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Brian Eno

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A Busy 2015

Friends:

Hope all of you are having a great start to 2015. Things have been busy for me—lots to mention here, so let's get started.

First, Safety Records, the label I started to put out Geography, has a new website. All of the albums I'll be making for the foreseeable future will be done by this label, so have a visit to the new site, and sign up for Safety Records mailing list to keep up with new music.

Pronouncement, album art

Also, I'm excited to announce the first of several non-City States projects I'll be releasing this year. Pronouncement is the debut album by Contretemps, an experimental electronic project I've been working on. People who enjoy the moments of abstraction on Geography will hopefully enjoy these tracks, however some of the songs I've been writing are pretty, well, noisy. Fans of Oneohtrix Point Never, Fennesz, Merzbow, or Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works II will probably appreciate Pronouncement. The album will be out digitally (via iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify) on Tuesday, March 24th. Here's a track from the album, "Telemusik."

This isn't all I've been up to, though. In fact, I anticipate releasing a lot more music before year's end, and not a single song is under the name City States.

Some of this new music started out years ago on a whim, here and there experiments designed to help me learn my way around Ableton Live when the band was just starting out. Later, around August 2012, I had a serious crisis of confidence while writing Geography, and continuing with some of these experiments helped divert my attention enough to get through that block. By fall of last year following the relese of Geography, these compositions had, much to my surprise, evolved into not one, but three partially formed LPs via three distinct projects: Contretemps, Modal Voices (whose first single I actually released in June of 2013), and an as-of-yet unnamed IDM/post-techno venture.

All of this is to say that in the last 6 months, I've probably been more confident and more prolific than I was in the first 6 years of City States. Moreover, I've sort of discovered that what I have to say as a musician is much more varied, and far more unusual than anything I've tried housing in the more traditional pop format. This does not mean that I will be packing in the City States name. However, I have found that the careers of musicians like Brian Eno, Jim O'Rourke, and Sufjan Stevans, whose discographies have oscillated between semi-traditional pop music and outer-limits experimentation, is something I want to emulate. I'm excited about this. And I hope you'll stay with me through it all until the next City States LP (which already has a working title).

So, to recap: sign up for the Safety Records mailing list. Be sure to check out Pronouncement this March. And anticipate at least one, if not two more full-length records by me before the end of the year.

Stay tuned. Thanks again,

Joel / City States

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Joel's Favorite Records of 2014

Happy new year, everyone! With less than two hours left in 2014, here are my favorite records of 2014:

Jo Johnson — Weaving :: Lately it's been rather unusual for me to find a favorite album by an artist I've never heard of solely on the basis of a review. However I have to credit my discovery of Weaving to a writeup by Pitchfork's Philip Sherburne—whose comparisons to the likes of Klaus Schulze, William Basinski, and Selected Ambient Works II had me rushing to the iTunes store. The parallels made by Sherburne are well-suited: Johnson's subtle compositions made from synth arpeggios and looped drones are very much in line with early '70s synthesizer music, however her use of studio manipulation and digital effects help prevent Weaving's five songs from being a simple nod to the past.

Damon Albarn — Everyday Robots :: Fans of Blur tend to point toward Parklife, an album made more than 20 years ago, as a kind of early pinnacle and slow fade of Albarn's career. I think that's an unfortunate read on his back-catalog—partly because I think he's made more interesting if not better records than that one—but also because the progression of his career looks more to me like a sine wave than a mountain, marked by several peaks and troughs from one decade to the next.

Everyday Robots, the latest high point in Albarn's discography and his first solo LP in 25 years, manages expand upon the best things about Blur's last record, Think Tank, an album loved by seemingly no one but myself. What I appreciate here is that he's taken all of the melancholy from his first band's final recordings and stripped out the unnecessary dance club embellishments. What's left are twelve simple, artful tracks of longing and loss, all emotion laid bare with nowhere to hide.

Eno & Hyde — Someday World :: In spite of the attention piled upon the other excellent Eno & Hyde collaboration of 2014, I actually prefer Someday World as the better of the two releases. The excellent hooks and off-kilter arrangements remind me a little bit of Eno's early-'90s collaboration with John Cale, which might point to the only thing working against Someday World: it does sound a little bit dated. And yet, it also contains some of the best melodies put to record this year, including one from a favorite song of 2014,"Daddy's Car."

