As many of you out there likely know, damn it’s easy to get stuck in a rut with your music collection. What I mean by this is while I have shelves and shelves of beautiful artistic material, some weeks I’m happily marooned in the Rap and Funk sections with no proper means of escape. Seems easy to leave, but the hook is in trying to make something else sound as good as what needs to be in my head right that very second.
Thankfully, Chicago-area outfit OK Cool have jumped behind my mental velvet rope to shake up the routine with the recent release of their two-song single Songs From The Spare Room. The duo of Bridget Stiebris and Haley Blomquist chew the scenery on tracks “Self Sow” and “Time and a Half”, capturing emotion in a bottle that’s equal parts anxiety as triumph. Buoyed by waves of guitars reminiscent of Sleater Kinney, Yo La Tango or Television, the pair embody the true spirit of shiny, math-y garage rock in a couple songs that take less than moments to hear in their entirety. The notion is downright punk in its execution and sticks the landing with ease.
Lyrically, Stiebris and Blomquist are in a similar place to many of us still processing the lifestyle changes and psychological fallout of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But unlike some musicians who choose to let their words bear the brutal brunt of the soul, OK Cool shows the heart on its sleeve more through these 6 string melodies. “Self-Sow” is an effervescent bird in flight amidst crescendoing thrash, while “Time and a Half” rocks in like a Smiths song played at double speed.
It may seem like cliche, but the short track times work to leave me wanting more in the best possible way. I think the most fun aspect of Songs From The Spare Room is just that, the feeling you’ve heard it before bleeding through the garage wall. And there is such a spirit to that, especially in all the kids who’ve ever started bands that way. It’s raw yet refined, rough around the edges, and has all the untapped potential of a diamond yet to be discovered.
As a kid growing up in the embers of a slow-dying small town, I was far from typical. I wasn’t into mindless goofing off with friends and I didn’t go out and get into the kind of trouble that’d inspire Bruce Springsteen to write Greetings From Asbury Park. I might have read about those exploits, but I tended to flee from what helped young people cope with their existential “Thunder Road”.
Thankfully, Andrew Thomases is back here on OTBEOTB to fill in the blanks for me with his new single “Suburban Void”. The track is a power-chording thumper; it feels like an omage to every thrashing band at a teen movie house party with adjoining lyrics to match and set the scene.
Thomases growls his way through this leaned landscape of kids doing the random, mundane, and sometimes downright foolish as a way to escape the nature of their means. And, like all of us when we’re young, those methods eventually include many bad/embarrassing choices. That’s echoed in Thomases words, in which he looks back on these moments and finds them to be pathetic.
But I think that’s to be expected with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. If only we knew then what we know now, as they say. Growing pains are a real thing no matter your status or stature; sometimes we’ve got to get embarrassing to get better.
Just brace yourself, there will be embarrassing hairstyles along the way.
Check out the lyric video for “Suburban Void” below:
I’d swear some of those dustier hills and valleys down South have a magic woven into their airs to bring forth such defining roots/rock music. Rising like monoliths out from the dirt. Past and present, those we watch thrive who carry the torch of sonic roots from creators moved on… the names big or small are often legendary.
We get a taste of that overall tapestry with New Orleans band Steele Creek and their brand new record A Long Way From Home. Hell, it’s less a taste and more a smooth-sipped whiskey that warms with charm down to the last drop. North Carolinian and frontman Phil Cramer leads the charge with gently haunting, echoing vocals reminiscent of The Head and The Heart or indie folk darlings The Avett Brothers scattered amongst the pines.
The tone is glad company down the path of weary tracks like “Florida” and “California”, the welcome trot of “Around The Bend”, as well as the folky strut walkdown of “I’ll Be There”. Long Way also brings to mind fine memories of one my favorite albums, Elvis Costello’s Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. Cramer is a strong songwriter equally willing to, like Costello, flesh out the stories in his melodies until each feels like it’s own living, breathing novel.
There’s nothing to be found that’s one dimensional on SC’s new record. Evocative illustration is joined by cascading waves of guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin and piano, creating a mental sense of visual sight as well as sound. Fog, crickets and the shift of wind whispers in the description of a morning dew if you will.
