deep-dive into African-American and African history and culture. As a “life moment,” it went beyond the joining together of consciously and unconsciously impactful experiences I had had to-date (my father’s love of jazz and doo-wop; my aunt’s social activism and commitment to racial and social justice; my other aunt’s love of Lionel Richie; my innate sensitivity to and awareness of unfairness and other perspectives from my own; Whitney. Fucking. Houston).

That thesis and that entire period of my life was an admittedly overdue awakening to 1) American history that is intentionally kept hidden, 2) the white privilege I possess, 3) the white dominant culture and systems that operate every moment of our American lives, and 4) the tradition and experience of African and Black American music that I have forever loved, aesthetically, and that has taught me about the world as it truly is.

Or, as my fellow music nut @albumoperator (Instagram) wrote in a post:

I am eternally grateful to this lineage of black American music and the transformative education it has given me, shaping how I see the world and teaching me about my role in this seemingly eternal American struggle.

Instagram @albumoperator, May 31, 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/CA3ayOapXrn/

Or, as noted ethnomusicoloigsts Portia K. Maultsby and Mellonee V. Burnim have written:

“Through musical expression, Afro-Americans are able to affirm their cultural identify in a way that supplies positive reinforcement in the midst of an imposing dominant culture.”

“From Backwoods to City Streets: The Afro-American Musical Journey,” in Expressively Black: The Cultural Basis of Ethnic Identity ed. Geneva Gay and Willie L. Barber (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1987), 134.

Or, as Q-Tip spits:

“The world is kinda cold and the rhythm is my blanket / Wrap yourself up in it / If you love it, then you’ll thank it.”

Verses from the Abstract,” The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest, 1991.

Later today, a new post.

This morning, solidarity.

And, a call for all those who love blues, jazz, gospel, rock-and-roll, R&B, soul, funk, rap, hip-hop, neo-soul, or modern pop but who are not connecting the dots between that music and the current protests and calls for racial justice — to listen harder.

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down – Phenom

In the same vein of Wednesday’s post about Fiona Apple and artists that don’t sound like anyone else except themselves, I was stoked to see a new record from Thao & the Get Down Stay Down come out last week. Temple is the group’s fifth album and it comes four years removed from their previous release, A Man Alive, which was one of my favorite records in 2016.

The San Francisco-based band fronted by Thao Nguyen remains as vibrantly creative as always, but Nguyen talks openly how it is her and the band’s most personal record to-date. Previously unspoken or ambiguously referenced topics of Nguyen’s family, her sexuality, gender politics and norms, and her own personal journey are laid bare in the lyrics. Perhaps because it’s new lyrical territory for the band and/or that the words are just that skillfully crafted, but the record feels intimate from the jump and absolutely authentic.

Lyrics aside, it is the band’s distinct indie-pop rock sound that continues to stand out and totally grab me. There are lots of influences (punk, hip-hop, 80s synth tones, garage rock, and Khruangbin-like, Southeast Asian funk beats and range-y guitar riffs), but they all hang together on an accessible, catchy record that offers something new with each track.

Phenom, my personal favorite track, is a great example of Thao &The Get Down Stay Down’s magic. The song blends dissonant chords and a jangly, off-kilter guitar riff with a throbbing bass line and Nguyen’s vocals as instrument (sometimes staccato; sometimes veering up-and-down a minor key scale) to create a completely hypnotic, woozy, unforgettable track — ending with the anthemic, defiant scream against “I am an old phenomenon.”

So good.

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Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

There’s been a lot of ink spilled (font characters typed? what’s the digital analog for that phrase?) about this new record from Fiona Apple released last month.

It’s a fucking masterpiece.

I am not aiming to add more to that public record with this post. People who actually get paid for writing about music (unlike me) have got it covered. Check here, here, and here.

I’m writing about it here because I love it. And, y’all should listen to it. *Really* listen to it. The music is arresting; both stripped down and elaborate at the same time. Raw and rugged and heavy on the minor chords in ways that sound exactly like Apple’s other work without sounding redundant at all as it veers woozily from influences of drum-and-bass, delta blues, spoken word, and classical piano arrangements. The mark of a classic; instantly recognizable, but new and fresh all the same.

And, lyrically. I mean, damn. Apple’s lyrics are deeeep and real; an artist creatively wrestling with herself and her time in ways both exceedingly personal and universal.

