And In the Darkness, Hearts Aglow is Natalie Mering of Weyes Blood’s second album in the trilogy that may well become a generational trinity. Its monumental predecessor, Titanic Rising,saw Mering beg and plead for some stable ground beneath her feet. With her cries answered only by the feedback of despondent tides, Mering swam through shipwrecks and salvaged memories just to look at the corrosion that had spread all over her desires. On In the Darkness, Hearts Aglow, Mering can no longer indulge in the past, and the future is no refuge either. The second act of this apocalyptic trilogy is birthed as Mering clings onto a romantic desperation to guide the way through a moonless night.
String arrangements reminiscent of “A Lot’s Gonna Change” give rise to a stairway of piano notes on the intro track. Mering’s glowing voice shines light as we approach. As if reaching her hand out through the music, she sets the scene for Hearts Aglow with a bittersweet reminder that every one of us gets lost in the current. Her golden chants proclaim “It’s Not Just me, It’s Everybody” repeatedly, celebrating a revelation that she no longer needs to muzzle the voice of her pain. “Children of the Empire” throws the listener into a music hall located in the eye of a hurricane. She taps into the beauty of baroque instrumentation – I can feel the aliveness of each instrument. Pianos, harpsichords, and bells jump around on top of the “oooh’s” and “aaahs” in the background. Even a xylophone comes in to do his always-pleasant dance (Yes I will anthropomorphize an instrument, this is the Weyes Blood baroque effect). She laments the blood on the hands of herself and other “children” of a globalized era: the time when it is near-impossible to avoid burning oil extracted through invasions and single-use plastics that will never decay. Mering acknowledges that we will pay for our sins while gazing into this cosmic clutter. However, she reminds us that we “don’t have time to be afraid.” This party at the end of our heyday is soundtracked with grim coloring: “They say the worst is done, but I think it’s only just begun.” She continues to frolic beneath nihilistic rain on “Hearts Aglow,” crooning lines like “The whole world is crumbling; Oh, baby, let’s dance in the sand.” During these moments of bliss, the apocalypse is merely a blip on Mering’s radar.
The psychedelic folk tale, “Grapevine,” is a post-breakup rumination centered around Southern California’s Interstate 5. The soft hums of her guitar mystify the highway – she mythologizes the landscape as a path where one can curve around curves until they’ve escaped the relentless drone of time. It all leads to the nauseating realization that she and a past lover are now “just two cars passing by on the grapevine.” The song and the memory drive us off to become one with a dark blue horizon. In the Darkness, Hearts Aglow treats earthly forms as a foothill to wander up until we’ve entered the romanticized territory of mythos and fables. Mering’s voice can carry the listener away to these spaces, sweeping them up to fly to a world drenched in moonlit mystique. She’s got vocal prowess dripping with so much beauty that it could compel tears from a thirteen-year-old football player who has been conditioned to think that boys shouldn’t cry.
The escape that Weyes Blood seeks on the “Grapevine” has her sunk to her knees on “God Turn me Into a Flower.” She prays to morph into some embodiment of serenity – to be grounded and rooted. Birds chirp and Mother Nature communicates through synths similar to a language explored in Mort Garson’s Plantasia. Slowly, nature’s sounds take over and what’s human falls away, leaving in its wake buds that bloom to reach for the sun. The flowery ego-death that Mering prays for is a desire that can’t last. Resurrection fueled by blind hope arrives on “Hearts Aglow,” an endearing moment in which Mering shoots through the smog above to reach an unclogged sky. As she drifts in and out of white clouds, her voice is followed by harmonies of the heavens; Phil Spector’s ghostly fingerprints can be seen on the Walls of Sound that come from behind.
Mering uses instrumental segments such as “And in the Darkness” and “In Holy Flux” as globs of gravity to pull the listener even deeper into the tide of the album. Sandwiched – a bit awkwardly – between these two is the carbonated “Twin Flame.” Psychedelic drum patterns flow up beneath to pop like bubbles in your ears. I’d like to hear more of this weird style from Mering, the song makes me feel stranded in the cold and lightless Aphotic zone of the ocean. Hearts Aglow is bookended with “A Given Thing,” slowing things down Tori Amos style. A solid knot on the tracklist, but it doesn’t tie the project up as tight as she did on Titanic’s “Picture Me Better.” Most Hearts Aglow songs are just a bit less strong than their sequential counterparts on Titanic Rising, but this album leaves a golden wake behind regardless of any memory bias.
The most remarkable musical trilogies are often forged in great wildfires, whether those troubles are societal or personal: Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, The Cure’s “Gothic” Series, Dylan’s 14-Month Trilogy. With a cocktail of microplastics and Teflon in our bodies and half a decade left on the Climate Clock, we continue to walk, even if our legs are fueled only by the foolish passion of our hearts. If earth ever goes gradient, this album and trilogy will be a picturesque elegy of the world as a car going downhill in neutral gear.
My head is a flaming 1998 computer with fans whirring and every time I hear a noise I want to catch those jagged soundwaves and catapult them away to Andromeda. I just got back from the doctor, and I did get a concussion after colliding heads with somebody at the Black Midi concert. This is not me looking for sympathy, but my concussion – as well as the destruction of my friend’s seemingly indestructible Doc Martens – just goes to show what a septic tank the pit at the Black Midi show was.