All told, A Long Way From Home feels like wind in the air optimism at the start of a year that really needs it. There’s just a certain uplifting mood that’s impossible to ignore between the lines here. Maybe thats just the feeling that comes with hearing something new that’s really good, but either way… this is good.
I’ve heard a lot of analytical voices over the years eagerly detail the expert stream-of-consciousness musical technicality rapper Mac Miller throws down on 2014 mixtape Faces. And while I’ve done plenty of previous dabbling in the then-22-year-old’s headspace on the piece, it wasn’t until the recent re-release of Faces that I thoroughly took the mixtape’s (now) 25-song journey to its completion. Both the new version as well as its original incarnation, initially made available free online.
Despite the 2021 edition’s removed samples due to rights issues and some slight instrumental changes, it still largely delivers on Miller’s tour de force of drug battles, struggles between darkness and light, and dodging in and out of the windows of a chaotic life that’d eventually result in his 2018 demise from a fentanyl-laced cocaine overdose. It’s the furthest type of album I’d have expected from Miller at one time, especially after his bright baby-faced independent pop-rap rise to stardom with 2010’s shiny-eyed K.I.D.S. and 2011’s Blue Slide Park. But I’ve had a lot to learn about Mac since falling head over heels for his final two masterful albums Swimming and Circles, and part of that included realizing he was so much more than just a half-drawn image of some Pittsburgh slack-rapper.
Here instead was a musician who ultimately preferred being sequestered in his studio (dubbed “The Sanctuary”) as he explored just how far the deep end of his talent pool truly went. Themes of girls and partying present on Miller’s earlier work quickly gave way to new stories in the chapters of his own pain, depression, love, ego and mortality; all of which are delved into on Faces.
There were some record execs at the time who felt the direction would cause his star to fade, when the truth was something much more enduring. While Miller’s Blue Slide Park persona might have quickly given way as a gimmick had he stayed on that path, what instead resulted was a fragile, expressively brilliant yet self-destructive humanity in a young man whose lightbulb simply burned out too soon. What was once derision of Miller’s origins instead simply became a question of, what might have been with more time? What might have been next after 2018?
Sadly we won’t ever know the answer. As it is, I know we were fortunate to have Mac Miller as long as we did. Even four years before his overdose death, Faces is rife with references to significant cocaine use (“Polo Jeans”, “Friends”, “Angel Dust”), fears he would “die before he detoxed”, and that his doing drugs was “just a war with boredom but its sure to get me” (“Malibu”, “Funeral”). Miller even eerily seemed to foretell how his eventual death would play out on “San Francisco”, and pondered if he’d even make it to another album with closer “Grand Finale”.
Periodically there are times in your life between the headphones of melody where a new musician in your life becomes something… more invested. Sometimes without you even realizing it’s happening and being woven into your DNA fabric. I’ve absolutely found that in Mac Miller, who utterly defied my expectations and showed me how wrong it was to put anybody’s talent in a predetermined box.
The listens (especially in later years knowing the tragedy of Mac’s story) aren’t always easy, but they’re real with warts-out honesty. And as hard and as painful as that can be to endure sometimes, it’s also often a way to create a bond over even the implication of shared experiences. Both the ups and downs in those pairings.
Faces certainly has its fair share of uncomfortable truths when it comes to what was going on in Mac Miller’s life at the time. But despite the dark paths and alleys within those narratives, Miller’s talent only continued to blossom around those gritty city streets in his mind. And that led to the creation of so much beauty within this mixtape. And within so much of his catalogue.
I wish it wasn’t the end, but he did have one hell of a gorgeous Grand Finale.
I often find in my current stage of life still entering my 30’s that time really does mash down the accelerator once you get to a certain age. And it wasn’t like I was one of those kids who badgered and begged adulthood to appear either. It just…. happens with a snap one day and you’re left wondering exactly where all those minutes went on the way to your current destination.
Entering the final day of 2021 and starting 2022 has brought me into this basement of thought, which is a mixture of both slightly solemn and sobering. Age has a way of doing that to a person the more you notice it. But instead of getting too far down in the dumps, in this moment I prefer to think of rapper Mac Miller and a lyric from his 2010 track “Senior Skip Day”.