Shameika and Heavy Balloon are two standout tracks for me, but this is a record to be listened to in full. Over and over and over again.


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Alina Baraz – More Than Enough

I’ve been a fan of Alina Baraz’s ever since her 2015 debut EP Urban Flora, a project created in partnership with Danish producer Galimatias. I come back to this record over and over again. It’s absolutely hypnotic, with Baraz’s breathy vocals draped over beats that, in her hands, all seem to burn hot and slow like embers. She stands out among other pop R&B artists — and draws me in, helplessly — because of that combination of gauzy vocals and atmospheric production.

Since Urban Flora, she’s released a handful of singles and a second EP (2018’s The Color of You) building up to the release yesterday of her gorgeous debut full-length record It Was Divine. This is a record for after hours; one to sink into late at night. It is starkly intimate and hazily ethereal in equal measure, which matches perfectly with the album’s subject of love in all its forms (timeless and breathless all the way to painful and confusing). The songs lean less on electronica and more on 90s era melodic R&B, but the result is the same: a quiet-storm sensuality and a decidedly aching quality that makes for a captivating listen. A guest appearance by Nas doesn’t hurt either.

It was Divine is also is an album that has the quality of an album; more than a collection of tracks, but songs planned to fit together in a certain way. Straight away, however, I was taken with More Than Enough because it is the song that reminds me most of her earliest EP and what I felt hearing Baraz for the first time — utterly entranced, sexy as hell, and transported somewhere else to just drift along.

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Thundercat – It Is What It Is

“Your favorite musician’s favorite musician.”

“A virtuoso on his instrument.”

“A latent superstar.”

“The coolest bass player that ever walked the Earth.”

All of this in reference to Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat), a self-described comic book and video game nerd who writes songs about his cat, traffics in complex, proggy mash-ups of cosmic funk, experimental jazz, and slow jam R&B, and who — with his new record It Is What It Is — has delivered an album remarkably in step with a world reeling in the face of a global pandemic and gnawing uncertainty.

Were the pandemic not to have happened, I don’t know that It Is What It Is would have registered in this way for me. I would still be writing about it for its musicality, sophistication, ideas, and sheer funkiness (more on this below). But, dig beneath the outrageous bass riffs and effortlessly smooth flow, and you hear an artist wrestling with serious stuff that feels really on point these days– loss, grief, inequity, uncertainty in facing the future, and, ultimately, some hard-earned acceptance of these as constants to be borne, not necessarily shed.

Like on Existential Dread, a trim 52 second interlude and one of a few tracks where he directly confronts a feeling that he acknowledges set in when his best friend Mac Miller died in 2018 of an accidental overdose.

Sometimes existential dread / Comes ringin' through loud and clear /
I'll adjust and simply let it go / I guess it is what it is / 
I'm not sure what's coming next / 
But, I'll be alright as long as I keep breathin'

Or, like on Miguel’s Happy Dance where he sings,

Do the fuckin' happy dance / Even when you're really fuckin' mad... / Even if you're really, really sad / You can probably be worse / 
Just have that sink in for a while

Or, like on standout single Black Qualls, where he and guests Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington, and Childish Gambino present a meditation on what it means to be a young, black American (particularly, a professionally and financially successful one):

There's nothing wrong if you got it / 
I'm not livin' in fear, I'm just bein' honest.../ 
If we don't talk about it, then who will?.../ 
I don't need your co-sign / 
'Cause I'm young enough and old enough, both at the same time.../
The box you tried to throw me in don't fit me no more, no 

Musically, this does not feel at all like a weighty record. In spite of the serious topics, it flows — sometimes, even sparkles — with a warm tone, hook-y melodies, and seamless production. The songs are complex, but accessible; driven by Thundercat’s incredible solo bass technique, but not dominated by it; and featuring plenty of his trademark humor, zaniness, and individuality. See another favorite track, Dragonball Durag, for perhaps the best combination of all of these elements.

Between the expected virtuosity and the multiple lyrically pitch-perfect moments for the chaos we face now, this is a record that strikes you right away AND gets better the more you sit with it. Thundercat said that this record is him “trying to figure it out.” What better time to do so with him?

