Rodrigo y Gabriela — Witness Tree

Hands down, one of my favorite groups (and live performers), guitar gods Rodrigo y Gabriela released a new album, Mettavolution a few weeks ago — their first studio album in five years. I’m swooning…and not just because my awesome better half bought me the record on vinyl for my birthday.

No, I’m swooning because it’s another stellar, compelling release from these two artists who continue to defy logic (Mexican classical guitar duo, steeped equally in flamenco and Metallica, get their big break busking in Dublin, Ireland); industry norms (a genre-defying acoustic guitar duo successfully selling records and selling out concert venues); and, frankly, physiology (I’m not sure how their hands and fingers move fast enough to play how they play).

This new album has gotten lots of press for the audacious and excellent 19-minute cover of Pink Floyd’s famous song Echoes, which anchors the project. But, I’m particularly fond of Witness Tree, a bright, crisply wrought track that pulses with energy from the jump and lively moves through at least five different movements.

According to the record’s liner notes, this song was named to honor the moment in 2016 when Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero first conceived of the album that became Mettavolution. While on tour in Japan, they sat beneath a newly planted tree on the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo and committed to “reconnecting with the physical rush and emotional core of the music they first made together.”

Hell yes.

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Anderson .Paak — Winners Circle

In Anderson .Paak parlance, “Yes Lawd!” God dammit, this track is so slick.

Winners Circle hails from Anderson .Paak’s latest record, Ventura. Written at the same time as his November 2018, Dr. Dre-produced and now Grammy-winning album Oxnard, but released just three weeks ago in April, Ventura feels like an under-the-radar sleeper LP. Compared to the hype, anticipation, big build-up and media blitz that supported Oxnard (heightened by the real stylistic/artistic left turn it marked), Paak dropped Ventura with a whisper.

Fine by me. Keep it quiet. Because as much as I appreciate the energy and flash and sizzle of Oxnard (and respect Paak for stretching out a bit), I am much more down with the easygoing vintage vibe of Ventura.

Winner’s Circle showcases everything that Paak has going for him: A beast-mode band in The Free Nationals; a consistently strong sense of both beat and harmony, anchored in 70s funk and soul; a sing-song rap style that rides perfectly over a groove; and his trademark drumming chops and raspy vocals. The lyrics are relatively breezy, talking about the feelings of new love. But, it’s the killer groove and the shifting verses — each one slightly different — that drives this track. Gah, it’s so goooooooood!

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Concert Special! — Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, featuring “The Love,” Asase Yaa Entertainment Group

Last night, I saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for the first time. This morning, I am still transfixed and in a bit of a fog; still caught up in the artistry, grace, power, and emotion of the performances. Marking the 60th anniversary of the company, Ailey 60 spanned decades. There were classic pieces choreographed by Alvin Ailey himself in the 1960s to the music of traditional hymns and spirituals (the famous “Revelations”), modern pieces danced to funk, disco, and hip-hop of the early 1980s (“Stack-Up”), and a visceral, highly charged performance choreographed incredibly by Robert Battle in 2003 to an incredibly bold and modern original composition for orchestra by John Mackey (“Juba”).

Each were beyond remarkable.

Musically, however, I was particularly taken with the selections for the newest piece, a beautiful blend of modern and African dance completed in 2018 and titled “The Call.”

The Call by Ronald K. Brown from Alvin Ailey on Vimeo.

It features three distinct pieces of music, the last one titled, The Love from the album Drum Love, which is the soundtrack to a play of the same title featuring the Asase Yaa Cultural Arts Foundation drummers led by Yao Ababio and Osei Ababio. I got lost in this music and the dancing was so well-choreographed to it; all fluid movements, deeply soulful, patient and quiet, while conveying strength and pride.

Featured Image: Paul Kolnik

Loyle Carner — Looking Back

Two solid weeks of a mixture of vacation and work travel put a dent in my blogging schedule, but I’m back…so let’s get after it!

A bunch of great music has come out since my last post, but Loyle Carner’s sophomore album Not Waving, But Drowning is a stand out. His 2017 debut record Yesterday’s Gone completely floored me and remains one of my favorite albums from that year. Carner blends intelligent, thoughtful lyrics with deft flow, well-crafted, soulful beats, and a low-toned delivery touched with a very characteristic (to this American) South London accent.

