Music. Writing. Live at The Mothlight by Tin Foil Hat

Music, for me, has long been a doorway into prose. The act of listening and then transcribing both the visceral experience and the internal visualization frees me. Words find their way. A wrong word is a sore thumb, new ways of describing melodies and sonic textures present themselves. The language appears, waiting to be snatched from the air. I like this latest piece, originally published in Mountain Xpress, because it’s creative writing masquerading as an album review.

Every narrative is a story, every setting possesses a landscape. Worlds shift and reveal themselves and open and vanish in a single shuddering breath.

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Jared Hooker of Tin Foil Hat

The eight tracks of Live at The Mothlight by Tin Foil Hat — the synth-pop project of Jared Hooker — are the sonic equivalent of a series of experimental short films. Immersive, thoughtful and surreal, they unfold along nonlinear story lines and weirdly danceable melodies.

Borrowing from dream-pop, lounge, disco and techno, Hooker’s album is as much a Frankenstein creation as a lush tapestry. But the beauty of one plays off an repulsiveness of the other, and no one song is completely the property of aesthetic appeal or nefariousness. The track “Meet Your Maker,” a burbling, twitchy dance number, changes mood when the lyrics come in. Suddenly the party gives way to a nightmare, though even as Hooker sings, “All I know is I don’t want to die alone,” his voice snaps and pops to match the brisk tempo and crisp beats.

But the eerie fantasy begins with the first notes of lead track “Still Floating.” Lounging and languid, the song builds on gossamer melodies and spacey warbles. Hooker’s vocal rises into a cool upper register. It’s not a perfect lyrical performance, but it’s daring. And the art of this collection is in its risk-taking — how far can music be pushed and still retain elements of entertainment and emotional relatability? Hooker finds that edge and continually prods its boundaries.

The progression of that artistic process plays out in “Whatever.” Hooker sings, “I risk my life for a pipe dream / I want to tell my story / They simply say ‘Whatever, / I think we’ve heard enough.’” The vocal delivery is theatrical, punchy, hinting at jazz hands and arabesques that make full use of the stage. The music, which depicts the isolation and strangeness of experimentation, wheezes and swells. There’s a guttural, scratchy bottom end jabbed by synthy high notes. There’s a tambourine, a snarl of static and a slack-key-like guitar that rises into earshot and then falls away again. Hyper-happy tones grow increasingly frantic and helium-shrill.

The album sails and pitches, its sonorous and smooth moments suddenly colliding with jagged edges, industrial cacophony and roiling monsters of the unfathomable deep. The anxiety-laced “Just Cause” is followed by the darker “Mr. Belmont.” Explosive low notes rumble under Hooker’s gliding falsetto. The track could almost be a James Bond soundtrack B-Side. It’s cinematic and science-fictiony, but the hero seems to be having a bad day — or at least an unfortunate case of vertigo.

“A Day at the Beach,” with its hand claps, snaps and sun-dappled trill, is a welcome interjection. Though also surreal, the song is less haunted, more at ease. This is likely a direction Hooker could easily move in — were he to settle for dulcet tones and placated listeners. There’s a nod to Dent May — to that beachy, kitschy, psychedelic-yet-sweet brand of swoon and sway. “Under the sea were there’s no light no air to breathe / I slowly realized our love can’t be,” Hooker sings. The nightmare is never too far away.

But that’s OK because, as much as the bad dream is uncomfortable, it’s also a source of continual inspiration. Hooker doesn’t shy away from plumbing the depths of each creepy image and disharmony at his disposal. Final track “Go to the Water,” is a rocker at its outset. “Just break those chains / their only in your mind. / Because we’re standing on the precipice of our last life,” Hooker sings. It’s not a warm and fuzzy thought, but it’s a fitting conclusion for this absorbing and imaginative theater of horrors. And wonders. There are plenty of wonders, but Live at The Mothlight would rather thrill, scare, haunt and taunt that be plainly, simply pretty.

Sea songs: “Gentle Spotted Giants” EP by Alex Krug

Need a little inspiration this Friday? Here’s one of my favorite recent musical discoveries. This lush and evocative four-song EP is dreamy, spooky, cinematic and quiet — exactly all of my favorite elements this summer.

This review was originally posted at Mountainx.com:

AlexKrugComboThere are contradictions in Alex Krug‘s voice: The softness with which she sings belies her power, the prettiness of her vocal is offset by a rawness that appears and disappears to devastating effect. And each song on the Alex Krug Combo’s new EP, Gentle Spotted Giants, is delivered with absolute care, even as its wrung from the singer’s guts.

