They’ll sing you a lullaby

I don’t know what to tell you but of the ambiguous pain and assuring wonder. Of being lulled into a vulnerable and purposeful state by music. This isn’t a sad blog, necessarily, but just one that concerns itself with what happened over the course of a few weeks at the tail end of 2017. The transmission of a few songs and circumstances that, over this fortnight, could, perhaps, coalesce into a block of thought worth relating to the internet. (A sad blog would be one that dealt with the minutia of Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger,” I imagine.)

I know, I know. There’s a lot of music out there. No amount of round-ups and Spotify missives will reckon with the fact that particular songs resonate with us more than others. They seem to stay on repeat long enough as to be an affect—like a particular pair of shoes or the tab you won’t close on your browser even though you’ve exhausted its contents. Still, there are, should you choose, songs that haunt as well. And deliberately so—you don’t seek exorcism necessarily, rather you invite these tracks to remain a companion presence such as they preoccupy your thoughts and state of being. A song begins to become a strain of emotion that, yeah, maybe, feels like more than what you’ve ever admitted to yourself or your friends, or anyone at a party. This is by virtue understandable since music is performative, in transit, and confessional. It awaits an audience.

All of this is quickly slipping into sloppy emoting territory, however, should I not establish any worthwhile stakes in this matter. So, my crutch: “I Can’t Do Without You (Tales of Us & Mano Le Tough Remix).” One of the best/worst things of this century, musically speaking, has been the drop. While it rightly so is a cliche and frequent MacGuffin maneuver of very middling EDM, the beat drop—when the bass or rest of the instrumentation (re)enters the song at a louder, deeper pulse—is executed well, it can be, um, riveting. When done to a degree beyond the professional grade, the beat drop can shake you, rattle your bones, make your hair stand, etc. Or, at the minimum here, I can prescribe this sole song as example.

**

As the writer Nora Khan’s suggested, electronic music, perhaps because of the durable length of songs that are double the pop standard, have a capacity to “collapse our sense of time.” How much and in what way is music identity forming and how much of it is misplaced nostalgia, she asks. The chime and plod of this remix of an already standout Caribou track was especially revelatory for me after I heard it in the Polish voyeuristic film “All These Sleepless Nights.” A camera closely trails two college-age friends through Warsaw, following them on many late nite tramps through clubs, raves, and silent discos. The women and friends who fall in and out of their lives, the crushing pleasures of hedonism and sensory overstimulation, are all caught by a camera at once too intimate and sincere. It is a loving look at even the minor tragedies and falling outs between the duo and the persons in their orbit. That sincerity, however, is entrapping, held together by the music that courses throughout and over the film. It is so comforting as to upend me in almost-naseua at how much the tableau of “All These Sleepless Nights” means to me.

A song of primarily a single refrain sung over a beat that develops layers of sonic stratigraphy, the innocuous recanting of “I can’t do without you” sounds as if it were a fading away from someone, a regression to a sullen state, or, perhaps, a reaching out toward somebody. The song builds like an intelligent dance music reissue of a Bach canon or fugue (the patient zero for almost all music that has come since). When Spotify broke the obvious news to me that this particular Caribou song was among my top 5 most listened to of the year, I thought, Well, 2007 me had exhausted all the versions of a particular Bach melody via Limewire that was probably burning a hole in my first generation iPod. Inconveniently enough, I cannot seem to find this gift horse for you, and, so, if/when you ever google “Bach canon,” this unfortunately exhausted song will populate the results. When I find the canon I’m looking for, I’ll follow up. Swear.

Then there’s Khan describing what, without much stretch of the imagination, is a truth anyone with an iota of the sensitivity of Drake has felt: “The music I listen to speaks to the past that I wish I had, the present I wish I had, the future I hope to have. Taken together, it builds a world of limitless potential I can only inhabit in my head.” That is, music as an exercise of one’s woes, one’s self, and one’s shortcomings and potential. Where, just as music can move a listener it can arrest them too.