Godflesh — A World Lit Only By Fire :: When I was sixteen I spent almost an entire winter listening to nothing but Godflesh, Einstürzende Neubauten, and Swans, so my excitement over the existence of A World Lit Only By Fire is tinted with more than a little bit of nostalgia. Godflesh's decade plus of inactivity seems to have diminished little of their viciousness; in fact, this might be their toughest-sounding record since 1991's Slavestate EP, if not their debut (which is probably the most similar-sounding record in their catalog).

Plaid — Reachy Prints :: (Originally posted via IndieBeat music blog) Of all the great albums that Warp Records released this year (including Aphex Twin's excellent Syro and Clark's self-titled LP), this one might be my favorite. This record sounds weirder and more melodic than past efforts, and also feels like the most human record they're ever made.

Aphex Twin — Syro :: I can't imagine there being a fan of '90s electronic music who wasn't absolutely floored by the out-of-nowhere release of Syro. Personally, his 1994 landmark Selected Ambient Works II is about as important of an album as I can imagine, and given the fact that Richard D. James seemed to have retired the Aphex Twin moniker for good made Syro's quick announcement and subsequent release all the more shocking.

What we're left with after picking our jaws up off the floor is one of the most focused albums of RDJ's career. James seems to bargaining on the notion that playing to expectations without pushing the envelope too hard is the safest way to make a comeback, and to that end Syro's straightforward beats can play a bit like Aphex-by-numbers. But this solid collection of techno tracks, which emphasizes melody in a way that's jazzier and proggier than almost anything he's done before, still feels like a new variation on his core body of work.

Run The Jewels — Run the Jewels 2 :: For the second year in a row, Killer Mike and El-P craft an absolute stunner. RTJ2 manages to tread the line between peculiarity and accessibility to a wonderful effect, tinting the boom-bap of early '80s hip hop with hints of oddball sci-fi, electroclash, and '90s techno; the result is one of the most thoughtful, funny, and strange hip hop albums I've heard in ages.

Beck — Morning Phase :: It's unfortunate that so much that's been written about Morning Phase has to do with its parallels with 2002's Sea Change, not because the similarity isn't accurate, but because it set up unreasonable expectations for Hansen's latest album to deliver upon. The bad news here is that it doesn't and probably couldn't live up to Sea Change's near-perfect balance of melancholy orchestral folk and retro-future studio trickery. However, I've still managed to listen to Morning Phase more than just about anything else I bought in 2014, and have found its simple melodies strangely captivating and surprisingly comforting.

To Rococo Rot — Instrument :: One of my all-time favorite groups, TRR sadly just announced their split after a near 20-year run. Though I'm disappointed that I'll no longer be hearing records from these guys, I'm glad that Instrument saw the light of day. It's one of their most distinctive records in that it's the first to prominently feature vocals (from the legendary no-wave guitarist and songwriter Arto Lindsay); it also feels a lot more natural, making greater use of live drums than on their last few.

I sort of feel like To Rococo Rot fell under a lot of people's radar in the U.S., which is a shame—their hybrid take on post-rock and techno would surely appeal to anyone who loves Tortoise, or Battles, or The Notwist—but at least we got 8 excellent records out of them before they called it quits.

Golden Retriever — Seer :: (Originally posted via IndieBeat music blog) I spent about two weeks listening to nothing but this album back in April, a duo whose strange combination of saxophone and analog synthesizer bring to mind Terry Riley, John Zorn and early Kraftwerk. Though the melodies on this record are excellent, however it's the long, drawn out moments of abstraction that I find most breathtaking.

St Vincent – St Vincent :: With her fourth, self-titled release, Annie Clark makes her most accessible record yet, dialing up the hooks and pairing back the more progressive moments of her first three recordings. There's something to be missed of St. Vincent's move away from the sideways orchestral pop of Actor (perhaps my favorite album of the last decade). But Clark's wonderfully bizarre guitar work on her fourth album—which simultaneously conjures the avant-jazz abstractions of Marc Ribot and the trebly, razor-sharp post-punk of Big Black—is a welcome twist for a batch of such tuneful songs.

Wild Beasts – Present Tense :: (Originally posted via IndieBeat music blog) I think it's safe for me to say that Wild Beasts are probably my favorite band of the last 5 years, and their latest doesn't disappoint. Here they've streamlined the melodies even further from 2011's Smother, making for an album that's more ominous than somber. And as much as I love Hayden Thorpe's theatrical croon, drummer Chris Talbot is their secret weapon; it takes a lot of guts to play drums as minimally as he does, and I think his restraint is a big part of why this album is so spectacular.

