Anna St. Louis’s “If Only There Was a River” feels like it could have come out sometime between “Niño Rojo” and “Ys.” It’s a gorgeous album, full of well-written songs whose constituent parts are mainly voice and guitar (and occasional strings), and in that way it’s got a vibe like a Smog or Bonnie Prince Billy record. St. Louis has a fascinating voice, like a country singer crossed with an old-style crooner, and it’s that charismatic voice that makes the record as compelling as it is. She sings about love, wanting, understanding, and counterfactuals (i.e. on the last song on the album, “River,” she sings “If only there were a river,” in an interesting grammatical change from the title of the album—this suggests that wherever she’s singing this line is definitively arid and there’s not even a remote possibility that a river might emerge, as opposed to the title of the album, which suggests that a river is possible). She also incorporates natural imagery throughout her songs, singing about water (on “Water” and “River”), wind (“I lean into the wind/and drown” on “Wind”), and big skies.
On “Desert,” especially, she creates a kind of Western vignette out of this natural imagery. Someone has been left to eke out a living in the desert while waiting for a beloved to return, all while observing the actions that take place out there: “nobody knows/nobody sees…that the back roads seem kind of wild/that the dust blowing around for miles/the pilgrims are hoping to find/their rivers had not run dry.” Resigned to isolation and abandonment, she sings, accompanied by lightly distorted guitar and strings, that “nobody sees/this deserted maze that is wrapped around me/and the fire went out/honey/long ago/But still I pretend that you’re coming home.” A beautiful song about a bizarre relationship.
“Certainty Waves” is the Dodos’ new album and it’s wonderful. I did not expect a new album from the Dodos, especially not after Meric Long’s solo debut, “Barton’s Den,” as FAN (understated & great), but that solo album actually plays a pretty big part in “Certainty Waves,” which exhibits much more diverse soundcraft and instrumentation than some of the band’s previous albums. Synths were a big part of “Barton’s Den” and feature in a number of the songs on “Certainty Waves,” either undisguised or as inspiration for other sounds (Long mentioned that the guitar tone on the latter part of “Center Of” is modeled on the sound of a distorted synth), and it gives the band a lot more versatility.
The pleasures that come with every Dodos album are here, of course: the astounding and kind of insane percussion work of Logan Kroeber; Long’s gentle but assured singing; the coiled energy that both Long and Kroeber display; the melodies that shift and slide in playful and unexpected ways. And while the last few Dodos records have felt a little elegiac to me, “Certainty Waves” has an even stronger vibe of resignation and valediction.
“Coughing” is one of my favorite songs on this album, though “Center of,” “Excess,” “Ono Fashion,” and “Sort of” are also remarkable. “Coughing” starts as a beat-heavy groove, and then a more expressive guitar comes in. The song is mostly Long leveling criticisms at someone: “Not like you to/give a shit anyway/always coughing/always coughing.” And then the song changes and dissolves near its end, into quiet cymbals and finger-picked guitar, with Long singing, almost apologetically, “How can I ever ask you to be/more than I need/How can I ever/expect you to be/more than I am.”
New Jay Som, in collaboration with Justus Proffit. Melina Duterte’s lovely vocals are the driving force and focus of “Tunnel Vision,” the third song on the “Nothing’s Changed” EP. It’s a quiet, subdued song at first, Duterte whispers “You were clean/you were calm/standing in the doorway/singing afterthoughts,” with a simple guitar figure repeating alongside her voice. A minute in, the song opens up for a moment: percussion, another guitar, and Justus Proffit’s voice echoing Duterte’s. But the voices recede, and the last two minutes of the song are composed of commanding bass notes, shifting and fluttering percussion, heavy keys. Where Jay Som’s “Pirouette” lifted off into space, “Tunnel Vision” has a different trajectory, drilling downward, inward.
Guerilla Toss’s “Twisted Crystal” is a fun and confounding album. The band’s music is inventive and vibrant, with a bright-color palette and wild, abrasive melodies. These songs are at once lovable and slightly irritating, which I love; the melodies live in the interstice between great pop songs and unrelenting commercial jingles (see “Magic Is Easy” for a good example of this, it’s catchy but it also has an edge, a little wobble, something that’s off. Same with “Hacking Machine,” where Kassie Carlson sings “I think it’s sick/what do I know/computer worm or/a vi-a-rus” in such a way that those lyrics will stay in your brain until you die). “Twisted Crystal” is busy, cartoonish, lit-up—it’s got excess, filigree, ideas packed into every second, bursting with creativity. The album sticks with you, the songs stick with you.
“Green Apple” is a beautiful song that takes the form of a tornado, picking up new sounds every few seconds, whirling, advancing and retreating, leaving the earth, touching back down, then dissipating.
Do you like pensive, autumnal piano music? Do you like the look of wet pavement illuminated by streetlights? Are you a connoisseur of gray skies? Do you know your trees? Your elms and larches and conifers? Do you find the sight of a good moon stirring? Did you, as a child or in adulthood, rake leaves from a yard? Do you read through old emails and letters? If offered a cup of hot cider by a friend, would you drink it immediately or blow on the surface a few times before taking your first sip?
