Brooklyn duo shows no sign of letting up
Molly Hamilton’s languorous, whisper-like vocals–an ongoing centerpiece of the Widowspeak sound–feel especially front and center on the chunky yet dreamy “Everything is Simple.” After the hesitating, rubbery bass line establishes the song’s deliberate pace, there she is, purring lazily in your ear, ever-so-slightly behind the beat. It’s hard to resist.
And yet it’s the background instrumentation that really sells this one, for me: the central bass line, marching up and falling back; the prickly guitar licks, adding intermittently insistent metallic abrasion; and the steadying keyboard presence, fingering evocative chords and vamps at just the right time. (Listen for the first instance at 0:24; for me, this recurring moment more or less makes the whole song.) “Everything is Simple” has a circular persistence to it that works against type to transform Hamilton’s laid-back breathiness into something tenacious. “I’m still around but it’s a curse,” she happens to sing.
Widowspeak is the duo of Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas. Formed in Brooklyn in 2010 just before the borough’s indie rock mania began to recede, the band has outlasted that bygone scene with no sign of letting up. They released their sixth album, The Jacket, last month; that’s where you’ll find “Everything is Simple.” MP3 once again via KEXP.
To show you I’m not averse to music sounding rather more up-to-the-minute, here’s a three-minute, forty-two-second slice of 2019 pop goodness from the Brooklyn quartet Charly Bliss.
To show you I’m not averse to music sounding rather more up-to-the-minute, here’s a three-minute, forty-two-second slice of 2019 pop goodness from the Brooklyn quartet Charly Bliss. Of course my idea of pop goodness in 2019 is not necessarily what appears on your basic “Top 50” Spotify playlist, but whatever. The public wants what the public gets, as Paul Weller tartly framed capitalism’s fatal flaw some 40 years ago.
In my little world, the public gets something like “Capacity,” and wants it. From the start, the contrast between the buzzy heft of the synth bass line and Eva Grace Hendricks’ girl-ish vocal style arrests the ear. (She has self-described her vibe as “overgrown teenybopper.”) The song then leads you through three distinct sections, each more enticing than the last, culminating in a chorus that hooks us, somewhat unusually, by slowing things down (0:49), with Hendricks luxuriating in a dreamy melody line with a gratifying resolution and a punctuating drum roll worthy of an arena rock band.
There are in fact any number of engaging production touches fortifying the composition from beginning to end. I like how the active, noodly synthesizer that enters after the song’s first section proceeds to weave in and around Hendricks in the song’s double-time second section. Or how about that one strummed guitar chord that acts as the gateway to the chorus (0:48), which is at once out of the blue and just kind of wonderful? No doubt we can credit a lot of this to the band’s bringing Joe Chiccarelli on board as producer; he’s a veteran who has worked with an incredible variety of artists over the years, from Elton John and U2 through to My Morning Jacket, the Strokes, and the Shins. Expertise!: what a concept.
The four members of Charly Bliss, meanwhile, have known each other quite a long time for relative youngsters—Eva H.’s brother Sam is the drummer; bassist Dan Shure is a friend from childhood; and Shure introduced relative newcomer Spencer Fox, the lead guitarist, to the others back in the second half of the ’00s.
“Capacity” is the lead single from Young Enough, the band’s second album, released earlier this month on Barsuk Records. You can buy it in a variety of formats via the record company. MP3 via Barsuk.
Matuskiewicz’s vocals, at once striking and unassuming, recall a long-lost classic-rock troubadour.
A chugging acoustic rhythm pitches us straight into a composition combining old-school know-how with a 21st-century, artisanal vibe. “Battle Born” is built upon a procession of careful, heartfelt chords and a melody at once deep and understated. The song sounds tough and tender at the same time; Matuskiewicz’s unassuming vocals recall a long-lost classic-rock troubadour, pushing us forward with a sort of weary tenacity suiting well the titular phrase. There’s a bit of processing involved but mostly it’s just the Joe Walsh-ian grain of his voice that convinces.
