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As a musical breeding ground, Seattle is mistrustful of eager strivers. Still suffering from a grunge hangover, the city would rather embrace its underachievers than hitch its wagon to the obviously ambitious. So for the past eight years, Hey Marseilles has played by the rules, earned their indie cred the usual way: by touring relentlessly across the US and releasing a pair of albums beloved by fans around the world. But even as they succeeded at their modest goals, the members of Hey Marseilles—singer Matt Bishop, guitarist Nick Ward, keyboardist Philip Kobernik, cellist Sam Anderson, violist Jacob Anderson—felt restless. With their third album, Hey Marseilles shakes off the past and takes a big, bold step. In all its panoramicgrandeur, Hey Marseilles leans into a new, bright future. In its polished production, its narrative arc, its departure from the band's previous MO, the album is a leap forward. And it finds the humble quintet ready for the risk. Two years ago, Hey Marseilles met Anthony Kilhoffer, an A-‐‐list, LA-‐‐based producer and engineer who's won Grammys for his work with Kanye West and John Legend. Kilhoffer typically trafficks in the realm of Top-‐‐40 pop and hip-‐‐hop, among platinum-‐‐status megastars like Jay Z and R. Kelly and Rick Ross. After they were introduced by mutual friends, Kilhoffer saw something in Hey Marseilles that he couldn't resist: the radical adventure of veering down an uncharted road. He jumped at the chance to work with the band. For their part, Hey Marseilles recognized an unprecedented opportunity to push their usual creative in new directions. Up for the challenge, they went all-‐‐in. In early 2014, the group made a couple trips to LA, prewriting with Kilhoffer and a small cadre of songwriters, absorbing their almost scientific advice on how to hone the more accessible, "pop" elements of their sound. Later that year, Kilhoffer spent a couple weeks in Seattle, taking the helm at the mixing board at Avast and London Bridge Studios while the band completed recording. They found that the 41-‐‐year-‐‐old producer was—how to put this delicately?—eccentric in his approach. (Ask them about it; they have a zillionstories.) In his focus on immediacy and accessibility, they also believed Kilhoffer was right. His MO, as paraphrased by the band: Find the song's catchiest part. Get there faster. Do it more. What you hear on Hey Marseilles is a band has the guts to change course deep into their career, backed by the self-‐‐awareness to understand the exact place they were meant to go. It's self-‐‐titled because, at three albums in, the band announcing itself the world as if for the first time. All of the members have individual songwriting credits here—a first. The entire album, music and lyrics, is about adventurousness, finding faith in a new path. The spirit is there from the start: Album opener "Eyes On You" contains the most explosive climax in Hey Marseilles history, and at under three minutes long, it's the shortest song they've ever recorded. Credit Kilhoffer's skills as producer and head coach: This is the kind of thrilling hit song he's known for. "West Coast" follows, inspired by endless hours on the road and the new beginnings found there, "the moment everything had changed" as Bishop sings, his tenor buoyed by Kobernik's elegant piano. "My Heart" percolates with electro-‐‐pop enthusiasm, ready to take a spot next to Kilhoffer's other Top-‐‐40 anthems. Reggie Watts, former Seattleite and current music director on Late Night with James Corden, lends uplifting vocals to the yearning, catchy "Perfect OK." On "Trouble," Bishop croons one of the album's most memorable lyrics, penned by Sam Anderson: "What good is love or trust/If you never get in trouble?" Thematically, "Crooked Lines" picks up where the band's previous album, Lines We Trace, left off. It's the album's only moment of hindsight, countered a few songs later with the band's simmering, scintillating cover of David Bowie's "Heroes." The album closes with "Horizon," its most introspective number."I'm out on the horizon/with the darkness below," Bishop sings, Anderson's cello and Kobernik's keys resonating like a dirge. "I'm out on the horizon/But it seems like I'm close." Closer than close. Hey Marseilles has arrived.
Thomas Mullarney III and Jacob Gossett are unstoppable. The New York artists, collectively known as Beacon, have been on a productive hot streak since 2012, and their efforts continue to pay off. "When we weren’t writing," Mullarney starts, "we hit the road and didn’t really look back. We toured the US five times since The Ways We Separate came out, building this project the old-fashioned way." And Beacon's natural, time-tested process has brought us Escapements, their sophomore album for Ghostly. "We went into this feeling liberated," continues the singer/producer, and Gossett seems to echo his thought: "This record is in part our attempt to formulate what Beacon is going to look and sound like going forward."