All of that continues on this second album, which, like the first is a true record: chock full of captivating songs that are thematically and sonicially cohesive. Carner gets even more introspective and candid here — and matches that inner searching with a hushed sound, generally consistent tempo, and sparse beats, often just with just a simple beat/bass line and piano/keys. There are breaks in the reverie (the single You Don’t Know is a great listen), but generally this is a steady, hushed head-nodder that strips away noise to focus attention on lyrics that Carner seems intent on conveying .

Photograph: Dean Chalkley/The Observer

There are love songs honoring both his mother and his girlfriend. Songs about living with ADHD, vulnerability and masculinity, and feeling generally lost in the world. Songs about identity, like Looking Back where Carner puts pen to paper on his experience as being mixed race. In an interview with Apple Music about this song, he says,

“I don’t know if I ever really had a black conscious before. I wanted to, but I didn’t know if I was allowed to have one. Being too white to be a black kid and too black for a white kid at school, it’s something I think about a lot.”

I love this track and I love this entire record.

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Some Things I Missed in 2018 (Part 2)

Last week, I wrote a preamble for this little series. If you missed it and simply cannot move forward without context (I feel you), check out the post and the artists featured in Part 1 — Abhi the Nomad; Benny the Butcher; Elisapie; Flohio; Ivy Sole.

If you’re ready to get after it, here is Part 2: another handful of artists who released new music in 2018 and didn’t make it onto my radar screen until this year:

Leikeli47

So I knew about Leikeli47’s 2018 release Acrylic when it came out and I listened to it then. But, I set it aside too quickly and I’m making up for lost time now. Leikeli47 is one of those artists (and Acrylic is one of those albums) that took me a while to process and feel. I chalk that up mostly to the influence and use of trap beats and sounds throughout the record. I’m not a big trap fan. Setting that aside, though, Leikeli47 is pure, uncut, straight fire…and once you’re in with her, you’re in. Her talent is off the charts. She has endless swagger. Her raps are tight, smart, and sassy. And, there is a lot to draw out of this latest record (her second full-length) because it is at once enormously fun and incredibly serious (centering as it does the lived experiences of black women and black womanhood).

MorMor

I heard MorMor’s single Pass The Hours many weeks after it’s December 2018 release, but I haven’t really stopped listening to it since. A couple of days will go by without a spin, sure, but like an addict, I’m back for more soon enough. I didn’t know about MorMor before hearing this track, but it hooked me onto him immediately. The song is a total mash-up of styles, but manages to sound timeless to me. It blends bedroom pop cool with easy-going, soulful 70s vintage folk guitar melodies and glittering 80s synths near the song’s tail end. Meanwhile, Mor Mor’s voice has shades of Art Garfunkel in the verses and a Marvin Gaye-inspired falsetto in the chorus. It feels like a nearly perfect song.

Rayana Jay

Rayana Jay’s Do That is another late 2018 release single that didn’t land for me until the first part of 2019, but has been in steady rotation since. A new discovery for me, everything about Rayana Jay‘s performance on this track is just so incredibly smooth and warm. Her buttery voice sounds effortless and takes center stage, riding over a thick downbeat, great keyboards, and a slightly choppy electric guitar. It’s all the smooth, soulful goodness of 90s/00s R&B and she is completely in the cut with that vibe on this song. Rayana Jay just dropped a new EP last week, Love Me Like, so there’s new stuff to listen to that I won’t miss this time around.

Ryley Walker

I honestly don’t know who comes out better when I listen to this track: Ryley Walker for adapting and covering it or Dave Matthews Band for writing it in the first place. I know a lot about the latter artist; not much at all about the former. This track allow me to revisit a band and rediscover a song that I haven’t listened to in years, while discovering an artist whose normal work — a highly experimental fusion of psychedelic prog-rock, folk, jazz rock — likely wouldn’t have grabbed me. Walker’s family straight-ahead version of Grace is Gone (released in November 2018 as part of a full-album cover of The Lillywhite Sessions, DMB’s infamous “lost” record) hit me like a depth charge. Walker brings the original, haunting, wounded lyrics to the forefront with a gentle voice, quiet melody and bass guitar accompaniments, and the soft backing rhythm of a simple shaker. The song takes on added weight in light of Walker’s own struggles with addiction and depression, which recently caused him to cancel a spring European tour.