**

“Plastic” is a vivid song that tracks the singer’s frailty to the plight of Icarus—the wax-winged mythical figure from ancient Greece, whose story is a cautionary tale for egotism. Given the gift of flight, Icarus flew too close to the sun which melted his wings, sending him plummeting to a certain doom in the depths of the Icarian Sea—the name of which is a bit on the nose, even for the Greeks, but still.

“My wings are made of plastic, my wings are made of plastic. / My wings are made up / and so am I,” sings Sumney of a sense of fragility in his disarming falsetto. His singing in person was enough to make a guy feel barely contained. And much more so given the circumstances. The four-song set occurred in a structure expressly built for ascension or grace. Grace being a state of levity—when you feel like sugar, or a whistling kettle, or weightless, or, more traditionally, when you can walk on water. At the San Damiano Mission—a church with stained glass likenesses of biblical characters watching from on high, the pitched nave, as is custom, directed toward heaven—was Sumney, who began the show with “Incantation,” a liturgical track which has him singing in Hebrew—ultimately, a not unfamiliar tongue in a Catholic church or for a guy named Moses. Traditionally, this cant is a prayer to the angels Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael to help protect one during the night (or Night). And his lyrics felt apposite to what a gathered and packed in crowd of beautiful people in Brooklyn Sunday sundries could expect.

Sumney performed “Incantation” a cappella. His accompaniment for the rest of the tracks otherwise consisting of an electric guitar and grand piano. The watching, and at many times, watery-eyed audience were rapt by Sumney—who was notedly bashful as if he’d rolled out of bed and onto the altar. His voice was clarifying, however. Last night was of sins and indulgences, he seemed to offer. Today was a recalibration. My years of Catholic schooling were being recalled like dust lifted into the light by a footfall: The remonstrations, the scripture, the discussions of homily and the holy—and here, in a time in popular music where openly slouching toward God will not necessarily harm record sales.

There is thankful comfort to be had in a setting where the word savior is invoked with doubtless conviction. Music, in a bit of hyperbole, perhaps, is a salve. Or, it feels like a salve. Sumney’s voice, whether in a church, or through headphones, or some other calibrated machination, is not salvation. It is, instead, a lullaby. Akin to what the critic Max Norman, in viewing a relatively unheralded Edvard Munch painting (from an exhibit curated by author Karl Ove Knausgaard, no less), described as “something else,” a feeling “approaching a kind of comprehension—one of those sentimental moments that move you in spite of yourself.” In the absence of anguish sentimentality may creep in, he suggests. Still, a negative feeling is, when held just so, a reprieve. Someone else, like Sumney, reckons with woes in a manner that feel so relatable as to cradle one away from mortal concerns and to momentarily distract into a state of what Buddhists, Hindus, and Catholics have all called unsentimental love.

**

But there’s, too, the performative shock of hearing something transcendent for the first time. It pipes in through the ears a sense of grace that is deliberately delightful on, say, a crowded and slothful evening subway ride uptown. Recently and specifically, this meant hearing a couple voices commingle on a track recommended to me through a trusted blogger. It wasn’t so much low expectations but an acquiescing to the rightness of the internet’s suggestion that gave me a feeling of minor incorporeality: myself in intangible forms—a song, a digital file, a lullaby conveyed.

The toy piano sound of “Close But Not Quite”, for its part, should immediately signal a lullaby; but it also is a retreat back to the days of when I listened to the Dresden Dolls following a red-headed girl’s recommendation. Memory is imprecise and shifts to fit the forms we prefer, but, still, I remember reading about this Boston band and fixating on the fact that they, as professionals, would find artistic purchase through a child’s plaything. This was in the heyday of the Strokes and Interpol. I was teaching myself drums by listening to the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps” on repeat, and here was a self-selected admirable tune from someone whose taste I trusted. Though it isn’t exactly the same tinkle. The sound on the track from my minor revelation on the subway appears synthetic, a simulacrum of the analog.

