Issue #12: Interconnected Rainbow
Garden Portal premiere from Stefan Christiansen. Reviews of New Bums, Havadine Stone, Charmaine Lee, Michael Gregory Jackson, Future Museums, + more!
I somehow managed to write just about everything for this week’s issue by Monday evening. I’m still not sure how that happened, but suffice to say the music covered this week really got to me in a way that I couldn’t stop talking about. Not a bad thing, I guess, when you’re trying to sustain your practice of writing about music every day. My day job is going to be especially gnarly next week so it might a shorter issue - we’ll see.
If you haven’t already, please check out the interview with Colin Fisher that I published earlier in the week. His new album is out today and it’s fantastic. I highly recommend this one, too, while you’re at it. I’m hoping I’ll be ready to publish the interview I did with Nate Cross of Astral Spirits next week. It was a good conversation.
All-around awesome person, Tim Barnes, was recently diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease and he and his family need the support of the community he’s given so much of his life too. Please consider donating to this Go Fund Me to help Tim and his family! (Confront Recordings also announced a fundraiser release today of Tim’s The Scotch of St. James that looks rad too).
One last thing… Patrick Shiroishi released an incredible new piece of work this week - a way for him to process the emotions of the mass shooting in Atlanta last week. I highly encourage everyone to go check it out, read his words, and buy a copy if you can to support an important cause. It really is a stunning album (and really, it’s much more than just an album).
With that, let’s get to the show…
Today, Garden Portal releases their killer spring batch and I highly recommend jumping over to their page and picking those up if you haven’t already. All four releases are worth your time.
To end this 4-week run (which has been great and I would love to do this kind of thing more so labels/artists - holler at me), we get Kristina Ohstrom’s latest beauty (follow their Instagram, too!). They tap into this beautiful, slow-moving psychedelic vein that gently shapeshifts along with Stefan Christensen’s bowed and plucked strings. “Loimaa IX” is a hypnotic trip down winding forest roads, the smell of wood smoke permeating the air. I will always be a sucker for bowed guitars and Christensen extracts haunting, deep tones from his. It’s a perfect example of all that his entry in Garden Portal’s spring batch, Loimaa, has to offer. Check it.
Garden Portal’s new batch featuring Wendy Eisenberg, Peter Kris, Jeffrey Alexander, and Stefan Christensen is out TODAY!!
New Bums Last Time I Saw Grace (Drag City)
When the first jangly notes rang out and Donovon Quinn started singing on “Billy, God Damn,” it was like an old friend stopping by to say hello. So much about the exquisitely languid Last Time I Saw Grace is expertly crafted, written and constructed with such care that it becomes a world unto itself. “...the haze on the lights that leads us up and up that hill… like we always do, like we always will,” Quinn croons while Chasny’s falsetto wordlessly backs him up, dropping you through a wormhole into smoke-filled rooms and late night escapades of your youth. Infectious from the first moment, Last Time I Saw Grace is a goddamn delight.
In the early years of Foxy Digitalis’ last iteration, Six Organs of Admittance, Verdure and Skygreen Leopards were mainstays, projects that truly defined that particular time. New Bums harness that vibe, both here and on their first record, but nothing ever sounds like a rehash. Again, it all goes back to just how damn good they are as songwriters. Both Chasny and Quinn have continued getting better and better through the years. Chasny’s more the shredder, Quinn the melody maker, though the roles morph throughout. Regardless, when they play together the stars align.
All that being said, I’m continually struck by how savage Last Time I Saw Grace can be. There’s a real bummer undercurrent throughout that suits Chasny and Quinn and makes a lot of sense in the current environment. “Onward to Devastation” has a finality to it, a real feeling that there’s an inevitability to everything falling apart so why fight it? I get sad listening to the melancholic, nostalgic-longing of “Marlene Left California” (a quick note to how beautifully Chasny and Quinn interpreted this song. The original was always a favorite) where Quinn’s minor-key melodies find their richest playground. Chasny is so good in that same space, too, though. Album closer “Follow Them Up the Slope” closes the curtains on everything, the funeral march saying good luck and goodbye.
Gallows don’t dominate Last Time I Saw Grace, though. Don’t worry. “Cover Band” is darkly hilarious, especially with lines like “If things get slow, we’ll play an original now and then.” My youth spent in shitty bars lived this life from both sides of the song. “Tuned to Graffiti” glows like a real-life fantasy land and I’m not going to lie, I got some real GNR “Patience” vibes on “Wild Dogs,” especially as it shifted to the outro.I fucking love it.
What a year 2005 is having in 2021. First we get Sunburned Hand of the Man back in fine form, and now we’ve got Donovan Quinn and Ben Chasny cranking out a beautiful, memorable album of downer folk songs that feel current even if they have tendrils back to those heady years. Last Time I Saw Grace is a beauty.
