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While We Were Away...
10 tracks that we missed between the blog and now, including: Deerhoof, Guards, Kendrick Lamar, Khruangin, Soccer Mommy, Monster Rally, J Nolan, Tomberlin, Ryley Walker, & Hiroshi Yoshimura
June 10, 2018. That was the last post that we made on welistenforyou.com. Needless to say, we’ve missed a lot. Here are 10ish tracks to make up for lost time. Individual write ups have their own tracks. If you wanna listen to the whole thing at once, the Spotify playlist is here.
I gave myself some additional limiting factors in deciding these tracks. First, they had to be a group or artist that I didn’t write about before on the blog. Second, they all had to be new releases from 2018-2021 (You’ll see I fudge that just a bit). In the midst of a bunch of different choices, I chose some songs that were more representative of epochs of my listening more than anything else.
Kendrick Lamar - “BLOOD.” + “DNA.” from DAMN. (2017)
I came late to the Kendrick Lamar party. And while these tracks don’t fit in the window that we’re looking at, I would have found a way to make them work given that Lamar received the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Music. It was the first time that the prize went to someone outside of the classical and jazz communities. I got turned on to the album after hearing Michael John Garcés shout him out in a speech.
In the first post on SubStack, I mentioned that one of the things that got me back into the idea of writing was a music writing independent study that I taught. While my knowledge of hip hop and rap has gotten really really bad, this record was one of the few touch points that Frank and I had.
So, why these two tracks? Well, first off, they’re both of a piece, and while separate, they’re really a whole. The connective tissue is a segment from Fox News, calling out a performance of “Alright” on BET Awards. “BLOOD.” begins with this provocative question that, I think, is a necessary starting place for anyone trying to understand Black Lives Matter. Seemingly addressing a white audience, he takes the existential threat of white people against Black people as a given. And asks, what will be the cause that we’ll use to justify the violence we’ve done: “Is it wickedness? / Is it weakness? / You decide / Are we gonna live or die?” From here, Lamar goes into an allegorical tale of a helping a blind woman cross the street which ends in her firing on him. It’s not much of a leap to jump into seeing the woman as “blind” justice.
Following is that Fox News clip, criticizing Lamar’s critique of police shootings of Black folk complete with a conservative scoff.
Then, the beat of “DNA.” hits: “I got, I got, I got, I got / Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA / Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA /I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA.” The response is all there -- no one’s DNA, their biology, their perceived whatever makes them dangerous or wicked or weak. We’ve got it all in our DNA.
But, the Fox clip returns as Geraldo Rivera says “This is why I say that hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.” Lamar builds back up, hitting a stream of triplets over the top: This is my heritage, all I'm inheritin' / Money and power, the makin’ of marriages / Tell me somethin’ / You mothafuckas can't tell me nothin’ / I'd rather die than to listen to you / My DNA not for imitation / Your DNA an abomination.”
The genius of these two tracks, weaving in this tone deaf white people discussion of Lamar’s performance (and, yes, I get the irony here, but I’m getting to my point), that I identify in the opening of DAMN. is how it harkens back to the opening of The Root’s Things Fall Apart. That record, from 1999, almost sets up perfectly the opening of Larmar’s record some 18 years later. In “Act Won (Things Fall Apart),” The Roots begin with a sample from Mo’ Betta Blues about what is the nature of Black culture in relationship to music. Then, we hear music critic Harry Allen. “Inevitably, hip-hop records are treated as though they are disposable. They are not maximized as product, not to mention as art.”
By 2018, Lamar has won the apex of recognition for his music as art, but at the same time is derided for speaking truth to power and lives with the fear that his DNA has made him a target: “Tell me when destruction gonna be my fate / Gonna be your fate, gonna be our faith / Peace to the world, let it rotate / Sex, money, murder-our DNA.”
A few weeks ago, I heard something about how after Hurricane Katrina that a bunch of folk from Louisiana who were uprooted, decided to stay around Houston, where they’d been relocated. Their location put them in proximity to the Vietnamese who had, likewise, settled in the area after being refugees. The resulting mix has lead to a new cuisine, Viet-Cajun. Just the word makes me hungry. Anyway, this story somehow sums up for me the incredible music produced by Texas natives, Khruangin.
