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New Single: Uncharted Waters

Everyone:

I'm happy to announce "Uncharted Waters," the second single from City States' forthcoming album, Geography. This song is darker and angrier than "To Remember," and though it was a struggle to write, it's become a favorite from the LP. Full disclosure: I was listening to an awful lot of Brian Eno's Another Green World when I wrote this particular track, and personally I can hear the influence.

There will be more news soon, but for now, enjoy (and share with your friends via Facebook / Twitter!)
 

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Our Debut Album, Geography

Friends:

After nearly two-and-a-half years of writing, recording, and mixing, I’m thrilled to announce Geography, the debut album by City States. Mixed by John McEntire of Tortoise / Sea & Cake, its 10 tracks will be available on mp3 and on vinyl LP later this spring.

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This recording is personal in every sense imaginable: for starters, it’s a first for me, as I’ve never made a full-length record before. It’s also very much an assertion of my individual creative sensibilities, as I did a vast majority of demoing, arranging, recording, and graphic design (however I should make very clear that I had two fantastic collaborators: drummer Mike Burmeister, and keyboardist / producer Steve Lund, who, over the course of several writing sessions, delicately steered me away from a variety of bad choices I otherwise might have made).

The lyrical content may be the strongest indicator of why this album means so much to me: my father died unexpectedly about halfway though the composition of the record, and as a result the album is both an account of and an engine for my coming to terms with the significance of this event.

In that regard, the first song I’ve chosen to release from the album—”To Remember”—is especially meaningful. While many of the songs on the record deal with notions of death, grief, and loss, this track is specifically about the relationship I had with him. It was also written somewhat unintentionally on the one-year anniversary of his passing.

Download "To Remember"

To be clear: when I sat down that day I did so with the intent of penning something else. Roughly eleven and-a-half months earlier, I gave a eulogy at my dad’s memorial which I recited by memory but did not write down. A close friend of my father’s was not able to be at the service, so I promised him I’d send him the piece when I finally had a hard copy to share. Days and weeks passed, until finally the anniversary of my dad’s death prompted me to make good on my commitment. (As an aside: the exact time and place was at the Sunday of 2013’s Pitchfork Music Fest; I was helping my girlfriend behind a booth at the craft fair there. Yo La Tengo's set loomed in the background as I wrote.)

It became clear about halfway through my reproduction of the eulogy that its contents were a perfect inspiration for a song, which, up until that point, only had a title and a refrain. The first verse, in particular, speaks of the Fender Jaguar my father bought in the early 1960s when he was fourteen, which he subsequently gave to me when I was a teenager:

The copper wound
The classic sound
The maple neck and tortoise shell
The simple gift of notes that always are mine

Music is one of the greatest gifts of my life, and in many ways I have my father to thank. I wish he were here to listen to this album—I'm fairly certain that he would have loved it.


Stay tuned for additional announcements regarding the LP; in the meantime, be sure to download the debut single. And send me a note if you're so inclined—I'd love to know what you think! Thank you for reading.

Joel / City States

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Top 30 Albums of 2013

Can we agree that this was a great year for music? There were a few surprises in 2013—was anyone expecting the return of Nine Inch Nails?—and I was also delighted to discover that two of my favorite LPs came from major artists who I had all but written off (Arcade Fire and Kanye).

Personally: 2013 will forever be know to me as the year I made my first record. I worked. A lot. When I wasn’t at my actual job (I’m an interactive designer for an agency in downtown Chicago, which I enjoy very much) I spent countless hours writing, then recording, then mixing the album. It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s made an LP before that it’s not easy, but this was the year that I learned exactly what that means. And I hope that the effort pays off in 2014.

I also moved in with my girlfriend—a first for me—and so far it’s been great. She’s pretty amazing, and her 3-year old Shiba Inu, named David Bowie, may be the greatest dog I’ve ever met.

Later this year you can expect the first City States LP (more on that in the coming weeks); I also hope to release full-length albums from two different electronic projects I’ve been chipping away at—Modal Voices is a Steve Reich-influenced project that I announced back in June; the second, which doesn’t have a name yet, is going to be noisier and more free-form, in the vein of Merzbow and the last Sam Prekop record.

Anyway, here’s my top 10, an extended version of the tweets I posted yesterday. My full top 30 is below.

