Monthly Archives: September 2020

Elkhorn

I’ve been leaning on music like never before these last six months. The records I’m spinning at home have been helping to drag my soul from one anxiety-ridden day to the next, and my copy of Elkhorn’s The Storm Sessions, which came out on physical formats in February, has been doing quite a bit of that heavy lifting. Its origin story is tailor-made for this frightful time; two side-long improvised pieces that represented the lemonade made when life gave the guitar duo of Jesse Sheppard and Drew Gardner lemons in the form a gig-killing blizzard. Snowed in with multi-instrumentalist friend Turner Williams, Elkhorn made magic. In turn, I’ve made it through this ordeal more emotionally intact than I might have otherwise.

Speaking of accumulation, I was recently organizing the records I’ve bought during COVID era — definitely more albums than usual, given the way ordering online provides a boost both in the present and the future — and I stopped when I got to The Storm Sessions. Should it sit with 2020 live albums, maybe next to that excellent Joan Shelley Live at the Bomhard set that came out a few Bandcamp Fridays ago? Should it hang out with conventional studio albums like Waxahatchee’s masterstroke, Saint Cloud? The sessions did take place at Drew Gardner’s home studio in Harlem, yet their searching sound and the circumstances that brought them about seem antithetical to the premeditation that defines the latter end of the live-studio continuum. Improvisation requires real-time reaction. It’s singular. There might not be an audience, but it’s as “live” as it gets.

Does it really matter where I file my records? No, but improvisation does matter. It’s what we’re all doing right now. Faced with a global pandemic, an economic downturn, and more time at home than even Daniel “I Like to Be With My Family” Tiger knows what to do with (don’t worry, he’s working through it), we’re being forced to adapt on a near-constant basis. Each day, we scan the most up-to-date dimensions of this weird and difficult situation, and we adjust, because not doing so would be like wishing the sky were green instead of blue, or wishing that it hadn’t snowed so much on the night you had a gig you were really looking forward to. Maybe it’s unsurprising that skilled musical improvisers made the most of a bad situation. (Maybe we could stand to follow musicians’ lead more often.)

To be clear, this isn’t about force of will, or about grinning and bearing it. Quite the opposite. It’s about a type of strength that can only grow out of an appreciation of one’s vulnerability — of the fact that being in the world means being changed by it. The most compelling music I’m hearing these days reflects the moment we’re experiencing, not just by addressing current challenges and opportunities lyrically, but also by letting our broken, unvarnished humanity show through. Whether it’s a collection of covers captured imperfectly on home recording equipment, or experimentation with new techniques and tools, I’m finding the most fulfillment in music that dares to document — faithfully — who we are after we’re knocked down but before we’re back on our feet. That’s certainly where I find myself these days.

It’s why I continue to find comfort in The Storm Sessions, and it’s why I was so thrilled to learn that The Storm Sessions has a companion album on the way. Elkhorn has teamed up with the Centripetal Force and Cardinal Fuzz labels to release an addendum in the form of The Acoustic Storm Sessions — another pair of side-long pieces improvised at Gardner’s home studio during that fated blizzard, captured the night before the recordings that made up the original album. This is Elkhorn’s first entirely acoustic album, and while Turner Williams does appear on these recordings as well, the tighter instrumental focus remains a compelling facet — a narrower passageway for a two-stage journey that’s no less ranging. The way the guitarists are able to draw in close to one another in spots affords the moments of contrast a whole other richness, and their expansion and contraction along that axis makes for rewarding listening wholly distinct from where they end up traveling.

Still, as with all of Elkhorn’s work, the “where” is such a gift. Oh, the places you can go while sitting and listening to Sheppard and Gardner (and Williams, in this case) build musical landscapes and chart winding, serendipitous courses through them, all while leaving you room to fill in your own imagined details along the way. I have a silly, wordless ritual for when I put on an Elkhorn album: I tend to imagine myself settling into a dream alongside one of the architects from Inception, ready to experience a world that transforms in front of my eyes. (The fun parts of the movie, minus all that stressful corporate espionage.) That ritual started as a result of an Instagram comment penned by James Adams of the Aquarium-Drunkard-hosted Bob Dylan bootleg show, Pretty Good Stuff. He concluded, “It’s like you can walk around inside this music and find new and instant friends. It’s a tonic.” So well put. If there were ever a time when we needed internal experiences that have the power to transport and connect us, this would be it. I suppose it’s ironic, then, to be so thankful these gifted improvisers were stuck in place when and where they were, but I am. Doubly so, now that we have these new acoustic sessions.