Mixing musical traditions and styles seamlessly into their own retro style, Khruangbin is the band that I listen to the most these days. And “Lady and Man” is the song that I gravitate to the most out of their catalog. It’s one of the few with lyrics, even though they’re so low in the mix that you barely catch the words. For a group that knows how to use repetition to the nth degree, the vocals almost become another hook in a sea of them with the relentless “You're too angry, you're too fake / You're too reckless, you're too bothered,” easily taking this song to full ear worm.
Indeed, there’s something that’s just in the vibe of how this band sounds, like a bunch of Numero group records got mixed up and had kids. It’s just so fucking cool.
Perhaps more than anything, what I love about Khruangbin though is the production. They’re a three piece who rarely sounds like one. With nary a note out of place, they seem to spin their tracks out effortlessly in a way that by the end of the song you may not even know how you got there. Not only that, but the sensitivity of the music is incomparable. “Cómo Me Quieres” has breaths, for crying out loud. It plays, not only in their recordings, but also live.
Soccer Mommy’s placement in this batch is doing the work of a whole group of female singer-songwriters that have been buzzing around my days in during the past years. Performers like Lucy Dacus, Snail Mail, my amazing former student Petal. Needless to say, the bench is deep when it comes to the exceptional songwriting of this group.
A bit like Khruangbin there’s just something so irresistible about the sound of Soccer Mommy (nee Sophia Regina Allison). The layered guitar work and plaintive vocals are tinged with sunshine while the breakdown of “Last Girl” sounds ripped from a Doo-wop record. Reading Allison’s bio--born in Switzerland, prestigious music school here, prestigious musical education there--speaks to the incredible intelligence of these songs that also appear like slacker odes. It’s these elements that make the songs sound like something that could have been plucked from the classic era of 90s indie rock. But, while the classic bandonyms like Destroyer, The Mountain Goats, Smog, embraced their primitive, lo-fi sound before working up toward the slick albums we hear with them today, songwriters like Allison are working the other way around, exploiting their tremendous musical acumen for slacker ends.
Take the lyrics of “Last Girl”: “I want to be like your last girl / She's got looks that drive you wild and / Love the way she wears her makeup / She would be so nice to wake up to.” The self-deprecation falls just short of self-hatred if not self-negging. Allison isn’t the only one to play with these tropes either. You can hear it in something like “Pristine” by Snail Mail, or Best Coast’s “Boyfriend.” Yet, the irony is thick. Your ex had all these things, but listen to this fucking song! Putting something like self-esteem front and center isn’t an easy thing to do. But, as with most of her work, on “Last Girl,” Allison finds a way to make these sorts of issues not only pertinent but sing-along-able.
Last issue of this newsletter, I praised Katie Baker’s write up of Dave Matthews Band’s Crash and here I am, back to praise another riff off the DMB block. This time, it’s Ryley Walker’s cover record of The Lillywhite Sessions, a bootleg that nearly all of us had back when Napster was a thing. Walker has become another go-to artist of the past years. His early albums’ sounds hits right in that Nick Drake Bryter Layter zone. But, he’s become more and more willing to color outside the lines in recent collaborations.
Yet, what’s astonishing about tracks like his take on “Bartender,” is that Walker manages to capture both the spirit of the bootleg while not losing his own signature sound. It’s something that you can also hear on his newest release Course in Fable, which has a substantial contribution from legend-in-his-own-right John McEntire.
Walker’s chameleon act is well suited to a record like this, one that provokes nostalgia for guys of a certain age, like me, but also connects to this critical reevaluation of the frat-boy MOR elements of Dave Matthews. I mean, should we really be taking him seriously as an important songwriter? I don’t hear that many people jamming out to Rusted Root these days.
But, perhaps the best part of this record is how the covers change the focus of these songs. The Lillywhite Sessions were famously wayyyyyy better than Everyday by DMB. They were also sad as fuck. “Grace is Gone,” “Bartender,” “Diggin’ a Ditch,” I mean, these are not the song titles of someone who’s in a good place. Walker’s interpretations, though, are fun. They’re playful. And, as a result, they get a lot more out of these songs than nostalgia can provide.
So, evidently we have an algorithm to thank for the resurgence of late 20th century Japanese ambient. Perhaps no one has benefited from the exposure more than Hiroshi Yoshimura, who passed away in 2003. Yoshimura was an innovator of kankyō ongaku, a Japanese term for “environmental music.” Light in the Attic featured Yoshimura on their 2019 comp Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990, which is how my Spotify algorithm picked up my taste for Yoshimura and led me to “GREEN.”