Black Midi is a chaotic band of many pretentious dashed genres: brutal-prog, jazz-rock, post-punk. My dad would probably call them ‘weird for the sake of being weird,’ and I would’ve agreed a year ago. Over time their arsonist approach to music warmed up to me with its redeeming qualities in mastery of tension and release. I arrive at the concert to see a fandango of “I Love Black Midi” or “Jesus Loves Black Midi” shirts. The most notable conversation I hear around me is also an alarming one: “I’ve heard Black Midi’s shows are louder than a My Bloody Valentine set.” As the lights dim, a WWE commentator’s voice hollers an introduction of the “world’s hardest working band,” hyping up the roaring crowd for the “super colossal heavyweight champion of the world: Black Helllllllfire Midiiiii.” The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” starts playing and vocalist Geordie Greep runs out to that cinematic string arrangement in a boxing robe. The crowd goes nuts at the sight of this mischievous looking Englishman. Cameron Picton has a pair of shades on that shield his deadpanned face and a brain that would set music theory books to 451º Fahrenheit. He picks up his bass and the distorted notes overpower The Verve’s prerecorded opener. Geordie Greep grabs his guitar; the end of its strings hang off the headpost like a geriatric cat’s whiskers. The band begins their set and opens with a face-melting “953” at an unholy level of the decibel scale.
I look into the crowd from the photographer’s pit to see about ten or so people clinging to the barricade for dear life. Behind them is a sight I must point to Dante’s fifth level of hell to describe: The Divine Comedy author describes the river Styx as filled with people “in that lagoon… they smote each other not alone with hands, but with the head and with the breast and feet, tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth.” Maybe this is a dramatic analogy, but the pit was true chaos. During “Welcome to Hell,” I joined the pit to find that this was an obscure type of mosh. Because of the ‘stop and go’ nature of many Black Midi songs, members of the audience are given time to stabilize and stop to pant like dogs during the calm moments of many songs. I often see faces of friends during these 5-second pauses, but as soon as the mayhem begins again they are swept away into the storm of band shirts.
Painting violent impressions into the crowd like an evil Jackson Pollack, Greep stands villainous and postured in his buttoned shirt above the chaos. The WWE commentator’s voice returns at the beginning of “Sugar/Tzu,” a song that tells the story of a fight between “Sun Sugar, a simple man, cut from coarse cloth and Sun Tzu, seeking strength from a snakeskin broth.” The fight takes place on the impossible date of “February 31st 2163.” Greep’s storytelling is gilded in an eerie elegance, bolstered by drummer Morgan Simpson’s manic jazz tempo changes. Fans yell out every word to “John L,” the tale of a cult leader being torn to gory pieces by his subjects. The brain-rattling instrumentals and jargon are what I imagine the folks that took Woodstock’s infamous “brown acid” would have heard at a King Crimson show.
Cameron Picton trades his bass for a six-string guitar and steps up to the mic to perform his own Black Midi songs. Fans belt out every word to “Eat Men Eat” along with him. This is the story of two miners (most likely in love) escaping the wrath of their blood-drinking cannibal of a captain. Picton wails the words of the captain like he is possessed.
“You f*****g f*****s ain’t seen the last of me yet
I’ll have the last laugh, you c****, soon you’ll see
Each day you wake, and each night you sleep
I’ll be camped in your chests, burning! Burning!”
Greep looks at his drummer impressed, he flashes a grin and raises his eyebrows as if breaking the fourth wall. By the end of the show, the pit is festering with stench, human and otherwise. A whiplashed crowd bangs around to “Slow,” and the sweaty stew of fans throws their bodies and elbows with what energy they have left. People that were just at war with each other in the pit tenderly introduce themselves to each other as they babble about how wild the concert was.
After the show, I sent a cool teacher of mine a Black Midi song, I was curious if he would call it progressive-rock or not. To copy and paste part of a diplomatic response from the true prog-rock connoisseur, he muses that “Prog wants to draw you into a dreamscape of expanding ideas, but this feels more like a temper tantrum.” I’d agree, Black Midi is the corrupted child of a Yes and Genesis soundtracked Middle-earth, a corrupted child with an urge to commit arson and steal some magic sword from the Shire. As I write this article two weeks later and am still concussed, I can fondly recall that the concert was less a dreamscape and more like a self-aware nightmare in which you bear witness to some talented musicians spilling cathartic oil onto the flaming nooks and crannies of their mind.
I’ve trekked to Chicago this week, and my big toe is sticking out of a hole in my sock. A man yells at me to buy his $10 poncho, but I just want a new sock. That’s okay, I’ve made it to my destination: Pitchfork Music Festival is the record-collecting younger sister to Lollapalooza, her fraternity-rushing older brother. A list on my phone holds the artist lineup, and it is filled with current critical successes along with legends of the past. Looking down, I see the ground swallow rain to spit mud back out. The grey Chicago skies tend to be sporadic. My weather app says the rain will soon clear, but these clouds will linger for a bit to hear some good music.
During a Porta Potty hiatus, the big rectangular urination-box begins to shake. SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE, a band that exists in all-caps on paper and in performance, trembles the park with apocalyptic music that would probably be called “just noise” by any self-respecting person. However, most of us Pitchfork attendees do not have much self-respect, so we pay to see a genre critics have coined “noise pop.” As if the villains in Arkham Asylum formed a band, each member plays their instruments with deranged force. Screeching guitars feel like standing within a 10-foot radius of an acid-dipped chainsaw. BEEHIVE could go from grimy indie rock verses to the loudest, most un-radio-able shoegazy explosions known to man. Each of them pushes their instruments across a lake of fire all the way into the territory of the damned. The glorious nuclear collision of sound hurts my eardrums and itches my brain, I walk away wondering if any of my brain cells jumped ship during that set.