Sonámbulo Psicotropical

Another credit to NPR here — this time to Alt-Latino host Felix Contreras for featuring this killer band, which fuses African rhythms with traditional and modern Latin American melodies and beats into a self-defined (?) new genre “psycho tropical.” Sonámbulo Psicotropical includes band members from Costa Rica, Cuba, Colombia and El Salvador and so they pack in a ton of culture and influences into their sound. What drew them to me is that their music is just so damn funky and so much fun and so full of life. Afrujo — one of the lead tracks off their 2018 EP Domitila y Su Jardin — is my young daughter’s new favorite song, so, thankfully, I get to listen to it all. of. the. time.

Your Smith

I don’t always go for 80s-style pop tracks, complete with Casio-keyboard-produced handclaps, but I went for this one. Hard. Your Smith (who formerly performed as Caroline Smith) included this track and three others on her debut EP Bad Habit, released August 2018. Debbie is an incredibly infectious, endearing, breezy, and confidently cool track; a song whose lyrics talk about love/hate relationships and whose music calls to mind a hand-shot, quirky, music video of high-school misfits rocking out, not giving any shits, and taunting the jocks.



Some Things I Missed in 2018 (Part 1)

We just passed the quarter pole of 2019 and, as the music world gears up for the spring/summer release cycle and tour season, I’m looking backward.

2018, you say? Whaaaa? That was so. long. ago!

Yeah, but see….it kind of wasn’t. And, given the overwhelming amount of content being put out into the world, I discover just as much new-to-me music from the past year as I do from the current year in the first quarter of any given year — culminating with the glorious, chaotic, indie-artist firehose that is SXSW. So, I hold off making my version of this particular list until about now; after the dust has settled a bit in Q1 and I’ve pulled out my own SXSW highlights.

Preamble over. Here is Part 1 of a list of a handful of artists who released new music in 2018 and didn’t make it onto my radar screen until this year:

Abhi The Nomad

While my attention was focused on Naji’s new record at the end of 2018 (deservedly, IMO), I missed the effort of this fellow trafficker in electronic-forward R&B. Abhi The Nomad’s full-length debut record Marbled is more pop-polished, but there is a similar use of warped beats, sonic playfulness, and tight production. This is one of those albums where the music (bright, often bouncy, with an overall pop sheen) belies some heavy themes and lyrics. There are a lot of layers here.

Benny the Butcher

An MC from Buffalo who has been lighting up guest tracks, collaboration records, and a handful of his own singles/EPs since 2016, Benny the Butcher dropped a monster album Tana Talk 3 in late November 2018. Benny is a clear descendent of the East Coast street rap tradition; gritty, sharp, sometimes dark/bleak beats tamed by raw, direct raps chronicling (not glorifying) his inner-city come up. Tana Talk 3 is a statement record; there is such flexing power to it.

Elisapie

Full credit to NPR’s All Songs Considered crew for turning me onto Elisapie during their build-up to and coverage of SXSW. I was completely new to her as an artist (especially as one who is not deeply rooted in the folk music scene) and as an activist. The depth of purpose and of personal power in Elisapie’s music is palpable and her 2018 release The Ballad of the Runaway Girl — her fourth solo album — is as vast and sweeping in its vision and musical influences as it is a deeply personal exploration of her own identity and representation of her Inuit heritage.

Flohio

What is going on in London, man?! That city is doing R&B/soul better than most of the U.S. right now and it’s coming for rap too. Y’all know how gaga I am over Little Simz; well, here comes Flohio, another fiery, hyper-talented, London-based female MC is who is not playing. She released an EP and a handful of singles in 2018, including Watchout where she sends shots across the bow of any doubters and even flips moments of vulnerability to go harder, “I’ve been struggling to be myself/So why the fuck would I wanna be anybody else.”

Ivy Sole

Quoting from a write-up I did for Where the Music Meets, “Blend mainstream R&B, the 90s- and 2000s-era Brand Nubian-style hip-hop, a rich voice reminiscent of Indie.Arie, and sonic traces of both the Philly sound where she lives now and the gospel and soul afforded by her upbringing in Charlotte, NC, and you get a sense for Ivy Sole’s warm soundscape and easy flow. She released her first EP three years ago at age 22 and has been building her sound, her following, and her chops to her full-length studio album release, Overgrown, which dropped in September 2018.”