“Return,” by Dmitry Evgrafov, is an EP of compelling compositions, mostly piano, with some doctoring here and there. It’s a good fit for the fall, brisk and beautiful.
This is a beautiful song about naked, wild yearning, sung beautifully. It all builds from slow, tender strums and whispered declarations into crashing electric turbulence. “Need you/want you.” What a simple phrase to express a humble and real truth. Sometimes you need someone so badly, it feels as if you’re about to burst right out of your own body—this song effectively renders that feeling in musical form. Black Belt Eagle Scout’s album, “Mother of My Children,” is coming out soon, and judging by the handful of songs that have been released from it (“Just Lie Down” and “Indians Never Die” are both gorgeous too), it seems like it could be one of the albums of the year.
This is Yo-Yo Ma’s third recording of Bach’s six Cello Suites, which is wild in its own way, and they’re all different (of course). I’m not an expert on classical music in any respect, but it is totally fascinating to listen to someone else’s interpretation, over many years, of this music. Based on a few pretty cursory listens to the three versions of the Cello Suite in G Major Prelude that Ma has recorded, it seems to me like the one he did in his 20s was around the same tempo as Rostropovich’s recording, which is to say, maybe about what you’d expect. Then the recording that Ma did in his 40s is much faster, sort of high energy and a little thinner on the sound (at least it feels like that to me — again, I’m no expert). When I first listened to the G Major Prelude on “Six Evolutions,” I think my jaw dropped a little — it’s so much slower than I expected. There’s like a little hitch in between phrases at some points, and it catches me off guard. Ma said he wanted to make a new recording because Bach’s Cello Suites have had a huge impact on his life, and he thinks that music and culture can provide solutions to difference, and he wants to share the music with a more diverse audience. To me, it’s always fun to think about how one’s interpretation of a work of art can change with age — how certain aspects of a work can acquire (or lose) meaning, how you respond with totally different emotions at one point in your life than you might later.
Olympia has never stopped producing great music. CCFX, the supergroup that released some of my favorite music last year, is composed of members of CC Dust and Trans FX. CC Dust released one EP, “CC Dust,” and it is incredible. Mary Jane Dunphe and David Jacques were (are?) the band. Dunphe’s voice dominates the record. The music is synthscape post-punk, early 80s, full of drama. You can hear it all loud and clear on “Abra.” That bass is authoritative, dark and menacing. And Dunphe’s voice does so much on this track: she’s up-and-down on the verses, changing dynamics, and then it’s full-throated, open exuberance when she sings the chorus. Her vocals on this EP (and on the CCFX EP) are astounding. The CC Dust EP is $5 on Bandcamp for 20 minutes of beautiful music, go get it.
Music comes in so many forms and serves so many purposes—it can provide catharsis, inflame passions, deliver solace, inspire hope, cultivate lethargy, frighten/freak you out, make you dance, etc. I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of Gebrauchmusik (utility music or music for use), popularized by Paul Hindemith, since it can provide a fun way of thinking about certain pieces of music and which scenarios they might be most appropriately utilized for. E.g., to my mind, Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” is the correct music to have playing when you’re sitting in the dentist’s chair, mentally preparing yourself to be anesthetized against forthcoming harm, etc.
“Living In Symbol,” the new album by Astronauts, etc., like a lot of pleasant and fun music, is a good hang. The whole album is great. You can pay a lot of attention to the sweet melodies and the production, or you can kind of zone out and let it pass you by, but it will seep into your brain and you’ll end up humming these songs to yourself no matter what. This album feels like a close friend who will always forgive your faux pas, your crankiness, your inattention, your negligence, and will still invite you over to their summertime cook-out.
Also: Astronauts, etc. (Tony Peppers) is from Oakland, and this album sounds like Oakland (where I lived for four years) to me. Oakland is welcoming, forgiving, and fun. You can find people who will support you in Oakland, people to play music with, to make art with, to discuss ideas with, to hang out with. “Living In Symbol” sounds like everything’s that’s great about a city like that, where you can be yourself.
Casiotone for the Painfully Alone (CFTPA)’s “Etiquette” is like a short story collection, specifically like one that covers the day-to-day granular mental transactions and emotional events of young people living in the city. Although at first blush that mind sound annoying or supremely trite and goofy, the lyrics on the album are fascinating and pretty great—Owen Ashworth is a believer in the effect and still-powerful power of rhyme. This, from “New Year’s Kiss,” is a wonderful scene in a handful of lines: “Not the way that you’d imagined it/on a balcony with champagne lips/but in a pantry against the pancake mix/you had your New Year’s kiss.” Like a Belle & Sebastian character wandering into a Magnetic Fields track. All of “Etiquette” has moments like that—carefully observed and deftly expressed, sent out through the delivery systems of sweet, brief songs.