The air surrounding the Parquet Courts fans smells like American Spirits and rain-soaked hair. These New York art punks enter with “Application/Apparatus,” mischievous and soaked in muted color like a gum-covered NYC pole. Bassist Sean Yeason’s head nods in time with the bassline; once the building instrumentals release tension, he starts shaking his hair back and forth like a wet dog. The crowd seems mild at first, but as the band begins to play “Almost Had to Start A Fight,” the audience mirrors the energy on stage by pushing others into the “chaos dimension.” I see many IPA-dipped mustaches snarl with anger as they get pushed around. Of course, this just made us push each other more.
Keyboardist Andrew Bird mentions twice that High Fidelity was filmed in Chicago – on brand for a music enthusiast with such a beautiful mullet and clear circular glasses double the diameter of his eyes. Andrew Savage’s voice sounds as if The Clash’s Joe Strummer is singing through an obtuse traffic cone – his attitude sprinkles far and wide. At the end of the show, the same angry mustached men give in to the joy, joining the muddy push-party for “Stoned and starving,” a delight to hear live. Perhaps the lyrics were especially true for the 7 o’clock crowd.
Jason Spaceman of Spiritualized makes the list of musicians that make you think ‘how did they make it out of the 90’s alive?’ But he’s here behind his tinted sunglasses, he walks up to the stage with aloof coolness. Sitting down in his chair – one he would not get up from the entire performance – he opens the songbook on his stand. ‘Hey Jane’ begins the set, the almost 10-minute song continues like a run-on sentence that even an English teacher would enjoy. He flips his songbook mid-song while his bandmates spaz on their guitar pedals. “Shine a Light” indulges in the early 90’s work of Spiritualized, but the echoing sound is like floating in space without any fuel: invigorating at first, but by the end, I am ready to escape from the icy, reverberating slammer I am trapped in – it doesn’t sound as good live. Speaking of floating in space, it is worth noting that J. Spaceman did not perform a song from the landmark album Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space. It’s nice to evade another 90’s nostalgia tour, but his most quality work rests in that pill-bottle album. The show went in a far more blues-rock direction, and some variety was needed by the end. However, ventures into out-of-tune, guitar pedal chaos serve as fine palate cleansers for us to return to bittersweet moments like “Here it Comes (The Road).”
The National’s black and gray aesthetic paired with increasingly lukewarm album covers previously made me doubt the odds of an entertaining live show. I enter an audience filled with tortured artist types; these INFP’s wait to absorb the baritone bombs of emotion that will soon be handed to them by vocalist, Matt Berginer. Camera work allows for a black and white show on the big screen to serve as the perfect peripheral for Berginer’s theatrics. Colorful sonic and visual ignitions can be seen around the band of veterans when their songs reach a zenith. In “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” Aaron Dessner’s guitar weeps behind Berginer’s revelations that seem to have been spawned by a poetry inducing mid-life crisis. Dessner puts down his guitar to play a rainy day’s piano on “Light years.” The dynamic between the two is similar to rain that is sharpened by the thunder: Berginer’s poetry is propelled by Dessner’s instrumentals of equal magnitude. Because of this, The National’s set lives up to its headlining standards. I am walking out of the park with thousands of other satisfied people. That hole in my sock is much bigger than it was when the day began, and I board the train with a liberated big toe that dances around in my shoe.
I get up for Day two of Pitchfork. 55 years ago today, The Monterey International Music festival had a lineup consisting of Jimi Hendrix, Simon and Garfunkel, Janis Joplin, and too many more legends to name. I eat breakfast and wonder if any of the names at Pitchfork Music Festival will hold the same weight in half a century.
Looking around the Yuele audience is its own wonder; I see earrings made out of vats of blood, cached carts, and cat hair: I trust the show is going to impress. Coming from some Artificial Intelligence server behind the stage, Yuele’s robo-person presence is amplified by her cyborg-eye contacts that scan the audience. The thunderous, slow-hitting bass in songs like “Poison Arrow” rattles my brain and makes my nose twingly. Like a cyborg watching the human world wither away, Yuele dances around – safe from any apocalypse in her realm of dark synths.
While Yuele sings as a cold world is taken over by HAL 9000, Magdalena Bay embraces a video game-like world. They throw an 80’s themed party set one hundred years in the future. Vocalist Mica Tennenbaum bounces around on a cloud during “Secrets (Your Fire).” She throws an actual clock into the way wind before saying she “was thinking about how there’s no true end to anything.” Similar existential comments are treated with a cartoonish attitude and a smile, I feel at ease at this retro-futuristic stage.
It is now 7 pm, and after I eat some incredible fried noodles, I can see that anticipation is high for Japanese Breakfast. Michele Zauner’s Blondie-like group of tuxed men come out and pick up their instruments, ready to flash sharp smiles that make the crowd roar. She walks out in gold light, singing the triumphant “Paprika,” a poodle on her shirt and a mallet in her hand. During that explosive chorus, she beats a giant, flowery gong; a rush of sound and serotonin incites smiles across the audience. Zauner once said that this song is about “reveling in the beauty of music,” and that is exactly what we did.