The song has a backstory, and I will quickly note that as songs go I’m not a backstory person. I mean, it’s fine if a song has one but I don’t feel it too often benefits me as a listener to be distracted by concrete details of one particular situation. Given the inherent notionality of music—absent words, a song can only ever suggest—I’m usually on board with songwriters who, even with their words, remain at the doorstep of suggestion. So, I appreciate here that Matuskiewicz, however specific (and difficult) the circumstance that inspired the song, has spun an elusive tale rather than anything on the nose. (And, okay, not to be a tease, the backstory here is that Matuskiewicz had been watching his girlfriend going through debilitating chemotherapy, and wrote the song as an outlet for this difficult experience.) I’m even more on board with songwriters with an unwavering sense of syllabic integrity, and Matuskiewicz’s lyrics scan impeccably. I might indeed argue that it’s proper scanning that can most effectively elevate lyrics; phrases that hold tight to the rhythm can soar with the freedom of musical imagination (see: “An angel came while I was drinking lemonade” [1:06]), while clunky phrasing does just that—brings a narrative clunking down to the uninteresting earth.
Matuskiewicz is a Brooklyn-based musician who is currently in the trio Shapes on Tape, and previously in the Lexington, Kentucky-based band Candidate. “Battle Born” was released as a single in November; it will appear on a forthcoming solo EP. Thanks to Jason for the MP3, and for his patient answering of my pestering questions.
As slyly engaging and unsettling as a song entitled “Western Medicine Blues” rightfully should be, this one is three minutes and forty-one seconds of quirky goodness.
As slyly engaging and unsettling as a song entitled “Western Medicine Blues” rightfully should be, this one is three minutes and forty-one seconds of quirky goodness. One of my longstanding sweet spots is music that straddles that elusive line between odd and familiar and that’s definitely part of what’s happening here. The oddness comes in a variety of flavors, from Tim Howard’s quavery voice, which commands through its unwillingness to command, to lyrics which weave in and out of comprehensibility, to a brisk, sparse arrangement that welcomes a subtle variety of sounds into the mix, from stray guitar blips and bass runs to piano fills and what might even be a saxophone blurt or two. And, one of my favorite offbeat moments: the stopping point we hear at 1:59 and the offbeat, almost church-like instrumental break that follows.
All of this works, mind you, based on the underlying strength of the song itself. “Western Medicine Blues” takes the classic rock’n’roll backbeat and unpacks it into a swift, slinky skeleton of its usual self. There is a verse, a chorus that you don’t realize is the chorus until it repeats later, and then an ear-grabbing middle section, with lyrics that open incisively (“Everything I’ve ever done/Is out of fear of medicine”) and lead quickly down a series of elliptical pathways, ending with the music and lyrics all but deconstructing. Cue then the church-like instrumental break, then the chorus comes back, and this curious but compelling song either completely wins you over or you’re just not listening.
Soltero is the performing name used by Tim Howard. He’s been featured here three previous times, starting all the way back in 2004, and reappearing in four-year intervals after that. “Western Medicine Blues” is the title track from the new Soltero album, which was released in November. You can listen to the whole thing and purchase it via Bandcamp for whatever price you’d like to pay.
In his non-musical life, Howard is the executive producer and editor of the very smart and appealing podcast Reply All. He is based in Brooklyn.
Brisk, skittish, and still rather lovely, “Confession” presents as a knowing homage to ’80s electro-pop while sparkling with an energy that feels current rather than nostalgic. The effortless, sing-song-y melodicism evokes Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, without perhaps that band’s knob-twiddly thickness, while the unusually effective mix of synthesizer and guitar calls New Order to mind.
Only here, notice, the guitar doesn’t loom heavily at the bottom of the mix but provides a lilting, melodic counterpoint to the song’s electronic pulse. In the extended introduction, the guitar at first works with its own variation of a heartbeat, but later on (0:45) finds its upper register and snuggles a precise and concise melodic line into the rubbery electronic milieu. Listen in particular to when it returns, between verses, at 1:37, all glide and grace, and a seductive counterpoint to singer Aaron Closson’s sweet but substantive tenor.