Click here to snag a copy of The Acoustic Storm Sessions in the US, here for the UK/Europe, and check out samples of both sides below.

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Butcher Brown

So much is happening in the Butcher Brown universe, y’all. Every time I try to start a post, more stuff happens, so I’ve put together a bulleted list to keep track of it all, starting back in January, when the conversation around an upcoming album started getting louder…

  • Butcher Brown has long represented a creative North Star amid the beautiful universe that is Richmond music, and in early 2020, they started shining brighter than ever. A new partnership with the prestigious Concord Jazz label. Intriguing tweets like this one. Confirmation of an upcoming album, and a lead single that hit in early March. (I stayed up until midnight that night to hear it, and “Tidal Wave” did not disappoint.)
  • Unfortunately, we all know what else hit in March. Nevertheless, this impossibly versatile and endlessly proficient group kept the momentum going with their “Mothership Monday” video series — covers ranging from Bob James’ oft-sampled “Nautilus” to “African Rhythms” by Oneness of Juju. (Here’s a news story on the series.) They played a surprise show at the reclaimed Marcus-David Peters Circle. They announced their upcoming album was called #KingButch, and when preorders were made available, I ordered my copy just about as fast as is humanly possible.
  • Over the course of the six months that followed, they released three more songs from #KingButch — “Cabbage (DFC),” the title track, and most recently, “Gum in My Mouth” — and yet, with the album’s release day in sight, they blew everyone’s mind in a whole other way when it was announced that they’d lent instrumentation to the song that would replace Hank Williams Jr.’s Monday Night Football intro music — a new version of Little Richard’s “Rip It Up.” It debuted just a few hours before I typed this sentence, and the world was a better place for it.
  • Micro-Chop just published an excellent piece entitled “Visualizing the Process of DJ Harrison.” Not directly related to Butcher Brown, but still very much worth a read.
  • That brings us to present day. Whew. It’s a lot to look back on, and I’m sure I’ve left plenty out, but it’ll all come full circle this Friday with the release of the album we’ve been looking forward to since January. Click here to snag a copy. Or a hat. Or a slipmat. As I mentioned, my preorder is in (still gold vinyl variants left!), but there’s not a single thing in that merch store I don’t want.

A quick personal note: I had the honor of interviewing Butcher Brown guitarist Morgan Burrs in January for a magazine article. The idea for that piece was that I’d speak to a few of Richmond’s leading musical voices and get a sense for the scene at that point in time, and one thing that struck me was how often Butcher Brown came up — not just in my conversation with Morgan, as you’d expect, but outside of it. They are a true source of inspiration and collaboration for so many other musicians in town, and it’s incredibly rewarding to see their innovative influence spreading so broadly. In that sense, their new album has one of the most fitting titles I’ve ever seen.

Long live #KingButch.

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Buy from Bandcamp today… again!

Here we are again, my fee-free friends. My Bandcamp buddies. We made it. Another big, beautiful Bandcamp Friday. I dunno about you, but I’ve definitely started using these events as quarantine mile markers — something to look forward to, look back on, and generally use as a temporal tool for resisting the Groundhog Day grind of life these days. And it’s such a great feeling seeing the music community light up all at once and celebrate the value of create work — whether it’s a new album recorded under these unusual circumstances or music made ages ago that’s just now wriggling free from obscurity.

Here are a few releases I have my eye on:

Aquiles Navarro & Tcheser Holmes — Heritage of the Invisible II

Album announcements from the International Anthem label are an immediate cause for celebration, and this one was particularly intriguing. “Telepathic Afro-Caribbean improvisational trumpet-and-percussion duo”? Members of Irreversible Entanglements? An instant classic lead single? Count me in.