 

Here are some other records I enjoyed:
Xiu Xiu - Angel Guts, Red Classroom
Clark - Clark
The Notwist - Close To The Glass
Sisyphus - Sisyphus
Warpaint - Warpaint
The Antlers - Familiars
Fujiya & Miyagi - Artificial Sweeteners
Fennesz - Becs
Spoon - They Want My Soul
TV On The Radio - Seeds
Thee Oh Sees - Drop
 

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Map Ref 05: Uncharted Waters

This is a tough song for me to write about: not because of its lyrical content (which is, admittedly, fairly personal), but because I have no fucking clue as to how the track ended up where it did.

To put it another way—"Uncharted Waters" went through lots of iterations. I mean lots. At different points over my two years of writing, I made demos for "Uncharted"  which resembled "Idioteque" by Radiohead, "Sporting Life" by Sea & Cake, "We've Been Had" by the Walkmen, and "Pilot" by the Notwist. After I arrived at the rough arrangement that's on the record, I tried the song with live drums all the way through, then only in part of the song. I added acoustic guitar, then took the guitars out. I recorded the vocals at 128bpm, then at 120, then at 131.

You get the idea.

"Uncharted Waters" was a slog until the very end. About 9 months into writing the record I reached something of a breaking point and had a sincere crisis of confidence, which nearly led me to stop working altogether. This happened during a writing session at the house of my collaborator and friend Steve, who advised me, rightfully, to step back for a while and take a break (an event which I discuss at length during a podcast interview with Nicholas Young of The Machine). His specifically suggested that I try working on some other kind of creative endeavor to free up my mind.

So I did exactly that.

The result of this time away from writing Geography actually turned into another record altogether. During that 2-week period I had fun toying with a Korg R3 and Ableton Live, making abstract, rhythmless sound experiments inspired by Merzbow and Sam Prekop's excellent Old Punch Card. The results of those sessions are going to be released next year under the name Contretemps, the second full-length offering from my label Safety Records.

But back to "Uncharted Waters." The recommendation to take some time off worked, and not too long after that I found the arrangement that is on the record. It's one of my favorites from Geography, too, so perhaps it was worth the heartache.

 

With regard to most of the other tracks from the LP, I can tell you *exactly* which songs I was listening to as reference points. Not here: "Uncharted" reminds me most of Eno's Another Green World—and though I listened to this album throughout the making of Geography, it wasn't necessarily used as a specific template. I will say that my liberal use of EBow here (as well as on other songs) is very much inspired by Archer Prewitt's solo work, as well as his guitar playing in Sea & Cake. The drums weren't actively inspired by Radiohead's "There There," however after hearing Mike play through the drum pattern on a live kit, I realized that I was unintentionally referencing this track.

The only active reference was for the drumless breakdown—taking place about two-thirds through the song's runtime—which borrows heavily from the gauzy, corroded textures of Fennesz' Black Sea. It's a beautiful and sometimes harrowing album, one which seems to perfectly capture the feeling of being lost at sea.

 

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Map Ref 04: (For Dad)

The Downward Spiral was the first record I had ever heard that incorporated an instrumental piece on a record primarily comprised of songs with vocals. That LP's title track was also my introduction to ambient music—even though I didn't have a term for it as a 13 year old, I found myself fascinated with its subtle, melodic textures, its strangeness, and the contrast it offered to the much harsher tracks surrounding it; it was, and still is, my favorite selection from NIN's second full length.

In the following years, NIN profiles and interviews with Reznor pointed me to Godflesh and, as a result, Justin Broadrick's side project Final, not to mention COIL, Autechre, and Aphex Twin (whose Selected Ambient Works II is, as I recall, the first fully instrumental album I ever purchased). The Downward Spiral and subsequent albums I discovered in its wake turned me on to the idea that music could push against the existing context of pop music and not necessarily require lyrics. It's about as important of a turn as I can think of in the evolution of my musical taste, and I owe Trent Reznor a sincere debt of gratitude, all over a penultimate album track which I suspect many NIN fans mistakenly skip right over.