Everything Is Recorded’s “Close But Not Quite” comes a bit under the radar, sure, but it is the EP that was promised. XL Records exec Richard Russell brought, magnanimously, a group of musicians and samples together with his varying production, the title track of which can either meet the listener with the weight of an anchor and the cotton-swabbing cleanse of a lullaby. Besides the not-quite toy piano, “Close But Not Quite” is built around Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings of You,” from 1970. That isn’t clear, however, until the hook which, when directly following a Sampha verse, is a falsetto pairing that can ruin you if you’re feeling vulnerable. It’s a gift, all 3:29 minutes of flourishing Motown and lightly touching drums.

Now, sitting behind a laptop and feeling this out from a distance feels leveling, neither Sampha nor Mayfield can quite square the feelings intangible to them on the song, and, really, what all of the above writing is considering is that tracks such as these can do the opposite for the listener. We can feel a little more whole by having certain falsettos or beat drops reverberating through us. Strange how some things become an earworm and metonym for a particular moment. And others can never shake their nostalgic pull. It’s warped, retrospection. It can appear that a sad song has soothed you. But, even in a lullaby, we often only hear what we want to hear.

Advertisements

Hak Baker – Conundrum

I have a ritual. Divulging it may help countenance the way we interact with music on the enormous, inescapable digital platforms—Spotify, in this case—or it may just add more noise to the whirlpooling soundscape of the internet. Like the book and film industries, most new music (singles, LPs, EPs) is officially released on Fridays. Spotify capitalizes on this through its prominently-placed New Music Friday playlist. It’s an effective if scattershot showcase of the newest big-label, big-artist songs accompanied by a slew of algorithmically selected tracks based on your listener profile. But I’m skeptical of algorithms. And I still like the relatively safe spaces of albums; whereas a playlist categorically defined by the newness of the seven-day drop cycle, computer learning software be damned, hop scotches too much from genre and tempo on play-through.

Maybe, I’ll admit, I even like the skeuomorphic renders that scrolling through the cover art of the new albums and singles presents. The tiles offer a glimpse into the personality behind each project; their arraignment a concession to how much the labels pay Spotify for top-of-the-list preference. So, I stay up on Thursday evenings and wait for the New Releases tab to update. (More often than not, this doesn’t happen at the stroke of 12:01 am, but hours later during the morning rush hours.) Regardless, sometimes, in this digital crate digging exercise, I find something worth pilfering for my own playlists. At other moments, I scratch my head and hate-judge whoever thought the new Mount Kimbie album was deserving to rest on the ocean floor of this sea of sound.

If you’ve never before clicked the Browse tab then this all might sound like quaint idiosyncratic behavior. But if you do and you have feelings about how music is presented to and consumed via Spotify, then you would be surprised to know that even at my most untrusting of Spotify’s transparent attempt at personalized playlists such as New Music Friday, worthwhile music can be had on the Discover tab (even if you only go there out of laziness or accident or pretension: “How misguided are these recommends going to be?”) as well. But a rose by any other name is still a rose.

This is how I came across the work of Hak Baker.

**

Despite his thin output, I knew Baker’s lullabying tune “Conundrum” was perfect for a playlist I continue to invest stupid amounts of energy on and whose architecture is built around the idea “What else would you listen to if you loved Frank Ocean and hip-hop?” “Conundrum,” an unsentimental look at life in East London, is just voice and acoustic guitar. A simple formula that has worked well-enough for the Amy Winehouses and Chris Martins of the world. The lyrics have depth and surprising diction while the guitar playing is reminiscent of third-week-of-YouTube-music-lessons skill. Baker’s voice is, however, palpable, clarifying, almost sad.