Escapements is about time, to put it simply, and all of the baggage it brings. The title is taken from clock mechanics; escapements are timekeeping regulators designed to transfer energy at a constant pace. "I was attracted to this concept because of the entropy it implies," Mullarney explains. "Friction and changes in amplitude over time mean every escapement, no matter how well crafted, will lose its accuracy and effectively slow down time via its own decay." This theme is delicately explored through Beacon's music and lyrics, engaging ideas of pain and loss with a surreal palette. Whereas the duo's debut was more streamlined and defined, Escapements thrives on an amorphous, free-flowing nature.
More than just a central concept, time manifests itself in these 11 songs quite literally, too. Take opener "IM U", a slow-swelling cut of electronic pop that has knocked around in Beacon's arsenal since the beginning. As Gossett puts it, "In its final form, 'IM U' is a track that has the history of the project embedded into it, an old idea filtered through years of growing interests and experience as songwriters." His idea is reflected by the remarkable cover photo, a single shot taken by Caleb Charland in darkness for eight hours. "The arc of the star trails show the rotation of the earth," Gossett points out. "I can't imagine a better representation of time, process, and discovery. It's how we wanted Escapements to sound."
After the initial demos were written, Escapements was refined and recorded over the course of nine months at Beacon's Brooklyn home studio and Gary's Electric, where it was mixed by Al Carlson. Tycho drummer Rory O'Connor was brought in to perform, unleashing new energy onto the Beacon sound and helping expand it to unheard places. Which is another notable theme on the album. "I hope this record proves our restlessness and shows that we really aren’t content to have only one approach to creating music," says Mullarney. "Every part of our process is linked to discovery." And that meant trying out studio tricks and recording techniques on the fly, getting lost in the process until they came out the other side. Like on "Cure", Escapements' frenetic, breakbeat-inspired penultimate track. Mullarney explains: "There’s a moment where I was simply playing chords on the studio Wurlitzer and singing while the mic recorded the room. The idea was to escape the produced electronic music, just for a moment, and capture the energy in the room."
Suffice it to say that Escapements tackles the difficulties of a sophomore album by ignoring their existence altogether—this is a record truly free of constraint and expectations. But because it's still a Beacon album, the duo's identity continues to shine through. Mullarney's voice sounds full and confident, even as it floats weightlessly over limber dancefloor constructions in songs like "Backbone" and "Better or Worse". It's a precise balance, and yet feels wholly organic. "When you don't give yourself a specific place to land you never really miss," Gossett adds. "We just tried to trust ourselves and not put limitations on what this record was supposed to be. In that sense, it's exactly the record we were meant to make."
It’s hard to pinpoint the moment that songs are born, the day casual hummers become singers or scribblers become songwriters. Rayland Baxter certainly can’t, and he wouldn’t want to. Though he grew up in Nashville to the sounds of his father’s pedal steel, he didn’t dream of being a rock star. He loved music, of course, but he liked other things, too: being outside, playing sports, working at the bait shop to make spare change. He’d always just let things settle into place naturally, following his gut from Tennessee to Colorado to Israel and back again, not knowing that when he returned home he’d have a handful of songs and the knowledge that, at the end of the day, he didn’t want to do anything else but make music. He leads a life without reigns, his work always echoing the ease in which it came to be.
“All of my music has come in a very natural way, by following the organic process of life and letting it just happen,” he says. “I jumped my fair share of ships, and the pieces came together slowly, not by study or design.” The result is a record inspired by a life lived, not one struggling to inspire life. “Down the mountains and the valleys like the breeze,” he sings on “the mtn song,” “we’re going where we want to go, doing anything we please.” He’s done just that, writing songs that are reflections of what he’s seen, felt and lived; the metaphors found in the hills, the slow strums born at home but blossomed across the sea.
Growing up, Baxter’s father Bucky (a multi-instrumentalist for Bob Dylan, Steve Earle and Ryan Adams, among others) made sure music was just a natural part of life, a soundtrack to childhood. “I grew up around pedal steel melodies,” Baxter says, “not knowing how later in life it would shape me and how I sing or place lyrics in a song.” He’d met Dylan and become friends with a young Justin Townes Earle—back then, they were just two kids who knew their dads were gone frequently. One day, while out on a motorcycle trip, Bucky bought his son a guitar: a used, blue electric one. He was in elementary school, no older than third grade. “I played it,” Baxter says. “But I also played Nintendo.”