DJ Mentos — “1989

This here is a vibe. Combined with the video, “1989” is like being dropped down in the middle of a narrative that you get to finish writing yourself. It’s easy to get lost in those possibilities — despite the video’s six-minute running length, it feels like a lifetime has passed when its finished. So fun. Another demonstration of DJ Mentos’ masterful ability to make the past feel vital in the present.

Alex Ingersoll — Ruins Form

Speaking of vibes, this is where I’ve been on a nightly basis. This vibe. This place. This sound. Laptop open, typing, listening to music that opens up an imagined, uncanny space where time and gravity are different and whole worlds appear and disappear at the whim of music that dodges familiar melodic pathways. I’d compare it to the Valley Beyond in Westworld, but I’m only 50% certain I’d be referencing the right thing, given that I’m 100% confused by Westworld at all times. One thing I do know is that Alex Ingersoll’s Ruins Form album is wonderfully immersive, combining modular synthesizer, live instrumentation, and field recordings, and I highly recommend letting it bend your personal space-time continuum for a while.

left.hnd — ad mausoleum

I’ve been looking forward to this record since the day I interviewed Scott Lane for River City Magazine. While the resulting article mainly focused on his American Paradox label, he mentioned in that conversation that he’d been working on recordings of his own, and that itself was music to my ears, given that he’s had a hand in making so many of my favorite albums to come out of Richmond in recent years. (And that’s on top of his outstanding work with The Congress.) If you’ve been following along with these Bandcamp posts, you already know that I recommend his Mira EP from April in the highest terms. Judging by the bright, bold, and impeccably detailed tracks released from ad mausoleum so far (check out the latest of those below), his debut LP as left.hnd is going to meet and exceed all the hopes that started forming during our interview.

John Calvin Abney — Familiar Ground

This is another one where anticipation runs high. How high? So high that my very first act after gaining consciousness on Tuesday morning was checking the Black Mesa Records site to see if the preorder was available. You know you’re excited for an album to be announced when you literally can’t and don’t wait for the announcement to go out.

Lonely Rooms — Until We Have To

Joshua Quarles, Jonathan Vassar, Christina Gleixner… these are some of the first names I learned to look out for when I started following Richmond’s music scene. They’re names that have come to stand as synonyms for craft, and while I’ve heard them make wildly divergent music separate from one another — from hushed folk to jazzy Turkish-language pop to wind ensemble music that incorporated the sounds of SCUBA diving in real time — their shared capacity for making music of great depth (not a SCUBA pun, I swear) and substance gives Lonely Rooms a powerful sense of cohesion. I love this album. It’s remarkably poised, capturing moments of quiet turmoil and questioning made crystalline by melodies and structures that make you want to sing along and stay in the moment, however difficult it may be. And while there’s tremendous weight to the lyrics, closing track “Comeback” leaves you with a hopeful mantra I plan to return to repeatedly:

No alarms. No attacks.
Today wasn’t that bad.
I can take some comfort in that.
Try and figure out where my head is at.
I need strength and I find that I can
Feel it coming back.

Daniel Romano’s Outfit — How Ill Thy World Is Ordered

I am absolutely crazy about the live album Daniel Romano’s Outfit put out earlier this year, entitled Okay Wow. Good lord, y’all. It’s so good. This is one hell of a band, and not just in the sense of rendering songs well or being proficient. They have that elusive thing that makes the whole endeavor feel grander and more meaningful than just people on a stage playing instruments. The harmonies feel triumphant, and there’s grace and power to the way the group moves together. If you haven’t heard Okay Wow, please listen to it now. Then join me in being really, really excited for How Ill The World Is Ordered, which has a dynamite lead single called “A Rat Without A Tale.”

As always, here are a few other items of interest (I’ll keep this list updated throughout the day):

William Tyler — New Vanitas
Various — Good Music To Avert The Collapse Of American Democracy (benefits Fair Fight)
DarkTwaine_ — L’enfants Sauvages
Mdou Moctar — Mixtape Vol 5
Dogwood Tales — Live in the Velvet Rut vol. 2
ragenap — “hard rain” (benefits My Block My Hood My City)
CZAR — Gore en Regalia
Irreversible Entanglements — Who Sent You? (a few Implacable Maroon vinyl versions were made available!)

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