The Blessed Isles is the duo of Closson and Nolan Thies. Based in Brooklyn, the band self-released an EP in 2011, and was signed to Saint Marie Records the following year. “Confession” is a track off their debut full-length album, Straining Hard Against the Strength of Night, released by Saint Marie back in May. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.
This quiet, off-kilter electric ballad all but hypnotizes me, for reasons I’m still unraveling.
This quiet, off-kilter electric ballad all but hypnotizes me, for reasons I’m still unraveling. I like the cold opening, I like the smoky clarity of Jeni Magana’s voice, how she uses reverb to add texture without adding muddiness, and I feel especially engaged by the low-register electric guitar work, breathing a nonchalant semi-atonality into the bottom of the mix. Everything is simple-sounding, and it’s a short song, but it glides by without giving you a firm handhold to breathe out during. This is a fetching dynamic; I have gladly kept this on repeat for quite a while.
Jeni Magana is a Brooklyn-based musician doing musical business, succinctly, as Magana. “Get It Right” is the lead track on her debut EP, entitled Golden Tongue, which was released last week on Audio Antihero Records. Magana was previously in the Brooklyn band Oh Odessa, which released one album in 2012.
You can both listen to Golden Tongue and purchase it via Bandcamp. MP3 once again via Magnet Magazine.
A well-crafted, astutely-produced song that feels almost like an anachronism here in our compressed, blinky-boopy mid-’10s musical landscape.
Transcending the sing-song-y swing of its 12/8 rhythm, “Cut to the Chase” pays dividends with a chorus of unexpected heft and resolve. Although I’m not sure how, the chorus’s arresting, bottom-heavy power doubles back and sheds new light on a verse I might otherwise have heard as lightweight and vaguely generic; in its second iteration the verse, to my ears, now seems altered, deepened, without changing in any significant way. It’s almost like the aural equivalent of an optical illusion, effected by a band with an uncommon capacity for both strength and nuance.
The subtleties are what add up for me here. For one, there’s this appealing percussive sound that launches the song and weaves itself through the mix; I have no idea what it is but it has the sound of an electronic beat that someone is somehow playing acoustically. It’s very engaging. Then there’s the ever-so-slight instrumental addition in the verse the second time through, another elusive sound, this one landing on the ear halfway between a guitar and a keyboard. This addition is less obviously engaging but surely adds to the song’s developing allure. The best nuanced change of all, to my ears, is the bass line that gets added to the song’s opening guitar riff when it recurs at the end—a mysteriously fabulous supplement all the more fabulous because it was so theoretically unnecessary. The end result is a well-crafted, astutely-produced song that spreads out and breathes and feels almost like an anachronism here in our compressed, blinky-boopy mid-’10s musical landscape.
Fort Lean is a five-piece band from Brooklyn. “Cut to the Chase” has been floating around the internet for the better part of a year; the group’s debut LP, Quiet Day, was originally slated for a spring 2015 release, but just ended up coming out here in October, on the Brooklyn-based label Ooh La La Records. Thanks to the band for the MP3.
Even when it isn’t quite like anything else you’ve heard it always manages to be at least a little like something else you’ve heard. This is fun and as it should be.
With confident cockeyed momentum, “Great White Shark” is a fun-house blend of thoughtful art pop and something bashier and more direct. A dignified violin break collides with a chugging, minimal rhythm section; articulate guitar lines locate clearings between earnest chunks of elusive lyrics; a basic verse melody repeats, with reappearing variations, while something resembling a chorus slips in once or twice; the song, while pushing five minutes, passes in something of a fever dream. Welcome to what has become of rock’n’roll in the mid-’10s, devolving and evolving simultaneously into whatever two people in Brooklyn (it’s almost always two people in Brooklyn) feeling like recording. Even when it isn’t quite like anything else you’ve heard it always manages to be at least a little like something else you’ve heard. This is fun and as it should be.