Most of the time, he just liked being out in the field, grass under his feet. While he spent much of his teenage years playing sports, by 21 he’d picked up the guitar again. The sound of six strings ringing had always been comforting, only now its draw proved stronger: it was a surprise, perhaps most to Baxter himself, how naturally and harmoniously songs came. Instead of finishing college he moved to the small town of Creede, CO, playing open mics at a taco bar and busking for tips. It was a gig as a guitar tech for the band Moonshine Sessions that led him to Europe. After a relationship in Paris went sour (though would later inspire the song “oLivia) he took his father’s old friend up on an offer to spend some time at his home in Ashkelon, Israel.
“I was supposed to be there for two weeks,” he says. “I ended up staying for six months.” Life in Ashkelon, a coastal town close to Gaza, involved a cadre of sounds: bombs detonating in the cornfields, sirens going off so frequently that few took notice or cover. Baxter drowned the noise with his host’s enormous collection of records and documentaries: Townes Van Zandt, Dylan, Leonard Cohen. “I would spend my days and nights just studying all my favorite people and musicians, and that’s when it clicked.” One night he couldn’t sleep, so he went outside to a barn in the back of the house with his guitar. “When I came back in, I said to my friend, ‘I think I wrote a good one out there.’” The resulting song was his aching, pivotal folk tune “the woman for me,” which later became a road favorite and will appear on his debut, feathers & fishHooks.
Baxter has a saying he likes to use a lot: “when you find the right river to float down, just keep floating.” That he did, using his time in Israel to craft the material that would become his Miscalculation of Song EP. He began recording his full-length in January 2011, produced by Skylar Wilson (Justin Townes Earle, Caitlin Rose) and supported by his friends, including Eric Masse (producer/engineer), Jacquire King (mix) and instrumentals by his father, Bucky. The songs range from the solemn, steel guitar and harmonica anchored “marjoria”; to the locomotive, du-wop of “driveway meLody”; to the stark, Middle Eastern tinge of “wiLLow.” Each is thickly emotional, raw but supremely balanced, pulling reference not only from musical idols but from love had and lost, roads traveled and trials awaiting back at home. And, when you strip it all away, these are songs that could exist with just Baxter’s voice and guitar alone, timeless.
He’s spent much of his time on tour: with The Civil Wars, who personally invited him to open, as well as Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. Now Baxter lives in a small, crowded house with five people, four chickens, a dog and a fish named okra near the Nashville fairgrounds, an industrial part of town on the west side of the river. He sleeps in a covered porch with no air conditioning or heat—“like camping,” he says, enthusiastically at that. His hometown has played a vital role in shaping him musically. “There is an incredible group of young artists, songwriters, painters and filmmakers here, just a huge community of really rad people. It’s been vital to have a great creative group of people I can feed off of all the time.”
His songs are a calming force for anyone looking for change, for love, or wanting to walk in a different direction—because it was his own quest for all those things that motivated the music. “I had nothing to write about until I was 25. I had to live through a lot,” he says, “and I when I sing I don’t hold back. I’ll cry on stage if I came to it. It’s an emotional release for me, and there’s no makeup on it. It puts me at ease, and that’s what I hope it will do for those who listen.” Down the mountains and the valleys, like the breeze.
Freakwater was formed by Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin in 1989 and has been innovating and reinvigorating alt-country ever since. Following two records on Amoeba Records, the duo signed to Thrill Jockey in 1993 for the seminal Feels Like the Third Time, which was reissued on vinyl for Record Store Day 2012. The record opens with "My Old Drunk Friend," perhaps the greatest song Hank Williams never wrote and features seven originals and five covers of songs by the likes of Conway Twitty, Woody Guthrie and Nick Lowe. 1995's Old Paint showed the group's songwriting coming into its own, and was their most critically acclaimed album to date. 1998's Springtime saw the addition of Wilco's Max Konrad Johnston to the group, and features some of the band's most heartbreaking and beautiful songs, including the now classic "Louisville Lip." The group expanded their sound on End Time, adding drum kit, organ, and even strings on several songs.