Since then, I've found that most of my favorite records contain beatless interludes—Kid A, Sufjan Stevens' Michigan, and Another Green World are three that come to mind—and I'm fairly convinced that every City States album I make from here on out will contain a song of this type. "(For Dad)" is a first for me, a vocal-less track that flows in both structure and theme from the song that precedes it. Its droning organs muted glitches are very much inspired by the softer moments on Oval's Systemisch (an all-time favorite of mine).  And though I hesitate to define it specifically as a dirge, it is most certainly designed to serve as a coda for "To Remember", whose lyrics were inspired by the eulogy I gave at my father's memorial service.

Finishing this and releasing this song has actually given me a confidence in making instrumental music that I hadn't quite anticipated—so much so, that next year I plan on releasing two non-City States LPs. The first is from a project called Contretemps, which is a bit more abstract and noise-oriented, in the vein of Oneohtrix Point Never, Merzbow, and Sam Prekop's Old Punch Card. The second project, Modal Voices, is more structured, sounding a bit like Tim Hecker with hints of Terry Riley and Steve Reich mixed in for good measure. More on those projects in the coming months. Stay tuned.

 

 

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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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Top 50 Songs :: 2008-2013 (So Far)

Inspired by similar lists made by Scott Tennant and Mark Richardson, I thought I’d create my own best of from the last 5.5 years.

I’m actually a bit surprised at myself over how many of these tracks are non-singles; (or maybe I should be surprised that more of these songs weren’t released as stand-alones). A few of these are also concretely linked to specific places and times:

  • The School of Language and Week That Was singles, as well as Sea & Cake’s “Weekend,” were three that I had on repeat right around the time that we started City States—you could call them inspirational.
  • I listened to “Out Go The Lights” in my car about two dozen times during week after my dad died (which I was drawn to because of its overall notions of loss, and because it was a band we both enjoyed together, not because of any darkness=death metaphors that can be extracted from the lyrics).
  • "Holcene" was a song I remember specifically having to turn off at work—I heard it for the first time while contracting at a fantastic studio downtown called GravityTank, and the song’s lonely guitar intro was so affecting that I found myself getting misty-eyed while sitting at my desk.

And perhaps it’s just a current fascination, but “Art of Almost” is the easy winner for me. Full-disclosure: it’s a strong reference point for the opening track on the album I’m making. But in addition to the inspiration I’m taking from it as a musician, I’m also generally fascinated with way that the song seems to occur in movements, the way that instruments seem to bubble up, take command, then eventually drop out over time. Perhaps most importantly, I enjoy the shared language that emerges between the traditional and electronic instruments, as if the divide between the “real” and “synthetic” is arbitrary or imagined (this is a continuing preoccupation for me as both a musician and as a listener). For me, “Almost” feels very rooted in the here and now, yet also otherworldly and strange, like looking at the planet from 100,000 feet.



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Selections are in rough order of ranking (a one-song-per-band rule is mostly followed, save for the arguable Field Music / Week That Was / School of Language overlap):

Wilco - Art of Almost
Portishead - Machine Gun
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!
Eno / Byrne - Strange Overtones
Low - Murderer
Bon Iver - Holcene
Bobby Womack - Please Forgive My Heart
LCD Soundsystem - All I Want
The Week That Was - The Airport Line
Spoon - Out Go The Lights

Meursault - Crank Resolutions
Radiohead - Separator
School of Language - Rockist Part 1
Walkmen - Heaven
Deerhunter - The Missing
St. Vincent - Marrow
Field Music - Precious Plans
The National - Sorrow
Hot Chip - Slush
Antlers - I Don’t Want Love

Serengeti - PMDD
Matthew Dear - Deserter
Wild Beasts - Invisible
Grizzly Bear - Sun In Your Eyes
Dirty Projectors - Impregnable Question
Destroyer - Blue Eyes
Swans - A Piece of the Sky
Santigold - L.E.S. Artistes
Bear In Heaven - Lovesick Teenagers
Björk - Crystalline

No Age - Things I Did When I Was Dead
Kanye West - On Sight
Merzbow & Richard Pinhas - Tokyo Electric Guerilla
Akron / Family - Sometimes I
Tame Impala - Be Above It
PVT - Shiver
Mannequin Men - Flyin’ Blind
Radian - Git Cut Noise
Blur - Under the Westway
Here We Go Magic - How Do I Know

Mountains - Choral
Tune Yards - Bizness
Sea & Cake - Weekend
Magnetic Fields - Too Drunk To Dream
Vampire Weekend - A-Punk
13 & God - Old Age
Coldplay - Chinese Sleep Chant
Sigur Ros - Gobbledigook
Animal Collective - My Girls
James Blake - Limit To Your Love

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