“Be Sweet” and “Road Head” flex the unique abilities of Zauner to extend her voice by seemingly flexing her whole body. It was one of the best vocal performances I’ve heard live. Although Zauner spotted an unfortunate amount of people passed out during this show, she always immediately stops her songs to call for a medic. The care she holds for her fans strengthens comradery in the park.
In the middle of Kokomo, IN, Jeff Tweedy walks out to join Zauner’s twee-inspired vocals with his grainy voice. Calling him her “favorite songwriter of all time,” they duet an anthem that embodies the Chicago coffee shop ethos: “Jesus Etc.” It sounds like the sum of conspiring forces of musical talent. Bookending the set with “Diving Woman,” we smiled in adoration as the best performance of the weekend came to a close.
Making my way to the Low set, I walk over to the blue stage – which has turned into a black hole of indulgence. Low remains the quintessential band of the slowcore universe, doing numbers on its listeners by stripping their songs back so bare that they nearly embody emotion. However, on their recent albums, they have held onto that raw emotion while creating massive atmospheres, as opposed to their earlier depressed ballads. Their Pitchfork set almost entirely consisted of songs from their new album: HEY WHAT. Alan Sparhawk shoots out seizing electricity with his guitar, and “White Horses’” glitchy sensibilities leads the married couple of Sparhawk and Mimi Parker into a chilling duet over their respective styles. In fact, I haven’t heard a drummer’s vocals sound as great as Parker’s in a long time. “Disappearing” builds up as a massive Tower of Babel: usually when a song builds and releases tension, a large amount of noise and energy are let out in catharsis. But Low literally slows down as they build, messing with the audience’s sense of time to create a slow-motion toppling of sound. If I had an analog watch, I’d imagine the minute hand would be stuck in place, since Low are fond of shoveling time into a coal-fired boiler to create some otherworldly energy with it. However, my phone clock says that it is 8:25, which means it is time to go to see one of the most compelling artists of the last ten years: Mitski.
Mitski’s songs are dipped in the liquids of a gunky puddle of feelings that we often drench our favorite pair of shoes in. When my emotions feel invalid and overwhelming, I run to Mitski to take cover. Now, I am running to Mitski in real life, trying not to miss the beginning of her set. A middle-aged man walks up through the crowd to his wife “damn teenagers kept taking videos of me walking through the crowd.”
I see a teardrop fall from someone’s face into the midnight sea of Doc Martins below us when Mitski comes out. The choreography serves as a high-quality music video for every single song. She stabs herself with an air knife three times as she makes confessions at “3 am” in “Francis Forever.” Audience hearts wave a white flag at Mitski when they sing these lyrics in unison. The catharsis does not just come from singing her noisy indie rock songs. Mitski’s drives us to the eighties with “Nobody,” a song that surely would have been a New Wave classic 40 years ago. She dances around and plays a very believable game of tug-of-war with an invisible opponent. Her melodrama thrives under green lights, as her loss of innocence is allotted its own physical outlet.
Nobody expresses emotional frustration like Mitski. When I was a kid, creepy sounds in my old house would set me off. Crying, I’d run to my parents’ room to tell them that there was a ghost. I’d receive the same response “that’s just the house making noises.” I don’t blame them, I’m sure the pipes and vents were making sounds. But if 7-year-old me knew who Mitski was, I would have listened to her music in that scenario. When I feel small, Mitski makes me feel seen. I look around the crowd to see thousands of other people that Mitski has the same effect on. Somebody understands the gunk, and it is nice to see that person standing on a stage in front of us.
The last day of Pitchfork has come, and I am in an Earl Sweatshirt crowd with hundreds of other people that get their vitamin D from the light on a computer screen. You know the performance is going to be good when the DJ – Black Noi$e – has an Aphex Twin hat on. Audience conversations go as expected before Earl makes his entrance: people speak of Earl Sweatshirt’s Myspace lore and make fun of the security man who has cut off the sleeves of his extra-small work shirt to show muscles. As Black Noi$e toys with the crowd, the rain starts pouring, and our feet sink deep into the mud. Grimy weather warrants grimy sounds: “Riot!” comes on. Messy but triumphant in its chaos, the song feels like a Basquiat painting – the perfect walkout song for Earl.
Earl’s banter with the crowd is filled with layers of irony. “You’re all going to jail, I don’t know any songs,” he says. A crowd member yells in response “Play EAST.” Earl says “Okay” and laughs. He plays the 1700 sea shanty beat on “East” and the crowd screamed. A youtube comment on this goofy song once said “this song is like getting ready for a sneeze and nothing happens,” Earl’s beats are beyond comprehension and we embrace the brain-scratching disarray.
After an hour of Earl telling the crowd he “doesn’t know what we’re talking about, I don’t know any songs,” Earl begins to play Meek Mill’s most known song: “Dreams and Nightmares”. Earl is saying every word over the recording, building to the breaking point that this song is known for. The crowd is getting excited for the climax, the piano tempo speeds up and Meek’s voice is gaining more energy… oh, Earl just turned it off and walked off stage. I can’t think of a better way for such an offbeat artist to end his show.
While I saw kids chief entire joints by themselves at Earl Sweatshirt’s show, The Roots’ audience happily pass around the pleasure. This foreshadows a sense of community that the 90’s jazz-rap legends capitalize on as soon as they appear. Questlove’s drumming serves as the heart of the group, pumping out essential nutrients for the rest of the group to bounce off of with their instruments. Backing musicians are all pieces of a complete organism; most of these people have played The Late Night Show and know how to rev the engine of an energetic show. And the Brain of this project, Black Thought, is unmatched in charisma. He taps into the “summertime Chi” love that can be felt under the night sky.