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10. Devendra Banhart - Mala: This is an album that seems to have gone largely unnoticed. That’s a shame: the low-fi Tascam 8-track recordings provide the subtlest hint of early Ween, while Banhart’s lyrics provide a degree of wit that I never would have expected from him (however: I just read that his backup band was for many years known as “Spiritual Bonerz,” a good indicator that my surprise over his sense of humor means that I really just haven’t been paying attention.).

09. Kanye West - Yeezus: All boorish misogyny aside, this is as gutsy of a record I’ve heard all year from an artist of West’s visibility. And even though a few mid-record tracks fall flat for me, the squelchy, industrial-influenced distortion of “On Sight” is an absolute stunner.

08. James Blake - Overgrown: To be honest, I had hoped for a bit more adventurousness from of Blake’s second LP. In spite of my expectations, however, Overgrown is a start-to-finish great record.

07. Jesu - Every Day I Get Closer To The Light From Which I Came: On a personal level, Justin K Broadrick is about as important of a musical influence as I can think of—I made my way through early high school with Godflesh, and it was through reading interviews with him that I discovered the likes of Swans, Throbbing Gristle, SPK, and Whitehouse; I also realized today that the debut album from his Final side project was likely the first ambient album I ever owned, another landmark.

So it’s actually kind of awesome that his musical evolution seems to have dovetailed with my taste—which is to say that he’s somewhat sidestepped the aggression of his early Godflesh albums in favor of Jesu’s sincerity. With specific respect to the Jesu catalog, Every Day ranks right up there with the early Heartache and Silver EPs (which, if I’m not mistaken, the former was the first album I wrote about as a track reviewer for Pitchfork back in 2004). Beautiful.

06. Arcade Fire - Reflektor: I went in to my first listen through Reflektor with some serious reservations—The Suburbs, to my ears, was a slog, and after reading that the LP was going to be 86 minutes long, I went in with low expectations.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that virtually all of my expected criticisms of the album are, in fact, very much woven into the fabric of Reflektor—AND YET—I still think that is pretty fantastic. Is that the sign of a great record—an album that manages to not only survive, but transcend some serious flaws?

05. Sigur Ros - Kveikur: Jonsi and company have generally not lacked critical praise or commercial success in the last decade, and yet I still feel like the transformation Sigur Ros made for Kveikur has gone under-appreciated. These guys brought in some heavy Einsturzende Neubauten and King Crimson influence on this LP, and it works like magic. Moreover: much to my surprise, it may be my favorite album that they’ve ever made.

04. Roedelius & Schneider - Tiden: I’ve probably listened to this record more than any other released this year. In some ways it’s exactly what you’d expect from half of the electronic duo Cluster, paired with one of the members of To Rococo Rot—simple piano figures, subtle electronic textures, vamped melodies. Its charms may be par for the course, that doesn’t mean it’s not excellent.

03. Majical Cloudz - Impersonator: The creepy midnight-black inverse of James Blake’s boyish breeziness, Impersonator is simultaneously unsettling and breathtaking. “Childhoods End,” in particular, with its heart-stopping refrain, is my top song of 2013 (I wrote about the track at length earlier this year).

02. Serengeti - The Kenny Dennis LP: Equal parts hilarious, inventive, bizarre, and touching, Serengeti’s latest may feature his most effortless rhymes to date. For those unfamiliar, Kenny Dennis is the rapper’s jokey alter-ego, a Southside Chicago-born emcee who talks endlessly of burgers, brats, American Gladiators, and his ’90s glory days as a member of a rap group called Tha Grimm Teachaz.

Musically, The Kenny Dennis LP has Anticon written all over it (they released the album), with strange, off-kilter rhythms clashing with odd synth tones. And the lyrics are laugh-out-loud funny, especially for Chicagoans.

01. Deerhunter - Monomania: An obsessively-crafted LP about obsession, I never would’ve expected to enjoy this effort as much as I do. For as much as I’ve loved the last three Deerhunter albums, the idea of a garage-y, lo-fi left turn initially sounded like a mistake to me. But instead of betraying Bradford Cox’s incredible songwriting abilities, the lo-fi-ness of the album succeeds in incorporating the harsher elements of Deerhunter’s early work. And let’s not forget Lockett Pundt: “The Missing” is a song so good that upon my first listen I wish I had written it—it’s my #3 track of the year.