“Enjoy the best things in your life, cause you ain’t gonna get to live it twice”
To me that line’s a reminder and mantra no matter how serious things get, its important not to get so caught up in sadness/worrying that you miss out on all the good and enjoyable aspects of this experience. Sometimes that’s way easier said than done, but I can confidently say the best of this year in music at least certainly provided plenty of celebratory moments.
Take for instance…
Brandi Carlile, In These Silent Days
When it comes to Brandi, my jaw has stayed on the floor for her tunes since 2018 LP By The Way, I Forgive You. Despite knowing her music off and on since 2007’s The Story, By The Way felt like a coming out party for a musical vet taking her craft to the next level. The icon stage. Silent Days has only continued this rocketing trajectory upward behind the weight of tracks like “Right On Time”, “Stay Gentle”, and the golden threaded harmonies of “This Time Tomorrow”. Carlile’s bandmates twin brothers Phil and Tim Hanseroth also deserve plenty of praise here as they’ve formed a power trio with Carlile that is a titan both in studio and on stage.
Ultimately though this is Brandi’s world and we’re just living in it, lucky for our listening ears!
Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars, An Evening With Silk Sonic
Arguably the album with 2021’s biggest hype, the end result is a tight 8-track affair harkening back to the best of old school soul, funk and R&B. Mars and .Paak navigate the terrain as deftly as their on-stage choreography, aided in part by P-Funk legend Bootsy Collins and bass wizard Thundercat (who shines on “After Last Night”).
I know there were some who felt Evening didn’t line up with their expectations, but I felt this was a great tablesetter for the collab project. I hope this isn’t the last we see from Silk Sonic as it feels like there are still plenty more chapters yet to be written in Bruno and Andy’s book together.
Marlon Craft, Homecourt Advantage
The rapper from New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen was on a creative tear this past year, dropping EP Space (with producer Yusei), LP How We Intended, and this Homecourt mixtape. The release trio are exceptional, but Homecourt takes the top spot for me behind flows like “Lost Faith”, “All We Got”, and “PACE”, as well as a boundless roving energy.
Not to mention Craft only continues to sharpen his lyrical spearheads with each new work he puts out there. He’s one of a select bunch in the genre using that power of prose to move the needle of social consciousness in the right direction. We need more of that in the world as we move into a collective headspace that’s often more spun on lies than uncomfortable truths.
Rag’n’Bone Man, Life By Misadventure
Rory Charles Graham, AKA Rag’n’Bone Man, had one of the most affecting sound styles I heard all year with this LP. With a baritone reminiscent of a room-riveting Michael McDonald, Graham dominates from first note to last. He excels equally solo (“Breath in Me”, “Old Habits”) as he does in a duet (“Anywhere Away From Here”), which highlights an equally heartstopping vocal from pop singing maven Pink.
I also really came to adore Misadventure because it’s lyrical themes are so true and honest to our basic humanity. Love, loss, sadness, loneliness, fear of inadequacy in the world… these are just a few of our most essential and relatable emotional signposts. We’ve all been in that, and Rag’n’Bone Man feels like he’s right there with us in those trenches.
It means a lot.
Leon Bridges, Gold-Diggers Sound
Since his retro-minded debut Coming Home dropped in 2015, Leon Bridges has melded his old school Sam Cooke vibes with a more pop, contemporary visage. The result is a 20th century R&B feel that is equal parts heart and earworming hooks with tracks like “Why Don’t You Touch Me”, “Motorbike” and the aching “Sweeter”. Sure there’s a bit more production present, but it doesn’t take away from messages like “Sweeter” and it’s ode to the George Floyd tragedy.
Add in stellar collaborators like Robert Glasper, vocalist Ink and musician Terrace Martin and Gold Diggers finds just that, the jackpot at the end of the journey. Much like the Rag’n’Bone Man release, part of the payoff is also in that lyrical relatability. It spoke to me a lot here, and I hope it does for you as well.
May the year of 2022 provide just as great a list of new favorites this time as it did in 2021!
At this stage of the year it begins to feel like December is leaking away through our fingers like so much common hourglass sand. 2021 is quickly and quietly escaping to a close, culminating with the imminent conclusion of yet another holiday season. Perhaps this is a gradual sign of my age, but it feels like this holiday process rolls in faster and faster the longer I’ve been around. Hanukkah, Christmas, pick the time… these celebrations come and go with the presence of a lightning bolt nowadays. At least from where I sit 31 years into my own story.
