Outside Lands

“They’re going up by the inflatable squid.”

It wasn’t until D-Man shouted this that I actually took stock of our surroundings. The squid? That tiny fucking squid way up there? It seemed a mile away, within the heart of chaos and excess. I figured we’d lose those two for the rest of the night. “Meet at the empanada stand if you get lost”, we had said earlier.

The scene was grander than I had imagined – more people, bigger stages. The only other time I was in a confluence of energy so giant was Munich, six years ago.

Odesza was impressive. It was what it needed to be. In a way, they delivered what I expected them to – positivity, movement, energy – and it was fulfilling. Seeing them was long overdue.

The shirtless guy, however? The nutcase chugging wine, doing brainless sketches with his bandmates between songs? Even with flowebrother’s insight, I wasn’t prepared for Mac DeMarco. He was a maniac. A carefree goon. An accidental superstar. I wasn’t witnessing a polished band play for a paycheck, I was watching a crew of pals – jokesters – simply making music and having fun. Bravo, Mac, bravo.


Day Two brought sunshine, and with it, steadily flowing beer. When we gathered the motivation to leave the backyard and head to the park, we arrived to the experimental sounds of Bon Iver. It wasn’t the vibe we desired – too calming. Give us something to move to.

We found it at Jamie xx. Mesmerizing, intense and unpredictable, he wasn’t there to cater to the casual fan; he was there to craft a genuine DJ set. He played songs I’d never heard; songs that made the crowd uncomfortable; songs that gave me flashbacks to warehouses in southern Spain.  He did not play two of his biggest hits. As daylight faded and darkness took over, he turned the crowd into a frenzy, and I loved it. Charley didn’t quite get it. Sam was a goner. Everybody was doing something.


It’s a surreal feeling to see a performer after they’ve only previously existed ever so frequently within your headphones.  Since I first learned about Tash Sultana, she has captivated me. Her energy, her spirit, her flare. I saw her come alive on that final afternoon, and she did not disappoint. As the sun set – physically on the evening, metaphorically on the festival – we tapped our feet to the vibes. It was tribal, passionate, authentic.

I never even saw the damn empanada stand.

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Alberto Balsam

Pushing open the door of the Play It Again Sports in Portland, ME, I’m reminded of being a kid, eyeing the Vapor skates displayed on the rack, weighing a Synergy in my hands.

It’s a grey, New England morning and we’re on our way to visit my brother in Vermont, making a quick pit stop to sharpen our skates, and for me, an opportunity to record a Music That Moves Me Segment at Maine Public Radio.

We try on a pair of red and white gloves with an enlarged thumb to ward off vicious hacks, and then it’s time to head over, so I slip out, nervous to put words to something so wordless.

The studio is just two hundred yards from Play It Again Sports. There’s a good amount of snow on the roads so I clomp my boots out front, and suddenly I’m in the studio, in front of a microphone, watching the audio levels rise and fall.

“Want me to read from here?” I say, holding up a crumpled piece of paper.

The producer smiles, as if anticipating the question. “Why don’t you just talk to us.”

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.

Morale is High (Food is Low)

Sorting through my pack for a water bottle, I feel a puddle of sticky liquid at the bottom. I lean closer and inhale. It stinks and my lips feel numb and blue.

I go into damage control, slower than usual after repeated tugs from a whiskey bottle. Luckily, a pair of boxers and bag of bagels are soaking up most of the gas. After pulling everything out of my backpack, I toss the bagels into the fire and watch a fiery plume spike into the night sky.

The flame wilts a bit and I retreat back to the tent. It’s dark and my brother breathes deep in his sleeping bag. I shift to get comfortable but a looming paranoia has loosened my brain cells. They fire off a laundry list of potential disasters… Rattlesnakes! Ticks! Bad water! Food shortage! A field of poison oak. Death by combustion.

Laying there I think I sense a sudden heat-spike. Maybe it’s just lighter. The clouds have moved to reveal the moon. But in my heightened state of awareness I can hear the pop of old redwoods and sand nearing its melting point. I will the tide to swell – to surge – to put out the fire.

The next morning I wake to a moral hangover. The clouds have us socked in and the waves are grey and lifeless. My brother and I start to make breakfast, but I swear it tastes like gasoline. He seems to not notice.

We pack our things. My sleeping bag goes first. Then, the rain fly, a can of beans and a roll of toilet paper. I clip the fuel bottle into a carabiner and attach it to the side of my pack.

**

We walk with everything on our back and already we’re making progress. I skip from rock to rock, trying to avoid stepping in tide pools. The act of placing one foot in front of the other gives rhythm to the day. We’re moving which means we’re closer to something.

I pull away from the group, to conduct a check-in of sorts, wondering why through all of this I haven’t once wished to be anywhere else. The muscles in my legs are warm and my pack fits nicely against my back.

The rest of the group catches up and I silently join the ranks. Nothing is said about my retreat and we begin to walk again, eager to get to our next destination before the tide covers our tracks.