Lead track “Divers” begins with snare rolls (guest artist Bill Berg) and the quiet thunder of upright bass (Kevin Lampson). The song moves unhurried — a few notes plucked from the violin, a strum of guitar. An electric guitar (Kyle Samples) revs in the background, fuzzy and ominous as an approaching storm. All the while, Krug’s strange and wonderful vocal dips and swells into the song. Each instrument adds texture, and the track builds like a fantastical tale without ever losing sight of its own emotional thread.

“Towhee” is slower, more rocked by ion-rich gusts, haunted by gathering shadows. Rachel Gramig provides warm and resonant harmonies to Krug’s lilting melody. “I hit the rocks, on the edge of water / I’ve been beat up, can’t hold it together,” she sings. The songs pauses just briefly, breathlessly, and then the boom of two drum beats brings the music back in. Lyndsay Pruett‘s violin is so lovely it stings to listen, and when Krug hits her upper register — just for a few measures — the effect all updraft and velocity and terrible beauty.

“Whaleshark,” the EP’s longest track, was produced by Michael Selverne/Welcome to Mars. If the rest of the EP is deliberate and expansive, this song positively breathes in space. Strings waver between gorgeous and damaged territories. Each note is mined for its most and least dulcet tones; instruments cry and echo, otherworldly and animalian. Krug’s and Gramig’s voices weave and part, gliding in a couple’s dance over the textural soundscape of percussion and electric guitar. A story unfolds, but so does a sonic atlas — a journey informed as much by instrumental explorations as by narrative. It’s shattering and still uplifting, if just for its sheer beauty.

Final track “Sail With You” is perhaps the sweetest offering. It carries on the oceanic theme, and so too the vastness and loneliness of that metaphor. But here Krug’s voice is close and clear. “Maybe I could sail with you / cut across these waves with you,” she sings. It’s airy and untethered, the thrumming low notes of the strings like the call of a ship lost in the fog. Every part of the song aches in the way that, say, an Irish folk song reverberates with loss and longing carried for generations and held captive in a few potent verses. But as much as “Sail with You” feels timeless, it’s also distinctly present — a love song for the love of singing, for the whaleshark or for the gentle spotted giants after whom the album is named. Or for the ocean itself. Romantic as the track is, the “you” ultimately matters little while the song itself looms large long after its final notes.

Unfiltered soul: The music of Magenta Sunshine

Unfiltered soul: The music of Magenta Sunshine

Originally published at MountainX.com

“Half a Heart,” the lead track to the self titled debut EP from local indie-soul outfit Magenta Sunshine, might have a sad-sounding name, but it plays like a tropical beach party. Shakers, a swaying melody and the cheerful interjection of horns adds to the sandy, sunny, breezy vibe. “I need a woman who won’t filter my soul, who believes we can speak with the trees, has energy like swimming pools,” sings vocalist/guitarist David Einzig.

The band is the project of New Orleans transplant Einzig (also of Hopetoun) and L.A. transplants Lenny Pettinelli (Vibration of Versatility). Their collaboration is seamless, moving effortlessly between genres and moods and maintaining that same spacious, light-infused aesthetic. “Infinity,” slower but more dreamy that drowsy, gives the composition a front seat and treats Einzig’s vocal more like an additional instrument. Hints of ’60s psychedelia and crystalline new age electronica blend with earthy sounds — a flute, a flutter of bells — to magical effect.

“Flowing Home,” led by plucky strings and hand claps, leans toward upbeat folk. The drum comes in with plenty of kick and snap; it’s a song constructed for dancers, pairing fast beats with elongated stretches of melody. “Treat today as if it’s not gonna be here tomorrow,” Einzig sings as a flood of instruments swell in orchestrated waves. That full sound evokes a kind of sonic picnic — the bounty spread out in happy disarray — until the song dissolves into a simple and short-lived a cappella choir.

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Photo from Magenta Sunshine’s Facebook page

A few solemnly plucked notes introduce “Tapestry Eyes,” but it’s Einzig’s voice that quickly establishes this is a deeply soulful offering. “Speak like a scientist, something to say, heart like an angel, soul like a rebel,” he sings, almost unaccompanied, before the full melody comes in. And that, too, is another twist. A strong downbeat, hits of brass, the ringing voice of the keys: The song spirals and curls about itself, at times R&B, at times almost hip-hop. The journey is full of surprises but it’s a trip worth taking, and a stand-out on the EP. That Einzig possesses a silky falsetto is certainly not the least of this track’s assets.