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30. Boards of Canada - Tomorrow’s Harvest
29. David Bowie - The Next Day
28. The Flaming Lips - The Terror
27. The National - Trouble Will Find Me
26. Low - The Invisible Way
25. My Bloody Valentine - MBV
24. The Knife - Shaking The Habitual
23. The Necks - Open
22. Deafheaven - Sunbather
21. Tim Hecker - Virgins

20. Mountains - Centralia
19. Innode - Gridshifter
18. Disappears - Era
17. Yvette - Process
16. Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks
15. Matmos - Marriage of True Minds
14. Atoms for Peace - Amok
13. PVT - Homosapien
12. Braids - Flourish / Perish
11. John Vanderslice - Dagger Beach

10. Devendra Banhart - Mala
09. Kanye West - Yeezus
08. James Blake - Overgrown
07. Jesu - Every Day I Get Closer To The Light From Which I Came
06. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
05. Sigur Ros - Kveikur
04. Roedelius & Schneider - Tiden
03. Majical Cloudz - Impersonator
02. Serengeti - The Kenny Dennis LP
01. Deerhunter - Monomania

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Writeup of "Simplified" on Sound Control

http://www.sound-control.co.uk/2013/10/city-states-simplified.html

Just discovered this writeup of our song “Simplified” on a blog called Sound Control. The post is from this past October, though the track was released way back in June of 2011.

"Simplified" was an outtake from our 2011 EP Resolution—it was a bit too breezy to fit with the rest of the songs on the EP, but I thought it was worth releasing, and people seem to like it a lot. You can hear the Summer-of-Chillwave influence in this track, however the intro and outro of the song are overt nods to Merzbow, and I remember listening to lots of Blur when recording the keyboard solo.

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Semi-final Mixes

We are two days away from making final edits with John McEntire at Soma, and the songs are sounding great. Stay tuned for the album’s first single in early January.

This week we are also going to be featured on Indie Beat, where I talk about—among other things—my love of 90s industrial music, and the best album to play while driving through the Appalachian Mountains (hint: it’s by Will Oldham).

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Mixing Day 3 of 4

We’re getting close! Today I am headed back to Soma in Wicker Park to mix with John McEntire, and I’m pretty excited. I’ve never run a marathon before, but friends have told me that by mile 21 or 22, you’re exhausted and just want the race to be finished. I can relate—after two years of living with these songs, I’m really just ready to be done so I can move on to other things. We’re getting close, though; by tomorrow night all 10 songs will be mixed.

I will say that I’m very happy with how the songs are shaping up. Since the timeline at Soma is so tight, I’ve done a lot of work creating rough mixes at home, which in turn has pushed me to make sure that each arrangement is at its best. And after spending a day with the album closer, “State of the Union,” I’ve finally come to understand the degree to which I’ve embraced the piano on this record—I think that all but one song utilizes the instrument, and the closing track is really just a straight up piano ballad. The Tortoise / Stereolab influence is pretty clear, too, at least to me—lots of droning organs, live drums run through strange filters, and not a single strummed guitar chord (though I use plenty of eBow, and a little bit of acoustic finger-picking).

More soon,

Joel / City States

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The poster: City States opens for Au Revoir Simone next Monday, October 28th at Lincoln Hall.

The poster: City States opens for Au Revoir Simone next Monday, October 28th at Lincoln Hall.

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News: Mixing Update / Au Revoir Simone on 10.28

Hey Everyone:

A quick update: it’s been 1 week since our first mixing session with John McEntire at Soma Studios, and the songs are sounding great. For all intents and purposes, side A of the album is done (though, as is typical for me, I’m still tweaking and nudging the songs here and there). Still plenty of work to do, though—we’re mixing side B in 5 weeks, starting the day after Thanksgiving. I hope to have a single and/or previews from the record out soon. Stay tuned.

Also: we’re opening for Au Revoir Simone next Monday, the 28th of October, at Lincoln Hall! This is our first time playing LH—which I’m super excited about—and arguably the largest bill we’ve ever opened. Hope to see you there!

Joel

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Dispatch | The Machine

Tonight I’ll be the guest on a podcast called Dispatch, where I’ll be discussing music, songwriting, the forthcoming City States LP, and more. Plenty of other great episodes to check out in the series, too. The podcast will be posted to the Dispatch website on Tuesday, October 22nd. Tune in!

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Mixing our debut LP at Soma Studios in a Wicker Park, day 1. Wish us luck!

Mixing our debut LP at Soma Studios in a Wicker Park, day 1. Wish us luck!