Charmaine Lee KNVF (Erratum)
I’m always amazed at how Charmaine Lee manages to mangle and manipulate her voice into an entity in-and-of itself. Her work is visceral and pushes extremes past their extreme, doing things and making sounds that seem impossible. KNVF, her latest album, is the most distilled crystallization of her work so far and, at its core, an intense purge of emotion through sound.
First thing about KNVF that hints at what you’ll find is the cover featuring Charmaine Lee’s face morphed into nine different, way out there expressions. It’s unnerving, but there’s also threads of humor and joy woven throughout that belies those first impressions. Trills and whistles on “Gravity” add levity and Lee even, for a few seconds anyway, breaks into song. “Residual Pulse” sounds like being stuck in a pinball machine, Lee’s voice bouncing around through static until, for a brief moment near the end, the angelic chimes of another dimension open up and suck everything in. It’s so unexpected that it’s like you dreamed it and it never really happened.
Amplified hair comb (made by Victoria Shen) sounds like small bodies being dragged through the grass on “Whip,” strange insects buzzing around and, suddenly, Lee punctuating each sonic slide with deep breaths and sounds of exertion. It’s unsettling and wholly immersive. She even gets into harsh noise territories on pieces like the rumbling, grinding “Bares'' and piercing “Exuberant Bodies (For Yan Jun).” Considering the source is mostly just Lee herself, it’s mind bending hearing the maximal range of sounds present.
I love the constant jumps between stark isolation and utter chaos throughout KNVF and how the dichotomies that are mined keep you on edge and scattered throughout. Charmaine Lee makes physical music that is unlike anything else I’ve heard. Her methods and approach are dialed in on KNVF and it’s my favorite recorded document of her work so far. I have no idea what to expect from her next and that’s a great place to be.
Michael Gregory Jackson Frequency Equilibrium Koan (Self-Released)
I readily admit that I’m still relatively out of the loop these days, but what seems like a recentish trend of all these past jazz sessions showing up on Bandcamp is awesome. Like last week’s Roberto Miranda [finish], Michael Gregory Jackson’s Frequency Equilibrium Koan is an absolute joy and hearing this document of a particular place during a particular time is like time traveling. I can’t get enough.
The line-up across these recordings is unimpeachable. Jackson, obviously, is incredible. He’s joined by Julian Hemphill on alto saxophone, Abdul Wadud on cello, and Pheeroan aKLaff on drums. It’s one hell of a quartet. Jackson’s compositions are fertile ground for this group. Culled from live recordings made in 1977 at Joe Lee Wilson’s venue, The Ladies Fort, on a Jackson’s Sony handheld tape recorder, Frequency Equilibrium Koan may be a document of a very specific place at a very specific time, but in the end these recordings are timeless.
On the title track, angular guitar riffs unfold like molasses from a jar while Hemphill plays runs all over the map. The interaction between the two is such a strange dichotomy that it works, each one pulling the other in their own direction. Wadud bridges the gap, though, alternating between plucking the strings and bowing them, like a wise man showing how there’s a space for both of these forms to exist as one. aKLaff keeps the piece’s shape steady, emerging when he’s needed most. It’s an intoxicating blend of howls and screeches, contemplative and resolute. “A Meditation” follows in similar minimalist territory, but it’s airy and light, like it’s floating above the clouds and chaos of the title track. Jackson changes it up, moving from guitar to bamboo flute, which adds to the weightlessness, while Wadud and aKLaff push the piece forward methodically.
Groves abound on “Heart & Center,” with Wadud in the pocket with aKLaff to get feet tapping and asses moving. It’s another stellar example of Hemphill and Jackson’s understanding of each other as they move around each other, weaving guitar and sax ripostes like dancers on a stage in a dark, smoky club. It’s such an uplifting force. Meanwhile, “Clarity 3” is nearly 12 minutes of everyone in the quartet blowing fire. There’s a point about halfway through where all four are simultaneously soloing and it turns into this unreal, melt-it-all-down situation. It’s incredible. In all, Frequency Equilibrium Koan is potent and important. For those of us into the obscure, lively corners of free music, it’s an essential gem. Someone press this on vinyl! Highly recommended.
Havadine Stone Hyena (American Dreams)
There’s something meta about Hyena where it is totally self-aware, but completely unafraid. Havadine Stone has always blurred the lines between the mundane and the intimate, finding that sweet spot where there’s a deep connection made by showing you (or more accurately, letting you hear) the parts we don’t think anyone cares about.
When Stone whispers and hums on the opening piece, “Intro Hyena,” it’s a running monologue in your head and the ways we try to cope. The hums grow into a sort of heavy-eyed resignation where the idea of ‘it gets better’ seems further and further away. Eventually the spaces between the notes stretch out while hope and daylight both fade into oblivion. Windows are open into a world where hiding is a chore that’s not worth the energy. The lights are off as “Synthetic Cricket Sounds and Hospital” hiss into existence, the repetition forcing self-reflection and longing for peace and quiet. Throughout, Stone’s touch is gentle, never pushing too far or too fast.