The early aughts saw Bean and Irwin each releasing solo albums, Dragging Wonder Lake and Cut Yourself a Switch respectively. Both records showed each musician exploring different facets of the sound cultivated in Freakwater: Irwin a stripped down, appalacian vision of folk music, and Bean an artfully crafted, cosmopolitan type of pop. In 2005 the group released Thinking of You, a collaboration with members of fellow Thrill Jockey group Califone. After a long silence, Irwin finally released her second solo release, Little Heater in September of 2012, which Oxford American said, "will leave you aching for a broken heart so you too can sing wrenching songs about love and loss."
In 2006 Doillon began writing music with friend and musician Chris Brenner. A song they wrote together, "The Girl Is Gone", was featured on the Visionaire Magazine special music issue and picture disk in 2007. Doillon sings, plays guitar, and writes lyrics; she released her first EP with Brenner, musician John Mitchell, and various artists. The album is titled Places and her first single is "I.C.U." (as in "I see you"). Doillon told Interview Magazine "I wrote that because I was desperately in love with someone that I hadn't seen and that I never saw again in my life. I wandered for months in the street looking for him." The album receives rave reviews and Doillon won the "Best Female Artist" at the 2013 Victoires de la Musique.
New View, the third solo album by Eleanor Friedberger, was rehearsed in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park and recorded in upstate New York. The former is a place where characters in Warren Zevon songs get clingy with their old lady while toughing out heroin withdrawal; the latter is where Bob Dylan got clingy with Robbie Robertson after flying off his motorcycle and revisiting the highway with his face. Fittingly, there's a fair amount of recovery in the songs of New View (though you won't find much in the way of smack or motorcycles). "Today I'm frozen but tomorrow I'll write about you," Friedberger sings, and much of the album seems set in that post-traumatic tomorrow, when stuff's calmed down, the figurative road rash has healed, the metaphorical junkie sweating up your mattress has finally packed his bags.
Counting the albums she made with her brother Matthew as the Fiery Furnaces, this is Friedberger's twelfth full-length. I've been listening since the beginning, and to me New View seems like just that -- a vista that's opened up when I thought I'd seen everything Friedberger had to offer. (Then again, I believed her last album Personal Record was indeed her best to date, so maybe I'm just susceptible to album titles.) Before she entered the studio with New View producer Clemens Knieper, Friedberger made a playlist of reference songs. A live version of "Warm Love" by Van Morrison was on there, as was 80s-era Dylan, Neil Young at his most bummed out, a scattering of Robert Wyatt-era Soft Machine, and the odd gem by Slapp Happy, Fleetwood Mac, Funkadelic, et al. There are ghost notes of all of those influences on New View, but mostly you hear Eleanor Friedberger. She's never lacked confidence -- this is someone who once took a fractured nine-minute ballad about the international blueberry trade and put it across like it was "Thunder Road" -- but there's a new kind of confidence on this record. You can hear it on the warm, stately "Your Word," which holds a special lace for Friedberger. She says:
"It was the last song I wrote for the album. I finished the lyrics with lines taken from a dream that Jonathan Rosen had about me. I stayed at a friend's house in LA who had a bunch of later George Harrison CDs-- already a huge fan, I thought I knew it all. But I heard 'Love Comes To Everyone' and it kind of blew me away. Everything I love about Harrison-- beautiful slide guitar and vocals and vaguely spiritual lyrics-- plus a weird disco thing. That was the big influence for the sound." The songs on New View were recorded live to tape with simple instrumentation: drums, bass, Wurlitzer and 12-string acoustic guitar on almost every track, courtesy of the band Icewater (Malcolm Perkins, Jonathan Rosen, Michael Rosen, Noah Hecht), with Dorian DeAngelo contributing a handful of well-placed guitar solos. Producer Knieper (son of Jurgen Knieper, the German composer whose credits include the score to Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire) gives the album a classic sound, like something that's existed forever on a record collector's shelf, wedged in with Dylan's New Morning and John Cale's Vintage Violence. For everything new about New View, it still fits comfortably in the continuity of Friedberger's work. By coincidence, Knieper's studio in Germantown, NY where the album was recorded is in a barn that was once rented by Matthew Friedberger and stored the furniture of their grandmother -- the same grandmother whose spoken word reminiscences were the basis of the Fiery Furnaces LP Rehearsing My Choir. You won't hear much of that album here, but songs like "Open Season" recall the Furnaces at their most magisterial. The wry, plainspoken "Because I Asked You" builds on the style Friedberger first polished on her solo debut Last Summer. And then there's "A Long Walk," the sun-striped finale that lends a memorable afterglow to New View. It's a sweet, aching goodbye from an album that seems full of them.
