We last heard from drummer/multi-instrumentalist Mike O’Doherty almost exactly a year ago, as half of Stereo Sons. With his Modo72 project, he has branched out to create his own music: instrumental, driving, percussive, with a satisfying blend of live and virtual instruments. The propulsive electronic beat that kicks off “Ritual” contrasts with the laid-back feel of the guitars and keys, with drums building to a frenzy until everything drops into a slow half-time groove, which gradually builds back up, the drums coming back in to drive everything back home again before one final slow slide to the finish. Not unlike the music of Stereo Sons, “Ritual” has the feel of some of my favorite bedroom electronica from the early ’00s – which seems way too recent to already be a source of nostalgia, but it turns out it we’re 17 years into this millennium, so hey, bring it on!
I’ve been writing about music in some form another for about 20 years now, and I’ve never before had the occasion to use the phrase “psychedelic electro-funk,” but here we are. Seattle’s super inventive and fun Screens‘ “Delridge” (recorded at this year’s Northwest Psych Fest at the Sunset) is over eight minutes of heady psychedelic electro-funk. It’s at times proggy, then soaring like arena rock, then deeply funky like a band playing a Psych festival would rarely (almost never?) be. The parts are jammy but still tight, following a certain logic or shared vibe that keeps it all together. This is really ambitious and really fun and enjoyable – bravo Screens! Be sure to check them out at the Ball of Wax volume 50 release show on December 15 at the Lo Fi.
Saxophonist Kate Olson has been a fixture in Seattle’s multi-faceted jazz/improv/weird music scene for the past several years. As jazz musicians and improvisors tend to be, she’s an inveterate collaborator: I first heard her playing in the Syrinx Effect, her collaboration with trombonist Naomi Siegel, and she also has her own ensemble and has played with too many other groups around town to list here. But when she can, she sits down with her horn, her voice, and a looper and makes music as KO SOLO. “Sunslip” is from the new KO SOLO ep, Dreamer Too. As someone who dabbles in loop-based music, I can tell you that it’s very easy to make music with a looper, but pretty hard to make something compelling, a piece of music that draws the listener in and tells a story. Kate makes it look easy, though. She’s obviously put in her hours, both with her horn and her looper, and here spins out a gorgeous, thoughtful piece of music that came to life exactly as it was recorded. It starts with a simple beat and some tweedly, looped and layered melodic fragments that remind me of some of my favorite Lounge Lizards tunes; then come a series of whole notes, bringing some structure and shifting modes, and providing support for her lyrical, conversational melody, which comes in about halfway through. After the melody completes makes its closing argument, the loops start folding back in on each other and breaking down, before collapsing completely with a few beats of delay. I could listen to this all day.
I’ve been going through a real electronic pop sort of phase lately, and the lush, meditative beauty of “So Be It” by the team of Jenni Potts and OKADA really suited my mood. It’s perfect for walking around in the fog in your warm winter jacket, with its glacial synths and gorgeous vocals.
I didn’t pay too much attention to the words the first few times I listened, instead just absorbing the sound. A couple of the lyrics about love and anger made me assume that the song, like so many songs, was about the end of a relationship, and one that might have verged on abusive, which really bummed me out. There’s been too much romanticizing of that sort of thing in the history of music and well, everything. I finally realized what should have been obvious all along, from the name of the song (which is the English translation of “amen”) to the opening lyrics “whoever believeth in Him should not perish” and so on. It’s not about a romance between people, but about the rejection of a long relationship with God. The singer is more than fair to God and the role he played in her life, but is thoroughly done with him and the cage of his love.
Jenni Potts’s vocals are perfect for this work, tender and aching, occasionally soaring with pain. The music undergirds the the vocals with choral effects and low, insistent drumming, creating the space and structure for the singer to make her argument and to walk away from God forever and ever, amen.
A fun fact about Emily Dickinson: you can sing pretty much all of her poems to the Gilligan’s Island theme song. Fortunately for us, Julia Massey did not chose to take that obvious route when setting Dickinson’s poem “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” to music, crafting instead this jewel of a song, “Never in Extremity.”
Like the poem, the song contrasts hope and its adversaries in its structure. A jittery piano ostinato/riff feels like a storm pelting the listener with rain, and the smooth-flowing bass line rises and falls like a heavy sea. Above this rises the singer’s voice, sweet but earthy, more honey than saccharine, pushing forward with the aid of chiming bells and her own voice occasionally doubled in harmony. The song climaxes with the repetition of the phrase “yet never in extremity” and an intensification of the piano and bass parts, finding a peaceful and quiet resolution at the very end, hope having never asked for a crumb.