Concert Special! — Lucy Dacus

It’s been a quiet winter/Q1 2019 concert calendar for live music in greater Portland, Maine that I actually want to get out and see/hear. But, like most things in Maine, the scene is heating up heading toward summer. For me, a string of great upcoming concerts was kicked off by Lucy Dacus headlining a great, sold out show, which also featured Fenne Lily and Mal Blum.

A quick word about the openers. I was new to both artists and, in that, I was a minority in the room. My small city continues to impress with the breadth of genres and artists that are supported locally with core, active followings — in this case, a singer/songwriter, folk and anti-folk, indie-rock, punk-supportive crowd. Fenne Lily’s voice was a revelation; beautiful, hushed, aching, at-times wavering and almost brittle-sounding, but with equal depth, heft, and ribbons of steel.

Mal Blum nearly stole the show with a band that was totally in the pocket and their songs’ energy, wit, catchy hooks, and alt-rock and punk-pop power chords (Green Day came to mind a lot). Like all of the acts on the night, lyrics matter and deal directly — deeply — with relationships, identify (sex, gender, social, etc.), injustice, and core themes of love, hope, loss, and anger. Blum’s new single (introduced as a song about being in the closet) hit me especially hard when they belted out an anthemic shout into the void: “If I could I would disappear / But, I’m still here and you’re still here / We’re all still here.”

All of this set the stage well for Lucy Dacus’s potent blend of powerful songwriting, captivating vocals, and guitar-rock grit. She expertly tore through all of the standouts from her hit 2018 record Historian and dug out a couple of songs from her back catalogue.

She also opened and closed her show with solo versions of two new, unreleased tracks, the second of which was just a depth charge of a song that caused everyone in the room — and, it seemed, time itself — to stop. I can’t wait to hear the future released version of the track. In that one song, all of Dacus’s gifts and quiet force were on full display: expert songwriting chops delivering deeply personal, searing lyrics, combined with a great ear for slightly dissonant, confident melodies.

Of all of the songs Historian, I was most looking forward to hearing Night Shift and Timefighter played live. Each include huge builds, loud and gnarley power chords, and soaring vocals. She and her band absolutely slayed them both. I wrote about Night Shift last year, so it’s the other track’s turn up — with a video of it played live to a much bigger room than the one I was in.

Simple — Jay Som

In the midst of a busy week in the news, in my home life, in the world of indie music (SXSW!!), this new single from Jay Som is a gift of quietude.

Her first music released since Nothing’s Changed (a 2018 collaboration album with Justus Proffit), Simple comes out as Jay Som is reportedly working on the sophomore follow-up to her excellent debut solo record Everybody Works (a personal favorite of mine)

Most often categorized with the (IMO) frustratingly vague and reductive “bedroom pop” genre, Jay Som’s Simple includes her trademark lo-fi stylings and California cool, but set at a decidedly slower, deliberate tempo. Her breathy, hushed vocals wash over slightly jangly guitars, strings tracks, and densely layered synths to create a gauzy, dreamy mood.

It’s just a lovely little track to lose yourself in.

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Snoh Aalegra — I Want You Around

There is no need to over-complicate this post with context for how I came to know Snoh Aalegra through this song (which I did) or long-form descriptions of what drew me to this track (her voice; the keyboards; retro neo-soul vibe) or the emotions it evoked and why I keep listening to it (makes me feel warm).

There are just certain pop-forward, R&B tracks that get me. And, I Want You Around — Aalegra’s latest single and first new solo music since 2017 — totally got me.

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Little Simz (again) – GREY Area

A month ago, I featured Little Simz’s single 101 FM ahead of the release of her record GREY Area. That single was dope. The three other advance singles were dope. I was excited for the full album.

Fast forward to last Friday, March 1 when GREY Area dropped — and I promptly, and completely, lost my shit. This record is beyond In My Ear; it’s in my brain and my damn bones.

The album is next level. The rhymes and wordplay are masterful. The diverse beats are perfectly matched with Little Simz’s delivery, cadence, and her fire. It’s nostalgic. It’s political. It’s personal. It’s rhythmic and melodic one minute, and then bruising and dissonant the next. It’s anthemic, hopeful, confrontational, brash, and reflective.

It’s a statement. And, I am here for it.

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Featured Image: Jeremy Cole