As you might imagine that perspective brings on the occasional cloud of melancholy about aging, even amidst the bright lights and bulbs currently illuminating the streets and shop windows with their luminescent casts. There’s a battle in me waged internally between having appreciation for the happiness of those shimmering moments that count, and a little wistful sigh at watching them smokily float away with both feet on the accelerator. Uncaring of my wish that they might stick around just a bit longer and delay their inevitable conclusion.
I feel both the sun and shade of those moods within the effervescent vocals of soprano Audrey DuBois Harris on her recent single “Christmas Without You”. The track is a sweetly jazz-smoked ode that is at once as heavy as it is uplifting. That’s all due to the intricately gorgeous timbre of DuBois Harris, who carries emotional layers like the fine gossamer silk of spider’s webs. As beautiful as they are strong. Once dubbed by soul legend Aretha Franklin as her “favorite soprano”, DuBois Harris draws the listener into the stirring heartbreak of existing without the one she loves, while also making “Christmas Without You” into a gorgeously capturing torch song about being with those who matter the most.
Because when it comes to this time of year, the real priorities lie within our connections to others. There are certainly plenty of presents, parties and pretty light strands to be had, but the true gifts dwell within our shared community. That type of gathering becomes a vision that’s more difficult to see during these pandemic times, which makes “Christmas Without You” a rather perfect ode to so many lives right now. But the single also serves as a reminder that even while COVID is ongoing, its still important to check in with loved ones. Make that phone/Zoom call, reach out and don’t leave regrets hanging.
If they matter the effort is forever worth the time.
Last month, we took an unflinching look at the state of our Earth through the lens of humanity with Andrew Thomases and his single “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone”. The track is an alt-rocker’s plea to his fellow man to think about the consequences of negative actions against the environment. That’s because we may end up taking a lot for granted that won’t ever come back if we stay on this current path. I think in many ways, we’re already taking a lot for granted that’s already vanished into the stratosphere. It’s a difficult realization to live with, but an important one noted on the song.
This time around Thomases gives us the gear-shifting grit of “Outrun Evolution”, a tempo-bending single showcasing some nasty guitar lines and mankind’s equally nasty poker hand of self-inflicted circumstance. It’s a branch not far removed from “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone”, except it looks at humanity’s progress as a Pearl Jam rocker’s edge Icarus fable; destined to burn up in the sun astride trademark wings of white-hot six-stringed wax.
There is certainly a case to be made that our society is doing too much too fast to remain sustainable for the long haul. That progress without care can lead to cataclysm; fable’s long cursive strokes turned into reality’s nightmare. As I said before that’s a level of emotion difficult to confront head-on most of the time, but Thomases is among those creators who force our eyes (and ears) to dwell on the sights we need to behold. They’re often horrific, but they must be viewed. To paraphrase rapper Mac Miller, sometimes we only grow from anguish.
From my own perspective, both of Thomases’ tracks gave me pause thinking about the world at large. There’s a part of my soul buried in my spirit that can’t take the subject because it seems so negatively daunting; that we only stand up to lose a little more ground with the passing of each day. But another portion of me applauds Thomases for speaking out; the great rockers, folkers and raconteurs never backed down from a cause no matter the circumstances.
So take a moment with “Outrun Evolution” and “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone”, and never give in to those odds.
Listening to Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak tear it up as new duo/band Silk Sonic has reminded me how much more fun we need to be having in music again. Yes we live in hard times and the world isn’t easy, but we also need to have even just moments where we can stop to joke or smile or laugh. Or in the case of .Paak and Mars, sing our hearts out with deliriously retro-hugging joy using their bubbling new LP An Evening With Silk Sonic.
As any music fan will tell you, that often off-kilter crooning can be a very therapeutic, cathartic experience. And this funky, soulful, R&B cruise of a record is gonna give you that good feeling allllll Evening longggg.