Full disclosure, I studied poetry in grad school, and I’ve thought a lot about the music found in the bones of all good poems. I’ve had friendly arguments (thanks Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize people) about whether song lyrics are really poetry in and of themselves, and I think the best of them are. This song, however, has made me want more of what it does, marrying an old poem and popular music, making a bigger thing of both in the union. I think it would be an interesting challenge for more songwriters to meet, especially if they can do it with the skill and creativity displayed here by Julia Massey.
I come back again and again to trying to proselytize the appeal of the plainspoken folk blues song. Among well-trained musicians, I feel there is rarely a full appreciation of the craft. Thankfully, Moe Provencher has made my argument for me.
I assume Moe is a trained, talented musician. Her song on Ball of Wax 48 with an Arabic title was a highlight in the history of Ball of Wax. From that song, I heard what I took to be masterful use of rhythm, well-chosen chord progression, and an understanding of vocal line. That song is sweeping, emotive, and extremely contemporary, to my ear. “The Light Is You” moves differently. Understated. With a personalized style of arpeggiating that suggests a history studying folk—or at least of internalizing it. There is no excess, just honesty. Clean guitar lines, clean progressions, and words sung that everyday people speak.
When you listen to this folk blues music excessively, as I do, finding someone who can express themselves through their choice of how they strike the strings, how they arpeggiate a chord, can be especially compelling. Finding someone who finds the right spacing for the vocal line. These are qualities that are rare but deeply appreciated.
Moe Provencher, on “The Light is You,” presents a timeless, intimate song, raising the bar for contemporary interpretation of this tradition.
The lovey mood continues (sort of) with “Your Call,” from Josh Schramm’s mellow, folky Harbor Island side project. While Harbor Island sometimes includes collaborations from the likes of Kevin Suggs, Nila K. Leigh, Kory Nagler, and Dave Bush, “Your Call” is just Josh and his fingerpicked guitar and voice (and a little nicely-placed shaker on the wordless chorus – I am such a sucker for a wordless chorus with shaker). While this is a love song, it’s more about the darker side of love; where Shenandoah’s narrator in “Supernatural Powers” is fortified by love, Josh’s singer – once “larger than life, bright as the sun” – is diminished, rendered powerless as he waits for the phone to ring. Not to spoil anything for you, but there are no happy outcomes here, no redemption; just a little more guitar, shaker, and humming to ease the pain.
Leave it to me to pick the sweet, loving song on an album of breakup songs. Our old pal (last heard around these parts on Ball of Wax 31, covering Colin J Nelson and being covered by Emiko Blalock) Shenandoah Davis’s commanding new LP, Souvenirs, is primarily an album about the ends of relationships – and every single song on it is worth many listens – but “Supernatural Powers” seems to come from deep in the folds of a promising new relationship. “Laziness and loneliness are through,” she sings, “now that I’ve found company in you.” Of course the placement of this song on this particular album perhaps adds a level of irony to that refrain, but sometimes it’s nice just to take things at face value, right? Musically, “Supernatural Powers” has a seductive, subtle drive that drew me into it. There’s very little percussion, but the strumming and thrumming acoustic instruments create a continuous pulse that keeps the song moving forward, providing a solid bed for Shenandoah’s words and melodies.
Edinburgh-via-Minnesota songwriter and visual artist Faith Eliott contributes the stunning “Grouper” to Ball of Wax 50, a track recorded with Ball of Wax stalwarts Colin J Nelson and Paul Beaudry (the Foghorns, Caleb & Walter, my band Virgin of the Birds, probably your band if you check at the next rehearsal) at Nelson’s Her Car studio in Fremont. “Grouper” is an ethereal, shimmering revelation of a song, a song about a fish that’s about so much more than a fish. It’s lyrically dense yet poetically fluid, addressing an unnamed “you” about “unknowable forces in their mercury hearts” before constructing a tower of words and imagery that resolve with “if that’s what it means / free to live in the world.” Eilott’s vocal performance saunters then soars at times and the arrangement gradually fills in before fanning out, introducing organ, then Beaudry on singing saw. At the emotional crescendo, Eliott’s own voice forms a mirrored backdrop of “oohs” and “aahs” that feel like a subtle triumph.
Despite its aquatic subject matter, “Grouper” could fit right in on Eliott’s outstanding 2016 EP, Insects, one of last year’s best releases on either side of the Atlantic. You should buy it and listen to it a lot.
The Foghorns are back (not that they ever really go away, bless ’em) with “40 Watt Light,” a tune whose warm, smoky swing belies the cold, bitter lyrical content. We seem to have here a portrait of a man trapped in a cold room (most likely in the Midwest) surrounded by strangers, haunted by the headlights of a lost love. The lyrics are vintage Bart Cameron: painting just enough of a story to have you reaching for a beer (or wiping a tear) while leaving enough unsaid to let you make the story your own.