**

I bring my belief in fortuitous circumstances to my playlists. By the Sunday after the most recent new music releases, I had managed to add, including “Conundrum,” seven new tracks. The day had started off slowly as I tried to slough off the dull feeling that hung around me following the previous night’s tennis and dancing and a number of pulls from a bottle of Jameson that was also seven in number if not more. Actually, I was supplementing my taking-life-into-account state of affairs with a reckoning of Neil Young. Apparently, the old man’s catalog is now on Spotify and I was searching for a specific live album a friend had played for me on his record player on another, whiskey-soaked Saturday. It’s there, I’m sure, but I needed to get outside at least once today. (The ways in which I wasn’t being productive were staggering: The articles I needed to write, the emails waiting to escape the “drafts” folder wasn’t getting any slimmer, and I began this post in a devil may care manner. Wasting time, right here, right now.) So, at no later than 10 pm, I made my way to a slice joint on the other side of the highway that deals in half-cuts upon request. An easy 15-minute walk from my Brooklyn neighborhood.

**

It’s worth mentioning that this pizza shop is heavy-metal themed and when I got there, early Black Sabbath was playing loudly and two drunk on life (also beer) patrons were debating which of the pizza-punned t-shirts to get. Each black tee features a screen-printed front in the style of classic metal album covers and they’re all great. Because superstition is leashed to low expectations, I couldn’t grin any more dumbly or widely at my fortune. This would be the third time I ordered half-slices and got full ones instead. Rarely do I place much stock in my propensity to not speak loudly, but there I was, walking home the winner of a twofer. Superstition, too, harbors an appreciation of luck no matter its scale. The playlist switched to shuffle and what could be described as an unfair sequence of 5 songs played back to back. It was as unfair as the starting lineup of the Los Angeles Dodgers, though that simile may not hold as the majority of these artists were British.

**

“Conundrum” kicked it off and, while I was toting my pizza beneath an underpass, Rex Orange County’s “Paradise” began afterward. Belonging to the hangover genre of songs, it makes a good case for not drinking beer to get drunk just because everyone else is which felt particularly relatable right then. From Rex’s first album, which is emblematic of the best efforts of bedroom producers, “Paradise” is mostly deep bass notes and an unstellar drum machine behind which synthesizer keys fade in and out. Then, after the song’s abrupt ending, was the comparatively expertly-produced “Laidback” by Rat Boy. In this case, the upbeat song finds the British youth expressing a love for someone whom he can’t directly express that to emphatically. So, just as the song title heavily features in the refrain, Rat Boy needs to occupy the premier emotional state and posture of Western millennials: chill. Who isn’t chill as much as she’s cavalier is Jessie Reyez. This song, a would-be bold choice for karaoke, is called “Fuck It” and Jessie’s attitude wavers between a spoken-poetry aspect to a roll call of “Fuck It”s. The track came to my attention via another sort of algorithm: Daniel Caesar’s Instagram Story. He was riding in an Uber as it played on the radio if I remember correctly, again underscoring my hunch that many things are possibly better in Canada. The next and final song was the most clever cover of 2016: Sunni Colon’s interpretation of “Black Hole Sun,” the anthemic Soundgarden song that is likewise the best about heroine since “Beast of Burden.” Colon’s airy track reworks the chorus of the grunge-era hit to a dance floor juke. That is, dancing in the way that “F.U.B.U.” by Solange is a dance track—they both share a bass and bump that engenders creative movement.

**

On a street corner near my apartment, three books were left atop a garbage can for recyclables. (It’s all very Brooklyn, I know.) The books seemed relatively clean and I took two titles: A short story collection by the late Denis Johnson and a large history of Lewis and Clark by Stephen Ambrose. Balancing this all and jiggering my keys into the doors I needed to pass through to get home, I had my hands full.

Mura Masa – Blue feat. Damon Albarn

Mura Masa wasn’t on any particular musical radar I kept. Mostly, dipping into the memory banks here, when I hear the artist’s name, I countenance the image of a pretty girl in college: two years older, sorority member, laughably out of my league, and an audiophile. We stayed in touch, however, despite my better senses telling me it was perhaps best to put distance between sophomoric crushes out here in the ~real world~. When I saw her last it was autumn. We got dinner and drinks at a noisy Nolita taqueria. Neither of us is particularly loud and, well, you know how pretty girls listen but don’t hear. This was also the night I learned what Vetements is, but that’s a blog for another day. As a popular and raucous song began to play above us, we trapezed back some years and into the unique comfort of a running conversation: songs that sound good on paper but fail upon execution.