Anyway, I have listened to this song like a thousand times and I am left with two conflicting impressions: 1) its various complexities (in structure, nuance, texture, rhyme) continue to elude me; 2) its sturdy simplicity is grounded in the relentless recurrence of a basic three-note, ascending melody. And I am guessing that if I can train my brain to hold these two antithetical notions simultaneously, I may achieve some new level of enlightenment. Or, at least, would be better able to explicate a song named “Great White Shark” only, it seems, because the phrase slides quickly by in a lyric two-thirds of the way through the song.
Hollands is the married couple of John-Paul and Jannina Norpoth. John-Paul is the multi-instrumentalist, Jannina, classically trained, plays violin. Both are children of professional musicians. Among their favorite artists, according to the band’s Facebook page, are Igor Stravinsky, Frank Zappa, and Randy Newman—a mighty trio if ever there was. “Great White Shark” is a song from Restless Youth, their full-length debut, which was released last month. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it (vinyl is an option!) via Bandcamp. MP3 courtesy of Magnet Magazine.
“Sabbath” is as arch and distinctive as a rock song can hope to be in the year 2014 without sounding fey or contrived.
With sly hints of the old Hot Chocolate nugget “Every 1’s a Winner,” “Sabbath” chugs off the launch pad with delicious authority, featuring the splendid songwriting trick of beginning your lyric with the word “And.” I’m kind of a sucker for that one. And Ward White’s rounded, art-y tenor, a less adenoidal version of someone like David Byrne, it turns out I’m kind of a sucker for that too.
“Sabbath” is as arch and distinctive as a rock song can hope to be in the year 2014 without sounding fey or contrived. The verses feel like we’re already in the middle of the song, and lead us into a section (0:47) that bridges us without hurry to the chorus, accumulating lyrical lines while not quite coalescing musically; and the chorus, when it arrives (1:02), turns out to be less a chorus than a single sentence, rendered memorable by a vivid chord change in the middle (on the words “in front of my face,” at 1:08). The lyrics, meanwhile, feel rich and involving without easily forming a narrative. But any song that can include these lines—
And what of all these women?
They come and go but mostly go
And when they come believe me I’m the last to know
—is surely doing something right. And then, as word-oriented as White appears to be, he unexpectedly closes the song out with an increasingly scintillating minute-and-a-half of droning guitars and bashing drums. Fun!
The Brooklyn-based White has been releasing stylish, accomplished recordings since the late ’90s, floating around the edges of the NYC music scene without quite breaking through, even to the blogosphere. Which may also mean the man is doing something right. “Sabbath” is a song from his eighth solo album, Ward White is the Matador, released earlier this month. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.
Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter May Rio, doing musical business as Meenk, wastes no time plunging you into her songs.
Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter May Rio, doing musical business as Meenk, wastes no time plunging you into her songs, eschewing introductions for cold starts. Rio in fact goes further here and pretty much eliminates instrumental breaks of all kinds, a move that subtly increases her song’s sense of purpose—it’s all swimming, no treading water. There is a four-second, beat-driven riff that recurs as an intrinsic part of the song (and acts as an exclamation point at the end), but other than that, all song moments here are singing moments. As both singer and songwriter, Rio is up to the task, moving us deftly forward with her frank, Liz-Phair-esque vocal style and the juxtaposition of “Up”‘s blunt, two-section verse with the lovely, flowing chorus.
An interesting side effect of the vocal dominance here is how minimal an impact the instruments consequently appear to have, offering accompaniment so unobtrusive you are hard-pressed even to notice the arrangement at all. And yet this is obviously not an a capella performance. I am tempted, in fact, to find something incredibly able and robust in this elusive a musical landscape. Listen around the edges and you’ll hear some very cool things, including a wavering keyboard that straddles the thin line between old school and new, and a jangly rhythm guitar that, Johnny Marr-like, ends up feeling more than a little like a lead.
“Up” is one of four concise songs on the debut Meenk release, entitled Scamu Scau, that was released digitally in June. You can listen to it and download it via Bandcamp.