This cohesive show doesn’t hold a second lacking in instrumentals. Even during Black Thought’s profound between-song talk, the playing of a trumpet or piano in the background creates an environment for those words to be heeded Gil Scott-Heron style. Songs blend into each other like oil paint soaked in medium, and the backing band can all spontaneously catch onto a new dance or tempo as they please. Black Thought raps nonstop through the horizon of world-class jazz behind him. It’s like he physically can’t stop. Guitarist, Captain Kirk Douglass, showers in spotlight with Pianist Ray Angry as they reach final form. Near the end, the group slides into the 90’s smasher “You Got Me,” cooling down the auditory fire that has been set in the vicinity. It is one of those shows where you know that they walked off the stage and laughed about how damn well they did. If they gave me the pleasure, I would buy this live album in a second.
I walk out of Union Park, the line for the train spans two blocks and bottlenecks at the stairs. I go into my notes app and cross a good deal of names off of my list of artists that I want to see live. The Parquet Courts keyboardist has convinced me to watch High Fidelity for the fourth time. I catch a vision of Jack Black’s character asking a question like “top five concerts you’ve ever seen,” and I can confirm that this weekend has added a lot more contenders for my answer.
Anywhere he goes, Ray Angry is probably the most skilled pianist in any direction for many, many miles. However, at Pitchfork Music Festival, he is surrounded by some of the most talented instrumentalists in the current musical canon— no, he’s still probably the best pianist here. He has album credits with artists such as Mick Jagger, Solange, Elvis Costello, Mobb Deep, and many more. This modern renaissance man walks in with a sharp green jacket on; under his large tan hat rests a calm brain that will soon shoot neurons to his fingers, they will play notes and impress tens of thousands of attendees for The Roots’ headlining performance.
They call him Mr. Goldfinger for a reason.
Jack: So let’s go back to the beginning, tell me about your early days playing piano at Howard University and your introduction to jazz.
Ray Angry: So basically when I was at university they wouldn’t allow me to study jazz. So, I had a double major in classical jazz starting with your young jazz legends, and also reading, but the interesting thing about me being at Howard is I got to connect with all the great Jazz musicians that were coming in. You know how young kids come to festivals go backstage? the artists who want to talk to artists. So I was doing that with all the jazz artists, like me and my friend Chris Dave. He’s like one of the best drummers in the world, he’s amazing. And he and I used to walk from our university to Blue’s Alley to see Wynton Marsalis. It really ignited my interest in jazz, you know, Branford, Kenny Kirkland, so these guys were my heroes. Those guys really got me into playing jazz, and then I was doing gospel music and R&B. Then, I dropped out of school and toured with this R&B group called The Chi, who were traveling around the world, and then I went back to school. So at Howard, I was really interested in music, period. So not just Jazz, I was also into classical and all these different styles. I figured if I can play all these different types of music, I’ll always be good. I think it’s best to think outside the box, and I came to New York, and that’s been the case since.
J: If you could talk to early Ray Angry, what would you tell him? What critiques would you give his music and what advice would you give him?
RA: You know, I’d tell him, man, practice hard, stay focused, and know the ins and outs of the business. Because I think the thing that people miss is that when you get out of school you have to work in business. You’re not just going to be playing music, you got to feed your family, you got to work, and pay rent. So for me, I would just try to make sure that my younger self knew everything about the music business. Every aspect, contracts, how to copyright your music. I think collaboration is so important too. Working with other people, asking questions, not being afraid to ask questions, and not being afraid to ask for help.
J: You released your jazz album, One about four years ago, and after some time to reflect on it, how do you feel looking back on it?
RA: You know, I’m really happy with the recording. People often send me messages about a particular song from my album. And then Amy Schumer put it in Life and Beth. You know, for me, it’s an honor. And also, I’m excited to record my new album, because the first album is Jazz. The next one is solo piano, and it’s classical music. It’s classical music, soul, hip-hop, experimental, all these different styles of music, and it’s just the piano. I’m excited about it. And for me, being diverse and not being known for just one thing is what I’m about. I’m really about connecting folks from all walks of life, it’s been a pleasure, I love recording and the music I’m recording is just an example of where I’m at in my life at the time. I hope that anything I’ve gone through and experienced can make someone’s day brighter.
J: You said that your music is a reflection of where you are in your life, and so what’s bringing you to do a solo piano album in Three?
RA: I’ve actually never released a solo piano album, so for me, because I’m into so many different styles of music, each album represents all the colors in my mind, So the first album was like jazz, the next one is going to be classical. The one after that is going to is going to be different, maybe a funk kind of thing. So I think recording a solo piano album is something I had to do. Especially for the memory of my parents that passed away and my two brothers that passed away this year. So I’ve suffered a lot of loss, for me solo piano is something that is deep in my heart. My parents got me into music, so it’s really a dedication to my family.
J: So why’d you skip two and call it three?
RA: It’s a great conversation piece. Everyone’s like where’s two? Everyone’s gonna be looking for two and go buy One or Three. Why not just do something different?
J: In ancient Greek, Telos means to reach fulfillment or an end goal of an object. Do you think that you can push an instrument to the point of fulfillment?
