New York Part 3

Saying yes to the concert on night one set the stage for what was to come.  Long days followed by longer nights. Constant movement, coffee, alcohol, minimal sleep. Rinse and repeat. It was a bender. It was New York. There was no slowing down.

Another whiskey? Well of course. The stale bar began to blur; the darts landed further and further from their target. In hindsight, a brilliant metaphor.

Was that the same night we popped into the jazz club, or the night after? I don’t think they liked us there.

On night four we struck up conversation with some girls standing nearby. They seemed fun, but I quickly learned they were from Florida – which is to say, the only thing we had in common was our shameful presence at the bar. I was handed another Negroni, and focused my attention to a girl wearing stripes. She had blue eyes I could’ve stared into for eternity. Feeling more confident than usual, I approached her and gave it a go. I can’t recall what was said, but I remember thinking the conversation ended too quickly.

(revisit New York Part 2 – in which Jab searches for lust) 

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The Case for Not Knowing

I’ve been wrestling with an idea for a while now and can’t shake it. Our lives have become detached from unbiased experiences.

Yelp tells us if we should expect a good meal, Rotten Tomatoes dictates our viewing choices, Airbnb photo galleries are the basis of lodging selection, dating apps remove any mystery around meeting someone, and Instagram gives us utopian expectations of vacation destinations long before we step on the plane. The list goes on.

Put simply, we actively avoid going into things blindly. And this is a problem. Our bodies and minds need elements of the unexpected and unprejudiced; of this I am certain. Without them, how do we stay sharp. How do we remain curious. How do we feel alive.

Think on this, and dive blindly into the sounds of Volta Jazz. Let it take you wherever it takes you.

Volta h/t Tommy

Francois’ 2017

2017 was, and my media and musical preferences may be betraying themselves here, the year of the SoundCloud Rapper. If this seems like an obvious take that’s only because of how pervasive the persona has become. Recall that for manymany others, the idea of SoundCloud Rappers begat an education. A moniker for the internet- and homegrown hip-hop talents who released their hybrid projects on the orange-hued music streaming platform, which itself almost went bankrupt this year even after rolling out a rather innocuous ad-revenue subscription service akin to its green-logoed nemesis.

On SoundCloud, however, scores of aspiring musicians met, shared tracks, advice, and inspiration; meanwhile, for listeners, it serves as a resource for that one cover or remix which is not available on Spotify, Apple Music, or, god forbid, Tidal. The platform felt more personable, less corrupted, and a tinge more democratic. Listeners, it appeared, would gladly suffer ads for the comfort of the, ironically, less-corporate seeming media player. Here was where the majority and best of the late Lil Peep’s output resides. It is where Chance and Uzi broke out before propelling to bona fide stardom. Of course, like any other consumer-facing product, SoundCloud relies on metrics and data, but mainly because of what it is not—because of its imperfections—did it seem to cultivate trust and appreciation from audiophiles and the artists who spoke to and of them. This was a validity that didn’t solely appear to be about monthly listeners, followers, or algorithmic prioritization.

The Soundcloud Rapper, then, became shorthand for an artist who by the content of their flow, production, voice, or some other miscellany, could not quite fit the established paradigm and posture of rap. (Skeptics would say we’ve hit the amoral bottom of so much bad being good because all we have is bad and that resets our standards.) The notion expanded, became known, and, like all good and weird things born of the internet, in a sort of backlash, ended up manifesting as the inspiration for an ill-considered Halloween costume.

Still, this is a long-winded apology for not including any SoundCloud rap on my favorite songs of the year (worse, the provided playlist is hosted by Spotify). The songs I enjoyed most are, I think, interconnected in their own way—songs with features was a way of including multiple favs, two-birds-one-stone, etc. Still, I need to reel off a few more honorable mentions here: A track like “Once Upon a Time” marked the return of The Diplomats whose braggadocio and cleverness was sorely missed. Whether it was FergTwelvyy, or the extended familia, A$AP made strides on their LP releases. 2 Chainz made the gift that keeps on giving on “Pretty Girls Like Trap Music”—I keep finding new tracks to bounce to. SZA was superlative on many of these sorts of lists, and should hers have been the only music released in 2017, we could all die in the Trump-apocalypse tomorrow and not in vain. Diet CigPalehoundKing Krule, Weaves, and Mac DeMarco released albums which, however distinct, make me feel young enough still to emote heavy with a lady or lad rock band. Mount Kimbie (a perennial top-5 musical act and the best concert I attended this year), Aminé, and Kendrick Lamar (the artist Spotify tells me I listened to the most over the previous 12 months), all came out with albums that I’ll regret not including on my best-of. Like Cassidy, by way of Jay Z said over a dozen years ago, ask about me and I’ll explain why.

This was also a year that saw the olds insist on making me revisit the sentimental investments of my youth, and, a la the show I never and possibly WILL NEVER finish, had me sliding backward on nostalgia toward “a place where we ache to go again.” So, shouts to music for teens that are just as good on the other side of 25: The NationalSpoonFuture IslandsThe War on DrugsGorillaz, and Broken Social Scene.