Truth is, ambient music has been a genre that I once detested that now I’ve begun to pick up more and more. Like a lot of parents and professionals, sometimes I want to have something on that changes the complexion of the room, which is exactly what this kind of music does. It also fits well into mindfulness practices that I’ve been doing, but that’s neither here nor there.
For me, the real reason to highlight this track is because of the potentiality of ambient music to make us more aware of our positionality in the environment. In his text Ecology without Nature, Timothy Morton writes, “Ambience denotes a sense of a circumambient, or surrounding, world. It suggests something material and physical, though somewhat intangible, as if space itself had a material aspect.” The act of writing about nature or making music about nature can have a paradoxical effect--othering the thing that we are trying to draw ourselves closer to. To write about nature is to divorce ourselves from it, in other words. It becomes the subject that we try to inscribe. I won’t get into Morton’s whole argument here other than to say that I find it compelling. But, what he suggests is that ambient music and the idea of ambience can provide ways to find ourselves in the same environment with the rest of the natural world in ways that other types of art are unable to accomplish.
Yoshimura’s GREEN has two versions. One with sound effects and another without. Both are worth your time. The one SFX version, which I’ve got here, has the added bonus of bringing the environment into you no matter where you’re listening.
The photo above is one of my favorite jokes in the history of television and I think about it every time Deerhoof adds to their extensive discography. Across all artforms during my lifetime, I can’t think of a more impressive feat than Deerhoof’s seventeen full-length albums released over twenty-five years. The magic trick I can’t figure out is how each album feels like its own individual world while at the same time being a piece of art that only Deerhoof could make. Just as baseball fans were captivated by Cal Ripken Jr. 's streak of consecutive games (2,632), music fans should be following suit with excitement over Deerhoof’s relentless releases of quality albums without a single stumble. Until they come out of the dugout and tip their cap to the crowd, I fully expect Deerhoof to continue to add to their inexplicably perfect discography.
Guards - "Last Stand" from Modern Hymns (2019)
The only way to describe my love for the track “Last Stand” (and the entirety of Guards’ 2019 album “Modern Hymns”) is to first share the track I consider to be the pinnacle of modern rock during my lifetime:
I like to call tracks like “Wolf Like Me” and “Last Stand” full body songs. The music starts with something like a small head nod, swirls around, builds, and at a certain point is felt throughout the entire body like a fire ablaze.
No matter how many times I listen to “Last Stand”... the same process happens:
00:00-00:41: Right foot toe-taps along.
00:41-01:04: My shoulders start doing this weird up and down dance with the bass.
01:04-01:20: Head swing right to left, left to right, over and over.
01:21-END: Entire body is now connected... I stand and dance around.
This really should be a full album review because I consider “Modern Hymns” to be the biggest miss by music critics and fans during our three years away from music writing. It has the same immediate catchiness, artistic flare, and slick production found in those first two Strokes records or any 2000s album that broke into the mainstream because the “rock catchiness” just couldn’t be denied (Killers, Franz Ferdinand, etc). I listen to “Modern Hymns” all the time and wonder… Why hasn’t the entire world fallen in love with Guards yet?
J Nolan - “Peace” from Peace (2018)
It’s been nine years since I clicked on a link from a music pitch email and was introduced to the immense talent that is J. Nolan. You would think the proudest moment in a music writer's career is being early on a band/artist who then goes on to become huge. WLFY was early on with lots of great bands/musicians like Alabama Shakes, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Sharon Van Etten, and many more. That brag is to illuminate that my main source of pride as a music writer concerns the artists we’ve supported who didn’t “make it” but have the artistic courage to continue working toward a seemingly impossible dream. These artists keep evolving and exploring their artistic voice because creating music to them is like breathing… there is no other option… they have to do it.
One of the best examples of this in our ten plus years of music blogging is J. Nolan. Nolan keeps pushing himself and elevating his craft regardless of fame… currently making his best music and never giving up or souring his vision. He knows and trusts his talent. It’s easy to flourish in a spotlight of praise, but to challenge oneself to improve while in the shadows is the biggest feat an artist can face and conquer. Nolan has a fan for life in WLFY and with the track “Peace” I can once again promote J. Nolan as one of the most underrated hip-hop artists working today. I hope he understands that the journey through art and staying true to one's voice/vision is the thing… Everything else is connections, luck, and temporary hype.