RA: I would say, when I look to some of the great pianists and all the great artists. Absolutely, I mean, to me, music comes from the ether or somewhere in space, you know it comes from outside of us. And I think connecting with music on a spiritual level gives you satisfaction because your ego is pushed out of the way. So once your ego is out, this is only my opinion, you’re able to really connect with God, the universe can become a channel and really as far as I can see someone and you’re like once you do that, you experience something new and can be blown away. For me. I think it’s possible to do that, but the ego has to be out of the way first.
J: I’ve never heard anybody explain that transcendence so well. So, how’s it been touring with the roots almost 30 years after they do their debut? And is there a different mentality than there was back in the days of Undun in 2011 when you were touring with them?
RA: I think everything forced everyone to think outside the box and also to really redefine your purpose, and for me, working with the roots since 2008 has been life changing. It’s been really great because I’ve been I’ve had the blessing to be on The Tonight Show. Working with Jimmy Fallon working with The Tonight Show crew has been amazing, working Steve green. And having done a record Elvis Costello. That was because of our relationship with the roots and this has been really great. To be able to connect with the world.
J: So what have you been up to these last few years after finishing One?
RA: I’ve been working on a symphony for The Lexington Symphony Orchestra for the past year, I’ve been studying orchestration, composition and writing my personal sort that premieres November 19. I’ve done the music for Life and Beth with my writing partner Timo Elliston. It’ll be on Netflix later this year. I started my own record label called Mr. Goldfinger Music. I’ve been doing Producer Mondays, so I’ve been busy creating lots.
J: You’ve been credited on some incredible albums recently. I’m curious on your opinion on the music scene right now, is it as fruitful and filled with talent as it was in the 90’s?
RA: I think music is always evolving. There’s always gonna be someone better and there’s always gonna be a new way of looking at music, and I think it’s cool that technology is advancing now. I think it’s better because you know, who would’ve thought that you could be on your computer and someone else can be at home on their computer, and you can make a whole album. So I would say it’s getting better. And you know, technology is really connecting us more and more. In terms of music there’s always going to be growth, things are going to be listened to and be reinterpreted. Styles of music mixing together to create a new sound, so I’m excited. Next year, we’re making an authentic style rather than following a safe sound. So, I’m really excited.
“What happened to that chubby little kid, who smiled so much and loved the beach boys?”
Car Seat Headrest songwriter Will Toledo screams this on stage with his post-pubescent voice cracks fragmenting through the crowd.
“What happened is I killed that fucker and I took his name, and I got new glasses”
The audience collectively belts this “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” line as if it is one of the universal truths of the online age. And to this group of people, it may as well be.
So what the hell happened to the music kids? I’d imagine twenty-five years ago, the Car Seat Headrest fanbase’s past-adjacents would have been scoffing at hair-metal during a Pavement concert, or wearing a dirty pair of jeans at a Yo La Tengo show. The internet happened, Bandcamp happened, and the ability to record music in a shitty car on a shitty computer happened.
Now we go to a real-life self-loathing echo chamber and scream for Will Toledo: he has tights on with comically small jorts over them. He has a mask on with digital LED lights that blink every few seconds. His angst remains at the level of Paul Dano in Little Miss Sunshine. I will defend him with dusty buttons on my keyboard in online spaces until the day I die.
This band knows how to put on a show for the sweaty cesspool of incredible fans they have built over the last decade. Car Seat Headrest entered their green lighting on stage to look at an artist’s palette of hair colors in the crowd. We dance, we dance to lyrics like “Sex-havers, stop being so mean” and “The other night I cried while thinking of having sex with you.” It’s not a surprise that my uncle hates his band.
It’s also no wonder that this generation of kids would take solace in the musing of a man that sings about his hatred of social interaction, being sober, and being high. On the internet, we read anonymous people who type about their agony with Reddit ink. This tolerance – even open-armed acceptance – of self-loathing rightfully makes its way into the music of a skinny teenager with glasses and lots of time on his hands: Will Toledo. Soon after, his music makes its way onto thousands of other kids’ computers, many of whom also have a dislike for their bodies and a dislike for conversations with strangers. Now, these listeners are here at the Ogden Theater: It’s a community of online folk that are finally offline, and it’s a beautiful sight.
Andrew Katz beats on his drums, he came prepared with a white tee shirt that says “MASK” and an 80’s style white headband on. The fan-favorite “Fill in the Blank” riles the crowd up with its fast, angular guitar; a large majority of the audience yells every line. The heavy baseline in “It’s Only Sex” keeps the crowd dancing as Toledo moves his body around like a stick-figure Elvis that cannot bend his joints. His voice carries as much raw emotion as it did back in 2011 when he was recording demos in his car. Guitarist Ethan Ives threw in some wild licks to propel the angst of Toledo not just to the back of the theater – but even our nomad friends in the rocky mountains fifty miles away felt the presence of some sort of sonic virginity.
By the time the dance-demanding song “Bodys” came on, the audience turned into a wave pool, up and down and up and down. It’s a song I’ve always wanted to see live; with a subject of moving our bodies around so we can “forget that we forgot how to talk,” even the shyest people’s shells cracked, allowing them to dance and fling their limbs around. After this, sentimentality was at a high during the prized “Sober to Death.” A slower variation of this work of art made for a moment of singing along that is difficult to forget. Guitarist, Ethan Ives, even performed the noisy “It’s my Child (I’ll do what I like)” from his side project Toy Bastard, and the audience ate up the curly-haired, suburban resentment.