It was a tune designated for a land of shadows I call Sweetgreen Music™. Meaning, the song cashes in on the magic of Millennial pop by being of several styles and sensibilities at once without offending anyone. There’s a playlist for everything now, it seems. Mura Masa’s “Love$ick” is a top-earner in the Sweetgreen Music™ economy. We both hated the track. She thought A$AP Rocky soils the virgin production with his warm weather drive-by raps. The original orchestration wasn’t fetching. Though I thoroughly get down with the Four Tet remix of the track.

A graduate of the School of Soundcloud (RIP?), Mura Masa is the nom de plume of 21-year-old Brit, Alex Crossan. His self-titled debut album is here, and the immediate, overwhelming feeling goes as such: sheesh, what are the rest of us doing with our lives, huh? It’s a party album, made for dancefloors and, inescapably, Sweetgreens everywhere as well. What stands out most amidst the bubbling production, rippling and hefty bass lines, afrobeat and dancehall instrumentation, and is conspicuous even among the featured artists (basically a who’s who of i-D, Dazed, or Paper cover stories), is the track “Blu.” An early single and, now, the finale to the album, here is a track for the days ahead.

Damon Albarn lends his unmistakable tenor to the leisurely plod and 808s-rife song. In the background are, as the British musical icon waxes on about a sanguine kind of love, whizzing noises and harp strums. Near the end, there’s only a softly plucked acoustic guitar and Albarn’s magnified, reverberating voice. Finally, the music drifts for a beat and muffled London street noises become evident—where they there the whole time? Lasting for over thirty seconds, the innocuous sounds play the album out.

Albarn, of course, is a polymath and band savant. He’s the frontman of Blur, creator of Gorillaz, and just generally has his hands in all sorts of pots. The most recent Gorillaz album, out earlier this year, was, well, a lot. The personal and critical consensus seems to agree; it’s good in the gestures-of-approval-kind-of-way that doesn’t necessarily satisfy. The deluxe edition is out soon and promises more tracks, perhaps great ones. But why settle for an opus when a song will do? Demon Days was a gateway album for me and young Crossan (who told The Fader as much), revealing to us both the possibilities of music without boundary. Of combined genres, sounds, artistry, and visuals. It’s a weird, sonic showcase that seems to make a point of its genius by being playful and apocalyptic at once. Albarn made up a band, for chrissake. I still haven’t quite recovered. Nothing that outstanding had graced MTV since Kanye West who, dressed as a bear mascot, flipped rap on its head.

Perhaps, all of this is a roundabout way of suggesting that I unreasonably stress over any new output from Albarn. Can he be Demon Days great again? A dumb question, sure. I understand that our past both informs and haunts our every move, both in creative endeavors like music writing as it does in mundane procedures like figuring out lunch. Sometimes you want music that will free you from your teenage ennui. Other times you just need Sweetgreen. “Blu” is a cryptic lullaby. It is also over a half a minute of nothing. And, on repeated listen, it plays its hand. A couple of talented artists—one who impressed me and another who’d done similar to a years-ago crush—from across the ocean combined their talents and made something exceptional. We are all different people in different places now. “Blu” is what I hope to hear more of, wherever I am.

Shoutout to the good folks at Cymbal for sharing their Universal Player with the world. It’s easy, good looking, and intuitive. Like me.

Benny Cassette - Entertain Us - Francois

C’mon Now, Entertain Us

That there exists a subset of rap specializing in angst speaks to how far the premier musical movement of the last 30 years has come. Think about this for a second, angst rap. Well, alright, more like pop-rap than the genuine item.

*** ***

Speaking broadly, angst rap (shouts to Lupe Fiasco and Kid Cudi for popularizing the genre), is a close cousin to what Yung Lean, the King of the Sad Boys and his ilk begot. Now, listening to Benny Cassette’s “Entertain Us,” we see how much the hip-hop playing field has openend.