On the horizon, there’s Quiet Luke, a Prince-like singer and guitarist who is the fifth or sixth (who knows at this point) coming of Frank Ocean. Along with KWAYE, who has yet to make a track—even if its message is melancholy—that makes you get up and move in the way James Brown intended. Santangelo, makes music that is the singular stuff of SoundCloud’s heyday—cerebral and not-ready-for radio. His “Cave In” runs on the rhythm and beat of Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” which had me so wrapped up in wonder that I nearly missed my bus stop in the pouring rain. Clairo is a singer whose short lovelorn tracks belie talent and maturity, yet bridle with youth and something purposefully restrained—she’s not ready to share the magnitude of her vision and feelings quite yet. Imagine a bittersweet Maggie Rogers who eschewed NYU and with no hipster tattoos in sight.

So, the top 10? 

Well, the playlist gets its name from the few months I speculated a devious connection between Harry Styles’ impressive solo album and Christopher Nolan’s nationalistic and war-porn movie which stars Mr. Styles as the only person sane enough to say something nasty. (In truth, he makes a silly racist remark in front of a group of soldiers who look like they passed through a Blind Barber before making it to the beachhead battlefront, providing one of the few realistic depictions of how starved and imperiled soldiers would actually act in the movie). ANYWAY, my two favorite albums this year were the annoying-to-pronounce Alvvay’s “Antisocialites” and Tyler, The Creator’s “Flower Boy.” Among the other albums which made me cry were Rex Orange County’s debut, “Apricot Princess,” Princess Nokia’s “1992 Deluxe,” Young Thug’s “Beautiful Thugger Girls,” and Moses Sumney’s “Aromanticism.” Speaking of whom, Moses’ “Lonely World” is the feeling after you spill the mug of tea and don’t give a fuck, you run out of there and out of the world.

But this is a mix of individual tracks, so, it should be noted that Yaeji’s hit her stride and come a long way from that one time I played “New York 93” on the office Sonos that went over really, really poorly. The new mysterious electronic artist that’s got me by a strange, sonic gravitational pull, however, is The Blaze, whose videos relate a homoerotic and athletic mise-en-scène that involves Arabic persons in what is possibly the Levant that is as indelible as it is mesmerizing. Oh, and he/they put out a M83 remix that has the most ridiculous album art of the 21st Century. Lastly, and this was decided for me from the first time I listened to it, is one of the loosies Frank Ocean dropped this year: “Provider.” It’s a murmuring more than it is sung or rapped, and with a flowing production that rolls along the mentions of Super Saiyans, Patagonia jackets, and Stanley Kubrick, it is my ideal type of song—what I searched for and cherished whenever I found echoes of in 2017. The above, I hope, is an honest testament to that matter.

P.S. I’m hype for the Young Fathers album due out in “the near future.”

See ya, 2017!

Long Days & Loud Music

“Well are you excited?”  This was Maine, said by everyone. My responses were affirmative, but always with a bit of unintentional hesitance. There were still some major pieces of the puzzle to fall in place, and things had come together too quickly to really grasp. I couldn’t help but sound uncertain.

But then there I was, packing Old Blue to the brim with clothes, shoes, skis, camping gear, and saying a hard goodbye to my parents. The excitement of the road ahead hit me; it was Go time.

**

“I’m so glad to know that you exist.”  This was Chicago, said by Harry’s girlfriend. Apparently for years the two of them had a running joke that my existence was fabricated – that I was a cover up for him to chat on the phone with another girl rather than an old friend. She was delighted to be proven wrong.

Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska blend together for a long, flat, and unchanging few days. The general perception of Middle America is not wrong – the landscape is boring, and the air smells like manure; and yet, there is beauty to be found in sepia-tone cornfields under a late summer glow.

**

“I don’t know if you’ll reach California today, son.”  This was Utah, said by a hefty fellow named Glenn. I looked around the waiting room and wondered how long I’d be stuck there. Blue was hurting, and I couldn’t continue until she got checked out. On the bright side, I was surprised I made it as far as Utah without the car sputtering. It almost felt required that this would happen.

Seven hours and one painful invoice later, I zoomed through the mesmerizing Bonneville salt flats and the Nevada desert. I was delayed, but thankful to get the auto work done. The music got louder and the speed limits higher; all eyes were on the final state ahead.

**

“Well, welcome to California!”  This was Truckee, said by the woman behind the counter, inquiring about my East-coast license plates. The state border had snuck up on me, and before I knew it I was pulling over for coffee, surrounded by the majestic Sierras.

It was now, finally in the air of my new state, that I could reflect on it all: the past six months, the whirlwind of September – during which I slept in fifteen different locations, the Boston chapter behind me and the California chapter ahead.

I suddenly wished I could go back to everyone who had asked if I was excited.

Hell yeah I was excited.

**

 

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.