The band closed off with the monster 11-minute opus “Beach life-in-death,” an emotional experience for anyone who has connected with the vulnerable lyrics. The encore was an extended version of “Deadlines” – Toledo takes the time to thank and introduce his spotlit bandmates during an extended guitar solo; It was clear to see that these four are best friends. The slacker ethos of 90’s indie rock remains, but Will Toledo sings emotional lyrics like he is reading from a non-refundable receipt that lists all the stuff we wish we could return after puberty. Even at 29 years old – far past his teenage Bandcamp days – Toledo is theatrical and still in his performing prime.
Car Seat Headrest’s music is what sitting in your car to waste time during a party is like. Car Seat Headrest’s music is what being at a lunch table with absolutely nothing to add to the conversation is like. Essentially, Car Seat Headrest’s music feels like being as far away from the present as possible. However, looking around at this concert, it was clear to see that the audience members were present in the moment, enjoying themselves. The equation makes sense now:
Pessimistic people + pessimistic music = propelling a group of hormone-filled introverts to enjoy a moment.
The phrase “the fog is coming” has been everywhere over the last few weeks. Comment sections are riddled with this warning, I’ve even seen a post-it note with the warning in our supposedly-safe school library. But I saw the fog. It came at 9:03 PM MST on March 30, 2022 at 39.776374, -104.969329, aka the Mission Ballroom in Denver. This glorious haze swept over the audience resulting in dead silence. Darkness and silence. I’ve seen what the fog consists of, the lights shone revealing the silhouettes of the legendary Dream Pop duo Beach House.
The title track and intro of Once Twice Melody launched the concert with plainsong-like chimes; its hypnotizing instruments progress with Victoria Legrand’s voice. Legrand’s delivery has a similar effect to German artist Nico. Her vocals feel ancient, like she is telling some great prophecy carried by an atmosphere of lush synths and strings. Manipulation of the band’s shadows multiplied the allure, I did not see a single facial feature the whole night. Seeing Legrand raise her shadow of a hand at the peak of a song would cause the crowd to levitate in awe.
Soon the synths of “Lazuli” and “Through Me” would climb up and down on a dream-dimension y-axis. Legrand stands tall and mythical with her curly hair draped in the fog. Alex Scalley played his soothing guitar and James Barone hit his drums with gentle precision. Hexagonal lights twist and turn around through the mist, and I heard someone say “look at the lights on the ceiling.” For a moment, these geometric lights had us inside of the Bloom album cover.
Beach House’s sound is so sensory-oriented that the visuals of this show were crucial. Before the show, The band sent out a memo to every one of their ticket holders:
NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY whatsoever will be allowed. Additionally, any other distracting activities will not be tolerated.
This created a tunnel vision effect; I could only see the band and whatever synesthetic spotlight they occupied. Everything else was pitch black, it was impossible not to be hypnotized by that stage. The audience may as well have melted when the gut-wrenching first notes of “Silver Soul” came on. All of the lights turned white; it makes sense because this is a white-feeling song, right? Most Beach House songs have a specific color; they’ve explored this with the indulgent red sink-hole that is their 2015 album, Depression Cherry. The background lights matched each song and its sonic hue. A Starry Night-esque lilac background twinkled for the spellbinding “Myth.” A machine gun of red lights fired around with the drum machines of “Pink Funeral.” At the chorus, the aforementioned hexagonal lights turn pink and pan across the room in slow-motion as Legrand so gracefully pleads, “don’t let me go.”
“I’m a woman of few words” Legrand says to a crowd of hypnotized happy neanderthals. I can look around and see the simple thought behind many faces: Music make me feel good. Sure, we were all swaying parallel to the repetitive soundwaves of “Lemon Glow,” but to look around was to see a collective submerged state. Legrand looks down at her audience – or loyal followers – “This place feels like a spaceship, where should we go.” We follow and cheer, drooling. Beach House brain rot has never felt so good.
Our spaceship traveled through the Asgardian bliss of “PPP,” and soon, zero-gravity tears would float around during “Space Song”. As we continued somewhere between two galaxies, a Death Star shot out its dreamy rays from above. A disco ball the diameter of Chewbacca’s left nut is the first off-stage light I’ve seen in this theater. Once the show exited orbit, the crowd did not stop cheering until the band came back on for an encore with “Over and Over.” The audience exited the building like a stream of satisfied water molecules as Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” played over the speakers.
Guided meditation wouldn’t make me feel as serene as I did after the Beach House show. Is it dramatic to say I feel baptized? As a Jew, I don’t know what baptism feels like; I took to the Catholicism subreddit to understand the experience. To quote [deleted] account, “I felt peaceful and confident. I felt content and joyful.” Exactly. Immersion into the band’s cathartic fog has left me feeling like a toad in a zen garden. I tried to go through this whole article without typing the Beach House review buzzwords: dreamy, heavenly, ethereal –this word I promised myself I’d avoid. But shit, the shoe fits.
When I saw the 80 minute length and massive name of the new Big Thief album, my cynicism got the best of me. A quick, near-empty black and white sketch on the cover further confuses the assuming asshole in my head: big album needs big artwork, right? I saw that large-scale magazines were ALREADY giving this album extremely high reviews before it was released to the public. I texted my friend, curious as to what could possibly be so interesting about this massive record. She responded with a quote that would define the next month: “hey man, let those pasty basement fairies do their thing.”