-- SCOTT JACOBSON
Benjamin John Power of Fuck Buttons' solo excursions as Blanck Mass culminated earlier this year in the excellent double LP, Dumb Flesh. One of the best album cuts was "No Lite," which is reimagined here by the legendary Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (Psychic TV, Throbbing Gristle) with the help of Timothy Leary's dreamachine and a sample of a "weird old English penny whistle." Genesis knew intuitively that those recordings, made over 30 years ago, would mesh well with the BPM of "No Lite," and the result is this incredible remix. This one-sided, white-label 12" presents her take on the track as a strictly limited, vinyl-only edition of 500.
Power said of the project: "With her being a hugely important innovator who constantly challenges pop culture, I was very excited at the prospect of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge working on a remix of 'No Lite'. I had a feeling that it would have been approached from an interesting angle and the results do not disappoint."
In late 2013, with two well-received full-lengths and an EP under its belt, Radiation City got the itch. The band had built a strong following in its native Portland and connected with fans around the world, and from the outside, the path seemed clear enough: find a great producer to work with and further develop the smooth, space-age doo-wop sound that had put them on the map in the first place.
But on the inside, things weren’t so simple. Cameron Spies and Lizzy Ellison, Radiation City’s founding couple, were falling apart. Rad City, a tight-as-family band that always seemed to work so effortlessly off- and onstage, was on the verge of calling it quits.
Then a funny thing happened: Spies and Ellison got together to record some new, urgent and semi-spontaneous songs and rediscovered that old magic. “None of it felt rushed, or belabored,” Spies says. “It was honest and unafraid.”
Of course, it was also the product of just 40 percent of the group. So, in the face of ambivalence and the band’s impending implosion, Ellison and Spies decided to do something they’d never done before—they transformed Radiation City from a democracy into a monarchy. They curated a new tracklist for the third full-length (half new songs and half old ones), enlisted Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Riley Geare to be their studio drummer, and found their great producer in John Vanderslice (Spoon, Death Cab For Cutie) of Tiny Telephone Studios.
The band’s issues didn’t end with these revelations—Spies and Ellison broke up temporarily and called off their wedding, one band member was let go, and only half of the group went to San Francisco to record the tracks for the new album—but the die was cast.
Radiation City was not going to polish up its old style for Synesthetica; it was going to completely overhaul both its process and its sound. After recording with Vanderslice, the band took its new directive back to Portland and turned to Jeremy Sherrer (Modest Mouse, Gossip) at Ice Cream Party to flesh out its studio sessions.
In contrast—or, perhaps, in response—to all the human drama involved in creating Synesthetica, the album itself turned into something otherworldly. “We were trying to get to a place where cultural constructs didn’t mean anything,” Spies says. “We wanted to destroy the barriers between all the things we keep separate in our daily lives.”
Based on the condition known as synesthesia, whereby a person links one sensual experience with another (for Ellison, who experiences it, that means seeing specific colors when she hears different musical sounds), Synesthetica is a place where multi-sensory experience is commonplace; where feelings and definitions blend and melt, and surreality becomes reality.
Synesthetica means a lot of other things for Radiation City, too. The band is sensual and synthetic in equal turns—just check out the Bond-worthy “Butter” or the explosive “Milky White” for proof. Synthesizers comprise a major piece of the band’s musical puzzle, especially on the trippy “Juicy” and the minimal “Sugar Broom,” which nods toward Portland legends (and Rad City homies), STRFKR. And an interest in retro-futurism, which the title subtly implies, has been a hallmark of its sound and visual aesthetic from the get-go (as the sweeping space-tango, “Futures,” reminds us).
The word synesthetica is the summation of a pivotal third album that, from the outside, probably seems as effortless as every other Radiation City release. Synesthetica almost killed this band, but instead, it serves as the opening salvo of a monumental second act, and Radiation City is invincible.