The artistic influences on Silk Sonic are plenty and often-referenced, so I’ll skip further detail and say this instead. Bruno and Andy do this shit so well together on An Evening with Silk Sonic it’s like they’ve been at it 20 years. The chemistry and friendship is real through lounge groove (“Leave The Door Open”), beachside Carribbean flow (“Skate”), forbidden-hour get-downs (“After Last Night”), and pure fur-lined swagger (“Fly As Me”).
I’m sure the haters will try to spin Evening as being old school 70’s parody; trying too hard to blend into your grandparent’s furniture like a dated Saturday Night Live sketch. But Mars and .Paak are no lightweights in this field. They didn’t just find period piece equipment, slap on chest hairs and gold chains and wing together an album. Both men are exceptional lyricists and musicians that have assembled a tight band of talents led by bassist Thundercat, jack of all trades D’Mile, and legendary funk master Bootsy Collins.
My only complaint of the whole piece is the best one possible: at 8 songs and an intro An Evening with Silk Sonic is just too damn short. But the resulting music might arguably be the most crisp 30 minutes of an album you’ll hear in all of 2021. There are no bulky moments here, just every second finding a different way to Silk Sonic slap all over this project.
By now, if you only know the group’s wildly popular debut single “Leave The Door Open”, you’re only scratching the surface of this melodic feast.
I’m really digging the non-stop electric sizzling tempo of Ricky Mendoza’s new music video for his song “MOVE”. The track (off Mendoza’s album THE NEW HURT) was already an absolute burner to begin with, buoyed as much by the arrangement as Mendoza’s rattlesnake rasping vocals taking assertive center stage. The Mexican-American folk-punker brings out the best of both genres on the single by carrying a Clash-like energy, as well as a folk singer-songwriter’s lyrical sensibilities.
What I mean by that is emblematically displayed in Mendoza’s new video, which finds the artist playing both the pro- and antagonist of the story. In this battle of good and evil, Mendoza stays on the run and just ahead of the representation of his fears and anxieties. As an introvert since childhood, the analogy is a familiar one to me; an ever-constant battle of action versus brain chemistry locked in perpetual duel.
But as this production also shows, you can only flee from those emotions for so long before there must be confrontation. And in true punk fashion, Mendoza decides to square off and run down his foe like a knight mid-joust. At first glance that may perhaps seem like the most linear, straightforward route of response, but in our many potential life situations and dilemmas often the best way out is to wind up going straight through.
And initially, that concept can seem like a scary one. Perhaps even the most feared of all. But Ricky Mendoza’s “MOVE” shows us (as both viewers and listeners) that with a little courage, a dash of grit and a hint of vinegar, we can emerge on the other side better than from where we started.
It’s hard, but the relief at the end is worth the risk of the trek.
For more on Ricky, check him out on Facebook and Instagram, or find out more at his website rickymendoza.org.
Cover songs can be a tricky art, especially when it comes to making them into great cover songs. For example, Hendrix did it with Dylan’s “Watchtower”, Jeff Buckley spiritually redefined Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, while Johnny Cash took Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and made the track’s original pain sink even deeper into the flesh. Often it seems like the best way to make someone else’s song your own comes down to finding a whole new way to interpret how it makes you feel, and how that in turn influences the listener.
Lincoln, Nebraska-born singer-songwriter Karen Choi is one of the most current artists I’ve heard truly accomplish this creativity. She recently took on a new spin of the song “Boys Don’t Cry” by English rock group The Cure, and in my mind has delivered a beautifully definitive version. While the original certainly has its merits as a classic Brit-rock bop, Choi and her band strip it down and rebuild “Boys” as a Nashville pedal steel-shimmered, slow-danced ode to the Midwest red rust in the vein of Kacey Musgraves or Emmylou Harris.
In fact, I think this allows Choi’s take on “Boys” to have more of an emotional veneer than the original allows for. While Cure frontman Robert Smith sings it with tears neatly tucked behind his sleeve inside an 80’s rock melody, Choi slows down the tempo to show all her feelings front and center. If this homage to “Boys” is a breakup, all the dirty laundry is coming out and, if I know a good country/folk song, those metaphorical clothes are going right out on the front lawn.
It’s a straight-up take on the track, and shows even if you traditionally think of a song as one way, like a prism its actually much more about the angle of how you view it. Lucky for us as listeners, Karen Choi has provided a perspective that’s absolutely bursting with rainbows of light.