Lead singer Adrienne Lenker starts the album with an arbitrary statement “Ok?”
The intro, “Change” is a hug. A hopeful one. Maybe change isn’t a bad thing? Maybe it’s beautiful, “like the leaves, like a butterfly.” Things change and death comes. Lenker is okay with this. Maybe I am too. Shit, I am already feeling sentimental. What are you doing to me, Big Thief?
Pulling me into a warm hug surrounded by sparkly fireflies and roaming deer, Big thief also offers acceptance to a presence much more dense than mine: time. The ever-present man in a double-breasted pinstripe suit holds his pocket watch; he points at it, showing that time is constantly taking its toll on us. Big thief looks back at him – looks back at time passing – with open arms of acceptance, bringing us comfort in simplicity throughout Dragon. It can be difficult to approach heavy topics with humor, but Lenker’s lyrics read like a wise, 200-year-old being with a goofy approach to the meaninglessness of life.
As the satisfying jaw-harp bounces on “Spud Infinity,” Lenker bounces back and forth from mature topics to mundane objects, comparing our stressful skinmobiles to a simple potato Knish. Her ease doing this through the whole album is a testament to Lenker’s fluid yet sharp songwriting.
“When I say celestial I mean extra-terrestrial I mean accepting the alien you’ve rejected in your own heart When I say heart I mean finish The last one there is a potato knish Baking too long in the sun of spud infinity When I say infinity I mean right now Kiss the one you are right now Kiss your body up and down other than your elbows”
The larger-scope, magic-infused topics near the start of the album – time, celestial bodies, death – are ambitious, but it is vital to the record that they are paired with smaller-scope, intimate affairs. After all, the celestial bodies Lenker sings of would be meaningless without the little animals that flail around beneath them.
“Certainty” could turn a cold, dark heart into grandma’s warm pie. It is one of the loveliest proclamations of feelings for another I have ever heard (“For you, I am a child, believing you lay beside me sleeping on a plane In the future”). Lenker’s country twang intensifies on this song; it is scattered throughout the album, warm and tasty like a tenderly crafted treat. This sound makes the weirdness and nostalgia on Dragon even more intimate in songs with personal stories like “Red Moon” and “Blue Lightning.” Big Thief has completely ignored how uncool country music is right now. With bro-country folks like Florida Georgia Line and Blake Shelton infesting the radios at our local grocery stores, people on first dates everywhere can commonly be heard saying: “I like every genre but country” when asked what music they’re into. It is easy to forget how satisfying a little twang can wiggle into one’s ears; past alt-country folks like Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billie made brilliant art out of their rural self-loathing, and Big Thief is carrying on the torch for country’s salvation.
Dragon is a big, slow-cooked stew of many flavors: the base folk stylings are the braised beef, spiced with savory introspection. The indie-rock turn that the band takes in the middle of the tracklist with “Little Things” is a flowing broth of 90’s influenced, swirly walls of sound. The fairytale-like curiosity that characterizes Dragon is sprinkled in here, especially on “Blurred View,” Big Thief’s otherworldly take on trip-hop. “I am the water rise/the waterfall/filling up your eyes when you give me the call/I run for you/run for you.” It is as if Lenker reads a prophecy; her critical moment in her own fantasy, not much different from Frodo’s mythical clash with The Eye of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings.
Eight years ago In the band’s debut album Masterpiece, an appalled Lenker proclaimed that wherever she was “smelled like piss and beer.” Dragon New Warm Mountain smells like earthy campfires and potions, and whatever elves and fairies smell like. If Dragon New Warm Mountain is a place we can picture, the latter half of the album consists of the folk tales that take place on the green spring grass here. Lenker zooms in on the beauty of real things: a laughing fox on “Promise is a Pendulum” and maple cherry leaves falling on “12,000 Lines”. Small ballads like “No Reason” give a gentle tap on the shoulder with warm, life affirming lines.
“Come together for a moment Look around and dissolve Like a feeling, like a flash Like a fallin’ eyelash on your sweater Threading future through the past”
Lenker wears her influences on her sleeve as songs become quieter – it is easy to hear Elliott Smith here; the moments of fresh craftsmanship give a delightful spin to her sound. Drilling drum machines come out of nowhere on “Wake Me Up to Drive.” Little pokes in the instrumentation loosen my brain in a knotted spot, untying the tangle of stress. Big Thief in all their hopeful magic dismantle the accepted constructs of country-leaning indie-folk. Usually this genre consists of a man who has been defeated by something, with tears in his beer, and a 35 minute tracklist. In contrast, Big Thief conjures a reassuring, romantic outlook on the wonders around them. Flutes fly up and down like the sparrow outside and Lenker’s soft voice is comforting, of the same family as the death-defying, benevolent deer that shows up every now and then.
After a very short 80 minutes, the final track, Blue Lightning, comes to an end. A band member says “what should we do now?” It’s almost like I forgot that these are normal people with normal lives. That is the effect Dragon has, for a moment it feels like they are channeling some kind of fairytale enchantment. But Big Thief is just a band, and this is just a collection of songs. The cover is just a sketch of animals at a campfire. Even with the unstoppable forces of time and death, we still get up and bake our potatoes and dance with our fingers and make campfires. Dragon points out the magic of the mundane; Aren’t we just a bunch of stupid animals trying to find some kind of happiness?