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Influence VII: Tortoise – Millions Now Living Will Never Die

In two days, I’ll be going to Soma Studios in Wicker Park to mix one half of our forthcoming LP. From a purely logistical standpoint, I’m excited and a bit relieved to be moving into the end phase of what has become a two-plus year project; however, the specifics of what we’re about to do are particularly thrilling for me.

Before we go any further, I should just put my fanboy biases right out on the table: we are going in to mix at the studio that produced Millions Now Living Will Never Die, one of my favorite albums of all time. Okay, there. I said it.

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs during the mid/late ’90s, and by the age or 16 or 17, listening to new music and discovering new bands had become a defining part of my daily life. And based on simple proximity to the city, combined with my particular interests, the music of Thrill Jockey was hard to miss. I don’t exactly remember what it was like for me to hear this record for the first time, but I do recall the first time I heard the band name Tortoise—which took place in a conversation whereby my ears also first witnessed the names “Slint” and “June of 44.” Not too long after that I purchased Millions Now Living, and they quickly became one of my favorite bands.

I wouldn’t doubt that my affection for this record has a lot to do with the time in my life at which I discovered it—perhaps its songs are subjectively linked to nostalgic feelings over my teenage years, or at least tied to the thrill of musical discovery that was so important for that time in my life. But even outside of the historical significance that this LP personally has for me, I’m still drawn to it for the same reasons as I was 17 years ago: it’s at turns bizarre and cerebral through songs like “DJed,” contrasted with moments of emotional directness via “Glass Museum” and “Along The Banks of Rivers.” And the production—at moments it feels almost completely untethered from the rules of traditional songwriting, nearly otherworldly in its execution.

Though my songs are far more conventionally rooted in the pop format, I’ve slowly become more interested in manipulating sound—making instruments sound unlike themselves, exploring noise, texture, atonality. And in my personal experience, this is one of the albums that opened up these possibilities for me.

So here I am: two days away from mixing 5 songs that I’ve lived with for 24 months straight, in a studio that produced a landmark LP for my life. I’m nervous, but more than anything, I’m excited to hear the results.

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Influence VI: Stereolab – Dots & Loops

Throughout the last two years of writing and recording, I’ve consistently gone back to a handful of records as references, and to that end I’ve probably listened to Dots And Loops more than any other. This may come as a surprise to some, given that D&L has a reputation for being Stereolab’s jazz influenced album, and a decidedly breezy one at that. To be fair, I think that the “jazz” label is only true by half; instead, what I hear when I listen to Dots And Loops is a wonderfully strange pop record, one which bridges the gap between electronic and acoustic sounds better than anything in Stereolab’s catalog.

A lot of qualities that I love about Stereolab’s music are things that I’ve written about before with respect to Steve Reich; specifically, I love how they contrast structural minimalism with compositional maximalism—ie: repetitive songs that become more and more dense over time. And the way that The Groop handles production, editing, and mixing on Dots And Loops is particularly fantastic. Here, live instruments sound strangely electronic and otherwise processed, while synthesizers take on more muted tones. It’s a thrilling, fascinating conceit that has given me a strong sense of how to approach the production of my own songs.

Part of the reason I am so excited about working at Soma Studios (we will be mixing one half of our LP there this weekend) is that some of the work on this record was completed there—my hope is that we can tease similar peculiarities out of our own music as was done on Dots And Loops.

Fingers = crossed.

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News: Mixing in 1 Week   

 It’s crunch time! We are just over a week away from our first mixing session at Soma Studios with John McEntire (of Tortoise / Sea & Cake), and I’m super excited.  

 The plan, as it stands: we’re going in to mix for 2 days this month, followed by another 2 days next month. That means we should be releasing our first single from the new LP by mid-November. Huzzah! 

 Next week I’ll be writing about Soma’s influence on our music via two posts on Stereolab and Tortoise. Stay tuned, and as always, thanks for reading! 

 Joel

News: Mixing in 1 Week

It’s crunch time! We are just over a week away from our first mixing session at Soma Studios with John McEntire (of Tortoise / Sea & Cake), and I’m super excited.

The plan, as it stands: we’re going in to mix for 2 days this month, followed by another 2 days next month. That means we should be releasing our first single from the new LP by mid-November. Huzzah!

Next week I’ll be writing about Soma’s influence on our music via two posts on Stereolab and Tortoise. Stay tuned, and as always, thanks for reading!