When I first started collecting records the goal was to gather full discographies of my all-time favorites. The top of my record shelf proudly displays vinyl after vinyl from Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Brian Eno, A Tribe Called Quest, and The Fiery Furnaces. It’s never not funny to me that in the end, not a single artist or band can rival the amount of time the music of Monster Rally has spent on my turntable.
My pitch for Monster Rally is:
Imagine if the wonderful music of The Books was served to you as a piña colada.
The real Monster Rally bio explains the artistic process in a clearer fashion than whatever I was trying to communicate above:
Monster Rally is the brainchild of Cleveland native Ted Feighan. Producing music that is sampled-based tropical pop, Monster Rally began with the goal of assembling a bunch of old records into a completely different beast. Feighan began crafting tracks from his collection of records, combining his interests in Hip-hop, Exotica, Tropicalia, and Soul. Monster Rally creates tracks that manage to maintain a surprisingly organic sound, as if they were recorded by a full band on analog tape. There is something inherently nostalgic about the sound.
There isn’t a single release on vinyl from Monster Rally that I wouldn’t highly recommend adding to your collection. You can gather quite the impressive stack of Monster Rally albums on vinyl from one of my favorite indie labels, Gold Robot Records: https://www.gold-robot.com/artists/monster-rally/.
My favorite track released during our time off from music writing.
We all experience and value music/art in different ways. I’m a visual listener, often seeing how I would shoot a music video in my mind as I listen to a song. In film, my favorite movement is a tracking shot (or dolly shot). I’m always made aware of the creator of a film when a zoom, crane, or handheld move is utilized... while a well executed tracking shot feels akin to being scooped up by the wind and gliding through space unfettered. It’s this wonderful magic trick where machines are manipulated by humans to become a representation of the intangible sensation of nature untouched.
I’m often attracted to songs that feel like tracking shots. I had this realization when I listened to Iron & Wine’s “Our Endless Numbered Days” for the first time and would think to myself that the entire album moved with the same emotional ease as a tracking shot. This became a permanent thought in my music taste when I saw the music video for “Naked As We Came”:
This is the long way of simply saying that Tomberlin’s “Hours” is the most recent addition to my “tracking shot song list”. The song takes off right from the start and floats along without any obstruction, carried by weightless ease and forward movement, following a path of organic emotion without any strain. On first listen, one might think of the song as simple, but just like looking at nature, if you see the thing behind the thing behind the thing (one more) behind the thing… the entire visual/feel is redefined.
Tomberlin hides these little sparkles and flourishes of music that bubble up and disappear, never interrupting the ease of movement until the song takes a turn and announces itself on a different path. With the brilliant line: “It’s all sacrifice and violence / The history of love” the song re-focuses and that thing behind the thing slowly emerges as a new driving force. The final stretch of the song appears to burn, bend around its previous ideas, and ultimately ends with a duality of feelings that could only be reached by having the two movements dissolve into each other without any uneasy tension... the beauty and the pain needing to be side by side all along.
ZACH: Pusha T “Daytona” Reaction Video
I really wish I had a video of my reaction to hearing Pusha T’s masterpiece “Daytona” for the first time. Specifically my awe when “Come Back Baby” and “Santeria” hit for the first time. I remember having the biggest smile because it was quite obvious Pusha T was offering his strongest release since his days as a member of Clipse.
Luckily, I can relive this “first-play” feeling because the guys at VibeVilla captured exactly how I felt when experiencing “Daytona” for the first time. With the constant arguing and endless debates across the Internet… It's just extremely fun and refreshing to watch people geek out over great music.
HANK: Los Espookys
This 6 episode, 30 min comedy show on HBO Max goes along with shows like What We Do in the Shadows or Stranger Things, using camp and horror for comedic effect. There’s only one key difference. The show takes place in Mexico and is primarily in Spanish. But, with a supporting cast that includes Fred Armisen, Carol Kane, and John Early, it feels like it could be pulled straight out of FX. The kicker in our house isn’t only how damn funny it is but that it’s the only show I’ve ever seen that actually does subtitles correctly — when characters speak in Spanish, there are English titles and vice versa. Usually, subtitles only swing one way. For bilingual households like ours, it’s glad to know some people are thinking about how to manage multilingual series.