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J Balvin – Colores

Anyone remember the “White People Dancing” sketch from The Chappelle Show? It’s a hilarious segment around Dave Chappelle’s comic hypothesis that all people and cultures can dance, but simply respond to different musical instruments. (Comic perhaps, but he ain’t wrong IMO.) Chappelle has John Mayer slay on solo electric guitar in a corporate boardroom and a chic Manhattan restaurant. The white people go nuts and break out their name-your-mid-90s-rock-music-festival moves. He and Mayer go to a Harlem barbershop where everyone is either Black or Latino and where Mayer is told to “Shut the fuck up!” But, the Black folk go wild and start a freestyle cypher when Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson from The Roots starts drumming. The Latin people don’t move much until “Sanchez,” an electric piano players starts in, and then they immediately start dancing.

What’s my point here? I think of that sketch whenever a reggaeton beat drops because, if I were in the sketch, reggaeton (OK, and funk bass) would be my instinctual body-moving jam. You can go ahead and make the easy joke about the white guy needing a heavy downbeat to move to. But, good god, there is no denying the visceral pull of a classic reggaeton dancehall rhythm.

And, so I am 100% *here* for reggaeton royalty J Colvin’s fantastic new record Colores, starting right off the first song and lead single Amarillo (trans: Yellow).

What I like most about this record is how straight ahead, stripped down, and focused on the beat it is. With 10 songs clocking in at 29 minutes, there seems to be an intention to keep things simple. Lead with the beat, keep the rhythm gentle but still urgent, and layer Balvin’s easy, almost lazily delivered vocals on top.

This is definitely a pop-forward record; drawing from club and dance pop more than the dank hip-hop influence and genre-bending origins of early reggaeton. But, despite the trim delivery and very Latin pop-polish of the record, Balvin has enough ideas here to give each track it’s own unique vibe and identity. The sonically sunny quality of the perhaps ironically titled Gris (trans: Grey); the Drake-inspired R&B slow jam vibe of Rojo (trans: Red); the interplay between a distinct synth bass line and crisp, staccato percussion hits on Blanco (trans: White).

I’ve had this album on repeat since it dropped last week. It’s a smooth listen to vibe out with in chaotic times.

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Lianne La Havas – Bittersweet

Looking for a proverbial port in the storm that is swirling around us all right now? Look no further than Lianne La Havas’s smooth new single Bittersweet. The topic isn’t particularly cheery (personal renewal and a fresh start after a failing relationship) but the vibe is relaxed, the beat is steady, and La Havas’s trademark vocals soar. It is a song to get lost in, which feels like a particular blessing at this moment in time.

As a big, big fan of La Havas, what is more exciting perhaps than her dropping this single is the promise of a new album sometime this year, her first since she released her sophomore record Blood in 2015. That album remains in heavy rotation for me. And, having seen her tour on that record (fun fact: the cover image on In My Ear’s Facebook page is from that show!), I hope a new album also means a new tour because La Havas is one of the best, most natural live performers I’ve seen.

For now, I am more than happy to ride out to this excellent track.

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Katie Pruitt – Loving Her

With the release of her debut album, Expectations, last Friday, a well-done NPR feature interview with her on the same day, and national tour dates starting up in March, whatever secret there was about Katie Pruitt is now out.

A singer-songwriter in the the modern/alt-country vein (with plenty of folk and rock influence), Pruitt has a gorgeous voice, a gift for lyrics, and a story to tell. As written up in the NPR interview and on her website, the record documents and tells Pruitt’s coming of age story centered on the frustration and shame of growing up gay in the Christian South — and the self-acceptance, personal grit, and mix of toxic and deeply loving relationships that result from her journey to-date.

I first discovered Katie Pruitt last year when I heard the early single Expectations from the upcoming album of the same title. That song landed on the In My Ear 2019 Playlist and was a true standout song for the year for me, with a guitar line and vocal melody wonderfully reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac and straight-ahead lyrics that detail the complicated battle for self-worth and belief.

Wasn’t getting much out of life at all / Was scared to jump so I was scared to fall…./ I learned that fear is just the false belief / That there is nothing you can do

But, since the record’s release last week, I’ve been listening to Loving Her on repeat, which was another advance single. A beautifully lilting, gently picked, almost delicately sung song, it stands as one of the bravest, most quietly badass tracks I’ve heard in recent memory.

If loving her hurts, then I'll keep on hurting 
If it means staying true to who I am...
You can shake your head 
You can clench your fists 
You can judge, hold a grudge 
You can just be pissed
You can say it's wrong
You cay say a prayer
While you're doing that, I'll be over there
Loving her

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We Are the City – Killer B-Side Music

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.

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