The album wraps with “Louisiana Telepathy,” a pooling of influences and ideas stitched together my Middle Eastern-sounding strings. Like the rest of this collection, the track is organic and experimental, imbued with free spirit and an impetus toward self-expression over easily digestible pop. That impulse pays off, and the five songs — if they’re any indication of what’s to come from this relatively-new-to-Asheville band — portend great things.

Review of “Stars and Dust,” the luminous forthcoming album from Songs of Water

Review of “Stars and Dust,” the luminous forthcoming album from Songs of Water

Originally posted at Mountain Xpress:

Stars and Dust, the new album by Songs of Water (out in June), is not easy listening — which is not to say it’s un easy listening. But these 10 tracks demand attention, from the first staccato notes (hammered dulcimer, I think) of “11 Miles.”

The album is a journey, transportive and transformative. Its songs breathe and leap, they evoke hope and profess a sense of waking into life — into the beauty, tragedy and mystery of it all. “11 Miles” builds in washes of melody, surges of percussion and a chorus of voices. “What I thought was just a moment became 500 years,” sings songwriter Stephen Roach. And though the band was Roach’s inspiration, Stars and Dust is “the result of intense collaboration by Elisa Rose Cox, Michael Pritchard, Greg Willette, Jon Kliegle, Luke Skaggs (son of bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs) and Roach (cousin to the flat-picking guitar great Tony Rice),” according to a press release.

The album took three years to complete, and the work is evident in tracks like “Evergreen.” Lush instrumentation and heartfelt lyrics create a kind of intensity and compressed intimacy while breaks of near quiet — a tightly-bowed fiddle or cello, a resonant dulcimer — allow for white space before the next pummeling wave of melody. The song is lovely without being concerned with loveliness. It abandons preciousness for dissonant sounds and unusual treatments of instruments, allowing those less-pretty textures to share real estate with the rounded notes and dulcet tones.

The heart leaps at “Golden Summer,” a track the captures the feeling of endless days and buttery light. (“I will set the table and pour the tea / together we will laugh at the notion of impossibility,” Roach sings.) The beat drives the song, but this isn’t the expected drum kit. Shakers, bells, claps, boney chatters and booming thumps propel the song behind the tender lyric.

The album’s title track is a shift of mood. Slower and bittersweet, it’s more searching than melancholy. Still, the rich strings — a viola, maybe — are poignant and the artfully placed harmony vocals lend a dark shimmer. It ends with this: “I feel the earth beneath my feet / and the stars they seem so far away / Still I wait for the breath of God.” Themes of environmental destruction, disconnect from nature and human loneliness seem as prevalent here as religion.

“She’s Only Sleeping” flows directly from the final notes of “Stars and Dust,” but quickly establishes its own nocturnal mood. As an instrumental track, it allows the musicians to create sonic palettes with a full range of textures. Songs of Water is known for seeking out and incorporating exotic instruments — this is a song that would surely be fun to watch live for the array of instruments onstage.

The galloping and uplifting “Reverie” has hints of Afrobeat. Charming and warm, it’s a perfect illustration of its dreamy name. That track is the album’s shortest; it’s followed by the temperamental “Ashe” — at over six minutes, the longest offering of the collection. That song, spooky and jittery, recalls the spirit of experimentation of Violent Femmes, circa Hallowed Ground. So, Milwaukee post-punk meets the snaky, shimmying sounds of Free Planet Radio meets the devotional mysticism of The Sabri Brothers.

“Just ask the birds, you don’t need words to understand,” Roach sings in the delicate “Strangely Beautiful.” Soft and close, the song feels like a complete world — a music box captured in a snow globe. That’s part of the magic of Songs of Water: The ability to inhabit both the microcosm and the macrocosm and to move seamlessly between the two. Here, ethereal strings and gentle hand drums swoop and pulse, suspended in space.

Though the track “Ghost” doesn’t feel particularly haunted, it is infused with gauzy notes that drift across chattery beats and vibrant keys. There’s something so solid about the instantly recognizable sound of a piano in a field of lesser-known instrument voices.

Stars and Dust ends with “Chiaroscuro,” the title an a term in visual art for strongly contrasting darks and lights. To think of the song, a swooning and prancing instrumental, in those terms evokes a sort of synesthesia. Where are the darks and lights in the music? In the mood, the play of heavy and soft intensities? Or in loud vs. soft or fast vs. slow? The high, trilling voice of the dulcimer or the metallic luster of the cymbals? Or is it enough that all of those experiences can be felt in the course of a five minute composition? Ultimately, not only has Songs of Water crafted a thoughtful album with a hero’s journey as its arc, the band has presented a moving multisensory collection.