For the second half of Hyena, piano lamentations take center stage. “Play with a Bird in Aarhus (Hail on the Roof or Popcorn)” is hollow and detached, like a phantom limb reminding you what was lost at the worst possible moment. Her playing is beautiful, subdued. When the hail on the roof (or popcorn - who knows!), it’s a cleansing storm, cauterizing the wound and helping numb and suppress the memories. It bleeds into “Hold It In,” and in the looping minor chords, I am overtaken. I am done. Havadine Stone pulls all the right strings, combining ordinary sounds and comforting landscapes into something that is neither of those things. Beauty can be heartbreak; it can be the memory of a familiar touch from an intimate partner that’s no longer with you or the fluorescent lights in the blackness at 2 AM. But it’s there, in the everyday, and Hyena quietly shouts that against the void. What an absolutely incredible album.
Dennis González Ataraxia Trio+2 Nights Enter (Ayler)
Nights Enter is a beautiful, cosmic ride. Dennis González and Derek Rogers have done a masterful job composing these evocative, shapeshifting pieces. Rogers’ synth and González’ trumpet are the bright foundations that begin the album’s journey, but the bass lines from Drew Phelps plus tabla and djembe from Jagath Lakpriya are the drivers. While González playfully flits and Rogers turns arpeggios into water droplets on the short and lively “The Yendi,” Lakpriya and Phelps are dialed in and really set the whole thing in motion. It’s gauzy and joyous.
Throughout Nights Enter, the combo changes things up and shifts direction, keeping the album fresh and engaging. When Jess Garland’s harp dances, dotting shimmering exclamations through “The Loop,” it’s potent. Add in González’ wistful, considered runs with the looping, processed tanpura underneath it all and the quintet gets deep into transcendent zones. Rising like golden shards through thick, overcast skies, “The Loop'' takes flight. Haunted melodies flicker through the sparse “Approaching Dawn,” again giving Garland a canvas to gently coax out the first rays of sun that bloom with the hopeful progressions of the album closing title track. This three-track suite is a beautiful way to close the album.
Contemplation and rumination aren’t the only order of the day, though. “Sita'' gets into otherworldly zones, this time González on trumpet and Phelps on upright bass trading jabs while Rogers builds atmospheres at the surface. Phelps really pushes into understated grooves so González can concoct layered, relaxed melodies. “Rain Storm” opens the album and is bizarre and wonderful, where elements seem to go out of sync before falling back into the slow groove. It’s a theme throughout Nights Enter that you never know what’s around the next corner or what to expect. This quintet avoids the obvious and ends up with a lovely, dramatic sound world all its own.
I’m a little obsessed with this video of alexalone from last September. Recording in a quarry near their home, this piece of music is beautiful and manages to evolve and move along with the darkening of the skies.
Moss Archive has a YouTube channel now and there is much rejoicing. Seriously, check out the Bastian Void video below and subscribe to their channel.
BLAKMOTH Frequencies of Woe (Self-Released)
Where I get hung-up on Frequencies of Woe - and I mean that in a good way - is the starkness throughout. The four pieces on this EP are repetitive to the point where they etch their way into your skull, a constant juggernaut of fuzzy bass tones and looping, industrial synths. There’s a simplicity on the surface that tries to obscure the deep, feral emotional toll these tracks are taking. Louder is better to get the full physicality at play. “An Answering Reiteration” grinds to a slow, methodic pulse while “Wave and Ripple” shakes the ground with a heavy bass snarl. BLAKMOTH calls this ‘doombient’ and I am all in on that. See you on the altar.
Future Museums Pre-Form (Holodeck)
Everything about this new joint from Neil Lord’s Future Museums goes down smooth and I find myself wishing I could swim inside it’s warm, inviting tones. Lord has always made music that sits right in my sweet spot: expansive synth explorations, an ear for melody, and knowing when to say when. By that last comment I mean that his songs always stay just long enough, but are never drawn out for no reason. It’s an underrated talent. Pre-Form may be his finest work yet. “Sleeping Python Hymn” is a lush world of bass arpeggios and soaring chord changes that welcomes you with open arms where “Unseen Mirage” is an underwater journey laden with vivid colors and exotic creatures. As Lord closes the album with the exquisite “11:11,” the heavens swell as the universe bids you well along your astral journey. I absolutely love this album.
Dividers Once More With Feeling (Primordial Void)
Primordial Void timed this one just right. I love getting all jangly in the spring and Dividers oblige that with aplomb on More With Feeling. Lofi country vibes galore as this five song EP worms its way deeper into my heart with each subsequent listen. Bumping rhythms underlie the good times of “Dead Flowers,” rattling along in a hiss-laden, reverb-soaked honky tonk jam. Hell yes! Dividers choogle away on “Arkansas,” infusing their country hollers with psychedelic shoegaze sprawl. Everything’s got the shine rubbed off, worn and torn. This is some weirdo Americana I can get down with.