Joel

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Aaaaaand, this is why I love Chicago Public Library. (@chipublib / #TheNotwist)

Aaaaaand, this is why I love Chicago Public Library. (@chipublib / #TheNotwist)

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Influence V: Fennesz - Black Sea

One of the themes I’ve been working through in my most recent batch of songs is the notion of collapse: the idea that everything we build up (or things that build up naturally around us) eventually breaks down. I’m going to talk about what that means lyrically in a subsequent post about The Soft Bulletin; with regard to music, though, I’ve been taking a lot of joy in constructing these intricately layered pop songs, only to knock everything over later on in each track, allowing the arrangements to descend into static and noise.

I spent the weekend finishing up a song called “Uncharted Waters,” which starts out as an Eno-inspired piano ballad but about halfway through, the track folds in on itself, and the result sounds quite a bit like many of the songs on Black Sea—hazy, fluid, and bordering on caustic. To be clear, Christian Fennesz is one of my favorite artists around: his music is beautiful and strange, and the balance he strikes between melody and atonality is nothing short of fascinating.

Strictly in terms of aesthetics, I’ve been taking lots of cues from his heavy use of grain delays and frequency modulation filters, as well as his more recent emphasis on the acoustic guitar. But recently, I’ve also grown to love Black Sea's particular compositional style, whose songs oscillate dramatically between noisy and calm, minimal and dense, composed and deconstructed. Integrating these opposing values into pop songs isn't exactly easy, though I will say that Jim O'Rourke has provided as good of an example as possible on how to make this happen (I hope this doesn't sound like I'm comparing myself to Jim O'Rourke; I'm simply acknowledging that he's another important reference point for me).

And that album cover: a stark photograph of a steel train track, abandoned, and nearly submerged by encroaching pools of water. It’s a haunting—almost tragic—image. Yet I’m captivated, and even calmed, by its representation of collapse, loss, and the world’s complete inability to escape death.

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The Collector: Part V

Another moving day discovery: when I was in high school, I used to collect the stickers that were adhered to cellophane CD packaging. I love the fact that two of my all-time favorite albums are represented here—Dots And Loops by Stereolab and Camofleur by Gastr Del Sol.

Also awesome: the lighting on this photograph obscures Boyd Rice’s name on the NON sticker, which reads, “‘Boyd, you are Satan!’ –Bob Larson.” God, are you watching?

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Influence IV: Steve Reich—Music For 18 Musicians

Yesterday while thinking about the record’s opening track—which I am currently finishing up—I wound up listening to Music For 18 Musicians twice through. It’s an all-time favorite of mine, and more than any album that I own, this one might be the most formative in helping me to understand what it means to arrange songs (which is, arguably, a very different discipline than songwriting).

I love the way that the piece is segmented into discrete movements that develop over time. Each section starts small—with just a few instruments working together—before slowly adding layer upon later until the composition reaches critical mass, only to snap back into minimalism upon reaching the next movement. 18 Musicians’ greatest achievement, though, may be in the fact that it succeeds as a highly cerebral composition, while also having a strong emotional impact.

A note on the attached YouTube video: this was a performance of the piece which took place in Chicago’s Millennium Park during the summer of 2011. I was lucky to have seen it live. ‘Twas wonderful.

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Now Listening: Majical Cloudz—Impersonator

Last week I finally got my hands on Majical Cloudz’ Impersonator, and it’s a stunner.

Steve, my long-time friend and co-conspirator, has said that he prefers minimalism in songwriting because there’s nowhere to hide, and Impersonator illustrates his point perfectly. The arrangements are unsettlingly spare, and oh, that voice: hearing Devon Welsh sing “can you see me caving in” on “ChildhoodrS End” nearly stopped me in my tracks while walking down Wacker Drive yesterday.

Part of the reason I think I like it so much is that, in the last couple of years, our live show has taken on some of the stripped-down qualities of Majical Cloudz’ songs. This change was more out of necessity than of deliberate choice: our second (and probably final) guitar player left the band back in 2011, and not long after that our drummer Mike (who plays on 7 tracks from the upcoming record) started a new job which made live performance difficult for him. So, in performances, our songs have been stripped down to just guitar, piano, and programmed electronics.

But back to Majical Cloudz. This might shape up to be my favorite song of the year (and accompanied by a great video, too!):

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