Delivered at a pace familiar to Top Forty rap listeners, with Millennial self-preservation at the receiving end of his criticism, Cassette riles his social discomfort along his smooth sing-talk delivery, taking aim at the male and female archetypes of the iPhone commentariat alike:

“Fuck yo twitta/Fuck yo Snapchat/ Fuck yo Instagram/ There’s so much bullshit happening I’m losing who I am,” goes the refrain.

Though an enjoyable song, we see angst for what it’s worth. Lamenting without the suggestion of change is just complaining from a cozy distance. He chants: “We’re so bored/Come and entertain us.” Is he really? Yet, “Entertain Us” is still an effective song for what it references and immediately brings to mind.

*** ***

Cassette’s banner ad of a song borrows its title from what, at least in my K-Rock uprbringing as the pinnacle of angst rock. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Tenn Spirit,” where Cassette paraphrases Kurt Cobain’s laconic grunge anthem for today’s audience: the social media addicted Millenials; brandishing today’s youthful gripes: superficiality, lack of real conversation, disconnectedness from the corporeal; all packaged to refract the best qualities of today’s dominant sound: rap music.

Come and entertain us
You can’t really blame us
It all feels shallow…

———-

Trouble Knows Me, Samuel T. Herring, Madlib, Hip-hop

Trouble Knows Me

Genre blends, they’re mostly quirky if not plain ol’ repugnant, but when it works, another light bulb turns on in the Bat Cave of your mind. Samuel T. Herring, the frontman of Future Islands, and the rapper-producer Madlib have released a self-titled track under the moniker Trouble Knows Me.

Find this bit of #existentialrap on Cymbal

Leon Bridges – Coming Home

Sometimes a song will remind you of another song. It’ll strike as reminiscent; sometimes it’s as a knockoff; sometimes it’s a better compliment to that music which you already listen to. When it comes to American heritage music, the case for authenticity is, as they sang from Motown to the bayou, a long, difficult road.



Leon Bridges’ body of work immediately reminds you of something you heard, at least, once before. His debut album, Coming Home is a compact collection of 10 works — all originals — that are the ghosts of the revered and oft-cited genres of Billboard Charts past. Bridges is an act of several talents. He sings gospel, soul, and rockabilly in the manner and efficiency of the 50s and 60s stars he emulates. A Texan of the Internet Age, Bridges looks as his music sounds: In short, he’s a Sam Cooke simulacrum. His lyrics are anodyne. The instruments he employs as well as the length of his songs are equivalent to those sixty years ago. He is, however, the benefit of excellent studio production skills.



This music, the contemporary blues, soul, funk, and folk is an affair of the genuine mixing with the hit-making. It isn’t enough for Bridges to sound like Al Greene or Big Mama Thorton. That his music apes their sounds is not inherently a bad thing — it’s enjoyable, really — yet, it is bothersome to hear the past so well duplicated. That he doesn’t (or has not yet) done anything new is what makes Bridges troublesome. The music of the 50s and 60s holds such a heavy sway over a certain set of modern artists that they cannot write a tune without criticism from the old guard. (Though the repackaging of music for commercial gain is a perennial industry gambit.) The Black Keys, for instance, who’ve been playing the same songs on every one of their albums, had to turn the blues into pop records in order to succeed. Perhaps, one of the few artists who’s managed to add something new to the catalogue, so to speak, is Michael Kiwanuka, and he’s British.



Bridges has the ungainful status of being both obsessively vintage and couched in the contemporaneous. It is not an enviable status. His music comes off as innocent, unaffected by the complications of life outside of the simpler happinesses and sadnesses of his, and so many other pop singers’, songs. Yet, so long as we enjoy listening to Coming Home, dancing to it, singing along with it, we at once replicates the music he emulates as well as leave the past behind for something so new our grandparents would of payed to have it on their local jukebox.